Journey to the West is a Chinese television series adapted from the classical novel of the same title. Production for the 66 episodes long series required 6 billion renming bi to make. How did it fare? Was it better than the old version?
Story/Introduction on characters – many know the story well so I will not talk about the roles but on their acting
1. Wu Yue as Sun Wukong
He is brilliant as the monkey king to inject enough feelings in the role. His fighting scenes are good to show his style. But his appearance did not do him enough justice as we can see how hard he struggles to talk at most times.
2. Nie Yuan as Tang Sanzang
All along, I have thought of him to be suitable to act as a swordman. He also presents a different image but as compared to the original actor, he does not have the weak image. There was a part where he bared his top for a ‘bath’. Unlike the original version which described Sanzang as fair, he was quite muscular with 6 packs with a dark tan! That is why Bajie had to change his lines to comment that his flesh looked as if it was coated with a layer of honey.
3. Zang Jinsheng as Zhu Bajie
He is really good! I like the way he shows his cuteness and also greed – nothing wrong to be frank.
4. Tsui Kam Kong as Sha Wujing
He has enough villain roles in the past and his change is also a refreshing one. He comes across courageous and upright.
5. Qian Yongchen as White Dragon Horse
His role is a minor one as we often see him as in the horse form but he shows well his anxiety when trying to save Sanzang under sea while the others are trapped in the few scenes.
6. Zhang Jizhong as Taishang Laojun
What a surprise! Who will dream of the director also taking part in it as well? Brilliant performance to show why he has high demands of others.
7. Wei Zi as Jade Emperor
I find him a bit unreal – maybe the computer effects have somewhat narrowed his interpretation as his facial expressions are unclear.
8. Wang Huichun as Buddha
This actor also lacks depth and doesn’t slip into the role. However, he improves towards the end.
9. Liu Tao as Guanyin (holding a willow branch)
She is beautiful and also graceful. With a faint smile, she is successful.
10. Hsiao Qiang as Thousand Armed Guanyin
It takes me some time to accept her as she can’t shed her sex image initially. Her eyes should mellow down and not send too many sparks.
11. TAE as Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin's male form)
He is convincing too. I am quite surprised that he manages to shed his playful image to become serious here.
12. Yang Xiaolin as Guanyin's female form
She is also elegant and gentle. All will be won over by her performance too.
13. Tong Chun Chung as Emperor Taizong of Tang
Many will surely envy him for getting emperor roles all the time but I must confess that he is the best person for the job. He has the royal look.
14. Feng Shaofeng as Erlang Shen
He shows you why the monkey god is so shy to meet him as he has won him with his skills in the past. He often helps him when he is in trouble.
15. An Yi Xuan as White Bone Demon
What a surprise – a Taiwanese actress who often gets demure roles becomes so evil in here? But she tries her best and blends with the rest.
16. Meng Guang Mei as Black Spider Demon
She is another Taiwanese actress who gets another evil role. She is equally competent and leaves a deep impression too.
Some cast members played multiple roles. About 300 over artistes were involved in the drama. Upon knowing that Zhang was going to shoot this classic, many approached him to request a part – they did not even cite their acting fee as they wished to shoot a memorable drama.
It was the highest viewed drama when shown in Singapore in 2012 for the 7pm slot. Each episode sold about 300,000 renmingbi overseas. Zhang earned almost double from it although none won fame from it. But investors were happy that the price increased due to the fact that it was a classic.
Zhang was full of respect for the old ‘liu xiao ling tong’ version which was 20 over years old. (I also watched it when young and liked it as well.) Thus, he decided to reuse the theme song but with a different song arrangement and singer. The shooting took longer than usual – 2 years to complete.
Zhang had thought of asking Huang Xiao Ming, Hu Jun, Chen Hao, Liu Tao(she was the only one available in the end.) and Sun Hai Ying to act in this drama. He would be unable to pay them a lot – for example, if one of them get to act as the hell emperor, will they ask a lot from him? Many reporters suggested Wong Fei, Li Ya Peng and Fan Bing Bing so he would consider them.
Many thought he would get Wong Fei to be Guanyin but he denied. He intended to get many actresses to take part for this role to give others a refreshing feel. He could not base on the viewers’ likes to choose the cast as the whole company made the final decision.
Upon knowing that he was going to act as Tang Sanzang, Yuan gave up smoking and drinking. He also started eating vegetarian food and meditated. If he had to get close to this role, he had to control his desires. He was sure that the new Sanzang could not be as timid as in the past. He should be benevolent, able to suffer hardship and not get fluttered easily. To go all the way to the west to get the sculptures required lots of determination.
Jin Sheng was puzzled on why he got the role of Pigsy. Was he fat – he asked the reporters jokingly. He had confidence in acting out his character – greedy for food and lustful but not to the extent of getting hateful to let others feel that he was cute. And Pigsy would not be very ugly as he was quite handsome when he was still the marshall.
