Written by Wu Cheng-En in the 16th century, Journey to the West is one of the great works of Chinese literature. It spawned a myriad of pop culture incarnations including cult kids television show Monkey (1979), anime classic Alakazam the Great (1960), phenomenally popular sci-fi pastiche Dragonball (1986-1998), and Jeff Lau’s ingenious reworking A Chinese Odyssey (1994), which stars Stephen Chow Sing-chi and was recently ranked among the one hundred greatest Chinese movies of all time. Arguably the definitive classic rendition was the four part film series produced by legendary Hong Kong movie moguls the Shaw Brothers.
On his epic journey to retrieve Buddha’s sacred scriptures, pious monk Tang Seng (Ho Fan) is pursued by monsters and demons that want to eat his flesh and gain immortality. Cowering in fright, Tang hides up a mountain where he discovers the jovial Monkey King (Yueh Hua). The most powerful being in creation, Monkey knows every magic and martial art under the sun, but was imprisoned by Guan-Yin Buddha for trying to conquer heaven. Growing to giant size, he sings a jaunty duet with Tang held in the palm of his hand, then bests the villainous Third Prince (Fan Mei Shang) who transforms into an impressive rubber dragon for a Godzilla-style monster battle.
Shortly thereafter, Guan-Yin Buddha (also known as the Goddess of Mercy/Happiness) hovers by on a floating cloud and tasks Monkey with protecting Tang Seng throughout his long journey. To keep Monkey on his best behaviour, Buddha places a metal band around his head, which constricts painfully whenever someone recites a magic sutra. It will stay there until the day Monkey finds enlightenment. In a nearby town, Monkey takes pity on a poor scholar in love with a rich man’s beautiful daughter (Diana Chang Chung Wen). The girl is reluctantly wedded to a wealthy merchant, whom Monkey discovers is really Pigsy (Pang Pang), the shape-changing pig with an eye for pretty girls.
Naturally, Monkey saves the day and a chastened Pigsy joins the quest. His hungry stomach and rampant libido quickly gets them into trouble with a Snake Woman and her three, lovely fairy-daughters (including future superstars Cheng Pei Pei and Tina Chin Fei), who spirit Tang away to their undersea kingdom. So Pigsy and Monkey dive underwater, where they tangle with turtle people, sea fairies and talking prawns.
This first instalment is mostly a scene-setter, but successfully melds the sweep of a mythological epic with the sing-along fun of an M-G-M musical. Its musical highlight is a comic duet between perfectly cast stand-up comedian Pang Pang and Diana Chang Chung Wen, one of the biggest stars in Chinese cinema, once dubbed “the most beautiful creature in China.” Listen out for great lines like: “Your arms are like lotus stems. I want to have a bite.” Aimed at family audiences, this big-budget spectacle was Shaw Brothers’ equivalent to The Wizard of Oz (1939) or The Thief of Baghdad (1940), with vast, evocative sets, goofy monster makeup and Georges Melies-style special effects. Although only the Chinese would make a family movie that features faces being ripped off, cannibalism, and a sex-mad talking pig.
Kids lapped it up of course, especially the antics of multi-talented leading man Yueh Hua, delightfully manic and playful as that funky monkey. Actor Ho Fan may look suitably pious as monk Tang Seng, but led a double life as an erotic photographer. He went on to direct numerous softcore sex romps like Girl with the Long Hair (1978). Hua and Fan returned for three high quality sequels: Princess Iron Fan (1966), Cave of the Silken Web (1967) and Land of Many Perfumes (1968), each helmed by Ho Meng-hua.