It was the end of 2017 and I was just fresh out of watching Brotherhood of Blades. Li Dongxue wasn’t the most impressive performer in that wuxia movie directed by Lu Yang, but he caught my eye, so I was eager to see more of him. As expected, when an announcement came out in January 2018 that they were making a new adaptation of Jin Yong’s Yitian Tulong Ji (again), entitled Heavenly Sword and Dragon Slaying Saber in English this time, I was quite excited. I said “quite” because I had no reason to feel even excited enough about it but the prospect of seeing Li Dongxue playing Zhang Cuishan who, when performed by Simon Yam back in 1986, left a very deep impression in my childhood. Frankly speaking, Yitian Tulong Ji has never been my most favorite of the Condor Trilogy, and among all those numerous adaptations they’ve made up to Zhang Jizhong’s 2009 production, I only watched three (1986, 1994, and a little bit of 2003). So when they said they were making a new one, I was like, “Okay…”
A year gone by, and that very little excitement feeling in me had, unsurprisingly, worn off. By the time this newest adaptation (in a webdrama format) truly came out on 27 February 2019, I had totally lost my interest. I thought that they were just doing the same thing again (remaking and remaking the famous Condor Trilogy content) and that any of today’s new adaptations of Jin Yong’s work was merely for those millennials in serious need of some classic wuxia education. I wasn’t on board… Until a friend of mine kept tweeting about Yang Xiao over and over again that pictures of Lin Yushen with long hair and sexy mustache practically flooded my timeline day and night. It’s been 16 years since the last time I watched a Yitian Tulong Ji adaptation so I was quite lost about who Yang Xiao was. Since I’d never read the novel before, the quicker way to remember was to open Wikipedia and check out.
Once I got to the list of Ming Sect’s members and saw his name and description, a memory popped into my head, “Oh, he’s that guy who raped an Emei disciple but then his daughter ended up marrying his ex-love rival. So, what about him?” Well, what about him was a very tricky question. Picture after picture of him kept popping out on my Twitter and Weibo that I couldn’t help but go straight to YouTube and search for his video cuts. Fortunately, there were (and I believe still are) a lot of them. I watched some and that’s it, I fell in love with him instantly. His smile, his confidence, his hidden sexiness got my jaw drop to the floor. I mean, is it really how Yang Xiao supposed to be? You know the answer is no. This Yang Xiao doesn’t make you think of a pervert. This Yang Xiao makes you think of a sexy, cocky but wise gentleman.
So I decided to watch it and here is my honest review (or rambling, to be precise).
- It contains spoiler!
- I’d never read the book before, and I only started the first volume (out of curiosity) when I had reached episode 30 or so. That means I will be entirely talking about this drama as a production without comparing it to the original story/book by Jin Yong.
Now, here we go.
As all producers/directors/scriptwriters generally assume, when it comes to book adaptations, you don’t have to explain anything to the audience because it’s already there in the book, because the audience are the readers of the book. But it could be a false assumption. What if the audience never read the book? What if they’ve already read the book but forgot entirely what happened in it? Audience need a proper introduction to get into the story line, but the producers/directors/scriptwriters do not think so and therefore tell the editors to just cut everything so we can get down to business. And this is so true of Heavenly Sword and Dragon Slaying Saber.
When you had 16 years of gap you needed something to refresh your mind, so when there was this Wudang man drinking water (in very unpleasant slow motion) from a lake I could only stare and think, “Who is he? What is he doing there?” And though the narrative ran rather smoother since then, there were so many plot holes and logic failures that it only seemed like some separate pieces being put together. The most striking example that I cannot forget was when Yang Xiao told Yin Tianzheng to disband the Heavenly Eagle Cult in three days but then it’s still there after ten years and Yang Xiao didn’t come out to do anything about it (???). Or when Abbess Miejue, just out of nowhere, walked into the scene with her Emei disciples without any introductory narration nor explanation whatsoever as to why they should’ve been there and unexpectedly bumped into our (infamous) beloved Yang Xiao.
Actually, the idea of how Yang Xiao first met Ji Xiaofu here was pretty nice (and I loved the fighting scenes!), but then it fell into the logic trap. What? He took her as a hostage just to make her a nanny? Really? The awkward writing and the bad editing didn’t help, either. After spending the night together out of love and mutual consent (yes, he didn’t rape her here), Xiaofu insisted on leaving and asked him not to look for her in the future. But of course she must leave, otherwise the story wouldn’t run as it should. That said, the whole narrative was too complicated to look logical. The only logical thing about their love story was Xiaofu naming her daughter Buhui (no regret), signifying that she didn’t regret loving and being together with Yang Xiao if only for a very short time.
