Year of the Monkey: Cinematic Adventures of The Monkey King

12 Feb

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This past Monday marked the beginning of the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese Zodiac, so I thought it a good time to do a short survey of some notable film and TV adventures of the legendary Chinese trickster, Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, a leading character in “Journey to the West,” a classic 16th century Chinese text about the trip to India by a Chinese monk to obtain Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. Based on a real monk, the story, attributed to Wu Cheng’en, adds mythical characters and supernatural elements to the mix, so we have a monkey with magical powers who is assigned to guard the monk and protect him from assorted demons and monsters on his trip. The story has been told in animated and live-action adventures in films and TV shows from China, Hong Kong, Japan and other nations. There have been modern-day versions and science fiction versions. The best known version in the west is probably the Japanese animated series, “Dragon Ball,” about Goku, a monkey-tailed boy from another planet who is raised by a Chinese martial artist and becomes Earth’s champion.

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The story introduces the Monkey King as the leader of a band of monkeys on an idyllic mountain paradise who goes off to seek immortality and mystical training and eventually winds up in Heaven where he causes havoc among the Gods after raiding a sacred orchard and eating the peaches of immortality. He is caught by the Buddha and imprisoned in a mountain for 500 years, but is eventually freed on the condition that he accompany Tang San Zang, the Tang monk, on the journey to India. Along the way, they pick up two additional traveling companions, a man-sized pig named Zhu Bajie, commonly referred to as “Pigsy,” who is able to transform into various creatures, including humans he encounters, and Sha Wu Jing, commonly referred to variously as River Demon and Sand Monk, or “Sandy.”

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There are several incidents in the story that have been adapted more often than others. The tale of how they meet Pigsy is the one I’ve seen the most often. Wukong and Tang come to a village where a monster terrorizes a family and demands the hand of their daughter, a beautiful maiden, in marriage. Wukong transforms himself into the maiden to lure the monster into a trap and only then do we learn that the monster is Pigsy, who is frightened when Wukong confronts him and is shamed into apologizing and joining the pilgrimage as atonement. Pigsy is generally treated as a comical character.

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The other common story, in the versions I’ve seen, is that of Princess Iron Fan, in which the monk and his party are recruited to put out the flames on Fire Mountain and can only do it with a magical iron fan owned by the powerful, antagonistic Ox King and his duplicitous bride, Princess Iron Fan.

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Wukong uses trickery and transformation to obtain the fan.

UPROAR IN HEAVEN (1965)

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For this piece, I chose to watch a version I hadn’t seen before, a full-length animated feature from Mainland China entitled UPROAR IN HEAVEN (1965), which is available with English subtitles on Amazon Prime. The focus of this film is entirely on the early stages of the Monkey King’s life and his adventures in heaven, where he initially seeks a prestigious position and is humiliated upon realizing that his assignment as protector of the heavenly horses is just a menial one. He eats the peaches of immortality and fights the celestial warriors and returns to his mountain home to arm and train the monkeys to fight off the armies from heaven when they arrive. The film never even reaches the point where Wukong is bested by the Buddha and imprisoned in the mountain. Instead it ends on a note of triumph as Wukong remains defiant and his monkeys continue to live free.

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I wonder if there was some political message meant here, with the monkeys representing the common people and the gods in heaven representing either the bourgeoisie, the decadent west, or the oppressive rulers of Old China. According to one post I found on the web, “the rebellious Monkey was modified slightly to be an allegory for Mao Tse-Tung, so instead of being punished for his misdeeds, Monkey becomes heroic for upending the heavenly order.”

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Either way, it’s an enjoyable film, beautifully animated and designed and a rare opportunity to see the Monkey King as a distinct hero who is never in a subordinate role. He has no monk to serve nor any pig to bicker with.

SAIYUKI (1960)

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I also watched my R2 DVD of SAIYUKI (1960), the third animated feature to come out of Japan’s Toei Animation Studio and the first to get wide release in the U.S., where it was retitled ALAKAZAM THE GREAT, dubbed into English by a cast of celebrities (including Frankie Avalon and Jonathan Winters), extensively rewritten to cater to American sensibilities and given a whole new music score.

