Tian Long Ba Bu
Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils
(Heaven Dragon Eighth Episode)
Xiao Feng - Hu Jun
Duan Yu - Jimmy Lin
Xu Zhu - Gao Hu
Wang Yuyan - Liu Yifei
Mu Wanqing - Jiang Xin
Ah Zhu - Liu Tao
Ah Zi - Chen Hao
Duan Yanqing - Xu Qunhua
Tianshan Tonglao - Shu Chang
Li Qiushui - Xie Yuxin
Murong Fu - Xiu Qing
Jiu Mozhi - Ba Yin
It is the Northern Song Dynasty, and China is faced with threats from various countries. The Dali kingdom to the southwest is friendly, but the Liao empire to the north and the Xi Xia empire to the west threaten military incursions. With a weak government and a corrupt army, the defense of China lies mainly with the warriors of the martial arts world, led by the Beggar Clan and their powerful leader Qiao Feng, who is the first of the three main characters. Due to internal plotting within the Beggar Clan, Qiao is revealed to be a Liao by birth (with an original name Xiao Feng), and only raised as a Chinese, and that is enough to have him removed from leadership and cast out.
The second main character, Dali prince Duan Yu, having by chance learned the "Six Divine Meridian Swords" martial arts, is kidnapped by the martial arts fanatic Jiu Mozhi and dragged to China in order to reveal the secrets of the art. Along the way, he meets several friends - Wang Yuyan, the beautiful martial arts "encyclopedia" who knows virtually everything there is to know about martial arts without having actually practiced any of it - and two maids, including the talented Ah Zhu who is a master of disguise. Duan has an infatuation for Wang, even though Wang only has feelings for her cousin Murong Fu. Nevertheless, Duan follows her around like a groupie genuinely concerned for her safety and happiness.
The final main character, Xu Zhu, is a kind-hearted monk from Shaolin who, through some good luck and some help from Duan Yanqing (a notorious villain who nevertheless felt obliged to repay Xu Zhu's kindness), received 70 years worth of inner power from a dying old man from an old near-extinct Carefree sect. Xu Zhu then proceeds to get entangled in the history of the sect, resolving the differences of the older generation and unifying the remnants of the sect which had split into the Sacred Vulture and Cosmos sects.
Along their journeys, Xiao Feng, Duan Yu and Xu Zhu meet each other and through sheer respect for each other's honest and straightforward character, swear brotherhood. This brotherhood is tested when Xiao Feng is persecuted by the martial arts world, and the three brothers emerge victorious. Xiao Feng's tale is tragic as he loses his wife, but Duan Yu's perseverance with Wang Yuyan pays off, while fate deals Xu Zhu a kind hand when he manages to reunite with his lover who he had never seen before. They also fight with adversaries like Duan Yanqing, Murong Fu, You Tanzhi, Ding Chunqiu and other less powerful (but no less dangerous) villains such as the Beggar Clan's Quan Guanqing and the amorous Kang Min. In the end, Xiao is caught between loyalty to his own people and his love for those who raised him, and commits suicide in penance after blackmailing the Liao king to call off his invasion of China. Duan Yu becomes king of Dali while Xu Zhu remains leader of the Carefree sect and becomes son-in-law of the Xi Xia royal family, thus ensuring that China remains safe from its three neighbours.
Hu Jun was a very imposing Xiao Feng. With his broad frame (or maybe it was just padding under his clothing) he looked robust, rugged, and battle-worn. Add to that a loud roaring voice and you have a very scary adversary. Xiao Feng's main martial arts were the "Eighteen Dragon Subduing Palms" which used a lot of dragon roars and growls (which I assume are computer simulated, as I don't know what a dragon really sounds like) during his fighting, and that was integrated quite well with his shouting and glaring. It was almost as if he was a dragon, and he was the one making all those noises. It was a bit of a gimmick, but it worked well, mainly because it wasn't overused. Xiao Feng steals the scene whenever he appears and is the undisputed hero of the story.
