Thursday, 19 September 2013


I know what you're thinking. How can we call it a Shu Qi triple bill when we're only watching two movies? Well as luck would have it, The Second Woman features not one but two star turns from everybody's favourite waste of time. Shu Qi plays twin sisters in Carol Lai's The Second Woman, which is all the incentive I need quite frankly. The second film is Stephen Chow's action fantasy, Journey to the West. You all remember Stephen Chow, right? Quite why he disappeared off the face of the earth is anybody's guess, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Shu Qi plays twin sisters in The Second Woman. If that's not enough to reel you in, I don't know what is.

Shu Qi was one of my first loves of Asian cinema, alongside Japanese horror and Donnie Yen. I'm pretty sure that still counts as a compliment. I remember seeing her for the first time in A Man Called Hero, and since that day our love affair has blossomed into something indescribable. That's how my lawyers have advised me to put it. I'm not allowed to use the term 'obsessive relational intrusion'. Besides, I only use the word 'affair' because affair by definition suggests a passionate attachment of two people. I'm fairly confident she's aware of my passion. But that's only because It took me a while to master the art of stalking. My predatory skills have improved since then. My lawyers are refusing to comment at this juncture.

The Second Woman finds Shu Qi teaming up with both herself and Shawn Yue (Love in the Buff), as a pair of twin sisters and the characters they play in the story-within-a-story. She plays the sisters, Yue plays quite possibly the luckiest man on earth. It all makes sense when you watch it. The Second Woman is the latest thriller from writer-director Carol Lai (The Third Eye), but despite the presence of two of our favourite wastes of time, The Second Woman loses focus, not to mention interest, all too swiftly.

Bao (Shu Qi) and her boyfriend Nan (Shawn Yue) are busy rehearsing for their new play "The Legend of Lady Plum Blossom", but Bao falls ill just before the final show of the national tour. Surprisingly, she still manages to deliver a career-best performance to the joy of an expectant theatre audience. We soon learn that Bao's identical twin sister Huixiang (Shu Qi) secretly took her place on stage and won the crowd over. That fills Bao with jealousy and suspicion, and she begins to see her sister as a threat to both her career and the relationship she shares with Nan. You can't really blame the girl, she is in competition with Shu Qi after all. Wait a second. She is Shu Qi. This isn't going to end well...

Black Swan springs to mind as the drama unfolds, but that probably has more to do with the stage-set shenanigans  than a welcome intake of creepy visuals and tormented souls. The Second Woman starts promisingly enough before jumping off a cliff with at least one of its characters. The Second Woman could have been a blast had it dared to dig deeper, but the second act descends into farce as two new faces are introduced in order to solve the case. They're not police officers, they're not even detectives. They're just friends of Nan that completely derail the movie. The exposition is endless and The Second Woman becomes a chore, despite the presence of both Shu Qi and Shu Qi.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is an altogether different beast. Making his first film since 2008's CJ7, Stephen Chow is back to doing what he does best; and boy have we missed him. An enchanting blend of comedy, smarts, striking visuals and pitch-perfect performances, Journey to the West is a rip-roaring fantasy adventure for all ages. Conquering the Demons became the second highest-grossing film ever at the Chinese box office and the top-grossing Chinese-language film in history, proving that Stephen Chow is still a big hit even when he stays behind the camera. Having Shu Qi in his corner doesn't hurt a bit.

Demon hunter Chen Xuanzhang (a pitch-perfect Wen Zhang) believes that he can purify any demon through love. However, his belief is shaken when his attempt to defeat a demon fish - in a breathtaking opening that sets the scene for all that follows - ends in the untimely death of a family and most of the villagers. Xuanzhang, filled with self-doubt and anger, attempts to hunt down the demonic hog with the help of Duan, who has fallen in love with him all too quickly. Despite help from other demon hunters, the badly-rendered hog manages to escape and as a last resort, Xuanzhang and Duan turn to Sun Wukong (Huang Bo) for help. Chaos, calamity and comedy gold ensue.

Stephen Chow co-directs alongside Gallants helmer Derek Kwok, but it's Chow's brand of humour that shines through. Journey to the West is a hilarious reworking of The Monkey King legend, overflowing with poor CGI, zany humour and scene-stealing performances. Shu Qi is magnificent in this, make no mistake about it, but Wen Zhang steals the film from under her heavenly feet. Zhang is exceptional, bringing warmth, vulnerability and natural comedy timing to the role of Xuanzhang. The supporting players are spot on, including a few familiar Stephen Chow faces, but special praise goes to Huang Bo for his humanised - and hilarious - take of the Monkey King.

Journey to the West is far darker than you might expect, and all the better for it. The weak effects aren't necessarily a distraction, but that's only because the set pieces are so breathtakingly funny. This is a smart, hilarious and deeply rewarding return to form for Chow, a film that demands your utmost attention. He might not be performing in front of the camera anymore, but as long as he has the likes of Wen Zhang and Huang Bo to fall back on, it's fair to say we'll be just fine.

Three Shu Qi's. Two very different movies. The Second Woman, despite two striking lead turns, is a dismal mystery thriller with little to recommend beyond its shining star(s). Journey to the West, however, is an absolute riot from start to finish. Next up for our favourite waste of time, a full length animated feature film, written and directed by Jonathan Lim. Sounds like a load of old bull to me. AW

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