Acclaimed Hong Kong director Stephen Chow demonstrates that he can transfer his winning formulas to audiences in Taiwan and mainland China
Two weeks into the Year of the Snake and “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” is flexing its muscle with more than US$122.1 million at the Chinese box office since its opening on February 10.
The stylised romance comedy, featuring an all-star cast - Wen Zhang, Shu Qi, Huang Bo and Show Luo - entertaining music and a happy ending, is the creation of Stephen Chow, best known for blockbusters like “Shaolin Soccer”, “Kung Fu Hustle” and several other hits.
Based on the classic Ming Dynasty-era novel of the same name, “Journey to the West” follows the adventures of a young demon-catcher who fights a water demon, a pig demon and the king of all demons, the Monkey King, and eventually discovers the Buddhist meaning of “Greater Love.”
Audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China have already responded enthusiastically to Chow’s potent mix of action, comedy, terror, romance and a trio of popular stars who poke fun at their public personas.
Strangely enough, the only ingredient missing in this winning formula is the acclaimed director and comedic actor who doesn’t appear in “Journey to the West”.
“Although I am not featured in this film. I am present in each and every scene,” Chow points out. “My style is everywhere in the feature film.”
What matters most to the Hong Kong director is the spirit of this film which follows in the footsteps of “Kung Fu Hustle” with a plot centring on Buddhism’s search for the “Greater Love”. Although he admits he’s no Buddhism expert, he described himself as “an admirer of the theory of the Buddha”.
Chow explains that he learned much about the spiritual practice through making his films. “In a broader sense, I would say that this film is about love, big and small. To me, I am not emphasising Buddhism. There aren’t different kinds of love. It’s a very simple way to describe it,” he says.
Asked about Shu Qi’s dance number under the full moon, the director says the scene took much longer than expected. “In fact, Shu Qi and Huang Bo shot the scene several times, but it never worked. It was impossible to film. Su Qi laughed when Huang Bo danced. She even laughed at herself when dancing.”
Yet, he always kept his sang-froid, stressing that it “it doesn’t matter if (the director) is unhappy.” Chow believes that he cannot let actors and staff be unhappy, otherwise “there is no way for them to do good work”.
While filming (and given the absence of CGI, which was added later), he says, “I always try to find out if they understand what I am saying. I have to find a way for them to understand my vision.”
It pays to have a helping hand to get ahead on a film set when you’re transitioning to acting from singing like Show Luo. The popular Taiwanese singer and entertainer plays the role of a “weak gentleman” in “Journey to the West”.
“On paper, my character sounded pretty handsome; I was like a hero in a video game,” says Luo of his first day on the job.
But once on the set, the up-and-coming actor’s face was covered with white make-up. “I had deep, dark circles under the eyes,” he laughs. “They said my character had very poor health and used Qigong (a traditional Chinese practice of aligning breath, movement and awareness for exercise, healing and meditation) to restore his health.”
When make-up was completed, he asked staff about what he was supposed to do but was told: “you’ll find out on the set”.
“In fact, the director wanted me to be creative in my performance, and I told him: ‘why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ I was going in the wrong direction. The director didn’t want me to just die flat according to the script,” he says.
While working with Stephen Chow, Luo felt both happy and nervous. Nervous, because he had seen too many of his films and was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to perform well.
“He is someone who likes to give directions and always has a lot of expressions. I tried too hard not to emulate him because I didn’t want viewers to feel like I was trying to imitate him. But in the end I had the same expressions,” he says.
Luo is also grateful to the director for relieving his worries.
“Singing and acting are very different. I felt pressure making this movie because of the viewers’ potential reaction. It would be hard to choose between the two. It was a great experience and a chance to work with Stephen Chow,” he says.