The Wacky Existentialism of Jeffrey Lau's "A Chinese Odyssey"

Jeffrey Lau's unexpectedly profound slapstick comedy elevates absurdity into a philosophy of life.
Sean Gilman

Jeffrey Lau's A Chinese Odyssey - Part One: Pandora's Box and A Chinese Odyssey - Part Two: Cinderella (2015) are showing August and September on MUBI in the United States.

During the last Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema, the period between the 1984 Joint Declaration and the 1997 Handover, generic cycles moved with lightning rapidity. The speed and sheer volume of production, combined with the relatively small group of creative professionals, meant that a genre could be born, reach its peak, and die out within a few short years. The Heroic Bloodshed cycle, for example, can be said to have started in 1986 with A Better Tomorrow, reached its peak with The Killer and A Better Tomorrow III in 1989, and had its last gonzo gasps in 1992 with Hard-Boiled and Full Contact. By the time of the genre’s decline, Chow Yun-fat’s stardom in the colony had been eclipsed by Stephen Chow, who dominated the next few years of Hong Kong cinema like few stars have at any time, anywhere in the world.

Stephen Chow’s persona defined what became known as the “mo le tau” (roughly, “nonsense”) genre, a blend of physical and verbal slapstick characterized by lightning-quick Cantonese puns and egregious breaks with reality. His, and the genre’s, breakthrough came in 1990 with All for the Winner, a parody of a Chow Yun-fat gambling comedy called God of Gamblers (directed by Wong Jing) that had been released a few months earlier to great success. Stephen Chow’s film was an even bigger hit, and so when it came time for Wong to make God of Gamblers II, he combined the characters from both movies: the original and its parody—like if Top Gun II teamed Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer with Charlie Sheen and Valeria Golino’s characters from Hot Shots. The first God of Gamblers came out in December 1989, All for the Winner came out in June 1990, God of Gamblers II in December 1990. There was also The Top Bet, a spin-off of All for the Winner in which Chow had only a cameo, in March 1991 and a God of Gamblers III in August 1991.1 

But as this mini-gambling cycle played itself out, Chow quickly moved to capitalize on his sudden stardom (after spending most of the 80s working as an extra and as a children’s TV host) with a unprecedented series of box office hits. From 1990 though 1993, he appeared in at least thirty movies, most of them major hits and several now canonical comedy classics (Fight Back to School, Tricky Brains, Alls Well Ends Well, and the Royal Tramp films among them). Beginning with 1993’s Flirting Scholar he began directing as well, and in the coming years his pace slowed considerably and he rarely worked for other directors again. His last great collaboration with another director was in 1995 with the two-part mo lei tau wuxia A Chinese Odyssey, which reunited him with All for the Winner director Jeffrey Lau. 

Lau began his career as a producer, and it’s in that role that he’s had the greatest impact on Hong Kong cinema, producing New Wave classics like Patrick Tam’s Nomad and Terry Tong’s Coolie Killer along with Sammo Hung’s Eastern Condors. His most fruitful collaboration was been with Wong Kar-wai, for whom he produced Ashes of Time, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. It was during the famously protracted and well over-budget shooting of Ashes that Lau gathered most of that film’s cast and crew (stars Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Carina Lau, both Tony Leungs, Joey Wang, Jacky Cheung) and made a parody of the same source novel Ashes was based on,2 to be released as a quick money-maker during the 1993 Lunar New Year holiday. The Eagle-Shooting Heroes was high-point in the mo lei tau genre in that it featured some of the coolest and sexiest actors in the world, filmed by some of the world’s greatest craftspeople (cinematographer Peter Pau, choreographer Sammo Hung, art director William Chang), acting like complete idiots for one hundred extremely silly minutes. It’s glorious.

Lau would take something of the same approach with A Chinese Odyssey, infusing high production values into a mo lei tau comedy, while at the same time parodying the source material, in this case the story of the Monkey King and Journey to the West. Anticipating the slightly more serious turn Chow would take later in his career, A Chinese Odyssey would have plenty of nonsense slapstick, but it would also take the themes of the novel, the reformation of the Monkey King, bringing him into line with Buddhist orthodoxy, completely seriously. It’s an unexpectedly profound blend of wacky comedy and existential melancholy. It’s the acme of the mo lei tau genre, the high point at which its absurdity becomes elevated to something like a philosophy of life.  

