The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

Starring Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yi-Fei, Li Bing-Bing, Ye Xiao-Keng, Wang De-Shun, Morgan Benoit

Directed by Rob Minkoff

Expectations: Curious. I don’t remember it being very good.


The Forbidden Kingdom is far from great, but it is worthy of respect and attention. It is an American-produced fantasy wuxia, and I’m having a hard time thinking of any other film that fits that bill. For that alone it is interesting, but it’s also the first (and so far only) film that stars both Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Martial arts fans will no doubt want to see that, especially since the film contains a great fight between the two Hong Kong legends. Jet Li even plays the Monkey King during the film’s intro and finale! There’s so much I enjoy about this movie, but no matter how much I want to love this film for what it is, its missteps are hard to overlook.

The major problem is that while it features Jackie and Jet, neither of them are the lead. That honor goes to Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), an American teenager obsessed with Hong Kong movies. His room is adorned with posters of Shaw Brothers films and Bruce Lee, The Monkey Goes West plays on his TV, and he even has a Sega Dreamcast. It’s almost like the character was based on my own teenage years! I wouldn’t ask the shopkeeper for an “early Shaw Brothers movie featuring a guy doing leopard style,” though. I’ve also never said, “Sick! Ten Tigers of Kwantung,” although if I did find a copy of the Shaw classic in a secondhand store, I would say something like “Oh shit! Ten Tigers of Kwantung!” so perhaps they weren’t too far off the mark. 🙂

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The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975)

The Fantastic Magic Baby [紅孩兒] (1975)

Starring Ting Wa-Chung, Lau Chung-Chun, Chiang Tao, Cheung Chuen-Lai, Woo Gam, Tsai Hung, Fung Hak-On, Ku Kwan, Teng Jue-Jen, Chen I-Ho, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Chao Li-Chuan, Siu Wong-Lung, Lee Lung-Yam, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High. Chang Cheh and Journey to the West!


In a career full of intriguing and entertaining films, Chang Cheh’s The Fantastic Magic Baby is one of his most interesting and unique. On the surface, it is an adaptation of a story from the Chinese classic Journey to the West, but it quickly reveals itself to be much more than that. Like Chang’s Shaolin Cycle films, The Fantastic Magic Baby honors and preserves the legacy of a Chinese tradition, showcasing the beautiful movements of the Peking Opera as only a Chang Cheh film could.

For those unfamiliar with Journey to the West, the basics are all present in the film. The Monk Tripitaka (Teng Jue-Jen) is traveling to retrieve sacred Buddhist scriptures from India with his companions Sun Wukong the Monkey King (Lau Chung-Chun), Bajie AKA Pigsy (Chen I-Ho) and Sha Seng AKA Sandy (Yeung Fui-Yuk). Demons and other devious entities catch wind of their travels and seek to imprison them in order to eat the monk’s flesh, which can supposedly prolong their lives 1,000 years. In this particular story, it is Princess Iron Fan (Woo Gam) and the Ox Demon King (Chiang Tao) who desire the monk’s flesh. They send their son Red Boy (Ting Wa-Chung) — the fantastic magic baby of the title — to capture Tripitaka for their pleasure. Red Boy is perfect for the mission because he has recently mastered the Three Types of True Fire, which are so powerful that not even the Monkey King can withstand them.
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The Land of Many Perfumes (1968)

The Land of Many Perfumes [女兒國] (1968)

Starring Chow Lung-Cheung, Ho Fan, Pang Pang, Tin Sam, Fang Ying, Lee Heung-Gwan, Lau Leung Wa, Irene Chen Yi-Ling, Wong Ching-Wan, Cheung Yuk-Kam, Kong Dan, Yip Bo-Kam, Lee Hung-Chu, Gloria Wang Xiao-Ing, Tsang Choh-Lam

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate. I’m getting somewhat bored of these because they’re all pretty similar.


What’s to say about this series that I haven’t already said? The Land of Many Perfumes is the fourth and final entry into the Shaw Brothers Journey to the West series of films, and unfortunately it’s the most minor of them all. Like the previous films, The Land of Many Perfumes opens with the monk Tang and his followers looking for a place to sleep at night. It’s a long, hard road to the West in search of Buddhist scriptures and beds are hard to come by.

The many perfumes of the title do not refer to thousands of little bottles of “eau du toilette” as you might expect. Nope, they’re talking about all the ladies in the region. Our heroes venture into a realm where only women dwell, reproducing via the river, but this method only allows them to produce female offspring. When the men arrive on the scene, it creates a frenzy among the women as many of them have never seen a man. They all wish to marry Tang, but it is the Empress and her daughter that scuffle the most about it. They don’t want to eat his flesh as the villains in the previous films all did, but they do lust for his flesh in other ways.

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Mini-Review: The Cave of Silken Web (1967)

The Cave of Silken Web [盤絲洞] (1967)

Starring Chow Lung-Cheung, Ho Fan, Pang Pang, Tin Sam, Angela Yu Chien, Lau Leung Wa, Shen Yi, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Shirley Wong Qui-Lee, Tin Mung, Yau Ching, Shum Lo, Tang Ti

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate. The last one wasn’t as good as the first.


Third in the Shaw Brother’s series of four films based upon the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, The Cave of Silken Web is a definite step up from the previous sequel Princess Iron Fan. The focus is tightened here to one story for the entire film and it serves the arc of the story and the film better than the episodic format that the earlier films had. With only one story to focus on, director Ho Meng-Hua and his wonderful group of actors can really settle into their roles and have a great time. Not to mention that the villains here have real weight and pursue our heroes relentlessly. Chow Lung-Cheung takes over the role of the Monkey King for this film, and while he’s not quite as emotive or charismatic as Yuen Hua was, it’s pretty seamless and most viewers probably won’t even notice the difference.

