I will not be going into great detail about the plot of the series since most if not all people who are fans of Chinese serials know the general idea of the story already. If you don’t know it though, previous reviewers of the series have done a great job of summarizing the story. I will be comparing this series to the previous versions that I have watched since most people who watch remakes watch them as fans and just to see how old stories have been updated.
The Hero: Deng Chao as Zhang Wu Ji [3.5/5]
I was always under the impression that Zhang Wu Ji was a tall, handsome, muscular fellow who had an air of affability and humbleness about him. Well, Deng Chao is a few notches below his predecessors in looks– Alec Su and Tony Leung. While both of those men did not really have the same physical presence as Deng Chao, but they had their own personal charm and both were quite handsome in their own way. Deng Chao’s Zhang Wu Ji was more aggressive than both Alec and Tony’s; I heard that this was because the director wanted a manlier version of ZWJ in contrast to the well accepted rather passive type in previous portrayals. If that’s true, then they were successful. However, it wasn’t always pleasing to behold. Deng Chao looks like he has quite a solid build, but doesn’t really outperform either Tony or Alec in the area of martial arts.
Deng Chao looks a little plain and paunchy in his costume. Neither Alec Su nor Tony Leung had this problem in their own interpretations. Deng Chao was neither as funny as Alec could be or as unassuming as Tony. Alec was just really good at being exasperated; Tony was really good at being quiet and willing to be led. In addition, both of them had great comedic timing, so good it seemed accidental since that’s the story of Zhang Wu Ji’s life…things just kind of happen to him. As far as chemistry with female co-stars, Deng Chao was only likable with Xiao Zhao, but really anyone could get along with her unless they didn’t want to purposefully. To his credit, amongst Alec, Tony, and Deng Chao, the latter seemed the most traditionally heroic. I’ve seen Deng Chao before in an emperor role where he was quite dashing and even a bit naughty. He does naughty very well, it’s subtle and there’s a glint in his eye. I found this to be an interesting aspect of Zhang Wu Ji that was well done by all the actors. After all, our hero was only a man and with four obviously equally attracted ladies. He was never anything but brotherly with Xiao Zhao and Zhu Er, as there was nothing but innocence in those two. But with Zhao Min and Zhou Zhi Ruo [at least this one], he dished out back whatever they served to him when fitting. This Zhang Wu Ji wasn’t as easily bossed around as the others; so naturally, the ladies had to be somewhat more scheming or aggressive.
The Ladies: There was this one funny scene where Wu Ji is envisioning all his love interests in their wedding outfit and the viewers get a very clear idea of how our hero views all of them. With Zhao Min, she initially smiled sweetly but then she bit him and he screamed in agony. With Zhuo Zhi Ruo, she seemed elegant at first, but then she switched on her witch face and he jumped back! With Zhu Er they smiled sadly at each other and she slowly drifted away from him. With Xiao Zhao she smiled and laughed sweetly and he returned with a chuckle and open mouthed grin. Very telling…
Ady An as Zhao Min [5/5]
This Zhao Min had the most awesome costumes and body language. She can be found in many sitting, drinking, and lounging positions inappropriate for an upper class lady; however, as a bad ass warrior princess, she carried them off very well! Ady has such an endearing face, it was a little hard to take her seriously sometimes, but she made up for it with subtle poisonous glances, arrogant smirks, and tearful raging. Ady was just mesmerizing! She looked so handsome in her Mongolian and Han male outfits too! Ady was also really smart but never too much of a showoff. She had really good team chemistry with Fan Yao and other supporting characters who were her subordinates. Ady has a natural air of cleverness that is not goody goody which is very befitting for Zhao Min. Her chemistry with Deng Chao was decent, but it seemed like she had to work much harder than the other Zhao Min’s to endear herself to this Zhang Wu Ji. I hope my memory is not failing me, but that just seemed to be true. I remember Alec Su was smitten with Alyssa Chia quite quickly; and those two had great romantic chemistry! It was not because this Zhang Wu Ji was any less in love with her than in previous versions; it’s that he was much more tight lipped about his feelings. When he did confess that he loved her, Zhao Min just burst happily into a laugh! Her explanation of such seemingly insensitive behavior, “I wanted to hear you say it out loud because it makes me happy to hear you say you love ME!” Because of course that means she’s the victorious lady here. Ady’s lively Zhao Min complemented Deng Chao’s manlier Zhang Wu Ji and the two actors played off one another’s style well for most of the series, as did their earlier counterparts
In comparison to Kitty Lai and Alyssa Chia, Ady was in a class of her own. This was a very memorable performance. Kitty Lai had cuter Mongolian outfits, but that was from the TVB Golden Era, so it’s expected. Kitty was a more serious and somewhat more subtle Zhao Min. Kitty’s Zhao Min was quite savvy and thoughtful while Alyssa was just downright cartoonish and really sensitive. Ady was more Alyssa than Kitty, but much more believable as a fearless leader in her own right. When Alyssa did bad things, it seemed capricious like she just felt like being mean. With Ady, she was like Kitty, more premeditative, appropriate for a genius strategic general. Neither of the two older actresses did as good a job as Ady in her wicked but not evil role; I believe Chen Hao would also have been a good pick for this role. .
