A Chinese Odyssey Part One – Pandora’s Box
aka 西遊記101回月光寶盒 aka Sai yau gei: Dai yat baak ling yat wui ji – Yut gwong bou haap
Written and directed by Jeff Lau Chun-Wai
Stephen Chow and Jeff Lau’s classic masterpiece, the A Chinese Odyssey films are among the most important cinema to come out of Hong Kong. And I don’t just say that because I love the films. A combination of many factors at just the right time collide and create a lightning in a bottle event that films have been attempting to repeat ever since.
The Chinese Odyssey flicks are a mish-mash of classic literature is melded with Jeff Lau’s love of hugely complex plots with dozens of characters and love stories through reincarnation, combined with Chow’s singular wit, fast talking, and physical comedy making cinematic bliss. A classic tomb is hijacked and reworked into a sprawling tale that still uses much of general mythology of its source.
The complex plot and phone book of characters (with most of the headliners playing dual roles) does not help with an easy description, but the basic idea is Monkey King has been punished and trapped for 500 years. In the interim, he was reincarnated as a local head of a gang of thieves, a group largely incompetent and filled with lovable losers. Now named Joker, he runs the gang as they dress fierce to claim control of the area. His chief lieutenants are Assistant Master and Blind Bing, who we also know as Journey to the West characters Pigsy and Sandy.
The actual world of Journey to the West has not stopped during this time, so there are still creatures searching for Tripitaka/The Longevity Monk to devour his flesh, and they plan to use Monkey King to find him. Of course, they first have to find the Monkey King, only knowing where he was imprisoned. Those who knew Monkey King recognize him in Joker on sight, despite Joker’s insistence that he is no one special. Regardless, he gets dragged into a world of spider demons, ghost ladies, bull men, giant goddesses, and reincarnated characters.
Despite the large amount of plot going on, the films aren’t adverse to just stopping for a while to let Stephen Chow do his thing. Which is a wise decision, because the comedy is great! The physical comedy transcends all languages and cultures, while many of Chow’s zingers manage to produce laughs despite terrible subtitle translations. It’s a testament to just how good things are when it overcomes some of the usual stumbling blocks.
Monkey King is historically a defiant character, he stands against the forces of Heaven and against anyone who stands in his way. His adventures feature a lot of visits to fantastic lands and fighting gods and demons. Pandora’s Box brings him down to a more human level, which is even a point in the sequel, as his human emotions are what must be shed to continue on his journey, even though in these films he falls in love repeatedly. That’s called conflict, people!
While Joker doesn’t remember anything Monkey King did, he gets involved in the consequences of Monkey King’s various shenanigans. In the course of Joker’s lying and double lies and triple lies to get out of trouble, he ends up connecting with someone Monkey King hurt as well as dealing with Monkey King and Longevity Monk’s enemies, the huge crowd of characters who want to eat the Longevity Monk’s flesh.
Monkey King ruined the marriage of Jing Jing, and then left her waiting alone. A hard lesson in not trusting Monkey King to do anything right, but thanks to Joker being Monkey King, Jing Jing is able to confront the person who messed up her love life, and Joker is able to make a sort of amends as he falls for Jing Jing. Due to even more convoluted plot development, Jing Jing is poisoned, Joker is imprisoned attempting to get her the cure, and she believes he abandoned her and tries to kill herself, though is saved by King Bull.
The reprieve is temporary, as later she does kill herself amidst a battle in the middle of the Cave of the Silken Web after thinking Joker betrayed her. Joker is then desperately attempting to go back in time just in time to save her, but keeps being just too late. If you think repeatedly watching someone kill themselves can’t be funny, then here is a way to change your mind.
The Chinese Odyssey films have gone on to be cult classics, and are one of the first Hong Kong films I saw back in the days of getting movies from the one cool video store. Luckily for me, a roommate had vcd versions, which I managed to watch just after watching Black Mask – thus Karen Mok became a reoccurring theme in Hong Kong cinema for me, and eventually an avatar I use in many locations online. The films themselves were just so unlike anything I had seen to that point, only some of the Hong Kong films I had watched at that point had fantasy elements. At that point I was totally unfamiliar with the Journey to the West story, so everything was new to me. So while Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan may have been my gateway drugs into Hong Kong cinema, Stephen Chow became the chocolate-covered crack that kept me coming back. And decades later things are very different, the films still remain and still entertain. Thanks to the internet, many are just a few clicks away. Gone are the days of wandering through the “Foreign” section hoping for anything new, but the films I saw then – Chinese Odyssey, Drunken Master, A Chinese Ghost Story, Hard Boiled, many others – will always have that nostalgic feeling.
A Chinese Odyssey is ultimately about love. The gags and costumes and violence is all dressing for a tale about love. Not about finding love, but about love itself. Love that is destined. Love of a master and a disciple. Love that is joyful. The pain of love, and of love lost. Of love and duty, of casting love aside, or taking chances for love. Even the final ending pushes this home. The dealing with love of all types and not just romantic love expands the universal appeal, reaching audiences who don’t respond to just your average romance tale.
As we shall see with Part 2, one love can just be a stepping stone to your true love. But even then other things may be destined for you. Life can be funny that way…
But let’s first knock out the Roll Call for A Chinese Odyssey Part One – Pandora’s Box, and the drop a huge plot recap and discussion! Because that’s how we roll…
Monkey King is a bad monkey, he refuses to go with his master Longevity Monk out west to get scriptures from India. Goddess chastises him and throws him in a bottle for punishment.
A lone woman marches through the desert. We see petals on branch, representing a flower amongst the barren wastes. She arrives at an in full of thugs, and tells them she’ll rob them! She’s Ma’am 30th, and has come because this is the location of Mt. Wuyue 500 years ago.