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I’ve seen ALAKAZAM a number of times, but this is the first time I’ve seen SAIYUKI, which is a whole different experience. It has no English subtitles, but the story is largely told visually and I was already familiar with the events in the film. Based on a manga by Osamu Tezuka (“Astro Boy”), SAIYUKI gives Son Goku (the Japanese name for Sun Wukong) a monkey girlfriend named Rin-Rin, who waits patiently for Goku as he goes off on his various journeys. It condenses pretty much the whole story into 88 minutes, starting with his origin, continuing with his dramatic confrontations in heaven and his imprisonment in the mountain before being freed to join the monk and ending with the triumphant return to China, cutting out most of the adventures along the way. We do see the whole encounter with Pigsy and the maiden he covets and its sympathetic outcome.

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SAIYUKI boasts a lot of beautiful imagery, but it also inserts a number of anachronistic modern touches, including the use of telephones, videophones and celestial police clouds with sirens and searchlights.

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There are some hallucinatory sequences as well. Toei was clearly experimenting with humor and imagination in the hopes of breaking out of the straight fairy tale mode that characterized most of its features.

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I’m not sure they succeeded, since I think I would have preferred a more rigorous, straightforward approach to this story myself. But it is an enjoyable and unusual film and one that should be seen in Japanese with English subs., should a version ever become available, since the dubbed version completely undercuts the cultural context and blots out the story’s origins in Buddhist lore.

PRINCESS IRON FAN (1941)

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There’s a much earlier animated version, PRINCESS IRON FAN, which was produced in Shanghai in 1941 by Chinese animators under Japanese occupation. Here are excerpts from an unpublished review I wrote some years ago:

This DVD edition of PRINCESS IRON FAN offers the opportunity to see a rare animated feature film made in China in 1941, during the Japanese occupation. It’s in black-and-white and is 73 minutes long and includes the original Mandarin language soundtrack, with optional English subtitles. The story is taken from the classic Chinese text, “Journey to the West,” the legend of the Monkey King and his accompaniment of the monk, Tang Seng, on his trip to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. The particular chapter told here covers the adventure centered around Fiery Mountain and the efforts of Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) and his party to locate the magical Iron Fan needed to put out the fire and retrieve it from its owner, Princess Iron Fan, and her husband, Bull Demon King. There’s a scene near the end of the film where the monk rallies the townspeople to join together in a unified effort to defeat the Bull Demon King and exhorts them to fight to the end. This can be read as a message to the Chinese people who were suffering under Japanese occupation at the time while two opposing factions, the Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai-Shek, and the Communists, under Mao Tse Tung, were offering resistance but often at odds with each other.

There are occasional clever Max Fleischer-style cartoon gags, e.g. in a scene involving an attack of heavy winds, a house sprouts two arms and hands which grab the roof to keep it from flying away. In one scene, the Monkey King reduces himself to the size and form of an insect and is washed down into Princess Iron Fan’s stomach with the tea she drinks. He then travels through her interior and uses one of her lungs as a punching bag to cause her such torment that she’ll agree to give him the fan.

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I don’t know that I’d recommend this to a general audience, though. The print used for this transfer is quite old and features a lot of damage in the form of scratches and stains. The light levels fluctuate, giving a distracting “flickering” effect at times and darkness sometimes spreads over the image. It can be quite a chore to sit through. The animation is quite fluid and most impressive in some scenes, with some remarkable design work applied to the characters, particularly the human ones. Some characters even look rotoscoped (a process where the animators use live-action actors to provide the models for the animation). But it’s also quite crude at times, with unnecessary movements within a shot and a curious tendency to pan back and forth between characters within a scene, sometimes quite rapidly, rather than simply cut to the different speakers. Some actions go on way longer than they need to. The backgrounds are generally quite meticulous, however. The music consists of a small orchestra making frantic musical sounds designed to match the frenetic action onscreen, producing an earache-inducing annoying effect. Some simple melodies would have sufficed.

THE MONKEY GOES WEST (1966)

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Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio did its own series of live-action film versions, starting with THE MONKEY GOES WEST (1966), which casts swashbuckling star Yueh Hua (COME DRINK WITH ME) as Sun Wukong, in full monkey makeup, and Peng Peng as Pigsy. The first of four films, it cuts out the origin story and the adventures in heaven and opens up with the traveling monk discovering Wukong imprisoned in the rock. He frees him and the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, appears in person to inform Wukong of his assignment to guard the monk on his journey. Wukong resists but is soon given a headband made of gold which, upon placement on his head, makes him vulnerable to control by the monk and subject to severe pain if he refuses. This headband is used in most versions of the story, including SAIYUKI. The rest of the film is taken up with meeting Pigsy and Sand Monk, thus rounding out the full party and continuing their journey. The encounter with Pigsy shows him in human form as a rotund merchant who has impressed the maiden’s parents with his wealth and persuaded them to willingly give her to him in marriage, leaving her cousin, a poor student whom she really loves, out in the cold. Wukong is able to show them Pigsy’s true form and end the charade.

