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Monkey Movie Magic

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

It's a story every child in East Asia knows. The bodhisattva Guan Yin sends Tang Dynasty monk Tripitaka on an epic journey west to bring the Buddhist scriptures from India to China. Three supernatural guardians protect him along the way: Friar Sand; Pigsy; and, of course, the one-and-only Monkey King, Sun Wu Kong, the self-proclaimed "Great Sage Equal to Heaven". The four travelers encounter an endless assortment of demons and monsters, all with an appetite for Tripitaka's dharma-enriched flesh which is said to bring immortality if consumed. The friar and the pig talk big, but prove pretty useless in a pinch. Time and again it falls to Sun Wu Kong to save the day with his mix of magic powers and razor wit, which the Monkey King uses to make monkeys out of his imposing adversaries.

From this simple premise sprang one of the most popular and enduring tales of world literature, Journey to the West. Attributed to the 16th-century author Wu Cheng'en, this massive Ming Dynasty novel represents the culmination of centuries of stories about real-life seventh-century monk Xuan Zang's journey to India. What began as a pious account of one man's 17-year pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy land gradually evolved into a ribald and satiric distillation of Chinese folk legends and Buddhist morality tales. The emphasis shifted from the erstwhile monk - now portrayed as something of a dimwitted fop - to his fantastic companions, in particular the crafty and ever-confident Monkey King. It was inevitable that Sun Wu Kong would ultimately usurp his master's position as the central focus of the legend. With his talent for disguise and deception, the Monkey King is China's archetypal trickster figure, who rightly takes his place on the stage of world mythology right next to Odysseus, Loki, Robin Hood, Bugs Bunny, and other everlasting icons of cunning and guile.

Journey to the West not only has the distinction of being one of "The Four Great Novels of China" (alongside Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Dream of the Red Chamber), it has also enjoyed a long and prolific history in the performing arts. Opera versions of the more famous chapters of the novel have been popular favorites for centuries. Thus Journey to the West made an obvious and easy transition from the opera stage to the movie screen, where the legend attained even greater heights of popularity.

Animated Beginnings

Arguably the best of the novel's many interludes, "Princess Iron Fan" - which recounts the Monkey King's attempts to steal a magical fan from the Bull Demon King and his haughty wife - is the most often staged Journey to the West opera, and it was a natural choice for China's first-ever animated feature film. The movie was the brainchild of brothers Wan Laiming and Wan Guchan, the acknowledged fathers of the Chinese animation industry, who created the nation's earliest animated short subjects and founded the first Chinese animation studio in Shanghai during the 1920s. Princess Iron Fan, completed during the Japanese occupation in 1941, remains virtually unknown in the West, but its level of technical accomplishment and impact on the history of East Asian animation cannot be overstated. The Wan Brothers were influenced by the surreal Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons of Max and Dave Fleischer, and Princess Iron Fan is a sometimes uneven but thoroughly enchanting blend of realistic rotoscoping and almost abstract flights of fancy. The film's artistic achievement is all the more remarkable when one considers it was made in the thick of the Sino-Japanese War.

One of the movie's many admirers was a 16-year-old Japanese boy by the name of Tezuka Osamu. Inspired to pursue a career as a comic artist, Tezuka went on to almost single-handedly jumpstart Japan's manga and anime industries, forever altering the face of animation with such titles as Astro Boy, Dororo, and Kimba, the White Lion. In 1952 Tezuka created his own manga version of Journey to the West, which Toei adapted into a feature-length anime in 1960.

