Imagine being locked inside a cavernous Toys”R”us all day, or strapped to a roller-coaster till eternity. Sure, it’s a lot of fun, but also damn tiring. That’s what it’s like watching “Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back” — the sequel to iconic Hong Kong filmmaker-comedian Stephen Chow’s boffo hit “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” written and produced by Chow and directed by Tsui Hark, who contributed to the screenplay with an assist from Kelvin Li Sizhen. The production runs away with a storm of visual effects like a kid in a candy store, conjuring scene after spectacular scene of fantasy action, reflecting influences as diverse as Tim Burton and Japanese pop art.
The most tyke-friendly of Chow’s films since “CJ7,” “Journey” leads the pack among the Lunar New Year blockbusters released in China, but is unlikely to break the record of highest grossing Chinese film held by Chow’s own “The Mermaid.” However, Asian film buffs who have followed Chow since he left the screen to go behind the camera will recognize this as the least typical of his creations. Audiences won’t be in stitches one moment and tearing up the next. And while the prequel depicts enlightenment through empathy and reawakening one’s inner child, a religion that advocates the free spirit is purged by a spiritual authority that resembles a repressive regime in the sequel.
Given the sea of Chinese films and anime adapted from Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century novel “Journey to the West,” “Conquering the Demons” is unique for shifting the traditional focus on Monkey to Xuanzang, and pioneering an “origin story” for the monk who spread Buddhism to China as a goofy idealist armed with a book of nursery rhymes for exorcism. The sequel, however, falls back again on dramatizing the most popular chapters in Wu’s classic, such as schemes by Spider Demon and White Bone Demon to devour Xuanzang, or the rivalry between Monkey and Red Boy. The new cast that replaced accomplished comedians Wen Zhang and Huang Bo appear to be chosen for eye candy effect and don’t break the mold of their star image. The story is less character-driven, and the comedy only amounts to a smattering of wisecracks rather than evolving organically from their personalities and interactions.
Xuanzang, now simply called Monk Tang (former K-pop idol Kris Wu) funds his trip to India by ordering his reluctant disciples Monkey (Lin Gengxin), Pigsy (Yang Yiwei, Wang Duo, Wang Chao in various forms) and Sandy (retired NBA player Mengke Bateer) to do street performances. But the trio have an uncontrollable violent streak which leads to a trail of wreckage wherever they go.
Tang also has his own anger management issues, judging by how he rains abuse on Monkey, whom he’s never forgiven for killing his first love Duan (Shi Qi, turning up as a flashback memory). On one occasion,Tang and his pupils play a cat-and-mouse game to deflect murderous attempts on each other. It’s the most bona fide Chow scene in the whole film, treading the line between slapstick and uncomfortably nasty with great tension.
Meanwhile, a spider demon (Claudia Wang Likun) and her minions stake out a mansion to ensnare Tang. A bonus to the vicious fights are creature designs of the arachnid temptresses, whose grotesque sexuality channels Japanese pornographic anime and shunga erotic drawings to titillating effect, plus a cheeky nod to the carnivorous plant in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
From the kinkily adult, the film switches to indulgently infantile when the protagonists pass through the kingdom of Biqiu and are summoned to the court of the King (Bao Bei’er), who throws tantrums like a spoilt brat. With deeper character development, this figure could become an timely metaphor for authoritarian leadership. But the filmmakers go for easy laughs, rehashing a gag from the prequel, less effective the second time round.
Employing a dozen VFX studios including Korea’s Dexter Studio and Mofac & Alfred, the film’s two major showdowns, between Monkey and demigod Red Boy, turns the latter’s fire-wielding capability into a flame-themed, rock-the-house CGI blowout. Tsui’s continued Japanese influence are seen in his representation of Monkey’s transformation into a King Kong-like kaiju emanating red laser beams like Godzilla. However, the bedazzlement and the bombast, under fever-pitch editing by Tsui, eventually strain the eyes without making enough emotional impact.
Wu, impressive as a entitled party official’s son in “Mr Six,” retains some of that irresistible cockiness, albeit in a toned-down manner. Lin, who starred in Tsui’s “Taking of Tiger Mountain,” among others, ditches the primate mannerisms adopted by his predecessors, instead rendering Monkey as a seething, testosterone-filled dude. He and Wu have jovial chemistry in a brawling bromance. As a high priestess, Yao Chen (“Monster Hunt”) is beamingly affable, but when she smiles, her lips curl up with deviousness. As Felicity, a royal consort who bewitches Tang, Lin reprises her role in “The Mermaid” without the chance to expand her range. Neither actresses could compensate for the absence of Shu Qi, whose irrepressible exuberance gave the prequel its soul.
Craft contributions are simply fabulous, particularly Yoshihito Akatsuka’s lavish production design, which almost rivals Wes Anderson in doll-house cuteness in a dream sequence featuring a Lilliputian version of ancient India, while the palace of Biqiu boasts an Islamic-themed decor that’s breathtaking in ornate beauty. Choi Sung-fai’s lensing gains new luster with a rainbow-colored palette. Raymond Wong uses his punchy, Morriconesque refrain from the prequel to equally rousing effect, while sound effects by Kinson Tsang prove more dynamic than before.