review, TV/movie adaptations

Word of Honor: More Than Just A New “Wuxia Adaptation”

Shan He Ling ‹‹山河令››, or Word of Honor in its official English title, is last year’s webdrama adaptation of Tian Ya Ke ‹‹天涯客››, a danmei wuxia novel written by Priest. It was, and is still, hugely popular domestically and internationally. This widespread fame might be purely due to its main genre, which is in itself very popular and not rarely used to make money by television production companies in China; on the other hand, however, it might be purely due to its very well written, engrossing, epic jianghu story―the journey of heroes in the pugilistic world and their romance.

Audiences who are fans of, or at least familiar with, classic wuxia stories (either in movie/drama or novel form) would definitely notice after the first few episodes that this drama has the formula of Jin Yong ‹‹金庸››’s works, especially that of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu ‹‹笑傲江湖››―or, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, as is usually entitled in English. It’s not only the appearances and mention of the orthodox sects like Shaolin, Wudang, Emei, the Beggar Gang and the Five Mountains Sword Alliance (particularly Huashan, Taishan and Hengshan Sects), but most importantly the premise: how those orthodox sects (and, of course, those under the Five Lakes Alliance, which is the main player here) being self-righteous, hypocritical and power hungry as they’re tirelessly fighting for a treasure which is said to enable the owner to become tian xia di yi ‹‹天下第一›› and rule the (pugilistic) world. This treasure is usually a certain gongfu manual or weapons, but here in this drama it’s the Glazed Armor, the so-called “key” to an armory containing the secret gongfu of all sects in wulin.

This hypocrisy and power hunger are always at the core of Jin Yong’s stories; this is the people’s mentality that the late author always wants us to see through his characters: greed is a human nature that no one can escape from―it’s not only the nature of evil villains, but also of “righteous” people who claim to be on the “bright” side of the world. And while evil people fight for power in an open and “honest” way, “righteous” people do it secretly in ways which are not any less evil. So who is actually evil and who is actually righteous? This makes the world not clearly black and white; this makes the world so laughable, hence his novel’s title Xiao Ao Jiang Hu―which literally means “laughing proudly at the (pugilistic) world”. This is what Wen Kexing saw with his own eyes and experienced himself so badly. This is also what Zhao Jing sort of summarizes in episode 23 through his dialogue with the Scorpion King―something he decides to take advantage of.

Zhang Zhehan as Zhou Zishu

The dichotomy between righteous vs evil then takes us to Jin Yong’s favorite romance trope: the star-crossed lovers. We have the famous Guo Jing – Huang Rong couple (of Legend of the Condor Heroes), Zhang Wuji – Zhao Min couple (of Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber), and even Yang Xiao – Ji Xiaofu couple (also of HSDS novel)―who are the most obviously in opposite and the most tragic. But Wen Kexing – Zhou Zishu couple in this drama is more like Linghu Chong – Ren Yingying couple of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. Seeing Zhou Zishu (who is of the upright, orthodox sect Four Seasons Manor) leaving the Window of Heaven with his body severely injured is almost like seeing Linghu Chong being expelled from Huashan Sect with an equally severe, incurable injury. Meanwhile, Wen Kexing is almost similar to (or, in this case, the male version of) Ren Yingying, in that he is the leader of the Ghost Valley (the evil side and the common enemy of jianghu) just like Ren Yingying is the “leader” of the evil Sun Moon Sect instead of her missing father and on behalf of Dongfang Bubai.

Gong Jun as Wen Kexing

However, interestingly, their characterization is in converse. People might look at Zhou Zishu as sort of a replica of Linghu Chong―drowning himself in wine while waiting for his time to die; but, in fact, it is not him but Wen Kexing who has the similar character as our wandering swordsman: funny, carefree, mischievous, flirting Zhou Zishu non-stop the way Linghu Chong teasing Ren Yingying whenever they are together. On the other hand, Zhou Zishu is the one who has Ren Yingying’s character: calm, wise, smart, with solid integrity and strong leadership.

The differences do not stop there, though; because unlike Linghu Chong and Ren Yingying who simply stand side by side against the (pugilistic) world and challenge anyone who dares to question their love, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing’s relationship goes so much deeper. They’re not merely a pair of two people coming from different backgrounds and opposite sides. They each have their own journey and development. Zhou Zishu is indeed an “upright” person from an upright sect, but as the leader of the Window of Heaven, just how much blood he has in his hands? How much guilt and regret he has on his shoulders? Upon his “first” meeting with Wen Kexing, he’s like half-dead already, waiting for his last two years to take him away from the mortal world so he can leave all his sins behind. And Wen Kexing himself is no better (if not worse)―being a man with tragic childhood and evil upbringing, whose every action is driven solely by revenge, he wants nothing else but destroy the entire pugilistic world with himself in it.

