I am very excited by the release (on Chinese New Year) of Stephen Chow's latest film, "The Monkey King," base on the 16th century Chinese epic, Monkey God's Journey to the West. (There is a terrific translation by Arthur Waley which I read years ago.) It is a rich and complicated text -- taking its inspiration and plots from Chinese folktales, Chinese Mythology, the pantheons of Buddhist and Taoist gods and immortals. Long and picaresque, it is the journey of a monk, along with three fantastic companions (Monkey, Pigsy, and Dragon's Son), who must travel from the "hedonist" East to India in the West to obtain sacred texts for the purification of the East. The journey is filled with natural and fantastical dangers -- demons, bad people, mountains, and the usual road trip disasters. But luckily for the pious monk, his traveling companions are tricksterish and combative -- swing their fists and swords as needed for the protection of the monk. They are also greedy, always hungry, and looking for sex.
Stephen Chow's film looks fabulous -- with many of the same tropes that appear in his other films, like Kung Fu Hustle, and Shaolin Soccer. For all of the huge landscape of the Epic narrative, there is still the feeling that this story is being played out by the cast of neighbors in the courtyards of a backwater tenement. Chow has a theatrical Commedia dell' Arte effect with partially masked characters mingled with human characters, broad slapstick battles (gorgeously choreographed), monsters, and loopy misadventures, all of which lead to a comedic climax with badass, badly-behaving Monkey receiving enlightenment.