The scholarly Duan Yu starts off likeable, overly friendly and pacifistic, and manages to carry his happy-go-lucky view of life throughout the tale. There were times when he was devastated and sad, but by and large he was always chirpy. Accidentally learning the "Northern Darkness" and "Ripple Treading Steps" skills, Duan Yu starts off as a harmless lad who can move really fast and leech your energy if you weren't careful, but after learning the "Six Divine Meridian Swords" he slowly developed into a reliable fighter and when he finally managed to control the swords, he became one of the most powerful characters in the story. Jimmy Lin's portrayal was very casual, and at certain times he looked a bit of a creep when around Wang Yuyan, but that's probably because that's what the character is like. It was quite an enjoyable performance, as even though Jimmy isn't the best of actors the role suited him (I mean the "casual, friendly, likeable" part, not the "creep" part).
Gao Hu is very tall, and this made Xu Zhu look rather sloppy and hunched at times, but the way the character was portrayed made him my favourite of the three main characters. Xu Zhu's naive, compassionate and ... slow.. nature were captured perfectly by Gao Hu. Everything from his episodes with Tianshan Tonglao and Li Qiushui, to his gradual acceptance of himself as the leader of an army of beautiful women, to his romance with an unknown girl in the dark... he just seemed so helpless, and it was great fun. Unlike Duan Yu who was resourceful and witty, Xu Zhu was just this lumbering piece of martial arts energy who followed orders as long as they weren't evil, and the childlike innocence with which he befriended the vicious Tianshan Tonglao was wonderful.
A lot of people have said that Liu Yifei can't act, but having seen her portrayal of Wang Yuyan, it's probably more due to the character not having much... character... in the first place. It is made worse in many scenes with bad quality-control editing (I'll get on to that later) but Liu portrays the ladylike, intelligent, naive and childlike qualities of Wang Yuyan very well. She's also very beautiful with sad eyes which nevertheless are able to lend themselves to a slight sparkle when she's in control (normally when talking about somebody's martial arts weaknesses). She also has this naive girly voice which suits the role fine. I didn't find that much to complain about her at all, and in fact I did enjoy her performance a lot.
Ah Zhu is a maid of Murong Fu, a powerful fighter in the martial arts world, and she falls for Xiao Feng after seeing him in action. She is devoted to Xiao, helps him uncover the secret behind the crimes he is framed for, and sadly dies when they are tricked by Kang Min. Liu Tao is energetic, witty, charming and down-to-earth, making Ah Zhu a very likeable character who you really feel for (as opposed to Wang Yuyan, who you can understand but who you really can't see yourself doing the stuff she does, or saying the stuff she says). Liu Tao has a nice sparkle in her eyes, and she looks very intelligent, yet she manages to look completely helpless and sad when the need arises. She looked a bit too happy when she died, but apart from that scene the rest of it was top class.
Of all the adaptations of Tian Long Ba Bu I have watched, this is the only one in which I felt sad when Ah Zi died. Chen Hao took the horrid monster that was Ah Zi and made her more human. She was still a monster, but one you could feel for, one you could understand, and at certain points, one you could actually root for. It helped that Chen Hao was also the most beautiful Ah Zi ever, but she had this softness, this gentleness and this good side which toned down the hate-factor of the character significantly. Ah Zi's love and passion for Xiao Feng was obsessive and selfish, but at times it looked genuine, mature, and tragic. This created a more realistic and believable character, and of course, a more likeable (but nevertheless, on the whole rather dislikeable) one as well.
Not as major a character as the others listed above, Mu Wanqing is nevertheless one who keeps you thinking about her. The first girl who Duan Yu actually has romantic feelings for, she is cold, calm, deadly, merciless, veiled and dressed in black - totally attractive. Jiang Xin is also very beautiful and this class shows in the first few episodes when she's the female lead. She's younger than the other Mu Wanqings I have seen and her almost innocent way of speaking makes her look more vulnerable than I expected that character to be, and it worked in her favour. I could almost wish that the story would end at the beginning when Duan Yu and Mu were together heading home, and just make them a happy couple as she was so likeable. Sadly, her screentime gets less and less as the story progresses (which is expected given the sheer number of main casts in this story) but as and when she appears her charm and charisma still don't fail to captivate (even when her role in that scene is small) and I'll take for granted that she at least gets a share of the man she loves at the end.