Yue knew that others would compare him with ‘Liu xiao ling tong’ but he did not mind. ‘Liu xiao ling tong’’s interpretation was stage-like while he would show more of his pugilistic and magical skills. The other difference was Wukong would not go to seek help easily when in trouble to show off his strength. He had more humane scenes so his Wukong would not look more like a monkey.
The Hollywood experts helped to design the special effects – thus many thought they were watching ‘lord of the rings’ and ‘matrix’ movies. The weapons were also different – Wukong’s stick was no longer a normal one – it was 20g heavy but he was used to it.
Zhang felt that Wujing’s role was too limited in the past and would add more for Kam Kong. Kam Kong said that he would treat Yuan as his master all the time till the end of the shoot. No matter in acting or in normal life, he would show responsibility, courage and also seriousness to protect the master all the time. Some protested against him taking up this role as he acted category3 movies before. He shook his head – only adults watched them so he should not have negative impact on little children.
True indeed, when this version was out, many compared with 1983 version, they felt this version of the cast looked more like animals than humans. Zhang confessed that he wanted them to look more real. The old version had Wukong pasting the monkey’s fur on the face and this was more of the opera method. Theirs was completely using plastic – on the face and body also for Pigsy.
Many still felt they looked stiff as Yue seemed unable to open his mouth although lots of money was spent. He looked more like Voldemout in Harry Potter with a terribly flat nose. Zhang mentioned that the mask was close to the skin’s texture. It would move along with the organs. The problem he had was Yue’s mouth could not open as the inside was not stuck tightly. The nose was added as he suffered from flu most of the time and he used tissue to stuff the part below his nose.
Zhang had hoped that Wukong would be more muscular but the special effects were unable to reach the standard. He could only see a hairy arm in the end but to make do with it. Many children found the demons scary especially when the spider spirit changes. Zhang stresses that the demons were beautiful at all times except when they made changes. They would show long fangs and this was the truth. The spider spirit had saliva drooling which was more realistic than a spider spinning a web. That would be deceiving children.
The viewers’ comments on the drama? 特效太拙劣、造型太山寨、画面太血腥、台词太穿越 – the special effects were cheesy, the outlook was too unoriginal, the fighting scenes were too bloody and the dialogues were too modern. The story was shallow and the focus was too much on appearance. Some of the deities look like Gandaff in LOTR with their messy hair. The dragon king seemed too old with shaky teeth, looking worse than the old version.
Most favourite character
Wukong, he is intelligent and diligent. Without him, Sanzhang can never make his way to the west.
Most hated character
Bajie, his greed lands the rest in trouble although he can be cute at times.
The opening theme is Xin Jing (心经) performed by Yang Xiaolin. She has a beautiful voice and also takes part in the drama too. The ending theme (敢问路在何方) – ‘asking where the route is’ is performed by Dao Lang. The old version was by Jiang Da Wei which made it sound more like a folksong. What a brilliant interpretation – I like it very much! His husky and unique voice is excellent to bring out the hardship faced by the four monks. The music arrangement is also not that modern to be acceptable. No one can do a better job than him.
As compared to the old version, this version really brings the soul of how the classic is like with special effects. The heavenly court and the sea dragon palaces look very real-like. No wonder it was well received but if you are a stubborn supporter of traditional shooting, you will find most scenes unnatural. But talking about the acting, I prefer the old version. No one can replace ‘liu xiao ling tong’ – he is simply magnificent. His fiery eyes show the defiant nature of Wukong. And he managed to do that despite being severely myopic and he did not know how to wear contact lenses then! So are the 3 actors as Sanzang. They are Wang Yue, Xu Shao Hua and Chi Chong Rui. It was a controversial decision at the time, but Xu decided to back out of the role of Tang Seng during filming of Journey to the West in order to take the Shandong Arts School (山东艺术学校) entrance exam. He was accepted and later graduated from that institution. The whole crew panicked with no Sanzang and had to stop shooting. Chi later replaced him when the director managed to find him within a week. The actors really make you feel that they are monks as they have the appearance and the gestures. I did not feel that the link was broken even though different actors were involved. Ma De Hua put on weight to act as the role as Pigsy and other minor roles while Yan Huai Li (who passed away in 2009) was Wujing. They relied more on acting than make-up but I feel that the new cast has given their best due to the limitations. However, some demons look very stiff instead of scary looking with their masks on. It restricts the way they talk. The female demons are more natural instead with their unique beauty. It works wonders with children who like adventure and fun. Still, I feel that Zhang has done his best to make the classic come alive. The scenery is well shot at different provinces. He also showed how the scenes were shot in the end with the making of the drama for every episode. Most parts are truthful to the classic and it is enjoyable to follow the four on their journey to the west.
Sukting’s ratings :
On acting : **** (Scale of 5)
On story : ***1/2 (Scale of 5)
On song : ****1/2 (Scale of 5)