How a monkey won the world

By Wang Yizhou Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-6 17:30:09


A scene from the latest 3-D version of The Monkey King - Uproar in Heaven. Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Animation Film Studio
A scene from the latest 3-D version of The Monkey King - Uproar in Heaven. Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Animation Film Studio

The Monkey King has always been hard to suppress and now he is thriving again and in 3-D glory. Based on the Chinese literary classic, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en, the original Monkey King - Uproar in Heaven was a classic 1962 Chinese animated film made during an era of great difficulty and stringency in China.

The film was a great success but it ran into the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the film was locked away and many of the creators involved were sent to labor in the countryside.

But when China's cinemas reopened the film became a blockbuster success and won acclaim overseas, picking up awards around the world including the Best Film award at the London Film Festival.

Nearly three years ago, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, which had produced the original, embarked on a major project, restoring the film and turning it into a modern 3-D production. Like the original Uproar in Heaven, this has proved big success - a few weeks ago it won the Outstanding Animated Feature award at the 32nd Hawaii International Film Festival after also being shown at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals.

Last week the Global Times sat down at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio offices and discussed both films in an interview with creators of the original and the modernized version.


The 1962 version of Uproar in Heaven. Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Animation Film Studio
The 1962 version of Uproar in Heaven. Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Animation Film Studio

Cultural essence

The Monkey King has been a feature of Chinese films and television for many years with several cartoon versions produced and a Japanese television version becoming a cult favorite in Britain and Australia in the 1980s. Next year will see the premiere of a new live action 3-D version starring Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-fat, Aaron Kwok and Joe Chen.

The Monkey King - Uproar in Heaven follows the adventures of the miraculous Monkey King, a mischievous character who creates havoc in heaven by rebelling against the Jade Emperor.

The monkey was born from a rock but after stealing a magic staff from the Dragon King of the East Sea, he finds himself taking on the might of heaven itself, setting horses loose, sabotaging imperial banquets and fighting epic battles with one god after another.

Yan Dingxian and his wife Lin Wenxiao were leading members of the team that created the original film. Seventy-six-year-old Yan told the Global Times that the film was the essence of traditional Chinese culture that had been accrued decades before the production started, thanks to the director, Wan Laiming, China's first animator.

Wan was born in 1900 in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province and, with his three brothers, pioneered the animated film industry in China. Inspired by early Walt Disney cartoons imported from the US, they experimented in a small attic where they lived in Shanghai through the 1920s.

In 1941, their first full-length animated feature, Princess Iron Fan, premiered in Shanghai and other cities. The film, adapted from the middle chapters of Journey to the West, showed how the Monkey King craftily persuaded the princess to hand over her precious iron fan so that he could extinguish the flames that were burning on mountains which he and the other pilgrims had to cross.

Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese troops at that time and the film was a subtle calling card to loyal Chinese. "Wan wanted to encourage more Chinese to stand up and fight the Japanese invaders like the rebellious Monkey King," Lin Wenxiao explained.

After the successful premiere, the Wan brothers wanted to film the sequel, Uproar in Heaven, but their plans were disrupted by the civil war after the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression ended in 1945.        

In 1954, after struggling to work in Hong Kong, they joined the newly-launched Shanghai Animation Film Studio. They still dreamed of eventually filming Uproar in Heaven. In 1959 as the formerly close relationships with the then Soviet Union began to deteriorate, the studio proposed making an animated film in a Chinese style rather than the previous works which had largely imitated Soviet film styles. Wan was on the verge of seeing his dream come to fruition.

"With his reputation in the industry and the film's theme in line with the then political atmosphere, the project was quickly approved," Yan told the Global Times.

In the era of planned economy when all factories were State-owned, it was not the budget that concerned Wan primarily but the creativity needed for the project. "Because the story is so well-known, most Chinese have their own version of the Monkey King," Lin said. The 77-year-old recalled that they were asked to present a new and different approach to the story, one based on traditional Chinese elements as much as possible.


Yan Dingxian works on sketches for the Monkey King. Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Animation Film Studio
Yan Dingxian works on sketches for the Monkey King. Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Animation Film Studio

Search for inspiration

To achieve this, in December 1959 Wan and 10 others from the creative team boarded a train to Beijing in search of inspiration. "It was extremely cold, below minus 20 C. We slept in bunk beds in a basement at night with no heating, and walked tens of miles a day between destinations instead of catching buses, to save money for meals, but our spirits were high," Yan recalled.

The Forbidden City, where the emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had lived, was constructed to exemplify the emperor's connection to heaven and was designed to be a microcosm of the universe. At that time, it was not open to the public. "When I first saw the Hall of Supreme Harmony where the emperors had presided over their ceremonies, I felt uplifted," Lin said.

