I've watched three versions of Than Dieu Hiep Lu (Return of the Condor Heroes), TVB 84, TVB 95, and TCS 98, and in my opinion the TVB 95 version starring Louis Koo and Carmen Lee is the best version. The performances of the two leading actors were exceptional so it was no surprise that this serial propelled both their careers. Although the 84 serial still remains the most popular version of RoCH, popularity does not mean that it's necessarily the better version. I thought the 84 version was average at best and have many gripes about it, but I'll save that for another review. Since many people are already familiar with the story, I won't do a summary. I wouldn't want to spoil the story for those few who haven't read or seen it yet anyway.
I personally believe that Carmen Lee played the role of Tieu Long Nu exactly as she is represented in the novel. Tieu Long Nu and Hoang Dung from Legend of the Condor Heroes are arguably two of the harder Jin Yong female characters to portray for an actor because there are many facets to their characters. Tieu Long Nu is cold, aloof, unfeeling yet there is a certain innocence and vulnerability in her character. This was evident in her reluctance to leave the mountain with Duong Qua (Yeung Gor) and how she was easily tricked and taken advantage of by many of the characters in the story. Tieu Long Nu starts out as a very cold and unfeeling person but she gradually warms up to Duong Qua and falls completely in love with him. It's important to remember that she is still a very unfeeling person to everyone else except Duong Qua. I've seen other adaptations where Tieu Long Nu was portrayed as nice and kind-hearted, something that annoys me because that is not how she is portrayed in the novel. Because Carmen did such a great job of portraying Tieu Long Nu's cold and unfeeling nature, many criticized her performance for it. I don't think many of these critics ever read the novel. Overall, Carmen's portrayal of Tieu Long Nu was accurate and true to the novel and in my opinion her portrayal is the best so far.
The other main character in the story is Duong Qua (Yeung Gor), another difficult Jin Yong character to portray because of his many traits. At first I didn't like Louis's portrayal of Duong Qua because he didn't look like the Duong Qua I had pictured from reading the novel. Duong Qua is mischievous, cunning, handsome, emotional, and has somewhat of a devil-may-care attitude. What I mean by that is he will do whatever he feels is right not caring what others may think of him. Louis didn't strike me as handsome and I think he could have done a better job portraying Duong Qua's mischievous side. However as the series progressed, I gradually accepted him as Duong Qua. The chemistry he had with Carman was great. You really believed that they were in love and felt bad each time they separated.
The performances of the supporting cast was good, although I thought the supporting cast of the 84 version was better overall. Gigi Fu was absolutely great as Quach Phu (Kwok Fu). I really developed a hatred for her character, which should be the case because Quach Phu is truly a despicable person. Out of the many villains who are out to get Duong Qua in the story, she is the one that does the most harm to him. She also feels no remorse for her actions until the end of the story, despite Duong Qua saving her life on numerous occasions.
Now that I've mentioned all the good aspects of the serial, it's time to discuss some problems I had with it. My number one complaint is the fight choreography. It's terrible. Although there were some decent fight scenes throughout the series, the majority of them were cheesy and looked really awful. Two that come to mind are the first fight Duong Qua and Tieu Long Nu had with golden wheel monk and Duong Qua's duel with Chau Ba Thong later in the serial. It's obvious that this serial was a low budget production. The costumes were dull, background sets looked really fake, what little special effects in the serial looked corny, and the scenery was uninteresting. You just had to look at the giant condor to see proof of how low budget this serial was. It looks no better than the one in the 84 version, which I just happen to believe looked better. I guess TVB didn't want to invest that much money into this production because it is based on a popular Jin Yong story and people will want to see it no matter what.
Than Dieu Hiep Lu is my favorite Jin Yong story and I've watched every version that has come out in the last 20 years except for the Taiwan version. I heard that the director of that version really twisted the story around. I believe this version, despite its flaws, is the best. The main reason for this is the performance of the two leading actors. They had great chemistry together and accurately portrayed their characters. I know the entire story from beginning to end yet I was never bored for a moment watching this series. I was captivated by this series from start to finish. Carmen Lee and Louis Koo did an excellent job of getting the audience to sympathize with the plight of their characters. Overall, I'd say this was one of the best TVB ancient serials of the 90s.