A Chinese Odyssey HD Remastered Collection Review
Journey to the West, or Monkey as it was originally published over here, is probably the most famous work of classic literature to come out of China. The story of the monk Xuanzang and his pilgrimage to India to bring back the sacred Buddhist scriptures (that could change the heart of man for the better) is well known chiefly because of the fantastic troupe that accompanied him, and by this I’m mainly referring to the mischievous Sun Wukong: the Monkey King, who gained immortality and dared to challenge the Jade Emperor only to end up imprisoned under Five Finger Mountain for 500 years until Xuanzang freed him in preparation of the perilous journey West. Wukong has captured the hearts of Asian fans for generations and has been the protagonist in a seemingly endless avalanche of Film, TV and Theatre adaptations of Journey to the West that crop up year in, year out. Most famous of these is probably the Japanese TV series Saiyuki, a wonderfully camp show that proved a big cult smash in Britain when it was first aired back in 1979.
The format of the original novel, made up of 81 various calamities that befall Xuanzang and his companions Monkey King, Pigsy, and Sandy, leans itself more favourably to a lengthy TV series, but in 1995 comedic film writer/director Jeff Lau came up with a unique concept for re-imagining the Monkey legend by filling in the blanks of the 500 years that the Monkey King was imprisoned. The spark of his idea came from a simple question: What would happen if the Monkey King wasn’t literally trapped under Five Finger Mountain all those years, but got reincarnated as a human who eventually falls in love? What trials and tribulations would he go through before reaching enlightenment and accepting the holy order to join Xuanzang in his passage to India? In another flash of left-field inspiration Lau called upon the reigning box-office king of comedy: Stephen Chow to play the Monkey King. Chow had risen to superstardom under Lau in the God of Gambler spoof All For the Winner, so their partnership was a proven success and naturally had a lot of influence over the film-going public, so with the epic story split across two films released around the 1995 Chinese New Year it was almost inevitable that A Chinese Odyssey would become become a smash hit with fans and critics alike.
A Chinese Odyssey Part One – Pandora’s Box
Stephen Chow plays Joker, leader of a band of robbers known as the Axe Gang whose dirty old headquarters is situated in the barren desert, not too far away from Five Finger Mountain. One day a fearsome woman named Madam 30th (Yammie Nam) defeats the entire gang single-handedly and forcibly squats at their headquarters in search of a man with three scars on his foot. Eventually, Joker musters up the courage to try and assassinate the Madam in the night, but he abandons the plan when he meets her “sister” (in the sense that they share the same teacher) Jing Jing. While Joker’s making goo-goo eyes at the second-sister, his second-in-command, Assistant Manager (Ng Man Tat) uncovers a horrible truth about their new squatters: Madam 30th and Jing Jing are actually demons looking for the Monkey King so he can lead them to the Longevity Monk: Xuanzang (Law Kar Ying) and feast on his flesh…
Ok, I feel I have to state up front that I’m a huge fan of Stephen Chow, I’ve seen almost all his comedies and early action dramas and in this humble reviewer’s opinion he has made very few films that should be avoided. In fact I’m often bemused when I come across the usual comments that Chow’s distinctive Mo Lei Tau (nonsense) style of comedy often doesn’t translate well into English, affecting their ability to play to Western sensibilities, because I can reel off title-after-title from his oeuvre that have consistently kept me belly-laughing from beginning to end. I may not be picking up on all the gags, but Chow’s films have so many that you can miss half of them and still laugh twice as hard as other comedies.
A Chinese Odyssey: Pandora’s Box is for me one of the Chow’s funniest films, and more importantly it’s one of only a handful of comedies he’s starred in to have enough of a plot that you can appreciate the film even if you don’t get the humour. Jeff Lau’s script plays out ostensibly like King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn on crack for the first half, then becomes much more story-driven when the Bull King turns up looking for revenge, building up to an exciting finale that paves the way for the next film. Along the way, just about every aspect of the production adds its own personal layer to the film, with Frankie Chan’s frequently poignant score adding a level of dramatic gravitas that is sometimes missing in the script - it also doesn't hurt that he recycles chunks of his superb Ashes of Time score (The reasons for this would become clear in Part 2). A Chinese Odyssey not only sounds great, it’s also a visually polished film: particularly during night exterior shots, which Poon Hang Sang has basked in multiple primary coloured neon lights, capturing an ethereal, almost cartoonish feel. This expressionistic, almost giallo-esque effulgence of colour helps ramp up the surreality and evoke a very suiting tone, for in the world of Chinese Odyssey: night time is when the monsters come out to play.
