A Chinese Odyssey (1995)

Directed by
Confusing and ambitious
Reviewed by Simon on 2012-06-18

"Confusing" is probably the first word that I would apply to the two Chinese Odyssey films (which were filmed and released back to back and can be considered as one 3 hour film to some degree, though thanks to a bit of time travel part 2 manages to be both a sequel and a prequel to part 1!). Part of the blame for the confusion has to go to the subtitles, which are not very well translated, but most of it is due to Jeff Lau's trademark "everything except the kitchen sink" approach to film making. There's a lot of characters (it's confusing even before they start switching bodies with each other), and the plot keeps darting off in different and unexpected directions, making it hard to follow. It's only loosely based on the Journey To The West story ("inspired by" is probably more appropriate - it shares a similar relation to its source material as Ashes Of Time does to its).

"Ambitious" is definitely the second word I would apply to the film(s). Jeff Lau's time travelling thread weaving plot tries to bring together many themes and elements to say something profound about humans and their relationships. Due to the confusion factor, I have to say "ambitious" rather than "successful". Despite ripping off most of its soundtrack and a few ideas from Wong Kar Wai's ASHES OF TIME, the film doesn't manage to capture its deep thought and emotion provoking nature. Perhaps if I see it more times, and/or I spoke Cantonese (or a well subtitled version came out) it would have more effect on me though.

Although Stephen Chiau is undoubtedly the star of the films, his trademarked personality and humour are a little to the rear here, making it feel less like "A Stephen Chiau Film" than most of his pictures do. Actually the films aren't all that funny, though the expected nonsense and slapstick does crop up from time to time. I wouldn't consider the film(s) to be primarily a comedy though - especially towards the end, where the tone shifts ever more towards tragedy. Jeff Lau's underlying message is definitely that being a human is hard, even if you're an immortal or a monkey king.

By 1995 the wire-fu boom was well and truly over, and the fantastic style of action that Hong Kong developed was no longer a box office draw. I think this was Stephen Chiau's last wire-fu film, and one of the last produced in Hong Kong in the 90's. Ching Siu-Tung directs the action sequences, which are heavy on the stylised flying and twirling and fluttering style he developed. Maybe he was starting to run out of ideas by this point though, or there were just too many constraints given the nature of the film and the characters, as the action scenes aren't all that impressive. The grand finale features his trademark destruction of scenery on a truly remarkable scale, however.

Whilst I applaud its ambitiousness, the fact that I simply didn't understand a lot of what was going on (especially in part 2) did severely impede my enjoyment of the film. There are some films (many in the early 90's in fact) where not being able to follow the plot doesn't really detract from the enjoyment. Because of the film's ambitiousness it becomes a real issue for the Chinese Odysseys, however, and brings the score down to a 7/10. I suspect if I ever come to understand it more this score would rise quite a bit though.


Action Director
Art Director
Assistant Director

Also known as

  • A Chinese Odyssey Part 1 - Pandora's Box
  • A Chinese Odyssey Part 2 - Cinderella