Media experts have observed China’s latest round of censorship guidelines would most likely prevent further adaptations of China’s most celebrated novel, Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, if they were duly applied, since they prohibit subjects involving superstition, reincarnation, vengeance, and most forms of the fantastical. Where would that leave Chinese film and TV? Pretty damn impoverished. Sadly, this Western non-adaptation might sort of make their case. Xuanzang is gone (too religious), replaced by a Western scholar, but don’t bother getting worked up about whitewashing. The problems run deeper than that in the miniseries The Lost Empire (a.k.a. The Monkey King, trailer here), directed by Peter MacDonald, which releases today on DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment.
Nicholas Orton is a Sinophile-scholar reduced to hustling business consulting gigs in China. Journey to the West is fiction in his world, but its example has inspired China and all of mankind to greatness. Unfortunately, poor old Author Wu does not currently see it that way. For centuries, the brainwashed scribe has been held captive in the Heavenly realm by the demonic Five Masters, who would remove all traces of his novel, just as they tried to do when they possessed Ming era censors. Alas, few in the Heavenly realm understand the book’s merits, besides Kwan Ying, the love goddess. She half-tricks the bedazzled Orton into journeying into her world to save Wu’s disintegrating original manuscript.
Right from the start, the romantic tension between goddess and mortal is hot and heavy, but not so with Orton’s teacher, the newly freed Sun Wukong, a.k.a. the Monkey King. Of course, Pigsy and “Friar” Sand will soon join their merry band. Their challenge will be to convince the heavenly Jade Emperor to save the last remaining copy of Journey in the ethereal realm, in order to preserve it in our world as well. Inconveniently, the duplicitous Confucius has rigged the proceedings in favor of the Five Masters and Kwan Ying is losing her powers, because she is following for the incredibly white-bread Orton.
The idea that censorship could be the earthly and cosmic Macguffin for our heroes to overcome is actually quite provocative. Presumably, that was the chief contribution of screenwriter David Henry Hwang, the well-regarded playwright of M. Butterfly fame. So much of Lost Empire is just too cheesy for words, but we can’t blame him for the chintzy special effects. They must be unspeakably painful for MacDonald to watch, considering he helmed Rambo III and did second unit work on blockbusters like The Empire Strikes Back and Superman.
Thomas Gibson has carved out a surprisingly long career on network television by being stiff and waspy, but it makes him a woefully underwhelming romantic hero. Russell Wong’s monkeyisms cause plenty of wincing, but the really embarrassing shtick comes from Eddie Marsan’s Pigsy and Ric Young’s horrifyingly prissy Confucius. Somehow, Bai Ling earns credit in the real Heaven for trying to elevate the film with her surprisingly warm (but wasted) portrayal of Kwan Ying and Kabir Bedi’s distinctive voice makes Friar Sand, unusually commanding. (“Sandy” is always the tricky Journey to the West character. Sometimes he is sand-like, other times not.)