Saturday, December 19, 2015

Surprise: Journey to the West

So, just to confirm - this is not the "Surprise" from the Netherlands, which I quite frankly would have been A-OK with; that's a pretty fun-looking movie that appears to have fascinating director-comeback backstory; maybe it will get American release too.

Kind of crazy at the theater - this was clearly the secondary Chinese movie playing after Mojin, which looks to have sold out its 9:05 show by the time I got there at 8:20 (Surprise started at 8:35). No chance of putting extra screenings on because nothing was bumping Star Wars from any screens - the theater had actually set up a merch table by the concession stand, which is something I don't recall them doing for any movies before. Hopefully that means that these things can get a chance to stick around, although the absolute crush of movies coming out for Christmas may make that unlikely.

Also - an absolute crush of Chinese films, just based upon the previews, with about a half-dozen or so lined up to come out by the end of January, and a pretty good line-up of action and comedy among them. On top of that, the DCP for Surprise seemed to have a bona fide attached trailer promoting The Man From Macau in 3D. I've got no idea whether that's promoting the upcoming Chinese release of From Vegas to Macau III in the next few months or an American release of From Vegas to Macau II that has been retitled to hide that there's a first one (the "Man from Macau" title is apparently a more literal translation of the Chinese title of "Vegas to Macau"). Whatever the case, I kind of want to see the goofy Chow Yun-fat gambling movie even if I didn't love the first one. And, sure, why not in 3D?

Wan Wan Mei Xiang Dao: Xi You Pian (Surprise: Journey to the West)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2015 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

Though appearing on many American marquees as simply "Surprise", I think the full title of this movie is "Surprise You'll Never Think of: Journey to the West", and something appears to be lost in translation there. Think of it as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, only for one of China's best known folktales, and you'll be on the right track: It's a very goofy take on material that can perhaps use a little puncturing, especially with about six "Journey to the West" movies coming out next year, and certainly does that pretty well, even if you're not that familiar with the story.

It is, you may recall, the story of Buddhist monk Tang Seng (Wilson Chen), who faces many travails attempting to bring scripture back from India with his disciples - Monkey King Sun Wukong (Liuxun Zimo), sandman Sha Wujing (Joshua Yi), and pig demon Zhu Bajia (Mike D. Angelo), and when they see some sort of terrible magic happening over Stone Ox Town... Well, back up a day, where we meet Wang Dacui (Bai Ke White), who lives peacefully enough in that town because he is a very minor demon who badly delivers sesame cakes for baker Su Xiaomei (Yang Zishan) even if he does consider himself the local demon boss. That's fine until a nasty white tiger demon attacks and local hero Murong Bai (Ma Tianyu), the latest of a long line of cursed guardians, can only push him back. That means it's soon up to Dacui, Xiaomei, and a de-powered Wukong to deal with the evil threatening the town, because the usual heroes are off the board.

I'm no expert, but I wouldn't be surprised if Surprise keeps enough of an actual Journey to the West chapter intact and recognizable; for as much as it makes every character sort of a goofball and most of them far more self-centered than many classically heroic figures (though being a super-cocky jerk is admittedly kind of central to Sun Wukong), the filmmakers have a pretty decent system for making it work: The problem is generally dead serious, but the solution and the road to it is funny. It keeps the movie going without getting bogged down, even if it does occasionally have the action-comedy moments that are more action than comedy at the climax, along with a bit of backstory meant to give Xiaomei more pathos than she or the movie really needs.

Full review on EFC.

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