Out of the blocks it’s disappointing for me to have to say that I have mixed feelings about this one. Expectations were high (but not excessively so) coming into it. There are things to like about it of course. The cinematography is excellent and the fight sequences are comparable or better than some of the more recent adaptations. The overall storyline has interesting features if derivative. If those were the only elements needed for a good wuxia, it would be a brilliant bit of television. Unfortunately the drama is weighed down by weak characterisation, clunky storytelling and a very mixed bag of performances. Plus the pacing is uneven… mostly unnecessarily slow. Although I’ve been made aware that it’s based off an old novel by Liang Yusheng (one of the greats among wuxia novelists), it feels like he has plundered beloved tropes from the Condor trilogy. Since I don’t know who’s at fault here — the novelist or the screenwriter, I will blame both. Last year’s Handsome Siblings, also an adaptation by another popular wuxia writer faired better despite its issues.
This story is set during late part of the Ming dynasty where the dominant pugilistic sect seems to be Wudang. With its renowned peerless martial arts, the sect is a stalwart of the country’s security. As with the world of wulin, the coveted title of No. 1 is always up for grabs. Everyone from whippersnappers to more experienced swordsmen vie for the position. It becomes a nuisance too for the champion because once you’re the best, you’re the man to beat. Dong Fangliang, an disciple of the Kunlun sect is an example of someone who makes regular challenges to the Wudang sect. It is in this context Nurhaci, an ambitious Jurchen (Manchurian) warlord becomes a formidable power player. He isn’t content merely with reunifying the five Jurchen tribes along border but he has his eye firmly fixed on Ming itself. Historically Ming is in its waning years.
Everyone is well aware of Nurhaci’s intentions as builds his forces recruiting from the best pugilists from the region and for some reason he very conveniently has a Wudang mole on his payroll. At this early stage, it’s not entirely clear what the spy’s agenda is but I’m guessing that “dominance” might be on the menu.
Into this backdrop is a young, none-too-bright, irresponsible pupil of Wudang whose parents were also Wudang pupils but died a tragic death on the night he was born. Yu Jing was adopted and became the student of the man who was involved in the death of his parents. They had eloped to the borderlands to escape an arranged-marriage organized by his paternal grandfather but life is no bed of roses there. Not for a woman with child. Trouble really starts for the entire family when Yu Jing’s father joins a martial arts tournament organized by Nurhaci. The soon-to-be dad, suddenly struck by an overabundance sense of guilt for dragging his wife to the back of beyond, is determined to use his better than average martial arts to win some respectable prize money to live on. Things however don’t always work out as planned. One ridiculous decision after another, husband and wife make a dramatic exit from the land of the living.
As a longtime fan of classic wuxia stories I was eager to pick this up because from the trailers it seemed to have all the elements of old school wulin stories. The outdoor scenes are undoubtedly impressive especially during the snow. On the surface it looks like it could have the edge of The Longest Day in Chang’an. Alas, it’s not to be. (Longest Day is a masterpiece so comparisons are probably unfair here)
Yu Jing the hero of the piece seems to be patterned after Guo Jing from The Legend of the Condor Heroes. Although mischievous he isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the box but luckily for him the girl who becomes his love interest (Qiao’er) has a bit more sense although not as conniving as Condor’s Huang Rong who is in a class all by herself. Even the death of his ill-fated parents have echoes of Heavenly Sword Dragon Slaying Sabre. The similarities are obvious to fans of the trilogy. So glaringly obvious that I’m wondering if Liang Yusheng wasn’t parodying Jin Yong, the author of the Condor series in his last novel.
After a bit of skipping around to see if this is worth wasting time over, it does seem that the show improves beginning from the halfway mark (40 episodes in total). Our silly boy who is hardly a respectable face for Wudang seems to have a growth arc worth staying for. But it really shouldn’t take this long. Whatever misgivings I may have I intend to keep watching just because good old fashioned wuxia is hard to come by.