I suppose many are extremely familiar with the Journey to the West story, the one with many a mythological character included chronicling the quest for scriptures as undertaken by the monk Tripitaka, alongside his famous disciples Sun Wukong, Pigsy and Sandy and that dragon prince who was to be their steed. With different media adaptation, one of my favourites was a made in China television series which I watched as a kid, enthralled by tales of how the entourage battled evil demons every step of the way, enticed by the prospect of eternal life by devouring the flesh of the monk.
That story is made famous by the author Wu Cheng'en, which is a romanticized tale of the arduous journey by the monk Xuan Zang in his quest for knowledge. In this documentary directed by Jin Tiemu, The Great Pilgrim retraces the route and incidents (with demons of a different sort of course) that the monk had encountered over his 19 year return journey to obtain thousands of Sanskrit scriptures, in order to quench the desire of studies he had found to be wanting from missing books, and incorrect translations.
Painstakingly made with visual effects to recreate the 600 AD era, the value this film brought to the table, is chiefly the footage of many actual archeological sites now left standing, places that for the ordinary Joe would be difficult to pay a visit to, and those that Xuan Zang had reportedly been to, made pit stops at, or have encountered significant events in his journey, such as with Qu Wentai, an emperor who had assisted through the provision of an entourage and supplies, and with whom he became sworn brothers with. Meticulously researched, the details covered by the film is based on two books, one which is Xuan Zang's personal recorded history of his quest, and the other a biography written by two of his disciples.
Key scenes got reenacted by actors, Wang Xinyuan playing the titular monk with extreme grace, as he battles plenty of natural elements and overcome unfortunate incidents along the silk road in a period where the dynasty is under constant threat of war. There's this Zen like feel throughout the film that made it unfold with remarkable understatement that doesn't go over the top in trumpeting the achievements of a monk who had brought about a massive evolution to the religion in the country, who not only made that physical quest westwards, but who dedicated the next phase of his life translating those scriptures as well.
If you want to learm more about the monk that you've known through the Journey to the West story, and are interested to find more out about the actual journey, then undoubtedly this would be the go-to film. Cross your fingers that this would somehow find its way to the apt Buddhist Film Festival in Singapore too.