Liu Jing as Zhuo Zhi Rou [3/5]
I always thought that it was important for the Zhao Min actress to act as a foil for the Zhou Zhi Rou actress. These two characters are dissimilar but analogous to one another. It was vital for me to be able to sense the tension between them and for them to look at one another as worthy opponents for the affections of the hero. Kitty Lai had the young and charming Sheren Tang while Alyssa Chia had the beautiful and doe eyed Gao Yuan Yuan. The dimpled Ady had Liu Jing.
Liu Jing is not ugly; in fact, she has luminous white skin and is the owner of an incredible pair of large black pupils. However, she looked much more mature than any of the other leads. Liu Jing looks mature but is so petite when standing next to Deng Chao and Ady. Gao Yuan Yuan and Sheren Tang were both quite tall, maybe Liu Jing is too but her shoulders slope at an odd angle making her look thick necked and short in some shots. She looked like she wore too much make up also. Liu Jing seemed sweet but pretentious from the very beginning. This Zhi Ruo didn’t obviously suffer from the same internal anguish that Gao Yuan Yuan’s did and seemed much crueler than Sheren Tang. Sheren Tang had a quiet domineering presence about her that neither Yuan Yuan nor Liu Jing had. In addition, Liu Jing was much poutier and manipulative than her predecessors when she was smooth talking Deng Chao. Basically, it was harder to sympathize with her inevitable evil turn. Gao Yuan Yuan looked really good next to her Song Qin Shu while Liu Jing didn’t with hers. Lastly, Liu Jing is the scariest Zhou Zhi Ruo to date in this reviewer’s opinion! Watch closely when she uses her “White Bone Claw” technique to treacherously and literally stab an unsuspecting Zhao Min in the back!
He Zhuo Yan as Xiao Zhao [4/5]
She was cute enough and her outfit was cute enough and certainly her hair was way cute. Her ugly costume was also ugly enough. Well, she was just basically good enough in general. HZY is utterly adorable but in no way stunning. It felt like she was more willful than either Florence Tan or Maggie Siu. Maggie Siu was so sweet and reticent; Florence also had the same quality about her beauty. HZY looks younger than the rest of the cast and also has a really small face and body size. That greatly contributed to the protective instincts that Zhang Wu Ji had in him upon encountering her. There is a scene from HSDS 1986 where Xiao Zhao sings to Zhang Wu Ji to allay the long seclusion in the underground maze, it was so memorable because Maggie had a great voice! He Zhuo Yan though cannot sing as well as Maggie Siu. This version had many surprising additions; I didn’t know that Xiao Zhao had so many hidden talents! Also, I noticed many people in this version noticed how beautiful Xiao Zhao was compared to the other versions. It truly seemed that the directors wanted to beat the viewers on the head with He Zhuo Yan’s cuteness; it only made her seem more willful. Xiao Zhao is so appealing because she doesn’t seek to hog the attention of Zhang Wu Ji or the audience. This character’s charm point, as far as personality, was her quiet suffering and unrequited [somewhat] love for the hero. It was a little lost in this version, due to the director beating the viewers over the head with the HZY stick.
One thing that got on my nerves was when Xiao Zhao’s secret was unveiled and Zhang Wu Ji’s silent admonishments in his head after the fact. That tainted the relationship between Zhang Wu Ji and Xiao Zhao! The relationship between Xiao Zhao and Zhang Wu Ji should be like that of Alfred Pennyworth and Bruce Wayne/Batman. However, this Wu Ji expressed some traitorous misgivings about Xiao Zhao’s honesty before hearing her side of the story! This should never have happened! In the previous versions, Wu Ji unquestionably believed in her loyalty. Each version had nice Persian costumes and an appropriately melancholic and heartbreaking departing. Maggie and Tony were very innocent and retrained with Tony so overwhelmed with the thought of Maggie leaving. Alec and Florence’s was a bit more romantic and intimate, but Alec had great chemistry with all the girls. Deng Chao was trying his best to pull a 007 and escape with He Zhuo Yan and company intact. Certainly this Xiao Zhao had the most extravagant coronation with fireworks and all. It is clearer to the viewers of the importance of her position in the Persian Ming sect, and the scope of what her mother gave up for love.
