A Witty Parody of Modern China

in 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Cheng Chuen-wai

Journey to the West, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, has been filmed numerous times. Notable examples include Yamamoto Kajiro’s Enoken no songokû: songokû zenko-hen, Tezuka Osamu’s Saiyûki, Wan Laiming’s The Monkey King (Da nao tian gong), and the recent Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow. Through numerous film, television and animation treatments, Chinese and Japanese audiences are familiar with the mythic folklore of Tang Sanzang. These adaptations are mainly in the comedy or fantasy genre, full of boisterous and humorous scenes, and lots of special effects. Li Luo’s Emperor Visits the Hell (Tang huang you difu), however, is an exceptional adaptation.

Emperor Visits the Hell is based on chapters 9-11 of Journey to the West. Dragon King makes a bet with a fortune-teller. To win the bet The Dragon King disobeys the order from heaven; for that he is to be executed. He appears in the dream of Emperor Taizong of Tang, asking for his intercession. Taizong summons Wei Zheng, the executioner in heaven, for a game of Go. Wei Zheng falls asleep and, in his dream, beheads the Dragon King. Dragon King has his revenge by inflicting Taizong with a mortal disease. Wei Zheng hands the dying Taizong a letter addressed to a judge of Hades, who is a friend of Wei Zheng’s. The judge grants Taizong 20 years of life, thus resurrecting him. This is an episode before Tang Sanzang sets off for the West. It’s neither Tang Sanzang nor the beloved but fictional Sun Wukong aka Monkey King. Emperor Taizong of Tang and Wei Zheng are both actual figures in history.

Emperor Visits the Hell updates the story to contemporary China. A bar stands in for the Dragon Palace. Streets after dark are Hades. A traditional fantasy tale is interpreted with figures and events that are unmistakably modern. Li Luo switches the color-shot images to black and white. The uniform city landscapes of China are presented in a minimal and coarse aesthetics. Every scene has a sparse look. Props and backdrops are reduced to the minimum. The characters are even more minimal: Emperor Taizong, Wei Zheng, Dragon King, the judge and the spirits of Hades are all shown as people you see in the streets of China. The emperor and his ministers are like the bureaucrats of today. Dragon King is a street mobster. Ghosts are migrant workers who come from the countryside. The minimal acting can hardly be called as acting. The director randomly picks musicians and artists from Wuhan as his actors. None of them are professional actors. A scene featuring the discussion of current affairs and the arts, shot during a dinner, are inserted. The audience can hardly tell if the actors are performing the roles of Journey to the West, or just playing themselves. The boundary of theatre and reality is blurred.

In Chinese religions and fantasy literature, the boundaries of humans, spirits and gods are far from clear. A dead person can be a minister of hell. A living person can also have a side job in heaven. You can also have a bank account in hell. The absurd plot looks credible when set in modern China, which is more absurd than the world of fiction. Pulling strings and placing bribes to get things done, or even evading death, are no fantasy to those with a shred of knowledge of modern China. These are no tales of fantasy or superstition, but real social happenings. In the novel, those with an appetite in the flesh of Tang Sanzang are mostly underlings or pets of gods. This trait is always considered as social sarcasm.

Emperor Visits the Hell is a witty parody of modern China. Although it hardly resembles the world of Journey to the West, it is still possibly the most faithful imitation of this classic novel.

Edited by Steven Yates