The Heavenly Sword and Dragon Saber

Reviewed by: Joie

November 26, 2006

Rating: four-point-five

The third and final part of Jin Yong's Condor trilogy, "Heavenly Sword Dragon Saber" (HSDS), also known as "Yi Tian Tu Long Ji", is a story like no other. The series mainly revolves around the protagonist, Zhang Wuji, a man who goes from being an orphan to a leader with four romances. Of course, the story is also about two weapons - the Yi Tian Jian (Heavenly Sword) and Tu Long Dao (Dragon Saber), which turn out to influence the plot tremendously. Produced in 2003, this is Mainland China's first attempt to film an adaptation for this well-known wuxia story.

Alec Su as Zhang Wuji/Zhang Cuishan
Alyssa Chia as Zhao Min
Gao Yuanyuan as Zhou Zhiruo
Zhang Guoli as Cheng Kun
Zhang Tielin as Yang Xiao
Tao Hong as Ji Xiaofu
Xu Jinhong as Xie Xun
Chen Xiuli as Xiao Zhao
Chen Shasha as Zhu Er
Guo Feili as Yin Susu
Shi Xiaolong as Young Wuji

Like many of Jin Yong's novels, such as "Legend of the Condor Heroes", HSDS does not start with the main characters themselves, but their parents. Zhang Cuishan (Alec Su) is a respected and righteous Wu Dang disciple. His sifu is the remarkable Zhang Sanfeng. In an encounter, he saves the life of Yin Susu (Phyllis Quek a.k.a Guo Feili), the daughter of the Heaven Eagle Sect, which Wu Dang is against. Yin Susu is trying to steal the Tu Long Dao from Cuishan's fellow disciple. In Cuishan's attempt to find Susu, they are both kidnapped by Xie Xun (Xu Jinhong), a notorious member of the Ming Sect. When the waves grow rough, the three of them end up on Bing Huo Dao (Ice and Fire Island). Although Cuishan and Susu feel angst towards each other initially, they both later soften up and begin to fall in love. Realizing they are the only two on the island besides Xie Xun, the two get married and have a child. When their child is born, Xie Xun is suddenly compassionate and names the child Zhang Wuji, based on the name he gave his own child, who died at the hands of Cheng Kun (Zhang Guoli).

A decade or so passes with all of them living in Bing Huo Dao. Wuji learns martial arts from Xie Xun, his godfather. One day, the tides finally change. Cuishan, Susu, and their son Wuji sail for mainland, while Xie Xun remains on the island. Once they arrive, they are all interrogated by people looking for the whereabouts of Xie Xun. Because of this, Cuishan and Susu are both forced to commit suicide. Before she dies, Susu tells Wuji never to trust beautiful women. Meanwhile, Wuji is left with a fatal sickness caused by Cheng Kun.

After Cuishan and Susu's death, Zhang Sanfeng decides to let Wuji go to visit Doctor Hu, who is a brilliant doctor but does not treat patients who are not part of the Ming Sect. Wuji manages to impress Doctor Hu with his intelligence, however. After some arguments, the two actually develop a strong relationship, and Wuji's health improves. Unfortunately, Doctor Hu and his wife are later forced to flee. Although Wuji thought there was no more hope for his life, but manages to find the 9 Yang manual. After learning the entire manual, Wuji is healthy again and his martial arts ability is extremely high.

The adult Wuji (Alec Su again), through a series of events, manages to become the leader of the Ming Sect. He has romances with four girls - Zhao Min (Alyssa Chia), a Mongolian princess; Zhou Zhiruo (Gao Yuanyuan), the daughter of a fisherman Wuji met at birth, as well as a member of the Emei Sect; Zhu Er/Yin Li (Chen Shasha), a moody but compassionate girl who is actually his cousin; and finally Xiao Zhao (Florence Tan a.k.a Chen Xiuli), a girl from Persia who takes care of him. Initially, he likes Zhou Zhiruo, but he later feels a deeper attraction to Zhao Min. Meanwhile, everyone's search for the Yi Tian Jian and Tu Long Dao causes an unexpected twist and turn of events...

