What makes the 1986 adaptation of Journey to the West a classic

journey to the west 1986 a classic

Last week, the second trailer of Black Myth: Wukong, a video game developed by Game Science, was released, and the music at the very last minutes of that trailer brings back to me so many memories related to the 1986 movie adaptation of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, directed by Yang Jie. It’s a cover version of the theme song 敢问路在何方/Gan wen lu zai he fang (Where is the way, may I ask), a popular melody imprinted in the heart of the kids of my generation who were born in Vietnam after 1990.

When it comes to the 1986 movie adaptation of Journey to the West, I always say: “it’s a classic of classics”. What I actually mean is that the 1986 version has become a blueprint in adapting the novel; it’s so monumental, so iconic that all of its successors, be it comics or TV series or film, no matter how high-tech their graphics are, cannot surpass, and that people will immediately compare the new version with the 1986 version, just to insist one more time that the 1986 version is irreplaceable. 

There are a lot of reasons for it, but to me, the one salient feature that made the 1986 version stand out from the rest is the acting. Let me elaborate on that. When I watched Wong Kar-wai’s Farewell to my concubine, I could see that the acting technique in Peking opera, or Jīngjù (京剧), a traditional theatrical genre of China, is very different from that of cinema. In Peking opera, actors tend to exaggerate their facial expressions and postures, and they also try to deliver their lines clearly and emotionally so that the audience could feel the movement even from a distance. The same applies to spoken drama, huàjù (话剧), which came into existence in China thanks to the playwright Cao Yu and many other artists, and more generally, this is an essential attribute that makes stage acting differ from screen acting. When you act in front of a camera, you are not required to act melodramatically. However, it seems to me that all the actors in the 1986 adaptation of Journey to the West are deeply influenced by stage acting techniques. The anger, the sorrow, the joy, or disappointment are explicitly conveyed through their voice, their face, and their gestures. One notable example is Liu Xiao Ling Tong, the actor who played the role of the Monkey King. He himself was also a descendant of a family with a longstanding tradition of playing the Monkey King on stage, and his rendition of Sun Wukong is no doubt way more profound and influential than his successors. And because of that, the story is totally intelligible and accessible to viewers from all social classes.

Moreover, this acting technique perfectly suits the movie plot, which is entirely faithful to the novel written by Wu Cheng’en. The novel contains several intrinsic features of classical texts: an odyssey marked by many changes of fortune, the vivid contrary between the good and the bad, and the three-act structure of every episode. If these features preserve the value of Wu Cheng’en’s novel, then they in turn sustain the relevance of the 1986 adaptation. Also, there’s nothing sensitive or offensive in the plot; it’s not about romantic love or political issues, but brotherhood and mentorship, which are relatable to everyone. Hence, the plot is simple, comprehensible, and accessible to audiences of all ages. 

Apart from the acting and the plot, the music of the 1986 adaptation is very beautiful. The lyrics of the theme song, Where is the way, may I ask, is meaningful. The opening theme composed in the pentatonic scale, using Chinese traditional instruments, provides us with an Eastern vibe. Everyone in my generation remembers those familiar sounds because that was part of their childhood. 

Although the series was broadcasted in China in 1986, it was not until 1990 that the movie reached Vietnamese audiences perhaps because only after the secret summit in Chengdu in 1990 did the China-Vietnam relations turn normal and respectively paved the way for Chinese cultural productions imported to Vietnam. Sometimes when I watch the series again, it still strikes me with nostalgic feelings. I still feel angry when the Tang Sanzang misunderstands Sun Wukong, and still feel melancholy when the monkey king goes back to find his first master, Puti Zhushi, asking for help saving the magic ginseng tree. 

By the way, when I watched that second trailer of Black Myth: Wukong, I noticed that the art setting of the game was inspired by the Dazu Rock Carvings in Chungking. 

I’m really surprised by the fact that the game designers relate the original plot to this heritage site. If Wu Cheng’en’s novel is a crossover of Buddhist myths and Taoist myths where bodhisattvas meet and interact with the Jade Emperor and the immortals, the Dazu Rock Carvings, influenced by the Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist beliefs, also assemble different figures from these three religions. This is the uniqueness of Chinese culture, which is known as “three teachings harmonious as one”.

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