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

review, Uncategorized

Yitian Tulong Ji: The 2019 Webdrama Adaptation

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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…”

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Li Dongxue as Zhang Cuishan

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.

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Lin Yushen as Yang Xiao

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).

WARNING:

  1. It contains spoiler!
  2. 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.

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Wudang

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.

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Emei

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.

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Lin Yushen as Yang Xiao and Wu Jingjing as Ji Xiaofu

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.

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Ming Sect

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.

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Zeng Shunxi as Zhang Wuji

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.

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The Mongol’s Yuan Dynasty

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?

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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.

Rating: 3.5/5

comic books, review

Xiao Ao Jiang Hu: The Manhua

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As we know, or at least as all wuxia junkies know, Jin Yong’s martial arts novels have inspired so many television series, movies, games, and even comic books—either the faithful ones or the I-don’t-care-I-just-want-to-make-money ones. But there are a few which stray a little from the original storylines but were done wholeheartedly and with so much enthusiasm that they manage to keep the spirit of the works being adapted. The manhua version of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu (or, in English widely known as The Smiling, Proud Wanderer) is one of those few. Created by Lee Chi Ching and first published in Hong Kong in 2002, this set of 26 volumes succeeds in delivering the heart of the story in its own style, but still with its unfortunate shortcoming.

First thing first, here I must confess that I’m still nowhere near done reading the whole four volumes of the book. However, from the first volume’s five chapters I’ve slowly read I gather that Lee Chi Ching has his own way of introducing the story to the reader. Instead of starting it with Lin Pingzhi’s incident when he is out hunting, just as in the book, in volume one Lee opens the story with some kind of reflection on what jiang hu is, on repaying kindness and taking revenge, on who belong to the orthodox sect and who members of the demon cult are and the clear line between them, and lastly, who will be the last to laugh.

Lee subsequently goes on to tell the backstory where the Huashan Sword School’s disciples are on their way to Hengshan to attend Liu Zhengfeng’s hand-washing ceremony, and how Linghu Chong strays away alone drinking then accidentally meets Yi Lin. This, and the fight between him and Tian Boguang in the darkened cave, are not told by Yi Lin herself in a flashback, as they are in the novel, but rather stand on their own to usher the reader to the point where we’ll finally see Lin Pingzhi—battered, angry, hopeless and restless under the pouring rain—on his journey to save his parents.

Narrativewise, I found it a better way to begin the story: it’s more enjoyable, less boring, and quite exciting. Not that I dare to question Jin Yong’s intelligence and ability in storytelling, it’s just so much better this way. This lack-of-excitement in the original book’s opening was the reason why I needed weeks just to finish the first chapter while I wasted no time in devouring the entire volumes of the manhua in succession. The manhua version really is a page-turner, with fighting-while-sitting between Linghu Chong and Tian Boguang and Lin family’s unfortunate demise being displayed in turn. It’s easy to catch up and the reader can easily get the idea of the fate that will later get the main characters finally meet.

And Lee goes on using the same style, but mostly he keeps his work faithful to, or at least in line with, the original storyline. But even though Lee seems to mix his own way of story introduction with the narrative Jin Yong has already set up, the entire plot doesn’t fail. It is so engaging and nice to follow and makes sense. I think Lee knows that this way, his manhua will be more effective in delivering the story yet at the same time doesn’t lose its charm as comic books.

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However, the enjoyable narrative is not accompanied by enjoyable pictures. It’s such a shame because it is a manhua, a.k.a comic books, where what readers enjoy most are the pictures. For one thing, the characters’ depictions here are not consistent. At times they look just as they should be, but at other times they look older, too much older to be in line with how they are portrayed in the book. Especially, much to my disappointment, the character images of Ren Yingying, our female lead. Lee actually has drawn her very well and beautifully, but in some parts she often looks much, much older. She’s supposed to be 17 or 18, isn’t she? And she is known to have a very long hair, so why so short? This is also the case with Linghu Chong’s portrayal, but the inconsistency is pretty less in number.

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In general, frankly speaking, the characters’ pictures are quite good and pretty well done. They look so “classic”, unlike those drawings Tony Wong did. I can say I like Lee’s style of manhua. But, once again, the drawing here seems to be the biggest shortcoming of the entire 26 volumes. Besides the inconsistency, it also has a problem with how Lee represents the fighting scenes. Some look nice, some look just okay, and some look very confusing. Sometimes I couldn’t catch up with the sword movements and where they are pointed to, and that’s a very big problem to me. What’s the point of reading a martial arts manhua when you cannot enjoy the martial arts?

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So overall, this manhua version of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu is more appealing in terms of narrative, but not quite in terms of drawing. It just didn’t really live up to my expectation. Not completely disappointing, but I think it should have been better artistically.

Rating: 3.5/5