Although Pandora’s Box is not an action-driven film there are a few action sequences, most amounting to little more than brief scuffles, and all feature the same heavy use of wirework (sometimes slapstick, sometimes serious) that you’ll find in any action fantasy from the mid 90s. When the Bull King arrives on the scene though, the action gets cranked up a notch and one battle in particular has action director Tony Ching Siu Tung making clever use of camera perspectives to convey the body size morphing abilities of the characters. The fact that the demons and immortals in the Journey to the West legend usually resemble some form of animal and have varying degrees of shape-shifting abilities presented an obvious problem for the special effects, and indeed it is the visual effects that prove to be the weakest element in the film. This was long before HK had adopted CGI as standard, so all the creature effects rely on extremely poor prosthetics, even the easy prosthetics: For instance the make-up that turns Stephen Chow into the Monkey King looks blatantly like bits of rubber stuck to his head. You’re never fooled for one second, but ironically the poor effects add to the film’s camp charm.
As for the comedy, there are gags flying everywhere, almost all of which hit the mark. Most of the laughs come from Chow’s character Joker either mishearing what people tell him, or just being plain ignorant to their point - which ensures that most of the exposition doesn’t feel forced, but fresh and hilarious. Slapstick also features very heavily, although in keeping with Chow’s usual style the violence is particularly cruel on his character. There’s a brilliant repeating gag where Joker end up on the receiving end of various forms of punishment in the *ahem* “gentleman’s area”, proving that sometimes the cheap shots are the best! Chow and Lau have a particular talent for setting up comedic set pieces that at first seem completely contrived and obvious, but then hit the viewer with something truly unexpected. There’s one scene where Joker and his gang have been given Invisibility tokens that, if worn, render the wearer completely invisible. It’s obvious they’re going to use this to spy on and ambush the Demon Sisters, and it’s obvious that Chow and co will resort to physical tomfoolery to find out whether the sisters can see them or not, but the manner in which they wear these tokens (tailoring some ridiculous absurd outfits out of them) is a great surprise.
The comedy starts to take more of a back seat to the narrative once we get halfway into the film, but quality over quantity reigns and many of the funniest moments in the film occur in the final half - plus the shift in tone towards story and drama enables Lau to finish the film on a very neat plot twist that pretty much guarantees you can’t wait to watch the next instalment. This makes A Chinese Odyssey: Pandora’s Box an extremely fun, engaging opening act to the larger overall story.
PANDORA’S BOX RATING: 8/10
A Chinese Odyssey Part Two – Cinderella
Picking up where the first film ended, Joker is now trapped 500 years in the past and has become the servant of the immortal ZiXia (Athena Chu), who has possession of the Pandora’s Box: the only artefact Joker knows can return him to his beloved Jing Jing. Matters are complicated further by ZiXia’s strange, twisted physical duality with her sister QingXia. In the past the siblings were in constant conflict and Buddha turned them both into his lampwick, but the girls escaped in one human body with their hatred burning ever brighter. So once again Joker is caught between two feuding women, but fate appears to be on his side when he draws ZiXia’s magic sword from its sheath – an act that fulfils a prophecy of how she will discover her true love! So when King Bull arrives on the scene and falls in love with ZiXia, the scene is set for a complicated romantic triangle that threatens to destroy the chances of Joker ever getting hold of the Pandora’s Box.
What is most surprising about Cinderella is how quickly the tone of the story has shifted, with the riotous comedy that drove Pandora’s Box forward being downplayed and high drama dominating instead. The reason for this is mostly because the protagonist: Joker, has come a long way since the start of the tale. He is now a man who has loved and has a purpose in life (to get back to Jing Jing), but it’s one that is allowing him to ignore the hand that fate has dealt him. Ultimately the film is about Joker’s refusal to let go of the love he lost and embrace the new one he has found, and more importantly it’s about his struggle to accept Buddha’s holy order and take up his duties as Longevity Monk’s travelling companion/protector. The change seems almost effortless because Jeff Lau has carefully plotted A Chinese Odyssey to create a strong, constantly changing character arc for Joker.
The narrative in Cinderella is much more focused and cleverly unravels all the links and references to the first film as the story trundles along, ensuring that the film has a clear sense of direction, which Pandora’s Box lacked. This doesn’t mean that there’s no room for comedy, in fact Cinderella is consistently funny just in a more directed way so you’re no longer bombarded with joke after joke like in the first part. Many of the comedy interludes are laugh-out-loud, particularly the extensions to the confrontation between Monkey King and Goddess that opened the story up. To re-invent the Longevity Monk from the pious hero of the original novel into a similarly pious, but outrageously annoying goody-two-shoes who simply can’t stop talking, is absolutely inspired and constantly provides laughs throughout the film. Also, fans of Wong Kar Wai will appreciate the cheeky spoofing of Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time and Chungking express – Parody being one of the staple elements of Jeff Lau and Stephen Chow’s work.