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Pigsy is played by the corpulent actor, Peng Peng, whose pig makeup is quite convincing and his delightful portrayal enhances the entire series. Much of the dialogue between Pigsy and Wukong is sung, Huangmei Opera-style. There are abundant special effects, some done in real time on the set and some done optically. Some of the process shots are pretty crude, but I found the whole enterprise quite imaginative and exciting throughout and only wish this had been dubbed in English and released to theaters in the U.S. back in 1966, where I could have seen it as an adolescent and developed an interest in this story much sooner than I did.  Yueh Hua is excellent as Sun Wukong and gets all the monkey movements and gestures just right. He played the role in only one other film in the series, PRINCESS IRON FAN.

PRINCESS IRON FAN (1966)

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PRINCESS IRON FAN (1966) was the second film in the series and is devoted to two tales from the original text, that of the title character and the one about Lady White Skeleton. I’ve reviewed the film on IMDB and here are excerpts from that review:

PRINCESS IRON FAN is the second in a series of Shaw Bros. live-action adaptations of “Journey to the West,” the mythological tale of a quest from China to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures, famous for the adventures of Sun Wukong, the notorious Monkey King. This one focuses on two distinct incidents from the saga. The first involves Monkey King’s encounter with Princess Iron Fan and the Ox King and his attempt to get the Iron Fan from them to fan out the fire on Flame Mountain blocking the way of the Tang Monk and his party. The second deals with Lady White Skeleton and her sister and their attempt to abduct the Tang Monk away from Sun Wukong’s protection in order to eat his flesh and become immortal. The decision to limit the movie to two episodes in a 93-minute film, each with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, makes for better storytelling and greater entertainment value. It’s helped considerably by the quality of the acting, especially the three female Shaw Bros. stars who play Princess Iron Fan (Pat Ting Hung), Lady White Skeleton (swashbuckling star Cheng Pei-Pei) and her sister (Lily Ho). Each of these characters is beautiful and sexy, but also crafty and duplicitous, and they give the resourceful Monkey King quite a challenge. In one very funny scene Monkey impersonates the Ox King to seduce Princess Iron Fan and learn from her the whereabouts of the fan. But then the real Ox King shows up.

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The actresses all play it with a certain amount of Peking Opera stylization, as befitting the theatrical conventions that have traditionally been used to tell these stories. They’re an absolute delight to watch, as are all the other actors, including Yueh Hua, who rarely got the chance in his swordplay films to really show his stuff as he does here in his role as the Monkey King. The makeup works fine and the special effects are simple but effective. The action is photographed on lavish Shaw Bros. sets and picturesque Taiwan locations. The original Chinese music score draws on traditional instruments and melodies.

CAVE OF SILKEN WEB (1967)

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The third film in the series is CAVE OF SILKEN WEB (1967) and it focuses solely on the tale of the Seven Spider Sisters. Here are excerpts from my IMDB review:

CAVE OF SILKEN WEB (1967) is the third in the Shaw Bros. studio’s series of fantasy films adapted from the classic Chinese literary work, “Journey to the West.” This one focuses on one adventure in the story – the capture of the Tang Monk by the Seven Spider Sisters and the attempts to rescue him by Monkey, Pig and Sand. The sisters’ aim is to gain eternal life by eating the monk’s flesh, an act to which they devote an extremely lovely song-and-dance number. The Sisters are adorned in sexy, color-coded lingerie-style costumes and are portrayed by a line-up of stunning Shaw Bros. beauties including Liu Liang Hua, Angela Yu Chien and Helen Ma. (Angela has a spicy boudoir spider web scene.) Keeping it nice and simple, the film is focused entirely on the efforts of Monkey King and his partners to break through the lethal spider web surrounding the Sisters’ cave. Once they gain access to the cave, one or more of the party are captured at various points as well. Sometimes the action involves one character transforming into another to trick the sisters and divide them. At one point Monkey transforms into Silver Sister and then has to convince the other sisters he’s the real one when the real one shows up. This is a very funny scene made more so by the actress who has to play Silver Sister as channeled by the Monkey King.

