Hot off the success of last year’s box office record-setting smash The Mermaid, Stephen Chow brought us a sequel this Lunar New Year to his 2013 film Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. While it set an opening day record in China, and was initially released in North America on roughly twice as many screens, it has thus far failed to match The Mermaid’s financial success. I have no idea why that is, anyone who claims to understand what makes the difference between a hit and a super-hit is a liar or a fool, but I can theorize that the film’s somewhat mixed critical response is a response to its weird hybrid nature. Not just in the ways Chow situates a sincere appreciation for religion within a goofy pop context, but in the film’s dual authorship between Chow, who co-wrote and produced, and Tsui Hark, who directed. While both artists share a penchant for oddball and anarchic humor, Chow’s films over the past twenty years have demonstrated a depth of belief which Tsui has actively avoided for his whole career, preferring instead a pragmatic, anti-institutional stance. This tension between tradition and subversion results in a curiously unstable film; easy enough to watch in the moment, but unnaturally slippery in meaning.
Tsui Hark, a key figure in nearly every phase of Hong Kong cinema for the past forty years, from the New Wave through heroic bloodshed, wirefu and the exodus to Hollywood and the simultaneous and ongoing tug-of-war with the Mainland and digital effects, has strangely enough never worked this closely with Chow before, though their sensibilities superficially seem compatible. Chow’s early 90s mo le tau comedies, literally “nonsense” films ruled by anarchic slapstick and complex Cantonese wordplay, owe a lot to the comedy aesthetic of the Cinema City studio where Tsui Hark made a series of hit films in the early 1980s (All the Wrong Clues… [For the Right Solution], Aces Go Places III, Working Class). Chow in this period often worked with producer/director Wong Jing, a notorious entertainer of the lowest common denominator variety, and while they produced some of the funniest films of the decade (Tricky Brains, Fight Back to School, the Royal Tramp and God of Gamblers films), rarely would they be accused of having any kind of serious feeling or thought. When Chow became a director in his own right, his films took on a decidedly spiritual cast, while retaining the comic sensibility of his early work. Movies like King of Comedy, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle are packed with elaborate comic set-pieces, including some pioneering special effects work, but they each have a sincere core of belief that makes them surprisingly powerful. In each film, Chow’s hero begins at the bottom, ignored and humiliated by everyone he meets, a failure in almost every respect, but he perseveres and, with the help of a gang of similarly downtrodden oddballs, ultimately attains enlightenment. Actualization through degradation as the spiritual endpoint of slapstick.
Conquering the Demons follows this formula as well, forming a kind of prequel to the classic novel Journey to the West, attributed to Wu Cheng’en, though based on a combination of folklore and historical events at least a millennium old at the time it was published in the 16th Century. In the film, the young Buddhist monk Xuanzang (played by Wen Zhang) tries to be a demon hunter, but rather than violently subdue the creatures that posses and prey upon human beings, he hopes to rehabilitate them by singing them a song which will unleash their inner innocence. He meets a rival hunter named Duan (Shu Qi) who is much more effective and the two develop a mutual attraction, which Xuanzang rejects because as a monk he’s vowed to not love anyone. The film plays out over a series of demon encounters: first a fish demon out for revenge on the villagers that lynched him when he was a human; then a pig demon, a creature of murderous lusts for sex and food; finally Sun Wukong, the famous Handsome Monkey King himself, buried under a mountain by Buddha for daring to defy the Jade Emperor, ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven. As in the novel, the demons are allegories for the various vices the monk must overcome: wrath, lust, greed, pride; but Chow’s addition of Duan throws into relief one of the most difficult aspects of Buddhism to grasp, the renunciation of desire. Xuanzang cannot attain enlightenment until he both learns to love another person and know what it means to lose that person. In Chow’s earlier films, trials of humiliation fuel true understanding, in Conquering the Demons, only by experiencing heart-breaking tragedy can his hero become fully actualized. This comes when the Monkey King murders Duan, which triggers Xuanzang’s full power, calling the Buddha’s Palm down from heaven to smite the Monkey: but pointedly not for revenge or punishment, Monkey King instead becomes Xuanzang’s disciple, agreeing to join him on his quest to India to recover sacred Buddhist scriptures, a journey on which they’ll be joined by the pig demon (Pigsy) and fish demon (Sandy).
