Stephen Chow on why ‘Monkey King’ story needs to be retold in animation
With the release of “The Monkey King” on Netflix today, the enduring tale of the self-centered simian adventurer born from a magical rock leaps out of the oft-referenced 16th century novel, “Journey to the West,” that inspired its story with as much lambent sheen, campy gusto, kiddie fun as kung fu-style action.
Executive producer-actor Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle,” “Shaolin Soccer”), producer Peilin Chou and director Anthony Stacchi have turned the age-old fable into a stunningly realized animated feature that astutely incorporates the legend of Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang), in his quest for full immortality.
Keeping him company is his death-defying mission are his invincible Stick (Nan Li) and his ill-treated assistant Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), a peasant girl who wishes to make a difference in the world.
With the eccentric Dragon King (Bowen Yang) and his sidekicks Benbo (Jo Koy) and Babbo (Ron Yuan) breathing down his neck, Monkey King has to battle 100 demons, challenge the unbending rules of Hell, and pick a fight with the immortal Queen of Heaven to get his hands on the Elixir of Immortality—all in a day’s work!
Chinese religious attitudes
The film—a rip-roaring satire of bureaucracy, a source of spiritual insight, and a timely allegory all rolled into one—boasts a merry mix of elements combining Chinese folklore and mythology, Confucianism, and Taoist and Buddhist theology that continue to shape and reflect Chinese religious attitudes today.
In itself, the literary classic has inspired a lot of films (like the Hong Kong action-fantasy trilogy starring Aaron Kwok, Donnie Yen and Chow Yun Fat in the mid-2010s) and even “American Born Chinese,” the web series released early this year that also starred Oscar-nominated actress Stephanie Hsu, who voices the Mayor’s wife here.
“‘Journey to the West’ is one of my favorite stories from Chinese folklore,” shared Stephen in an email interview with Inquirer Entertainment early this week.
When asked why he felt the need to retell this story in animated form, he reasoned, “I’m very happy to bring this story to audiences worldwide via Netflix. I believe director Anthony Stacchi and producer Peilin Chou are capable of creating an outstanding Monkey King story that can set itself apart from its other iterations.
“Enjoying this Chinese tale from the viewpoint of Anthony, who’s a foreigner, is the most significant thing about this project. More than that, there’s less restriction in animation, which gives the production more elbow room to play with.
“But the most exciting part about this project—which took two years to finish—was the chance to work with creators from different countries in an animation production. Since I approached it with a learning attitude, nothing was particularly challenging to me.”
With that being said, Stephen is really no stranger to the Monkey King’s story. In fact, he himself portrayed the character 28 years ago in “A Chinese Odyssey,” a two-part Hong Kong film that won for him the best actor prize at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards in 1995.
As if that wasn’t enough, Stephen visited the story again 18 years later by way of “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” but this time as director.
Noting how “The Monkey King” contains images from his previous movies, such as the landlady in “Kung Fu Hustle” and the Buddha in “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” Stephen said that while he liked how those references were added to the animated feature, he said that they didn’t come from him. “That was really Anthony and Peilin’s idea. I hope you guys liked what you saw,” he said.
His action starrers “Shaolin Soccer” (2001) and “Kung Fu Hustle” (2004) were huge hits even in the Philippines. How do the HKFA-winning actor-director’s experiences as an actor help inform the stories he brings to life as a producer?
He answered, “For ‘The Monkey King,’ I tried my best to share my thoughts with Anthony and Peilin so they could use them as references.”
Also in the pipeline for Stephen is the upcoming “Shaolin Soccer” spinoff, “Shaolin Women’s Soccer.” He said, “It’s been 22 years since the first film came out, but I’ve always been thinking about making a follow-up. So ‘Shaolin Women’s Soccer’ is it.”
Asked about how the team managed to create such a harmonious blend between cultures of the East and West, Stephen said, “Anthony was really committed to combining both cultures—for example, he added elements of Chinese opera to the action scenes.”
“I think he also conflated the Eastern and Western cultures into the design of ‘The Monkey King.’ Moreover, he also had kids and young audiences in mind when we were creating this film.”