Zhang Meng as Zhu Er [4/5]
Zhang Meng was praised by the press as being the most beautiful Zhu Er ever…well that was their opinion. Certainly this actress is very young and cute. However, the most beautiful Zhu Er should still be Chen Zi Han. Zhu Er has always been portrayed as a pretty young woman with somewhat nasty tendencies, probably due to her upbringing. That is, after her mother’s death and being under the tutelage of the forever plotting Golden Flower Granny, she’s not really had a traditional home life. Her decision to learn an art that utilizes poison which will eventually disfigure the practitioner is a kind of flipping the bird to her father and the value of feminine beauty in her time. In truth, she’s really just a child who cut off her nose to spite her face…she’s very childlike, exceptionally so in this version. She’s not really as nasty as the other Zhu Er’s and her youth makes viewers want to sympathize with her more. Among all the girls, Zhu Er’s character is probably the most in the peripheral sidelines as far as competing for Zhang Wu Ji’s love. Zhang Wu Ji never stopped thinking of her as a bratty little girl that he owed his life to. This greatly influences any possibility of romantic intentions towards her in the future. This point is probably true regardless of any version, but it was especially true for this version since Zhang Meng looked so childlike and sisterly next to Deng Chao. Her ending was vey ambiguous, it wasn’t quite clear if she was completely sane or not at the end since she was skipping off talking to herself with the other leads looking on….
Supporting Casts [great supporting cast!]
Wu Xiao Dong as Yang Xiao [4/5]
He has a suave air about him and the actor is certainly handsome enough to pull of this role. He looks much better with facial hair though. Yang Xiao is an ambiguous role, he’s kind of a cad for having kidnapped Ji Xiao Fu, the fiancée of another man, and subsequently fathering Yang Bu Hui. Nevertheless, fans usually root for this handsome “anti hero,” rather than the poor Yin Li Ting. After all, the appeal of an illicit affair “forced upon” Ji Xiao Fu, who did fall in love with her captor, is a fantasy that some women harbor. If not for Ji Xiao Fu’s tragic end, their story has the makings of a graphic romance novel. In real life though, one begs to ask if Ji Xiao Fu did not suffer from a slight case of Stockholm syndrome. Yang Tie Lin [Emperor from Huan Zhu Ge Ge] was less handsome than Wu Xiao Dong and Yang Xiao circa 1986 [whose name escapes me] was much more traditionally handsome than both.
Hu Dong as Fan Yao [4.5/5]
Hu Dong is a unique looking actor and while not conventionally handsome is still a looker and stands out in a crowd. This is due to his great height, solid build, and noticeably long aquiline nose. He looked a little out of place in the scenes from the past where he was recounting his time spent in the Ming Sect and when he disguised himself as a scholar, he’s just so masculine looking ! Nevertheless, since Fan Yao is one of my most favorite characters, it was a nice touch to see him more fleshed out. Viewers get to see how the young and handsome Fan Yao is rejected by the beautiful and proud Dai Qi Si; he was so crestfallen and resigned at this, and enraged when Dai Qi Si married Mr. Han. Regardless of her rejection and his disappointment, he still protects Dai Qi Si when she breaks Ming Sect rules. This Fan Yao also got a little more time to spend with Zhang Wu Ji to talk about his time with Zhao Min, whom he praises and thinks of highly. It’s clear he developed a profound [albeit emotionally distant] teacher and student relationship with her even though he was an imposter. It seemed that of all the Fan Yaos’, his was the one that knew the girl Zhao Min and subsequently the noble woman that she grew up to be the most. Fan Yao has been previously played by Michael Tao, who is equally if not more handsome than Hu Dong. Yuan Yuan  was given the least amount of screen time and is oddly older than Michael Tao in real age!
Lu Chen as Yang Bu Hui [5/5]
Lu Chen is an exceedingly beautiful and naturally sweet looking actress. All of the Yang Bu Huis' have been very naturally good looking actually. Yang Bu Hui is always portrayed as being a willful girl with a teensy bit of a nasty temper. I believe this is simply because she’s a young lady who is used to getting her way with her father. This character matures through the time she spends nurturing and taking care of Yin Li Ting, and Lu Chen does a fine job of instilling a subtle maturity and decisiveness when she decides to spend the rest of her life with her mother’s jilted fiancée. I’ve always thought the May-December relationship between Bu Hui and Li Ting was a touch melancholic but sweet and very sympathetic. Oh, and this Yin Li Ting is at moments very young looking compared to the past Yin Li Tings.
