The Romantic Swordsman


Reviewed by: Ian Liew

August 10, 2005

Rating: four

The Romantic Swordsman 1978
Xiao Li Fei Dao (XLFD) - Duo Qing Jian Ke

Main Cast
Cast members are named in Cantonese for easy identification, but the characters are in Mandarin pinyin. Characters which have two actors' names refer to the difference actors and actresses who played the same character in the first and second half of the series.

Li Xunhuan - Paul Chu Kong
Ah Fei - Wong Yuen Sun
Lin Xianer - Cecilia Wong
Lin Shiyin - Maggie Lee/Wan Lau Mei
Sun Xiaohong - Koo Miew Sze/Au Yeung Pui San
Jing Wuming - Chan Ling Wai/Kwan Chung
Shangguan Jinhong - Lau Dan/Cheung Chong
Long Xiaoyun Sr - Kong Sau/Lo Kok Hong
Old Man Sun - Mah Kim Tong/Kong Ngai
Shangguan Fei - Wong Yan Choy
Ling Ling - Kitty Chan Fuk Sang


Synopsis

Twenty years ago, Li Xunhuan (who carried the title "Little Lee's Flying Dagger, never released in vain") left behind his fiancee and his home and wandered the wilderness - his sworn brother Long Xiaoyun (who had saved his life) was deeply in love with his fiancee, Lin Shiyin, so Li decided to leave to allow them to be together as Long was likely to die pining for Lin.

Returning to China after twenty years Li finds that although his reputation still precedes him (his dagger has been officially ranked third in the martial arts world) his old friends are no longer what they seemed to be. The first person of note he meets on his way back is a young talented swordsman named Ah Fei, and through mutual admiration for each other they strike up a deep friendship and go separate ways.

The latest hot news in the martial arts world is the Plum Bandit, and fate brings Li back to his old home, where Long and Lin are masters of the house, and have a young teenage son. The most beautiful woman in the world, Lin Xianer, has offered herself as a prize for the man who can take down the Plum Bandit, and as she is staying at the Long mansion, martial artists from all over the world have taken up residence there. The friction between Li and the other fighters soon becomes evident due to different motives, especially as Long is so happy his sworn brother has returned and takes extra good care of him.

Events unfold and Li is accused of being the Plum Bandit. It is also revealed that Long is behind the conspiracy as he felt threatened when Li returned, and was worried that he would lose Lin Shiyin. Ah Fei tries to rescue him several times, but fails, is wounded, and nurtured back to health by Lin Xianer. Li is then sent to Shaolin for interrogation, but with the help of one of the Shaolin elders and Ah Fei, manages to break the conspiracy involving certain Shaolin elders, Long and Lin Xianer. He has no heart to blame Long, but has no qualms about killing Lin Xianer. Ah Fei begs for mercy, however, and Li is forced to spare her.

Several years pass and Li runs afoul of the Golden Currency Union, headed by Shangguan Jinhong, whose golden rings are ranked second in the world above Li's dagger. Rumours abound that the Long mansion holds a precious treasure within, and Li heads back to the mansion to protect Lin Shiyin from would-be treasure seekers. He makes several new friends such as the cold Guo Songyang (whose sword is ranked fourth in the world), the beautiful and principled Blue Scorpion, the innocent Ling Ling (a maid of Lin Xianer), Lu Fengxian (whose halberd was ranked fifth in the world, but who has since chanced to using fists), Old Man Sun (whose opium pipe is ranked first in the world) and his resourceful granddaughter Sun Xiaohong. His old enemies Long Xiaoyun and Lin Xianer are still around, while new enemies in the form of Shangguan Jinhong and his lackey Jing Wuming challenge him. Ah Fei is drugged senseless by Lin Xianer, who then offers herself to Shangguan Jinhong. Ah Fei follows and is used by Shangguan to assassinate Long, who even Shangguan finds detestable. Old Man Sun saves Ah Fei, though, who nevertheless feels the need to stay by Lin Xianer. Lin Xianer, however, offers herself to Jing Wuming, before eventually realising that nobody really cared for her. In the end she realises that only one man really cared for her, but by then it's too late. Ah Fei has completely lost faith in her, and leaves her.