Standing on the empty square there, Lin was stunned by the magnificence and depth of China's culture. "It seemed as though the palace was floating in the air, but when I came closer, I found that was because the palace and its surrounds were made of white marble patterned with clouds." That image which impressed them so much became the heavenly palace of the Jade Emperor for the 1962 film. 

The team visited temples in the city's suburbs in search of inspiration from folk art forms. "In one temple-turned storehouse, we saw a most magnificent Ming Dynasty painting showing the goddess of mercy standing on clouds, praying to end the suffering of mankind," Yan said.

He recalled that Wan believed the clouds in the painting were extraordinary and asked Yan to copy these. Yan sketched 60 pages of these clouds in various shapes and sizes and these clouds later appeared in the film as well. "They were totally different from Disney cartoon clouds which were fluffy and all looked the same," he said.

In Beijing, the creative team found inspiration not just in art and architecture but also in other aspects of culture like opera, palace rituals and folk art. Yan and Lin also believe that one of the biggest things achieved in the film was the open approach adopted by the crew.

"Wan was always asking us to free up our minds, which was a pretty rare request at that time," Yan said. He said the section directors on the film had a great deal of latitude with their teams after Wan had outlined the goals. Wan was constantly urging them to find something new in their work.

Yan found the original Peking Opera version of the Monkey King with armor and two long ornate feathers was not suitable for his screen character. "That was too detailed so I simplified the figure and under Wan's instructions gave him vivid coloring, simple lines and a clean cut image." The round-faced monkey with a slim body in a tiger skin wrap became the trademark image of the film and was recognized around the world.

To make the film more fun, Lin said they added adventures that were not in the original book but had become popular with Chinese people. "After seeing the four heavenly guardians protecting heaven's gate in a temple in Beijing, I thought it was a good idea to have the Monkey King fight with the four who used different weapons - a traditional Chinese lute, a sword, an umbrella and a snake," Lin said. This scene where the agile monkey teases the four ponderous guardians became one of the funniest and most enjoyable moments of the film.

A sense of honor

During the early years of the 1960s as they worked intently on the film, the country's economic difficulties impinged on the team and they often found themselves lacking food and having to go hungry. But the 30 members of the team worked all hours and days in the studio to finish the film by the deadline.

"I think it was a sense of honor that saw us through," Lin explained. This was the only feature-length animated film produced in China at that time and it had already been scheduled to be screened in cinemas throughout the nation. Everyone involved in the film felt the responsibility of completing the work to the highest possible standard. The crews worked without a day off until the first section of the film premiered in 1962.

In 1963, the film won the Best Animation Film award in China's Golden Rooster & Hundred Flowers Film Festival and the second section of the film was completed and screened in 1965. Just a few months later, however, the Cultural Revolution shut down the entire film industry. Films were locked away, tens of thousands of rare manuscripts were burnt or destroyed, along with some of the temples and other sites Yan and Lin had been inspired by. Director Wan and the other leading creators involved in the film were exiled to the countryside accused of satirizing political leaders of the time.

It was not until 1978, with the country's opening up to the outside world, that the film reappeared and was screened overseas, winning a major award at the London Film Festival in 1978.

The film attracted a cult following throughout Europe. Yan and some of his team discovered how popular the film was in France in 1980 when they were visiting a school on the outskirts of Paris.

He couldn't speak in French to the students so he drew a picture of the Monkey King on the class blackboard. The next morning the school's principal caught up with them and begged Yan to return to the school. He wanted Yan to draw the image onto the children's exercise books - the students had not let any teacher erase the blackboard picture after they left.

Imperfect characters

Su Da is a co-director of the new version and has carefully worked on restoring the 130,000 ink drawings of the original film and converting them to 3-D. "After seeing Hollywood animated films like Toy Story and Kung Fu Panda, the tastes of Chinese audiences have changed. They like their characters to be comical with flaws but who fight on to achieve their goals. But today many Chinese cartoons still try to preach to their audiences with perfect characters."

Su said the studio chose to restore Uproar in Heaven because the Monkey King was still one of the all-time favorite heroes here and abroad. But they worked with Technicolor and other Hollywood companies to make use of the latest technology.

Leaving the storyline as it was, they had to increase the width of the original frames for the 3-D version, adding extra bits of scenery and background. Some scenes were reworked to keep the characters in the center of the frame which makes the 3-D effect work better.

The film was also cut from 110 to 88 minutes because the action scenes in the new version were much faster. "We wanted the updated version to meet the high standards expected by today's audiences," Su said. The new version is voiced by Chinese actors Liu Ye and Chen Daoming and internationally-renowned directors Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang.

Su said that in the sequels that are being planned, traditional Chinese cultural elements would still be an important aspect but the filmmakers would need superior scriptwriters who would be able to maintain the magic of the story while keeping its wide appeal. "Many young writers are uncertain about what they can keep and what they can change. This is a matter of experience in the end. But more importantly, the filmmakers will need to free up their minds just like Yan and Lin did some 50 years ago."

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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