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Spielberg Mulls Monkey King Movie
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Rumor is rife that star Hollywood director, Steven Spielberg, has plans to make a movie based on Journey to the West, one of the most popular Chinese literature classics. Zhang Jinlai, a Chinese actor renowned for his portrayal of the classic's lead character, the Monkey King or Sun Wukong, is due to meet with Spielberg in the US in July or August to discuss the film. 

On May 31, China Radio International reported that Spielberg, who will serve as an artistic consultant in the design of the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, had met with several Chinese directors, playwrights, and producers in China recently. He reportedly has a keen interest in Chinese stories, especially Journey to the West. If there is a film to be made based on the classic novel, he will direct it and present it in 2008. But a specific production plan has yet to be revealed.

A dearth of original screenplays in recent years has resulted in sequels and remakes hogging American movie screens. Industry insiders believe that this is why Hollywood has been studying the possibility of bringing Chinese stories to life, particularly ever since the box-office success of Mulan, a Disney cartoon feature released in 1998.

Journey to the West was written by Wu Cheng'en during Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It tells the story of a monk named Tang and his four apprentices and protectors, including the Monkey King, who travel to India in search of the true Buddhist scriptures. During their travels, they fend off monsters and demons who want to destroy and eat Tang believing that he is the elixir of eternal life. The novel is based on the true story of Monk Xuanzhuang who traveled to India during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Zhang Jinlai, whose stage name is Liu Xiao Ling Tong, has dreamt of making a Journey to the West movie all his life. He has apparently even submitted an application to shoot a movie to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.
Zhang comes from a family of actors who have developed the Monkey King character through the generations. In 1982, Zhang's father recommended him for the lead role in the China Central Television (CCTV) production of Journey to the West. The series was first broadcast in 1986 and was an instant success and Zhang became a household name. Re-runs of the series are broadcast every year on CCTV and other stations, even today.

Hoping to replicate CCTV's success, many other adaptations of the classic soon came out of Hong Kong, Japan and the US. Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow made a movie version, which was exceedingly popular with the Chinese youth.

However, not all the adaptations have been to Zhang's liking. A Japanese movie version that premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, in particular, greatly upset and enraged Zhang. In this version, the Monkey King is portrayed as a mad animal with super powers and is dressed in a mini skirt. The movie also has several sex scenes.

"Our culture heritage is being ruined!" Zhang told Chinese Business View on May 25.

"Adaptation or artistic interpretation is acceptable, but a line must be drawn somewhere!"

That is why Zhang is a little concerned with how Spielberg intends to approach the project. In a telephone interview with the Youth Times on June 7, Zhang revealed that he will be going to the US in July or August to meet and discuss the movie with Spielberg and several production companies.

Zhang was originally scheduled to travel to the US in February.

"I will be there," Zhang confirmed.

He said that he hopes Spielberg's adaptation doesn't detract too far from the original story. "I'd like to see the US version of Monkey King. But I don't want them to make it into another King Kong."

He added: "At first I thought I'd prefer for Zhang Yimou to be directing the movie, but now I think Spielberg is okay as long as the screenplay isn't too far from what Chinese audiences would expect and will not hurt our feelings."

He also agreed that Hollywood's state-of-the-art technology could help make a better movie.

"Chinese special effects aren't so good. So I would love to see the combination of real Hollywood high-tech effects, traditional images and the Monkey King opera."

But he added that he would prefer a Titanic-esque movie that combines great storytelling and brilliant visual effects.

"However, if the special effect overwhelms the story, I have to agree that is rubbish."

Although he hasn't yet spoken with Spielberg, Zhang hopes that he will hear what he has to say. "The Monkey King is an important icon, at least for the Chinese people," he said, adding that he'd of course like to reprise the lead role in Spielberg's production.

"I want to make Monkey King of China the Monkey King of the world!"

( by Zhang Rui, June 9, 2006)

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