By Mathew Scott
Hong Kong (AFP) May 24, 2012
Generations of Chinese grew up under the spell cast by Wu Cheng'en's "Journey to the West", the 16th Century adventure epic which is the subject of two major upcoming film adaptations.
Hopes are that the tale will continue to leave audiences spellbound, with shooting now wrapped on actor and director Stephen Chow's version of the tale and another starring "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" star Chow Yun-fat.
Lauded as one of China's "Four Great Classical Novels," it has inspired operas, including one penned by acclaimed British rocker Damon Albarn, a string of cinema hits dating back to the 1940s and a popular online game.
"'Journey to the West' is a story full of imagination," Chow told AFP.
"The plot is beyond any other fantasy," added the Hong Kong-based star, who is one of China's biggest box office draws with films including "Shaolin Soccer" (2001) and "Kung Fu Hustle" (2004).
As China's rapidly expanding film industry continues to break new commercial ground, Chinese filmmakers are increasingly looking to literary adaptations for their inspiration -- with "Journey to the West" a time-honoured favourite.
Chow is putting final touches to his 110 million yuan ($17.3 million) adaptation, whose working title is "Journey to the West" and stars Chinese actors Wen Zhang and Shu Qi. It will be the third time he has used it as source material for a film.
It will come up against another version featuring heavyweights Chow Yun-fat and Donnie Yen in the Soi Cheang-directed 3D epic "The Monkey King", costing an estimated 400 million yuan and which is also in post-production.
Chow's fascination with the ancient text was first fuelled 30 years ago when he watched a grainy, black-and-white Cantonese film version of the tale in his local cinema house.
"I think the reason it is still relevant nowadays -- and people still find it attractive - is all down to its imagination. Until now I still don't see it being surpassed."
It is the sheer scale of the source material available in the original text that has Chow returning to those pages once again.
"The story is so creative. Yet it is so orderly arranged and structured. On the one hand the creative process is just as free as a bird but on the other hand the framework of the story is very well organized. This is very unique."
-- "Wizard of Oz" multiplied by a thousand --
The story is based on the legend of the monk Xuanzang's journey to India during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to retrieve sacred texts.
The monk is ordered on this quest towards spiritual enlightenment by Buddha and is placed under the protection of three disciples - Sun Wukong (the Monkey King), Zhu Bajie (the pig), and Sha Wujing (the water buffalo) - who are making up for past sins as well as a dragon prince who comes in the form of a horse.
The story first started to appear on the big screen in the 1940s and has since been used as the basis for such hits as "Monkey Goes West" (1966) and the Jet Li-starring "The Forbidden Kingdom" (2008) as well as Chow's own "A Chinese Odyssey" parts one and two (1994).
It has also been retold in a number of television productions - most notably the Japanese series "Saiyuki" from the 1970s, which was then dubbed and screened around the world.
More recently the tale was the basis of the acclaimed opera "Monkey: Journey to the West", put together by Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and Chinese stage director Chen Shi-zheng.
It has also surfaced in the Nickelodeon multi-player game "Monkey Quest", which the company last month claimed was the "fastest-growing virtual world for kids" with 10 million registered users in its first year.
Kat Yeung, distribution executive at Filmko Films which is co-producing rival movie "The Monkey King" along with Mandarin Films, believes the lessons learned along the way by those characters still resonate centuries on.
She says her company is putting a very modern spin on how the tale is told. "3D technology can show the 'Journey to the West' like it has never been seen before," she said.
"We want to take this story international, not only to Chinese territories, and we think "The Monkey King" will be just the first episode. There are lots of chapters in the books with independent stories that can be told."
Both productions are underway at a time when China is cementing its status as a cinema powerhouse.
Box office takings surged 30 percent on-year in 2011, eclipsing those in North America. Beijing-based group Wanda is set to become the world's biggest cinema operator by sales with its $2.6 billion purchase of US firm AMC Entertainment.
With the government-enforced quota of just 20 international films allowed in for screening each year still in place, it's an industry in need of productions and ideas, with "Journey to the West" seen as rich source for inspiration.
Hong Kong-based film critic and historian Paul Fonoroff also believes its enduring success comes down to its universal themes.
"It's a tale that has something for everybody: fantasy, adventure, cartoonish characters for the kids, an allegorical subtext for the adults, underlying themes of Buddhist enlightenment for the more spiritually inclined, and plenty of sex or at least sexual innuendo, depending on how the filmmakers want to play it," he explains.
"The story's themes are timeless and have a resonance regardless of one's cultural background - think Wizard of Oz multiplied a thousand times. And with characters like a monkey, pig, a dragon, it's not only loads of fun but - equally important for 21st Century filmmakers - it's a synergistic marketing dream."
Both "Journey to the West" and "The Monkey King" are scheduled for release in 2013.
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