Based on the first three chapters of Journey to the West, a tremendously influential epic poem written in the 16th century, the particulars of Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Li Luo’s The Emperor Visits the Hell will be lost on more than a few Western moviegoers. The story follows an emperor (Li Wen) who’s haunted by the ghost of the Dragon King (Mai Dian), struck down by heaven after changing the weather—and in the case of Li’s rendition, something he does to reap more fish. Here the Dragon King is, hilariously, a tattooed lounge rat with sunglasses and Marlboros, and his emperor is a cranky bureaucrat who specializes in reading calligraphy. The story is told in stone-faced digital, with tidy black-and-white scenelets that are only disturbed when the camera needs to go off tripod.
The shakier Li’s aesthetic gets, the more the film shakes in total, its plotline peeling off of its actual form to reveal—and eventually, announce—itself as a low-budget independent film, shot guerilla-style on location. It’s hard to avoid glomming onto the idea of this as a “statement,” but Li’s point is more existential than pedantic. Rather than the customary zillion-dollar period epic (a newfound signature of state-financed Chinese filmmaking), he molds the story down to a collection of petty misadventures around town, throwing special attention to the disparity between fantasy and reality. To deter an executioner sent from heaven, the emperor summons him to his offices for a game of Go. The ghosts haunting him and his hapless co-worker aren’t even dead souls, just empty-eyed nobodies shuffling around.
With their deadpan sarcasm, these interpretations add up, by story’s end, to a society besieged by a breathtaking sense of emotional abandonment from all parties—a collective non-spectacle. If these attention-grabbing reinterpretations give the film a necessary political heft, they don’t exactly avoid tediousness with their repetition. The final scene is less an act of gauntlet-throwing than a caustic celebration that the movie got made, shattering the character of Li Wen’s emperor once and for all as the film’s star goes on a drunken screed over dinner at the wrap party. It’s a jarring shift, as it happens at the precise point that the emperor returns from the underworld—and so, effectively, Li’s personal catharsis trumps whatever traditional value there is to retelling Journey to the West. The film is, whatever else, aware of itself.