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Director: Wan Gu-chan
Release Date: January 1, 1941
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Princess Iron Fan © Wan BrothChina owes its animation industry to the Wan brothers, four brothers (including a pair of twins) from Shanghai who started animating in 1923.

The Wans made their first film, ‘Uproar in an Art Studio’ in 1926, which mixed animation with live action, like Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell series. They also could boast making the first Chinese sound cartoon, ‘The Camel’s Dance’ (1935). But when the Japanese invaded Shanghai in August 1937 their studio was destroyed, and they temporarily went to Wuhan to work on patriotic war films, until that city fell, too, in 1938.

Luckily, in 1939 the twins Wan Lai-ming and Wan Gu-chan were invited by the Xinhua United Film Company to work once again in Shanghai. There the brothers saw Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) and decided to make a feature film of their own. The Xinhua company was seated in the concession of Vichy France, which allowed for some freedom, which the Wans clearly used in their film.

Made by 237 artists in the course of sixteen months, the result was ‘Princess Iron Fan’ (or ‘The Princess with the Iron Fan’, 1941), China’s very first feature film. This film takes its inspiration from the very popular 16th century novel ‘Journey to the West’, and tells about the 7th century monk Xuanzang (or Tang Seng as he’s transcribed in the DVD), who really existed, and who was famous for travelling all the way to India to learn about Buddhism, and take important scriptures back to China with him. In the novel Xuanzang has become a legendary figure, travelling with his disciples, the monkey king Sun Wukong, a pig monk called Zhu Bajie, and a man called Sha Wujiing, who’s portrayed as having a stutter in the movie.

The movie tells about an episode in which Xuanzang is confronted by a flaming mountain, which he cannot cross. The local villagers then tell him about a princess who has an iron fan, which can make the fire go disappear. Xuanzang then sends his disciples to the princess to borrow the fan, which turns out to be no easy feat.

The film’s story is a delight: it’s full of surprising plot twists, strange magic, and unexpected metamorphoses. If it’s anything faithful to the novel, it becomes clear why it has become so popular. The film’s moral is that only together one can beat defeat. Indeed, the Wan brothers have given the film a long motto in the beginning of the movie:

This film was made for the purpose of training the hearts and minds of children. The story is pure, untainted fantasy. Fiery mountain blocking the path of Tang Seng’s company is a metaphor for the difficulties in life. In order to overcome them, one must keep faith. Everybody must work together in order to obtain the palm leaf fan and put out the flames.“.

This must have rung very true in war-plagued China, which suffered heavily from the brutal Japanese invasion.

Despite the difficulties of war, the film can also boost a rich orchestral soundtrack, beautiful, poetic background art, and some spectacular effect animation of smoke and flames. The body of the animation, however, is not that good. Although prompted by the Disney feature, there’s practically no Disney influence visible. Instead, the Wan brothers made a heavy use of rotoscope, which accounts for fluid, but all too often excessive movement and weird camera movements. The rotoscope is juxtaposed to disappointingly primitive animation, sometimes no better than say the work of the Van Beuren studio ca. 1930-1932. Most of the animation looks very stiff and mechanical, and designs are often very unstable, varying from one scene to the next. Moreover, there’s dialogue, but absolutely no lip-synch, and the staging at times is very odd, making the action sometimes hard to read.

Strangely, the film features two songs, which are accompanied by a bouncing ball, inviting the audience to sing along. I assume that these songs were already familiar to the audiences, otherwise these interludes are quite incomprehensible additions.

Nevertheless, the story is well told, and builds up to a spectacular finale, in which the disciples and the villagers fight a giant bull. The most bizarre scenes, however, are the pig monk rolling up a dragon as if it were a carpet, and the monkey king walking through the princess’s intestines, in the shape of a beetle. It’s images like these that make the film a worthwhile watch, and if ‘Princess Iron Fan’ may not be an all-time classic (it’s too primitive for that), the movie is an admirable effort, coming from a war-beaten country.

Moreover, the film was a huge influence on Soviet animation, and even on the Japanese animation industry, which made its very own first animated feature in 1945. Yet, Wan Lai-ming would top himself with another feature film based on ‘Journey to the West’ called ‘Havoc in Heaven’ (1964), which without doubt still is a timeless classic.

Watch ‘Princess Iron Fan’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Princess Iron Fan’ is available on a Cinema Epoch DVD

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