Monkey In the Bird’s Nest

If you think Batman is a character with longevity consider the Monkey. Since he sprang fully formed into existence in the late 16th Century he has returned again and again to bedevil gods and demons alike, to cause havoc wherever he goes and yet somehow manage to save the day when the chips are down. If you want to get a look at him, you don’t need to go far nowadays. He’s a star player in the Olympics’ promotional juggernaut thanks to the work of Jamie Hewlett and his fellow Gorillaz member Damon Albarn is getting rave reviews for his Pop Opera based on Journey to the West. While the Guardian’s reviewer Alexis Petridis finds the character “a peculiarly difficult hero to love” I think he just needs to give the maddening little blighter a chance.

The Bay Area, with its large Chinese-American population, is a great place to get a thorough education in Monkey mythology. Back when the Asian Art Museum was sharing space with the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, they ran a series on Buddhism and Film. Some of the selected works were inspired. The showing of Groundhog Day was followed by a spirited discussion between the audience and monks from the San Francisco Zen Center including, memorably Reb Anderson. The film selected by Berkeley professor and Novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, herself the author of her own twist on the legend in her book Tripmaster Monkey, served as my introduction to the character. Unfortunately the organizers couldn’t find a version with subtitles, but Kingston was adamant: it was the 1961 animated version Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven or nothing.

What ensued was one of the more memorable movie watching experiences of my life. As the bedlam on screen unfolded before me one of the organizers stood with a microphone in front of the screen, intermittently turning to view the action before languidly intoning “the Monkey now says that he is angry.” People left in droves. Their loss. The experience gave some sense of what it must have been like to view a movie in the days of the benshi in Japan. These narrators of the silent film era would stand next to the screen providing narration and commentary as well as providing voices for all the characters. One in particular, Matsuda Shunsui is still remembered fondly and heralded as “the Last Benshi.”

Havoc in Heaven, I think, would have given Matsuda a run for his money. Dialogue is quickly brushed aside allowing the Monkey to do what he does best, leaving a trail of mischief and destruction in his wake. The rigidity and order of heaven is played up for all its stuffiness so that when the Monkey goes to town on the denizens of paradise you can’t help but think they needed a little shaking up. This is often the most immediate pleasure one finds in the story: the playful defiance to authority, the suspense as if watching a ticking bomb wondering just when he’ll cut loose and then the anticipation wondering how far the Monkey will go. Wind him up and like Tamburlaine he’ll
…march against the powers of heaven,
And set black streamers in the firmament,
To signify the slaughter of the gods.

Five years later in 2006 I’d get a bit more of the story thanks to the brilliant collaborative effort of San Francisco’s ShadowLight Productions and Taiwan’s The Puppet and Its Double Theater presentation of Monkey King at Spider Cave at SomArts. While Batman has been reimagined again and again, the basic tale from the book that introduced the Monkey to the world has remained surprisingly durable. In it he, “Piggy” (literally a walking, talking, hard drinking pig) and the bruiser Shā Wùjìng accompany a monk tasked with bringing scriptures back to China from India. Along the way everyone under the Sun, Earth and Hell seek to thwart them (usually with the idea that the monk would not only make a tasty snack but provide a nice immortality energy boost in the bargain). If you want someone watching your back, there’s probably no one better than a character whose very presence seems to ensure that all hell will break loose at one point or other. Any trouble an enemy may cause will soon enough be met with an equal and opposite force.

Onto an enormous scrim the projections of puppets of various sizes along with masked actors told a tale in shadow of the Monkey’s rescue of his companions along with his beloved master the Buddhist monk Xuánzàng from the clutches of spiders who appear variously as ladies of court and chimeras of arachnid and human. It turns out that the Monkey does have a conscience, of a sort, after all.

This episode from Journey to the West has probably been adapted more than any other and the Shaw Brothers version from 1967, Cave of the Silken Web is definitely one of the best. I finally got to see it on DVD a few months ago and it was well worth the wait, if nothing else than for the image of the bevy of spider women lounging on their hammock webs while hidden performers lend a few extra waving arms behind their backs.

One of the reasons this tale is retold so frequently I think is that it constantly underlines the fact that even the Monkey King can achieve Enlightenment if he follows the path laid down by Buddha. You can see his struggle throughout to heed the words of his master when he’d rather be cracking skulls and playing pranks. But Silken Web plays up for laughs just how boring both the monk and obeying his rules can be. You can’t help but think the anonymous author of the original novel must have hit on the straight man, funny man routine centuries before vaudeville solidified the formula.

Audiences can be excused for being impatient whenever Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is absent from the screen in The Dark Knight. As much as we need order, the attraction of the anarchic element, one prone to laugh in the face of our most somber pronouncements and affectations is hard to resist. With the Monkey you get an intriguing fusion of what we admire most and what we shake our heads at with disapproval. He is in some ways, Batman and the Joker, crusading hero and force for chaos, in one character. Although the Monkey is currently gracing movie screens once again in the form of Jet Li in The Forbidden Kingdom you’re better off checking out the Chinese Odyssey duology with none other than Stephen Chow portraying our hero. Not only do you get all the comedic genius that is part and parcel to a Chow outing but this time around the Monkey takes his mayhem a little too far, interfering with the plot of Journey to the West itself. In a picque he defies the Bodhisattva Guānyīn, thereby ending the journey before it can even begin. What ensues is part Back to the Future, part Starman as he must decide whether to live reborn as a human with all its attendant pleasures and pain or fulfill his duty to protect his master on his journey. It is a nice complement to the original tales as we see how the choices the character has made close off paths that he could have taken and underline the fact that to fulfill his role as protector and to achieve Enlightenment he must to some extent discard the very qualities most associated with him. Chow gives a performance that is both funny and poignant.

And then there’s this.

Four volumes. Over 2000 pages. And I’m going to get around to reading it eventually. Until then the Monkey will no doubt be showing up in all kinds of media, always when you least expect it and always stirring up trouble somewhere, thankfully. With the images from the opening night of Olympic games still vivid in the mind, I can’t help but think that the Monkey would have been happier disrupting the ceremonies and collapsing the careful orchestrations in upon themselves than playing a bit role as cultural ambassador. As the character Lucas Corso in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel The Club Dumas observed, we often get the devil we deserve rather than the one we expect. While an American superhero indulges in illegal surveillance and wiretapping on the silver screen, perhaps the spirit of the Monkey is best exemplified by activists who, given a reason, make mischief for a cause.


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