Last month, I wrote a list of movies I’d love to review someday. One of those films was The Lost Empire/The Monkey King. Originally, I was going to review the 2001 picture for Bai Ling’s birthday, as it is in October. But because July’s theme for Genre Grandeur is ‘Fantasy Movies of the 21st Century’, I found a reason to see this movie three months early! In my aforementioned list, I said the story of The Lost Empire/The Monkey King is based on Chinese folklore. This is very different from the types of films Hallmark creates today, which seem to, mostly, be recycled, predictable material. In fact, the only new Hallmark movies I’ve seen this year, so far, are Cut, Color, Murder, Aurora Teagarden Mysteries: Haunted by Murder, and Curious Caterer: Dying for Chocolate. The Lost Empire/The Monkey King was created during a time when Hallmark wasn’t afraid to take creative risks. But did those risks lead to cinematic rewards? Let’s journey through this review as we find that answer together!
Things I liked about the film:
The acting: When I reviewed Point of Origin last month, I was disappointed by Bai Ling’s limited presence in that film. To me, it seemed like her talents were underutilized. In The Lost Empire/The Monkey King, however, Bai was given more acting material to work with. This allowed her talents to be satisfyingly showcased! I’ve said in the past how Bai Ling has a strong sense of emotionality when it comes to her acting abilities. This was not only incorporated into her portrayal of Kwan Ying, but her on-screen performance was also fluid. A great example is when Kwan and Nicholas “Nick” Orton interact for the first time. While sharing drinks at a local restaurant, Kwan’s demeanor is giggly and somewhat flirty, reflecting her drunken state. She holds hands with Nick as she casually leans across the table. But as soon as Nick asks Kwan why she needed to see him, her mood changes without missing a beat. Kwan becomes very serious, as she sits up in her seat and even looks over her shoulder. This change in Kwan’s demeanor also indicates what’s to follow in the story.
Years ago, I read American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. From what I remember, the Monkey King was portrayed as an older, wiser character who younger characters looked up to. Russell Wong’s portrayal of the Monkey King was much different from what I expected. However, it was enjoyable to watch in The Lost Empire/The Monkey King! The Monkey King in the 2001 film was a humorous character. Russell’s dryer sense of humor and one liners worked in the story’s favor, as it provided a break from the tenser moments in the movie. The humor itself also fit within that movie’s world. When Nick first meets the Monkey King, he is taken aback by his change of scenery. The Monkey King uses that interaction to explain what is happening. Nick asks the Monkey King when the book, The Journey to the West will be destroyed. The Monkey King casually responded by saying, “Midnight. Next Thursday”. What also worked in Russell’s favor was his comedic timing. All of the Monkey King’s humorous moments were delivered at the right place and time. This was not only the result of the screenwriting, but the strength of Russell Wong’s acting abilities as well!
One of the most relatable stories is the “fish out of water” story. In order for this story to work in film, you need an actor or actress who can believably sell this idea to the audience. Thomas Gibson in his portrayal of Nick did just that! The way Thomas expressed emotion appeared more realistic, adding to the believability of his performance. Thomas’ ability to adapt to each situation was strong, allowing the audience to witness Nick grow over the course of the movie. The Lost Empire/The Monkey King is not only a “fish out of water” story, but also a “hero’s journey” story. That means the protagonist makes a significant change in his or her life. Throughout the film, Nick makes a personal transformation, gaining confidence as he encounters each obstacle. The way Nick reacts to these changes adds a sense of relatability to the character.
The set design: Immersive and imaginative worlds are a staple within the fantasy genre. The quality of a project’s set design can successfully present that illusion to the audience. I loved the set design in The Lost Empire/The Monkey King because it was able to pull the aforementioned illusion off! Nick is on a business trip to China. Some scenes showcased a typical Chinese city, with smaller details emphasizing the realism of this location. String lights and red lanterns can be seen overhead, which brings a softer glow in the middle of the evening. Vending booths line the streets, elaborating a greater number in population as extras and background characters walk by. Banners and signs in Chinese indicate how that specific part of the city is popular for business.
