Xuanzang

For the legendary monk Xuanzang, the journey may be hard but the destination is heavenly.

“Dreams are wine, life is dregs.”


In a slight change to our typical Journey to the West stuff, I’m looking at the real man behind the story: the seventh-century monk whose journey westward brought a new depth to Buddhism to China. As its title suggests, Xuanzang tells the story of Xuanzang (Huang Hiaoming), who believes there is more to learn about Buddhism than what is taught in China. He leaves his native Chang’an to seek out the homeland of the Buddha, India, and retrieve scriptures, despite the decree from the Emperor banning any westward travelling. Not knowing how long the journey would take him, he was no doubt not expecting that he wouldn’t see his homeland for almost twenty years.

Xuanzang is part historical retelling, part legend and part Buddhist musings, with the latter of the three being – to me, anyway – the more interesting piece. Xuanzang is the Buddhist monk, and his spiritual journey is as important, if not more so, than the 25,000 miles he travels. It takes a while to get there, though, as the first forty minutes or so see him doing pretty well all things considered. His conflicts here are mostly political, as he attempts to convince all the surprisingly sympathetic tradesmen and lawmen to let him pass, even making a friend out of one frustrated watchtower commander.

The film lacks stakes, which is odd for a story about a man facing the elements with nothing but a giant backpack and what can only be the most annoying dangling lantern. It’s only once he finds himself at the mercy of the natural world that things start going awry. But despite the lack of tangible threats, in many ways Xuanzang’s journey feels more like an adventure than many of the fantastical adaptations of his plight. There might not be any demons for him to face, but the idea of him walking on foot all across China, two deserts and then through India feels far more daunting and intense than any trip you would take with three ultra-powerful demons by your side.

Unlike something like Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?, Xuanzang is more of a crowd-pleaser type of film, more interested in getting emotions out of the audience than any real meaningful insight. It has a few hallmarks of feel-good awards-baiting pictures, from some really silly looking moments of slow motion drama, to the incredibly strange framing narrative, which features an archaeology student in 2016 reading about an explorer who, in his diaries, mentions reading Xuanzang’s travelogs. It’s a baffling choice that never comes into play after Xuanzang is introduced.

The inclusion of the flashback-within-a-flashback (and considering it’s also the story told from Xuanzang’s logs, debatably there’s another layer of flashback too) makes an already rammed movie feel even busier. There is a lot to cram in – it’s a seventeen year trek after all – so much of the movie’s pacing is somewhat rushed. More specifically, there’s never enough time to really get into the hardships felt by Xuanzang as most of the focus is on the time he spends in the company of kings, monks and kind people learning and teaching Buddhism. But the trip to fetch some scriptures is worthless if you lack the ability to understand them properly.

Xuanzang is not the most in-depth Buddhist study, nor is it much of a powerhouse character drama. It’s something sort of in the middle, with enough being put into both sides to make it worth watching. If nothing else, it provides solid context of the man behind the myth. Xuanzang is a fascinating character, whose devotion to his faith and his perserverence is remarkable, and worth a big sweeping epic. There’s probably something even better that could be done from his story, but this one does its many jobs pretty well, even if it does stretch itself thin. The longer epic would for sure include all 16,000 verses he wrote about Hinayana.

Verdict: While its tones do get muddled from time to time, Xuanzang celebrates the life of its namesake with a heartfelt film that showers its central character with respect and awe.

Overall entertainment: 7/10
Violence: 0/10
Sex: An abstinent 0/10
Inner peace: 9/10
Leeks and garlic: Banned
Ginger and mustard: Fine!

Xuanzang (2016)
Also known as: 大唐玄奘
Mandarin

Director: Huo Jianqi
Writer: Zou Jingzhi

CAST

Huang Xiaoming – Xuanzang
Kent Tong – Moksha Gupta
Purba Rgyal – Shi Putuo
Tan Kai – Wang Xiang
Luo Jin – Li Chang
Xu Zheng – Li Daliang
Andrew Lin – Qu Wentai
Che Xiao – Xuanzang’s mother
Vivian Dawson – Wu Qing
Winston Chao – Emperor Taizong of Tang
Sonu Sood – Emperor Harshavardhana
Vatsaal Raja – King Bhaskar Varman

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