Rating: 4.5/5
I am a true fan of Jinyong's works. I never expected myself to be a huge wuxia fan, having spent hours watching Korean soaps. However, Jinyong's writing really grew on me. The plot for HSDS is, in my opinion, unbelievably good. Suspense might not be the key element, but the plot is filled with action. Every event adds some sort of significance and eventually leads to the climax. I love how this plot really shows what ambition can do to people.

The depiction of villains in this series is also quite remarkable. Unlike the cliche villains that are just evil for the sake of being evil, the villains in this story have a reason they became evil. Cheng Kun, the lead antagonist, only became evil after personal struggles with the woman he loved. Meanwhile, Zhiruo's many wicked doings are because she was forced by her sifu. Additionally, Zhiruo's transformation to evil occurs after Zhang Wuji leaves her at their wedding. Song Qingshu causes many problems as well, but he is simply too blinded by his love by Zhiruo. I really do love the way the plot manages to soften all the more evil characters in this series.

Another point I admire about Jinyong's writing is the romance he incorporates. This adaptation keeps that special romance. When I first heard about how in the series, Zhang Wuji would end up choosing Zhao Min over Zhou Zhiruo, I thought that while watching the series, I would sympathize and prefer Zhou Zhiruo. Having always rooted for the underdog, I was surprised how much I supported the Zhang Wuji and Zhao Min relationship. The script and plot made Zhou Zhiruo a more sympathetic and pitiful character than in the past, yet the scenes between Zhang Wuji and Zhao Min kept me rooting for them. There were some superb Zhao Min and Zhang Wuji scenes.

My only criticism for the plot in HSDS would be that it starts off a little slow. The part where Wuji learns medicine from Doctor Hu is not that essential to the plot, yet it drags on for a long time. The first third of the series does drag a little, but the majority of it is action-packed and addictive.

Overall, I felt the performances from the actors and actresses in this series were impeccable. Most of them fit their roles perfectly, except for a couple of miscasts. I could really not think of better casting choices for the leads - Zhang Wuji, Zhao Min, and Zhou Zhiruo.

Alec Su Youpeng as Zhang Wuji/Zhang Cuishan
Rating: For Zhang Cuishan - 3/5, Zhang Wuji - 5/5
There are not many points to criticize about the casting in this series, but I felt one mistake was having Alec Su play both Zhang Wuji and Wuji's father, Zhang Cuishan. I am not a huge fan of when sons and fathers look exactly alike - after all, what happened to the other half of the genes? In addition to that, Alec seemed to lack the maturity that Cuishan possessed. The crying and bawling was not very suitable. Zhang Cuishan seemed overly naive.

However, as many reviewers have agreed, Alec is definitely excellent as Zhang Wuji. I was rather surprised at this, after seeing him act as Zhang Cuishan. I had a previous perception that Alec would look awkward as a wuxia hero. But, Alec manages to really bring out the xia in Wuji. His acting during the scene at Ming Peak is phenomenal - Alec depicts everything Zhang Wuji stands for: peace, righteousness, and forgiveness. Additionally, Alec brings out that naivety in Zhang Wuji, who is sometimes overly nice and thus becomes subject to harm. There is not much I can criticize about Alec as Zhang Wuji - his acting definitely does the job here. Although I still do not picture Alec as a wuxia hero, Alec looks somewhat scholarly and has that forgiving and kind look in his eyes. Finally, Alec has amazing chemistry with all four of his female leads. However, his chemistry is the best with Alyssa Chia, which fits the fact that Zhang Wuji and Zhao Min end up together.

Alyssa Chia (Jia Jingwen) as Zhao Min
Rating: 4.5/5
Besides being incredibly cute and pretty, Alyssa does relatively well in portraying the Mongolian princess. Her ability to portray the cunning, playful, and sincere Zhao Min is wonderful. I felt Alyssa had the perfect look for Zhao Min - she is obviously cute, but also has some sharp features that show the cunning in Zhao Min. Additionally, Alyssa's cuteness made Zhao Min an even more lovable character, with her adorable smile. It is really impossible to hate Zhao Min, even at the beginning when she is rather ruthless. Alyssa's crying in many scenes is heartbreaking. Meanwhile, her smile really lights up the screen. No wonder Zhang Wuji fell head over heels for Zhao Min. She does an impeccable job in the scene where Zhang Wuji accuses her of killing Zhu Er (which she did not do), and Zhao Min retaliates by saying, "Did you know that for you, I almost died?", and continues with all the sacrifices she made for him. That scene caused the tears to start flowing. My main criticism for Alyssa, however, would be that she can be overly cute. Sometimes she is not serious enough for Zhao Min, and being too cute takes away from the character's ruthlessness. Nevertheless, her chemistry with Alec make up for it completely.

