Sixteenth century Chinese novel Journey to the West has been adapted dozens of times in dozens of ways, from cult Japanese television show Monkey to Damon Albarn’s opera of the same name. But it’s safe to presume that Emperor Visits the Hell is a fairly unique take on the material: a tale of shape-shifters, ghosts and celestial executioners rendered emphatically ordinary through use of drably contemporary settings and deadpan performances from a non-professional cast.
In juxtaposing the fantastical and the quotidian, director Li Lou
contrives a dry, satirical humour, with the titular underworld little
more than an administrative headache, and the machinations of the
powerful (ostensibly gods and kings, but visually closer to bureaucrats
and other public officials) depicted as comically listless. But as its
jarring conclusion foregrounds, there’s anger at work here too, with a
final scene – in which the principal actor delivers an out-of-character
drunken diatribe – skewing the spotlight away from ancient voyages and
towards the political travails of the present.