Friday, March 23, 2012

Monkey King Uproar in Heaven (1961/1964 restored 2012) NYICFF

Holy moley this was cool. Its a film that made me fall in love with what movies can do all over again.

Monkey King Uproar in Heaven is the high point of the film year so far. It is conclusive proof that the New York International Chilren's Film Festival is not only one of the best film festivals going, but a real New York treasure. I can not thank them enough for bring this jewel of a film to New York.

One thing that amazes me is that Monkey King is one of the very few films that should be seen in 3D. It is one of the very few films that is improved by seeing it in 3D. The restoration of the film has it go from a 2D Chinese national treasure into a cinematic work of art of any kind. The restoration team from the Shanghai Animation Studio is to be applauded.

The plot follows the Monkey King as he first goes to meet the Dragon Lord in order to get a new weapon. He manages to get the Dragon Lord’s most prize possession- a huge cudgel that can change size. The Dragon Lord then goes to the Jade Emperor and asks him for help because the Monkey King is causing further trouble. The Jade Emperor has the Monkey King brought to Heaven, where he of course causes havoc and ends up battling all of the various celestial deities.

(Some of what follows is based on the post screening discussions that followed the film at Lincoln Center, most of which was done informally in the lobby of the theater. It only ended because we were thrown out.)

The film was originally made in two parts. The first half of the film was made and released in 1961. The second half of the film was completed in 1964 but never really got a release in China because of the Cultural Revolution. The two parts were put together it was screened as one film at festivals and around the world, and China after the Cultural Revolution.

The film has been lovingly restored. Each of the frames was cleaned up and redone. The restoration was done under the supervision of three 3 advisers who worked on the original film. What has resulted is one of the most amazing visual treats you’re likely to see. The film is very much like watching paintings come to life. I couldn’t believe how the artists managed to get the film to look as it does. Before I saw the film I was certain that all of the stills I was seeing were all created for promotion. I mean no one creates images like that and then animates them… I was wrong. They did. What you see in the stills is what is on screen.

The 3D is amazing. From the moment the film started it was clear that the people doing the conversion knew what to do. Not only did they give depth between the characters and the backgrounds but we also we get depth on the characters- you can sense their arms and legs moving away from their bodies. It may sound like a small thing but with most films post converted or cartoons done in a 3D version of 2D such as The Rabbi’s Cat, the result isn’t a 3D representation of the world but merely a series of visual planes like a Viewmaster slide. That’s not case here, there is more than just visual planes but an actual sense of space and place. Characters seem genuinely three dimensional.

Let me explain how good the 3D here is, out of all of the 3D films I’ve seen in my life and there are there have been too many to count, only 3 films are made better by it’s use and should be seen that way:

Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Wim Wenders Pina

This version of The Monkey King

That’s it. Those are the best. Those are the only ones worth talking about in regard to 3D. Sure some others have moments, but only these three are the ones that work from start to finish, with Monkey King probably being the best. It certainly makes a case that post conversion can work if done right.

This is what 3D could be and should be.

And as for the dimming of the image by the glasses, it doesn’t degrade the image, which was a huge problem with The Rabbi's Cat and others.

I can’t say enough good about the film visually and it’s 3D.

If you like action and comedy this film is for you. It's a great deal of fun. The film mixes the Monkey King’s antics with some grand martial arts battles. It is the animate equivalent of some of the better martial arts films out there. It’s the sort of thing that Hong Kong does with wires and computers, only here it's pen and ink.

To be honest the film has a slightly draggy center. The start of the second half has the Monkey King brought back to Heaven to watch over a peach orchard and the film slows down a little. We get some fairies floating around and dancing and things slow a little bit. They pick up after a lovely sequence but it does slow things a little bit as far as the story is concerned.

During the informal Q&A the lull was explained. During the restoration the film, which was originally two parts and ran a total of 110 minutes, was trimmed. The directors and producer said that the film, as good as it was had some draggy parts that they had to trim them down or eliminate them because they didn’t move the story. It wasn't malicious or careless it simply was making the film work better (and things were approved by the people from the original production.)

The trimming resulted in a rerecording of the score, which is a huge plus, because the music is wonderful. The music is so good that I think the most asked question was how could someone get a copy of it.

This film needs a wide audience. Not only is it a good movie, but its clear proof that wonderful things were being done elsewhere in the world and not just in Hollywood where Disney, Warner and UPA were the big names at the same time.

Speaking of Disney I suspect that the animators there screened this film and used bits of it in their films in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Want proof look at the sequence in The Sword in The Stone where the characters have a shape shifting battle and see how it seems to have been cribbed from this film.

I had a blast, and based on the yelps of delight and laughter I think the audience around me did too.

I was told that the producers are currently close to having a deal to bring the film to the US, if so go see it and have your eyes dazzled.

I also want to shout out to the lovely ladies from the festival who recognized this poor reviewer. I’m taken aback that you remembered me. Thank you making me smile and thank you for the kind words about the blog, mostly thank you for being part of a festival that brings such wondrous treasures to New York.

This is an interview about the restoration with director Su Da. I should point out that what is said is slightly different than what she said after the film.

1 comment:

  1. I had never even heard of this film until I took a chance of going to see the screening at NYICFF. I was amazed it was really gorgeous. I had a chance to see the original 2D version clips and had a chance to learn about the Wan Brothers. I would love to see this film released on DVD, both versions. I work for SVA in NYC and I kind of took it upon myself to attend these festivals in search of international animations for acquisition. So far this is my 3rd attendance. I'm glad that I had the chance to see a piece of China's animated history. We need to see more films like these. I hope that other festivals will take notice. Such exposure may awaken a distributor who might be willing to take on the task of getting these classic features released in the states.