Sunday, July 28, 2013


Last Sunday, I went to Lincoln Center to see "Monkey: Journey to the West," a mixed-media stage show blending animation and music with live action. It's an adaptation of the classic Chinese novel "Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng'en, which is the epic tale of the Monkey King and his friends traveling to India to find  the true teachings of Buddha and bring them back to China.
Road trip!
This show is a collaboration between Chinese and English artists. Chen Shi-Zheng wrote the text and directed, Damon Albarn composed the music, and Jamie Hewlett did the animation and the costumes. I became interested in the show because I saw some of Hewlett's concept art for "Monkey" on one of my comic book websites. He drew the indie comic "Tank Girl" back in the 90s, so he pops up on my nerdy radar every now and again. 
There's a movie, but don't watch it. You still have so much to live for.
However, watching "Monkey," I wasn't reminded of "Tank Girl," or even Hewlett and Albarn's other famous collaboration, the band Gorillaz. This show tripped some unexpected memory triggers from way back in my small-kid time that had nothing to do with indie comics or animated musical collectives.
Fun fact: Albarn and Hewlett were both born in the Year of the Monkey.
One movie that had a great impact on me as a child was "Farewell My Concubine." It's the story of two Peking opera stars who meet as children in an opera school, rise to stardom together, and come crashing back down under the rising tide of the Cultural Revolution. There's some gay stuff, too, but that's a little too complicated to get into right now. 
In Peking opera, all parts are played by males, even the female roles, and an actor who specializes in the female roles is called a dan, and the dan in this story is in love with the jing actor, who specializes in playing generals and kings, but the jing doesn't love the dan because he's straight and instead marries a prostitute who--fuck it, just watch the movie.
I've only seen it once in my life, but certain scenes remain vivid and arresting in my imagination: a mother cutting off her little boy's finger in a snowy alley; two aging actors burning their costumes in a public square while the Red Guard of Chairman Mao jeer at them; a young man in a silk gown throwing a pair of slippers at the feet of a prostitute. 

I couldn't possibly have understood this movie as a child, considering it's subject matter. For a long time it was one of those movies whose name and plot I couldn't remember, and sometimes I wondered if I made it up. It was this mysterious childhood artifact that I carried around in my mind, like a one of those ancient tables covered in writing that historians can't decipher. 

And then came the Internet. All I had to do was Google "Chinese movie little boy finger cut off" and boom! "Farewell My Concubine."

I'm not a technophobe and I don't long for a time when I couldn't spend six hours on my couch watching cartoons on my laptop while I cruise my tumblr feed on my tablet. But sometimes I am nostalgic for a time when there were still mysteries that couldn't be solved in nanoseconds by our boxes of light that hold all the information in the universe. 

Anyway, I discovered that "Farewell My Concubine" was adapted from a novel of the same name by Lilian Lee. I read it for the first time in the summer of 2007 during my first trip to New York. I bought a copy of "Farewell" during my touristy visit to the famous Strand bookstore, along with a novel by Maxine Hong Kingston called "Tripmaster Monkey," which was about a theater troupe in 1960s San Francisco putting on a performance of--wait for it--"Journey to the West." 
I've long lost both of those books. They were probably abandoned at some point in my journeying, as I am wont to pick up books on the road and then leave them by the wayside because books are fucking heavy to lug around in a rolly-suitcase. 

BUT--watching "Monkey: Journey to the West" reminded me very strongly of all these works and clarified a lot that was unclear or confusing about them, especially the opera scenes in "Farewell My Concubine." There's only so much words can do to convey the feeling of watching a stage show, and the movie focused more on the lives of the performers than the performances, so I was always a little fuzzy on what Peking opera was like and how it differed from Western styles of musical theater. As soon as Monkey stepped out onto the stage, stamped his feet and sang "I am Monkey!", I got it. There's so much meaning and character development conveyed in how the performers move and speak, and you can tell what type of character they are--trickster, drunken lout, aging general, goddess, demon--by these rather minimalist markers. I suppose the word to use is "stylized," because the characters are archetypes that are revealed through their styles of speech and movement. 
Guess which one is the trickster Monkey King who stole the peaches of Heaven and pissed on the Buddha's palm.
Now I've been jazzed up for a while about going to see "Monkey: Journey to the West" because of the aforementioned Jamie Hewlett connection (and also because acrobats!). I told everyone at work I was going, since I tend to get excited about things and then not shut up about them because I am apparently a four-year-old. Anyway, my Tall Boss mentioned that his wife, who is a Beijing native, hated this show. I don't know if she saw it during of its first runs or if she just heard about it and disliked it on principal, but it didn't lessen my enjoyment of it. In fact, I can see why she might hate it. If you grew up knowing a bit about Peking opera, a show like this might seem like a gaudy, tasteless spectacle designed for a dumbed-down, Westernized audience without patience or appreciation for the purer traditional form. 

And that's fine. It's a valid opinion to have. I don't like hula 'auana. I think it's haolified and lacks the underlying power and majesty of hula kahiko, so I understand traditionalist objections to a work like "Monkey: Journey to the West." I wouldn't agree with them in this case, because I enjoyed myself immensely at "Monkey", but on the other hand, I know nothing about Peking opera except that I think they allow women on the stage these days. 

I bring this up because both "Farewell My Concubine" and "Tripmaster Monkey" dealt with the preservation of traditional performance styles, and traditional values, in the face of sweeping societal upheavals. Do you change the show when your audience changes in order to remain relevant in a modern world? Or do you preserve the show as it was in the past, even at the risk of losing your audience, so the audience doesn't lose or forget something about themselves? 

Of course there's no right answer. Or rather, the right answer is somewhere in between. The tricky part is that you can't tell whether the answer was right nor not until several generations down the road, when your descendants look at your decisions and either praise or curse you for the history you made for them. 

You just have to leap, and hope for the best. 

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