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Journey West

Where to begin? Sigh… The Chinese media (i.e. the government) is occasionally surprised as to the why Chinese big movie productions fail to make a smash at international box offices. This film is maybe the perfect example to illustrate why that is. It is massively popular in mainland China, on its way to become the highest grossing domestic film ever. It takes a classic tale of heroes and adventure, mystical creatures and humour. It uses some of the countries’ most popular actors, with Stephen Chow as an experienced director and certainly (I’m guessing here) all the technical talent that could be found. The result is, to say it frankly, an embarrassing mess. Let’s take this ecxlusively from a foreign observers’ perspective, and you may come to the conclusion that the humour to be akin to the 1970s Louis de Funes or Bud Spencer/Terence Hill films (rolling eyes, fat suits, sexual innuendo jokes). The cgi looks as if made on a shoestring budget, especially weird in the opening sequence that is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the film. Is that tone supposed to be one of spoof hero quest? That fish demon certainly was produced by Beijing Nr 171 middle school film working group, right? That feeling is manifested in the other big cgi sequences, with pigs, tigers, apes all quite obviously beyond the capacities of the cgi teams (particularly problematic just a few weeks after a Chinese director showed how to do tigers, and with great success in China, too).( On a side note, why did the first international reviews all seem to be quite content with the FX quality (Hollywood Reporter or Variety)? That is even weirder than the effects themselves… ) .The “love story” is as if taken out of a barbie doll cartoon (and I learned that it does not exist in the novel… guys, maybe there is a reason for that?), the wigs are awful, but not in a good way, the … the … the …

Let’s turn it around, what did I like? While I still have not read the book (shame on me, but I have not read Ulysses and Gilgamesh either, so here we go, life’s short), it seems to be an interesting allegory. As the film stops after the book’s first act, I have no way of telling whether it will be a substantial and profound allegory, but an allegory about something it clearly is. It is historic mystic material, so no reason to complain about some of the plot devices or story resolutions (Buddha is actually a stone giant and then a galactic pressure cooker? I hope that was not in the book…). The Monkey King is a fascinating character, maybe the only one featured so far who is not just thick or meaningless. It’s no surprise that this king-demon has such a large presence in Chinese story-telling and keeps popping up on every corner. It is played while not subtly but convincingly by Huang Bo, whom I have seen quite a lot despite generally shying away from modern Chinese blockbuster cinema.

Now my question: if you have a slightly silly and old-fashioned book of materials like that, and you are tasked with making yet another film out of it, why would you not approach the task by identifying what’s interesting today and how to find a new approach. I could imagine a lot of different approaches, including one focusing on the fate of these demons who were (justified or not) doomed to an existence as evil creatures, usually after falling out with Buddha over some jealousy-induced love-craze. Just listening to Sun, the Monkey King, telling about his 500-year-long ordeal makes me think that there is something more interesting hidden here than can be shown by smashing a mountain or air-balleting with computer-generated swords. But I guess it comes down to: the way this film has been made, it becomes the blockbuster success it needs to become. The Chinese audience appreciates what we might call old-fashioned and very much non-subtle slapstick humour, does not mind the rubbish effects and pours into 3D screenings as if this was something other than… ah, don’t get me started.

This is not just not my piece of cake, it is not the piece of cake of a lot of Western audiences. I think the word to use is “mature”: given that we have seen this style of “humour” all around the global cinema over the last 60 years, I assume once audiences have seen enough of the same clumsy  stuff, they want to advance to more subtle story-telling and acting. Judging not just from “Journey”, but also from that terrible terrible and even more old-fashioned film it will probably soon push off the box office throne (“Lost in Thailand”), it will take another while to match the Chinese audiences mainstream taste with a taste that can be sold abroad.

Shu Qi as Duan looks nice, though. And the scene  where she uses some movement copy charm to learn some tricks from her erotic tutor (who looks nicer) was funny, I admit.

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