Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons finds cult Hong Kong multi-hyphenate Stephen Chow applying his signature mix of rubbery CGI mayhem and yawping broad comedy to the most fantastical of the four cornerstone-sized cornerstones of Chinese literature. Loosely adapted from several early chapters of the 2,000-page 16th-century novel Journey To The West, Conquering The Demons recasts the book’s nominal protagonist, the naïve Xuanzang (Wen Zhang, wearing a Yahoo Serious wig), as an aspiring demon hunter who has to seek out the help of Sun Wukong (Huang Bo), an immortal, shape-shifting, self-replicating monkey king imprisoned by the Buddha under a mountain for generally being a dick. (This is actually the most faithful aspect of Chow’s adaptation.)
Though co-credited to director Derek Kwok, Conquering The Demons feels like a Chow movie through and through; as in his other films, much of its charm rests in the intermingling of the very high-concept and the very lowbrow. Long, effects-heavy set pieces—like the opening, which pits Xuanzang against a giant fish demon in a multi-level, Rube Goldberg-by-way-of-Waterworld village—are peppered with fat suits, grimacing reaction shots, and sped-up Benny Hill-style running. Chow’s humor is coarse and facile, but it becomes surprising when placed against a backdrop of large-scale, pile-up action. Meanwhile, shocks and spurts of blood give the director’s baggy-pants comedy a welcome sense of tension. When this element is removed, though, the jokes fall flat; a toupee gag ceases to be a surprise, and simply comes across as lame. For this reason, the movie’s less fantastic stretches, which deal with Xuanzang’s relationship to his master (Cheng Sihan) and his not-quite-romance with fellow demon hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi, who looks like a live-action Betty Boop), are also its least funny; their broad gags have nothing to bounce off of. Free of the dense Cantonese verbal humor usually associated with Chow’s work—Conquering The Demons is his first all-Mandarin production—these scenes feel like little more than airless segues between big set pieces.
Fortunately, big set pieces happen to be Chow’s specialty, and whatever the film’s effects might lack in polish, they make up for in off-kilter imagination. One of the major showdowns, which pits Xuanzang and Miss Duan against a pig demon, is set inside of a hellish BBQ restaurant, with Duan punching her way through a horde of demonic minions whose heads squeak and deflate like rubber balls, and who explode, upon death, into clouds of Mummy Returns-style CGI sand. The movie’s back end is taken up with a confrontation between Sun Wukong and a group of colorfully bizarre demon hunters, including the preening Prince Important (Taiwanese pop star Show Luo) and the Almighty Foot (Zhang Chaoli), an old man who is able to inflate his shriveled right leg to the size of a city bus. It’s during this cartoony, anything-goes climax that Conquering The Demons truly hits its stride; part highly stylized wuxia, part Looney Tunes, the sequence showcases Chow at his weirdest and most entertaining.