The Cave of Silken Web starts off like any other story from the series, with the monk Tang and his band of protectors riding West in search of Buddhist scriptures. While looking for a place to stay for the night, they are tricked into the evil plans of the seven spider-demon sisters of the Cave of the Silken Web! They are quite devious and before you know it, Tang is turned into mist and captured in a vase and all seems to be lost. Of course nothing is yet written in stone, as the Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy are all diligent followers of Tang and fight tirelessly to free their master.

The first half of the film is something of a rehash of most of the previous stories, but the film really hits its stride come the second half. The action moves completely within the cave and it’s a non-stop ride to the finale with all kinds of mistaken identity and hijinks that only the Monkey King can provide. Everything else takes a backseat to the last couple of minutes though when Sandy’s acquisition of the deadly Seven Flames is unleashed. The Seven Flames is the only thing capable of counteracting the seven sisters’ spider webs and it’s basically just a flamethrower disguised as a large jug. Watch as Sandy and the Monkey King lay waste to all kinds of shit with a flamethrower! I defy you to not be entertained by that! This is the first flamethrower I’ve seen in a Shaw Brothers film, and I sure hope it isn’t the last. This isn’t the type of movie I’d expect a flamethrower to pop up, but I ain’t complaining!

And if nothing else, The Cave of Silken Web teaches one very important lesson. No matter how powerful or supernatural you are (or think you are), a big rock to the back of the head is always capable of knocking you out. So watch your backs and give this one a shot. It’s not necessary to see the preceding films first, but it will help quite a bit and I recommend it.

Mini-Review: Princess Iron Fan (1966)

Princess Iron Fan [鐵扇公主] (1966)

Starring Ho Fan, Yueh Hua, Pang Pang, Tin Sam, Cheng Pei Pei, Pat Ting Hung, Lily Ho Li Li, Cheng Miu, Shen Yi, Ng Wai, Lily Li Li-Li, Ku Feng, Man Sau

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High, I really enjoyed the first film.


Princess Iron Fan is the second in the Shaw Brother’s four film series of Journey to the West films. It’s not nearly as episodic as the first film, this time only containing two stories, with most of the runtime dedicated to the second one. It’s interesting to me that this got titled after Princess Iron Fan, the subject of the first and much shorter tale, instead of after the film’s main villain and trickster the White Bone Demon (or the Lady White Skeleton depending on the translation) played wonderfully by Cheng Pei-Pei. No matter though, let’s get to what matters… is it a competent sequel?

The answer is a resounding yes. Princess Iron Fan doesn’t deal out anywhere near the amount of amazing FX and crazy visuals as The Monkey Goes West, but it does remain enjoyable throughout. Don’t worry though, you get your fair share of crazy shenanigans going on too. One of my favorite of these moments is when Monkey has to infiltrate Princess Iron Fan’s home to retrieve the only thing that can quell the flames impeding their journey, her iron fan. First he transforms into a three-inch tall version of himself and tickles his way through the serving girls to create a distraction. Then as the princess receives her scrumptious ginseng soup, he transforms into a fly and jumps in the bowl. He travels inside her stomach and then announces his presence. When the princess refuses to relinquish the fan, he hits her tender stomach walls with the end of his staff and performs ulcer-inducing somersaults. Her only recourse is to give in and my only option is to enjoy the shit out of this scene. I’ve seen tons of amazing and inventive sets from the Shaw Brothers, but the interior stomach is something completely fresh and very enjoyable.

Princess Iron Fan is a strong enough film on its own to win anyone over, but taken as a sequel it builds on The Monkey Goes West very well. It doesn’t flesh out the character of Sha Wujing (Sandy) at all though, but there’s still a couple of sequels to do that. I don’t need anything deep, but some explanation of him or a show of his powers would be nice. As of now he’s only the dude with the beard and the crescent moon staff. In any case, it’s clear that Monkey is and always will be the main character of these films. Even though he’s only a disciple to the Monk Tang on his quest for the Buddhist scriptures, it is Monkey’s journey that is the most interesting and easily relatable.

The Monkey Goes West (1966)

The Monkey Goes West [西遊記] (1966)

Starring Yueh Hua, Ho Fan, Pang Pang, Tin Sam, Fan Mei-Sheng, Kao Pao Shu, Nam Wai-Lit, Lee Ying, Diana Chang Chung-Wen, Chiu Sam-Yin

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderately high. I’m insanely interested in this movie and the novel it’s based upon.


Journey to the West is one of the most influential and famous Chinese works of literature of all time. I’ve never read it myself, but years of watching Chinese cinema introduced me to the character of the Monkey King and the basic theme of the work. My knowledge of the actual book is vague, and a vague understanding of a 2,400 page book isn’t really understanding at all, is it? Due to my enjoyment of the Monkey King character, I’ve always been curious to see where he comes from and read the book. Then I found out that in the late 60s the Shaw Brothers and director Ho Meng-Hua cranked out a series of four films based upon the seminal work. It seemed like just the thing to dip my toes into the work without sitting down for the next couple of years trying to read my way through the over five hundred-year-old tale.

A Buddhist monk begins a perilous journey to the West, in search of important Buddhist scriptures. The only problem is that all the denizens of the dark, the demons and the undesirables, want one thing. To eat the flesh of the monk, as they believe it will provide them everlasting life. Along the way the monk Tang picks up three protectors to thwart these flesh-eating attackers: Monkey, a mischievous and magical creature that must learn to control his powers for good; Pigsy, an overweight glutton concerned primarily with any fine young females that come his way; and Sandy, a banished general of Heaven who now lives underwater. And let’s not forget the evil Dragon Prince transformed into the monk’s horse for the journey!

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