But just admit it, this was what made us cry over Yang Xiao and Ji Xiaofu even long after the fifth episode. It was so well acted by Lin Yushen and Wu Jingjing that it successfully became very romantic and unforgettable. And personally speaking, Lin Yushen’s portrayal here was the main reason why I loved Yang Xiao so much more than he deserved to be as a side character.
Well, if we want to continue to talk about improper introduction and logic failures, there were still more of them even after 15-16 episodes. I mean, why they kept doing it? If you noticed, really really noticed it, everything about Xiao Zhao and her first appearance was so unclear. She just came out of nowhere in the middle of the desert. Suppose we knew she was a spy sent by her mother, how could she know when and where Yang Xiao and Buhui would pass by so she could get a chance of sneaking into the Bright Peak? And suppose we knew she was then made a maid by the father and daughter, she wasn’t depicted to do any services but calling them “master and young lady”, and doing what we presumably knew her mother had told her to.
Want more plot holes? Then I’ll give you some. Generally we know Wei Yixiao doesn’t suck blood because he wants to, but because he is forced to. A mishap happens when he trains his internal energy, making him seriously need blood to survive. Zhang Wuji knows of this and cures him, so in the end he doesn’t have to act like a vampire anymore. But did the drama show you this healing process? No. Wei Yixiao first appeared as the blood-sucking Bat King, but after that he just didn’t suck blood anymore without any reason. I mean, you can change/add/cut down anything from the book I wouldn’t care less, but please give us some EXPLANATION on screen.
And what about the gap between the death of Yang Dingtian and the present time when Zhang Wuji had all grown up and saved the Ming Sect from their demise? Cheng Kun said he’d been waiting for 40 years, Yang Xiao said it was 20 years ago, while Daiqisi said it’s been 30 years since then. A friend of mine told me that the production team had eight writers to handle the script. It seemed to me those writers didn’t have any agreement on this.
Despite all those plot holes and logic failures, Heavenly Sword and Dragon Slaying Saber was actually a pretty enjoyable drama. I really loved it as a whole: I loved the fantastic chemistry between Zeng Shunxi (Zhang Wuji) and Chen Yuqi (Zhao Min); I loved Zhu Xudan’s acting as Zhou Zhiruo; I loved how they handled the story in general (except for that part when Yin Li lost her memory and the somewhat awkward ending); I loved the directing; I loved the martial arts choreography/fighting scenes (forget about the slow motion), especially those in episode 20, 21 and 25; I loved the locations; I loved all the costumes and hairstyles, but not the make-up—which made the older generation look so much younger than they should be. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I really didn’t mind Yang Xiao looking so sexy and much younger than his actual age. But seriously, could you bear Cheng Kun looking so much younger than his own disciple?
I really loved this drama, at least until episode 35. It started to decline and a little bit annoying afterward but I could still cope with it. But gosh the last ten episodes were so horrible! I still loved Zeng Shunxi-Chen Yuqi chemistry and that was what made me keep going after Yang Xiao disappeared in episode 45, but they seemed to change tack and turn this wuxia drama into a melodrama. Zhao Min cried a lot (which made her characterization here even worse since her first appearance in episode 23), and why all members of the Ming Sect suddenly became too much sentimental, too much dumb for their own good?
And that’s the worst thing about this drama. It lacked the proper wuxia vibe. It seemed to talk more about love than heroism and martial arts. It seemed more like a Romeo & Juliet kind of idol drama than a story of jianghu. Zhang Jizhong’s productions…now that’s what I call wuxia dramas. So far I’ve only watched four of them (XAJH 2001, LoCH 2003, DGSD 2003, and RoCH 2006), but I can definitely say that Mr. Zhang was better at handling something wuxia with love story in it.
So, in conclusion, is Heavenly Sword and Dragon Slaying Saber a bad adaptation? No. Despite all the shortcomings it’s still surprisingly pretty good. But is it a proper one? Not really, either. I mean, who would want a bunch of old, gossipy men meddling too much in their leader’s love affair and bullying his girlfriend?
And trust me, without Yang Xiao and the non-narrative aspects, it could have been worse than 5.7 points on Douban.