On the other side, Guo Songyang dies trying to get Jing Wuming to reveal his skills, and his corpse wounds allow Li Xunhuan to tell how powerful Jing was simply by examining the stroke angles. Old Man Sun is sacrificed when he tries to challenge Shangguan (despite his higher ranking, he didn't have the battle experience nor the drive to improve over the past years) while Ling Ling is killed by Lu Fengxian when he decides to take Lin Xianer for himself. Li Xunhuan is the last remaining obstacle to Shangguan's ambition of using the Golden Currency Union the take over the martial arts world, and a showdown between the two is imminent. Shangguan wins as Li never even has a chance to throw his dagger, but then unexpectedly he gambles just as Li gives up, and challenges Lee to throw. Shangguan wants to see if "Little Lee's Flying dagger, never released in vain" was true, and believes he is good enough to dodge it. However, the blade ricochets repeatedly in the small room they are in and eventually Shangguan is hit and dies. Jing Wuming loses all will to fight after his master dies and is left to pick up the pieces. Li, Sun Xiaohong and Ah Fei then walk off together towards a better future.


Review

Characters
Major Characters

Li Xunhuan - Paul Chu Kong
Paul Chu is a good actor, and fairly suitable for the role of Li Xunhuan. He looks cultured, educated and classy, and this fits Li Xunhuan's government official background well. However, due to his voice being really low, and Li Xunhuan always having this bowed head and defeatist look around him, his dialogue is frequently mumbled and unclear (doesn't help that the audio from these 70s series aren't that great). Nevertheless, he looks the part, and he gives character to Li Xunhuan. I preferred him as Wen Tailai in Book and Sword, though, where although he spends a lot of time wounded, when he recovers he looks like a daxia. In XLFD, the most aggressive I've seen him was when he tried to kill Lin Xianer, otherwise he just has this lazy aura around him.

Ah Fei - Wong Yuen Sun
Wong Yuen Sun's Ah Fei is immensely likeable, even from the first scene when he appears. His voice is sharp, clear, and crisp, and he is expressive (unlike Li). His martial arts background is also evident during the fight scenes (as opposed to Li finishing a fight with just a single throw - sometimes to an off-screen opponent) and his signature leaping thrust takes some skill to execute. His chemistry with Lin Xianer is good, and he plays the helplessly manipulated man well, without doing it excessively. The scene when Shangguan throws a coin on the floor for him to pick up and buy wine, and when Li stops him, helps him up and gives him a drink, the shame in his face was so evident... without shedding any tears, Ah Fei can look despondent, hopeless and ashamed, which isn't easy without resorting to crying. He is likeable, and his straightforward attitude complements Li Xunhuan's over-cautious approach to things.

Lin Xianer
Cecilia Wong again shines in a role which requires cheekiness and a bit of naughtiness to it. While not quite dressed as prettily as she was in "One Sword", she nevertheless is very attractive and seductive in the way she speaks, especially with Wong Yuen Sun. She's not overly seductive like you would expect a complete tart to be, but she maintains a level of class to her seduction, making her a very complicated character. While she's definitely not a good person at all, it's difficult to be too hard on her for her lack of morals. She comes across more as a survivor than anything, and frequently when she latches on to another man (at least in the second half) it's because her life is at stake. As a seductress she's probably not as hot as she could have been (mainly in the way she carries herself - she certainly is pretty enough naturally) but in the context of the story it works well enough.

Li Xunhuan, Ah Fei and Lin Xianer are the only major characters in the series who are unchanged throughout the series. All other major characters have different actors halfway through the series (between the Plum Bandit and Golden Currency Union arcs).

Minor characters

Lin Shiyin - Maggie Lee/Wan Lau Mei
Maggie carries the character through most of her scenes, and Wan only gets the ending dialogue with Sun Xiaohong, so it's difficult to rate her (although what little she had she did well). Maggie, on the other hand, got a lot of screen time in the first half, and she did a great job. Her sad and lonely mood at the beginning, followed by several emotional outbursts at both Li and her husband, all made her a very pitiful character. You could really hate Li for abandoning her to Long as you can really see the pain which Lin Shiyin had to go through.

