Anexandros here. Welcome back to Undead Cinema. I dig mythology of all sorts. Despite the assumption of Western mythology to weigh so heavily in Grimm, Tolkien, Olympus and Avalon, There are some really neat stories that hail from the East Asian areas. One of those is Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
For those of you that have never heard of Journey to the West, here is the most basic story of the plot. A Chinese monk decides to get some Buddhist texts from India and he brings three disciples along on the trip. One of the disciples is so overpowered at the beginning of the story (and he keeps getting more powerful as the story progresses) that it seems really strange of him to be a disciple or apprentice to the leader. That character is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Jet Li did a movie called Forbidden Kingdom in which he played the Monkey King. The Monkey King is probably the mythological character from China that most westerners are familiar with or at least have seen references to.
As a fan of literature, the Monkey king is a real Mary Sue (A term for the “perfect” character). The Monkey King is the kind of character who walks into a beginning D&D game at 10th level while everyone else is playing 1st level. Deity background, immune to anything that opposes it.
Anyway, I saw Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Netflix and figured I would give it a go. Having heard of the Journey to the West text in classes and reference books…but never actually having read it, I thought it would be a good primer for the book series or it would discuss a particular set of chapters in the longer text like Ten commandments or the stories of Jesus/Odysseus/Frodo rather than reading the entire Bible/Theogony/Silmarillon.
I was wrong.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a very loose interpretation of the bringing together of the main characters. If you already know the story, then the movie telegraphs the heroes to you pretty obviously. The end of the movie is supposed to be the beginning of the historical Journey to the West novel.
The movie reminded me of Kung Fu Hustle and other 90’s martial art comedies rather than the more serious fare coming out of the early 6070’s hongkongfooey genre. I prefer the comedy style to the more serious fare as the comedy is more slapstick, which works wonderfully with martial arts and the gimmicks of each style allow the sight gags to be funny and yet useful in telling the story. Often when the spoken gags are not translated well, visual storytelling is wonderful at explaining universal exposition and emotion. Conquering the Demons is broken up into four nontitled movements: The Fish, the Boar, the Gangs and the Monkey, each with their own way of resolution.
The Fish movement deals with a swimming creature that is terrorizing a vertically constructed village on the shores of a river. A demon hunter must end the threat which obviously happens or the story doesn’t advance. I won’t ruin how because while I am trying not to ruin the story with huge amounts of spoilers, I am trying to explain what was going on in building the narrative. This is the most fun problem to watch. Two hunters and a monk show up and vie for the bounty that the village would provide.
Turmoil ensues and we cut to the next act.
The Boar movement deals with an inn that is providing delicious food and problems to travelers on the road. Our bumbling hero, at least for the movie, accidentally wanders into the inn and the more competent protagonists around him do all the work. It was roughly around this point that I figured out that while Western myths and stories teach us to go out and make our own legend and surround us with good teammates who fill in the leftover cracks of our own inadequacies, Journey to the West teaches that a hero should gather together the competent team and then let them do all the work and take all the credit.
“The Gangs” is really about a larger gathering of bounty hunters arguing as to who gets to have the bounties for the Boar Demon who proves to be a larger predicament than the Fish Demon and thus more is needed to defeat it. This movement is also the part where the other bounty hunter professes her love for Mr. Incompetent Story Focus Hero. Seduction attempts occur with varying degrees of failure. (Puppet Martial Arts were kind of erotic and kind of, well, Not!) The Boar comes back. The Bounty hunters attack it and run it off or it runs them off (See it yourself!) and Mr. Incompetent is told to go find Sun Wukong who is hidden up in the mountains.
So our hero goes to find Sun Wukong who seems like a weak character and who seems confused/confusing throughout much of the scene until the battle starts. There is another seduction attempt. Damsel gets in distress. And as I suspect you already knew, it takes superhuman visuals and special effects to defeat the big baddie and the story is resolved.
Was it visually cool? Yes, was it enjoyably entertaining? Yes. Is it a good primer on the characters? No. The story was the equivalent of telling Jesus’ obtaining disciples, but for some reason Judas is a ninja accountant attacking with 30 silver edged coins and Peter rides a huge rooster.