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The pre-digital special effects are all done via optical printer or on-stage mechanical means and are all quite effective. The small number of songs by the sisters and Pig are entertaining and well staged. The acting is quite good by all concerned. This film and PRINCESS IRON FAN are easily the best of the four Shaw Bros. Monkey King films, with lots of magical action, beautiful Shaw Bros. actresses, concise stories and a mix of studio sets and picturesque Taiwan locations.

THE LAND OF MANY PERFUMES (1967)

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And here are some unpublished notes I wrote about THE LAND OF MANY PERFUMES, the fourth film in the series, which I watched over a decade ago after watching the other films in the series:

LAND OF MANY PERFUMES (1968): This one has even more women in it as the Monk and his party enter the title kingdom, which is populated exclusively by women. Both the Empress and her daughter want to marry the monk, while the Empress’s “Minister” gets into the act also. Meanwhile the female Scorpion and Snake spirits (who’ve been training for 1000 years), also turn up looking for the monk, again, to partake of his reportedly life-extending flesh. At one point, an army of man-hungry female guards, wearing golden nighties, are roused from their sleep and chase after Pig because he is, after all, still a man. And there’s a subplot involving Ru Yi, a fairy god who has taken over Monkey’s mountain, forcing Monkey to go there and set him straight. Ru Yi begs forgiveness and later helps Monkey out with the snake and scorpion spirits. The effects are not so good in PERFUMES, where some sloppy rear screen projection mars a few sequences. The opening credits are animated.

“Journey to the West” (1986)

My very first exposure to this story was a Mainland Chinese TV series produced by China Central Television in 1986 and called “Journey to the West,” which I acquired for a local cablecast around 1990 when I worked as Program Director at CUNY TV, the cable television station of The City University of New York.

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It takes 25 episodes (each ranging from 45 to 55 minutes, approximately) to tell the story, so it includes most, if not all, of the incidents in the original text. It was shot on video and uses a lot of video effects to recreate the magical powers employed by Wukong in the course of the action. It may seem crude by modern standards, but I remember finding the series full of action and enormously entertaining.

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Here’s a link to a promo segment for the series that ran on A&E:

“Dragon Ball” (1986)

Finally, we come to what is probably my favorite version of them all, the Japanese animated series, “Dragon Ball” (1986-89), which portrays Son Goku as a boy from the planet Vegeta who has extraordinary powers but no knowledge of his origins and was raised, Superman-style, by an elderly Chinese martial artist, Son Gohan, who rescued him from the tiny rocket ship that brought the rambunctious baby to Earth. Early episodes include some incidents from “Journey to the West,” including the encounter with the pig monster, who turns out to be a lecherous boy pig named Oolong who then becomes a traveling companion of Goku and the teenage girl genius, Bulma, who has enlisted Goku to help her locate and retrieve all seven of the magical dragon balls, which when gathered, grant their possessor a wish from Shen Long, the Eternal Dragon. Goku, like his Chinese antecedents, rides a flying nimbus cloud and carries an extending pole as a weapon.

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In “Oolong the Terrible,” Oolong takes many forms to terrorize the inhabitants of a remote village into letting him abduct their daughters, who are later revealed to be living it up at Oolong’s expense in a lavish villa and giving him nothing for his efforts. It’s all very funny.

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Later, in two episodes, “The Ox King on Fire Mountain” and “The Kamehameha Wave,” we meet the Ox King, the flaming mountain and the Ox King’s feisty little daughter, ChiChi, who beheads a rampaging dinosaur in her first scene and is destined to be Goku’s wife. Goku’s future mentor, Master Roshi, supposedly has the fan that would put out the fire, but he is unable to find it and volunteers to use his Kamehameha Wave to achieve the same result, a technique he is soon impelled to teach to Goku.

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“Dragon Ball” was followed by a sequel series, “Dragon Ball Z” (1989-1996), which continued the adventures of a grown Goku as he faces a host of alien warriors, including other survivors from his home planet, in a series of increasingly pitched—and seemingly endless—super-powered battles.

I’ve actually seen a few other versions, but these are all I’m going to discuss here.

Happy New Year!

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