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Film Review: Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (2017)

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SYNOPSIS:

A monk and his three disciples continue on their journey to battle demons.

REVIEW:

For all its glamour, demon hunting has to be a tough job. Your life (and immortal soul) is threatened on a constant basis, you’re always on the move, and you can’t get too involved with anyone lest your enemy decides to possess them. But the biggest hazard must come with the most human elements of it, in that we are often compassionate creatures and, even more often, astoundingly easy to fool. Demons are frightening to us because they can see right through us. They’re able to sniff us out in an instant and take the form of what would most entice us, and they’re terribly fond of playing games. The trickiest demons are the ones that you actually grow to like, not necessarily the ones with the prettiest faces.

Journey to the West is considered a classic of Chinese literature, its episodic nature and series of allegorical trials reading much like The Odyssey with Buddhist themes. The bulk of the original story follows the monk Sanzang and his disciples (subdued demons bound by Buddha to serve for good) travelling the lands between China and India and encountering monsters and reaching ever closer towards enlightenment. The first film, subtitled Conquering the Demons, was made in 2013 and introduced us to our quirky cast of characters. Sanzang is our goofy monk who attempts to subdue demons with a pacifist technique to mixed results, and generally seems to have no idea what he’s doing. His disciples are three mouthy demons who are intended to serve him but end up being more trouble than they’re worth. There’s the fish demon Sandy who is stoic and the most level-headed, unwilling to waste his energy until absolutely necessary. Then there’s Pigsy, the sloppy pig demon with an insatiable appetite for female company which exceeds Pepe le Pew in sexual assault played for laughs. Finally, there’s the Monkey King, the most unpredictable of Sanzang’s cohorts, especially powerful and deeply resentful at being forced under a monk’s control.

We meet our heroes in this second chapter of the story (made four years later) on the road again, the demons performing their powers as circus acts for traveling money. They’re swiftly kicked out of town when Monkey’s powers prove to be too spectacular and results in most of the village being destroyed. It becomes immediately clear that Sanzang’s control over his demon companions is flimsy, as his methods seem to be entrenched in treating them like children when they throw tantrums, and like slaves when they don’t obey.

Sanzang also turns out to be pretty lousy at demon hunting as well, since he can’t seem to see himself falling into the most obvious traps. For instance, a lavish house in the middle of nowhere full of gorgeous flirtatious women inviting them in for a free lunch isn’t the least bit suspicious to this naïve monk. Demons are known to be tricky, and can take various seductive forms, but come on, man! At best it’s a brothel, but this place is clearly stuffed to the rafters with sexy spider demons! This is definitely my favorite scene in the film—giant spider harpies flying around the room and spitting acid at these four dummies who should have seen it coming.

Actually, Monkey saw it coming. In fact, Monkey reveals himself to be quite astute at spotting demons, no matter how convincing their disguise, and very effective at dispatching them as well. Yet despite proving himself more than once, Sanzang still treats him poorly and finds it hard to trust him.

We learn that this refers to events from the first film, where Monkey killed another demon hunter who just so happened to be Sanzang’s crush. The monk’s feelings for the demon king are constantly challenged throughout as Monkey continues to try redeeming himself, crushing his heartbreak against his need to forgive and move on. Just as Sanzang realizes he’s been a bit of a jerk and their friendship is making some headway, a pretty new traveling companion named Felicity is added to the mix, and threatens to tear these two unlikely friends apart once again.

The trials faced on the road to nirvana are bright and full of action, gloriously flashy effects complimenting the spectacular sets and vividly realized demons we meet along the way. The CGI gloss only highlights the genuinely likeable characters and engaging story, and the film never loses speed on the path to enlightenment disguised as a fantasy road movie. Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back is a fun movie with plenty of thrills and funny moments along with genuine emotion to be a terrific installment to what is hopefully an ongoing franchise.

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