Film and TV

The Latest Journey to the West Barely Gets Released in the U.S.

The Latest Journey to the West Barely Gets Released in the U.S.
Courtesy of Sony

How do you sell an international comedy-action superstar to an American audience? Sony Pictures, the distributors of charming Hong Kong action-fantasy Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, still haven’t figured out how to pitch comedian-turned-filmmaker Stephen Chow outside of Asia, especially since Chow has stopped starring in his own movies. Sony (and fellow Chow distributors Magnet Releasing) didn’t put much effort into a domestic release of 2013's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, co-written and -directed by Chow. Or the follow-up, the Chow-produced/scripted The Demons Strike Back, a loose adaptation of Wu Cheng’en’s popular novel. Or 2015’s Chow-directed fantasy-comedy The Mermaid. That might be leaving money on the table: Conquering the Demons made approximately $18,000 in America (on a measly 7 screens) despite earning $196 million in China, while The Mermaid grossed $3 million (on 106 screens) compared to its titanic $526 million Chinese take.

Sony could advertise Chow's latest as a bromantic comedy between a celibate man and a hotheaded monkey-god — with fights. In the new The Demons Strike Back, ostensibly opening in the states on February 3, a likable love/hate relationship develops between Brother Tang (Kris Wu), a naive Buddhist monk on a pilgrimage to India, and his reluctant disciple Sun Wukong (Kenny Lin), a quick-tempered monkey who becomes immortal after he invades Heaven and gorges on magical life-extending peaches. That gives human stakes to the larger-than-life action set pieces pitting mountainous Buddhas and Lord of the Rings–style giant spiders against shape-shifting Wukong (who increases his size until he's as big as King Kong) and his fellow animal-god companions: vain pig-man Pigsy (Yang Yiwei) and slow-witted talking fish Sandy (Mengke Bateer).

Chow's scenario features several perfunctory but infectiously batshit fight scenes, but The Demons Strike Back is essentially a buddy comedy, albeit one with a couple superfluous buddies (comic relief Yiwei and Bateer are consistently distracting and painfully unfunny). While Pigsy and Sandy are characterized by tic-like behavior — Pigsy lusts after anything shiny, and Sandy interprets everything literally à la Amelia Bedelia or Guardians of the Galaxy's Drax the Destroyer — Tang and Wukong are defined by a unique master/servant power dynamic.

Whiplash-quick flashbacks remind us that Wukong killed Tang's girlfriend Duan (Shu Qi) in Conquering the Demons after Buddha forced Wukong to protect Tang during his travels. Despite this transgression, Tang, a clueless optimist, trusts Wukong, and assumes his pupil will eventually mellow out. Unfortunately for Tang, Wukong is an egotistical cynic who hates authority figures.


Wu and Lin's finest moments as a comic odd couple come when Tang ignores Wukong's warnings and dashes into trouble. Wukong warns him not to accept charity from demonic pseudo-good Samaritans that they encounter during their travels. Lin wins big laughs just by wincing and rolling his eyes while Tang giddily chit-chats with tarantula succubi who disguise themselves as beautiful women in order to seduce and devour men. And Wu aces the slapstick comedy, especially when Wukong uses a body-controlling magic spell to force Tang to perform an awkward impromptu striptease for a tyrannical, child-like king (Bei-er Bao). Wu and Lin have great chemistry, but only because Chow was smart enough to reimagine Journey to the West as a rare character-driven big-budget action-adventure — the kind of thing Americans might love if they knew it existed.
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Simon Abrams is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.