Wang Baoqiang’s modern day reimagining of the Journey to the West is a manic, bizarre but still entertaining adaptation.
“He’s just like a monkey. Just like a Monkey King!”
Modernising a classic story can be a tricky endeavour. For every O Brother Where Art Thou and Clueless there’s a BBC’s Sherlock. It’s hard to take the trials faced by characters hundreds of years ago and make them appropriate for a modern setting, and gets harder for every century that passes between tellings. A Journey to the West story set in the present day can’t be impossible, but it would require a bit of editing. Wang Baoqiang took up the challenge in 2017, with his film Buddies in India which sees him play Wukong, a monkey-loving acrobat whose house is on the verge of being demolished. In order to save it, he agrees to take the son of a dying CEO, Tang (Bai Ke), to India to retrieve the old man’s will. Along the way, they encounter enemies hired by the villainous uncle, as well as their trusty sidekicks Zhu Tianpeng (Yue Yunpeng) and Sha Wujing (Ada Liu).
Wang Baoqiang is such a natural choice to play Sun Wukong that I’m shocked it hadn’t happened sooner. His naturally affable face (which he can make pretty scary when he wants to) suits the Monkey King’s complexity to a tee, as does Wang’s acrobatic style of shaolin kung fu. And he does a (mostly) stellar job: His physicality is on point here, as he uses his environment to climb across surfaces and up walls when just walking would have sufficed, and often flipping between Wukong’s devotion to Tang and stubborn sulking as whiplashingly quick as the character does in the book.
The others are a bit more hit and miss. Bai Ke (who stars in another Journey adaptation I’m hoping to get to) can be endearing in lot of his scenes, but his approach to the Tang character takes just a touch too long to become really likeable, while Yu Yunpeng and Ada Liu have great chemistry as their characters but get so little screen time in comparison that we never fully get to know them or the surprisingly cute romance that develops between them. Sure, this film’s Tianpeng isn’t a million miles away from every other iteration but a jaded, lovelorn Wujing could have actually been an improvement to a character who’s been sorely lacking any real defining characteristics.
Buddies in India is a film I struggle to write about, because I don’t even know just how much I liked it. It starts out very strong, with an inventive approach to Flower Fruit Mountain as well as the famous razing of it (by someone who isn’t Erlang Shen, but who cares) and even throws in some satire, replacing the Buddhist texts and pious monk with a will and a tech-obsessed, self-absorbed heir to a fortune. But then things start to get a bit out there when they get to India, and the movie seems stuck on what it wants to do.
The big problem with modernising The Journey to the West is that people can just jump on planes, or cars and get to the great western havens in no time. So Wang Baoqiang does what he knows: he gets people lost. There’s a section of the film that’s effectively just another entry in his Lost In series, which would be fine if it was one of those films: those know when to slow down and take a breath. For about 45 minutes, Buddies feels like it’s on 1.5x speed, racing from one series of wacky hijinks to the next. Tianpeng takes them to an Indian wedding, where a pair of assassins happens to spot them, then they’re attacked in a sari factory and then minutes later Tang and Wukong find themselves in the middle of a chilli eating contest hosted by the Bull King himself.
But it’s also during those scenes that some of the most interesting things happen. The India setting itself is terribly clever: it’s one of the only Journey to the West movies I’ve seen – if not the only one so far – that’s actually acknowledges where the Tang Monk gets the scriptures. With this, the movie can explore new approaches to its much-told story and to its actors: both Queen Iron Fan and Bull King are played by Indian actors, and Vikramjeet Virk’s enormous physique and larger-than-life personality feel right for the role. The scenery is often gorgeously sunny and colourful, and interspersing the movie with Bollywood musical pieces is not only a great way to emphasise the cultural shift but also harkens back to the countless sung poems throughout the book.
It’s clear that Wang is a fan of the novel. There are small touches everywhere that betray his affection for the material, such as the call-backs to Havoc in Heaven and, in a baffling sequence right at the end, the 1986 Journey to the West TV series. But it’s also his directorial debut, and he doesn’t quite have the pacing right, nor does he know when to rein in the shenanigans and let the moments speak for themselves. Those scenes are there, but are very few and far between. It’s more than an hour in by the time all four companions are hanging out and travelling together as friends, which is way too long considering people came to a film called Buddies in India presumably because they wanted to see buddies in India. In all, it boasts great action and some really fun new ideas and songs, but all of this can get a bit tiresome at times. But there’s one thing I know for sure: I’d like to see Bao tackle the Wukong role again, but maybe with a touch less mugging to the camera. Come on guys, this isn’t Ernest Journeys to the West.
What am I even talking about, I would love to see that movie.
Verdict: Buddies in India never seems confident in its abilities, and shies away behind too much slapstick and over-the-top tomfoolery, but it certainly still has its charms.
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Journey Accuracy: Surprisingly high, for all its callbacks and references
Uncle Chasu: Has a funhouse mirror. Why?
Fart jokes: 1, if that matters to you
Favourite modernisation: The tight-fillet spell is effectively Tang threatening to tear down Wukong’s house
Buddies in India (2017)
Also known as: 大闹天竺
Director: Wang Baoqiang
Writer: Wang Baoqiang
Wang Baoqiang – Wukong
Bai Ke – Tang Sen
Ada Liu – Wujing
Yue Yunpeng – Zhu Tianteng
Vikramjeet Virk – Bull King
Liu Haoran – Erlang Shen
Shruti Sodhi – Queen Iron Fan
Liu Xiao Ling Tong – Wu Shen