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PostPosted: Thu Aug 11, 2005 6:24 pm    Post subject: My HSDS review

The last novel of Jin Yong's Condor Heroes trilogy, The Heavenly Sword and the Dragon Sabre (HSDS) is also the most frequently adapted. There have been five television adaptations of the story, not to mention the movie version starring Jet Li. Like many people, my favourite is the 1986 HK-TVB version, although I think the latest China-Taiwan version does not fare too bad as well. Since the 2002 version is the only other version I saw after the 1986 version, it will be the only version I use for comparison in this review.

There is no need to go into details here--you can read the complete storyline on websites about Jin Yong's novels. The story basically tells the life of Zhang Wuji, an outstanding young hero who will later solve longtime misunderstandings between so-called Righteous and Evil (Ming) sects and unite them in a revolution against Mongolian conquest. His father Zhang Cuisan is the fifth and most talented hero of the famous seven Wudang heroes, while his mother Yin Susu is the daughter of White-brow Eagle, a former member of Ming Sect who established his own sect. When Wuji's parents are stranded in an island with another famed Ming sect member Golden maned-lion Xie Xun, they become sworn brothers, and Xie Xun takes Wuji as his godson. Their relationships are so close that Cuisan and Susu chose to commit suicide when pushed by the Righteous sects to reveal Xie Xun's hiding place. Wuji, who is now an orphan, has to undergo a lot of sufferings before he accidentally finds martial arts skills that not only rescue him from premature death, but also turn him into Ming-sect leader and the hero of the martial arts world.

With a superb cast and a complex, yet cohesive storyline, this adaptation manages to stay faithful to the novel's complexity and spirit without falling into the trap of becoming a superficial rendition of the book. Most of the book's plot and dialogue are retained, complemented and intensified by some interesting additional subplots that smoothly integrate to the main story. Some examples are Song Qing Shu's first encounter with Zhou Zhiruo, which is explored deeper than in the novel and thus intensifies his later jealousy of Zhang Wuji, and the confusion in Wudang when Wuji is reported missing, which shows their deep concerns about him. Yet this version is wise enough to keep viewers wondering about certain things until the end of the show, such as how Xie Xun falls into the hands of Shaolin and who has killed In Lee and stolen the Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. In the 2002 version these events are revealed as they happen, which rob the story of its suspense and surprises, and even prolonged with irrelevant additional scenes such as Zhao Min's imprisonment by her father and her painstaking attempts to escape.

I have to agree with another reviewer on this site who said that all characters in the 1986 version, even the minor ones, are wonderfully portrayed and developed. Almost all supporting characters effortlessly look and act their roles, particularly the actors who play Yang xiao, Cheng Kun and Song YuanQiao. The version also wonderfully portray the unique characteristic of each of the Seven Wudang heroes and the emotional brotherhood ties between them, more successfully than the 2002 version. Indeed, Jin Yong once stated that HSDS is mainly about relationships between the characters: the father-son relationship between Wuji and Xie Xun, the close ties between Zhang Sanfeng and his disciples and between the seven Wudang brothers. Bao Fang is pitch-perfect as the wise and great Zhang Sanfeng, while Kenneth Tsang perfectly blend Xie Xun's wildness and lunacy with his humane and sometimes witty sides. This can be seen among all when he teased Wuji of his girlfriends and played matchmaker for him and Zhou Zhiruo--some of the many scenes in which he fared much better than his characterless successor in the 2002 version. Simon Yam and Carol Cheng are perfectly casted as the honest, heroic Zhang Cuisan and mischievous Yin Susu respectively, while other sidekicks such as the Green Bat and other Ming sect heroes also manage to project their unique characteristics in an interesting and likeable way.

Having said that, it is really the main characters who carry the show. Tony Leung Chiu-wai did an unsurpassable job in making viewers believe that he IS Zhang Wuji from the beginning to the end of the series. Some have complained that his portrayal of Zhang Wuji is understated and confused, yet those who have read the book will know that such portrayal only serves to make the character's restraint and complexity more real. Zhang Wuji of the book is not a one-dimensional fellow: he is annoyingly indecisive and inconclusive, and Leung's unassuming, subtle performance effectively portrays these and makes as if the character has just jumped out of the pages. More incredibly Leung, who was 24 at the time of production, did a splendid, smooth transition from teenage to adult Zhang Wuji without losing the character's integrity at the slightest. The transition is unnoticeable yet significantly felt: Zhang wuji evolves from a childish and playful teenager who teases Zhu Changling from inside the secret cave to an increasingly mature and wise leader and hero. This is a feat yet to be achieved by other actors.

