China’s first feature-length animated film is, naturally, based off one of its most beloved tales. How does it hold up?
“Journey to the West is a wonderful children’s story, but the world often misunderstands it as a fantasy novel. This film was made for the purpose of training the hearts and minds of children. The story is pure, untainted by fantasy. Fiery Mountain blocking the path of Tang Seng’s company is a metaphor for the difficulties in life.”
The Wan family twins Laiming and Guchan are legends in the zeitgeist of Chinese cinema, and in the world of animation. As the pioneers of donghua animation, they can be considered the Walt Disneys (and Ub Iwerks) of China. Their films, starting with 1926’s short Uproar in the Studio, have influenced the likes of Osamu Tezuka and likely helped kickstart Japan’s now omnipresent animation scene. After the release of Disney’s Snow White in 1938, the Waiming studio set out to create their own feature-length film. It took 3 years, all the while China was under both Japanese rule and bang in the middle of a world war.
The finished product would no doubt be a huge tool to boost morale to troops and would serve as an icon of China’s culture, so the story needed to reflect that. Naturally, they selected a few chapters from Journey to the West, and in 1941, they released Princess Iron Fan: one of the more popular episodes from the book. In it, the monk Sanzang and his three travelling companions attempt to cross the Fiery Mountain, but find the flames too much to go through. Taking refuge in a nearby house, they learn that the flames can only be stopped by Princess Iron Fan’s palm leaf fan, but she and her husband The Bull Demon King aren’t known for their kindness.
Naturally Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing attempt to parlay, negotiate or even trick the demons into giving them the fan, so that they may pass. Plenty of shenanigans occur, from Wukong turning into a fly, getting swallowed by the Princess and threatening to crush her from inside, to Zhu Bajie transforming into the Bull Demon King (while the latter is off with his mistress) in an attempt to seduce the Princess into giving him the fan. The whole thing plays out more like an episode of a television show than an actual movie, but at 80-ish minutes long there’s not a tonne of time to do anything.
As China’s first feature-length animated film (and 12th overall in the entire world), Princess Iron Fan is a very accomplished film. It certainly lacks the finesse of the work Disney was putting out – and the animation feels more like an earlier Silly Symphonies than Pinocchio, but there’s still a tonne of effort put into this, and it shows. The Disney influence is incredibly strong, from some of the designs to the overall structure of the movie. The studio seems to rely quite heavily on rotoscoping techniques, giving most of the character animations a very realistic touch, but then switches gears suddenly into goofier, physics-defining lunacy whenever something a bit out there happens.
It shows the studio’s attempts at giving us a Journey to the West that incorporates elements of the book’s humour in it. Sure maybe the onscreen shenanigans go on for a while – and your enjoyment may hinge on your tolerance for extended sequences of goofy bullshit – but the animation is still quite fun. Not to mention there are some genuine laughs to be had throughout, such as Bajie (transformed as the Bull Demon King) boasting about his own trickery skills. The Wan brothers would later go on to create Havoc in Heaven, which took the story more seriously but by throwing elements of opera in there (and a beautiful colour palette), it never drags on. Here, the movie would have suffered had it not injected a few jokes and nutty moments of movement.
It’s difficult to find a really good quality print of this film, so it’s hard to judge some of the overall visual elements. The camera is oftentimes extremely shaky, and has a staggering amount of zooms and pans compared to other products of its time. It moves so much it puts Paul Greengrass to shame, but it’s hard to discern whether it’s an intentional decision or the result of a rushed animation process, or bad film preservation. Either way, it does make for a unique style which isn’t too bad once you get used to it.
As for how it fairs over the other Journey adaptations? It’s a fairly accurate retelling of the Princess Iron Fan episode, with only a few changes here and there – such as the transformation scenes and the climax – but the gist is all there. Sha Wujing is something of a useless waste here, reduced to a stuttering dipshit who does absolutely nothing that helps anyone. But whatever, it’s only Wujing. Zhu Bajie is very entertaining, and made me think of Sammo Hung throughout (and then made me extremely sad to think that he, Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao never made an adaptation). It works both as a piece of animation history and as a standalone film and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the novel, animation or Chinese cinema.
Verdict: An important piece of Chinese cinematic history, Princess Iron Fan is a solid film definitely worthy of praise
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Transformation scenes: 10/10
Karaoke moments: 2, somehow
Freaky eyes: Loads
Accuracy to the source material: 4/5
Sha Wujing: What happened to you, man?
Princess Iron Fan (1941)
Also known as: 铁扇公主; Tiě shàn gōngzhǔ
Directors: Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming
Writers: Wu Cheng’en (novel), Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming
Huh. I’m starting to see a family connection here.