Journey to the East with Wu Kong
While humanity has many shared traits — say, a love of story — there are certainly cultural sensibilities that are more regionally marked that shape art. Nowhere was this more apparent to me then when in the moments before fighting the top lady Immortal, our heroes flash back to moments of their lives as inspiration for their battles. One remembers the needless death of villagers, while another pictures to a romantic scene in which his beloved tells him that these are the happiest days she has ever experienced. The juxtaposition of a schmaltzy scene with a battle scene, or even interrupting a film’s climax with a flashback in an action film, would be perceived as corny in Western cinema. Yet in Wu Kong, an epic film based on China’s sprawling 16th century classic text Journey to the West, the cinematic choices of Derek Kwok feels like the natural expression of Hong Kong pop-culture. In other words, Wu Kong is a chance for westerners to journey east and experience another culture’s vision of an action film. Much is similar to what we know and expect, but so many little things are not.
Wu Kong is an ensemble film, where Sun Wukong (the Monkey King — played by Eddie Peng) arrives in Heaven on a mission to destroy the Destiny Astrolabe, a device that controls the fate of all things. Initially Wukong fights and then befriends a group of immortals, Azi (Ni Ni), Erlang (Shawn Yue), Yang Jian, and Tian Peng, who join him in his quest. The group falls to earth, where stripped of their immortal powers, they must help a group of villagers defeat a cloud demon. When Heaven balances out their success by destroying the village, the group decides to fight Heaven itself. No ensemble is without its personality conflicts; Erlang and Wukong have a rivalry for the affections of Azi, which sets up an ongoing dispute between the Immortals and Wukong. Sequels, anyone?
While there is much to critique about this film — confusing sequences and under-expressed plot points, lots and lots and lots of cheese, an orgy of special effects enhanced martial arts — I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. The characters are all likable, especially Wukong with his combination of plucky arrogance and loyal determination. But, in addition, I loved that this film is made for China and I could watch it with my anthropologist’s hat half on.
There are so many little things that struck me as eastern. Heaven is perceived as an otherworldly bureaucratic and hierarchically formal place, more globally Dune-like in its presentation than the closed spaces of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Character motivations are different than what I have come to expect; a fixation on never quitting in pursuit of a singular personal goal (as opposed to changing the goal or evolving the goal) is seen as a positive trait. Forget always-peaceful Bodhisattvas. Super-enlightenment, aka “opening the heavenly eye,” provides super-fighting-powers, allowing Erlang to fight with his eyes closed. Humour comes from new sources — earwax can produce a mighty weapon. And, as mentioned, there are flashbacks at odd times, such as interrupting an action sequence with a romantic moment which not only draws out the scene, but gives it unexpected emotional content (I won’t comment on the success of that emotional content). Wukong’s attachment to his master’s scarf or even the reincarnation-like way characters return after “death” are very much drawn from eastern religious traditions.
What we don’t see are western additions to the action film genre — tough guys who don’t need others, gratuitous nudity, or the token ethnic minority character. Though perhaps China prefers the token elderly woman offering sweet potatoes instead.
At the same time, the things that make for an entertaining film are universals. Good story, conflict, motivation, character, creativity… all the basics are here. The story of Journey to the West and its shorter excerpt Monkey are classics for a reason. A retelling does not diminish the original, but only shows how enduring the story is.
Overall, this is a fun film and good for the big screen. Seeing it with the enthusiastic Fantasia crowd who mewed in anticipatory pleasure only contributed to the experience. Imperfect films can still make for good cinematic experiences.
Fantasia continues until August 2. Tickets and showtimes can be found HERE.