What's the best method for vanquishing monsters: martial arts or loving kindness? It's a question that goes to the heart of "Journey to the West," director Stephen Chow's dazzling comic fantasy about a gentle Buddhist demon hunter.
The latest in a long line of movies based on the 16th-century novel of the same name, this exuberant and delightfully cartoony CGI-fest topped China's 2013 box office.
Beginning with the 10-minute opening sequence — a triumph of Rube Goldberg zaniness in a rustic fishing village — Chow's version of the fable, subtitled "Conquering the Demons," is propelled by jaw-dropping visual inventiveness.
It spins around two mismatched demon hunters. Nursery rhymes are the weapon of choice for raggedy-haired Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang, goofy-sweet), whose master teaches him that even demons are born good, providing back stories on how they are transformed by hatred after being wronged. Duan, played by Shu Qi with a kinetic mix of toughness and vulnerability, has no time for compassion; she's a mercenary with a magician's flair for killing and a nifty Infinite Flying Ring.
Their innocence-versus-experience rivalry morphs into Duan's unrequited love after she decides, somewhat incredibly, that he's the one. He resists such worldly matters as sex but starts to get the hang of her smackdown approach to evil spirits, and together they face the trickster Monkey King (the excellent Huang Bo).
The spectacular combination of slapstick, love story and superhero antics doesn't entirely avoid awkwardness, but mostly it defies gravity, like many of the stunts. The film finds the sweet spot between spoofy and sincere, rollicking and dark.
"Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons." MPAA rating: PG-13 for fantasy violence including bloody images, sexual content and partial nudity; in Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. At AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, Monterey Park. Also on VOD