'Journey to the West' and 'Faust' Update Classic Literature for the Big Screen

Grumblers grumble as Hollywood rolls out concept art for what amounts to rebooting Batman for the third time in recent memory. But, really, rebooting old stories is a cinema classic itself. Frankenstein numbered among the first literary properties brought to the big silver in 1910, and it’s also among the most recent, thanks to the laughable I, Frankenstein, with hundreds of iterations in between. An artful adaptation revives and refracts the premises and plot turns that make a great story live for decades, or centuries. Two new adaptations try new takes on old tales with varying degrees of success.

The 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West lies near the very root of what we might think of now as classic Chinese culture, though it’s generally unknown in the contemporary West. It’s been adapted for the screen before, but perhaps no one has blown the dust off the pages quite like Kung Fu Hustle auteur Stephen Chow, who recently turned it into one of his trademark breathless martial-arts action-comedies. Despite being released in U.S. theaters earlier this year with all the vigor of letting a fart escape, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Magnolia DVD and Blu-ray; streaming on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes) is about the most fun you’re likely to have watching a movie this summer, albeit at this point from your couch.

Take the opening sequence, in which a blobby, bass-like mythological water demon goes Jaws on a sleepy vintage fishing village. Chow shows off the slapstick comedy chops that made Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer cult classics, using every level of the set from top balconies to under the lake and sending bodies flying everywhere. But he also shows off canny adroitness in hitting emotional marks, careening the scene from hilarity to genuine poignancy to convincing terror to big yuks again, all without a wasted shot. It’s mostly pretty silly, but the segment constitutes seriously great filmmaking. Like, Chaplin/Keaton great.

As the spray clears, roving Buddhist monk Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang) has vanquished the demon, with an assist from fetching female freelance demon hunter Duan (Shu Qi). But Zang’s pacifist ways don’t earn him much respect from the villagers he just saved. He does garner the admiration of Duan, however, and she continues to pursue him with the same intensity and deviousness with which she stalks supernatural forces.

Zang’s quest to conquer demons and prove his worth provides the thin plot that sends Journey to the West veering from outrageous sequence to outrageous sequence. Battling a smiling restaurateur/carnivorous pig demon by using flying, multiplying rings. A breath-powered wooden war wagon and a throat-cut warrior whose carotid gush never, ever stops. An encounter with a brace of other pro demon hunters, including a consumptively fey master swordsman and the Almighty Foot, who subdues foes with... a gargantuan foot. And then there’s the Monkey King, the arch foe, given verve-y, funky life by Huang Bo. (During a moment where, of all things, he’s teaching Shu to dance, it’s hard to tell whether or not they’re still in character, their delight is so genuine and tangible.)

Zang is sort of drippy and the love story bears a saccharin tang, but by the time the Buddha himself shows up for the final smackdown, Journey to the West has built to a crazed fever pitch of outlandish action and general go-for-brokeness that sweeps all else before it. For once, it’s good news that there may be sequels.

It seems almost unfair to jump from discussing Chow’s riotous kung-fu extravaganza to the dour broodings and muzzy earth tones of Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust (Kino Lorber DVD; streaming at Amazon, iTunes). But both revive classic narratives (in this case, Goethe’s 19th-century take on the German legend), and both deal with a struggle against demons—in this case, the Devil himself.

Perhaps impoverished small-town physician Faust (Johannes Zeiler) isn’t dealing with the Devil. The misshapen local pawnbroker (Anton Adasinsky) with the pinned pupils and lank shock of thinning hair is perhaps just an infernal functionary. But when the inquisitive doctor’s midlife prospects seem cut off by his penury—and when he gets a load of comely local maiden Margarete (Isolde Dychauk)—he becomes susceptible to temptation. That leads to a murder and to an agreement signed in blood to fork over his eternal soul.

Sokurov (Russian Ark) is arguably the most estimable filmmaker working in the former Soviet Union today, and his freely adapted take on Goethe’s story is rife with indelible images and powerful moments—Faust’s otherworldly encounters with Margarete are especially susceptible to visual sumptuousness and erotic power. But this is a period lit adaptation with all the warts left in—a filthier-looking film in recent cinema does not spring to mind—and no philosophical rumination left out. So, an inventive and challenging effort, but a bit of a slog, and a challenge in and of itself.