Basically, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is to East Asia what things like the Iliad (probably the most immediately obvious thematic comparison) and the literary traditions around King Arthur and Robin Hood are to the English-speaking world.
Given that Chinese literature goes back a few thousand years, the fact that Romance of the Three Kingdoms has a place as, essentially, one of the top four Chinese novels should say something about how important and influential it is (i.e. very).
I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.
The short version is that the monk Tang Sanzang — based on a real person who did, in fact, journey to the West (meaning, in this case, India) — receives a divine mandate to go West (in this case, to India) and return with sacred Buddhist scriptures.
The Monkey King, Sun Wukong is conscripted by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of mercy (“goddess” is probably the simplest English translation, but it’s not really that straightforward) into helping Sanzang on his journey as atonement for his previous mischief in the Heavens. They are joined by the pig demon Zhu Bajie and the river ogre Sha Wujing.
From there is the book is basically a long, episodic series of wacky adventures and fights with monsters. That’s kinda selling it short, but that’s enough to put it in the context of what I want to accomplish here.
Over the years, Journey to the West has inspired Chinese operas, a more-or-less contemporary sequel, English translations, several animes (perhaps most notably, Dragon Ball), a China-Canada co-produced cartoon that I distinctly remember watching as a kid, video games, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Sidebar: if you’ve ever watched the original Dragon Ball wondered why Goku is a monkey-kid with a stick and a magic cloud, it’s because Dragon Ball started out as a fairly direct adaptation of Journey to the West. To the point that “Son Goku” is literally the Japanese form of the name Sun Wukong.
Let me get this out of the way right up front: the much-hyped showdown itself is brief and actually kinda disappointing.
The movie, overall, is pretty cool.
It’s not really an adaptation of Journey to the West, so much as its own story that borrows some elements from Journey to the West. And the parts it does directly incorporate from Journey to the West are actually pretty faithful.
In general, the premise is pretty familiar: bland, fairly unlikeable teenage protagonist ends up transported to a magical Fantasy world languishing under the rule of a evil tyrant-god with a hot evil witch as his primary minion.
So, basically, we’ve got this premise, but filtered through the lens of Journey to the West specifically and Chinese mythology and folklore in general. It’s more interesting than it would be if it was just “generic, vaguely Mediaeval European Fantasy world #2264.”
The main character is a reference to the Sanzang — his name is Jason Tripitakas, “Tripitaka” being a translation of the Chinese name “Sanzang”; it’s a multilingual Buddhist pun that can’t really concisely explained or replicated in English. The characters aren’t really directly related other than being there for the other, more interesting characters to steal the spotlight from.
Basically, he’s a character obsessed with Kung Fu movies before finding himself inside one.
He’s probably the weakest part of the movie, but the fact that he’s got so little personality does help all of the other personalities shine through. It’s sort of the Luke Skywalker/Han Solo, or Jack Sparrow/I don’t remember what Orlando Bloom’s character was called dynamic.
At the very least, he gets some nifty character development along the way.
The central quest of the film concerns returning the Monkey King’s staff, who has been frozen into a statue, so he can unfreeze, beat up the bad guys, and defeat the evil Jade Warlord.
Along the way, Jason gains the help of Lu Yan, the Drunken Immortal, played by Jackie Chan, basically playing a self-parody of one of his most famous film roles (sidebar: Drunken Boxing is easily my favourite martial art; though it should go without saying that you’re not actually supposed to be drunk when you’re doing it…).
Shortly thereafter, he encounters the nameless Silent Monk, played by Jet Li turning an atypically comedic role. The Monk is overall a stoic, silent (duh) badass, but one with a sarcastic streak. Jet Li also plays the Monkey King, though in what amounts to little more than a cameo, since he spends most of the movie as a statue.
I can’t say anymore about that without getting into some pretty big spoilers.
