A loopy, cartoonish trailer lured me to Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013), a comedic fantasy based on a centuries-old Chinese literary novel. Co-directed by Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer) and Derek Kwok, it chronicles the adventures of a young pacifist demon hunter named Tang Sangzan (Wen Zhang). When a demonic fish terrorizes a port city, the bumbling but well-meaning Sangzan does his best to protect the city – only to be outdone by the attractive, aggressive Duan (Shu Qi). While Duan is clearly a more effective demon hunter, she is charmed by Sangzan’s unconventional heroism. Together, they travel the countryside battling supernatural threats, but Sangzan is less interested in Duan’s affections than bringing his unique, non-violent approach to the demon-hunting trade.
While there is something of a questy, episodic nature to the film, Journey to the West is less about plot than setting up a series of action-comedy setpieces. Its opening sequence, which takes place on an impressive set that will remind World of Warcraft fans of Booty Bay, gets things off to a winning, funny start. Unfortunately, while there are other impressive sight gags and slapstick fight scenes to enjoy, the energy really starts to flag in the second half. The unevenness of the visual effects doesn’t help either; it almost feels like it blows it budget early and has to make up for it later. It definitely has its moments thanks to a unique ambience and a lively sense of humor, but the narrative doesn’t entirely pay off.