* * * * 1/2
Dir. Stephen Chow, 2013
Stephen Chow occupies an interesting place in contemporary film. Film fans generally know who he is, and for a while Kung Fu Hustle was the highest grossing foreign film in US History, but he’s still managed to be vastly under-appreciated. In large part because while he was rather prolific in the 90’s and early 00’s, Journey to the West is only his second film in the last 10 years (CJ7 received mixed reviews and few saw it outside of Hong Kong and China). I was recently reminded of Chow’s work after BAM did a retrospective of his films last month. At first, I thought it was a bit soon. But I think the title of the retrospective, “King of Comedy” (after one of his films), suggests why it’s important to revisit Chow’s work: he’s perhaps the most talented and entertaining film comedian working today.
While many reviewers have sought to find a connection between Chow and the silent clowns, when I first saw Shaolin Soccer, he reminded me a bit of Jerry Lewis. Not so much in his style, but approach; both of them employ a self-reflexive sensibility more informed by cartoons and musicals than traditional narrative cinema. And this is the importance of Chow’s comedic style. Typically, film comedies are attempts to capture either the standup or the personality of a comedic star or persona, and the result is typically an uncomfortable tension between content, narrative, and style. But Chow’s Mo lei tau humor is a visual and auditory humor that works in harmony with his film’s styles and storytelling approach. The similarly spirited Pythons, on their TV program Monty Python’s Flying Circus, another perfect marriage of comedic sensibility and visual form, developed (according to Gilliam) their “and now for something completely different” style because they couldn’t write good punchlines. Chow’s style is somewhat similar, in that much of the joy is derived from increasingly complex and/or absurd set-ups. A perfect example is the opening scene of this film, an extended monster attack reminiscent of the opening of The Host, that is an outstanding demonstration of comedic mise-en-scene in which nearly every element of the set is displayed, then used in service to a rather complicated comedic action scene.
Journey to the West is one of many, many retellings of one of the foundational epic Chinese literary texts. From what I understand, this is in some ways a prequel. This film is about Sanzang, a Buddhist Monk and demon hunter. His philosophy is that demons are still good at heart, and his method involves singing nursery rhymes to them to try and save them. He meets, and is repeatedly saved, by Duan, a far more capable demon hunter who employs an effective no-nonsense style to fight and destroy the demons. The bulk of the film is about Sanzang having a crisis of faith as he and Duan spar with he other as they try to stop the Pig Demon.
I’ve mentioned Chow’s comedic mastery, but this is a beautiful film both as visual work, it holds its own with the best Chinese historical epics, and thematically. Sanzang tries to hunt demons only armed with his book “300 Nursery Rhymes.” The underlying theme is that there lies great, transcendental power in these ancient stories, and that film is the new medium through which to tell them. In many non-western (and in my own experience, Native American) cultures, myths and legends are difficult to properly treat in film because they don’t really have narrative arcs, are filled with characters who transform into other things, and are mixtures of all kinds of stark tones (broad humor, violence, and great depths of emotion). Chow’s exaggerated, imaginative style is nearly perfectly suited to tell such stories. For me, the major weakness in the film comes 2/3rds of the way into the film when for the first time, the film spends a bit too much time on expository dialogue. However, the simultaneously sad and triumphant ending more than makes up for the slower parts that come before it. It would seem almost contradictory that a film that ultimately explores Buddhist spiritually (and particularly self-control and denial) would be full of gags and gross-out moments, but it works for the same reason those myths and legends (that often also have tricksters and gross-out moments) also work: those are part of the human experience and as Sanzang learns at the end, it is through experiencing not just the higher, but the lower things in life, that lead to transcendence.