Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Journey to the West
May 25th, 2014
Stephen Chow wrote, directed, and starred in Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, which are two amazing movies. When I heard he was making another movie, I was super excited. When Journey to the West was released last year, the film made $200 million internationally, which helped lift expectations. (It made less than $20,000 here, but it was playing on Video on Demand as well as in theaters, so this isn't surprising.) Is the film as good as its predecessors? And is the Blu-ray worth picking up?
The film begins in a Chinese village by a river. A small girl sings while sitting in her father's boat, while he prepares to go fishing. He takes her out of the boat and puts her on the wharf telling about a river demon. She doesn't believe there is a demon, so he plays a practical joke on her by pretending to be a river demon, which results in her crying. He tries to make her smile by goofing around, but this time is attacked by a real demon and comes to a bloody end.
The villagers hire a Taoist Priest, who uses prayers, incense, and some explosives, to kill a giant manta ray, which he says is the killer. A Buddhist monk / demon hunter, Chen Xuan Zang, arrives and tells the villagers that they have the wrong fish. Manta rays are kind and peaceful souls. This can't be the killer. The villagers react by declaring that he's in cahoots with the demon and stringing him up. They all then jump in the river, because they believe they are safe. They are not.
I'm not going to go into details, because I don't want to spoil anything, but... I can't believe they ate the little girl. This isn't a choice a Hollywood studio would have made.
After the river demon is beached, for the lack of a better term, it turns into a human. The villagers want to kill him, but Xuan Zang uses his demon hunting training on the demon. In other words, he reads the demon nursery rhymes to try to get it to remember the good inside. The demon starts to beat the crap out of him. Fortunately, he's rescued by Miss Duan, a fellow demon hunter. She quickly subdues the demon and uses her magic blanket to capture the demon inside of plush fish. She then asks what makes Xuan Zang think he is a demon hunter before showing she has real powers and laughing at his childish ways.
Later, Xuan Zang returns to his master, Master Nameless. Master Nameless explains that the water demon used to be a kind man who saved a little girl from drowning, but the villagers saw them together and thought he was a kidnapper, so they killed him and fed his body to the fish. This turned his heart evil and he wanted revenge. Xuan Zang understands trying to bring the good in these demons to the surface again, but he feels like he's lost faith, because he couldn't save everyone. Master says he needs to travel and obtain enlightenment in order to unleash his full potential.
We then see a couple in love arrive at a fancy restaurant, a secluded fancy restaurant that specializes in roast pork. The food is so good that the woman demands to see the cook, K.L. Hog, who is so handsome she instantly falls in love. ... and then spoilers happen. Xuan Zang arrives at the restaurant, which is full of people. However, being a demon hunter, he sees through the illusions and starts a fight, one that he would have quickly lost, if not for Miss Duan showing up and saving his butt. More spoilers happen, unfortunately, while Miss Duan is able to injure K.L. Hog, he's too powerful to be contained by her magic and the pair have to run away.
While recuperating, Miss Duan points out that K.L. Hog is such a powerful demon that the bounty on him will be high enough to draw in many demon hunters. She also decides that while Xuan Zang isn't the best demon hunter, he's kind and that deserves a kiss. Xuan Zang, on the other hand, decides if he is to obtain enlightenment, he has to stay away from desire and that means running far away from Miss Duan.
When Xuan Zang next talks to Master Nameless, Master Nameless tells him a number of things, but the most pertinent one is about how to capture K.L. Hog. In order to catch a demon that powerful, they will need the help of an even more powerful demon, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. The Monkey King was trapped by Buddha 500 years ago and remains trapped to this day. Perhaps he can help capture K.L. Hog.
At this point, we start to run into the other demon hunters and we hit major spoilers.
Journey to the West is an amazing movie that has a lot of the same strengths as Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. Namely, it is an incredible combination of action and style, with plenty of humor added into the mix. It is bright and colorful and the action choreography is stunning. There are also a lot of fun characters, but unfortunately, most of these unique characters show up later in the movie, so I can't get into detail. The chemistry between the characters, especially Xuan Zang and Miss Duan is excellent. The potential romance between the pair adds a lot to the movie, although mostly in the realm of humor. For instance, Miss Duan travels with a troop that includes her sister, who helps Miss Duan try to seduce Xuan Zang. Although I'm not sure "seduce" is the right word. She has a number of plans, some of which are sitcom level bad, perhaps worse than that. If this happened in a romantic comedy with any grounding in reality, it would have been painful to watch. However, it takes place in a universe with a demon hunter named Almighty Foot. Not Almighty Feet, but Almighty Foot. This is a weird movie.
It is not a perfect movie, as the energy does dip from time to time. There are also times where the shift in tones is a little much. The film has parts that are slapstick level of humor, some that are filled with action, while some that are dramatic and a few that are rather disturbing. It is not a problem that the film has different tones throughout, but sometimes the transition from one to the other was a little too abrupt. This includes the first fight, which has many slapstick moments, but also an extended part where the village fails to save a four-year old girl from being eaten by a river demon. Some of the jokes go on a little too long, especially with Prince Important and his handlers. That said, this are minor issues and overall it is a great movie.
There is only one extra on the DVD and Blu-ray, as 12-minute long behind the scenes featurette. This isn't a lot, but it is a foreign-language import and these tend to not have a lot of extras.
The technical presentation is good, but not great. The level of details varied with some scenes looking a little too soft. The contrast is also a little too varied. This isn't a deal-breaker. The movie still looks good on high definition, it just doesn't look great. The audio is also good, but not great. The dialogue is clear and there is enough activity in the surround sound speakers that it doesn't feel barren, but it isn't the most active track I've listen to either.
The Blu-ray costs $18, which is great for this type of release. However, the DVD costs just $13, which is arguably a better deal. I think the film is visual enough that it is worth paying the extra money.
If you liked Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, then Journey to the West is absolutely a must have. Buy all three and have a Stephen Chow mini-marathon. The DVD is very inexpensive for a limited release, but I think spending the extra money for the Blu-ray is worth it.
- Submitted by: C.S.Strowbridge
Filed under: Video Review, Xi you xiang mo pian