Wen Kexing – Zhou Zishu’s own “us against the world” moment

But their chance encounter (and their journey together, later) changes the way they look at the world and themselves inside. While Zhou Zishu becomes more and more optimistic about life, Wen Kexing can finally see that he was wrong all along. Knowing Wen Kexing’s true identity and fragile heart, pain and misery, Zhou Zishu sees a chance to redeem himself by saving his soulmate from falling even deeper into the abyss of darkness―because he knows it’s not yet too late. Wen Kexing, besides trying to find a way to cure Zhou Zishu’s self-inflicted injury, is all-out in his attempt to save Zhou Zishu from bearing another huge regret on his shoulders―that particular scene when he’s draining out his internal energy to keep Han Ying alive for Zhou Zishu is one of the most heart-wrenching moments of this drama.

But being basically star-crossed lovers cannot be without the process of accepting each other first, not only their backgrounds but also their pasts. It is so much easier for Wen Kexing to accept Zhou Zishu and all his past sins ‘cause he himself would naturally have no qualms about killing anybody; however, in his mind, he fears that Zhou Zishu wouldn’t do the same with his Chief of Ghost Valley status and what a mess he has done in jianghu. This is in line, back again to their similarities, with Ren Yingying being afraid of Linghu Chong discovering that she is the shen gu of the evil sect. And for Wen Kexing, this process is even more complex seeing that it’s already difficult for him to accept himself and the “mistake” he had previously done―which leads us to the wrongly planned mass-killing revenge action.

Zhou Zishu questioning Ye Baiyi’s conscience

It might not take a long time for Zhou Zishu to accept Wen Kexing as he is, but it does take a necessary confrontation with Ye Baiyi for him to show clearly to Wen Kexing that he can fully understand what he has been going through and why he’s stranded in the path that he is now.

That backstory of Wen Kexing, in all fairness, is what actually drives the entire narrative of this drama, what makes this drama as it is. The jianghu community can just fight against each other over the Glazed Armor all they like and kill each other the way Wen Kexing wants them to, but without his tragic past there will be no solid reason for the mass-killing plan which culminates in the Heroes Conferences, for the display of pathetic hypocrisy of the entire pugilistic world and of all the schemes and betrayals that are so typical of being “heroes”; and, of course, there will be no solid foundation for his romance with Zhou Zishu where they accept each other the way they are and save each other from the utter fall. Wen Kexing’s story is deeply embeded in the drama’s story; Wen Kexing’s story is Word of Honor’s story.

Speaking of a story, especially of BL genre, having it written by, from, and for women (audience) doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll be feminist, or at least women-friendly―if you just know how sexist and misogynistic Addicted ‹‹上瘾›› is in its narrative and dialogues and how it portrays women as two-dimensional annoying people. The episode 5 of this drama when Zhou Zishu roughly saying to Zhang Chengling that “men cannot cry” makes it look like it’s going to the same direction; and Cao Weining’s male heroic syndrome doesn’t help it, either. As badass as Gu Xiang is, the gender vibes of the story still doesn’t make it comfortable enough to watch at first. Only after Luo Fumeng’s and Liu Qianqiao’s backstories are revealed does this drama give itself so much more balance. And the moment the Scorpion King says to Liu Qianqiao that “cheating is not about gender, women can also cheat” is when this drama clearly shows to the audience that it goes for gender equality.

This is something that doesn’t exist in classic wuxia stories. Although Jin Yong often presents us with “strong female characters”, they always look almost like a mere “tool” for the hero’s (a.k.a their lover’s) success. And there’s always this “one hero surrounded by many girls” trope, to boot. Feminism, or gender equality, or even a “decent” women representation is something that we never see in any of classic wuxia literary works. This, and the male-male romance (with a deeper, far widely-encompassing love story than in those classics), is the modern twist the original writer and scriptwriter have given to this based-on-classic-formula wuxia drama. This twist makes Word of Honor more than just a new “wuxia adaptation”.

