Stephen Chow Double Feature – Magic Monkey & Adorable Alien

After my recent brushes with Sun Wukong the Monkey King, I felt like diving back into the work of Hong Kong actor/writer/director Stephen Chow, who has a bit of a history with the character. Back in 1995 he played Monkey in Jeffrey Lau’s duology A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora’s Box [Sai yau gei: Yut gwong bou haap] and A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella [Sai yau gei: Sin leui kei yun], a comedic riff on the original stories. Two decades later, Chow wrote and directed his own comic interpretation, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons [Xi you: Xiang mo pian] (2013), the first of his films in which he did not play one of the lead roles. After following this up with eco-comedy The Mermaid (2016), which I watched earlier this month, he returned to the world of Monkey – teaming up with Tsui Hark (who takes the director’s chair) and a completely new cast to make a sequel, Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back [Xi you: Fu yao pian] (2017).

Chow opened The Mermaid with a scene in which a sceptical crowd visits a dodgy museum of curiosities. It’s a fun way to kick-start the comedy, but the scene barely connected to the rest of the film. Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back opens similarly, but Chow has found a better way to expand the scene and incorporate it into the story. We meet Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang (ex-boy band member Kris Wu) and his animal spirit followers in the unexpected role of carnival hucksters. Penniless and desperate for food, Tang exhibits his followers as exotic creatures who fight demons, but they are completely uninterested in playing along until Tang’s provocation of Monkey/Sun Wukong (Lin Gengxin) sparks him into a violently overplayed demonstration of his abilities which destroys the rest of the carnival and leaves Tang awkwardly fending off offers of protection money. After leaving the carnival, we see that Wukong’s headband – more familiar in other versions of the story as the means of the monk’s ability to control him – is purely decorative. Instead, Tang whips him with one of the restraints used by Buddha to contain him within his mountain prison. Pigsy/Zhu Bajie (Yang Yiwei) is still a relentless womaniser and is mostly seen in one of two handsome forms, but finds spider demons and other female creatures a lot more attractive than humans. Sandy/Sha Wujing (basketball star Mengke Bateer) is a world-weary grump who spends most of the movie as a giant CGI catfish being hauled around on a wagon after a poisoning incident.

The central relationship in the film is the dynamic between Tang and Wukong. Tang spends much of his time beating or berating Wukong, while Wukong’s antagonistic behaviour spans the range from wilful misinterpretation to homicidal rage. Contrasting with this, we see Tang snuggling up to Wukong at night and whispering sweet nothings. Both extremes of behaviour ultimately stem back to a key event in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which is fortunately explained for those (like me) who haven’t seen it. In the earlier film, Tang fell in love with Duan (Shu Qi), who was later killed by Wukong before he could be tamed. Wukong now wears Duan’s headband, which serves as a constant reminder – both of Wukong’s role in her death, but also of Duan herself, leading Tang to occasionally hallucinate her presence (and making Wukong very confused).

These character dynamics play out against a seemingly unrelated set of encounters with demons which tie together at the end. We first see the team of pilgrims in action against a group of female spider demons, a version of the story of the Spider Demons of Silk Cave which was dramatised in The Cave of the Silken Web [Pan si dong] (1967), one of Ho Meng Hua’s four movies adapting tales from Journey of the West which also depicted the central monk as a fool who is out of his depth. Moving on to an immensely impressive city whose minister (Yao Chen) indulges in badly executed sleight of hand tricks which apparently fool the crowds, they come up against Red Boy, another popular villain from the novel who manifests here as a manic clockwork toy with springs for limbs. This leads to an encounter with White Bone Spirit (Lin Yun), a potential new romantic interest for Tang whose story had been reused in a different form for Monkey: Even Monsters Can Be People [Saiyûki: Goku Hanmon! San Yokai No Wana] (1978). Tang has the opportunity to prove that he’s not quite the fool he seems in his climactic encounter with the Immortal Golden Vulture, a rogue agent of Heaven who believes Tang isn’t worthy to seek the Buddhist scriptures (and who appears to be inspired by the novel’s Golden Winged Great Peng of Lion Camel Ridge). The four come together to defeat their foe, Tang and Wukong come to peace with each other, and the weird flirting continues as they walk off into the desert.

