WORLDWIDE FANTASY MONTH #4: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, by Stephen Chow (2013)

Type of Media: Film

It was only a few years ago that Hollywood was obsessed with making gritty versions of old fantasy books and European fairy tales. Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack the Giant Slayer, and Oz the Great and Powerful were the sad, serious results of taking classic stories and jamming generic epic fantasy plots into them, leaving behind the elements that made the original tales so memorable. While America was releasing those forgettable movies, though, the world of Chinese cinema got its own adaptation of a popular fantasy story in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. Unlike the American movies, Conquering the Demons actually seems inspired by its source material rather than embarrassed about it, creating an action comedy that is unique, silly, a bit gory, and not afraid to get weird.

Conquering the Demons is very, very loose adaptation of Journey to the West, a classic Chinese novel about a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang, venturing to India while accompanied by three magical creatures trying to atone for their sins: Sha Wujing the river demon, Zhu Bajie the pig monster, and Sun Wukong the monkey king. The movie tries to work as a sort of prequel to the novel, setting up the monk Tang as a demon hunter trying to help people and achieve enlightenment.

However, unlike other modern fantasy adaptations that make ridiculous changes in order to fit an action movie mold, like recasting Hansel and Gretel as crossbow-toting witch hunters, Tang isn’t a badass warrior in Conquering the Demons. He’s a meek and chaste monk. His demon hunting style consists of singing sacred lullabies to bring out the goodness in monsters, which works about as well as you’d think, and he constantly turns down the sexual advances of fellow demon hunter Duan (who, when she’s not scheming for Tang’s monk staff, drives most of the action sequences). Though the movie changes a lot from the original story, they at least keep the spirit of the main character intact.

Action is still the main draw of Conquering the Demons, though, and like many American fantasy blockbusters it is heavily CGI-driven. Normally that wouldn’t be a good thing, but luckily Conquering the Demons has Stephen Chow at the director’s helm. Like in his previous movies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow uses CGI to give his films a manic, cartoonish vibe. The fights are ostentatious and involve crazy set pieces or concepts, like the character Almighty Foot, an old man whose fighting style involves growing his shriveled right foot to massive sizes and then kicking people. 

Chow seizes on what many Hollywood producers scrub away: the weirdness of old fairy tales and fantasy stories. Rather than turning Journey to the West into something it isn’t, he embraces the tone and characterizations of the original. The male protagonist is mostly helpless on his own and has to constantly get saved by a woman who shamelessly lusts after him, the story centers around religion (even keeping the anti-Taoist sentiments of Journey to the West intact through a greedy, cowardly Taoist priest character), and Sun Wukong, easily the most popular character in the story, is an absolute dick. The resulting movie is unusual for a blockbuster action comedy, and in 2013 was a breath of fresh air compared to its American fantasy film cousins.

When it came out Conquering the Demons was big, setting the record for highest-grossing Chinese language film and holding onto it for two years. If you like big-budget fantasy movies Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons will thoroughly entertain you, and if you’re just starting to branch out into international film it makes for a friendly jumping-off point.