The spectacle of Monkey

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I’ve talked to a lot of people who love Chen Shi-Zheng’s Journey to the West, his collaboration with Britpop composer and singer Damon Albarn and Gorillaz illustrator Jamie Hewlett. What’s perhaps a little surprising to those who love it is how many people are on the fence about it.

No one seems to doubt Monkey's moment has come. It will soon have a much longer life somewhere on Broadway and beyond (likely China). The intersection of acrobatics, animation, mythic storytelling, pantomime, whimsical costumes — everyone agrees that the integration is natural and fantastic.

What I think has these intelligent doubters scratching their heads is why they don’t love it. Some say the fight scenes could be shorter. Others say the costumes were too cartoonish. Others call for a need for more characterization.

These are good, valid points. But I think what's missing so far in the discussion (and I should note that I'm not defending Monkey, just trying to understand it) is the role of values in traditional societies, like China, and the value of the individual vs. community as understood from the perspective of those who made Monkey. It might be just a matter of time before we simply get used to them in the West, like we did with highly stylized and what used to be foreign traits found in things like Pokémon and anime, Nintendo and pocky.

Meanwhile, we're left with the Otherness of Monkey. We have to overcome the apparent and (to us) weird absence of the role of the individual. There's no love song for Pigsy. No dreams to achieve. Even Monkey's redemption isn't all that profound — it's a trifling thing compared to the surrendering of the ego. In the West, when push comes to shove, the individual matters most. In the East, it's community.

The moral is that Monkey stops thinking about what he values and gets in line with the values of society (i.e., redemption, enlightenment). Given this, cartoonish costumes makes sense. They are one dimensional. The lack of characterization makes sense. A focus on individuals would be inappropriate.

Monkey is an attempt as creating pure spectacle — no interior life, no emotional conflict, nothing to overcome. It’s a stunning demonstration of surfaces played out in one dimension. Problem is, spectacle by its nature is impersonal, manipulative. If there’s too much, we can feel hijacked. So I think Monkey should be shorter or have an intermission (probably both). Americans love spectacle, just not too much. Then again, like I said, we might just get used to it.

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