Film & DVD Review
The story begins with the ascension of the Longetivity Monk and his three disciples, including the infamous Monkey King, after they bring back the Buddhist scriptures from India. Monkey King cannot resist the temptations of doing mischief, and as a penalty, both he and his master are sent back to Earth as human mortals to make a further trip to India. The devils are thrilled when they learn this. They are all preying upon the Longetivity Monk, whose flesh, it is rumoured, will grant longetivity. So devils assemble at Fingers Mountain and await their prey.
Stephen Chow is undoubtedly my favourite Hong Kong comedian, but he has made a few films which I've regarded as complete turkeys. That being said, he has also made some absolute classics too. It was with hopefull anticipation that I watched A Chinese Odyssey Part 1, as I figured the fact that A Chinese Odyssey was big enough that it was made as two films instead of one, must show that it had a lot of potential and should be really good. Not great logic, I know, but fortunately The Matrix sequels stopped me thinking this was true (as they were rather pish), so my expectations were suitably lowered for this.
Anyway, I'll start off on the plot by stating that it is rather confusing at times. Having now seen the film, the synopsis written on this page doesn't really help explain things that much. The story is only slowly explained as the film goes on, but unfortunately in short bursts. There are lengthy scenes there just for comedy value, then at the end of them there might be a lengthy speech between characters which explains another chunk of the plot. Keeping track is reasonably difficult, as making sense of it all is a challenge.
I don't want to spoil the film at all, so I won't really say much about what goes on. The film starts off with the Monkey King and his master the Longetivity Monk infront of some God or something like that. The Monkey King is being all aggresive and troublesome, and it all results in him being banished 500 years forward in time and to live a life of a mortal after the Longetivity Monk sacrfices himself on the Monkey King's behalf.
In the human world, a band of thieves lead by Joker (Stephen Chow) are disrupted by a extremely deadly women, as she chooses to stay in their hideout. The first night she stays the group are attacked by a spider demon, which they fail to kill. Having been beaten and humilated by the deadly woman the thieves plan to kill her at night, but instead of her being in her room, it is another woman, Boney M (Karen Mok), who turns out to be the sister of the deadly woman. They are in search of the Longetivity Monk as they believe that eating his flesh will grant them immortality. They are also in search of the Monkey King, as they had past relations with him which didn't go too smoothly, it would appear. In their stay with Joker and his gang, Joker begins to learn from them, and one other person, the story of the Monkey King and things about himself which he never had even considered before.
Right, that was terrible. Being only half the full saga, and this part of the film ending with a bit of a cliff hanger at the point where the story really seems to just be getting going, makes explaining it all the more difficult. But sod it, I've tried. The plot is a little confusing, or at least I found it to be, but that doesn't really matter too much as long as it is interesting. Fortunately it is. The realisations that take place as the film goes on, and particularly at the very end of the film, make the whole fate and destiny thing become quite intriguing. The story may have its slow points, but it balances them out well with quite a few high points.
As you would expect being a Stephen Chow and Ng Man Tat collaboration, there are quite a number of comical moments throughout the entire film. Chow's humour style, while possibly being quite unique, varies drastically at times. From the outright slapstick and parody, you can get the constant quick interchange between deadly serious and calm and funny to heighten the humour factor... He does a bit of everything. Like most of his films though, the humourous moments are very hit and miss. I think it is more than possible that some of the miss moments are due to cultural differences, but the hit moments should be universal!
For me the funniest point of the film, which did have me laughing quite heartily out loud, was the scene where he uses the Pandora's Box for travelling back in time to get to Boney M (or Jing Jing as she is also called). The comic timing here, Chow's facial expressions and the events which take place are hysterical. On the whole I think the balance of the comedy moments is more in favour of the "hits" than the "misses" which is quite fortunate!
Chow gives an excellent performance here. Some people have criticised his acting abilities before, but for me he is a good actor, and A Chinese Odyssey Part 1 is a good film to showcase this. He has a reasonable range of emotions, but it is mainly his comic timing and facial expressions that make him stand out in his role. His make-up job, and completely different persona when he is the Monkey King show his versatility, and cap off a job well done in this film. He is not in the same league as Leung Chiu Wai or Francis Ng though, so don't think I'm praising him that highly!!!
Ng Man Tat, Stephen Chow's almost standard sidekick in comedy films, gives a typical performance as the Assistant Master of the gang of theives. If you are familiar with the way he is in Chow's movies, then you'll get everything you expect here. His character is the quite cowardly type, easily bossed around by others. The highlight of the rest of the cast is Karen Mok. She plays the sort of character that has a lot of severity and strength at times, but at other times is very cute and girly in manner.