It is important to note that Alec Su in the 2002 version did a good job as Wuji. He managed to show Wuji's affection to his godfather, his romantic feeling to his four love interests and his maturity as the Ming sect leader. He also had some memorable scenes such as when he emotionally accused Zhao Min of killing In Lee and slapped her. However, I feel that he does not show Wuji's playful side significantly enough, which is probably the fault of the script. Furthermore, there is a certain quality in Tony Leung Chiu-wai which gives the impression that he was born for the role. Perhaps his boyish good looks and reticent charm, which fit the descriptions about Wuji in the book, play a part, yet it is likely that his ability to naturally and effortlessly blend all the character's contradictory elements has a more important role. Wuji's heroism, sincerity, and playfulness as well as his annoying indecisiveness and weakness are apparent in Leung's smallest and most insignificant gestures, such as his quiet smile when he successfully deceived people who wanted to eat him, his twinkling eyes and naughty grin when teasing Zhu Changling from inside the secret cave, his soundless cry when In Lee died in his arm and his sad little nod when Zhao Min asked whether his uncles still suspected him as murderer. When he confronted Zhao Min on In Lee's death, his anger was not obvious yet clearly felt in his cold, suppressed voice and his burning eyes. Leung's total immersion in the character and his ability to portray Wuji's lighter and graver sides equally well give him an edge over other actors who had played the role.

Kitty Lai as Zhao Min may not be as mature as Alyssa Chia in the 2002 version, yet like Leung she too gives an impression that the role is custom-made for her. Again her sweet youthful look may play a part, for Zhao Min is indeed described in the novel as an extraordinary young girl, yet what is more important is her mischievousness and playfulness that represent Zhao Min's smart and impish character, which Lai did more naturally than Alyssa Chia. Her first meeting with Zhang Wuji probably does not meet some people's expectations, for Zhao Min at this stage is supposed to be a cruel enemy, yet Lai makes up for it with her wide-eyed charm and outstanding chemistry with Leung.

Sheren Tang meanwhile did a splendid job as Zhou Zhiruo. Her transition from an innocent, kindhearted girl to a restrained and finally jealous, hateful young woman is not obvious and yet noticeable. Unlike the Zhou Zhiruo in the 2002, she did not rely on mechanical facial expression such as deliberate devilish smile to express her hidden intentions. Rather, she showed it subtly and beautifully through her quiet restraints, her sometimes cold expressions and her dark, icy glances. When she returned to Emei after her failed marriage, she only undergone a slight makeup change and yet her transformation from a grieving bride to a coldblooded woman as she ascended the leadership throne is terrifying in a quiet way. It is too bad that Sheren never makes it to the big screen until only recently, as she is such a credible actress.

Finally, Maggie Siu brings just the appropriate cuteness and likeability into her role as the pretty little maid Xiao Zhao. This is helped significantly with her Persian look and unique beauty that give her an edge over the actresses in the other versions. Her loyalty and childlike affection to her master is apparent in some touching scenes and her parting scene with Wuji is both heartbreaking and memorable. The actress who played In Lee, meanwhile, did not fare as well, yet somehow still managed to draw viewers' sympathy through her unique characteristic and devotion to Zhang Wuji.

Despite these, it does not mean that this adaptation of HSDS does not have any weaknesses. The biggest disappointment is the omission and simplification of several parts, particularly the poor portrayal of the grand battle between Zhang Wuji and Righteous sect leaders on the Bright Peak and the omission of In Lee's resurrection in the end of the story. The latter is particularly disatisfying since it tends to give Zhou zhiruo a rather abrupt and easy atonement of her sins. It also gives an unfair end to In lee's character, which can be said as the most pitiful in the novel. Having said that, reading a book is different from cinematic experience, and in this case the ommission of In Lee's return is probably only appropriate for the ending. Furthermore, time and budget constraints may also be responsible for the poor depiction of several crucial scenes. Still, these omissions are unfortunate loss.

These shortcomings aside, the HK-TVB 1986 version is still the best adaptation of Jin Yong's last trilogy which does the best job in doing justice to the novel's depth and complexity. Although the book is, of course, far better, this version wins hands down over the others, and even the biggest shortcomings are not big enough to overshadow the brilliant cast and engaging storyline.
"Soon we must all face the choice between what is right...and what is easy"
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