Today marks a return to the world of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, as depicted by comic actor Stephen Chow in an extremely loose adaptation of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West [Xī Yóu Jì]. Despite being more of a parody than an adaptation, with only the most tenuous connection to the source material, the two-part film A Chinese Odyssey [Sai yau gei] (1995) been surprisingly influential on subsequent treatments of the story and remains popular in Hong Kong and China, being ranked 19th on the Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures list during the 24th Hong Kong Film Awards (2005), the same year Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle [Kung Fu] (2004) – reviewed here – won Best Film and three other awards.
The story breaks neatly into two parts, a practice which wasn’t unusual in Hong Kong cinema of the 1990s. A Chinese Odyssey Part 1: Pandora’s Box [Sai yau gei: Yut gwong bou haap] (1995) breaks viewer expectations straight away as Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, confronts Monkey (Stephen Chow) over his plans to eat Longevity Monk/Tripitaka (Law Kar-ying). Monkey has grown sick of Longevity Monk’s incessant yammering and just wants him to die so that he can enjoy some peace and quiet. Longevity Monk’s willingness to stick up for Monkey’s right to eat him doesn’t help matters either – Monkey loses his temper and attacks Guanyin only to be destroyed, causing Longevity Monk to kill himself in protest. The Buddhist scriptures never make their way from India to China, whose inhabitants remain unenlightened. The end.
OK, not really the end. Cut to 500 years later and a shoddy band of outlaws led by Joker (Stephen Chow again), who is barely able to see straight to walk properly, let alone hit the person he’s aiming at. He also turns out to be the reincarnation of the Monkey King. Monkey’s traditional travelling companions have been reincarnated as members of his gang – Pigsy/Zhu Bajie (Ng Man-tat) as his obnoxious second-in-command and Sandy/Sha Wu-jing (Johnnie Kong) as the pathetic Blindy – although that won’t become apparent until Part 2. The gang soon find themselves sharing the hideout against their will with two dangerous female spirits from the original stories: Spider Woman (Yammie Lam) – one of the seven Spider Demons of Silk Cave (named Spiderweb Cave here); and Bak Jing-jing (Karen Mok) – a shape-shifting skeleton also known as White Bone Spirit. Both women are looking for Monkey, having divined that he can be found at this location around this time, in the hopes that he will lead them to Longevity Monk – whom they will then eat. On top of that, Jing-jing hopes to avenge herself on Monkey for jilting her in his younger days.
After various comedy hijinks – including multiple sequences of Joker being kicked repeatedly in the groin, which does at least restore his eyesight – everybody is attacked by Bull King (Lu Shiming), another popular character from the original stories, leading Joker and Pigsy to escape to Spiderweb Cave with the two female demons. Along the way Joker has fallen in love with Jing-jing, who is willing to exploit his affection but is otherwise contemptuous – until Joker “admits” to being Monkey in order to preserve his life, unaware that he really is Monkey. Various fights and relationship mishaps ensue until Joker finds the Pandora’s Box of the title – which isn’t actually a box and has nothing to do with the Pandora of Greek legend. It’s actually a hinged piece of wood which reflects moonlight when opened and, at the correct phase of the moon, operates as a time machine. (Since the “Pandora’s Box” subtitle is burned into the film along with its original Cantonese title, clearly the decision to translate it this way was chosen by the filmmakers themselves, but it’s a very odd choice from a western perspective.) The final section of Part 1 consists of Joker going back in time over and over and over (and over) in order to save Jing-jing’s life, until one final attempt to rewrite the most recent iteration of events lands him 500 years in the past – shortly before the movie began.
A Chinese Odyssey Part 2: Cinderella [Sai yau gei: Sin leui kei yun] (1995) followed closely on the heels of Part 1, being released after a mere two-week gap – and once more adopting a westernised subtitle that has little direct relevance to the plot (I couldn’t even tell you for sure which of the two female leads is intended to be the Cinderella of the title). Waking up outside Waterfall Cave (soon to be renamed Spiderweb Cave), Joker encounters the delightfully sociopathic fairy Zixia (Athena Chu), who has recently absconded from her role as Buddha’s lamp-wick to explore the world. Declaring that she owns the mountain, as well as everybody and everything on it, she takes Pandora’s Box and puts her mark of ownership on Joker (prophesied in Part 1 as the first step to reclaiming his identity as Monkey). It’s not long before he accidentally unsheathes her sword, something which can be done by only one man – the man that Zixia will marry. As Jing-jing is also active at this time and Joker is still intent on reestablishing a relationship that hasn’t happened yet, this creates no end of further complications, with both Jing-jing and Zixia popping inside his body at separate points to have a direct conversation with his heart so they can tell what he really feels (a much more sensible prospect than attempting to get any sense out of him in person).
Although the Spider Woman of Part 1 is absent from Part 2, the Bull King takes a more prominent role this time around, being joined (much to his chagrin) by his wife Princess Iron Fan (Ada Choi). Another popular character from the original stories, Princess Iron Fan unfortunately gets short shrift here, only turning up roughly halfway through to play the shrewish jealous wife and confront the Bull King about his plan to marry Zixia behind her back. It’s an undignified role for such an important character, very much taking the back seat in comparison with the other female leads and disappearing from the film entirely after her husband steals her fan. Longevity Monk spends most of the film tied up waiting to be eaten, but there are some very entertaining scenes in which his guards kill themselves rather than continue listening to him talk. Pigsy and Sandy finally turn up in their original forms, this time with Sandy taking the more prominent role of the two – but they’re really only present as background characters, taking little part in resolving any of the important plot elements. It’s very much Joker’s show as he attempts to juggle his romantic conflicts while also reluctantly resuming his role as a reformed Monkey – a decision which will ultimately require him to reject emotional attachments, with tragic consequences (although a coda provides a bit of a cheat by taking Monkey 500 years into the future again to help that future’s versions of Joker and Jing-jing to reconcile).
