journey to the west

Somehow, ‘Journey to the West’ is China’s Latest Sci-fi Sensation

Kong Dashan’s genre-mixing mockumentary ‘Journey to the West’ is having a limited release in multiple European countries and New York City in April and May

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Amarsanaa Battulga
8:58 AM HKT, Mon April 24, 2023 4 mins read

With a massive box office take of 598 million USD, The Wandering Earth 2 may be the Chinese sci-fi flick of the year, but one young director’s low-budget debut feature is quickly stealing its thunder.

Released in Chinese cinemas on April Fool’s Day, director Kong Dashan’s Journey to the West (宇宙探索编辑部, Yuzhou Tansuo Bianjibu) has only grossed 6 million USD so far.

However, the film has earned its place among the highest-rated Chinese sci-fi movies of all time: It received an impressive score of 8.4 out of 10 on Douban, a Chinese review platform often compared to IMDb.

The film is a deeply engaging story that follows a group of alien-seeking misfits who set out to investigate reports of a supernatural incident, only to unravel something beyond their imagination.

The film’s English title is derived from the 16th-century Ming Dynasty novel of the same name, which tells the adventure of a Buddhist monk and his disciples who traveled from China to India to retrieve sacred scriptures.

Although the film draws inspiration from this adventurous tale, Kong reimagines the story with a journey to Southwest China’s Sichuan province instead of to India. Additionally, the movie unfolds in five chapters instead of 100.

journey to the west

Poster for Journey to the West. Image via IMDb

When Journey to the West had its world premiere at the Pingyao International Film Festival in October 2021, it proved to be a resounding success. Recognized as a standout film by jury members, critics, and audiences alike, it took home an unprecedented four awards, including the Fei Mu Award for best film.

The film then went on to tour the international film festival circuit throughout 2022, screening and winning awards at the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam, Jeonju International Film Festival, and many others.

Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead; you’ve been warned!

The movie starts with a VHS recording of a 1990s TV interview in which Tang Zhijun (played by Yang Haoyu), an editor of Space Exploration magazine, speaks firmly and romantically about his belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life. The editor has a grand vision that the discovery of aliens would set off the next great human evolution — one that would see all of humanity set aside their kerfuffles and band together.

journey to the west poster

A poster for the film designed in the style of Space Exploration magazine. Image via Weibo

Fast forward to 30 years later, however, and we see Tang making a living by giving lectures at a psychiatric hospital. His family has tragically fallen apart, and the magazine is on the brink of bankruptcy, operating from a messy Beijing office whose radiators haven’t seen any warmth for a while.

Character Tang speaks about the alien civilization at a psychiatric hospital

Tang speaks about an alien civilization at a psychiatric hospital. Image via Weibo

However, Tang’s optimism has remained intact, albeit more in the form of an obsession. When a collective sighting of a glowing alien is reported in a Sichuan village, he convinces his skeptical deputy Qin Cairong (played by Ai Liya) and alcoholic weatherman Narisu (played by Jiang Qiming) to join him on –— you guessed it — a journey to the west.

Two locals later join the ranks of the alien civilization seekers: Xiaoxiao (played by Sheng Chenchen), an insomniac fangirl of Tang, and Sun Yitong (played by Wang Yitong), an eccentric poet who claims to have received a mission from the aliens.

The motley crew of five characters can be seen as a reference to the classic novel: the matching surnames with the monk Tang Sanzang and his protégé Sun Wukong, and a pot that Sun wears on his head that reminds one of the Monkey King’s iconic headband.

journey to the west

The five-member crew takes a group picture with a couple (in the center) they meet during the trip. Image via Weibo

Kong’s film is an eclectic mix of genres that seamlessly weaves together elements of sci-fi, mystery, comedy, and road movie into a cohesive narrative. The film’s faux-documentary style is characterized by talking head interviews, direct addresses to the camera, and a plethora of visual gags.

The unique sense of humor in Journey to the West owes much to its actors. Impeccable in his deadpan humor and comedic timing, veteran actor Yang, who also performed in The Wandering Earth and Cathy Yan’s Sundance-premiering Dead Pigs, offers his career-best performance as the single-minded pseudoscientist.

Matching his brilliance is Inner Mongolian actress Ai Liya, who delivers an outstanding performance as a cynical and down-to-earth partner in the film. Ai’s exceptional acting talent was also recognized at the 2020 Asian Film Critics Association Awards, where she won the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son.

Actors Ai Liya and Yang Haoyu are the primary sources of humor in the movie

Actors Ai Liya and Yang Haoyu are the primary sources of humor in the movie. Image via Weibo

But it’s not all just for laughs. What starts as quirky fun eventually takes on a poetic, existential tone as audiences discover that there’s a method to Tang’s madness, and that his journey of discovering the other is also that of finding the self. As with any absurdist comedy, there’s a tragedy at the core of Journey to the West: humanity’s existential crisis.

One Douban user summarized the film as “an absurd masterpiece of romanticism, a wonderful ode to idealism, the peak of Chinese soft sci-fi, and the highlight of domestic pseudo-documentary.”

Another impressive highlight of the film is its young and talented crew behind the camera. While the film is Kong’s feature debut, he has prior experience from his graduate program at the Beijing Film Academy making a mockumentary short that has gained a near cult following among Chinese arthouse cinephiles.

Kong co-wrote the idiosyncratic story of Journey to the West with Wang Yitong, who plays the poet Sun in the film. And the handheld, shaky-cam style was executed seamlessly by Belgian cinematographer Matthias Delvaux, who also lensed Tibetan auteur Pema Tseden’s upcoming Snow Leopard.

Last but not least, Hu Shuzhen, who worked on the 2021 Locarno-nominated Virgin Blue, deliberately edited the footage into an abundance of jump cuts. The resulting choppy quality feels true to the spirit of mockumentaries; however, as many watchers will warn you, you might not want to sit too close to the screen.

journey to the west

Wang Yitong (left) plays the poet Sun Yitong in the movie, who wears a pot on his head to prevent headaches. Image via IMDb

With Journey to the West, Kong provides China with a much-needed dose of soft sci-fi, especially given the overabundance of recent and upcoming adaptations of Liu Cixin’s hard sci-fi literary works.

This significance wasn’t lost on domestic audiences. A short review with more than 2,500 likes on Douban reads, “Chinese sci-fi has finally found another path.”

But Journey to the West also demonstrates that the two directions of Chinese sci-fi filmmaking don’t necessarily stand in opposition; Kong himself was even an assistant director on The Wandering Earth 2.

Meanwhile, Frant Gwo, the director of The Wandering Earth franchise, is one of the executive producers of Kong’s film. He even has an amusing cameo role, playing himself as he looks to buy a cheap spacesuit for his own movie, The Wandering Ball, a nod to his real-life film.

journey to the west

Frant Gwo (left) plays himself in Journey to the West. Image via Weibo

While it’s presently unclear whether Kong will work on The Wandering Earth 3, which won’t come out till 2027, he’s reportedly preparing an adaptation of Liu Cixin’s short story, The Micro-Age, or The Micro-Era.

The last news about the prospective film was released when the project was submitted for approval in 2019. After Kong’s success with Journey to the West, however, audiences have already started getting hyped for his future projects.

The film is having a limited release in multiple European countries and New York City throughout April and May. CineCina presented its North American premiere on April 22. The film may also hit other cities in Australia and New Zealand at a later date.

Cover image via Weibo

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