Back in China, the Wan Brothers had been trying to get a second Monkey King feature off the ground ever since work on Princess Iron Fan wrapped in 1941. The escalation of World War II and the subsequent Chinese Civil War prevented any real progress from being made for over a decade. Once the Chinese Communist Party restored a measure of order, the Wans were finally able to start production on Uproar in Heaven at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio in 1954. As a retelling of the first seven chapters of Journey to the West, the movie centers on the pre-journey origins of the Monkey King and his battle against the heavenly forces of the Jade Emperor. Incredibly lavish even by Hollywood standards, Uproar in Heaven took ten years to complete. The Wans' patience was well-rewarded; when the finished film finally premiered in 1965, it was hailed as a masterpiece of Chinese animation. Sadly, Uproar in Heaven would represent the apex of Mainland Chinese animated filmmaking. The following year, the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution effectively shut down the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, and many of its most talented artists were shipped off to perform farm work in the countryside.

Journey to the West, Shaw Brothers Style

It fell to the Hong Kong film industry to keep the Monkey King alive on the big screen, and the flagship Shaw Brothers Studio picked up the gauntlet with a quartet of tremendously successful live-action musicals. The first two of Shaw's Journey to the West series, The Monkey Goes West and Princess Iron Fan, both appeared in 1966. Although Sun Wu Kong is still the hero, the screen is dominated in these and subsequent outings by Chinese opera singer Peng Peng as the pig, Zhu Ba Jie. The greedy, self-important Pigsy has always been an essential foil, playing Daffy Duck to Sun Wu Kong's Bugs Bunny, but never before had he been allowed to hog the stage (pun intended) to such a degree. Peng Peng's wonderful singing talents are the centerpiece of the first two films in the series, although the musical elements are gradually downplayed in later installments.

All four films were directed by Ho Meng Hua between 1966 and 1968, and they are very much of their era. The sets and costumes border on the psychedelic, and the series proved a veritable showcase for Shaw Brothers' sexy 60s starlets, including Lily Ho, Cheng Pei Pei, and Fong Ying. Despite the overall family-friendly tone, each film provides a tantalizing flash of near-nudity, not out of keeping with the tone of the Ming novel. The lustful Zhu Ba Jie is forever chasing skirts, and the chaste Tripitaka is often at pains to avoid the amorous advances of female demons whose desire to "eat his flesh" often takes on humorous and overtly sexual overtones.

Widely considered the best of the series, The Cave of Silken Web (1967) takes one of the steamier interludes from Journey to the West, in which a coven of sexy spider demons tries to seduce Tripitaka, and turns it into a campy triumph of Free Love psychedelia. Wu Cheng'en may not have had go-go girl outfits in mind when he was writing in the 16th century, but in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek tone that has characterized Journey to the West for centuries, only the most hardhearted purist can complain.

Sex sells, and for the last entry in the series, 1968's The Land of Many Perfumes, the series turns to an even lustier chapter of the novel, which concerns Monkey and friends' visit to an Amazonian land populated entirely by women. The queen is extremely interested in Tripitaka for the obvious reasons - as is every other woman in town - and the expected hilarity ensues before the curtain draws on Ho Meng Hua's final Journey outing. Ironically enough, after starring as the virginal Tripitaka in all four movies, actor Ho Fan would go on to become a prolific director of Category III films.

The Land of Many Perfumes was the last official entry in Shaw Brothers' Journey to the West series, but the studio wasn't quite finished with Sun Wu Kong just yet. In 1975 the studio's top director, Chang Cheh, took a stab at his own Journey to the West film, The Fantastic Magic Baby. Although the seemingly ludicrous English title makes it sound like some kind of second-rate comedy about an infant with superpowers, the movie is actually a reworking of one of the most famous chapters from the novel. The tale of Sun Wu Kong and Guan Yin's battles against the impish offspring of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan represents some of the most comedically brutal brawls in the entire Journey, a natural fit for the director of One-Armed Swordsman and Five Deadly Venoms. That said, The Fantastic Magic Baby carries on in much the same tradition as the other Shaw Brothers Monkey King movies. Although it features an entirely new cast, the self-consciously artificial sets, costumes, and makeup create a quite contemporary air of camp while simultaneously acknowledging the story's long history on the Chinese stage.