I’ve wanted to see these films for a very long time, so it’s difficult to assess them objectively – lengthy periods of anticipation can easily result in unrealistic expectations. Even in the absence of such expectations, though, I expect I still would have felt a mild sense of disappointment at the end results. Most of my problems with the duology stem from Part 1. While Spider Woman and Jing-jing were never less than entertaining, I found it very difficult to care about Joker and his band of incompetent outlaws. It’s a big ask to expect an audience to sympathise with a group of criminals who are happy to attack women travelling unaccompanied, even if said criminals do get their arses thoroughly and deservingly kicked. It’s also a bold move to make a movie about Monkey in which he barely appears in any recognisable form – the vicious Monkey of the opening sequence is an amusing subversion, but while part of the point of turning him into Joker is that he’s almost unrecognisable as the same character, this is also a significant impediment to viewer interest. Once it becomes apparent that the point of Part 2 is to undo the events of Part 1 so that they never happened, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that much of Part 1 was a waste of time. Part 2 is much more satisfactory, but devotes far too much time to the Bull King for my liking – the character is a bombastic annoyance, the costume shoddy, and the actor’s performance unable to overcome my negative reaction to the previous two points.
Writer/director Jeffrey Lau is best known for his talent with mo lei tau comedies, which are distinguished by a combination of slapstick and nonsensical farce. Those talents are certainly on display here – and, although I take issue with some of his story choices, it has to be noted that his work here won him Best Screenplay at the 2nd Annual Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards. Some of the jokes failed to land, but I suspect this owes more to translation issues than to a lack of wit – Cantonese comedy typically involves a lot of untranslatable wordplay which goes right over the heads of those (like me) who don’t know the language. I do wish, however, that he’d refrained from casting himself as Grandpa Buddha, who appears a walking plot-dispenser in Part 1 and a disreputable bandit in Part 2 – not because he’s bad in the role, but because I feel both films would benefit from the character’s absence.
The most successful aspects can be attributed to martial arts director Ching Siu-tung, a successful director in his own right of excellent films such as A Chinese Ghost Story [Ch’ien-nü Yu-hun] (1987). His touch is evident not just on the combat scenes, but on the depiction of the supernatural elements, which could easily have been ripped directly out of one of his own films. His work on A Chinese Odyssey elevates the material around it – without his presence, I suspect I’d be a lot harsher on the end result.
I’ve talked about Stephen Chow previously (here, here and here), so in passing I’ll just note his extensive history of working with the male supporting cast and move onto the three female leads, who portray by far the most interesting characters. What I hadn’t realised until now was just how much the film’s romantic conflicts inadvertently reflect Chow’s own love life. Athena Chu, playing Monkey’s one true love Zixia, met Chow on the set of her first film Fight Back to School 2 [To hok wai lung 2] (1992). The two dated for three years, with their relationship ending around the time of A Chinese Odyssey. I’m not that familiar with most of her career, but she notably appeared opposite Michelle Yeoh in Supercop 2 [Chiu kup gai wak] (1993), a spinoff from Jackie Chan’s Police Story 3: Supercop [Ging chaat goo si III: Chiu kup ging chaat] (1992). Appearing in her first lead role as competing love interest Jing-jing is Cantopop singer Karen Mok, who began dating Chow after the conclusion of his previous relationship and appeared in many of his subsequent films, ending with Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam juk kau] (2001). She’s probably best known to English-speaking audiences as General Kang from the American Jackie Chan vehicle Around the World in 80 Days (2004). Yammie Lam, playing the spider demon, had appeared in Ching Siu-tung’s Witch from Nepal [Qi yuan] (1986) and Ronnie Yu’s The Bride with White Hair [Bak fat moh lui zyun] (1993) – sadly, A Chinese Odyssey was pretty much the end of her career due to a series of personal tragedies which cast their shadow over the remainder of her life until her death in 2018, alone in her apartment, at the age of 55.
A Chinese Odyssey‘s popularity has allowed Jeffrey Lau to return to the well multiple times. First up was A Chinese Tall Story [Ching din dai sing] (2005), which appears to have had a more conventional plot – for a given value of “conventional” which includes Tripitaka being rescued by an alien princess. Athena Chu made a guest appearance in Just Another Pandora’s Box [Yuet gwong bo hup] (2010), a parody of A Chinese Odyssey and many other films, including Lau’s own The Eagle Shooting Heroes [Se diu ying hung: Dung sing sai jau] (1993), which is itself a parody of Louis Cha’s serialised novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes (1957-1959) (available in four volumes in a recent English translation – I’m currently halfway through). Lau finally took the plunge and made an official sequel with A Chinese Odyssey Part 3 [Da hua xi you 3] (2016), which saw Karen Mok return to the role she’d played 20 years previously. This sequel may owe its existence to the success of Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons [Xi you: Xiang mo pian] (2013), which saw Stephen Chow – now retired from acting to concentrate on writing and directing – create his own variant on Lau’s story which I feel surpasses the original. Chow’s reconceptualisation got its own sequel with Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back [Xi you: Fu yao pian] (2017) (previously reviewed here).
A Chinese Odyssey might not have lived up to my expectations, but I’d still cautiously recommend it to fans of Stephen Chow or aficionados of Hong Kong fantasy cinema. Ching Siu-tung’s guiding hand peppers the two-part film with an assortment of visual pleasures for those who enjoy his aesthetic, and the female leads are uniformly enjoyable in their roles.