New Pilgrims to the West (Chan Jun-Leung, 1982)

I’ve posted numerous reviews of Taiwanese fantasy films since I started this blog, more so than any other genre. I know that I’ve referenced New Pilgrims to the West in at least a few of those reviews, as well as movies like Dwarf Sorcerer and Young Flying Hero. Because they so often share cast members, directors, and fight choreographers, it becomes easy to think of the Taiwanese fantasy films of the eighties as an unofficial franchise -- as though wacky-ass-Taiwan-fantasy were a reliable brand name. That so often Chui Ching-Hung and Chan Jun-Leung directed the same people in these movies, and that they look very much like each other regardless of subject matter or even setting might justify this thinking to some, but it is obviously the thinking of somebody far removed from the intended audience looking at these films in hindsight. It is an outsider’s view.
New Pilgrims to the West compounds the issue by adapting Wu Cheng’en’s The Journey to the West. Even in the occidental entertainment world, The Journey to the West has received (poor) treatment at the hands of people who don’t know what to do with it. Witness Alakazam the Great, the Americanized release of Japan’s third feature length, color animation, Saiyuki (Osamu Tezuka, 1960), and bear in mind that it is only the first example. More recently, Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom bastardized the plot until it was unrecognizable outside of a few names and characters. (Although the movie’s only purpose was to get Jackie Chan and Jet Li on screen together, at which it succeeded) Why do these movies do this? Because as literature, The Journey to the West is filled with esoteric Buddhist thought, Chinese idiosyncrasies, and pee-pee jokes. It’s not easy to make such a mix palatable for a foreign audience.
But in a sense, New Pilgrims to the West helps itself by adapting such a story, because it happens to be one I am familiar with, having read it in translation and actually played a small part in a theatrical adaptation. (As you might have guessed, the moniker “GoldenPigsy” came from this) Knowing the story as I do, the film’s insane opening -- filled with laser beam shooting arhats and monkey men and Buddha -- not only makes perfect sense, it makes me laugh. By contrast, I know quite well the folk lore behind Child of Peach came from, but still cannot fathom how such a movie exists.
The film skips the early events of Sun Wukong’s (Lau Seung-Him) life, and jumps right into his battle against the Jade Emperor and his bet with Buddha (Tong Wai), which he loses. As the tale goes, he is imprisoned until the monk Xuan Zhang frees him, along with two other immortals reincarnated as a pig-man (Boon Saam) and an ogre (Fong Ching). The movie ends after the heroes climb fire mountain, although the sequel, Monkey War, recalls the episode with the spider vixens. And who doesn’t love spider vixens?
They're trying to bread Pigsy for a flash fry.
Yes, it is strange, Bajie.
For the most part, New Pilgrims to the West provides fun for people who either like bad movies, or like to laugh at them. It probably set the record for the sheer number of matte shots in any Chinese language movie up to that point, and there’s no shortage of animated rays or wire work either, none of which is particularly well done. A few venerable genre stars appear, like Chen Kuan-Tai as the Bull King and Angela Mao as his wife. More surprising is Ivy Ling Po, the star of so many Huangmei Opera movies at Shaw Brothers, appearing as the Bodhisattva Guan Yin. It’s not as embarrassing as Betty Pei’s role in War of the Wizards -- Ling Po doesn’t have Richard Keil pawing her hair, at least -- but she hardly seems to be doing much besides collecting a paycheck.
But the movie itself really isn’t any worse than, say, Buddha’s Palm (Taylor Wong, 1981) on a narrative level. This statement seems wrong when one adapts a classic of Chinese literature and the other a goofy old Cantonese serial, but it isn’t so much about plot as about focus. New Pilgrims to the West blows through its plot with the subtlety and nuance of a Cantonese wuxia serial. Compare it to the Ho Meng-hua’s more competently scripted films, which often had delightful comedic scenes to go along with the special effects and the fighting, and Chan Jun-Leung’s attempt pales. In Monkey Goes West and Princess Iron Fan (both 1966), which cover more or less the same material as New Pilgrims to the West, the pilgrims seem like actual characters, while Chan Jun-Leung directs them as comic book archetypes, trading dialogue and motivation for mere gesture. We know Pigsy is a pervert because he’s always pawing at women, but we never see that as another facet of his gluttonous personality, as we do in the earlier films. (And in the centuries old novel)
But the actors certainly give it their all. And the amusing scenes where Ha Ling-ling and Angela Mao “play” the part of Sun Wukong show more ambition than the occasionally spotty direction and cinematography. Lau Seung-Him’s makeup does most of his acting for him, but he’s respectable for keeping a straight face, much like he did in Thrilling Sword. Elsa Yeung is always welcome as a villain, much as she also was in Thrilling Sword. She could play a villainous woman or a slutty heroine (see Challenge of the Lady Ninja); she plays Princess Iron Fan with a lot of frigid anger.
As an adaptation of The Journey to the West, the film misses the mark, joining the ignoble ranks of Monkey King with 72 Magic (Fu Ching-Wa, 1976) for bad Taiwanese monkey movies. These movies visualize the superficial aspects on film without much concern for anything else. The good news for the outsider is that when the events described are this weird, a visualization of them is inherently entertaining, no matter how low-budget or just plain bad it is as cinema.

1 comment:

  1. If it wasn't that I found this page, I wouldn't have been able to find/remember this movie. Brings back childhood memories :). Thanks.