As one would expect of a Tsui Hark film, the entire production is lavish. Yoshihito Akatsuka’s sets are huge and filled with loving detail, providing appropriate arenas in which to host excitingly choreographed action scenes. The CGI is top notch, with imaginative designs rendered in a style which could easily stand up against a contemporary Hollywood production. The performers all acquit themselves well, selling the dominant comedic tone without undermining the dramatic elements. And, rather delightfully, both Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark turn up in cameo roles as cinema cleaners in an end-of-credits scene which is more of an anti-end-credits-scene scene. (See also the end of the second trailer below for a pseudo-behind-the-scenes look at Hark berating Chow.)

Stephen Chow used to take one of the lead role in all of his films. The last film in which he did so was CJ7 [Cheung gong chat hou] (2008), a tonally weird children’s science fiction film which is difficult to imagine as being at all marketable for a more conventional Hollywood audience. Chow plays Chow Ti, an impoverished construction worker who lives in a ramshackle hut on the site of a rubbish dump with his son Dicky (Xu Jiao). Chow has raised his son to value the importance of personal integrity and kindness over wealth and privilege. He works insane hours to fund Dicky’s education at an upmarket school in order to maximise Dicky’s chances of bettering his circumstances, but is consequently unable to afford to buy anything new, scavenging everything else – including school clothes and food – from other people’s garbage. Unfortunately Dicky’s inability to live up to the personal grooming standards expected by most of his fellow students and many of his teachers means that he is constantly being discriminated against and denied opportunities which are granted to the other students. The only teacher who takes the time who help and support him is Ms Yuen (Kitty Zhang Yuqi), who truly cares about her profession and keeps asking whether she can help him with his schoolwork at home.

Looking for a toy for his son one night, Chow fails to notice a flying saucer rising from the garbage pile behind him. When he turns around, he discovers a squishy green ball left in its wake. Dicky isn’t impressed at first, but after another day of bullying and being beaten up at school, it turns into a cuddly little puppy-like alien with a big fluffy head on top of its squidgy body which he names CJ7. Dreaming of a fantastic day at school in which the alien helps him to get good marks and excel at sport, Dicky is unreasonably disappointed at CJ7’s failure to live up to his dreams the following day, and beating the poor little creature before throwing it in the bin. Coming to the realisation that his expectations were completely unfair, he is too late to rescue CJ7 from the garbage collection truck, but is delighted when it turns up again in his dad’s arms. Then, just as Dicky’s school life and grades begin to improve, tragedy strikes – and CJ7 tries to find a way to make everything better.

The level of humour in the film is remarkably subdued when compared to Chow’s body of work – even more so when you consider that this is ultimately supposed to be a feel-good children’s film about a young boy’s life improving. Dicky spends a large chunk of the film having an almost unrelentingly terrible time at his school, extending to his home life when his over-extended father begins venting his frustrations on his son – frustrations which Dicky inflicts in turn on CJ7. While it’s an effective representation of the way in which poverty, overwork and malnourishment can have a detrimental effect on people’s ability to continue to be their best selves, it’s very bleak for a kid’s film, even given that both characters are able to recognise their faults and work to redress their behaviour. Although Chow does manage to wrap everything up into a happy conclusion, while resisting the temptation to definitively resolve any of the character interrelationships, it’s only in the last seconds of the film that the viewer will discover whether the conclusion is tragedy-free.

Although Chow has restricted his acting roles to cameos since this film, prominent among the actors he’s worked with again are Zhang Yuqi (who went from sympathetic teacher in this film to the villain in The Mermaid) and Lee Sheung-ching (from obnoxious teacher here to deadpan cop in The Mermaid). Both of his co-writers had worked with Chow before – Vincent Kok contributed to Forbidden City Cop (1996), while Tsang Kan-cheung has a more extensive collaborative history which takes in The God of Cookery (1996), King of Comedy (1999), Shaolin Soccer (2001), Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and The Mermaid.

Although not well received critically, CJ7 was popular enough to spawn both and an animated remake – CJ7: The Cartoon [Cheung Gong 7 hou: Oi dei kau] (2010) – and a CGI sequel – CJ7: Super Q Team [Chang Jiang 7 Hao: Chao Meng Te Gong Dui] (2015).

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