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Side Story of Fox Volant (2022) Episodes 15-22
Throughout his exploits Hu Fei (Qin Junjie) reminds me of two other Jin Yong male protagonists — Guo Jing from Legend of the Condor Heroes and Zhang Wuji from Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre. He has their best qualities as well as their worst. In fact he comes across as something of a composite between the two. A naive good-hearted orphan with righteous fervour burning in his belly with an unerring propensity to be a busybody. His default position is to believe the best about others which see him necessarily falling into obvious traps laid down by unscrupulous types. Moreover he is reckless about picking fights and he just can’t help himself. Luckily for him it’s also part of the charm. The humility and guilelessness is a breath of fresh air to the young ladies of his acquaintance who are often far more astute and prudent than he is. Hu Fei is a rarity in jianghu (what you see is what you get) and is instantly likeable. He walks the talk. Moreover his lady friends are happy to do the thinking on his behalf while he does the heavy lifting. Yuan Ziyi (Liang Jie) who has sworn oaths to enter the nunnery is one and Cheng Lingsu (Xing Fei), a poison expert is the other.
The hero’s journey which Hu Fei embarks on is typical of many Jin Yong male protagonists. He is left to his own devices at some point, becomes a wandering apprentice with no master although every master he meets becomes his teacher. Because of his early experiences as the underdog, he has an irrepressible impulse to stand up to bullies and for the oppressed. Moreover he has been indoctrinated to avenge his parents from his youth and Miao Renfeng (Lin Yushen) has been fingered as the culprit behind their deaths. When he finally comes face to face with the alleged murderer of his parents, he is gripped with misgivings and indecision. The real Miao Renfeng is hardly the monster that others have made him out to be especially when his loyalty to the Hu family seems undeniably steadfast. If Miao Renfang didn’t murder his parents, then who did? It’s the question that keeps him restless, a surefire way of ensuring that he embarks on more adventures. Happenings in jianghu are seldom what they seem.
A hero’s journey of course assumes that there’s a hero at the centre of the narrative. Or at the very least there’s one in the making. Hu Fei is a diamond in the rough and as he travels through the minefield that is jianghu he inevitably makes both friends and foes. Ruffling feathers inexorably leads to lines being drawn in the sand. Fox Volant is also a coming of age story for a young man who has had to fend for himself without proper guidance. Apart from having to deal with the politics of the martial arts world, he is discovering girls for the first time apparently. The one he likes is bound for a life of celibacy and the one that he’s friendzoned would be happy to give him babies tomorrow if she could. There’s nothing immediately striking about Hu Fei in appearance. He is just some guy who happens to have a bent for martial arts. What stands out about him is his courageous impulse to uphold justice… and a nobility formed from self-deprecating good humour and goodwill.
Every hero or so I’ve been told is only as good as his adversaries. In Hu Fei’s case, without them, he is unable to upskill. Miao Renfeng, on the other hand, isn’t one of them it seems but their inevitable confrontation about the past boasts what’s arguably the show’s best action set piece. Miao Renfeng eggs Hu Fei on and an almighty battle of steel ensues where the former challenges the latter to take on his father’s mantle. Almost as spectacular is the fight on the ship between Hu Fei and Master Yi where there’s plenty of destruction to ensure that Master Yi can go nowhere in the aftermath. Then there’s also the wonderful hand to hand combat with the Taiji sect usurper. (Reminded me a little of the old Taiji Master movie starring Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh) Nevertheless, truth be told, picking the best fight scenes in this show is like trying to decide which child is your favourite.
Tian Guinong (Peter Ho) is shaping up to be as detestable as he is portly. He is not only precariously egotistical but gaslights with impunity. His bravado hides an overly sensitive nature about his mediocrity. In other words, he is a man whose talents are not equal to his ambition but he has just enough cunning to be dangerous. It's bad enough that he snatches another man's wife and impregnates her in record time but he's somehow managed to spin the entire story to make himself the victim in all of this. His jealousy of Miao Renfeng gives him enough justification for indulging in self-pity. He is the most tiresome kind of villain because he has a nasty habit of blaming someone else for the negative consequences of his actions and is eager to take credit when things go his way. He says that he does things for Nan Lan but really it’s all part of the preening. Rationale to act against Miao Renfeng. Not once does he show remorse for splitting up a family but conveniently blames Miao Renfeng for Nan Lan’s miscarriage brought on by her own choices.
Of late Nan Lan (Maggie Huang) seems to be suffering buyers remorse. She laboured under the illusion that she could have her cake and eat it too but she didn’t expect Miao Renfeng to take their daughter away from her. She also mistakenly believed that Tian Guinong was an upgrade in household furniture but it turns out that he’s just a man after all — with ambition and an agenda. He’s not someone to sit still and be content with just being somebody’s husband. Just like Miao Renfeng had things he had to do, Tian Guinong desperately wants to be the top dog in jianghu no less.
A union born out of deception is shrouded in far more unspoken expectations. Which will come back to bite if it hasn’t already. Tian Guinong depicted himself as her saviour and of course the service rendered hasn’t been as advertised past the initial gloss of being a shiny new thing. Instead this new marital arrangement has compounded her feelings of isolation and misery, not lessened it. Tian Guinong is a used car salesman who manages to sell lemons because he knows how to say what people want to hear. He is nauseatingly obsequious. In recent days he’s certainly struck the jackpot with Fu Kang (one of the emperor’s right hand men) and the man on the throne but the lady of the house isn’t the slightest bit impressed. Why would she be? She didn’t ride off with Miao Renfeng for his fame or fortune in the first place.
It has come to Emperor Qianlong’s attention that the Red Flowers Society are on the move again thanks to information provided by a certain Tian Guinong who is proving to be something of nuisance even to like-minded people. There will be many who would love to see him fall. Of course no emperor can stand for conspiracies in his realm lest they pose a threat to his authority but he’s allowed to start his own which is what the World’s Greatest Sects gathering is really about. It isn’t as if he needs a lot of help in that department either because the martial arts community is a divided lot. The show features plenty of inter as well as intra sect disputes. Some wish to remain independent of the throne while others are only too eager to rely on the imperial government to make a name for themselves. The rift already exists and the emperor can insist that he is only doing his bit to ensure that there’s peace in the land by getting rid of troublemaking rabble rousers.
It seems such a shame that this show isn’t as widely watched as it should be. I enjoy it almost as much as I enjoyed Love Like the Galaxy. I can’t imagine something like this would be easy to adapt with such an extensive dramatis personae. The cinematography is comparable and the outdoor locations shoots are just stunning. Of course the martial arts choreography is the crowning achievement of this production (the martial arts is gorgeously expansive and fantastically woven into the larger narrative) but that doesn’t take away from the competent cast and the interesting parade of characters that come and go in this story. As with all C dramas the burning question boils down to whether the quality can be maintained to the end. One can only hope with baited breath. Even if the middle act continues at a good pace, the final act can quite easily be a complete let down as most of us know full well.