9/10/09

Monkey War (Chan Jun-Leung, 1982)

In case you liked New Pilgrims to the West so much that you wanted a sequel, you should know that Monkey War has floated about on the vhs/bootleg market for some time now, albeit sourced from a print bereft of subtitles. On the plus side, if you know Mandarin or simply know the story well enough from either reading the novel or seeing any of the other movies, this one shouldn’t pose too much trouble for lack of translation.
In this version, the wandering Pilgrims come across a group of people forced to build massive palatial structures for the local warlord under the auspices of a pair of Taoist wizards. Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy decide to find out what the Taoists are about, doing so by disguising themselves as icons after eating the food sacrificed on the altar in front of them, and spying then on their ritual, which involves lots of dancing and cheesy music. They continue to eat the food on the altar, and the gig is up after Monkey pees on the Taoists. At this point in their journey, Monkey has urinated on everyone: his enemies, his friends, himself, and Buddha. If you’re around Sun Wukong, you should expect to get pee all over yourself. But who doesn’t know that by now?
The priests challenge the monk, Xuanzang, to a contest of theurgy. It goes well for them, as they summon storm gods, angering Monkey. Monkey then astral projects himself up to the gods and persuades them to help Xuanzang and the oppressed peasants by beating the storm gods until they do what he says. So while the pair of priests calls down rain, Wukong pees on them... again; the gods then provide rain (which is dragon spit, which still sounds better than more Monkey-man pee) for Xuanzang, causing a riot. The priests escape.
The priests then come to the spider cave, wherein the spider vixens use their magic to capture the pilgrims, mostly by appealing to their baser instincts. They turn their cave into a palace, and have little problem enticing Pigsy with their (naked) human forms. But instead of eating the monk as they had originally planned, the head spider wants to marry him. Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy solve this problem the way they solve all problems: they start killing. This is one of the wilder fight scenes I’ve seen in a Taiwanese movie of this era, really topped only by the finale of Attack of the Joyful Goddess (Chang Cheh, 1983) in terms of sheer weirdness. The crowning moment comes when the lead spider-vixen leaps onto the shoulders of a subordinate spider-vixen, who then turns into a giant, fire breathing spider puppet. The multi-colored disco lighting adds to the insanity of the whole thing.
As if that weren’t enough material for any single movie, Monkey War still has a third act, in which the Taoists priests -- yes, they evaded death once again -- catch the attention of evil bat-people, who then mess with the pilgrims for reasons I haven’t fully figured out. Honestly, I don’t remember any of this from the book or from any of the other Journey to the West themed movies. The bat people segment is truly strange, involving a lot of mistaken identity and magic transformations that make the whole thing quite difficult to follow without knowing Chinese. But it provides an opportunity for a man in drag to play an ugly woman, a gag repeated quite often in Chinese language films.
TarsTarkas.net wrongly took Monkey War for a compilation of television episodes masquerading as a feature film. Although that’s wrong, Monkey War is so episodic that it’s an understandable mistake. In a good way, though, one might think of it as picaresque (in the broadest sense of the word). It captures pretty well the idea that these magical creatures and slightly incompetent monk wander in and out of celestial drama and infernal plotting, although the way that they solve the problems leaves a bit to be desired. In Ho Meng-Hua’s films, the deciding factor in every conflict is Sun Wukong’s trickery. He’ll cause havoc while Sandy or somebody else runs off to get the heavenly flame thrower (for real, that’s the resolution in Cave of the Silken Web) or somehow tricking whatever demon or sexy lady demon that wants to eat them (so to speak) into no longer wanting to eat them. In both Chan Jun-Leung films, the pilgrims solve problems mostly by fighting -- no real deception or even thinking involved. On the plus side, the actual fighting isn’t bad. I’m not sure who did the choreography. The Hong Kong movie database says Wong Chi Sang, which I couldn’t verify.
New Pilgrims to the West moved at an insane pace, and Monkey War does as well. It works better in the sequel, but really, nobody ever watches a movie like this expecting quality. This one’s filled with bad wire work, chroma-key deficient blue screen, and some very strange costumes. But like any movie of this type, it’s seemingly cheerful disregard of quality is winsome. A Journey to the West movie that doesn’t entertain would be a greater affront to the text, which was never sacred in the first place.
Flash, Aahh-Ahh

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