Monkey!: Journey to Television

Despite the numerous movie versions of the Monkey King legend produced in China and Japan over the decades, Journey to the West remained little-known in the West outside scholarly circles and East Asian emigre communities. All that changed in 1978, when Japan's Nippon Television produced a campy, low-budget TV series that faithfully adhered to the serial format of the original novel. For obvious reasons, no complete filmed version of the mammoth Journey has ever been attempted, but Saiyuki's eventual 52 episodes brought much more of the story to the screen than had been seen to that point. The effort was well-received; at one point ratings were as high as 50 percent, and Natsume Masako's gender-bending performance as Tripitaka inaugurated a tradition in Japan of casting cute and perky actresses in the role of the monk. But more importantly, the show was picked up by the BBC, who dubbed the series in English for broadcast in the UK, Canada, and Australia. Rechristened Monkey!, the series became a cult classic for a generation of Western children. To this day, Monkey! enjoys a tremendous following abroad, and is largely responsible for popularizing the story beyond East Asia. It took the better half of a millennium, but the "Journey to the West" was finally complete.

Not to be outdone, China's CCTV produced its own Journey to the West series from 1982-1987. While the show's look and feel was comparable to its Japanese counterpart, a level of prestige was brought to the production by the casting of classically trained Peking Opera actor Liu Xiao Ling Tong as Sun Wu Kong. Liu's family had specialized in portraying the Monkey King onstage for generations, and his performance has a certain weight and authenticity to it that, for many, remains the definitive onscreen evocation of the character.

Mo Lei Tau Monkey

By this time, the story and characters of Journey to the West have become so firmly ensconced in the East Asian pop-culture landscape that artists and filmmakers are free to take the Monkey King's journey in some quite unusual directions without bothering to explain the original premise to their audience. Manga artist Toriyama Akira famously (and liberally) adapted the tale into the barely recognizable but immensely popular Dragonball franchise. More in line with the original tale - but just as out-of-left-field as Dragonball - is Hong Kong director Jeffrey Lau's critically acclaimed two-part masterpiece of mo lei tau, A Chinese Odyssey (1994). An unlikely but incredibly winning marriage of anachronistic sight gags and Buddhist philosophy, the two films spin an alternate-reality, "what-if?" take on the legend that finds the Monkey King reincarnated as a human in a dystopian Song Dynasty where the Journey to the West was never completed. After a magical time-traveling device takes him through several hilarious Journey vignettes, the previously conceited Monkey King learns some hard lessons about love, self-sacrifice, and the importance of Tripitaka's mission.

A Chinese Odyssey features strong performances from some of Hong Kong's hottest up-and-coming actresses of the day, including Karen Mok and Athena Chu, but it's Stephen Chow's brilliantly nuanced turn as Sun Wu Kong and his human reincarnation that makes the films so successful. Chow is an obvious choice for portraying the sillier side of the Monkey King, but he also brings a level of disturbing intensity and underlying sense of menace to the role that is present in the original novel, but typically downplayed onscreen. Even more incredible is the degree of depth and dynamism Lau and Chow bring to the character. Previously, Sun Wu Kong had always been an immensely entertaining but essentially flat, unchanging personality. In A Chinese Odyssey he becomes a dynamic, multidimensional figure for the first time. The films deservedly earned funnyman Chow a newfound level of credibility as a serious actor, and they remain especially popular in Mainland China, where many a college student has written a paper examining the complex Buddhist themes at work amid all the comedy.

Lau himself revisited the same themes and characters in 2005 with the equally bizarre A Chinese Tall Story, which seeks to do for Tripitaka what A Chinese Odyssey did for Sun Wu Kong. Nicholas Tse takes center stage as the monk, who finds himself separated from his three companions and in the clutches of a hideously ugly lizard demon (portrayed under several layers of makeup by Charlene Choi) who has the hots for him. An odd sort of romance develops, and once again Lau fuses some rather cartoony comedy with poignant commentary on Buddhist conceptions of love and compassion. While much of the film is visually sumptuous, an overabundance of hyperkinetic CGI action sequences and a tacked-on subplot involving a race of space aliens prevent A Chinese Tall Story from matching the accomplishment of Lau's previous Monkey King adventure.