Ma Ling as Dai Qi Si [5/5]
You may recognize this actress as Wei Xiao Bao’s mother if you are a fan of both Jin Yong and Zhang Ji Zhong. She is a beautiful, tall, and regal Dai Qi Si; and she is exotically beautiful in her Persian outfit. However, she looks so much bigger than He Zhuo Yan who plays her daughter! I don’t know why they made that so, but she completely dwarfed her daughter in their scenes together! The two actresses look nothing alike, but none of the mother/daughter combos did anyway. Dai Qi Si as the Golden Flower Granny is the epitome of the character with a personal hidden agenda. This character is quite tragic actually but most people just cannot get over how scheming or vicious she is as the Golden Flower Granny.
Ken Chang as Zhang Cui Shan and Wang Yuan Ke as Yin Su Su [couple rating 5/5]
I rated these two as a couple because they are really known as our hero’s parents rather than being individual human beings. Both are very attractive people and played their roles well. This has got to be by far the most difficult Yin Su Su to deal with, which makes for some really comical situations between her and Zhang Cui San. It’s very clear that Zhang Wu Ji is very much like his father and doesn’t take after his mother at all! Yin Su Su is a decisive and aggressive woman who has a cruel streak; she has her own principles about how people should be dealt with. But she gives them up be with the upstanding and righteous Zhang Cui Shan. Ken Chang is very handsome and there is a peaceful serenity to his attractiveness that balances and complements the cunning and slyness of Wang Yuan Ke’s beauty.
Liu Shi Shi as Yellow Robed Lady [4/5]
Liu Shi Shi did a good job as the mysterious yellow robed lady, well as a good a job as Liu Shi Shi can do in any of her roles. She has improved greatly in her acting skills so this has influenced my rating. The yellow robed lady, I’ve always thought, is a character that mainly makes appearances as a plot device. She’s just there so that the author can cheat and solve problems simply to cover up and explain plot holes; in addition, she is the main living link between this third novel and the previous two, sword and saber aside. Well, it was a good enough performance. I’ve never really cared for the nosiness of this character or for her sanctimonious attitude towards Zhou Zhi Rou even if she is the last living descendant of whomever.
Li Tai as Song Qin Shu [3.5/5]
I believe Song Qin Shu, according to the novel, was supposed to be quite handsome; in fact, his physical attractiveness is the only thing that he one upped Zhang Wu Ji in [who is not bad himself]. However, looks aside, Wu Ji trumps Song Qin Shu in all other aspects. This actor was just disappointing as the least handsome and least heroic looking of all previous versions. Song Qin Shu was supposed to have been a decent catch pre Zhang Wu Ji’s appearance. Li Tai didn’t look good standing next to his Zhou Zhi Rou either which greatly bothered me. Song Qin Shu is generally an upstanding guy until he’s dropped down more than a couple of notches with the appearance of Wu Ji, his martial cousin. If the two had grown up together, there may have been fewer misunderstandings between them.
Shi Lei as Young Zhang Wu Ji [5/5]
A fairly large role was given to Shi Lei in the first part of the series and this young actor did a great job! Shi Lei has an endearing face and it was so much easier to sympathize with a child who watched his parents commit suicide than an adult pretending to be childlike. Let’s not pick bones about how the small eyed and fair skinned Shi Lei looks nothing like the big eyed and dark skinned Deng Chao.
The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre is a story that is well written for a wuxia genre epic; there are many important manuals that its characters want to get their hands on. Also, on the periphery is the political struggle that the country is facing. This latest version by Zhang Ji Zhong, who is known for his epic cinematography, costumes, and casting [or launching] of famous faces, performs fairly well as HSDS 2009 is no exception. The scenery, costumes and casts were all impressive. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as a perfect production, especially at such a grand scale, and though Zhang Ji Zhong is epic, sometimes he leaves out subtler character and plot nuances those more discerning viewers are less willing to tolerate. There is also a lot of CGI and graphics use in this version. It kind of ruins the martial arts experience a bit. This version also focuses heavily on human relationships more than any other aspect such as jiang hu politics, sect dynamics, or martial arts training. Knowing this, one should still watch updated classics with an open mind and I do believe that this latest Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre can be considered a worthy addition to the mix of preexisting versions.