Gao Yuanyuan as Zhou Zhiruo
Rating: 4/5
The gentle-turned-evil Zhou Zhiruo is one of the most complex and mysterious characters in HSDS. Gao Yuanyuan definitely impressed me with her performance as Zhou Zhiruo. She brought out a more pitiful side to Zhiruo that made the character more sympathetic, when in reality, Zhiruo was pretty awful at times. At the beginning, Gao Yuanyuan tries hard to make Zhiruo a very gentle and kind girl. I never really bought into that Zhiruo, possibly because of Gao Yuanyuan, but probably because I knew Zhiruo would end up turning evil. Gao Yuanyuan shows some versatility in her ability to transform to evil. I actually thought her evil and jealous scenes were better than the ones in the beginning where she was nice! Her acting is quite good, and towards the end, when she is dressed simply with her hair down, it feels convincing that Zhiruo is herself again. However, I felt the transition from good to evil could have been less abrupt. Also, I still think Gao Yuanyuan looked a little too evil to be Zhiruo in the beginning of the series.

Zhang Guoli as Cheng Kun
Rating: 4.5/5
The best thing about Zhang Guoli's portrayal of the lead antagonist is that he does not look evil at all. At the same time, Cheng Kun is not completely evil, but just turned evil due to circumstances. Zhang Guoli's acting is convincing whether Cheng Kun is being manipulative and ruthless, or more emotional.

Zhang Tielin as Yang Xiao
Rating: 3.5/5
I like Zhang Tielin as an actor and was quite pleased with his performance as Emperor Qianlong in "Huan Zhu Ge Ge". However, I still cannot picture him as Yang Xiao. He does not look active enough to portray someone with relatively good martial arts ability, and he is a bit old for the role. Nevertheless, I thought he had good chemistry with the Ji Xiaofu and did well in those scenes. In some scenes with Yang Buhui, however, I felt he could have shown more emotion and made the father-daughter relationship more realistic.

Chen Xiuli as Xiao Zhao
Rating: 4/5
Although Chen Xiuli is not beautiful enough to play Xiao Zhao, her acting is realistic. She really emphasizes the fact that she is faithful and willing to do anything for Wuji. Her chemistry with Alec Su was not as good as Alyssa, but the scene when Xiao Zhao and Wuji separate is heartbreaking nevertheless. A relatively good performance by Chen Xiuli (also known as Florence Tan).

Chen Shasha as Zhu Er
Rating: 5/5
Chen Shasha was a pretty Zhu Er who really brought out Zhu Er's personality. At the beginning, she had the perfect amount of moodiness, a result of Zhu Er's painful past. The scenes when she recalls Wuji biting her are heartbreaking, as well as when she reconciles with her father.

Most of the other performances were pleasing as well. Xu Jinhong as Xie Xun was quite brilliant - he showed the angst and insecurity Xie Xun had, but emphasized his good nature. The actor who played Zhang Sanfeng was excellent as well and brought out Zhang Sanfeng's mediating, understanding, and reasonable persona. Guo Feili, the actress who played Yin Susu, did a wonderful job as well. She was very motherly towards the young Wuji. However, I only wished she could have had a little more chemistry with Alec Su's Zhang Cuishan. The only major complaint I have is the actor who played the young Wuji. Wuji is only supposed to be around 10, and while Wuji was a large person, the actor looks to be in his late teens. Also, he did not look quite clever enough to be Wuji. His acting was not bad though, and he didn't have much screen time.

HSDS 2003's strengths come with its impeccable acting and storyline. I particularly liked how Zhiruo became a much more sympathetic and pitiful character in this adaptation, although I support the relationship between Zhang Wuji and Zhao Min. The series would have been perfect, but some of the effects were not suitable for this series. Nevertheless, effects and cinematography are the result of big budgets and highly-priced equipment, while the acting was priceless. Although this series was not perfect, it was definitely worth watching. Not a bad adaptation at all - in fact, a rather good one.

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