Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back was a sequel to his wildly successful first instalment of the franchise. Although the follow-up performed well at the box office, it was soon heavily criticised – with many, including Chow himself, suggesting that he had simply run out of ideas (see WiC354).
Indeed, rehashing Journey to the West seems to have become all too easy. That said, for one of the most iconic and original Chinese TV versions of this literary classic, its production was no simple task.
The original Journey to the West was written by Wu Cheng’en during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is based on the true story of the Buddhist monk and translator Xuanzang, who travelled from China to India during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in the quest for the original text of Buddhist sutras.
In his telling, Wu weaved characters from Chinese folklore, such as the Monkey King, into the monk Xuanzang’s own account of his journey, creating a legendary fellowship and a quintessentially Chinese tale.
This classic was reimagined by Yang Jie in 1981. She was then a news caster as well as a director of Beijing opera but was tasked with making a TV adaptation. Yang described the arduous process of filming the series as almost “as difficult as the pilgrimage to the west itself”. With just one camera and a minimal crew, it took six years to complete the 25 episodes of the series (Xuanzang himself purportedly took 17 years to cross from China to India).
Filming began in 1982, a few years after China had embarked upon its ‘Reform and Opening Up’ era. Deng Xiaoping’s groundbreaking policy sought to place China back on the world stage, after decades of isolationist policies, and Journey to the West had a small part to play in achieving that goal.
According to the South China Morning Post, when Yang Jie was given the task, a deputy director of state broadcaster CCTV told her that she only needed to make it better than the Japanese adaptation, which had been released a few years before. In this case a Japanese studio used the Chinese classic to produce a TV series called Monkey (better known to its cult followers as Monkey Magic owing to the refrain of the show’s theme song). It was dubbed into English by the BBC and became an international hit. Yang’s mission was to outshine this Japanese “usurpation” of Chinese culture.
She was shrewd in her response to her brief, replying to the deputy director, “Sir, your standards are too low”. With that, Yang embarked on her odyssey, traversing China in search of “authentic scenery”, paying her six lead actors only Rmb90 an episode, and raising funds from state enterprises to complete her saga.
According to TMT Post, it was the limited technology and budgetary restraints that made the pace of production so slow. A three-wheeled motor bike incorporating a desk and a chair were used for tracking shots; for underwater scenes, the sole camera was protected by a fish tank half submerged in the water; and to create the illusion of flying characters, athletes were hired to leap from trampolines while the camera filmed from below.
Journey to the West piloted on CCTV in 1982, but it was six years before the 25th episode finally reached screens, ending the first series. Yang originally planned to shoot 30 episodes, but couldn’t afford them all. In testament to the show’s success, TMT Post reports those original 25 episodes have since been rebroadcast over 3,000 times, and in 2000 the show was revived and a second series was produced. “Nothing we did was for fame, or profit,” Yang recalled. “It was art.”
Yang’s death last week at the age of 88 prompted an unofficial day of national mourning, as many remembered her as the director who resurrected a key element of Chinese culture after the chaos of the Mao period. (There are similarly fond memories of The Dream of the Red Chamber, another classic adapted for TV in 1987, see WiC293).
“She was my teacher in art and life. Without Journey to the West, audiences would never have seen the Monkey King on the screen. Farewell, my dear director,” Zhang Jinlai, who played the Monkey King in Yang’s adaptation, wrote on Sina Weibo.
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