The late 1950s to mid-1960s would come to be known as a golden age of Chinese animation ushered in by the pioneering Shanghai Animation Film Studio under the aegis of Wan Laiming who along with his brothers had produced China’s very first animated feature Princess Iron Fan in 1941. Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Dànào Tiāngōng) was conceived soon after Iron Fan’s release but its production was derailed firstly by the continuing Sino-Japanese War and then by the Chinese Civil War that eventually brought Mao Zedong to power. Produced in two parts released in 1961 and 1964 but screened together only in 1965, the film would ironically prove to be the studio’s last before being closed down during the Cultural Revolution.
Most particularly in this context, the story of Sun Wukong might seem ill-advised even in its definitive cultural capital adapted like Princess Iron Fan from the well-known Journey to the West. The Monkey King as all know is a mischievous scamp forever causing trouble because of his resistance to following the accepted rules of mainstream society, something one might think anathema to a rigid, increasingly authoritarian regime. Yet in the Wans’ characterisation, Sun Wukong is also a good, socialist hero in the guise of a chaotic Robin Hood robbing the Heavens not for himself but to share with all the little monkeys waiting for his return on The Mountain of Flowers and Fruits certain that such luxuries should not be limited to the gods alone and seeking to redistribute them on Earth (if only among his friends).
Even so, at the heart of the story is a challenge to the celestial authoritarianism of the Jade Emperor and the godly elites who live quite literally in another realm. Lamenting that he is unable to train the little monkeys properly because he can’t get his hands on a weapon befitting his majesty, Sun Wukong is advised to swim to the underwater palace of the East China Sea Dragon and ask him to find something suitable, which he does, but nothing proves up to the talents of the great Monkey King. Finally, hoping to get rid of him, the Dragon King shows Sun Wukong the Gold Cudgel which calms the sea and tells him he can have it if he can take it away. Annoyingly, the Cudgel responds exactly to Sun Wukong’s magic and becomes his trademark giant staff leaving the Dragon King with a problem he can only take to the Jade Emperor. Thereafter succeeds a continuing debate as to how to deal with the Monkey King problem which begins with the decision to tempt Sun Wukong to Heaven by offering him a fancy title and position so they can hopefully keep an eye on him.
This is perhaps a minor irony and element of subversive satire amid the corruptions of a newly collectivist society in which flattery and title inflation are becoming a persistent problem. Put in charge of the stables, Sun Wukong immediately sets all the horses free which is less of a problem than it sounds and considerably improves conditions for all, only it annoys the austere Horse General who makes the mistake of revealing to Sun Wukong that he’s not really “in charge” at all, sending him right back down to the mountains where he offends the gods by appointing himself “Great Sage Equal to Heaven” in an affront not only to their majesty but the celestial order itself. Some still feel appeasement is the way, that humouring Sun Wukong by pretending to respect his made-up title and convincing him to come back with a better position is the best way to minimise his rebellion but they fail to learn their lessons. On being told he can’t eat the fruit in his garden until a banquet is held and then discovering he’s the only one not invited and everyone is merely humouring him with The Great Sage stuff Sun Wukong is once again offended, deciding he’ll go anyway and then getting extremely drunk and trashing the whole place.
For this some feel he must die, but Sun Wukong refuses to expire even surviving being baked alive in a pot. Drawing inspiration from classic Peking Opera, the Wan brothers allow Sun Wukong to defeat each of the gods’ various challengers using both his cunning and agility in a series of beautifully choreographed action sequences which leave him standing defiant a thorn in the side of authoritarian power if perhaps one with his heart in the right place, living for the anarchic joy of sharing all his spoils with the ordinary monkeys of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The 2012 restoration of the film keeps both halves together but also reformats the aspect ratio from the original 4:3 to a “modern” widescreen in addition to giving it a 3D makeover. Nevertheless, the flawless and inventive animation along with beautifully painted backgrounds drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings coupled with the use of Peking Opera instrumentation and choreography lend the film a charmingly timeless quality while the subversive themes of resistance to rigid authoritarianism seem to take on new import most particularly in the present day.
Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.
Restoration trailer (no subtitles)