The series is an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang who traveled to the "Western Regions", to obtain Buddhist sacred texts and returned after many trials and much suffering. It retains the broad outline of Xuanzang's own account, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, but the Ming dynasty novel adds elements from folk tales and the author's invention, that is, that Gautama Buddha gave this task to the monk (referred to as Tang Sanzang in the novel) and provided him with three protectors who agree to help him as an atonement for their sins. These disciples are Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing, together with a dragon prince who acts as Tang Sanzang's steed, a white horse.
Most rightly hold the 1986 adaptation close to their hearts, with good reason, but this has replaced it for me. It's much longer, and feels just as faithful, if not more. It's certainly closest to what I imagined reading the book, and interprets the many stories with a greater attention to detail.
This is a delightful WuKong! Charming and cheeky, despite wearing a restrictive latex mask it's an incredibly expressive performance, made through great physicality and great vocal ticks. Same goes for the rest of the cast. It's amazing how much personality Zhu Bajie squeezes from behind his static latex pig mask! Xuanzang is one-note throughout, I've seen adaptations where there's been more personality injected into him, but honestly this is how he reads in the book.
It's so good, you even forgive the FX. This was an epic-budget show, but the FX work veers between 'charmingly bad in a stylised way' to 'my first After Effects class'. It is comically ATROCIOUS. How they let it out looking like this I don't know. The color grading is bad too, it's all over the place even within the same sequence often. A shame since it's otherwise filmed nicely, with great in-camera vistas and diverse rural locations.
Yet, the show as a whole is so wonderful, you honestly forget the bad visuals and just get hooked on the wonderful odyssey. It's a shame that as a US viewer, there is no legal local way to see it with English subtitles, although you can order the SD DVD box from China but I'm honestly surprised it isn't on any streaming service.
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