The first Chinese drama I ever saw was “Novoland: Castle in the Sky” and it’s what jump-started my love of C-dramas, so when I saw the trailer for the Novoland-inspired The Legend of the Naga Pearl, it caught my attention. It also stars Crystal Zhang who was in my favorite comedy, “Go, Princess, Go”, and I’ve been wanting to see her again in something else. This is a visually stunning, fantasy and adventure movie about a thief, a detective and a prince who try to save their city, Uranopolis, from the apocalypse.
If you aren’t familiar with the Novoland book series, it’s been called the Chinese Lord of the Rings, though in this case there are about 30 books and 7 authors and it has inspired some TV series (including “Tribes and Empires” due out soon starring “Princess Agents” fave, Shawn Dou) as well as this movie. Novoland is a place populated by various beings, but in this movie, the focus is on the Humans and the Wingkind, a race of people who used to be able to fly, but, after a war with the humans, lost the Stardust Flower that made their wings possible.
Darren Wang (Our Times, Railroad Tigers) plays a thief and con man, Ni Kongkong, whose only friend is a strange, armadillo-like creature named Oka (the usual CGI pet that I think must be a SARFT requirement for all costume dramas). He has a mysterious, glowing gap in his hand that he covers up as it has been the source of much bullying when he was a child and soon it becomes clear that his goofiness and smart ass remarks cover up a world of pain and loneliness.
When he is busted by a client for selling her fake goods, he offers to make it up to her by doing a job for free, so she sends him to steal something from the King’s brother. Instead Kongkong ends up witnessing a break-in by some Wingkind baddies who are looking for an artifact for their boss, Vlad, who wants to kill all the humans and give the Wingkind back the power of flight. They end up killing everyone except for Kongkong who is able to sneak away undetected.
Overhearing their plans to find another valuable treasure in the mountains, he arrives there first and discovers a mysterious box that is somehow connected to his glowing hand. He also meets Raven (Crystal Zhang Tian Ai), a member of the King’s Tiger Bureau who investigate crimes. She has been kicked off the case because she is a Wingkind and her brother, Feng Xiao (played by Liu Jun Xiao who was the scheming Xue Lin in “The Castle in the Sky”) is in league with the bad guy. After fighting with her brother, she and Ni Kongkong end up being arrested by the Tiger Bureau.
They are set free by a disguised Prince Herley (Sheng Guan Sen, “China Style Relation”) who wants to prove himself to his father by taking down Vlad himself. The three end up forming a wary trio to try to find a way to destroy the Naga Pearl contained in the box before it can be used to destroy Uranopolis.
You can tell which Wingkind are the bad guys as they all have scarred or ghoul-like faces. Simon Yam plays Vlad who wants to avenge the Wingkind by exterminating the humans. Though he is the main bad guy, he actually gets less time on screen than Raven’s brother.
I wish that this could have been a little more of a family drama with Liu Jun Xiao being the main baddie as it would have brought even more tension to the film’s climax as Raven attempts to save the world. I really enjoyed their story the most, especially watching the brother’s jealousy for his sister when she gets wings (and whom he thinks their father loved more) while she tries to convince him to switch sides because she still cares for him.
Rounding out the cast is Zhao Jian, another “Castle in the Sky” alum (the Regent), who has a more comedic part as a disgraced former palace guard who runs a gambling establishment in an unsavory part of Novoland, Hu Bing (“Ice Fantasy”, “Princess Agents”) in a smaller role as the King, and Du Yiheng (The Taking of Tiger Mountain) as the head of the Tiger Bureau who doesn’t know if he can trust Raven or not.
I loved Crystal Zhang as the Wingkind detective who wants to serve the King faithfully, but due to her race and her brother, she is treated like a bad guy instead. She does a great job conveying the pain from the loss of her father, who also advocated for peace between both sides, as well as her disappointment in her brother. She’s plays the straight man to Darren Wang’s flirtatious and clowning thief as she continues to save him from bad guys.
I enjoyed their combative relationship, but think it would have been better if they’d just left it that way with maybe just little hints that she might slowly be warming to him, rather than having her suddenly have feelings for him later as I didn’t quite buy them as a couple so quickly.
I thought the visual effects in this film were stunning and it made me enjoy watching the trio’s adventure even more with all the lush scenery. Based on the end credit scene, it looks like the producers are hoping to do a sequel, but I’m sure that will hinge on how well this movie does. Even though I didn’t think the leads had romantic chemistry, I did like them as partners trying to work together for the common good.