Saturday, July 4, 2009

Journey To The West, Shaw Brothers Style

When these Shaw re-issues started in 2003, I purchased a few on DVD and a few on VCD and one of the first in that latter category was The Cave of Silken Web (which thoroughly confused me). So, when I finally got that film and the other three titles in the Journey to the West series on DVD, I set them aside for the time being with the understanding that, one day, I would sit down and watch the 4 in a marathon session.

Well, I had a long weekend over the 4th of July so I decided to finally watch these in order.

The Monkey Goes West (1966)

Future director Ho Fan plays Tang, the monk on a mission to get Buddhist scriptures from the West (India).

I'll admit that I thought this first film was a bit tedious (but I was a little tired when I watched it).

It is fun to see so many Shaw stars in one place -- I didn't recognize Yueh Hua as the Monkey King, but there's the quite recognizable Paang Paang as Pigsy.

And after a long first half detailing Tang's journey and Monkey's release from imprisonment, with intercession and instruction from the goddess Kwanyin, the two happen upon Pigsy in his human form about to marry to goddess-like Diana Chang.

[duriandave's blog has a lot of great information about Diana Chang, like this post.]

There is much 1966-style comedy and Pigsy's human lusts eventually cause him to be turned into his porcine form.

He joins the duo and there's a further adventure under the sea (some bad special effects there) and Pigsy proves his worth in battle.

Look for actress Kao Pao Shu as the woman attempting to trick Pigsy into marrying her 3 daughters (who bathe with a surprising bit of rear nudity for 1966!). Kao Pao Shu ultimately became a director for the Shaw Brothers studios.

Now, on to feature number 2!

Princess Iron Fan (1966)

A vast improvement upon the first film in the series, 1966's Princess Iron Fan moves at a pretty good clip (it *is* some 20 minutes shorter than the earlier film).

With the story already established, we can simply join the heroes as they continue their journey.

The first section of the film follows Sun Wukong (The Monkey) as he attempts to get the Iron Fan from the title Princess in order to put out the flames of the Flaming Mountain which is preventing the group's passage.

Princess Iron Fan is played by Pat Ting Hung -- check out duriandave's blog for links like this on the beautiful actress. The princess is one of two sets of women that the Ox Demon is keeping and, once the Monkey disguises himself as the Ox Demon, this section of the film turns into a fun little case of very mistaken identity. Again, some surprising rear nudity in this one, this time from Pat Ting Hung as she bathes which must have raised some eyebrows in 1966.

Look for Lily Li as one of the handmaidens in the bathing scene.

The rest of the film is spent with Pigsy and Sun Wukong matching wits with the devilish Madam White Bone (Cheng Pei-Pei) and her sister (Lily Ho). Cheng Pei-Pei seems to be having a blast playing a villainous character instead of her usual virtuous swordswoman and if Lily Ho is underused here, Cheng Pei-Pei makes up for it.

There are tricks, double-crosses, and by the film's end, the heroes are reunited, with Sun Wukong drawn back into battle to save his comrades. Tang doesn't get much to do in this film and that's probably a good thing; a pure pilgrim is kind of a boring character.

Look for Ku Feng as one of the people the sisters masquerade as to ensnare the heroes.

The Cave of Silken Web (1967)

This third film in the series is (as of this writing) the only one released in America (by Image Entertainment, I do believe) and one can see why: it's trippy, has 7 beautiful women in sexy outfits, and it plays like some weird episode of "Lost in Space" or something.

The majority of this 82-minute romp (10 minutes shorter than the previous film in the series) is set in the underground cave of the title where the heroes are menaced by the 7 seductive spider sisters (or something).

With each film, Sun Wukong seems to gain more and more powers and it begs the question: "Why doesn't he just turn into a giant again and then run real fast and get the scriptures and then no one has to journey to the West?" I know, I know; I'm missing the point probably but the question did cross my mind after the umpteenth time of watching the Monkey change identities and rescue his fellows.

It's worth noting that Yueh Hua no longer plays Sun Wukong. The role is now assayed by Chow Lung Leung who brings a bit more of an acrobat's energy to the part which helps as the series gets sillier and sillier.

One of the lead sisters is played by Angela Yu Chien and -- once again -- I recommend checking out duriandave's site for links like this on the sexy actress.

Maybe I'm saying this because I'd already seen this installment on VCD about 6 years ago, but this film seemed the most consistent of the 4 films in the series.

One more to go!

Land of Many Perfumes (1968)

This final film is, like its predecessor, only 82 minutes long, and it's probably the weirdest and most confusing of the series. The confusion stems in part from some really bad special effects in some sequences that are so distracting as to cause the viewer to wonder what the hell is going on.

I say that with the knowledge that, yes, it's 1968 and technology's limited but, compared to any Ray Harryhausen film from that era, these are some really bad special effects.

But, the production design and attractive cast of female actresses almost make up for those bad fx.

The quartet of Tang, Pigsy, the Sand King, and Sun Wukong find themselves in a land of women and the first scene of the female populace going crazy at the sight of the men approaching on the road is quite funny; big women lifting weights and older women knocking over food stalls in the castle square are very farcial elements that made this film seem a lot less serious than even the third film in the series.

Look for Fang Ying as the daughter fighting her mother for Tang's affections.

And kenixfan favorite, Irene Chen has a few prominent scenes as well. Unlike her wonderful little part in Guess Who Killed My Twelve Lovers, her presence was not enough to keep me enthralled for the entire 82-minute length of this film.

Chow Lung Leung again plays Sun Wukong. Kao Pao Shu shows up again after her appearance in the first film in the series, this time as a villainous scorpion queen.

There's not much more that a layman like me can write about these 4 films. They are about Buddhism almost as much as "Le Morte d'Arthur" is about Christianity: not very much.

The Buddhism, like the Christian elements in the tale of King Arthur, is merely a device to propel the story forward and -- perhaps -- provide an impetus for tiny instances of pseudo-morality in the tales.

Considering how quickly this film faded out, I think most viewers were like me and wondering when we'd get to see the characters actually get the scriptures.

No, Sun Wukong turns back into a turtle, saves the heroes, there's a fight at the end where the heroes are fighting the women who have turned into clones of them and then it's all over. I didn't even manage to figure out who the "real" characters were in that scene.

Rush, rush, rush and then it's over.

It's worth noting that the director of these 4 films, Ho Meng Hua, recently died and I recommend reading this tribute from French journalist Frederic Ambroisine.

You should also check out Sanjuro's reviews of these 4 films as well. The links are here, here, here, and here.

You can order The Monkey Goes West on DVD here.

The DVD of Princess Iron Fan is out-of-print but you can order the VCD here.

The DVD of The Cave of Silken Web is out-of-print but you can order the VCD here.

The DVD of Land of Many Perfumes is out-of-print but you can order the VCD here.

[Photos: YesAsia/Celestial Pictures]