More Small Screen Adventures

Back on the small screen, Sun Wu Kong and pals continued to be an almost-constant presence in China, Japan, and Hong Kong. Nippon Television revived Saiyuki for a single season in 1994 with an all-new cast that featured actress Miyazawa Rie as Tripitaka, but failed to generate much excitement. The CCTV series continued to be enormously popular in China and was rebroadcast every year since production wrapped in 1987. In 1998 filming commenced on an additional 16 episodes to complement the original 25. To the delight of fans, Journey to the West II featured Liu Xiao Ling Tong reprising his role as the Monkey King, although the rest of the cast was comprised of fresh faces. There was even an ill-conceived American television take on the story in 2001, The Lost Empire, with Russell Wong as the Monkey King.

Hong Kong's TVB got in on the monkey business in 1996 with their own version of Journey to the West, this one starring Dicky Cheung as Sun Wu Kong. The series was a big hit for TVB, and revitalized Cheung's career. A contract dispute prevented him from returning for the series' second season, however, and his replacement, Benny Chan, was not nearly so well-received. Neither, for that matter, was Cheung's reprisal of the character in the 2002 serial The Monkey King: Quest for the Sutra. A record-breaking budget and a plethora of big-name cameos - including Sammi Cheng, Jimmy Lin, Nicholas Tse, and the Twins - weren't enough to counteract the uninspired liberties taken with the original story. Like Jeff Lau's A Chinese Odyssey, the series attempts to bring depth to the Monkey King with the addition of a love interest (Charlene Choi, who would win Tripitaka's heart three years later in A Chinese Tall Story), but without Lau's insightful examination of the Buddhist paradox of compassion and renunciation, Quest for the Sutra falls a little flat.

The Return of Saiyuki

Undaunted by the less-than-stellar results of recent Monkey King TV ventures abroad - to say nothing of Nippon Television's own unsuccessful attempt to relaunch Saiyuki in 1994 - Fuji TV returned the story to its roots in 2006 with the premiere of Japan's third live-action Journey to the West television series. Conceived as the spiritual heir to the 1978 series - albeit with a substantially bigger budget - the new Saiyuki sought to capitalize on adults' nostalgia for the original show while reeling in today's kids with a smattering of J-pop idols. SMAP's Katori Shingo stepped into Sakai Masaaki's celebrated shoes as the Monkey King, although Sakai made a prominent cameo appearance in the new series, as did Katori's fellow SMAP veteran Kimura Takuya. And like the original, much of the new series was filmed on location in China and Inner Mongolia. Hoping to capture the widest possible audience, Fuji TV aired the program at 9 p.m. - a time typically reserved for more serious adult dramas. While the decision not to air Saiyuki during a more kid-friendly timeslot may have prevented it from duplicating the ratings success of the first series, the move was successful in drawing in grown-up fans of the original series as well as their children.

Fuji TV and Toho took a second gamble on Saiyuki when the decision was made to develop a feature film version in lieu of a second TV season. The Saiyuki movie opened in Japan on July 14, 2007 at the height of the summer blockbuster season, where it managed to hold its own against such Hollywood heavyweights as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Transformers. More than 500 years after Wu Cheng'en first set the Monkey King's fantastic adventures to paper, the Journey to the West is still going strong, and its next destination is Hollywood with the Jackie Chan and Jet Li-starring The Forbidden Kingdom set to open in 2008.

For all his malice and mischief, the Monkey King is arguably the most popular and endearing trickster in the pantheon of world mythology. He no doubt owes much of this distinct honor to the many artists and filmmakers who have done so much to proliferate his story over the past hundred years. Few literary characters in history can claim such a numerous and varied string of high-quality film and television incarnations as Sun Wu Kong, the Great Sage Equal to Heaven. It couldn't have happened to a more deserving monkey.

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Published January 7, 2008

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