Reviewing Alakazam the Great - for the readers of Black Belt Magazine
It’s 1979, the clock of life implacably ticks towards my destiny, whatever that might be. I’m on an airport tarmac heading to Taiwan in search of finding Chi Gong, which I fervently believe will save my life from the deadly grip of cystic fibrosis. My mum, who doesn’t believe in saying goodbye because in our family that means finality, a product of WWI and WWII, with weak kneed stamina, she breaks down and with forlorn tears of sorrow, sobs, "I'll never see you again will I? Goodbye." A final hug, she melts away. My torn dad shakes my hand. As I hug him, he whispers in my ear, "Goodbye son." My doctor’s final ominous words echo inside, “Without warning your cystic fibrosis will swoop down and suck the life out of you within weeks.”
In Part I, it was noted that the first English dubbed, wide-released Chinese kung fu film seen in the USA wasn’t Five Fingers of Death (1972), it was Alakazam the Great (1960), a film adapted from the epic kung fu novel about a monkey named Swuin Wu-kung in Journey to the West. Little did I know, back then, on the plane, that my life was inextricably tied to this story. For me and my Chinese name for the next 28 months, it was Lee Ke-rei’s Journey to the East.
In the Alakazam English-dubbed version, Majutsoland is ruled by King Amo and Queen Amas with son Prince Amat in tow. Curiously, amo, amas, amat are Latin conjugated verbs for I love.
The gods search for a new animal-world king, only monkey Alakazam can fulfill the test-mission, but after becoming king he boasts he’s smarter and wiser than humans. To prove it, he defeats Merlin the Magician then calls out Amo by defiantly eating the forbidden fruit.
Amo defeats Alakazam and imprisons him in a cold snowy mountain top cave until he learns the stupidity of conceit and selfishness. As monkey girl-friend Dee Dee brings him food, the cold drains her life. Alakazam begs that he’ll do anything to save her, so Amas agrees to help her if he escorts Amat on a pilgrimage. Maybe this film is pushing the notion that love conquers all.
The Alakazam Gang
Along the way, they meet the rake-wielding pig, Quigley, who forces a young lass into marrying him and a cannibal Lulipopo, who fights with a half-moon shaped blade on a pole and wants to eat Alakazam. Rather than killing them, Alakazam befriends them and hires them as bodyguards.
Bratty imp Fister, who has a unicorn horn, kidnaps Quigly and Amat for Gruesome, a large raging bull who wants to eat them to please his witch-like wife who has a big feather that can turn things into ice. When Alakazam and Lulipopo rescue Quigley and Amat, volcanos erupt, lava flows, and all hell breaks loose and it’s a race to save the close-to-death Dee Dee.
Throughout the film, Alakazam learns important lessons about humility, courage, compassion, mercy, wisdom and ultimately becomes a wise and powerful monkey king.
So how is my life inseparably tied to Swuin Wu-kung and Xi Yo Ji (Journey to the West)?
In Part 1, I described how whatever the powers that be in life, death, change, time, fate, destiny or God, Bruce Lee’s film Big Boss (1972) came unto me at a time of greatest need. I noted that I don’t believe in coincidences.
Taiwan, early 1980, my doctor’s threat was coming true. For months I’d hear that no one practices chi gong, and if they did, they’d never teach a white man. I was suddenly bedridden, couldn’t eat food, losing weight, coughing, no energy. My fiancé Silvia was watching me die.
During Chinese New Year I stayed at Silvia’s sister’s empty flat next door to her parents, so Silvia could keep an eye on me. A few days later I asked her to take me back to my dorm room, there’s something I’ve got do and I don’t why or what it is. With tears, she took me back.
The Abridged Book that Helped My Troubled Waters
When I began Chinese language classes, our Chinese teacher recommended we read the three greatest classics of Chinese literature that are required reading in Chinese high schools and they’re ultimately all kung fu novels: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San Guo Yan Yi); The Water Margin (Shui Hu Zhuan); and Journey to the West (Xi You Ji). Now that I'm sick and reliving my old bedridden habits, rather than doing jigsaws, I'm going to read these books.
Completed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and written by Wu Cheng-an, Swuin rides around on a cloud and fights with a pole made from a strand of his hair. Accompanied by the rake-wielding pig Zhu Ba-jie and the Monk spade-carrying Xia Wu-jing, they protect Buddhist Monk Tang on a mission to collect sacred scriptures. I know this story…Alakazam the Great!
One of the famous chapters tells how Princess Iron Fan and Ox Demon King want to eat Monk Tang so they can live for 1,000 years, yet Tang is protected by Swuin, Zhu and Xia. However, Ox’s son, Red Boy (aka Hong Hai-er) has mastered the Three Types of True Fire in Flaming Mountain and they order him to kill Swuin. Just as all hell breaks loose, the Goddess of Mercy, Guan Ying, descends from heaven to make peace on Earth.
In most cases, it’s obvious who each character in Alakazam represents. Some are less clear, yet my thoughts are that Fister is Red Boy, King Ama is Buddha, Queen Amas is the Goddess Quan Ying and Merlin the Magician is probably Lao Zi or some other Taoist sage.
Five neat things about Xi You Ji: it's the first film I ever saw; it's a Chinese kung fu film; I saw it when I was five; Doc said I'd be dead in five years; and I was born in the Year of the Monkey.
When I saw Alakazam, only dad and I were in the theater, in the middle of nowhere England and that made me feel safe. As a kid, because of CF, I disliked crowds, noise and always felt trapped if I needed to the toilet. Reading Xi You Ji gave me a strong sense of safety, I felt I was gonna be okay. Many Water Margin chapters focus on how 108 heroes meet each other while vividly describing great feasts and drinking binges to celebrate their brotherhood. My appetite returned.
Monkey King in Beijing Opera
Several months later, I was doing much better and was moments away from my Chi Gong mentor putting me through a harsh 30-Day test of worthiness on Monsoon Mountain. Crazily enough, a few weeks ago, the most obvious thing that I had never thought about was that I learned Chi Gong and overcame my deadly lung disease during the Year of the Monkey.
Also, this morning, as I was scanning the cover of Xi You Ji (1942), I read that the author Arthur Waley was praised from translating the original 100-chapter book into 30 Days, I mean 30 chapters. What more can I say? Just the following:
In life, one never knows, where everything goes, so keep on your toes, and see where life flows.