Left: Linghu Chong & Ren Yingying of CCTV’s 2001 Xiao Ao Jiang Hu adaptation. Right: Zhou Zishu & Wen Kexing of Youku’s 2021 Tian Ya Ke adaptation. Fate or not: the two dramas were produced by the same production company.

It can be an “adaptation”, a tribute to, or it can be a fanfiction (with all those similarities and same formula it almost feels like a “copy”) of―once again, in particular―Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. They even start off the drama with Zhang Chengling’s family tragedy the same way as how Xiao Ao Jiang Hu begins with the disaster that befalls Lin Pingzhi’s family caused by the treasure that everyone is struggling to get their hands on. And if it is not enough, one of the songs on the drama’s soundtrack list is called Xiao Kan Jiang Hu ‹‹笑看江湖››―and that’s only one word different title from our late author’s masterpiece.

Well, whatever it is, Word of Honor can really capture and reflect the “essence and spirit of wuxia” that not even the “most decent” wuxia remake could do these days. People keep remaking the same classic source materials without doing them any justice―with stupid changes from the originals and no proper plot, not even a proper fighting scenes choreography. This drama, on the other hand, has its own story―properly using the classic formula―and gives us what a wuxia drama should be, what a wuxia drama must be.

Rating: 4.5/5

others, review

Xiao Ao Jiang Hu: The 2001 TV Adaptation

They said Zhang Jizhong is a very serious Chinese producer who would make the best effort to produce a remarkable TV series. He doesn’t only think about the financial aspect of a production, but he involves himself in everything and anything. He even joins the cast sometimes, playing one or two characters. And that’s what makes his adaptations of Jin Yong’s popular novels fantastic TV productions to enjoy. It started with Xiao Ao Jiang Hu, or they call it Laughing in the Wind in English for this particular adaptation.

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Shot in 2000, and first broadcasted in March 2001 by Mainland China’s CCTV, Laughing in the Wind received a high rating and popularity, though with rather mixed reviews. It is said to have marvelous scenery and real, jaw-dropping fighting scenes no wuxia TV series ever had. However, on the other hand, it fails to stay true to the book and casts the wrong actors for some roles. Still, it is a great production, an exciting adaptation, and, for some people who loved it, it’s one of the best wuxia series ever made.

There are already many reviews of Laughing in the Wind, but I think I’m entitled to my own opinion, aren’t I? Moreover, as I watched it I couldn’t help having raging thoughts in my mind. So, let’s see how it goes.

The Cast

Li Yapeng as Linghu Chong

linghuchong-blogSome people said Li Yapeng is not the right actor to play the role of Linghu Chong. He’s too serious and melancholic, while the Linghu Chong in the book is a care-free man who never gives any thought to anything. Since I haven’t read the entire novel (I’m only into the first few pages now), I don’t think I have the right to make any judgment. But let’s be fair. The scriptwriter(s) might have their own interpretation of the character, or Li represents it in his own way on screen. He might not be a fun-loving man he should be here, but he’s definitely jokes-loving: he’s funny (okay, rather ridiculous sometimes), he’s naughty and glib-tongued. What’s the best about his portrayal is his facial expressions and funny gestures when he’s in the mood. Some said they are too much, but I’d rather say they are just entertaining. Other great thing about Li is that he can express sadness and love so soulfully. Really. Just look at his face. I think he’s a talented actor, such a shame he’s retired from acting now.

Xu Qing as Ren Yingying 

renyingying-blogEveryone seems to praise her and I didn’t have any complaint, either. I liked the way she portrays Shen Gu (The Holy Maiden), she seems so natural in doing so. She looks so fierce, so smart, independent, with an air of leadership about her. And yet, sometimes, she can be so shy and childish especially when she is with Linghu Chong. Yes, the Ren Yingying here is a very complex character, so complex that at times she can be poles apart within herself. At one time she can be so jealous whenever Yue Lingshan is concerned, at another she can be so understanding and saying something like, “I admire your xiao shi-mei (little sister), it’s your love for her that opens my eyes in the first place.” So contradictory, so inconsistent, and this swing-mood is pretty disturbing most of the time. Having said that, in the way of appearance, Xu Qing really suits the character of Ren Yingying. It’s like this role is truly meant for her.

