Friday, February 3, 2017

Uproar in Heaven (Film Review and Commentary)

Uproar in Heaven is classic Chinese anime' (although this post is based on the 2012 condensed and re-voiced adaptation), and this post contains spoilers of its plot and characters.  Some poetic license is taken, and much of the detail and flourish of the film itself is skipped over, for brevity's sake. I highly recommend watching.  Of it, Wikipedia says:

"Havoc in Heaven, also translated as Uproar in Heaven, is a Chinese animated feature film directed by Wan Laiming and produced by all four of the Wan brothers. The film was created at the height of the Chinese animation industry in the 1960s, and received numerous awards. It earned the brothers domestic and international recognition. The story is an adaptation of the earlier episodes of the Chinese novel Journey to the West."

The film is in two parts, which tell early stories from the novel.  The story of Part I is summarized below, for those who are unfamiliar with it.  This post would have no purpose, if its readers could not glimpse the character and grandeur of the old stories and the power of their protagonist without having to read the book or watch the film.  If you already know those qualities well: congratulations, you're a winner!  Skip down to the moonlit dancing pixie!

The Monkey King, whose subjects frolic in the fruit trees, desires to have a perfect weapon. His advisors impel him to seek the weapon from the Dragon King, who lives under the Eastern Sea.  The Monkey King plunges into the Eastern Sea, subdues the Dragon King's guards, and demands that the Dragon King supply him with the perfect weapon.  The Dragon King complains, but supplies the Monkey King with a spear.  The Monkey King rejects the spear as "not even a weapon," and demands something better.  So it goes through a sequence of increasingly massive weapons, all of which fail to win the Monkey King's approval.  The Monkey King mocks the Dragon King, saying "can't you find a better weapon somewhere in the vast Eastern Sea?"  Being advised of a clever scheme to rid him of the Monkey King, the Dragon King offers him the key to the oceans, left by King Yu to restrain the floods, "if you can take it."

The Monkey King finds the key to his liking, and demonstrates his power by wondrously removing the key, to the consternation of the Dragon King.  The Monkey King returns with the key to his kingdom, causing great excitement and rejoicing in his subjects.  Meanwhile, the Dragon King complains to the Jade Emperor in heaven about the Monkey King, demanding that the Jade Emperor subdue the Monkey King and bring him to justice for robbing the Dragon King of the key to the oceans.  The Jade Emperor's court knows of this Monkey King as a "Taoist monkey born 500 years ago",  who is not to be taken lightly.  The Emperor's advisors counsel appointment of the Monkey King to a minor imperial office, and so, after seducing the Monkey King to visit the Imperial Court, convince the Monkey King to accept appointment as protector of the imperial horses.  Upon taking office and finding the heavenly horses restrained and subdued in the stables, the Monkey King observes "they're treating the horses all wrong," and immediately frees them all.  The imperial horses race around heaven, while the Monkey King nurtures them without imposing restraints.

A superior in the imperial hierarchy moves to discipline the Monkey King for freeing the horses.  The Monkey King defeats his superior, after scorning him by yelling "who the hell are you to tell me what's right and wrong!", while the horses celebrate by running around.  The superior's advocates petition the Emperor, and embroil the imperial court in an uproar that leads, after a declaration of equal sovereignty by the Monkey King, to a furious attack upon him by multilayered imperial forces, that is the climax of the first part of the film.  The Monkey King defeats the attack decisively, bringing peace and prosperity to his people, and so Part I of the film ends.

 Part II veers from the political to the spiritual, and back again, but is still focused on the Imperial designs to subdue the Monkey King.  It is a wild and multi-dimensional ride that reveals different layers of the struggle between self-sovereignty and submission to a higher power, in both political and religious spheres.  It's well worth watching if you appreciate early animation; the animation, the art, the voice acting, and the story are all worthily accomplished, by the standards of the time. There's no need to spoil Part II -- the description of Part I makes the settled character of the Monkey King clear enough for my purpose here.  He never abandons his proud independence, or his role as a protector and benefactor of his people, and so the story retains its consistency without losing its power to surprise.  O.K., one hint of a spoiler ahead: the climax bears a resemblance to a story many in the West know well, that is about as old: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace, and the parallel story of that book, Daniel In The Lion's Den.

Uproar in Heaven is an outstanding animated film, and its political story resonates with a kind of libertarian self-sovereignty, masked through a layer of monarchy.  There is much other Asian anime that carries a libertarian message, but this film stands out for its fearlessly libertarian adaptation of classic Chinese literature, during a time when Chinese culture and politics seemed ready to reject any acceptance of anti-authoritarianism.  Ignorant Westerners (such as myself) cannot even imagine that modern or classic Chinese culture could recognize disobedience to authority as a trait of heroes.  Confucius dominated Laozi, we were taught, the Chinese do not value individuality.  This film belies my meager public school education concerning China (no great feat).  The film was produced in Shanghai in 1964, before the dawn of Mao's cultural revolution in 1966.  It's enough to make one wonder how much popular culture such as reflected by Uproar In Heaven had to do with the brutal reaction from China's ruling party, that was the cultural revolution.

The Monkey King - Sun Wukong - has deep roots going back at least to the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey To The West.  I have not read that work, and could only do so in translation; now I  will.  The novel and the film under review draw inspiration from Taoism, which is based on the teachings of Laozi (or Lao-tsu) from the 4th or 5th century B.C.E.  The same Laozi who is credited with saying "When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'We did it ourselves'" and "Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds upon oneself," among many other libertarian and spiritual sayings.

But why should this film review appear in a political blog at all?  Just as a reminder that art is political, and the cultural origins of liberty are old and wide.  It would be foolish for us in the West to regard ourselves as the prime carrier of the torch.  We are only one army among many, who have yet to stand in the present day.  When the more than one billion Chinese in the world listen to Laozi again, a miracle of liberty will unfold in the Middle Kingdom and beyond, such as has never been seen before.  This miracle will prove that the tales of Sun Wukong and Daniel in the Lion's Den are true: the power of living freely by each individual's best conscience is indestructible, and can never be defeated.