The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven 大鬧天宮
2012, colour, 1.85:1, 3-D, 92 mins
Directed by Su Da (速逹), Chen Zhihong (陳志宏)
By Derek Elley
Tue, 28 February 2012, 21:00 PM (HKT)
Radical refurbishment of the '60s cartoon classic looks like a newly minted coin. Festivals, Asian events, niche theatrical, plus ancillary.
Mythical ancient China. Born from some magic stones that fell to Earth a long time ago when Goddess Nüwa mended the sky, Sun Wukong, aka Monkey King, lives on Flower-Fruit Mountain, where he leads a community of other monkeys with his magical powers. One day, after breaking his halberd, he learns he can get a new one from Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, whom he visits in his underwater lair. Annoyed that Monkey King doesn't find any of his halberds heavy enough, Dragon King tells him he can borrow anything he can pick up, and Monkey King makes off with a massive pillar - the Sea-Calming Gold-Banded Cudgel - which Dragon King had used to pin down the ocean. Monkey King is able to shrink and expand it to any size he wants. Infuriated, Dragon King petitions Celestial Jade Emperor for the return of the cudgel, and the latter, on the advice of God of the Great White Star, sends an envoy summoning Monkey King to his presence. Monkey King is unawed by the Jade Emperor and his palace, but accepts the job of Protector of the Imperial Horses that Jade Emperor offers him to keep him under close supervision. When his boss, Lord of the Imperial Stables, scolds him for being unruly, Monkey King becomes angry, wrecks the place and returns to Flower-Fruit Mountain. Jade Emperor sends Heavenly King Li, his multi-headed and -armed son Nezha, and God of Mighty Miracles to tame the arrogant Monkey King, but they are all defeated. In defiance of Jade Emperor, Monkey King demands the title of Great Sage Equalling Heaven. To tame him, Jade Emperor makes him Guardian of the Imperial Peach Orchard, which supplies fruit exclusively for the Empress Queen Mother, but Monkey King eats and steals the peaches, as well as the Magic Elixir of Lord Lao Zi, and takes them back to Flower-Fruit Mountain. Furious, Jade Emperor sends 100,000 celestial troops against him.
WAN Laiming 萬籟鳴's '60s animation classic, based on the first seven chapters of the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West 西游記, gets a new coat of paint and much much more in The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven 大鬧天宮. Along with the first Asian sound cartoon Princess Iron Fan 鐵扇公主 (1941), it's the best known of the works of Wan (1900-97), known as the "Father of Chinese Animation", who along with his three brothers pioneered the form from 1926 onwards. Restored and also re-worked into a 3-D version with the help of Los Angeles-based Technicolor, this is not simply a re-issue but virtually a new version for the 21st century, and comes up looking bright and shiny on the big screen.
Made over four years (1961-64) and originally in two halves — the first taking the story up to the initial battle between Monkey King and the celestial warriors, the second continuing with the peach orchard episode and second battle — the film has since 1978 been known in the West as a single movie called Uproar in Heaven 大鬧天宮 (1964), with an English commentary overlaying the Mandarin dialogue. The 2012 version not only expands the original's screen ratio from 1.33 to 1.85:1 (by widening the backgrounds with additional drawings rather than re-cropping) but also features a new arrangement and recording by SHI Jiayang 施佳陽 of the original mono score by WU Yingju 吳應炬, has a new, big-name voice cast and — most contentiously — condenses the original from 110 to 86 minutes (plus six minutes of new end credits).
Collectors, therefore, should not throw away their treasured copies of the original, with its jerkier look and weaker colours. But it's hard to argue too much with this radical refurbishment which, though losing some of the naive charm of the '60s version, looks like a newly minted coin with its rich colours, supported by an equally rich voice cast. Directors CHEN Kaige 陳凱歌 and FENG Xiaogang 馮小剛 make a wonderfully grumpy Dragon King of the Eastern Sea and gnarly Lord Lao Zi, while actor CHEN Daoming 陳道明 essays a suitably woozy Celestial Jade Emperor and LI Yang 李揚 an egotistical Monkey King. Other names like veteran actress LIU Xiaoqing 劉曉慶 (as the Empress Queen Mother), comedienne YAO Chen 姚晨 as a court fairy and actors ZHANG Guoli 張國立 and LIU Ye 劉燁 are strewn across the celebrity-heavy line-up.
