By G. Michael Dobbs
Zhang Wen and Qi Shu in “Journey to the West,” a Magnet Release.
Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing
I spent a weekend watching two new Chinese films by filmmakers who’ve proven popular in the United States: Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow.
At the Red Box: Chinese Zodiac
I’ve been a Jackie Chan fan for many years, but I have to admit that for much of that time his films have been hit or miss. The popularity of his Hong Kong movies in this country led to inevitable Hollywood films which may have been profitable at the box office (“Rush Hour” and “Shanghai Noon/Knights”) they diminished the very qualities that made Chan a star here.
With the coming of age – Chan turns 60 this month – the actor, writer and director must also deal with different kind of film roles that do not emphasize his trademark of comedic action. He has done so in movies such as the new “Karate Kid,” “Little Big Soldier” and “1911.”
His new movie has been described in some circles as his last effort as an action star and while it was a disappointment in some ways, it did present a glimmer at times of Chan in his prime as an action star.
“Chinese Zodiac” is a return to the character Chan played in “The Armor of God” (1986) and its sequel “Operation Condor” (1991). He is the “Asian Hawk,” a legendary antiquity thief for hire. In the new film, his character is still stealing rare items and his goal is to recover bronze heads that were part of a water fountain looted by Europeans in the 19th century.
There is a strong sense of nationalism in the film, which also attempts to make some serous point about removing historical objects from the country of origin. These plot points are better developed than those concerning the failed relationships of Chan’s team of thieves.
It is those scenes that point to Chan’s weakness as director and writer and since this film is more about plot than action, it suffers. There are several wonderful action sequences, including one with Chan in a roller blade suit, but they cannot carry a film with poor dialogue, hammy performances and poorly developed plot points.
I am happy to report there is a minimum of green screen work here with the action being staged in the real, rather than digital, world.
When Chan’s crew happens upon modern pirates I realized this film had gone down a road from which it could not return.
I really wanted to like this movie, but aside from a few scenes at the beginning and end, it was unsuccessful. Chan has been a major force in world cinema bringing popular Hong Kong movies to a world audience. His legacy shouldn’t be based on this supposed “farewell” film.
On demand: Journey to the West
Stephen Chow is known by American audiences for two movies, “King Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer,” but he has had a long and successful career in Hong Kong.
Like Chan, Chow has mixed action with comedy, but his films have always emphasized the humor over the action. He is known for his pun-filled scripts – lost on non-Chinese speaking audiences – and his exaggerated slapstick and physical comedy.
“Journey to the West” is certainly a surprise as it is a film that has some of the physical comedy one would expect but has an increasingly serious side and a reference for the source material, a 16th century Chinese novel.
Zhang Wen plays Xuan Zang, a Buddhist demon hunter in ancient China, intent on defeating demons by allowing them to rediscover the good inside them. His approach is the opposite practiced by Miss Duan, (Qi Shu) who uses magic and martial arts to defeat them. Their lives intersect and Miss Duan falls in love with Xuan, much to his annoyance.
Both are determined to defeat a powerful demon in the shape of a huge wild boar. The pursuit of this adversary unites the two and changes them forever.
This is a truly Chinese film in that it employs source material has no influence from the West. Its plot is well developed and while non-Chinese audiences may not be familiar with characters such as the Monkey King, Chow makes the film accessible to non-Chinese audiences.
Chow has embraced the possibilities of computer-generated imagery (CGI) for years in his films and the CGI work here is well down and appropriate.
I truly enjoyed this movie. I saw it with few expectations and was enthralled by Chow’s story and imagery.
If you are new to Chinese cinema, this may be a good introductory film.
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