Sunday, March 29, 2009


I once briefly studied Chinese; I can't remember any of it, though I do remember a teaching assistant named Ken from Taiwan saying that the best part of having a Chinese background was getting to hear the stories of the Monkey King from your grandmother. I don't have a Chinese grandmother, alas, but I had been exposed to the stories of the Monkey King, Sun Wu-kung, when as a child I had caught part of the animated film Alakazam the Great on television. The movie was a 1960 Japanese version of the Chinese story, dubbed by American actors including Frankie Avalon, Sterling Holloway, and Jonathan Winters. It stuck with me because it was more violent than most cartoons I had seen, and extremely exotic. Buddha, or at least someone like him, is a character in the film.

After college I read Arthur Waley's translation of the Monkey King story, and also saw a terrific stage adaptation by Mary Zimmerman. But until today, I hadn't known that a Chinese studio had also made an animated film version of the earlier part of the story, titled Havoc in Heaven. No English translations of this award-winning and very influential film exist, though some kind soul has posted parts of it on Youtube, and it's dazzling. A little slow, though; as with the written version, bureaucracy, in this case the bureaucracy of heaven, plays a large part in the story. The appeal of the main character is his disregard for the official order of things, and his incessant tormenting of the gods, immortals, and celestial creatures that all play by the rules. Apparently the film czars in communist China allowed the film to be made because they saw Sun Wu-kung as a metaphor for Mao, driving the bourgeoisie crazy and thumbing his nose at imperialism. Yet watching the film now, it seems to celebrate many things that the Cultural Revolution would seek to destroy; courtly pageantry, Peking opera, Shaolin martial arts, and, well, fun.

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