Airing nearly 400 years after the story was written, the 1986 TV series Journey to the West (西游记) combines magnificent acting and awesomely fun special effects into an adaption so popular in Mainland China that it’s been rerun on TV for more than two decades. One of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, Journey is a fantasy-adventure epic that melds religious mythology with martial arts. (In short: >A monk, a pig, and a monkey walk into a bar travel to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, engaging in all sorts of shenanigans along the way.)
Actor Liu Xiao Ling Tong’s Pee Wee Herman-esque rendition of Monkey King makes the series. Liu came from four generations of outstanding Monkey King performers; his father taught him to stare into lights before performing so that Monkey King — a character fantastically powerful, yet tormented by his past and his masters — would have tears in his eyes.
Filmed and aired between China’s Cultural Revolution and its Reform and Opening, the 1986 Journey to the West series is replete with bizarre prosthetics and effects. It’s a funny show, and the schizo Monkey King, alternately playful and frantic, on a journey westward to atone for past sins, resonated with viewers.
Each year brings a new adaptation of the Monkey King classic with bigger budgets and stars, yet the 1986 version remains popular. Slick new remakes lack its rawness and exuberance. In a land where the media is state-controlled and largely lifeless, the 1986 Journey to the West is an unrestrained shot of real emotion, a cocktail of giddiness, nervousness, and anxiety about the future and past that can’t be superseded by CGI or pop idols.
Article by Fred Dintenfass, July 19, 2010.