Wei Zi as Yue Buqun 

yuebuqun-blogIf there is any villain in disguise in the world, then it’s Yue Buqun. And the way Wei Zi performs this character on screen is very much convincing: so subtle yet so vivid at the same time. Just look at how he acts so elegantly indifferent sometimes—with a sigh and lazy gesture and a fan—also the way he talks, and you will see that he is a hypocrite. The least impressive thing about Wei Zi’s portrayal, however, is the way he interprets the “womanish” Yue Buqun after learning Bi Xie Jian Fa (Evil-Resisting Sword Skill). He appears to be less convincing in this, much less than the way Mao Weitao (Dongfang Bubai) and Li Jie (Lin Pingzhi) portray the same character change.

Other Important Characters

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There is not much to say about Miao Yiyi who plays Yue Lingshan in this adaptation. She just acts the way she should as a 16-year-old girl: sweet, childish, and selfish sometimes. Her voice (dubbed or not), really suits her character. But who impressed me more here is Li Jie instead, the actor who portrays Lin Pingzhi . I appreciated how he displays the step-by-step changes in his character: from a spoiled young master, to a heart-broken and full of revenge young man, and finally to a sinister, womanish fighter who masters Bi Xie Jian Fa. However, Dongfang Bubai is still the best male/female character that left deep impression in me.

                         tianboguang-blog    renwoxing-blog

As perfect as an ensemble might be, there must be imperfection somewhere. Some actors just do not fit their roles. Sun Haiying who plays Tian Boguang was miscasted. He acts and looks too silly to be a well-known, ferocious rapist. And the worst failure of all is the character of Ren Woxing, who’s badly played by Lu Xiaohe. Once again, I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how his character should be. But to my thinking, a leader of a huge, evil sect should have an air of dignity about him, leadership, and harsh manner. Instead, Ren Woxing here merely looks like a silly old man who laughs a lot through to the end of his life.

The Plot

They say there are three ways of adapting a novel into the big/small screen: stay true to the book; pick a part of the book and develop it into a lengthy narrative; or make an entirely different plot based on the idea of the book. The plot employed in this particular adaptation of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu doesn’t seem to stray far away from the original story, but in general, it does seem to have its own storyline. Some reviews stated that there are so many changes compared to the novel, and Jin Yong himself felt quite disappointed about it. However, as I haven’t known entirely how the plot should have run, here I’m pointing out what’s wrong with it as a TV series, not as a TV adaptation.

First of all, to snare an audience into a visualized story, an opening scene should have certain charm and captivating narrative, not merely a marvelous cinematography and beguiling characters. Unfortunately, Laughing in the Wind fails to do this. Whether or not it follows the opening scene of the book, its first five episodes run too fast and feels so awkward to watch. It’s suddenly this way and suddenly that way most of the time, with a lack of clarity in what it wants to deliver. Those who have read the book might be able to understand what’s going on or if some scenes are cut or shortened, but what about those who haven’t? Luckily, after the fifth episode, the storyline runs rather well and understandable, but only until the 30th episode. Afterward, the story starts to falter once again throughout the last 10 episodes. The idea in which Ren Ying Ying kidnapping Yi Lin in episode 31 doesn’t seem to have any significance, and episode 37 is the worst episode of all. Even episode 40, the last episode, although featuring a nice climax and ending, also runs too fast in the first 15-20 minutes. In conclusion, there is definitely something wrong with the scriptwriting. Something like being in a hurry. Like they have to end it in episode 40 and not more.

The Fighting Scenes

What makes Laughing in the Wind a great wuxia novel adaptation, and an amazing wuxia series, is undoubtedly its fighting scenes. There have been nothing like them before. The kungfu movements are seriously choreographed, the fightings are nicely shot, and at times they are made colossal. When these scenes are too complicated, fast, and shot from a far angle, they will be done by stuntmen. But when they are filmed in slow motion, quite simple, and taken from close angle, the actors will do them on their own. Since this is a wuxia story involving sword skill, the use of swords is very fundamental. The actors have to carry their swords everywhere they go and be able to play with them. When you look at the screen closely, you will see that all the actors are capable of swinging and playing deftly with their swords. No, they do not use stuntmen to do that. It’s them. They must have painstakingly practiced it over and over before shooting. And Xu Qing, in particular, is the most skillful one to do this.

