A Chinese Odyssey Part I: Pandora's Box
& A Chinese Odyssey Part II: Cinderella

Reviewed by YTSL

At long last!  And, no, that’s not the cry I imagine issuing from Brian (and faithful others) upon my having written my first review in some two months for brns.com!!  Instead, it’s a reference to this pair of 1995 movies -- which I think should be viewed, and also reviewed, as one single, even if lengthy, offering (not least on account of the decision to divide them into two appearing to have been more commercially- than logic-driven) -- that I finally decided to sit down and watch in one go as well as back-to-back having been among those works which I’ve long been urged to check out by other Hong Kong cinemaphiles.

My reasons for having taken so long to get to A CHINESE ODYSSEY PART I: PANDORA’S BOX and A CHINESE ODYSSEY PART II: CINDERELLA are three fold.  Firstly, as readers of my reviews of works that star Stephen Chow will know, I’m as likely to have lukewarm as wildly positive reactions to those of them which Sing Jai’s adoring fans have raved about (Cf. “Love on Delivery” and “Fight Back to School” I and II).  Secondly, I’ve had similar reactions to the directorial plus scripted efforts of Jeff Lau.  And for a third, among my favorite reads as a kid were a 50-volume “Journey to the West” cartoon series that made it so that, unlike many a Western fan of the pair of films whose Chinese titles translate into “Journey to the West: Moonlight Treasure Box” and "Journey to the West: Fairy Slipper Magic Encounter”, I could very well imagine and love an alternative to Stephen Chow’s version of the legendary Monkey God/King (and, for that matter, the one briefly essayed by Michelle Yeoh in the opening scenes of “The Touch”!).
Consequently, part of me was expecting to be as upset by a thoroughly irreverent fantasy adaptation of the classic tale that centers on a group of intrepid religious voyagers and their journey to India -- which, lest we forget, does lie to the west of China -- to obtain some holy Buddhist scriptures as many fans of Jin Yong (AKA Louis Cha) had been by Jeff Lau’s good friend Wong Kar Wai’s re-working of the famous author’s “The Eagle Shooting Heroes” into “Ashes of Time”.  Instead, and probably because Jeff Lau has re-fashioned the story to such a large degree that the journey to the West really is not the main subject of these two films which he scripted as well as helmed, these A CHINESE ODYSSEY movies -- and in particular, the sheer inventiveness, depth as well as breadth of emotion and verve manifest in them -- ended up blowing me away and successfully sending me all the way up to Hong Kong movie heaven!
Among other things, although Stephen Chow starts off A CHINESE ODYSSEY PART I: PANDORA’S BOX in the near-unrecognizable as well as furry guise of the Monkey King, he actually spends the bulk of this production essaying a bandit chieftain known, appropriately enough, as Joker.  As it so happens, this mischievous mortal actually is the reincarnated Monkey King.  However, it’s not until after he has run-ins with, to put it mildly, interesting immortals like the bitchy 30th Madam (AKA Spider Woman) (played by Yammie Nam), her more sympathetic sister Jing-Jing (AKA Boney M according to the fractured English subtitles) (portrayed by Karen Mok) and a less powerful personality whose disguises include a bunch of grapes (essayed, when in human form, by Jeff Lau himself!) that the impish fellow comes to realize that this is so.
Along the way, Joker finds out that Jing-Jing had been cheated in love by, but continues to have feelings for, the Monkey King.  To complicate matters, he finds himself falling for her.  And to really complicate things, her jealous sister proceeds to poison Jing-Jing and make it so that Joker will have to go back in time in order to save the woman he loves.  This he proceeds to do (with the aid of the “Pandora’s Box” mentioned in the movie’s English title)...several times, in fact.  Although many of these attempts get played for laughs, there’s no mistaking Joker’s desperation to achieve his goal and anguish each time that he fails to do so.  Consequently, it was with some relief that this (re)viewer greeted his finally successful attempt to get far back enough in time to not see Jing-Jing dead again.
As it turns out, however, Joker ended up several hundred years further back in time that he surely had wanted or could have imagined possible.  Fortunately, Jing-Jing’s already alive -- and actually quite fit and well -- then.  Less fortunately however, she’s initially no where in Joker’s vicinity.  Instead, the first female whom he encounters after his bout of time traveling -- and in A CHINESE ODYSSEY PART II: CINDERELLA -- is the elfin but no less capable Lin Zixia (charmingly portrayed by Athena Chu), who actually also forms Buddha’s Lampwick (along with her wicked elder sister, Lin Qingxia(!) (who’s also essayed by Athena Chu -- in the manner of Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia in “Ashes of Time” mixed with the actress whose name is spelt in the Mainland Chinese favored style as Lin Qingxia in “Semi-Gods and Semi-Devils” -- for the most part but later by Ada Choi too)).
In a move that can’t be all that unexpected, Joker proceeds to fall for the adorable Zixia.  Following this, even while there continue to be scenes and goings-on that appear geared to tickle the funny-bone (including sly allusions to Chin Han and Charlie Chin, the two men who formed a real-life love triangle with Brigitte Lin for a time, along with a fine comic turn by Law Kar Ying in his role as the distractingly voluble Longevity/Master Monk), it’s increasingly hard to escape the notion that this pair of A CHINESE ODYSSEY films are melancholic romantic tragedies -- that come complete with regretful ruminations about timing, destiny and the indecisiveness of man -- at heart.  Consequently, these works’ various musical allusions to “Ashes of Time” may be less of a satirical device and more of an initially distracting, but ultimately clear, signaling of their having certain themes in common with Wong Kar Wai’s desert epic (On a related note, it’s interesting that a love triangle and Brigitte Lin figure too in “Dragon Inn”, the other desert epic whose musical notes can be heard in these incredibly multi-layered as well as -genre efforts).
In this context, I think it’s very much worth repeating that, in a discussion about the A CHINESE ODYSSEY movies, Jeff Lau is on the record as stating that: “I wanted to do what we couldn’t do well in “Ashes of Time”” (The HKIFF’s “Hong Kong Panorama 2002-2003”, 2003:103).  Likewise, I see some value in underscoring that the following observation made about this unlikely soul mate of Wong Kar Wai in the same publication could easily apply too to the producer of “Dragon Inn” (the pre-1997 Tsui Hark), and Stephen Chow, the director of such as the similarly tragic-comic “The King of Comedy” as well as these cinematic gems’ star actor: I.e., “he can...make grand statements and move people’s hearts with vulgar comedy and dialogue” (Bono Lee, 2003:125).