Sun Xiaohong - Koo Miew Sze/Au Yeung Pui San
The reverse is true of Sun Xiaohong - her appearances in the first half are limited. You occasionally see her following her grandfather around and having some witty lines here and there, but in the second half she is developed more as Li's romantic interest. Koo Miew Sze handles the first half well, although she tends to portray Sun Xiaohong as a very young girl, while in the second half, Au Yeung Pui San makes the role a bit older (which is understandable since there's about two years gap between the arcs, and Sun Xiaohong's fangirl interest in Li Xunhuan might have developed into something more mature during those two years). Au Yeung Pui San is witty and charming, although her dress was horrible - surely they could have given the second female lead something nicer than that maroon pyjamas with pink frilly skirt? Her emotions were done well, especially when she found out her grandfather had died because of her, and that despairing, yet 'must-look-strong-in-front-of-enemy" look was heartbreaking. It's also fun to see her arguing with Cecilia Wong again, although unlike in "One Sword", this time she was the good girl and Cecilia the bad girl.

Shangguan Jinhong - Lau Dan/Cheung Chong
I'm not sure whether Lau Dan should be credited with this character or not - he had about 5 minutes of screen time in total. Basically he walks on, listens to Sun Xiaohong talk about the top three weapons, watches Shangguan Fei have trouble bullying Old Man Sun, throws a golden ring at Old Man Sun which is intercepted by Li Xunhuan's dagger, says a greeting then leaves. They could very well have gotten Cheung Chong (together with Kong Ngai, Au Yeung Pui San and Kwan Chung as well) to re-act that scene. Cheung Chong as SGJH, however, was brilliant. He had this awesome presence and charisma, and his golden robe made no mistake in telling you who was boss. He is calm, cool, calculating, yet completely ruthless. He has this withering glare, and is able to muster a friendly yet threatening chuckle and laugh when needed. Due to several scenes being removed from the book, this series did leave a big question - what did SGJH do that was so bad that he deserved to die? He challenged Li Xunhuan, sure, but at least he really respected him. SGJH doesn't really do anything really bad in the series. Guo Songyang died because he challenged Jing Wuming, while Old Man Sun died because he challenged SGJH. Throughout the story I don't think he actually went out to challenge anyone (other than Li Xunhuan), although there's no doubt that he was evil. They just didn't flesh out his evilness enough to make him a hateable villain, just a fearful one.

Jing Wuming - Chan Ling Wai/Kwan Chung
Chan Ling Wai only appears in the aforementioned scene with Lau Dan, after which Kwan Chung (who confusingly played You Longsheng in the first half) carried the character. Kwan Chung was a totally cool Jing Wuming, being calm, youthful, and calculative. You don't get to see the duel between him and Guo Songyang, but just by looking at them staring at and circling each other, you know Guo is finished. Jing has this cold emotionless face, and he doesn't even look at you, as if you were beneath his notice. Like SGJH, he's not a dislikeable villain, and it's nice that he doesn't die at the end at least.

Long Xiao Yun Sr - Kong Sau/Lo Kok Hong
Kong Sau plays a very tragic Long Xiaoyun, and starts off being really nice to Li, then the plan falls apart, and he challenges Li, loses, and runs away in tears. He is pathetic, but totally understandable, and not so dislikeable. Kong Sau plays good guys and bad guys well, and such his character never quite carried a despicable feel to it, even if it was quite villanious towards the end. In the second half, however, Lo Kok Hong takes over (after playing the evil Shaolin monk Xin Jian who dies in the first half) and Long Xiaoyun becomes totally despicable. Lo's ability to make a character pathetic, cowardly and useless is really great, and he comes across as the only character in the series I wanted to see die a horrible death. Sadly, they left out his death scene (or even reference to it) and as such I can only assume he survives...

