Sword Snow Stride (2021-22) First Impressions
Although I often lament at the lack of genuinely decent wuxia dramas in the privacy of my humble study, it is something of a consolation to note that they do get made from time to time even if it’s the eleventh screen adaptation of a Jing Yong novel. While it certainly doesn’t hurt that a versatile actor like Zhang Ruoyun with a good track record lends his name and his efforts to a project, it’s no guarantee of any kind of artistic merit. Fortunately for those of us who love the genre, this is a quality production. The comparisons with Joy of Life are inevitable not just because it is another of Zhang Ruoyun’s recent foray into the genre prior to the release of this, but because Sword Snow Stride plays the same kinds of narrative games that its predecessor did. For the most part it is an amusing exercise watching beloved wuxia tropes come to life only to be gently poked fun of and sometimes perhaps even subverted to make a point.
There’s a lot to like about Sword Snow Stride — the English title is an alliterative nightmare that looks good on paper but is in actual fact a troublesome tongue twister to guaranteed to tangle the tongue. First, in this fictional landscape there’s a good-hearted, clever male lead, a seeming gentleman of leisure who has no appetite for martial arts and is satisfied (at first) with relying on his wits to get by. The early phase of this show is clearly to get him to accept his birthright and get off his proverbial rear end to take over the family business. Which is… to maintain hard earned peace in the land. It’s a job he would rather not have to take on although it doesn’t take long for the outsider to see that he obviously has the brains to play the long game. “Everyone should be able to live the sort of life they want” is the anachronistic mantra he parrots in order to rationalize his slothful ways. It’s a bit of luxury thinking that only the heir of a warlord can indulge in. For a while at least. It’s true enough that he never asked to be his father’s son but who does? I imagine that this is the start to the journey of a reluctant hero who has heard the call many a time but have only just heeded it because it is finally dawned on him that if he wants to protect the people he truly cares about, sitting around the family home fishing in the family lake chomping on seasonal fruits won’t cut it. Like his antecessor Spider Man, heaven has graced him with abilities that is undoubtedly meant for much bigger and dangerous things.
Zhang Ruoyun, as one might expect, is very good in the role because he strikes the right balance with the character quirks of Xu Fengnian with his vulnerabilities and eccentric cunning. Clearly he enjoys inhabiting the character’s headspace and his world while he grows into the role that Fengnian was born to assume. Destiny awaits the young heir and the journey is guaranteed to be a long arduous one.
As the show progresses it becomes clear that the Xu family is not your garden variety privilege-people-who-live-next-door. Xu Xiao (Hu Jun) the patriarch is a great restless mind taking cover behind a crazy-uncle indulgent-dad facade. At other times he even dons the machiavellian persona when it suits. However, there’s no doubting his ability to see the big picture and scheme like the Boss. Aside from third child Fengnian, his progeny are all gifted in their own way. The youngest Xu Longxiang was born with superhuman strength and the second daughter is a shrewish prodigy studying at the prestigious Shangyin Academy.
It is the duty of the Xu family to watch over territory of Beiliang but there are many in the upper echelons of that world who are uncomfortable with the amount of power they hold. There’s plenty for the civic minded clan to do while fending off assassination attempts on Fengnian’s life and playing court politics on the side. It’s often dirty business but somebody has to do it so that there’s lasting peace in the land.
Admittedly the show starts off slowly (it really plods for the first 12 to 15 episodes) and it is talky. Very talky. There are long stretches of dialogue, loads of exposition and I’m often left wondering how much of it is necessary in the scheme of things. But clearly I have a preference for “show” over “tell”. To be frank, I didn’t find the earlier episodes impressive but the potential was always there with the massive ensemble of characters that come with distinct calling cards. Like many of his counterparts in traditional wuxia narrative, Fengnian has many teachers which he meets throughout his odyssey and is accompanied by a harem of sorts. In those first two or three episodes my brain reached for Chu Liu Xiang but really it’s a harem with almost no romance attached. There’s a possibility however, of romance with the one lass in this troupe but I’m surprisingly blase about its prospects.
12 episodes later, I feel that my patience has finally paid off and each episode is much more interesting than the next especially when Fengnian reluctantly acknowledges that he might actually have the motivation to be the leader that everyone already knows he’s capable of being. The best thing about this show is the main political players who are bright bearded fellows playing a rough game of chess. There’s plenty of scope for backstabbing, plotting and triangulating that goes all the way to the top. For those delightful enticements I’m hogging a front row seat cheering on the Xu family as they navigate the viper’s nest.
I have mixed feelings about this show - but to avoid spoilers, I will not elaborate here since you haven't finished watching yet. To be short, I feel the show did not meet my expectations and did not deliver as much as the cast would be able to offer. A lot of it has to do with the pace of storytelling.
However, one aspect I do like, and that can be said about all wuxia genre, is the rather tragic undertone of the protagonist. On the one hand, Fengnian is resentful towards the fact that he cannot just live a simple life and people around him (like his siblings) have to sacrifice their lives for him; on the other hand, he has the whole world in his heart - he is destined to "protect" the normal people from unnecessary conflicts and wars. I guess this is what makes him an interesting character.
I also think the writer did a great job to portrait a complicated character like Fengnian, and the so called jia guo qing huai 家国情怀 (noble pursuit for the good of the whole country/world) embedded in the story is what I think is the trademark of Chinese wuxia drama.
By the way, in case you don't know yet, the writer of this show is the same as the one of Joy of Life. :-)