The Shaw Brothers loved adapting classical stories from Chinese literature and folklore: during their time as a motion picture studio they filmed several stories from the great classical novels (Journey to the West, The Water Margin, The Dream of the Red Chamber and The Golden Lotus, to start with). Hitherto, the only filmed version of Journey to the Westthat I had seen (other than Stephen Chow’s not-exactly-canonical Chinese Odyssey films) was the much-beloved Monkey! TV series from Japan, which made an enormous impression on me when I was younger — so I couldn’t wait to sit down in front of some six hours of the Shaws treating the same material.
Monkey Goes West, the first film in the series, is the film that introduces the world to the viewer and sets up all the recurring characters — the Tang priest (Ho Fan), who is on a holy pilgrimage to India to collect scriptures, and his motley trio of companions. The focus is squarely on the journey, however — unlike the novel (or the Japanese TV series) we don’t see any of Monkey’s exploits before he’s imprisoned under a mountain by the Buddha. Instead, the first we see of him is his first encounter with the priest, as he entreats him to free him from the rock and make him his disciple. Further on their way they collect a Dragon Prince, who becomes the priest’s horse as penance for eating the original one; Pigsy (Peng Peng), the disgraced Marshal of Heaven who becomes the second disciple; and Friar Sand (Tien Shun), a water demon who also becomes a disciple. Yueh Hua does an excellent job as the Monkey King in what was probably quite a tough assignment, taking on such a beloved character in only his second feature. The Shaws incarnation of Monkey is quite a bit less bombastic (irrepressible?) than Masaaki Sakai’s turn in Monkey!, much more cautious and sensible (even if he does still play tricks whenever possible and constantly taunt Pigsy).
In Princess Iron Fan, we follow the pilgrims’ journey onwards, where it is stymied by the the impassible flames of the (aptly named) Flame Mountain. The only way to put them out, it seems, is with the magical fan owned by Princess Iron Fan. Rather uncharacteristically, monkey asks to borrow the fan nicely first, and only resorts to trickery when the Princess refuses him. In the second half of the film, he Tang priest and his disciples encounter yet another pair of female demons slavering for the flesh of the monk (which confers immortality). This time it’s the White Bone Demon and her sister, played by Shaws stars Cheng Pei Pei (before she shot to fame in King Hu’s Come Drink With Me) and Lily Ho. In time-honoured fashion, the two demons put all their effort into sidelining Monkey, without whose protection the trusting priest is practically on the dinner table.
The Cave of the Silken Web amps up the number of crafty demons, as the Tang priest and his followers encounter an entire caveful of spider goblins. As usual, Pigsy’s eye for vixens lands him and his master in the hands of these ladies, and it’s up to Monkey and Friar Sand to save then before they’ve been stewed. The ladies (and their monstrous associates) are good at shape-changing and protecting their lair, though, and it proves difficult for Monkey to make his way in.
Finally, we come to The Land of Many Perfumes, wherein the bad encounter a kingdom solely inhabited by women (spot the trend?). Some of them are demons, with the usual carnivorous aim in mind. Others, like the empress, are interested in our priest for other reasons — she wants a husband for her daughter, or possibly herself, and doesn’t plan to let him leave, Buddhist oaths notwithstanding. In the midst of all this, two witches have tricked another demon into taking up residence in the Monkey King’s domain, back in his home of the Water Curtain Cave, distracting him whole they plan their priestnapping.
All in all, this is a fun collection of films. Monkey (played by Yueh Hua in the first three, and Chow Lung-Cheung in the fourth) is the core character in the series, and always entertaining. Nonetheless, Pigsy has his moments, including a couple of particularly silly songs and rather an endearing ability to leer goodnaturedly. Friar Sand doesn’t get a great deal to do, unfortunately, certainly less than in the Japanese series. Note that there is a fair bit of song and dance in these films, particularly the earlier ones, which is understandable given Journey to the West‘s long tradition in Chinese opera — some viewers might find it a little hard to take, although there’s a bawdiness to much of it that’s very funny. It’s not a faithful adaptation of every part of the sprawling source material, but they do a good job of bringing these particular stories to life, and in a way that’s distinctly Shaws.