Jet Li Talks About the Monkey King in The Forbidden Kingdom

Jet Li recently took time out from filming “The Forbidden Kingdom”, his long-awaited collaboration with Jackie Chan, to talk about the movie — or, more specifically, his Monkey King character, and problems he had (that were resolved) with the original script. Apparently Jet had been approached to do the movie over 3 years ago, but at the time the script wasn’t up to snuff. The post comes via AliveNotDead.com, which I believe is a subsidiary of Jet’s official site, JetLi.com.

Here’s what Jet had to say (original posting here):

Ideally, the identity of the person portraying the Monkey King should be kept secret. However, with advances in technology and information distribution, today’s entertainment industry doesn’t really have any secrets. By now everyone knows that I will be playing the Monkey King character in “Forbidden Kingdom”.

In fact, when I first received the scrÄ«pt three years ago the producer approached me to play the role of the Monkey King, but at that time there were problems with the scrÄ«pt. At that time they portrayed the Monk as a great fighter. I felt this was a bit weird because, according to the original story, “Journey to the West”, the Monk was the only role that was based on “reality”. This character was based on the life of Buddhist Master Xuan-Zhang from the Tang Dyanasty. If his character was a great fighter the film wouldn’t be accepted by the public. So after discussions with the producer we decided that the monk should not be a fighter. Otherwise the film would have a difficult time being accepted in Asia.

But, how to fix this problem? I had two suggestions:

First, have the Monk be a transformation of the Monkey King. Since the Monkey King knows the 72 “earthly methods for transformations”, he can pull one of his hairs out and transform himself into the Monk. So, instead of being the “Tang Monk” we can call him “Silent Monk” and the problem is solved.

Second, I suggested that the movie does not have to be based strictly upon the original “Journey to the West”. Everyone who is familiar with that story has their own perceptions on how that story should be represented. In the film, the story is the creation of an American kid’s dream. This being the case, there are apt to be differences between these characters and those from “Journey to the West”. But that’s not a problem. this is a dream of this American kid’s interpretation of these characters so there is a lot of room for creativity.

The producer liked my ideas. The screenwriter even flew to Hong Kong to discuss the development of the Monkey King with me. Naturally there are many differences between Chinese and Western culture and eveyrone has a different interpretation of the Monkey King character. There should be a lot of work done to create this character, but it’s best to maximize the room for creativity and not base it solely on previous examples. I will put forth my best effort with this character, so I hope that everyone can understand this perspective: As this is a character based on a western kid’s dream-world, this is a new representation of the Monkey King for a global audience.

To be honest, portraying the Monkey King has required a lot of courage. There have been so many successful depictions of this character in Beijing Opera, animation and TV series. For example, the Monkey King portrayed by Master Liu Xiao Ling Tong; his expressions and movements portray the character exactly as it should be from a Chinese cultural perspective. But if our interpretation of the Monkey King’s character was based on the previous depictions, then it would not work in this new context.

We had the same situation with the character Wong Fei-Hung in “Once Upon a Time in China”. Master Kwan Tak-Hing had portrayed this character in over 100 movies, but to develop this character I had to create a totally new interpretation of Wong Fei-Hung in order for it to work in the film.

The Monkey King in this movie is not just for Chinese audiences, nor just for Asian audiences, but for the whole world. There are many people in the world who don’t know anything about the Monkey King. Therefore, as long as the character of the Monkey King is true to the world created in the dreams of the American kid in the movie, there is no right or wrong, and the room for creative diversity is enormous.

You will be able to see the movie next year, and of course I can’t promise that you will or will not like it. I can only try my best, along with action director Yuen Wo-Ping and his team, to create the best Monkey King I can.

So, um, “Fearless” WASN’T Jet Li’s last martial arts movie after all? Apparently not…

Jet Li Talks About the Monkey King in The Forbidden Kingdom