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The Monkey Goes West  
|     review    |     notes     |     availability     |     also see      |

DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Intercontinental Video Limited
Mandarin Language Track
Removable English, Chinese, and Bahasa Subtitles
Various extras including trailers, color stills and original poster

• Ho Fan, the actor who portrays the venerable Tang monk Xuanzhang, went on to become a famous director of erotic films.

Also see:
Princess Iron Fan (1966)
Cave of the Silken Web (1967)
The Land of Many Perfumes (1968)

Chinese: 西遊記
Year: 1966
Director: Ho Meng-Hua
Producer: Sir Run Run Shaw
Cast: Diana Chang Chung-Wen, Ho Fan, Yueh Hua, Peng Peng, Fan Mei-Sheng, Tsang Choh-Lam, Guk Fung, Mars, Go Bo-Shu, Tina Chin Fei, Lee Ying
The Skinny: This Shaw Brothers' live-action retelling of Journey to the West mixes equal parts action, comedy, and musical to create a highly entertaining fantasy kung fu flick.


On 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 monk.

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 thing.

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 audiences—especially when this film is not specifically defined as a musical—these 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)

images courtesy of Intercontinental Video, Ltd.
back to top Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen