Four years after he first struck gold at China’s Lunar New Year box office as a producer, scriptwriter and co-director (alongside Derek Kwok Tsz-kin) of the vastly entertaining Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, Hong Kong comedy icon Stephen Chow Sing-chi keeps his screenwriting and producing credits, but cedes the director’s seat to Tsui Hark (The Taking of Tiger Mountain) for this mega-budget sequel, an effects-driven action fantasy that never quite recovers Chow’s comedic edge.
In the 2013 film the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuan Zang conquered the three demons that would subsequently become his famed disciples (the Monkey King, pig demon “Pigsy” and fish demon “Sandy”); the coolly, if confusingly, titled The Demons Strike Back follows the quartet in the early stages of their journey to the west, as Monkey King and co. repeatedly try to protect Xuan Zang from demons – including the well-known spider and skeleton types – presumably eager to feast on the monk’s flesh.
Throwing continuity to the wind, Tsui takes on a revamped – and lesser – cast that made the Wen Zhang-Shu Qi pairing in Conquering the Demons look like romantic comedy gold. While Sword Master star Lin Gengxin is passable as a sombre Monkey King, former K-pop idol Kris Wu Yifan, playing an ironic Xuan Zang, remains one of China’s least convincing actors even after his Hollywood debut in xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Yao Chen and The Mermaid’s Jelly Lin Yun, as Xuan Xang’s antagonist and love interest, are both underused.
While The Demons Strike Back, for all its cartoonish CGI mayhem, is never less than watchable, it’s hard to shake the impression that Tsui has partly ditched – or maybe failed to replicate – Chow’s irreverent sense of humour: gone are the wacky sight gags of a malfunctioning blood-splashing device, and Xuan Zang’s disciples as grotesque animals; in their places are warmed-over jokes that, in the Hong Kong version, retain just a fraction of Chow’s spirit through Cantonese dubbing by his regular cast.
Still, the fact remains that Chow has unleashed a box office juggernaut that’s all set to roll on for further instalments. The Demons Strike Back took in an estimated 360 million yuan at the box office in China on January 28, the biggest opening day ever for a Chinese film. Chow’s clout was also in evidence in Hong Kong: despite the local audience’s general indifference to China-oriented films, his new film grossed more than HK$5 million on Saturday to become odds-on favourite to win this year’s Lunar New Year box office battle in Hong Kong.