Our heroes sing and dance their way to the West in the first of Ho Meng-hua’s Journey series.
“Here onwards we might experiences ups and downs but we won’t return without the scriptures.”
Out of all of the versions of the Journey to the West I’ve seen so far, the Shaw Brothers’ movies have been among the most straightforward and pleasantly simple versions I’ve seen. The Cave of Silken Web was a really good time, and with that in mind I was keen to see how it all started: the 1966 Monkey Goes West. Adapting the handful of chapters that I’m calling the recruitment arc of the book, which includes everything from the Tang Monk setting off to the encounter with Sha Wujing in his river, Monkey Goes West crams a lot of story in its runtime, and succeeds pretty nicely on most accounts.
Tang Sanzang (Ho Fan) is already off on his way to the west by the time the film starts with the two ill-fated attendants who die very early on. Struggling by himself, the monk runs into Sun Wukong (Yueh Hua), trapped underneath the Five Elements Mountain. He ignores the pleas of an exposition-shouting local deity and frees Monkey, and the two become firm friends until a minor disagreement causes Wukong to flee. Sangzang immediately finds himself at the mercy of the river dragon Third Prince (Mei Sheng Fan), but thankfully Wukong returns to defeat him and Guan Yin (Chao Hsin-Yen) forces the dragon to turn into a horse.
Despite being relatively faithful to its source material, Monkey Goes West isn’t afraid to change things to suit its own narrative. Moments are condensed for time and the movie is given a new central antagonist to give everyone something to fight against in the form of the Green Snake Demon who easily fools Zhu Bajie (Peng Peng) into giving her the incantation to Wukong’s migraine band. Sha Wujing (Tien Shun) is also there, sort of at the end. He doesn’t do much. Compared to a lot of other adaptations I found that the changes actually helped the translation from book to screen without completely changing the narrative – and also by asking and answering a few plot issues I’ve always had, like Wukong attempting to simply jump to the western havens with Sanzang on his back. The idea that the group must suffer in order to acquire the scriptures is pointed out here – a vital part of the allegory of the story that many versions are missing.
But it isn’t all lessons in Buddhism and parables. Monkey Goes West has a lot of good moments of humour, from Monkey’s teleporting antics in the Five Elements Mountain to his banter with Sanzang during the first half. The performances here are all very good, if at times a bit pantomime-y. Peng Peng’s rendition of Bajie is one of the movie’s highlights, as he’s able to capture (if fleetingly) the often overlooked layers of heroism hidden in his deeply cowardly and lecherous personality. Well, when he isn’t chasing girls and being bamboozled. Fan Ho doesn’t give the most monkeylike performance I’ve ever seen, but his infectious grin and light-footed prancing are endlessly charming.
The film’s charms are largely thanks to its down-to-earth production values. The effects are cheap and sometimes cheesy but always, well, effective and the puppets are downright hilarious, especially when a fully-draconic Third Prince has to battle a Wukong by just sort of flailing its tail about. The chroma-keying is extremely obvious, but some of the in-camera tricks and edits work very nicely, and while that might remove some of the otherworldly magic of the story, it helps ground this movie and endears itself well to its audience. Filled with tonne of very good songs, most of them snappy duets, Monkey Goes West makes a hell of a case for itself as one of the more appealing Journey movies I’ve seen in quite some time. Ignoring Cave of Silken Web there are still two more in the series, but I doubt they have such good puppetry.
Verdict: Monkey Goes West is a low-key film that doesn’t try to stand out too much, but combines solid songs, a good cast and an enchanting energy that manages to capture the spirit of the book nicely, all the while being its own thing.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: Lots of awkward kung fu/10
Bajie: Just straight up turns into a real pig, huh
Credit where it’s due: an actual underwater scene!
Magic: You gotta use that slide whistle, or how else will we know magic is happening
The Monkey Goes West (1966)
Director: Ho Meng-Hua
Writer: Cheng Kang
Diana Chung-Wen Chang – Miss Gao
Ho Fan – Tang Sanzang
Yueh Hua – Sun Wukong
Peng Peng – Zhu Bajie
Tien Shun – Sha Wujing
Chao Hsin-Yen – Guan Yin
Chu Yao-Ko – Earth Deity
Fan Mei-sheng – Third Prince