a personal note, let me confess that I cannot get enough of Journey
to the West. No matter how many different versions I've come
across in my life, I am always keen to see more. For whatever reason,
the story of a rebellious monkey finding redemption through helping
a kindly Buddhist monk struck a chord with me. As a child, I grew
up reading comic book adaptations and children's books based on
the famous novel from Wu Cheng-En. I watched the various cartoon
incarnations of the Monkey King and was a devoted viewer
of the spectacular 1986 television show from China. In addition,
I buy virtually any Journey to the West paraphernalia that
I can get my paws on: statues, toys, opera masks, you name it. So
when I found out that Celestial Pictures was re-releasing the Shaw
Brothers epic Monkey Goes West, I placed my order immediately.
Thankfully, I was not disappointed.
In this initial chapter of the Shaw
Brothers' Monkey King series, we find a Tang Priest (Ho Fan)
well on his way to the West. His mission? To bring the Buddhist
scriptures to China. Along the way, he picks up some disciples that
will assist him on his perilous journey to India. First up is Sun
Wukong (Yueh Hua), the legendary monkey king who shook the pillars
of heaven, only to be cast down by the Lord Buddha to await the
coming of the Tang Priest. In due course, three other compatriots
will join the brotherhood: a disgraced Dragon Prince, a Water Demon,
and most famously, the gluttonous Pig (Peng Peng), a demoted Heavenly
General whose numerous vices make him a less than ideal Buddhist
Of course, the members of this ragtag
group don't quite reach the West in this film. No, after a series
of battles against evil demons and some infighting amongst the would-be
disciples, this core group of travelers isn't even established until
the final reel. Consequently, it would not be a stretch to say that
Monkey Goes West plays a lot like a Chinese Lord of the
Rings. Much like the initial novel (and film for that matter)
in Tolkien's trilogy, Monkey Goes West is very much a "gathering
of the troops" type film, but that fact is by no means a bad
On a purely visual level, the film
looks amazing. Chock-full of vibrant colors and rich hues, Monkey
Goes West contains some beautiful scenery; the filmmakers effortlessly
blend the artificial Shaw Brothers sets with the eye-catching vistas
of actual location footage. And the teensy bit of unexpected eroticism
sprinkled throughout the movie doesn't hurt either.
In terms of faithfulness to the text,
Ho Meng-Hua and company do their best in translating the massive
tome to the silver screen. Therefore, many events from the novel
are streamlined, altered, or deleted altogether from the narrative.
Gone is the story of Monkey's birth, ascendance to godhood, rebellion,
and fall. In addition, a few adventures are omitted (the novel is
serial in nature), and Friar Sand's origin gets modified considerably.
But all fanboy quibbles aside, the filmmakers do a remarkably good
job of remaining true to the sprit of Wu Cheng-En's masterpiece,
while still adding little touches of originality here and there.
However, despite the film's literary
pedigree, Monkey Goes West is anything but pretentious. In
fact, the film maintains a healthy sense of humor throughout. To
my surprise, Monkey Goes West contains several unexpected
musical interludes that help punctuate the action of a given scene.
These songs may sound traditional, but actually contain some of
the most hilariously bawdy lyrics I've heard in a film this old.
Though the very idea of characters "breaking into song"
may seem odd to Western audiencesespecially when this film
is not specifically defined as a musicalthese sequences are
not at all jarring and feel more like a logical outgrowth of the
narrative. And when the lustful Pig sings about being tricked by
"three bitches," how can you not laugh?
Still, the film detail that probably
won me over the most was a small nod to a nagging question I've
had about Journey to the West: "If the Monkey King can
leap a 1,000 li in a single jump, why can't he just fly the Tang
Priest to the West?" Sure, monks are supposed to lead a life
of suffering and there would be no material for a movie if that
were to happen, but surely, they would at least try, right? For
people unfamiliar with the story, this tiny scene will be innocuous
and forgettable, but I give credit to Monkey Goes West for
addressing a fundamental question that many adaptations sidestep,
but any little kid would ask in a heartbeat. And in a sense, the
movie really is geared to the kid in all of us. To be perfectly
honest, when the Monkey King started fighting a rubbery dragon/dinosaur
hybrid in a battle that seemed straight out of an old "Ultraman"
episode, I felt like I was seven years old again as I grinned from
ear to ear. (Calvin McMillin 2003)