As the story progresses, more fantastical worlds are shown on-screen. One of these worlds is Jade City. Massive structures boast an ancient Chinese architecture. The ground beneath the characters’ feet displays a pale green hue, subtly reminding the audience of the city’s name. Bright pink flowered trees nicely contrasted the buildings and landscape, bringing a pop of color to the city. Nearby lanterns and window screens are smaller details that show the craftmanship that went into the film’s set design!
The discussion of literature: The main conflict in The Lost Empire/The Monkey King was the fate of the original copy of The Journey to the West. The villains want the book destroyed, while Nick and his friends are trying to save it. This main conflict led to a discussion of censorship versus preservation. The way the discussion is brought up, verbally and visually, was interesting. What was also interesting was the author of The Journey to the West, Wu Ch’eng En, receiving the opportunity to witness the impact of his literary work. I found this part of the story thought-provoking, as it made me think of authors who didn’t really have the chance to see their stories effect the world. The script’s focus on literature brought a sense of depth to a fantastical and whimsical story!
What I didn’t like about the film:
Some of the special effects: When creating a television movie, there’s only so much technological resources at the creative team’s disposal. I’m also aware cinematic technology was not as strong in the early 2000s as it is in the 2020s. Despite these setbacks, the special effects in The Lost Empire/The Monkey King were not a consistent issue. But when they were an issue, it was noticeably rough. While Nick was trying to find a way back to his world, he encounters a tiger in a nearby forest. This tiger appears to have been created through computer technology. Instead of resembling a real-life tiger, it resembled one from a computer game from the time of the movie’s release. The longer the tiger was on screen, the more dated it looked.
Lack of acknowledgment for Pigsy’s mistake: Pigsy is a character that tags along with Nick on his journey. During this journey, Pigsy makes a mistake that negatively impacts his friends and their mission. There were moments where Pigsy appears guilty about his choice. However, the mistake itself was not acknowledged like I hoped it would. Pigsy’s situation does get resolved. But this resolution was glossed over instead of being properly addressed. That was an underutilization of one of the movie’s themes, which was truth.
Mentioning Nick’s ex: On more than one occasion, Nick’s ex-girlfriend is brought up in the story through flashbacks. At a more climatic moment, her inclusion made sense. But, personally, I found it unnecessary for the ex-girlfriend to be brought up more than once. These parts of the story reminded me of a Hallmark movie cliché I’ve talked about in the past: the “protagonist’s ex showing up unannounced” cliché. Nick’s ex-girlfriend is only shown through flashbacks, as I’ve already mentioned. However, I’ve also mentioned how pointless it is to bring up a protagonist’s ex when those characters have no plans to get back together.
My overall impression:
As I watched The Lost Empire/The Monkey King, I noticed some parallels between this movie and The Wizard of Oz. In the Hallmark production, the characters travel to Jade City. Meanwhile, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends seek out The Emerald City. But comparing The Lost Empire/The Monkey King to The Wizard of Oz does the 2001 film such a disservice. This is because the Hallmark film holds up on its own! I found this production so imaginative, creative, and one of the more unique pictures I’ve seen this year! It was entertaining, engaging, sometimes thought-provoking, and even somewhat educational. The Lost Empire/The Monkey King makes me wish Hallmark would make more movies like this instead of what they’re currently creating. Like I said in the introduction, the 2001 production was made during a time when Hallmark wasn’t afraid to take creative risks. In more recent years, Hallmark has over-relied on one genre to the point where it seems like they don’t want to try anything new. I, honestly, find this to be a shame, as there are so many more stories Hallmark could tell.
Overall score: 7.9-8 out of 10
Have you seen The Lost Empire/The Monkey King? Are there any older Hallmark films you wish received more recognition? Please tell me in the comment section!
Have fun at the movies!