Gazing into a crimson crystal ball the sexy Spider-Women of the Cave of the Silken Web spy on handsome Buddhist monk Tang Seng (Ho Fan) as he continues his journey to the west to find the sacred sutras. It is said any demon who eats Tang Seng's flesh can become immortal. So the golden-garbed Spider Queen (Liu Liang-Hua) and her six sisters magically transform their cobwebbed lair into a lavish palace while singing a lovely Mandarin ballad about luring Tang Seng to kill and eat him! Of course things don't prove that easy for the deadly ladies. For accompanying Tang Seng on his quest are his magical animal companions Monkey King Sun Wu Kong (Chow Lung-Cheung), oafish lard-ass Pigsy (Pang Pang) and reformed sea-dwelling demon Sandy (Tin Sam). Monkey instantly sees through the illusion. In a magical battle the good guys catch turquoise-clad Seventh Sister (Shen Yi), but Spider Queen imprisons the ever-hapless Tang Seng behind her impregnable Silken Web. While Sandy searches for 'Seven Fires in the Oven', a magical Taoist flamethrower (!) able to break through the web, Monkey's shape-shifting shenanigans cause chaos among the Spider sisters. However he reckons without the delicious but duplicitous Lady Red (Angela Yu Chien) who with her secret lover the Wu Gang Goblin (Tang Ti) hatches her own scheme.
Identity-swapping and illusion are the principal themes underlining Cave of the Silken Web, the third of Shaw Brothers' four psychedelic musical fantasies based on Wu Cheng-En's mythological literary epic Journey to the West following The Monkey Goes West (1964) and Princess Iron Fan (1966). The plot is a comedically complex string of schemes and counter-schemes wherein almost every character pretends to be someone else in a manner strangely akin to a vintage sit-com. As a result the entire cast play multiple roles. Each of the actresses take turns portraying Monkey in disguise while the normally subdued Ho Fan enjoys some rare comic moments when Tang Seng and Pigsy swap identities. Taking the fake identity theme to extremes the climax has multiple double-exposed Tang Seng's running around and a bogus glowing Goddess of Mercy unmasked as someone far less benevolent.
Opening with the multi-armed spider-women in performing a sultry dance atop their silken webs the film equates feminine sexuality with danger and chaste masculinity (in one scene Monkey averts his eyes in disgust from a couple having sex on a giant spider web!) with moral fortitude in a slightly troublesome way. However the film's fairytale innocence manages to sidestep overt misogyny. Although their playful eroticism and full-throttle fight sequences are far from what we in the west associate with family fare these films were intended for children. With lavish sets, candy-coloured cinematography (D.P. Lam Kwok Cheung went on to a directing career including The Two Faces of Love (1974) for Shaw Brothers and stylish thriller The Hellfire Angel (1979)), surreal song-and-dance numbers and delightful old-fashioned special effects combining eye-catching opticals, stop-motion and puppetry this was the Shaw Brothers' live-action answer to a Walt Disney animated fairytale. Given the amount of times our wacky animal heroes play pranks on each other the film has more than a hint of Looney Tunes too. One can't help think of Bugs Bunny whenever Monkey disguises himself as a flirtatious spider-maiden.
Each of Shaw's Monkey King movies feature a different famous actress as a special guest succubus out to ensnare Tang Seng. In the case of Cave of the Silken Web we have Angela Yu Chien, a best supporting actress winner for The Blue and the Black (1966) widely considered among the sexiest stars of her era, appearing alongside Shen Yi star of Three Swordswomen (1970). Liu Liang-Hua was another sex symbol of that time. She appeared in several of Lo Wei's films for Shaw Brothers and wound up marrying the controversial director. Among her many accomplishments Liang-Hua was instrumental in convincing Bruce Lee to sign with Golden Harvest. Jackie Chan thought quite highly of her too according to his autobiography although Lo divorced her in the mid-Seventies. In the Eighties she formed her own film company and produced many acclaimed films from the Hong Kong New Wave. Co-star Ho Fan may have portrayed chaste monk Tang Seng but off-screen had a keen interest in all things erotic. He became a photographer for glossy soft-core porn magazines then segued into directing glossy soft-core porn films, including Girl with the Long Hair (1975) and Innocent Lust (1977) for Shaw Brothers, continuing well into the Nineties with Category III films like Temptation Summary (1990). No doubt he was pleased as punch to be surrounded by so many shapely starlets.
At the helm of all four Monkey King films was the versatile Ho Meng-hua. He was the Michael Curtiz of Shaw Brothers: kung fu, crime films, musicals, melodramas. You name 'em, Ho could make 'em, although unlike other less versatile contemporaries his work was somewhat impersonal. Debuting as a director with An Appointment After Dark (1957) he won a bucket load of awards for the drama Susanna (1967) but late into his career showed a remarkable affinity for horror with likes of Black Magic (1975), Oily Maniac (1976), Black Magic Part 2: Revenge of the Zombies (1976) and much beloved (by me, anyway) monster movie The Mighty Peking Man (1977). Ho's last Shaw Brothers film was the wu xia (swordplay) fantasy Swift Sword (1980) but he went on to make infamous gross-out horror The Rape After (1984). Tang Seng would not approve. Ho Fan might.