Lau deserve’s credit for boldly reworking the established pairing between Joker and Jing Jing to Joker and ZiXia – not to mention the complications of having QingXia sharing the same body as her sister, and although Lau has developed the story well, I don’t think it would have been possible to accept this change if it wasn’t for the brilliant performances of its two leads: Athena Chu and Stephen Chow. Not only does Chu look gorgeous, she’s also utterly adorable as ZiXia; a sparkling, effervescent screen presence that makes ZiXia so much cheerier than the callous Madam 30th and broken hearted Jing Jing from Pandora’s Box. Yet despite Athena Chu’s undeniable screen presence, Stephen Chow’s performance completely dominates the film. Cinderella represented a bold departure for Chow as an actor; it has much less comedy than pretty much any film he made leading into the mid 90’s, and while he had handled romance before in triad dramas and the occasional romantic comedy, this was really his first starring role where romance and drama was the primary focus of the story. He rises to the occasion seemingly effortlessly, innately finding the right tone during the shifts from comedy to drama with surprisingly subtlety as the emotionally torn Joker.
It is however his performance as the Monkey King that impresses the most. Playful and menacing, Chow portrays Monkey King as both jester and psychotic, completely capturing the heroic and dark, bestial side of the character – he also gets to deliver some of the best lines in the film. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much hyperbole to say that his Monkey King is a perfect character performance, featuring very little of Chow’s usual screen presence or acting style at all. The final showdown between Monkey King and King Bull also gives Tony Ching Siu Tung a chance to put his considerable imagination to good use, incorporating many of Monkey King’s legendary abilities in a lengthy confrontation that features some outrageous techniques. So good are Chow’s portrayal and Ching’s action sequences that you’re left wishing they could have made a third film covering the actual journey to India.
But alas, all good things come to an end, and if we’re lucky, sometimes that end can even transcend what has come before. Whenever I think back on the great closing scenes of all the HK films I’ve watched, the finale to A Chinese Odyssey always springs to mind. For me, it is by far the most emotional moment in the film and a beautiful, poignant way to close the story. As the closing plays out I always end up contemplating the complex character arc that has taken Joker from incompetent desert rat to heroic Monkey King, and appreciating what Jeff Lau has managed to achieve with these two films. When you look at A Chinese Odyssey as a singular, three hour epic fantasy comedy, it’s quite simply one of the finest films of its type.
CINDERELLA RATING: 8/10
OVERALL RATING: 9/10
PresentationThe Chinese Odyssey boxset comes encased in a fancy silver slipcase and bundled with a very nicely put together 64 page hardback book. Inside there’s a mixture of comic strips made up of screenshots from the film, and movie stills. This is the third time A Chinese Odyssey has been released on DVD in HK, Mei AH covered the first releases a few years back, and MegaStar themselves put out a remastered DVD release of both films, complete with anamorphic transfer and DTS.
I have done the honour of putting together a Pandora’s Box Comparison Page and Cinderella Comparison Page to compare the transfers of all the HK DVD releases of the A Chinese Odyssey films.
Presented anamorphically at roughly 1.75:1 aspect ratio, the transfers for both films live up to the “HD Remastered” tag on the box. This is quite simply the best the films have ever looked since the theatrical showing.
Pandora’s Box has a reasonably sharp, detailed transfer (that uses only minor Edge Enhancement in the occasional scene), and features excellent brightness and contrast levels. The print is also remarkably clean, save for the occasional vertical scratch and a strange vertical mark popping around the 35 minute mark (the scene where the grapes fall on Joker) that dances from side to side near the left edge of the screen. This lasts roughly 20 seconds. Poon Hang Sang’s cinematography features some very bold, colourful lighting, which is brought vividly to life by the DVD transfer’s strong colour reproduction. There’s a little chroma noise, and reds are a touch too strong - leading to the occasional bleeding and lack of detail in certain scenes that have heavy red lighting. This is only a small gripe, the colours look absolutely fantastic. The transfer appears to be progressive for the most part, but infrequently frames are affected by aliasing and ghosting. The image also wobbles occasionally as well, but I can’t say whether this is down to telecine wobble or the camera that took the shots, there does appear to be some object drift because of Digital Noise Reduction though.
Cinderella Matches Pandora’s Box for image quality, it too looks great and also has its own strange print marking in the form of a smudge on the print from roughly 06min 13sec to 06m:34s. Another strange quirk of Cinderella’s transfer is that its aspect ratio temporarily shifts to 1.79: and 1.77:1 at various intervals during the film. This of course will be totally unnoticeable on a CRT TV set, but what some may notice is that there appears to be some cropping to these sequences where the aspect ratio changes, as you can see in the 2nd set of Cinderella comparison grabs.