Not happy with just the comedy, A Chinese Odyssey Part 1 also throws in some wuxia fighting. It is nothing special to look at at all, but is still entertaining. In quite a few places it uses the "everyone spin round quickly swinging your weapons in the other person's general direction" technique to make it look like the people are being really skillful. Given the general comedic nature of the film though, this is easily overlooked and the visual entertainment is still there. The fights with the Bull King are quite funny too.
I've read in other places that due to the time travelling that goes on A Chinese Odyssey Part 2: Cinderella manages to be both a prequel and sequel at the same time, and is just as confusing, or something like that... which will make watching, and reviewing it soon, quite interesting! A Chinese Odyssey Part 1 was really quite confusing, but was still engaging. All that is going on is not always relevant to the main plot, but it was pretty much all entertaining regardless.
Audio & Subtitles
This release of A Chinese Odyssey Part 1 from Megastar had the added selling feature that it now had DTS audio! DTS has got this stigma attached to it that it is supposed to be a very good way of having your audio encoded and is supposed to be superior to Dolby Digital. However, when the DTS or DD is a 5.1 mix from what I'm guessing was either a stereo or mono source, does it really make that much difference? And that brings me to this release. I watched the film with the DTS soundtrack. If I had not known it was a DTS (and presumably 5.1) soundtrack and if I was to guess the number of channels it was encoded in, I would have said it 1.0. Pretty much all sounds come from front center. Once I became largely aware that the surrounds were not being used, I paid more attention to see if I could hear anything using the surrounds, and I don't think I did. Ok that's not completely truthful, I have a vague recollection of a slight brief use of them, but that is it.
I guess it is entirely possible that they were used a lot more than I got the impression, but the relative volume levels were then very low in comparison to the front center that I could barely hear them. The audio from front center was clear enough. Speech was perfectly intelligible, the effects seemed all right. Things like thunder noises and the like could have been spread around more evidently than they were, and on the whole the 5.1 speaker set up could have been used more to its potential. So as mixes go, this one was barely mixed at all. So if you are a fan of original mono/stereo soundtracks, then you practically have it here!
The old Mei Ah release of this film had burnt in subtitles, but this release has removable ones. Kind of like the audio, the subs have been improved by making them digital, but that is pretty much it! There are still spelling mistakes and reasonably plentiful grammar and word errors. Literally a few lines of dialogue appear to not have been subtitled, either that or there was some bad script timing in these scenes, which I actually believe is the case. At the start and end of the film there is some Chinese text on screen and it, unfortunately, is not subtitled. I am being a little critical of the subtitles, as at no point do they become complete nonsense, making what is going on difficult to understand. I have just personally found the english in Megastar dvds to be slightly above average compared to other companies. Maybe that is just the films I've seen... who knows.
The picture quality for this release of A Chinese Odyssey Part 1 was quite uneven. Downside first though. There is a very large amount of speckling throughout the duration of the film, and also quite a number of those vertical lines things as well. Despite being remastered for anamorphic widescreen treatment, the print clearly was not cleaned at all. In places the speckling is far more noticable than others, as it is quite bad at times, and barely a few seconds go by without some speckling appearing on screen. Good stuff now. Grain levels appeared to be low. The print looked really quite sharp for the most time, and detail levels looked surprisingly good. With the amount of crap on the print, after the first 5 mins or so I was expecting a letterboxed quality print just boosted up to anamorphic widescreen. But no, the print actually was much better than expected. Colours looked good, with maybe only a little bleeding in high contrast areas (e.g. white right next to dark colours), but for the majority it looked sharp. If the speckling and the like had been cleaned up, I think this would have been a really decent print.
DVD & Extras
As is to be expected with most Hong Kong releases, extras are at a minimum here. You've got a film synopsis and trailer, and a Cast & Credits section. This has biographies on Stephen Chow, Ng Man Tat and Karen Mok in both Chinese and English.
For me A Chinese Odyssey Part 1 took a little while to get going properly, and at times was quite confusing. While information about people was being told, I wasn't quite sure what was actually happening with it all. In that respect it was quite slow. Some of the humour too, didn't quite hit the mark, but it also did have its classic moments. All in all though, it was entertaining and did have the ending which made me want to watch Part 2: Cinderella, which is always a good sign.
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