The first half of the film is subtitled Pandora’s Box, and details how, after he rebelled against the monk Xuanzang (the version of the movie I have, a Chinese BluRay which looks good but is poorly subtitled, calls him “the Longevity Monk”) and the goddess Guanyin, the Monkey King was going to be killed but the monk sacrificed himself to save him. 500 years later, a pair of demon sisters (the Spider-Woman and the White-Boned Demon, played by Yammie Lam and Karen Mok, respectively) are searching for the reincarnation of the Monkey King, who is fated to meet the monk again.3 Stephen Chow plays Joker, unwittingly destined to be the Monkey King, but now the head of a gang of threadbare and dim-witted robbers. The gang and the demons have various run-ins, which usually end with Chow’s groin on fire and its subsequently being stomped on at length. Eventually Joker and the White-Boned Demon (called variously “Boney M” and “Pak Jingjing” in my copy) fall in love, as she’s convinced that he’s the Monkey King in disguise. The Spider-Woman despises him though, because the Monkey broke her sister’s heart 500 years ago. Also a monk, not The Monk, but a different one, shows up as a bowl of grapes and is played by Jeffrey Lau himself. He tries to explain things but doesn’t really help. Eventually everyone is chased by the Bull King to Spider Web cave, where Joker discovers the time-travel device Pandora’s Box and uses it a few times, eventually ending up 500 years in the past.

This is where the first film ends and Part II, called Cinderella, picks up. Joker meets a fairy named Zixia, who has escaped from heaven where she and her sister serve as the wick in Buddha’s lamp (I’m sure that’s a metaphor, but I have no idea what it means). Zixia is in search of her true love, the man who will draw her magic sword from its scabbard. Her sister is less interested in that, but the problem is that the two share the same body: Zixia by day, Qingxia by night (kind of like Brigitte Lin’s character in Ashes of Time). Chow somehow ends up with Zixia’s sword though, so she falls in love with him, but he just wants to go back to the future to rescue Jingjing. But the Bull King finds him and forces him to marry his sister, Xiang Xiang while he tries to marry Zixia himself, neither of which happens when his wife, Princess Iron Fan (another former flame of the Monkey King) shows up. Somehow Zixia/Qingxia, Pigsy, Sandy, and Xiang Xiang all end up switching bodies for awhile, but eventually Joker realizes he loves Zixia (in a scene parodying Chungking Express) but is still committed to reuniting with Jingjing, which he does, but the 500 years younger version of her who has no idea who he is. He explains everything as best he can, but eventually realizes that love and other human affairs are just too darn complicated to deal with and renounces all desire and returns to being the Monkey King again, whereupon he saves almost everyone. 

So, in the end, the story amounts to nothing more than a brief detour in the journey to the West. Like most of the other chapters in the novel, the pilgrims are put to the test, their commitment to withdrawing from the world in the name of a greater enlightenment threatened by the greatest temptation the material world has to offer: love. Seen in this light, A Chinese Odyssey, a goofy, dizzyingly lunatic slapstick comedy packed with cheap looking special effects, rubber masks and wildly unrealistic fight scenes is basically a Buddhist Last Temptation of Christ, a fantasy of normal life for a supernormal hero, one that must be sacrificed for the good of humanity.  

This isn’t, with the perspective of twenty more years of Stephen Chow films, as far-fetched a reading as it must have seemed at the time. Chow’s work as a director is more or less all infused with this spiritual sensibility, with his characters in films like The God of Cookery, Shaolin Soccer, and Kung Fu Hustle all ultimately achieving a specifically Buddhist enlightenment through slapstick physical degradation. And his own adaptation of Journey to the West, 2013’s Conquering the Demons, is very much about the renunciation of love as the precondition for spiritual transcendence (though in this case it is the monk who must let go of the woman he loves). 

This kind of weightiness is less apparent in the later work of Jeffrey Lau, although his Chinese Odyssey 2002 is terrific. Unrelated to Journey to the West, it’s a farcical adaptation of the huangmei opera The Kingdom and the Beauty (filmed by Li Han-hsiang in 1959) starring half of the cast of Chungking Express, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Faye Wong, along with Chang Chen and Vicky Zhao Wei. But like A Chinese Odyssey, it too ends up more moving that it has any right to be: it’s somehow one of the great romantic films of the 21st century. In 2016, Lau released A Chinese Odyssey Part Three, which doesn’t star Chow or any of the major figures of the original film (though Karen Mok makes a brief appearance), but reprises all the roles with new, younger actors. It twists and recapitulates the events of the first two films, with some more dizzying time travel, in an attempt to give everyone the happy ending they deserve, inadvertently revealing that the whole problem was caused in the first place by a clerical error on the part of the Jade Emperor, the absolute ruler of Heaven, which turns the whole series into a kind of allegory about lunatics from Hong Kong being given all the power and resources of a vast and incompetent state and turning the whole world upside down for the sheer anarchic thrill of it all. May they never stop.

1. There were further spin-offs and prequels over the years, including another film called “God of Gamblers 3” that is actually a prequel to the first film but with Leon Lai in the Chow Yun-fat part and the recent From Vegas to Macau series in which Chow Yun-fat returns to Wong Jing’s inane world to make whole a bunch of money.

2. Louis Cha’s Legend of the Condor Heroes. “The Eagle-Shooting Heroes” is the more literal translation of the title.

3. All through the Journey to the West story, the pilgrims are attacked by demons, because they believe that if they eat the monk they’ll gain eternal life. It’s the job of the Monkey King, along with a Pig Demon named Pigsy and a Fish Demon named Sandy, to protect him while he travels to India in search of Buddhist scriptures.

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