The sequel picks up the story some time later. Xuanzang, played by Kris Wu and now called Tang Sanzang (a reference to his being sent on his journey by the great Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong, in some versions of the story he’s called Tripitaka, which is a Sanskrit variation), and his three demon buddies are having a rough time of it. They fight amongst themselves constantly and are continually beset by demons. The unmentioned backstory here is that the demons believe that by eating Tang they’ll become immortal. Like the first film, the second is structured around encounters with three demons, some of the most popular in the novel: the Spider Women (see Ho Meng-hua’s 1967 Shaw Brothers adaptation Cave of the Silken Web), the Red Boy, a kind of mechanized ping-pong ball fueled by the fires of Hell; and the White-Boned Demon (memorably played Gong Li in last year’s Monkey King 2, directed by Soi Cheang). The Spider Women and the White-Bone Demon both attempt to seduce Xuanzang away from his mission, dredging up memories of Duan. Throughout we’ll see flashbacks to Shu Qi in the first film, and we’ll learn that Tang has not yet succeeded in letting her go, nor has he forgiven the Handsome Monkey King for murdering her.
In fact, much of the sequel is a rehash of the first film, albeit with the subtext more muddied. The female demons serve essentially the same purpose: tempting the monk with women both sexually (the Spider Women) and romantically (the White-Bone Demon), while the long Red Boy section is weirdly attenuated and unbalanced. The Red Boy is in disguise as the whiny man-child king of a Central Asian city-state. The chief minister of the kingdom is played by Yao Chen, who brought a bit of glorious dementia to 2015’s Monster Hunt and here is vastly more interesting than the one-note monarch (timely as the idea of a ruler dominated by infantile passions may be). Tang and his demons leave and return to the king’s chamber several times, unmasking the Red Boy and freeing the real king, then meeting up with a young woman named Felicity (Jelly Lin, who was so good as the eponymous mermaid in The Mermaid and doesn’t get much to do here). The Monkey King suspects Felicity is actually a demon, and goes to murderous lengths to prove it. This follows the pattern of the novel, in which the monk is constantly unable to tell demon from human and wanders into traps despite the advice of his fellows, especially the Monkey King, who have better eyesight and can spot the demons in their midst. Thus rather than the progression towards enlightenment through a series of allegorical trials that structured the first film, the second spins in place, with seemingly interminable variations on the kind-hearted but unwise monk trusting the bad guys over his closest friends.
This sense of repetition is reinforced by the film’s rehashing many of the same gags from the first film, only slower and less funny (the Taoist obedience spell) or the single jokes Pigsy and Sandy get to play over and over again. Rather than build upon motifs from the first film, as Tsui does with his shadow gags in the Once Upon a Time in China series, the new film often merely repeats the same notes from the original, in the manner of Hollywood blockbuster sequels. This is confounded however by the film’s climax: convinced that Felicity’s entire home village are demons engaged in an elaborate ruse, Monkey King slaughters them all, leading to a definitive break with the monk. This plays into the scheme of Yao Chen’s minister, who reveals herself to be a powerful demon herself (the Golden Vulture demon, if I remember correctly, which I’m not sure is in the novel, though Vulture Peak is the journey’s ultimate destination, where the monk will receive the scriptures from Buddha). Except, it’s all a ruse: Tang and the Monkey King were merely pretending to quarrel again, they knew Felicity was the White-Bone Demon all along. The final twenty minutes of the film then becomes a dizzying display of special effects action, with the Monkey King taking the form of a giant volcanic gorilla doing battle with the Red Boy and the Golden Vulture. This entire section, building on the meta-moment in the middle of the film where Tang asks Yao if her magic tricks (comically bad displays of illusion) are meant to look fake or not, feels like the work of Tsui Hark alone. The deeply felt emotions of the first film, the anguish of love lost, is revealed in its repetition to be performance, as is the Monkey King’s disobedience and murderousness, the minister’s bonhomie, the King’s simple-mindedness, Felicity’s innocence. All the facades are dropped and what we’re left with are spectacular displays of power, impossible beings doing impossible things.
