The pilgrims continue their journey in the Shaw Brothers’ low-key, charming continuation.
“Wukong, remember. Don’t kill, don’t be irrational.”
Of all the versions of The Journey to the West I’ve seen, I’ve come to look forward to the mid-60s series of movies – four released over a period of three years – and they’re often highlights of Journuary. While I appreciate the work that many other writers and directors put into expanding on the story, or characters, or just straight up making up new content there’s something refreshing about just seeing some of the classic chapters adapted more or less verbatim.
Princess Iron Fan is exactly one of those retellings. It tells a story we’ve seen a hundred times by now. In fact, it was even the subject of China’s first ever full-length animated feature. The story of the Fire Mountain, the leaf fan, the demon and the Bull Demon King is told fairly accurately, hitting all the necessary beats. It’s always good to see, but if you’ve been keeping up with Journuary these past few years, you’ll probably realise that, with the exception of Wukong’s initial heaven shenanigans, most of the events in the book aren’t often big enough to sustain an entire film.
A lot of films choose to extrapolate on the stories, building up the protagonists’ characters, or upping the stakes, but in more rare cases they choose a more simple approach of just moving on. Princess Iron Fan does just that, at the half way point abandons its titular premise and instead adapts the also-very-popular chapters covering the Bone Demon arc. In a way, this makes these Shaw Brothers-produced movies some of the most book accurate versions of the story (though in this one, there are two bone demons – an addition that does nothing to the plot whatsoever) but not the most cinematographically interesting.
If you’ve seen Monkey Goes West from the same year, you know exactly what you’ll be getting this time around. The production values are pretty much the same (in fact, considering all of these films came out within a couple years, I wouldn’t be surprised if they reused sets and props), as is the general vibe. It’s a bit like watching a TV show, in a way and will likely reinforce why the 1978 series worked as well as it did. Its similarities to the others within its quadrilogy is what will likely be its biggest sin: there’s not a tonne here to differentiate it from the other movies. The scenes are already melding together in my memory.
Also reappearing are the musical numbers, which help give these films their own style. There’s a wonderful back and forth sequence between the Bone Demon Sisters and Zhu Bajie that goes on for a while, but is always entertaining. The leads are also very comfortable in their roles, and they have excellent chemistry. Yueh Hua plays his Wukong with less anger than a lot of modern ones, and is playfully delightful in all his scenes. Otherwise, I don’t have a tonne to say here, other than if you want to see some pleasant Journey content that never takes itself too seriously while sticking closely to what we expect to see, it’s worth checking out.
Verdict: For better or worse, Princess Iron Fan never tries to reinvent the wheel, resulting in a good but not always memorable experience.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Sex: One demon princess’ butt/10
Best prop: All those fuzzy animal head helmets. Bull Demon’s never been so adorable!
Princess Iron Fan (1966)
Also known as:
Director: Ho Meng Hua
Writers: Cheng Kang, Wu Cheng’en (novel)
Ho Fan – Tang Sanzang
Yueh Hua – Sun Wukong
Tien Shun – Sha Wujing
Peng Peng – Zhu Bajie
Pat Ting Hung – Princess Iron Fan
Ching Miao – Bull Demon King
Cheng Pei-pei – Baigujing
Lily Ho – Sister Baigujing