Princess Iron Fan
Medium: film
Year: 1941
Director: Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming
Writer: Wu Cheng'en [original novel]
Keywords: Journey to the West, animation
Language: Mandarin
Country: China
Actor: Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming, Chaochen Wan, Dihuan Wan
Format: 73 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 3 January 2014
It's an animated adaptation of part of Journey to the West, the 16th century Chinese novel better known to English-speakers as Monkey. It's a bit of a mess, to be honest, but you've got to admire it anyway.
Journey to the West is one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature and probably the best-known abroad. One of its many adaptations was the 1978-1980 Japanese TV series Saiyuki, dubbed into English by the BBC and shown in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. I loved that show. The main characters are:
1. The Buddhist monk, Xuanzang/Tripitaka, here disappointingly male (as in the original) and bearing no resemblance to the gorgeous Masako Natsume. (She died of leukaemia aged only 27, by the way.) Xuanzang's the spiritual one who's leading the pilgrimage and so he doesn't tend to get himself in silly trouble. There was a real Xuanzang, incidentally, who lived in the 7th century and really did spend thirteen years travelling through the Indian subcontinent before bringing Buddhist scriptures back to China. (There had been Chinese translations before him, but Xuanzang thought they weren't very good.)
In this film, though, he's also the least interesting-looking. He's a monk riding a horse. That's about it. The problem, you see, is that the artists aren't particularly skilled at drawing people. It doesn't look bad, mind you. It's sufficient. It gets the job done. (The Wan brothers used lots of rotoscoping, apparently.) However it's a bit medieval-looking, to be honest, and the artists aren't great at drawing realistic faces with life and emotion.
2. Monkey, a shapeshifting rogue with an extensible staff. However, on this occasion, we don't see him make monkey warriors by plucking hairs from his chest and blowing on them, nor does he seem to be wearing a head-tightening discipline band. Indeed, the one who seems to be wearing that is:
3. Sandy, the river ogre. He's the fierce-looking beardie who looks a bit like Brian Blessed.
4. Pigsy, the pig. He and Monkey are the most entertaining characters, getting into all the trouble and letting the animators draw animals instead of people. They look great, actually. Everyone's surprisingly recognisable. They all have the weapons and clothes you remember, Monkey is a monkey, Pigsy looks like a bloke with a pig's head and a pot belly, etc. This makes them fun both to draw and to look at, but more subtly the animators are giving Pigsy his own body language. He has a bit of a slouch and a slight waddle. He walks like a fat man.
I also liked what they did with Monkey, but Pigsy I thought was a slightly better animated character.
This is a classical adaptation of wacky fantasy adventures with heroes who'll be recognised around the world. It's got magical stunts, tricks and counter-tricks and visual business to make Tom and Jerry look like a documentary. What could go wrong? Answer: the plot. It's episodic, although in fairness the source material is too. It doesn't bother explaining stuff. Prepare to be confused if you haven't remembered, for instance, that Princess Iron Fan's husband is having an affair with a fox woman. Why can everyone shapeshift? What the hell did Pigsy do to that dragon? (Unbelievable.) Why does Iron Fan's fan cause hurricanes and rain when it's flapped two or three times, except when it doesn't? How did Monkey manage not to be blown away? What's the story with the son of Iron Fan and the Bull King, because of which they don't like Monkey? (That's Red Boy and as far as I can tell, it's his own stupid fault in the original novel that he got into trouble with the Bodhisattva Guanyin.)
In short, it's a bunch of stuff thrown at the screen for 73 minutes. It's a short film, but it feels long because it doesn't feel unified. Stuff happens, followed by more stuff. The second half feels like a sequel, not a continuation. There's a ten-minute battle sequence near the end that nearly sent me to sleep, although I woke up when it ended and we had some dialogue again.
It might almost be worth breaking this film up into episodes. I think it would play better that way. This matters because it's a huge technical achievement that's full of fun and eyeball kicks.
It was the first Chinese animated feature film, for a start, and only the twelfth worldwide. It took the Wan brothers three years, 237 artists and 350,000 yuan to make. They wanted to reach the standard of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which had rightly turned the world upside-down in 1937, and they achieved something important in aiming that high even though they didn't get there. The Wans had been the first animators in China. They released their first cartoon in 1926 and dominated China's animation industry for several decades after that, even when (as here) working under Japanese wartime occupation.
It was also influential. It inspired Tezuka Osamu to become a manga artist and it prompted the Japanese Navy to commission Momotaro's Sea Eagles and Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors. (Forget the racial supremacist propaganda angle for now and just think of those as animated children's films.)
It's full of oddities, although some of these are great. The animation's misjudged in the opening sequence, as if the camera's being cranked too fast. (This problem disappears soon afterwards, although in its place we later get a restless camera.) There's a preachy and deeply weird prologue in which it's explained to us that Journey to the West isn't a fantasy, even though it's frequently mislabelled as such. Eh? Someone's been at the wacky baccy. Pigsy can pull off his own ear and use it as a fan, then later can reattach the lower half of his body after it's fallen off. A hurricane pulls a woman's clothes off. Meanwhile Monkey can vanquish Princess Iron Fan's maid by sticking his mighty rod up her skirt (um) and his neck can stretch like a slinky.
It's worth a look, if only because it's in the public domain and can legally be downloaded free. I had some problems with its storytelling, but that's in large part the result of being faithful to an episodic original text and I have no complaints at all with the wholeheartedness of the animation. It's certainly not letting itself be tied down for a moment. It's as inventive, visually, as Looney Tunes. It has cowardice and laziness gags. It has songs, complete with the lyrics as subtitles and a karaoke-style ball bouncing along them. It has a pig turning into a frog and a monkey into a cockroach/ladybird. It bears little resemblance to movie storytelling as we know it on the planet Earth and at times it took me a bit of effort to get through it, but it's cool.
"Who cares? Let the monkey handle himself. Let's go."