There are so many other characters here who are done well. Shu Chang's Tianshan Tonglao was a top-class excellent performance from a young teenager trying to be this 96-year old woman, and she gave the character a semi-eerie feeling at the beginning. Tonglao's chemistry with Xu Zhu was excellent, and provided almost non-stop comic relief from the endless fighting and evil plotting up to then. Her arch enemy, Li Qiushui, played by Xie Yuxin, was arguably portrayed way too young (no amount of makeup could make a 90-year old woman look as stunning as that) but it worked very well - Li just oozed class and dubbing her voice with an older woman's voice made the role look very convincing. They kept blowing her hair around, which gave her a very ethereal quality about her, and as she was naturally very beautiful, this made her look goddess-like. Xu Qunhua's Duan Yanqing was absolutely incredible. While Lau Siuming in TVB's '82 serial looked scarred, ugly and ragged enough, Xu takes it one step further with a convincing leg wrapped round a crutch, deep scars over his face, and sealed lips. He basically doesn't speak, and his voice is dubbed (I think it's by the same actor, but distorted to give an echoey feel), giving a telepathic feel to his dialogue, but it is handled excellently, and the sync between his voice and his facial expressions was almost flawless.
Christy Chung's Kang Min was incredibly hot (and the hottest by far in all adaptations I've seen) but oh so eeeevil and no less despicable than the others - wonderful stuff from her as well. Murong Fu, Ding Chunqiu and Jiu Mozhi were less 3-dimensional than the other main characters (although Jiu Mozhi did have his good moments) but by and large the supporting cast were good. You Tanzhi was sufficiently pathetic, Duan Zhengchun was handsome enough to be a believable Don Juan, Bao Butong and Feng Boer were suitably brash (with Bao having some very enjoyable lines) and Plum and Bamboo Swords were oh so cute and adorable. They actually got a pair of twins (beautifully named Zhou Bingqing and Zhou Yujie) to act the two roles so that Xu Zhu is flanked by these two cute identical girls (a shame that they couldn't find quadruplets to make up Orchid and Chrysanthemmum Swords as well).
In short, casting was excellent, although I personally felt they could have fleshed out Murong Fu a lot more. He was just totally unlikeable from the start, and he's not supposed to be quite as mean as he was in this series. This is all the more unfortunate as his screentime is pretty significant.
The music was very nice, with the four subthemes beautifully sung. The love theme for Ah Zhu and Xiao Feng was particularly beautiful, but I felt they overdid it when she died. I almost got sick of hearing it during that episode! The opening theme is a powerful abstract instrumental piece which works well with the backdrop of scenes shown, but by and large probably isn't going to be a favourite of anybody in a pure music format. The background music was suitably inspiring, although they recycled quite a fair bit of music from "Guan Xi Wu Ji Dao" (Golden Sword) - I'm not sure which one came first and who plagiarised who (both are Zhang Jizhong productions anyway).
Being a China production, scenery was always going to be a strong point, and by and large the real outdoor scenes made a difference - such a difference that when they used artificial bluescreen backgrounds e.g. when they filmed the treacherous cliffs and chain bridge leading to the Sacred Vulture Palace it looked distinctly fake. Not that it was done particularly bad, but it stood out like a sore thumb due to the beauty of the other scenes.