This is the best yet version of the story Tsui’s made at least twice before, in 1983’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, in which he imported Hollywood special effects technicians to move Hong Kong’s technology a quantum leap forward, and in 2001’s Zu Warriors, a semi-remake, but with phantasmagoric CGI effects that were new to Hong Kong at the time but looked woefully cheap compared to the American state of the art. Both films are sourced in Chinese folklore, tales of competing bands of immortal beings, leavened with some down-to-earth humor (Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung as ordinary soldiers fighting an irrational war on the ground before being transported among the heavens in the first film, for example). In both movies, Tsui’s emphasis is on the imaginative use of technology rather than its ability to reproduce the real world, the more fanciful the better: these are films about the spectacle of power. How boring is this tyranny of verisimilitude in Hollywood, where special effects are judged by their ability to not look like special effects? Why not instead seek out the impossible? That is the governing principle for all of Tsui’s effects work, from his wire stunts with Ching Siu-tung and Jet Li, to his 2010s Detective Dee films, with their towering statues, giant sea monsters and Richard Ng morphing into Teddy Robin.
The best of Tsui’s fantasy films is 1993’s Green Snake, like Journey to the West based on a classic story of Chinese literature, with a strong Buddhist message. Tsui however turns the received tale on its ear: rather than follow the romance of the White Snake and the young monk she’s enamored with, Tsui focuses on her sister, the Green Snake who exposes the racism and sexual hypocrisy of the Buddhist establishment. The finale is another spectacular showdown, where the enraged monk lifts a mountain holding his monastery (literally rising above earthly concerns) and floods an entire village, killing hundreds of people, in an attempt to defeat the Green Snake. This is Tsui’s anti-institutionalism in its purest form, an absolute rejection of the corrupt hierarchies that distract us from the Golden Rule at the heart of all religions (and reiterated in The Demons Strike Back). But this perspective is necessarily in conflict with the Journey to the West story, and Chow’s silly yet traditionalist take on it. The Tang monk can’t be exposed as a hypocrite, nor can Tsui go back and invalidate the reality of Duan’s death, nor can the Monkey King, in all his ferocious obstinance be the true hero of the story without submitting to the wisdom of Buddha and the power of the monk. Unable to present a truly revisionist version of the story, as he’s done with traditional tales and genres his entire career, Tsui can only hint at artifice, at the phoniness, the illusory nature of the world and its fantasies of power. Laws of physics are abandoned for ever-escalating magical effects, gorgeously rendered by computers in wondrous panoramas of dazzling color and competent 3D, while every major character is revealed to be merely playing a role.
Taken one way, this can be read as a manifestation of Tsui’s rejection of the superstructure of Buddhist thought, a materialist assertion that all this magic and mythology is posturing mumbo-jumbo, bedtimes stories for children of all ages. In such an impermanent world, “enlightenment,” whatever that is, has no real meaning. Instead, perhaps it’s only when Tang forgives and frees the White-Bone Demon from her suffering, an act of compassion and understanding, that truly moral action can be found, a world apart from the power games of gods and demons. Or perhaps Tsui’s morality simply lies in the friendship of Tang and his companions, journeying on through the desert towards new impossibilities. Where Conquering the Demons gave us a kind of understanding, a sense of the wisdom of letting go, Demons Strike Back leaves us wandering with our heroes, hopeful perhaps, of getting somewhere but never sure of where we are. Or, most tantalizingly, perhaps this is a devout vision after all, that Chow’s allegory has moved beyond human passions to attempt to convey a sense of Buddhist metaphysics, of the three marks of existence. The first film would thus be about how the nature of the world is suffering. Then the illusions of the second expose the impermanence of all things, the constant flux of our reality, while the repetitions of plot demonstrate the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Finally, the shiftiness of the characters, the unreliability of their actions, even the fact that they’re all played by different actors in the sequel, could be an expression of the idea of non-self, that there is no permanent soul or essence of things, and that the idea of a self is itself a source of suffering. Or the film could be both of these mutually exclusive things, both materialist and transcendent, at the same time, an impossible paradox from two incompatible authors. Is it incoherent nonsense or sublime expression of essential truths? I don’t know, but I want to see it again.