Like I said, the specific fight scene between the two of them underwhelms, but most of their interactions make up for it and most of the fight scenes where they aren’t fighting each other range from good to awesome.
There was a minor controversy around The Forbidden Kingdom, given that it was a movie about Chinese mythology starring a white kid. The objection being that it should have been about a Chinese character learning about their own culture, rather than a white kid basically stealing somebody else’s.
On the plus side, if this is your opinion of the film, there’s a potential level of additional catharsis to the fact that most of Jason’s Kung Fu training consists of him getting comically beaten up by Jackie Chan and Jet Li…
I don’t necessarily disagree, but I think the central theme still works with a white main character. He starts out the movie as only knowing anything about Chinese history and culture through old Kung Fu movies, but once he starts interacting with the Chinese characters, he starts to learn the philosophy behind learning Chinese martial arts.
By engaging with the Chinese characters, he comes to learn actual, meaningful things about Chinese culture and philosophy. He engages and gets to learn something beyond the Pop Culture stereotypes.
That’s still a good message, even if it isn’t quite as good as it could be.
Also, it’s worth noting that the movie doesn’t play out as “White kid goes to China, becomes peerless master of Kung Fu, single-handedly saves the day”. It’s “White kid becomes somewhat competent at Kung Fu, contributes to team effort that saves the day.”
The Forbidden Kingdom looks cool. The visual aesthetics of the Chinese buildings and armour and weapons his great. The supernatural-based characters have little touches and details in their costumes that make it clear they’re not regular humans.
The cinematography and choreography of the fight scenes is admittedly not the best I’ve ever seen in a wuxia movie, but it’s all at least competent.
And the soundtrack is also pretty solid. There isn’t really any part of it that really sticks out to me, but I love traditional Chinese music in general, so it may not be memorable, but it’s all good stuff.
And the whole message about the philosophy behind Chinese martial arts is perhaps somewhat undermined by the fact that this is a film by an American studio (though co-produced with Chinese studios) that is essentially advertising itself with the promise of Jackie Chan and Jet Li badassfully punching dudes through walls.
But, honestly, I think that’s a little too cynical. I do genuinely think that The Forbidden Kingdom is putting in the work and the love to make a sincere, genuine statement about the philosophy behind Chinese martial arts.
And, all in all, it’s just a pretty good movie. And it’s a very good introduction to the wuxia genre, either for kids interested in martial arts and/or Chinese mythology, or for adults who want to get into the genre.
To, finish with a big of a digression, though, hopefully an interesting one, keep in mind that I described Jackie Chan’s character as a call-back to his earlier famous roles in Drunken Master and its sequel.
Which is significant because Jet Li has also played Wong Fei-hung.
It’s less of a coincidence than it sounds.
Wong Fei-hung is one of China’s most famous martial artists and has, according to Wikipedia, been the subject of 123 films — including, incidentally, 77 where he was portrayed by the same actor, the record for number of times the same actor has played the same character.
So, yeah, it’s an interesting footnote to talking about The Forbidden Kingdom, but maybe not that interest. Maybe a bit like noting that two famous British actors have both been Hamlet.
The contrast between the two portrayals are pretty interesting, though — I’m sure you could write a solid mid-level Film Studies paper about it. Though, of course, if you’re going to, I demand a citation in your bibliography.
The Drunken Master movies are comedic movies, which is pretty much Jackie Chan’s thing. The Once Upon a Time in China movies are much more serious and unironic action movies.
Final sidebar: Jackie Chan is also classically trained in Chinese opera and has done several of his own theme songs, including this one. Sidebar to the sidebar: he was also Mulan’s commanding officer in the Chinese dub of Mulan.
But, anyway, The Forbidden Kingdom may not be the best wuxia movie out there. It may, however, be among the best that I can safely talk about on what it is supposed to be a family-friendly blog…
Additionally, it is probably one of the best ways to introduce somebody to the genre.
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman.
Adapted from original posts written in 2021.
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