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And of course, as there are a lot of fighting scenes in this series, I couldn’t help but memorize some and make them my favorites. The fighting in the rain, where Linghu Chong uses Dugu Jiu Jian (9 Swords of Dugu) to blind the masked men making an ambush on his Huashan School fellows, is no doubt one of my favorites. It might not have the best kungfu choreography, but it looks so dramatic and beautiful to watch. Other best fighting scene in this series is, of course, the massive attack Cheng Bu You and co. launch on Linghu Chong and Ren Yingying at the Bamboo Hut in Luo Yang. It’s so exciting, visually engrossing, nicely choreographed, and very dramatic at the same time. The fighting between Linghu Chong+Ren Yingying+Ren Woxing+Xiang Wentian versus Dongfang Bubai also brings about the same excitement and sense of awe, it’s just such a shame it is not well-edited. I noticed that some scenes are not in coherence, so they seem awkward and do not run smoothly. But I liked it when they end the fighting with pink petals of flowers raining upon them. Really, the director does know how to entertain an audience.

fight-scene-34
Petals of flowers raining upon Linghu Chong

Last but not least, every fighting scene involving Linghu Chong and Ren Yingying. That is, those in episode 13 and 14. I know this might sound so silly but I found those fighting scenes a bit romantic. I think I caught a sense of love-and-hate aura between them. But, well, maybe it was just me.

fight-scene-13
Linghu Chong vs Ren Yingying

The Love Story

Everyone who loves wuxia series, and especially those who are fans of Jin Yong, must have known that Yue Lingshan is Linghu Chong’s first love, and even when he’s with Ren Yingying he still cannot forget her. I read somewhere that the character of Ren Yingying is supposed to come out rather later in the story as Po-po (granny), when Linghu Chong feels brokenhearted over his xiao shi-mei. However, this adaptation decided to let Ren Yingying appear earlier as herself, giving room for both she and Linghu Chong to know each other in advance. From the first time they meet, it is quite obvious that the Holy Maiden has a secret interest in Linghu Chong. She even helps to cure him in episode 3, releases him (together with Yue Lingshan and Yi Lin) in episode 5, and setting Ling Pingzhi free of Yu Canghai’s hold in episode 6. What else the reason she would do all that? But only Yue Lingshan has a room in Linghu Chong’s heart, so he is not aware of Ren Yingying’s intention. Moreover, she is someone from the demon cult. They are predestined to be sworn enemies.

lhc-ryy-blog
Linghu Chong and Ren Yingying

As the story progresses, though, their relationship becomes more complicated. Separated by the notion of good and evil, and definitely having no hope whatsoever, Ren Yingying tries to get close to Linghu Chong through every way possible, without revealing her true feelings of course. It is displayed in episode 13 through to episode 16, when they somehow walk between love and hate, and reaches its climax in episode 18. After that, the rest is history.

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The tragic death of Yue Lingshan

However, it is still hard for Linghu Chong to love Ren Yingying wholeheartedly, and this is shown through his expressions and dialogues. Only after Yue Lingshan dies can Linghu Chong let go off his feelings for her and devote all his love and attention to Ren Yingying only. I do think this torn-apart emotion when someone is caught in a triangle love affair needs a great deal of acting skill to express it, and, once again, Li Yapeng has it in him to do just that.

The Scenery/Setting

Some people said that the scenery in Laughing in the Wind is one of the plus points of the series, and I couldn’t agree more. I particularly liked Si Guo Ya (The Repentance Hill), Hei Mu Ya (Black Wood Cliff), and the hills where Qu Yang+Liu Zhengfeng / Ren Yingying+Linghu Chong play the song Xiao Ao Jiang Hu at the beginning and end of the series.

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But overall, every spot the shooting took place is real and breathtaking, even the front hall of Songshan School and the Hanging Temple of Henshan School.

        songshanhall-blog   hangingtemple-blog

The Soundtrack

As far as my experience watching wuxia TV series, I never knew of a single one actually having traditional/classic Chinese music as their soundtrack/background song. No, not one. But Laughing in the Wind has it, not only for the opening and ending themes, but also the score throughout the series. I especially loved the song entitled You Suo Si, the one which is played by Po-po (or Ren Yingying) every time Linghu Chong feels restless, and also the song called Tian Di Zuo He. I really liked the sound of the zither in them. So classy and classic. As for the ending theme, which is performed by Liu Huan and Faye Wong, I have to say that it didn’t leave pretty good impression in my ear. However, visually, it is a marvelous production in itself. If you just sit and watch the video, you will recognize how every single note seems to fit the edited scene displayed.

Well, all things considered, this 2001 CCTV’s adaptation of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu is truly one of the best wuxia TV series I’ve ever watched. It’s like a modern classic. It has almost everything I need, and want, in this genre. If it was not for the clumsy plot I might have given it a higher rating, 4.5 maybe. But it barred me from doing so.

Rating: 4/5