The Axe Gang is not happy, members Assistant Master and Bling Bing tell their boss, Joker. Unfortunately, Joker is cross-eyed due to injuries from the 7 Ultimate Fists. He will soon lose control of his legs and then explode! But for now he’s just cross-eyed, and insolent enough to charge into Ma’am 30th’s bath. But she is a top notch fighter. Soon she demands to see everyone’s soles of their feet, looking for three birthmarks. She orders the gang to capture everyone who comes near and inspect their feet.
As you can probably guess from the fantastic plot, Ma’am 30th is more than just a woman fighter. She’s also a Spider Demon, and at night turns into a spider lady that causes chaos among the gang as they try to ambush her at night. Joker by now has lost use of his legs, so is running around doing a handstand with his legs in the air. The darkness and confusion causes the gang to accidentally burn Joker, while Assistant Master runs the Spider Lady to safety. There is also a hilarious sequence where you learn why you should stop drop and roll instead of using alternative methods of putting out a fire. But as a benefit, the great pain causes Joker’s battle injuries to heal.
Ma’am 30th is not just one spider woman, but actually two sisters, the second of which is Karen Mok! She’s Jing Jing, and Ma’am 30th is actually named Spider Woman. The two sisters have come because Ma’am 30th plans to eat the flesh of the Longevity Monk to become immortal. Jing Jing’s true form is of a demon with a white ghost face like something out of Scream. Their conversation is overheard not just by Assistant Master, but by a talking bull, who says he’s going to report to his king.
Joker decides he needs to pretty himself up to deal with these beautiful women, while Assistant Master is hypnotized by Spider Woman to do what she says. There is also some back story details about how Monkey King promised to marry Jing Jing (and ruined her marriage) but ran off.
There is a bull army forming under King Bull, who is also planning to eat the Longevity Monk.
A character named Grandpa Buddha drops by to help Joker, and also turns into grapes because why not? Grandpa Buddha gives tells Joker about what happened 500 years ago and gives him some invisibility stickers that will help the gang get the drop on the two demon sisters. But the hypnotized Assistant Master switches them for fakes!
So half-naked members of the Axe Gang wearing only stickers approach the two women as they eat. The two have to pretend they don’t see the ridiculous image before them and continue to eat and make small talk. All while causing random trouble like starting a fire in Joker’s crotch. Which has to be stamped out. Repeatedly. This is awesome!
Grandpa Buddha is there and the women confront him, but Joker pretends to be Monkey King to stall them. Jing Jing’s feelings resurface, and soon the two sisters are fighting and the Axe Gang is caught in the crossfire. Blind Bing is killed! (Except maybe not!)
In the midst of the chaos something bigger approaches – it’s King Bull! He reveals the sisters as Spider Woman and Boney M of Spider Devil. The sisters battle King Bull, then they escape wo Spider Web Cave, taking Assistant Master and Joker with them. Assistant Master sees his reflection in a magic mirror that reveals the true self, and he’s a pig!
The two sisters fight over Joker, resulting in Jing Jing being poisoned by her big sis. Joker is alternately locked in and out of a room, while Jing Jing transforms into a zombie in the full moon that can only be briefly halted by a kiss. Through all the trickery and magic Assistant Master ends up shivering on top of Spider Woman. You all know what that means…
Joker escapes with Jing Jing, but her poisoning worsens and Joker promises to be with her, but can’t stand to watch her grow sick and die. Joker leaves her to go back and beg Spider Woman for the cure. Jing Jing awakens, finds Joker missing, assumes he has run off again, and decides she has nothing to live for and will jump off a cliff. But King Bull captures her (and cures her to use as a lure for Monkey King) while Spider Woman imprisons Joker. Who finds the Pandora’s Box buried in the room he is trapped in.
He’s sucked into an underground cave and told the truth about his past by Goddess. Upstairs, all that shivering produced a baby. And just who is the baby? Why, the Longevity Monk, of course! King Bull knows the monk was born and has his men attack. Spider Woman defends her child, fighting the goons and even inside King Bull’s body. Assistant Master refuses to leave with the baby, as he can’t bear the though of leaving the woman he loves.
Jing Jing was brought by King Bull’s men, and is lied to by Spider Woman who says that Joker is the father of her baby (as she can’t admit the father is as ugly as Assistant Master!) Jing Jing goes all suicide again, and slashes her own neck. Joker returns in the midst of all this chaos, and just sees Jing Jing lying dead. He thinks she’s been slain by someone, so he uses the Pandora’s Box to go back in time a few seconds to stop it. He yells out Boyi Bolomi and back he goes, just in time to find her just dead. So he goes back in time again. And again. Each time getting one second closer to stopping her.
He finally saves Jing Jing and let’s her know that he loves her, but then she and Spider Woman both have to fight off King Bull while the two men and baby are pushed outside and behind a closed door. Joker uses the Pandora’s Box to go back in time once more, but this time something goes wrong and he goes too far back in time. Like 500 years ago too far back in time.
And the first thing that happens is he runs into another cute girl named Spider Web Immortal, who blasts him and declares that she owns everything on the mountain, including him. She renames the cave to what it was named in the future, and brands Joker’s foot with three marks.
The three marks that identify who is Monkey King.
Joker looks in the magic revealing mirror, and sees Monkey King’s reflection staring back at him.
To be continued…
Next time on A Chinese Odyssey…wacky stuff happens~!
Rated 9/10 (flower tats, hairy soles, magic eye hypnosis, necklace, flaming hand, crown, another monkey, the mark, necklace again)
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