Special effects were liberally used, but not overly so (as in they don't always appear, but when they do they are quite noticeable, especially with Xiao Feng's dragons). Xiao Feng creates dragons out of dust and water while the Duan family fire little vapour streaks from their fingers (as opposed to TVB's laser bolts). The "Matrix" effect (float, pause, camera rotates) is used a few times, but thankfully not too often. The interpretation of Duan Yu's "Ripple Treading Steps" skill borders on the ridiculous at times, but thankfully he doesn't use it that often for fighting. The CGI effects are all quite over the top in certain places, but in general it just about seems to fit in with the intepretation of how superhuman these three main leads (especially Xiao Feng) were.
Fighting choreography was fairly impressive, and relied a lot on the suddenly-fast, suddenly-slow kind of melee to show people the intricate strokes being used (and in certain cases, to allow for Wang Yuyan to narrate and anticipate the strokes). Liberal use of powder and blowing fans created a suitable atmosphere of power and force. This adaptation also showed the best rendition of the Murong clan's "Star Shifting" stance when Xiao Feng fires his Dragon Subduing palms at Murong Bo. Murong catches the blast in his cloak, swings it around a few times and lets it out behind him, shattering the shelves. So simple, yet so realistic, and so much more satisfying than the "absorbing the CGI dragon in one hand, trying to gain control of it in the torso, and redirecting it out the other hand" method so prevalent in the '97 TVB version (which was nevertheless quite a good series in its own right).
So is it really that great? Yes, and then, sadly, no. Demi Gods Semi Devils '03 (DGSD) has one really big flaw which ruins a lot of the story for me, and that is in the editing. The quality control of the story flow is so sloppy that when things go wrong they are so obvious. Things like Xiao Feng and Murong Fu sitting down on two chairs, and when the camera shifts and they've exchanged places. Or when Duan Yu is cradling his dying mother, it so obvious that the scenes when the camera was facing Duan Yu and the scenes when the camera was facing his mother were not filmed simultaneously - positions are completely different. One of the worst was when Duan Yu is having a conversation with Jiu Mozhi in the Swallow Cove. Ah Zhu (disguised as an old lady) and Ah Bi are standing just to Jiu Mozhi's right listening to the conversation, but when the camera switches to Duan Yu, Ah Zhu is standing way behind him. It's blatantly obvious from the angles that it's simply not possible, and unfortunately it's extremely noticeable.
Flow of facial expressions was also bad - you have Wang Yuyan reacting to something, and it's done well, until the camera angle changes, and she's not reacting to the thing anymore, then she looks awkward. Or those long face shots of Wang Yuyan - she's beautiful, but when the camera is focused on her face for too long she doesn't know what to do (and really, what do we expect her to do when the camera is taking a fullface shot of her for 5-10 seconds when she just reacting? Does she drag the reaction for 5 seconds, or stop reacting and look normal?).
It's good that the director took so many takes in order to ensure that things go well, but the crew have got to make sure that when you piece several different versions of a take together, you let them flow seamlessly, and DGSD 03 was as seamless as Duan Yanqing's face. It didn't happen significantly too often (although when it did it was completely obvious) but it did happen in bits a lot with many scenes. Conversations seem disjointed, and scenes feel awkward, even minor things when Ah Zhu is praising Doctor Xue, and he smiles, then the scene shifts to Xiao Feng and you see Doctor Xue in the background looking very serious all of a sudden.. that sort of thing. Just a bit more quality control and all of this could have been avoided.
Despite my complaints, the characterisation of the characters by the excellent cast makes this series a must watch. I still prefer Legend of the Condor Heroes '03, Xiao Au Jiang Hu '01, or Heavenly Sword Dragon Saber '03 over it, mainly because of the sloppy editing (which costs the rating a full star), but it's certainly a worthy addition to any wuxia fan's collection. I got the Malaysian DVD edition with English subtitles, and while some of the subtitling is sloppy (I see Malay words appearing in place of English words sometimes, and spelling is .. about 90% there only) it was rather enjoyable and added a lot to my experience (and my Mandarin). However, if your Mandarin is okay anyway, give it a shot - it's an enjoyable romp, and will certainly give you many scenes and characters that will linger in your mind and change the way you view them forever.