Review: Monkey, Journey to the West

MONKEY

This is far more rooted in traditional Jīngjù (aka Beijing Opera) than I expected. When I was a kid, I first encountered Sun Wu Kong, the mischievous Monkey King, in a Jīngjù version of the story that came to America as part of a cultural exchange. Like any trouble-making little boy would, I totally identified with this fun-loving, irreverent primate with big dreams – and ego to match.

Now, firebrand Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng has collaborated with Gorillaz bandmates Damon Albarn (composer) and Jamie Hewlett (design, animations) to re-tell Sun Wu Kong’s story for the 21st Century. The original version of the story is a 16th Century Chinese novel Xī Yóu Jì, a much-loved classic of Chinese literature. It tells the story of Buddhist monk Tripitaka, who travels from China to India seeking the Buddhist sacred scriptures, accompanied by irrepressible Sun Wu Kong.

In addition to having a sentimental attachment to the Monkey King myth, I’m also a big fan of Albarn’s work in the pop music world, so I was very much looking forward to this. And by and large, I wasn’t disappointed. When I say Monkey is more traditional than expected, it’s a compliment: Shi-Zheng’s direction uses the acrobatic arts associated with Jīngjù, never as mere stunts, but as storytelling tools, and as elements in dynamic, evolving visual compositions that interact with Hewlett’s brightly colored designs.

It’s an exciting and sometimes even moving approach. For example, there is, near the end, some spinning of plates on poles; it quickly becomes apparent, though, that there is no danger of these pink plates falling (they’re attached to the poles). Instead, Shi-Zheng uses them to create a spectacular image of a shimmering mystic lotus unfolding for Triptaka and Sun Wu Kong.

That said, Monkey is at its most exciting when the creative team mixes the traditional with the cutting edge. This happens most often in Hewlett’s energetic animations, often showing parts of the journey which are simply too big or too epic to render in the flesh.

The weakest part of Monkey is the flow from animation to live-action – far too often there is a long moment of darkness after an animation is finished. Not a meditative pause, not a moment to catch one’s breath, just plain old dead air, which certainly diminishes the otherwise breathless impact of this spectacle.

That’s a relatively small problem, though. Monkey isn’t necessarily the artistic breakthrough one might have hoped for, but it’s still plenty of eye-filling fun, and for my money more artistically satisfying than anything I’ve seen by Cirque du Soliel.

For tickets, click here.

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