The original MegaStar DVD transfers simply cannot compare to the new. Both films are presented anamorphically at 1.75:1, but are rife with print damage (including the vertical mark and smudge artefacts on the new DVDs), the transfers are darker, contrast higher, and colours are much more desaturated, which makes a big difference to the neon lighting of night time scenes. Detail compares well to the new release though, with very little separating them here. The transfers are also telecined.
The Mei Ah looks a mess, non-anamorphic 1.78:1 for Pandora’s Box and 1.74:1 for Cinderella, lower detail and very thick Edge Enhancement, tonnes of print damage, dot crawl, mosquito noise, deeply desaturated colours, the list goes on. The transfers are also telecined and exhibit variations in aspect ratio, sometimes changing as far as 1.70:1!
MegaStar have pulled out all the stops in the audio department by providing full bitrate Cantonese DTS, Cantose DD5.1, and Mandarin DD5.1 tracks for each film in the set. For the purpose of this review I sat down and listened to both Cantonese tracks for each film, and can report that each track is more than good enough to do the wild action and poignant score justice in both films.
Pandora’s Box has the better audio representation of the two, the DTS track is pretty loud and features surprisingly clean, audible dialogue throughout. The score also sounds crisp and clean but sounds a little hollow in comparison, this is probably down to the bass levels being a little low generally throughout the film, but when the score goes a little deep and the action sequences need a little punch, the bass does deliver. The 5.1 soundmix is very well done with an active, expansive soundstage that makes full use of the front and rear speakers. The only real negative I can say about the track is that there is a very faint but audible hiss coming from the center channel throughout the film. In comparison the DD5.1 track exhibits pretty much the same audio quality, just at a much lower volume level. If there’s anything that separates the Cantonese DD and DTS tracks, it’s that the DTS sounds just a little more dynamic. A Chinese Oddyssey was not shot synch sound, so the Mandarin track is comparable to the Cantonese in quality.
Cinderella is also blessed with two very good Cantonese tracks, but for some reason both the DTS and DD5.1 tracks suffer a little from weaker bass and a more hollow sound in general. The most noticeable difference is that the audio isn’t quite so clean, with tearing occurring when voices are raised or loud sound effects kick in. Another minor distraction is that the audio hiss on the center channel is louder, and accompanied by a humm in certain scenes. Also, about 19 minutes in there is a chunk of dialogue that has been re-looped and sounds noticeably cleaner and louder than the normal dialogue, this only lasts for about half a minute.
The original Megastar DVD releases of both films also feature Cantonese DTS, DD5.1, and Mandarin DD5.1 tracks, all taken from the same audio masters the new release has used. To my ears each track sounds very close to their respective tracks on the new release (Cinderella has the same dialogue re-loop 19 minutes in for instance). The new release fjust sounds a little louder, a little fuller and the dynamics are a little more defined. This is most likely down to the fact that the old release only has half bitrate DTS and 384kb/s DD5.1 audio.
The Mei Ah DVDs only feature DD2.0 Cantonese and Mandarin on each disc. They haven’t been remastered and thus sound like the arse-end of a rhino in comparison to the MegaStar releases. The centre speaker is the only one seeing any action, sp they are essentially mono tracks. In general the tracks are much quieter, more muffled with less clear dialogue and an obvious problem with tearing when voices are raised or loud sound effects occur. Hiss is also omnipresent. Interestingly, the dialogue exchange that was re-looped and stood out in the MegaStar releases is completely normal on the Mei Ah disc.
Optional English, Japanese, Korean, Simplifies Chinese, and Traditional Chinese subtitles are included on all the MegaStar DVD releases. The Mei Ah has burned in Chinese and English subtitles. Every single HK DVD release of the A Chinese Odyssey films features the same English translation, which is going to dishearten fans who hoped an editor would have given the old translation a good going over. The grammar throughout both films is pretty poor and does make the complex narratives of both films harder to follow.
ExtrasThere are no more than two extra features on each disc in the set, but for some reason Megastar have decided to repeat the same Theatrical Trailer on each disc, so you could say that there are only three extra features. The Interview With Director Jeff Lau (in Cantonese with optional English subtitles) on each disc is different to the other, but it’s clear that Megastar have taken one 20minute interview and cut it to spread across two discs, as neither of the interviews actually refer specifically to the film whose disc they’re on. Indeed, if you haven’t seen Cinderella, then I would strongly advise you to not watch the Lau interview on the Pandora’s Box DVD. Both interviews are very informative, Jeff Lau is obviously very comfortable talking about his work and keeps a good sense of modesty about the films. He discusses many aspects of the films’ production and various other films in his career. Make sure you check them out.
The original MegaStar releases come with the same theatrical trailer as on the new release; they also have a film synopsis and cast listing with star biographies. The Mei Ah discs had no extras, not even menus.