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!

The Monkey Goes West is a great introduction to the classic story. As I said, I have a very limited background on the tale and who everyone is, but this film filled that out quite a bit. I was expecting more of a rat’s nest of storylines and characters, but at the end of the film everything was clear and concise, a testament to the strength of the storytelling throughout. This first film is similar in ways to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, in that it is an “assembling the team” movie for the most part. Every member gets a full storyline devoted to him, with Sandy’s being the briefest because he comes in so late in the film. I’m sure he’ll get fleshed out a bit in the sequels. In any case, this makes The Monkey Goes West a very episodic film with a general thread running through everything. As I understand it, the book is structured in a similar episodic fashion, and all current signs point that this is a fair adaptation of it.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the usage of music and songs in my review of Rape of the Sword. I mentioned that in the early Shaw Brothers musical films I had seen, the songs didn’t generally share a lot with their Hollywood brethren. The Monkey Goes West on the other hand does, as it features a bunch of songs sung directly by the characters to one another about any old thing that concerns them at the given moment. It has a very classic musical feel to it, albeit with Chinese music instead of a boisterous big band. With this new perspective, I now have a feeling that the introspective and contemplative songs of the martial opera films is a reflection more of the martial arts journey and that mindset, rather than a wholly different take on music in film by Chinese filmmakers.

As a 1966 Shaw Brothers special FX extravaganza, The Monkey Goes West also succeeds handily. Nearly every minute of the film is filled with some form of visual trickery and this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable film. The makeup for both Monkey and Pigsy looks superb and sells the characters so well that there is never a moment when you think of them as anything but their characters. The real star of the show though is all the dissolve and editing techniques employed to make the characters seem as magical as they should. Monkey jumps from one side of the screen to the other without breaking a sweat and he grabs his staff out of mid-air throughout the film. The editing in these sequences is spot-on fantastic and virtually seamless. There’s one moment towards the end where Pigsy swings his iron rake at an enemy, only to have her quickly disappear, his swing continuing on through the thin mountain air. To cut on action so perfectly is an incredible achievement, and even advancing frame-by-frame doesn’t betray the accomplishment. This is but one moment of excellent cut-on-action editing, in a film absolutely full of them.

There are a couple of FX moments that aren’t so hot today though, notably the compositing when the action moves underwater. The elaborate underwater cave set is placed in front of a fish aquarium via the magic of film printing and compositing techniques, but there are giant blue lines around the join points and a lot of the actor footage is noticeably lighter in color and contrast. It’s not a big deal to me, but many will find this aspect distracting, laughable or just plain ugly. The other big questionable effect is the giant dragon that Monkey fights early on. It’s one of my favorite moments in the film, but it’s also one of the most campy and unrealistic looking Shaw Brothers creations I’ve ever seen. I was simultaneously laughing at it and frightened for Monkey and the threatened monk as I had already bought into the story and was engaged fully. Such are the perils of watching FX-heavy films from forty-five years ago.

I enjoyed The Monkey Goes West even more than I expected to. It’s a great adventure filled with fun characters and all kinds of supernatural wackiness. If you have any interest in the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, this Shaw Brothers production is a great way to experience the tale without all the effort of reading. And if anything, it only made me more excited to get a copy and rip into it, something I’ve contemplated doing for several years now.