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Ancient Mysteries

March 11, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NBC's lavish, special-effects-laden miniseries "The Lost Empire," airing Sunday and Monday, is inspired by the beloved Chinese novel "Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng-en. The ancient book is a fictionalized account of a Chinese monk's journey to India in the 7th century to retrieve a sacred book later used to introduce Buddhism to China.

Joining the monk in his adventures were his three disciples: Monkey King, Pigsy and Friar Sand. For generations, their exploits have been chronicled in plays, operas, movies, comic books and television.

Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly"), who penned the screenplay, had long wanted to adapt "Journey to the West" for modern audiences, "never actually imagining that anybody would want me to write a miniseries." Then, a few years ago, executive producer Robert Halmi ("Merlin," "Arabian Nights") and Hallmark Entertainment approached him.

"I put my pen where my mouth is, so to speak," Hwang says. "I thought this was an opportunity that was not going to come along again."

The one directive Hwang was given was to write a white male hero into the mix. "It was an interesting challenge," he says. So, in essence, what Hwang has created with "Lost Empire" is a sequel to "Journey to the West."

"Lost Empire" finds Thomas Gibson of "Dharma & Greg" playing Nick Orton, an American businessman living in China who had long ago given up his scholarly Chinese studies. One night, he meets the beautiful Kwan Ying (Bai Ling), who ends up luring him to a mystical Chinese world. Kwan Ying, who is actually the Goddess of Mercy, informs Orton he's the "Scholar From Above"--the only person who can save the world from doom.

Orton's mission, as explained to him by Kwan Ying and the sarcastic, half-man, half-monkey called the Monkey King (Russell Wong), is to retrieve the original manuscript of "Journey to the West," which had been stolen centuries before by the evil emperor Shu (Randall Duk Kim). Shu wants all progress to cease so China can return to the traditions and values of the past.

Helping Orton, Kwan Ying and Monkey are Pigsy (Eddie Marsan) and the humorless Friar Sand (Kabir Bedi).

Directed by Peter MacDonald ("Rambo III"), "Lost Empire" features over 500 special effects and was filmed in Singapore, Malaysia, the Czech Republic and England.

MacDonald acknowledges it was daunting to make a miniseries based on such a beloved novel. Halmi, says MacDonald, wanted the romance between Orton and Kwan Ying to be the most important element in the adventure.

"It is a love story about a woman who will give up everything for life, literally sacrificing her life for the person she loves," MacDonald says. "When you see the chemistry between Thomas and Bai Ling, you totally believe these two are lovers."

Gibson wasn't familiar with "Journey to the West," but found Hwang's script "wonderful. I was really impressed with his writing," says the actor. "He took a great story that was very well-known by two-thirds of the world and wove this character of mine into it in an interesting and organic way. I thought it was very cleverly done."

Ling ("Red Corner") felt it was a gift to play the Goddess of Mercy, who is such an integral part of the Buddhist faith. "I feel very humble," she says. "I felt her spirit. I feel very close to her spiritually. I like the idea that it is her job to love everyone, to give compassion and love."

"The Lost Empire" airs Sunday at 9 p.m.and Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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