Saturday February 9, 2013
Journey To The West, revisited
By ANGELIN YEOH
Evidently, Stephen Chow is not done with the Monkey King legend he first tackled in 1994.
Talking to Stephen Chow, you should not be surprised if you get the impression that he is playing one of his famous comedic roles off-screen.
We asked Chow at a press conference in Taiwan if rumours that the filming of Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons had been carried out without a script in hand was true.
With his trademark deadpan expression, Chow asked where we had heard of such a thing.
“Who told you that? Don’t listen to them,” said Chow, waving it off with an exaggerated gesture of his hand.
The way he answered the question, as if one of his characters had come alive, sparked a lot of laughs from everyone in the room. Chow then explained how the script came “alive” during filming.
“There were circumstances where what was going on during the shoot was a lot funnier than what was in the script. So we improvised a lot. Script are essentially dead but the actors and people on set are alive, thus there is always some room for changes,” he said during our exclusive interview at the Le Meridien hotel in Taipei, Taiwan.
Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons (JTTW), Chow’s latest offering as a writer, director and producer, revisits the much-loved Chinese story of the Monkey King. The Cantonese-language comedy-action flick is set in ancient China and focuses on the monk Xuan Zang (played by Chinese actor Wen Zhang) and his adventures as an amateur demon hunter.
Along the way, our hero encounters a malevolent demon pig and is unable to defeat it. His mentor tells him that the only way to overcome the demon pig is to seek the help of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King (played by Golden Horse award winner Huang Bo).
If the plot sounds familiar to Chow’s fans, it’s because he had tried his hands earlier at adapting Sun Wukong’s antics to the big screen in 1994’s A Chinese Odyssey Part 1: Pandora’s Box and the follow-up Part 2: Cinderella.
In those two movies, Chow played the Monkey King and his human reincarnation, Joker. However, in making JTTW, Chow decided not to put on his actor hat, letting someone else have a go at the role instead.
“JTTW is a very challenging project. I’ve tried directing and acting simultaneously several times before. But if I did that again, I wouldn’t be able to make a great film with this story,” he explained.
Chow on this
Despite not appearing on-screen, Chow’s influence is obvious in JTTW. The character Xuan Zang is called an amateur demon hunter in this movie for a reason. Instead of battling demons with weapons and gravity-defying martial arts moves, he tries to subdue and rehabilitate them with a nursery rhyme book.
The inspiration for this actually came from a job Chow previously held before his acting career took off. In 1982, before he got his big break, Chow was the host of 430 Space Shuttle – a children’s programme – with fellow actor Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.
“I’ve always liked singing nursery rhymes. I was also once a well-known TV host for a children’s programme. I wanted the demon-conquering stunt to be something cute and childish, and touching in the demon’s eye. So they became a part of the story,” he revealed.
The role of Sun Wukong is played by China’s Huang Bo, who apparently turned it down when he was first offered it. In a transcript provided by 20th Century Fox Taiwan, the actor revealed why:
“I felt that Chow’s Monkey King (A Chinese Odyssey) was already so deeply entrenched in the audience’s memory. Everyone loved it, and it would be very challenging for anybody to take on the role. People would compare your performance with Chow’s.”
So why did he change his mind?
Huang said Chow literally “conned” him into taking the role.
“He asked me how I would interpret it (if I did it), and I shared my thoughts with him. He then told me, ‘Good idea, better than mine. Come and just act in the way you described it!’ And here I am,” laughed Huang.
The heroine zeroes in
JTTW also stars screen siren Shu Qi. She plays the heroine named Duan (not a character you’d find in the source novel) who is far from being a damsel in distress. In fact, Duan is a powerful demon hunter who on several occasions saves Xuan Zang’s hide.
With her brash and unkempt appearance, and tough-as-nails attitude, Shu Qi’s character could easily be mistaken for the hero of the movie. According to the Taiwanese actress, it was funny how Chow would demonstrate to her how to act in every scene.
“You can really go wild and crazy with your role in a Stephen Chow film. In JTTW, I tried to act in an exaggerated and comedic way for the first time. Like when you walk in a forest and, boom, a monster jumps out at you. You need to be ready to fight it. It’s really satisfying,” Shu Qi said.
In the course of the story, Duan falls in love with Xuan Zhang and tries many ingenious ways to get him to profess his love to her. However, despite everything she does, Xuan Zang makes it clear that love is out of the question because he is a Buddhist monk.
Chow, who is no stranger to mixing up comedy, action and a memorable love story, said: “Only tragic love stories are touching. There’s nothing to write about if it’s a happy love story. I personally think that the love story in JTTW is more touching (compared to the relationship between Joker and Zixia in The Chinese Odyssey).”
In JTTW, Chow said, there are a lot of good lines and there is one that he is particularly fond of.
“My favourite has to be: ‘Forever is too long, seize the moment’. It resonates with A Chinese Odyssey; a movie that came out 10 years ago. At the same time, it’s also a new take on love,” he said.
A new experience
Apart from watching Shu Qi, Huang Bo and Wen Zhang portraying the main characters, audiences can also look forward to something that Chow promised “hasn’t been seen before”.
“There hasn’t been a Chinese film before JTTW that has really cool computer-generated (CG) demons. You’ll see how this time we’ve put a lot of effort into creating our demons,” he said.
Chow also explained how the Monkey King in this movie will have an ever-changing appearance.
“Sun Wukong is an ever-changing character. He has a shape-shifting power known as the 72 Transformations; he can basically be anything he wants.
Huang Bo plays only one form of Sun Wukong. We had a few other actors for Sun Wukong too. Some are not even actors. For example, there’s a beast. So Sun Wukong can be a human, monkey or even King Kong. That’s how versatile he is.”
Chow said this was his first attempt at writing a script for a predominantly Mandarin-speaking production.
“After so many years of doing movies in Cantonese, I find this to be an entirely different experience – of course. Ultimately, it’s still the same and the language barrier didn’t stop me from writing what I wanted in the script. I think it came out well despite this being my first time writing in Mandarin.”
For Malaysian audiences, the film will be dubbed in Cantonese. Chow described JTTW as a movie experience that is akin to going to an amusement park.
“I think audiences want to see more thrilling, exciting things in movies. They want to go through a variety of emotions, and I think this movie gives that feeling of fun, thrills, scares and relief at the end of it all.”
> Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons is playing in cinemas nationwide.