Aside from occasional in-your-face effects (specially drawn), mostly for Monkey King's use of his magic cudgel, most of the DCP 3-D simply gives a feeling of slight depth — through the huge job of separating and layering the characters and backgrounds into dozen of levels. This comes into its own in the two huge battles that dominate the film, and the displays of martial arts. Though the missing minutes in the story condensation are regrettable, they're not especially noticeable and, to be fair, the film has been available in several versions since its initial release. As a whole, it still drags a little in the dialogue sequences between the action. This is largely because the plot is little more than a series of variations on a single joke: the continual besting of the celestial hierarchy (representing feudal government) by the indestructible, pesky and endlessly resourceful Monkey King (representing the ordinary Chinese people).
The loving care with which the whole project has been undertaken by co-directors SU Da 速達 (a TV animator best known for the still-running Dear Tutu 大耳朵圖圖 series) and CHEN Zhihong 陳志宏 (TV series Qin's Moon 秦時明月之笑闖江湖) is movingly demonstrated in the new end titles, which include B&W pictures of Wan and his team at work on the original.
ContactSales: The Film Library, Hong Kong (email@example.com)
Theatrical release: China, 12 Jan 2012.
Presented by Shanghai Film Group (CN), Shanghai Animation Film Studio (CN). Produced by Shanghai Animation Film Studio (CN). Executive producer: Ren Zhonglun. Producers: Ren Zhonglun, Frederic Rose, Wang Tianyun, Qian Jianping.
Music arrangements: Shi Jiayang. Sound: Liang Yingjun. Restoration: Tom Burton. 3-D conversion director: Pierre Routhier. 3-D conversion executive producer: Chris Del Conte.
Voices: Li Yang (Sun Wu-kong, the Monkey King), Chen Daoming (Celestial Jade Emperor), Chen Kaige (Dragon King of the Eastern Sea), Feng Xiaogang (Lord Lao Zi, founder of Daoism), Zhang Guoli (God of the Great White Star), Liu Ye (Heavenly King Li), Chen Peisi (Local Guardian God), Yao Chen (eldest of the Seven Fairies), He Ling (Nezha, son of Heavenly King Li), Liu Xiaoqing (Empress Queen Mother), Zhou Libo (Lord of the Imperial Stables).
Uproar in Heaven (Part One)
Directed by Wan Lai-ming 萬籟鳴
1962, colour, 1.33:1, c. 40 mins
International premiere: Karlovy Vary Film Festival (short films), Jun 1962.
Produced by Shanghai Animation Studio (CN).
Script: Li Kerou, Wan Laiming. Novel: Wu Cheng'en (Journey to the West 西游記, c. 1590). Photography: Wang Shirong, Duan Xiaoxuan. Editing: Xu Zhenzhu. Music: Wu Yingju. Musical direction: Chen Chuanzhao, Zhang Xinhai. Art direction: Zhang Guangyu, Zhang Zhengyu. Animation design: Yan Dingxian, Duan Jun, Pu Jiaxiang, Lu Qing, Lin Wenxiao, Ge Guiyun. Backgrounds: Fang Pengnian, Gao Yang, Qin Yizhen, Liang Like. Associate director: Tang Cheng.
Uproar in Heaven (Part Two)
Directed by Wan Lai-ming 萬籟鳴, Tang Cheng 唐澄
1965, colour, 1.33:1, c. 67 mins
International premiere: Locarno Film Festival, Jul 1965
Produced by Shanghai Animation Studio (CN).
Script: Li Kerou, Wan Laiming. Novel: Wu Cheng'en (Journey to the West 西游記, c.1590). Photography: Duan Xiaoxuan. Editing: Xu Zhenzhu. Music: Wu Yingju. Music: Wu Yingju. Musical direction: Chen Chuanzhao, Zhang Xinhai. Art direction: Zhang Guangyu, Zhang Zhengyu. Animation design: Yan Dingxian, Duan Jun, Pu Jiaxiang, Lu Qing, Lin Wenxiao, Ge Guiyun. Backgrounds: Fang Pengnian, Gao Yang, Qin Yizhen, Liang Like.