Did you click on this article because you were stunned looking at the image above?
Yes, that’s right, these four individuals are supposed to be the four memorable characters from Journey to the West: Sun Wukong (The Monkey King), Tang Sanzang (Tripitaka), Zhu Bajie (Pigsy or Piggy in some translations), and Sha Wujing (Sandy).
The choice of cast is pretty… odd for a spin-off of a classic Chinese novel.
But before we rush to dragon palm the producers, let’s understand the context behind this modern retelling of a 16th-century novel from China.
A remake of an old Japanese show (Yes, Japanese)
The picture above is from an upcoming show that will debut on ABC, TVNZ, and Netflix in 2018, coined as Legend of Monkey (LoM for easy reference).
It is not actually an original retelling of the Journey to the West, but more accurately, a remake of the 1970s cult hit Monkey (a.k.a Monkey Magic) or Saiyuki (西遊記) in Japan.
Yes, while the first films related to the classic were produced in China, Monkey was the first long-running televised series to feature Journey To The West, and preceded the Chinese-produced shows. Those that came later in the 80s and 90s are probably what Singaporeans are more familiar with.
What makes the original Monkey series different from the Chinese ones would be the fact that they took many liberties with the plot and characters, such as the monk Sanzang being depicted as a female instead.
This explains why this remake looks so different from what we know, having followed (loosely) in the footsteps of its direct predecessor.
Is it fair to judge that it’s bad when LoM isn’t out yet, however? Well, here are three factors that might influence your view:
1)Where are the Chinese/Japanese/Asian people?
Many would argue that the creative autonomy and imagination would be a good
excuse rationale for casting an all-Caucasian cast, but the lack of Asian actors as main characters are jarring for a remake of something that was 100 percent Asian.
After all, if you’re remaking an adaptation of a Chinese classic, comprised of Japanese actors, shouldn’t there be at least one or two main characters who are Asian as well?
Currently, only the actor playing Wukong, Chai Hansen has any sort of Asian connection, and by that we mean he is half-Thai.
2) They have a lot to live up to — including Stephen Chow’s movies.
From children’s books, cartoons, to TVB dramas and movies, many a media product have used Journey To The West as source material, many having done well enough to leave a cultural impact.
Examples include Stephen Chow’s memorable appearance in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey, which parodies Journey To The West… and this ridiculously hilarious cover of Only You, which Sanzang crooned.
In Japanese media, one of the most recognisable faces of the Dragonball franchise is Goku — the Japanese pronunciation of Wukong. Based loosely on the Monkey King, he would have monkey-like features such as a tail and rides on a nimbus cloud just like his namesake in the classic.
Sanzang doesn’t just get occasionally made into a woman – he gets made to be a gun-wielding, cigarette-smoking monk in Saiyuki (spelt differently in Mandarin characters as 最遊記) where he his three companions are technically demonic beings in human form.
Thus, fans of Monkey would probably enjoy the reboot for what it is, but it’ll be a little harder for fans who prefer a more faithful, if not a more original take on the tale as old as time.
3)There’s already a modern, dystopian version of the story — and it just might be leagues better.
If there’s one show that LoM should see as a good example to emulate, that would be Into the Badlands.
Daniel Wu stars as the main character Sunny (gasp, an Asian actor! Gasp, an Asian character!), who plays a trained assassin known as Clippers, who serve one of the seven Barons who control a dystopian, feudal society centuries from now.
It only takes a few minutes of the show to impress viewers: There is solid fighting choreography similar to what you see in wuxia shows, and others are saying that it deserves an Emmy nomination and comparing it to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The modern-but-loosely-inspired plot also works well, feels original, and generally a good formula for a gripping, memorable show.
Ultimately, whether LoM will surprise us with a refreshing storyline to makeup for its lack of Asian characters remains to be seen.
Casting issues aside, it will be an uphill task to impress audiences that grew up watching so many colourful versions of Journey To The West.
Top image via Chai Hansen’s Twitter