Monkey’s Lincoln Center Journey

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Stephen Chow’s A Chinese Odyssey is among my favorite adaptations of the Monkey King story

I think it would be safe to say that the story of the Monkey King, Journey to the West, is the most often and most widely adapted story in Asian culture. The story chronicles the wild and mischievous Monkey King’s (Sun Wukong) pilgrimage to India to retrieve sacred Buddhist scrolls. As a result of his adventures on the road with fellow pilgrims, the monk Xuanzang, the demon Pigsy, and banished Celestial Sandy, he learns responsibility and patience which leads him to achieve enlightenment at the end of the journey.

Being so widely adapted, artists and writers wishing to create new and future adaptations of the Monkey King story have an ever-increasing number of resources to draw inspiration from. However, at the same time, such ample resources make it even more challenging for the storyteller to meet the audience’s ever-increasing expectations.

I agree with Charles Isherwood’s assessment of Chen Shi-Zheng’s new musical, Monkey: Journey to the West. I count myself among the “New Yorkers who might not normally find themselves engaged by this generally high-minded cultural smorgasbord.” And I agree that Shi-Zheng’s Monkey is filled with “enticing visual flourishes” but needed more “emotional engagement”.

Jamie Hewlett’s costumes, sets, and animated sequences were the most memorable and creative elements of Shi-Zheng’s Monkey. I took the yellow sweatsuit that Shi-Zheng’s Monkey wore as a nod to Bruce Lee’s famous Game of Death tracksuit. And I wondered what Monkey might look like as a full-length animated feature drawn by Hewlett, during the play’s animated sequences.

Unlike Isherwood, I enjoyed the Cirque Du Soleil-style storytelling but there were times when it seemed the director forgot he was putting on a play and not orchestrating an acrobatics performance. At times the displays of physical dexterity seemed out of place and hindered the overall pace of the story.

The overarching theme of the original Journey to the West is the path to enlightenment. In that story, Sun Wukong starts are a hotheaded and mischievous beast who attains refinement and enlightenment through his experiences with the monk, Xuanzang, on their shared quest for Buddhist scriptures. Sun Wukong is not the same person he was at the start of the story. In most adaptations, his adventures with Xuanzang illustrate his spiritual growth. But Shi-Zheng’s Sun Wukong never changes. Shi-Zheng’s Monkey never faces that climatical moment where he sheds his current self for a new wizened self.

In one of my favorite adaptations, the 1996 Hong Kong TVB adaptation of Journey to the West, a narrator was created to help summarize the story-to-date, provide ready insights about the characters, and add a bit of humor to enhance the drama.

The addition of a narrator (English or Mandarin) would have helped Shi-Zheng’s adaptation. A narrator would be able to clearly set the scenes that required familiarity with the Monkey story in order to be fully appreciated. For example, the introduction of Wulong, son of the Dragon King of the West, as Xuanzang’s horse. The layperson might not have seen the significance of this event in Shi-Zheng’s play. A narrator would also be able to point out subtleties in the story like how all of the pilgrims are essentially criminals who are in the midst of their sentences when Xuanzang recruits them for the journey.

Shanghai Animation Studio’s 1962 animated adaptation of Journey, The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven, has limited dialogue but a rich music track. I wonder what the results would have been if Shi-Zheng’s Monkey had taken the same approach with Damon Albarn (composer) and Barry Bartlett (sound design). The familiar Chinese Opera instrumentation drove Shanghai Animation Studio’s adaptation. I wonder what the experience would have been like if Albarn’s music drove Shi-Zheng’s?

Stephen Chow’s A Chinese Odyssey is my favorite adaptation of Journey to the West. It imagines a world where Monkey and his fellow pilgrims never retrieved the Buddhist scrolls. It is filled with the fast talking and “exuberant low humor” (Isherwood’s words) that those familiar with the Monkey King expect. But it is more than a series of gags. The misadventures of Chow’s Monkey all point him to his inevitable spiritual maturity.

Alakazam the Great (1964), Osamu Tezuka’s anime which featured songs by Frankie Avalon when it was released in the US, and Kazuya Minekura’s Saiyuki Gaiden (2000), which sets Journey’s story in an imagined future world, are two other notable Monkey King adaptations that I have seen.

Shi-Zhang’s adaptation is also noteworthy. ThoughI feel it wasn’t as successful as some of the other’s mentioned here, I am still very happy I had the opportunity to see it. I admire his ambition in trying to evolve a centuries old art form.

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