Review by Sean Boelman
Heralded by the programmers at Fantasia as “one of the great Chinese films of the past few years,” Journey to the West is one of the many indie sci-fi pictures playing at this year’s festival. Quaint and enjoyable — even if it does overstay its welcome at times — this is a movie whose ambition you can’t help but admire.
The film follows the editor of a science fiction magazine as he travels to a remote village in the hopes of finding proof of the existence of alien civilization. The movie hardly revolutionizes the genre, asking many of the usual questions about whether we are alone in the universe, but it’s very sincere about the way in which it asks them.
At about an hour and fifty minutes before credits, the film does suffer from being a bit overlong. One’s enjoyment of the movie will hinge on how much they connect with its dry sense of humor. Even for someone who does enjoy that deadpan style, there are sections of the film that will drag because they exist more to push the story along than to work as humor.
On a thematic level, the movie is likely to resonate more with its Chinese audience than Western audiences. The film shares its name with the classic epic of Chinese literature, of course, and the parallelisms that it draws between the pilgrimage of Xuanzang and the pilgrimage of sorts of this movie’s protagonist are intriguing, if a tad underdeveloped.
Unfortunately, one of Journey to the West’s biggest mistakes is making the protagonist the butt of the joke far too often. Although we’re supposed to connect with him as a sort of lovable goof archetype, the film spends far too long making jokes out of him doing things that are embarrassingly desperate. While undeniably entertaining, these gags undermine the movie’s emotional resonance.
Still, Yang Haoyu’s lead performance is pretty excellent and one of the main reasons why the film is able to keep its emotional core. Even when the script is ridiculing the character, Yang plays it in a way that feels entirely authentic and earnest. The rest of the cast feels like they are here to accentuate Yang’s turn.
Ultimately, the movie is a bit held back by its mockumentary format — especially when it comes to its scale. It’s clear that Kong has a ton of ambition, and this is maybe the biggest swing that has ever been taken in the mockumentary format, but it doesn’t always work. There are some cool effects and production design, but the film is never able to find its balance between grounded and fantastical.
Journey to the West is often charming, but a bit overlong and not as consistent with its humor as one would hope. Although there are more moments that live up to the movie’s ambitious premise than ones that don’t, it’s still an uneven experience overall.
Journey to the West screened at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs from July 20 to August 9.