Stephen Chow’s new Journey to the West film fails to live up to its high anticipation
Published: Jan 28, 2017 05:33 PM
<em>Photo: CFP</em>

Photo: CFP

If Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
had surprised audiences by breaking the boundaries of an over-adapted Chinese legend, four years later its sequel, Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back has become stuck in its own legend.  

Premiering among other three star-dubbed blockbusters on the first day of Chinese Lunar New Year (January 28), Demons Strike Back was highly anticipated both by industry insiders and ordinary filmgoers, nabbing the biggest box office returns at its midnight showing (5.53 million yuan), and was given the highest screen share (33.97 percent) on its opening day.  

The major reason behind people’s high expectations was the big success of 2013’s Conquering the Demons, which made 1.25 billion yuan on the Chinese mainland, becoming the box office champion of that year, nearly 50 million yuan more than runner-up Iron Man 3. 

Old vs new
One of the most well-known Chinese classics, the 16th century novel Journey to the West has been adapted a multitude of times, from stage plays, TV series to films. However, few recent adaptations were able to leave a deep and pleasant impression among the audiences – being repetitive and sticking to the same old-fashioned story are the biggest complaints. 

Though being criticized in parts as well, Conquering the Demons was overall received positively. It finally broke from the old stereotypes and opened a new angle to look at the ancient story: In most adaptations, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy are portrayed as cute and good-looking characters, although they are also demons. The monk Xuanzang is a decent man with firm Buddhism convictions. But Conquering the Demons showed the evil and scary sides of the three disciples as well as the vulnerable side of the monk as a common human being.  

Despite inviting renowned Hong Kong director Hark Tsui to direct the sequel – Stephen Chow retaining a scriptwriter credit for the new film, although he was co-director of Conquering the Demons – the sequel does not show anything new, rather seeming stuck in the previous story. There are quite a lot of flashbacks that remind you this is a sequel though I believe a better follow-up should have as little crucial connection with earlier films on plot as possible to appeal to new audiences. 

Also while I admired the monk character in the former film, in which I, for the first time, saw a not deific saint but a man close to us who would sometimes seem silly, I could not convince myself to like the monk in Demons Strike Back. The figure was very much like an idler who cheats, abuses his disciples and there are no signs of his devout beliefs. 

One area in which the new film does stand out is its plot. For most Journey to the West adaptations, the four-person team only faces one opponent at a time and the villain is known to the audiences from the beginning. But this time, quite a few villains appear in the one film and it keeps the audiences wondering who is the “big boss.”

However, the constant scenes of meeting and battling demons make the film-watching experience a bit of a chore. It seems two-thirds of the 108-minute running time is fight scenes, with the high-octane action becoming a little exhausting.   

Last but not least, one reminder to the audiences who plan to watch the film with their kids: like the later work of Chow, Demons Strike Back contains a few scenes scary for young children and a few lines of sexual dialogue. Because there was no reminder from the producers or cinemas on that, I did meet some parents sitting in cinemas with children around 3 years old who said they were unprepared for the unpleasant scenes.