Tale of a fallen `Empire'

Review: `The Lost Empire' is lost all right. It's another disaster that transforms a great story into an insult.

March 10, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

NBC and producer Robert Halmi Sr. continue their assault on world literature, fairy tale and myth tomorrow with "The Lost Empire," a bloated four-hour miniseries starring Thomas Gibson ("Dharma and Greg") and Bai Ling ("Anna and the King").

Remember last year's big-budget bomb brought to us by Halmi and NBC, "The 10th Kingdom," which took a number of the most culturally significant European fairy tales and turned them into miniseries muck? Remember how the heroes were white and the worst of the invented-for-TV villains were characterized by their various colorings of black and brown skin?

There's nothing that patently offensive in "The Lost Empire," but the same Euro-centrism is front and center, as another great book gets shredded in the name of prime-time entertainment. The book is "Journey to the West," a supernatural novel embodying Chinese fables and myths surrounding a god named the Monkey King. The most definitive version was published in 1592 by Wu Cheng-en.

The book features a seventh-century Chinese monk journeying to India to meet the Buddha and returning to China to share the Buddha's wisdom with his countrymen. He is accompanied on the journey by the Monkey King, a wise but rebellious god; Pigsy, a comic figure often undermined by his appetites; and a friar.

A seventh-century Chinese monk starring in a four-hour, prime-time miniseries on NBC? Not in Halmi's version. Exit the Chinese monk, enter an American businessman living in China, Nick Orton (Gibson).

In NBC promotional material insisting that "The Lost Empire" celebrates Chinese culture, Halmi makes it sound as if the switch is minor, saying of the miniseries: "It's inspired by `Journey to the West,' but we've injected an American hero into it. And through his eyes, and through this incredible action, we discover the wonderful Chinese world."

If Halmi and NBC truly respected Chinese culture, they'd understand how insulting it is to take a treasured narrative and reduce the Chinese characters to sidekicks. Gibson describes Orton as "a little bit like Indiana Jones, a little bit Luke Skywalker." But what he really becomes in this construction is the Great White Savior reinforcing the false message that people of color can't save themselves.

If I sound over the top about what some might call harmless American television entertainment, too bad. This arrogance toward other cultures is one of our worst national traits, and there's no longer room for this kind of television in the global space we now inhabit. The great stories aren't there to be spiced up and dumbed down by the likes of Halmi and NBC.

The spice here is provided by Orton's infatuation with Kwan Ying (Ling), the goddess of mercy. She lures him into the underworld of fabulous monsters and demons that he and his sidekicks must overcome on the hero quest. (I'm aware of all the sexist connotations of the word "lure," and I assure you, they're all there in the television program.)

And the acting adheres to the same low standards:

Gibson has almost enough talent to play second banana in a sitcom, but as for carrying a four-hour action-adventure series, forget about it. Ling plays two notes: mysterious and self-conscious about her beauty. Russell Wong ("Romeo Must Die") is slightly better as the Monkey King, but he has a hard time going from being a comic figure one minute to a terrifying force the other.

Yes, there are lots of special effects. But, if that's what you want, go to a movie and watch them on a big screen where they belong. Television is about storytelling, character and culture. "The Lost Empire" is a loser on all three counts.

`The Lost Empire'

When: Tomorrow at 9 p.m, and Monday at 8 p.m. Where: WBAL (Channel 11). In brief: Another great book gets turned into prime-time muck.

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