Once thought lost, the first Journey to the West adaptation has survived – though not entirely intact.
“A monk! Oh, it’s been months since I last ate a monk!”
I’ve talked a bit about how the last few years we have seen something of a boom in Journey to the West films. Maybe it’s the fact that CGI is cheaper and easier than ever before, allowing for the more fantastic elements of the story to shine through (or be made laughably ridiculous). Everyone with a computer and a pirated copy of After Effects can create magical lightning and shoot people in front of green screens now. That said, I’ll always love seeing the creativity and love that gets put into the practical effects of adaptations long past.
With that in mind, I cannot praise these spider effects more. After a fairly by-the-numbers adaptation of the spider chapter (you know the one, they keep adapting it) where we see Wukong (Wu Wenchao), Bajie (Zhou Hongquan), and Wujing (Dan Erchun) all break into the spider princesses’ lair to rescue Tang Sangzang (Jaing Meikang) from a spider wedding, the monk’s now-bride (Yin Mingzhu) reveals her true self. There had been a few decent effects moments, but they had all been watching Wukong teleport from one place to another. At no point did he become a big, floppy marionette.
That’s only part of the charm of 1927’s adaptation of chapter 73. I’ll not lie – it starts out a bit slow and is largely interesting during those times due to its age and its history. See, the film had been considered lost until a Norwegian-translated print of (most of) the film reappeared making this something of a rare, almost-forgotten relic. The movie is supposedly missing the first reel and a chunk of its middle portion, so it’s kind of hard to judge as a story, but that’s not really the point here. The Cave of Silken Web is an artefact, a window into a time and place I’ll never experience and after watching the 40s animated Princess Iron Fan film I was very excited to see how things would play out in silent cinema.
And yeah, it’s a lot of fun. You know, when it isn’t a bunch of spider demons swarming around the Tang monk as he sits down and steadfastly rejects every offer of meat and sex he’s thrown. Sure, it’s hampered by obvious budgetary problems and the fact that there’s only so much fantastical craziness they can portray on screen, but it’s great to see the production do what they did with what they had. Watching the actors emote physically works really well for the story they’re telling; it’s just a shame available online versions don’t come with a soundtrack. If this ever gets screened with a live musical track, I’d be there in a heartbeat.
The scenes of people just sitting about and talking aren’t super exciting, but when the shenanigans and the martial arts stuff starts is when the film really finds its footing. Because then the women turn into their spider forms and burn alive while the film reel suddenly becomes bright red. The crimson-dyed battle at the end of the movie makes it worth sitting through some of the less exciting moments. Because it’s not something you watch for a great time, but more as a fascinating piece of China’s cinematic past. And it’s a fine example of early Chinese cinema, laying the groundwork for some of its most beloved tropes both in the mainstream and in their soon to be countless other Journey adaptation. It’s a great piece of cultural history – but man… that spider. There was a sequel made, but it’s considered lost as well. So come on, Norway – we’re all counting on you.
Verdict: Thanks to its short runtime and missing footage it’s impossible to ever judge it as a whole, but nevertheless Cave of Silken Web is charming and odd in a way modern films struggle to be.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Violence: A solid 5/10
Sex: 1/10 for much failed monk seduction
Sensual forehead rubbing: 10/10
Favourite intertitle: The tortoise devil got drunk
Favourite mask: A real toss-up between Bajie and that horse demon
The Cave of Silken Web (1927)
Also known as: 盤絲洞, Pan Si Dong; Journey to the West – the Spiders Cave; Spiders
Silent, with Mandarin (and Norwegian, technically) intertitles
Director: Dan Duyu
Writer: Guan Ji’an (screenplay), Wu Cheng’en (novel)
Yin Mingzhu as First Spider Spirit
Xia Peizhen as Second Spider Spirit
Wu Wenchao as Sun Wukong
Jiang Meikang as Tang Sanzang
Zhou Hongquan as Zhu Bajie
Dan Erchun as Sha Wujing
He Rongzhu as Man In White
Chen Baoqi as Yellow Flower Daoist Spirit