Sun Wukong, a.k.a. the Monkey King, has been the subject of various Chinese films, TV shows, comic books, and video games, so it’s fitting that one of his adventures would form the basis for the very first feature-length animated film in China’s history. It took three years for twin brothers Wan Laiming and Wan Guchan (along with siblings Wan Chaochen and Wan Dihuan) to complete this 73 minute cartoon for Xinhua Film Company, doing so under the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during the second Sino-Japanese War. The fact that this movie ever came to pass is an achievement in itself. The fact that it’s quite good is no less than a miracle.
Adapted from a portion of Wu Cheng-En’s classic novel Journey to the West, this 1941 features Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing, and the Tang Priest Xuanzhang, who find themselves at a literal impasse. They need to pass Fiery Mountain, but – true to its name – it happens to be engulfed in flames. The dangerous fires not only block the pilgrims’ path to obtain the scriptures, but are causing the local villagers some problems with their crops as well. While a magical iron palm leaf fan exists that can put out the fire, its owner – the aptly named Princess Iron Fan – isn’t exactly in the mood to lend a hand. As such, it’s up to the Monkey King and his merry men to save the day.
Those coming into Princess Iron Fan expecting that a movie this old could only consist of crude animations and a slipshod storyline will be pleasantly surprised by the artistic and narrative skill of the Wan Brothers. Their utilization of the rotosoping – an animation technique in which artists trace over filmed movements of live actors on a frame-by-frame basis – creates a remarkably fluid and eye-catching animations.
The film also benefits from a cheeky sense of humor and a keen attention to detail. For example, even small animations like seeing Sha Wujing primp himself a second just before knocking on the Princess’s door make this film a real visual treat. Another innovative aspect of Princess Iron Fan is how it incorporates music. The film boasts a piano duet of sorts between Princess Iron Fan and a disguised Zhu Bajie (as her estranged husband, the Ox Demon King), complete with a bouncing ball to help viewers sing along to the onscreen – and rather risqué for the age demographic – Chinese lyrics.
The influence of American cartoons is evident throughout the film. The Wan brothers were said to have been inspired by watching Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but you can see a bit of Steamboat Willie, Popeye, and even Betty Boop (check out the eyes on that Fox Demon) in Princess Iron Fan, too. The way in which the Wan Brothers are able to weave Western influences and Chinese mythology and create something fresh in the process is a joy to behold.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of the entire film is the pedagogical text that opens Princess Iron Fan: “Made with the purpose of training young minds, the filmmakers instruct young viewers that the film is a metaphor for keeping the faith and working together.” In light of the trying historical circumstances that surrounded both the creation and release of the film, one can see why such a statement would be made. What’s notable in this respect is how the film concludes. I won’t spoil it, but rather than simply have the god-like Sun Wukong intervene on their behalf (as I’ve seen in other versions of the tale), the villagers actually take measures to solve their own problems, which results in a resounding, and surprisingly moving moment late in the film.
While Princess Iron Fan’s historical significance is without question, that shouldn’t be its only claim to fame. Some viewers may be put off by the age of the film and the quality of the existing print, but Princess Iron Fan not only ranks as one of the better Journey to the West adaptations, but amounts to a marvelous little gem of a movie in its own right. (Calvin McMillin 2010)