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…
Joker/Monkey King (Stephen Chow Sing-Chi) – Joker is just your average leader of a gang of thieve who is also unknowingly an immortal trickster monkey. I can’t tell you how many times that has happened to me! Joker then gets involved in all sorts of supernatural shenanigans as the truth of his past begins to come out. Check out our takes on Out of the Dark and Kung Fu Hustle for more Chow fun!
Spider Woman (Yammie Lam Kit-Ying) – Spider woman who arrives to hunt down the Legacy Monk to consume his flesh and become immortal. Usually takes the form of a beautiful woman, but becomes a spider at night. Is a great fighter and can hypnotize and poison enemies.|
Jing Jing/Boney M of Spider Devil (Karen Mok Man-Wai) – Companion to Spider Woman, both are deciples of Spider Web Immortal. She was (or was to be) married to Chilian Devil, but that was ruined by Monkey King when he seduced her, then ran off because that’s what Monkey King does. She becomes a ghost zombie in the full moon, though can be stopped by kiss.|
Assistant Master/Pigsy (Ng Man-Tat) – Joker’s second in command who then becomes hypnotized by Spider Woman and forced to spy for her side. Eventually accidentally fathers a child with her. Is also the mortal form of Pigsy, though he doesn’t realize it for most of the film.
Longevity Monk (Law Kar-Ying) – Monkey King’s master who sacrifices his life in exchange for Monkey King, who is then imprisoned for 500 years. But the Longevity Monk will be reborn, and Monkey King will be released, and that will cause great excitement in the world of the supernatural.|
Blindy/Sandy (Johnnie Kong Yeuk-Sing) – Joker’s third in command, who also happens to be the reincarnation of Sandy, though he is also unaware of who he is. Is the whiny comic relief character.|
King Bull (Luk Shu-Ming) – Local tough boss of all the cows and cow demons, who also wants to eat the Longevity Monk’s flesh, so he comes in to cause trouble.|
Spider Web Immortal (Athena Chu Yun) – This mysterious woman shows up at the very end of the film as Joker is trapped in the distant past. Could she be a main character in Part 2? Of course!|