China rediscovers magical world of 'The Monkey King'

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The Independent Online

"I suppose you want to fight me?" the Monkey King would say before spinning his magic staff, whipping up a magical pink cloud with his fingers and getting busy with the kung fu.

So begins many an adventure for the Monkey King, a belligerent but lovable monkey spirit who has charmed millions of Chinese - and British audiences in the early 1980s - with his exploits en route to India with Pigsy, Sandy and a monk to find Buddha's scrolls and, they hope, enlightenment.

The Monkey King is the main character in "Journey to the West", a ribald Chinese folk tale by Wu Cheng'en, written more than 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty and hugely popular ever since.

It seems everyone is going Monkey mad again these days, so expect plenty of airborne kung-fu action, deities flying on candy-coloured clouds and broken cardboard furniture on a screen near you. Or even at the opera.

Damon Albarn - of Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, the Bad and the Queen - is planning an opera based on "Journey to the West", while one of China's top prod- ucers is working on a mammoth 50-part TV series.

There have been numerous other adaptations over the past few years, but the version most familiar to British audiences is the Japanese show Monkey!, which was shot in northeastern China with Japanese actors and subsequently dubbed into English. It was a huge hit in the late 1970s and early 1980s when it was broadcast in Britain and Australia and still has cult status.

The story is hugely popular in China, both as a book and in numerous television and screen incarnations.

A TV version by the director Yang Jie became the highest-rated programme in China in 1986, while last year websites were abuzz with rumours that Steven Spielberg was planning a remake.

The producer of the new Chinese television series, Zhang Jizhong, has invited the public to offer their suggestions on how his remake of the folk tale, which is due to start shooting this December, should look. On the programme's official website, Zhang asks the public to answer 10 questions about the show and has said any outstanding suggestions would be included.

Zhang said the programme would have a five-strong screenwriting team but he said the roles would probably go to new actors because shooting would go on for seven or eight months and a big star name - the Taiwanese heart-throb Jay Chow was suggested - would be too expensive.

Masaaki Sakai, a former pop singer, played Monkey in the 1970s TV series. Emerging actors such as Li Yapeng, Zhou Xun, Jiang Qingqing and Huang Xiaoming, all of whom have starred in Zhang's previous projects, would be asked to play supporting roles.

Meanwhile, Albarn will team up with his Gorillaz collaborator Jamie Hewitt, who will provide the visuals for the opera, expected to premiere at the Manchester International Festival on 28 June.

The Chinese theatre and opera director Chen Shiz-heng, who won wide acclaim for his production of Peony Pavilion at the Lincoln Centre in New York, will direct the piece, which will be a co-production with Theatre du Chatelet in Paris and the Staatsoper in Berlin. "It's a pleasure to be working on this unique project with international partners in Paris and Berlin," said Alex Poots, director of the Manchester International Festival.

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