Stephen Chow may not be the star of Journey to the West, but his distinctive vision is nevertheless all over his new 3D action epic, not only in the seemingly boundless imagination of his scenarios, but in its sincere spiritual concerns and generosity toward misfits and outsiders. One only needs to note a particular moment during its first big action set piece—a showdown between Buddhist-in-training Tang Sanzang (Zhang Wen) and a demon who takes the form of a giant fish and terrorizes a river village—to grasp Chow's impishly humane sensibility at work. What at first seems like an easy joke, one involving an obese woman jumping onto a makeshift seesaw in order to launch the fish demon into the air and beach it, turns on a dime into a hearteningly heroic moment.
The title refers to the classic 16th-century Chinese novel, but this is hardly a faithful adaptation; instead, Chow uses elements of the source material as a springboard to, among other things, stage a dialogue between two different poles of heroism. On one side, there's Tang, the demon-hunting Buddhist who's so committed to his religious ideals that he shuns all sorts of earthly temptations, especially of the romantic variety. His polar opposite is Duan (Shu Qi), a ruthless female demon hunter who prefers to kick ass and destroy her targets rather than appeal to their inner humanity, as Tang has been taught to do with his book of "300 Nursery Rhymes." Tang finds his religious beliefs rattled upon seeing Duan's impressive displays of might when his attempts at reason prove ineffectual.
Duan, however, isn't entirely your prototypical woman-warrior badass. She does, in fact, fall in love with Tang, even as he staunchly resists her blatant advances, sticking to, among other things, the idea of a "higher" love beyond the merely fleshly. True to her forward nature, however, she goes to some pretty extreme lengths to try to seduce Tang, at one point going so far as to stage an entire elaborate ruse in order to trap him into having sex with her. In some ways, Tang recalls Mui, the acne-ridden baker from Chow's Shaolin Soccer who went to similarly great lengths to win the affections of a lead character afflicted with a similar case of spiritually minded tunnel vision. Do these characters suggest a regressive view of women on Chow's part—an inability to conceive of a female character who, tough as she may be, still ultimately conforms to traditional notions of finding fulfillment through romance? Perhaps the fact that Duan, for all her clumsy attempts at seduction, seems to genuinely admire Tang's asceticism through it all could be seen as a mitigating factor in this particular case. As with Tang's internal religious struggles, Chow is open enough to give all of his characters and themes dialectical shades of gray.
None of this detracts from the sheer exhilaration of seeing Chow's imagination roam free in bringing this oft-adapted Chinese text to life. This is the kind of ceaselessly inventive film in which pop songs are used as potential soothing agents for demons, a warrior grows a giant foot while doing battle with a demon, and a seduction attempt involving a kind of miming spell goes wrong in uproarious fashion. But, as ever with Chow, there are genuinely serious undercurrents throughout the relentless playfulness: a respect for spiritual ambition, a recognition of the horrors of death mixed in with the broad comedy, and ultimately a striving for transcendence. Rarely is it that a CGI-heavy spectacle such as this could be called both entertaining and inspiring in the same breath, but such is the unexpectedly special magic of Journey to the West.