Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Nature Of Stephen Chow Was Comedic

Well, yesterday, I reviewed Forbidden Kingdom – a retelling of Journey To The West starring two giants of Asian cinema, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. And I figured that I would continue in that vein and review another film based on the same story, also starring another giant of Asian cinema. This time, though, it’s Mr Stephen Chow. And this version of the story is called A Chinese Odyssey (which is pretty damn fitting if you ask me).

A Chinese Odyssey is actually broken up into two films, Pandora’s Box and Cinderella. As of now, I have only been able to find part 1, so we’ll only be getting half the story. Oh well.  And, unlike Forbidden Kingdom, this was actually made with an Asian audience in mind, so the fights should be moving at proper speed, which will be a huge bonus.

The film opens with that rascal Monkey King (played by Stephen Chow done up in Monkey King’s trademark outfit, with a more simian face than I’ve seen on a representation of Sun Wukong from any filmed version I’ve seen) getting on the bad side of one of the Buddhas after teaming with King Bull to eat the messenger he had been told to protect. Because that is how Monkey King rolls. And Monkey King is a right bastard in this one. Because that is how Monkey King rolls. He also rolls with the headache spell from Longevity Monk.

One thing that came as a bit of a surprise to me, but shouldn’t have – given that Stephen Chow had a hand in the creation of this film, was the amount of broad comedy in it. Hell, even within the first 10 minutes, we meet Joker, a fearsome bandit-robber king (also played by Chow) who is cockeyed (after being slapped silly in a fight) and spends most of his time screaming at the wrong person. And, because it’s Stephen Chow, the gang is naturally called The Axe Gang, a reference that shows up in several of his films. Hell, the whole relationship between Joker and Blossom, a spider demon in the form of a woman, at least, before she reveals herself as such, is basically one giant non-forced WSD. But really, as Chow is more a physical comedian than straight martial artist, none if the comedic asides feel awkwardly wedged in – apart from Joker receiving multiple kicks to the crotch after it goes on fire multiple times (just go with me on that one).

It turns out that Joker is the unknowing reincarnation of Monkey King, and that Blossom has been looking for him, so as to eventually lure, capture and eat Longevity Monk and steal his immortality powers. And, as is the way in such tales, it turns out that her sister (White Bone Demon)  is a much worse demon, and not only accidentally lets Joker and The Axe Gang in on Blossom’s plans, but ends up teamed with them to stop the no-goodery as they are all attacked by King Bull who, himself, wants the immortality powers.

Thankfully, Joker is visited by Grandpa Buddha, who fills him in on these plans and who he really is – thus leading to all manner of excitement and adventure. And yes, more crotch kicking. And, while the fights are not nearly as intricately set up as those in Forbidden Kingdom, with more pure wire work and reliance on weaponry than actual martial arts expertise, but they are still a pretty decent watch. In fact, the film (and I am guessing the second part) are more fantasy than straight up martial arts.

Even knowing who he is, Joker/Monkey King still takes time to truly warm up to who he is, even in the face of White Bone Demon becoming a rage filled zombie. But at least we get the introduction of Pigsy, who accidentally ends up impregnating Spider Demon – it’s not really a long story, but it involves “seduction magic” and I’m sure you have worked out what happens for yourself. In fact, it’s not until he finds the titular Pandora’s Box (which gives him the ability to travel through time) that he actually sees and accepts who he is – The Monkey King. And then the film ends.

I have to say, unlike Forbidden Kingdom, A Chinese Odyssey owes a hell of a lot more to traditional Wuxia  than its more Western counterpart. The pacing feels a lot more languid than a Western film, with no real hurry to get the protagonists from Point A to Point B by Timecode C. This is something I like a heck of a lot more about Asian storytelling than Western storytelling, as it gives the viewer/reader a chance to take in the story on all its levels, rather than have Milhouse whining about fireworks factories all damn night.

As has been stated, Journey To The West is one of my favourite stories, and has been since the first moment I watched the show Monkey as a child. One does not realise the real influence that that show had on people’s impressions of Wu Cheng-En’s tale, until you see the amount of shout outs it receives in every adaptation that came after. Heck, even this has a subtle casting call, in which one of Joker’s more prominent Axe Gang Members, Blind Bing, is played by a woman dressed as a man (no doubt in deference to Tripitaka in the show being played by a female actress playing a male role).

Going in, I knew that this was part 1 of 2, and it shows – ending at an obvious act end rather than story end. I really need to see part 2 at my nearest availability.

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