The many Chinese language films based on the classic novel Journey to the West may be a mixed bag, but to the extent that they focus on that epic’s most memorable character, the Hanuman-like Monkey King, they at least guaranty a good time. Case in point, Monkey King With 72 Magic. Though many of its sets are composed of little more than fog and painted backgrounds, this Taiwanese fantasy compensates for its material shortcomings with an antic energy that would do its mischievous subject proud.
Monkey King With 72 Magic concerns itself with those chapters in the Monkey King’s life that occurred long before he teamed up with Monk Xuanzang, Pigsy and the rest for Journey to the West’s titular pilgrimage. And as far as I can tell, it sticks pretty close to the source material in doing so. We first see how the Monkey King was birthed from a large stone on the mythical Flower Fruit Mountain -- in a giant red egg that conjures up warm memories of Thrilling Sword -- bursting into the world fully formed and overflowing with manic energy. Actor Ting Wa-Chung -- who the previous year starred as Red Boy in Chang Cheh’s pass at the Monkey King Mythos, Fantastic Magic Baby –- plays the character as the usual ticcy perpetual motion machine, employing constant acrobatics that place the film’s action somewhere between the more mannered, Chinese Opera style of the aforementioned Cheh joint and that of more typical Taiwanese kung fu films.
Once he’s introduced, the major events of the Monkey King’s fabled life are then paraded before our eyes at a dizzying clip. His becoming the leader of an unruly tribe of capering little monkey children provides the opportunity for the face-pissing humor so essential to any Taiwanese fantasy martial arts film (hello disappointed Google-using golden shower enthusiasts), and then we’re off with the King on his quest for literal immortality. This leads him to the Taoist priest who trains him in the use of the 72 Magics of the film’s title -- a reference to the 72 forms that the Monkey King can transform himself into. This ability is later put to the test when our hero fights the heavenly warrior Yang Chien (Lung Siu Fei), who can transform into 73 forms. The result is a head-spinning sequence in which the two of them rapidly change from chickens to snakes to ducks to centipedes to rats to tigers to pigs to giant puppet birds, all between exchanging blows in their human forms.
The film’s effects were created by cinematographer and special effects man Chujio Shintaro, aka Gozo Matsui, who, despite the Japanese name, appears to have only worked on Taiwanese films. Among those was the notably Kaiju Eiga influenced 1982 film King of Snake, which Godfrey Ho would later work his own breed of dark magic on, turning it into the every-bit-as-ungrammatically-titled Thunder of Gigantic Serpent. Here Shintaro’s obviously limited means are nonetheless employed toward charming ends, perhaps best exemplified by the goofy giant octopus that the Monkey King transforms himself into for his storied visit to the Dragon Palace.
The majority of Monkey King With 72 Magic’s running time is dedicated to its hero’s misadventures in heaven, which occur after the powers that be in the celestial kingdom decide to try to temper his shenanigans by basically giving him a job. But Once the Monkey King realizes that this job -- rather than the lofty title he feels he deserves -- is to shovel heavenly horse dung, he appropriately loses his shit. After tearing through the place like a meth addled Tazmanian Devil, he finalizes the insult by taking a handful of “Divine Pills” (uh huh) and then stealing the fruit from a divine peach free. In short, if this were an American film, it would have the tagline, “He came to Heaven… just to raise a little Hell.”
The Monkey King returns to Flower Fruit Mountain with his ill-gotten heavenly gains, only to be pursued by the Heavenly monarch Jade Emperor (Kong Yeung) and his forces. Among those forces is Na Cha, he of the flying wheeled feet, who was himself no stranger to the cinematic treatment, perhaps most famously being personified by Alexander Fu Sheng in another Chang Cheh film, 1974’s Na Cha the Great. Here he is portrayed, in classic gender bending Taiwanese martial arts movie fashion, by Liu Chuan Hua, an actress who bears a striking resemblance to a young Cheng Pei-Pei. Along with Na Cha are the aforementioned Yang Chien and Na Cha’s brother, Ma Cha, who together set the stage for a wild, all flipping, all fighting climax. In the end, it takes the intervention of Buddha himself to finally calm things down.
This being something of a fable, the Monkey King is ultimately punished for his arrogance. But there’s still no mistaking the delight we’re meant to take in his rampage through heaven. There’s a Marx Brothers-like irreverence to this notion, that of a heaven full of righteous stuffed shirts taken down a peg by the cheeky antics of a scruffy interloper, that appeals no matter how scruffy the context itself may be. Thus, with its dodgy effects, cardboard sets, mannered action, and copious urine-based humor, Monkey King With 72 Magic still comes out a winner. Maybe not the best that the world of zany Taiwanese martial arts fantasies has to offer, but still proudly keeping up the tradition. You really can’t go wrong with the Monkey King, after all.