Old Man Sun - Mah Kim Tong/Kong Ngai
Mah Kim Tong's Sun was a jovial, friendly, harmless old storyteller who occasionally popped up with his beautiful granddaughter and told the folks stories about Li Xunhuan, prompting Ah Fei to take action. He was likeable, straightforward and just so nice - as he didn't really need to fight at all in the first half. In the second half, Kong Ngai (who also played the monk Xin Wei in the first half) adds depth to the character and makes him look like a martial arts master. He seems far less carefree and more worried in general in the second half, and certainly seems less happy and jovial. However, the character is well-suited to the requirements in the second half, although maybe his death duel with SGJH could have been less one-sided.


Music
The music was wonderful, with two Roman Tam songs effectively carrying the tune. The first one is the famous signature song with the "dum-dum-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum-dum" beat to it which needs no introduction. However, what surprised me was that the themesong in the second half was even better - a very grand and stately wuxia melody (they also stopped using the old themesong in the second half, which is a shame). Both themesongs have variants depending on the mood of the scene (there's a bass version to get adrenaline going, a soft version for softer scenes etc). I noticed with this series and with One Sword that TVB in those days took their songs and modified them to fit as background music depending on moods. I really miss this in newer serials (I think they stopped after the 80s) - maybe it takes too much effort, or they lost the required talent to do so.


Scenery/Props/Choreography
Naturally a weak point given the age of the series, outdoor shots are mainly done in studio as well - I think it's because when they go outdoors the audio suffers (it did in One Sword). Props are also fragile - when Li Xunhuan's dagger ricochets during the duel with Shangguan Jinhong the entire wall flops around like a piece of canvas - every single time it happened.

Fighting choreography wasn't that bad, although many fights started and ended with the throw of a dagger. Ah Fei fought well, and the sword clashes between Li Xunhuan and Lin Xianer, Li Xunhuan and Long Xiaoyun were all done fairly convincingly. Green Demon Hand and Blue Scorpion had these massive scary gloves with claws at the end which were suitably dangerous, and the fight between Ah Fei and Green Demon Hand was painful but entertaining. The highlight would still be the way he killed Xin Jian with an icicle plucked from the roof of the pavilion. Sadly, they removed the entire part with the Big Happy Lady Buddha - I would have loved to have seen that scene acted out and the fight against the meat formation choreographed! On a brighter note, removing that scene also means that Blue Scorpion doesn't die, which is nice (although she doesn't appear anymore) as she is quite likeable.


Conclusion
I enjoyed this series a lot - the music in particular added incredible atmosphere in much the same way One Sword's music did. Due to the similar year of production this compares very well to "One Sword", and is just as entertaining. The difference between the Gu Long base and Jin Yong base isn't really that major, as Gu Long's dialogue works quite well with the mood of the story (dour, philosophical Li Xunhuan). The acting is top class, and the music of course just lifts this series into a real wuxia mood.

The one major flaw with this series is the change of actors midway. Like in Lu Xiaofeng (LXF), actors were chosen to play more than one role after one character dies. In LXF it wasn't that bad because you could separate LXF into three separate mini-serials, and as long as you treated them as such, you wouldn't mind say, Kwan Hoi San, playing Dugu Yihe, Li Yanbei AND Jade Taoist - although I rather he didn't, I can accept him as three different actors (but it did look stupid in the themesong when he appears as Dugu AND Li Yanbei as well). In XLFD, however, it's horrible. There's no real break in the story (even though we know it's a different story arc), and all of a sudden Kong Ngai is back even though I just saw him die as Xin Wei. What's even worse, even characters which already had an actor playing them, such as both Long Xiao Yuns, Lin Shiyin, Shangguan Jinhong, Jing Wuming, Old Man Sun and Sun Xiaohong just out of nowhere changed faces. If I didn't already know the story I would have been horribly confused. It's literally, one scene, after SGJH exits, Old Man Sun and Sun Xiaohong (Mah Kim Tong and Koo Miew Sze) walk out, with Li Xunhuan drinking, then next scene (literally a couple minutes later) a different Old Man Sun and Sun Xiaohong (Kong Ngai and Au Yeung Pui San) walk in!!! I don't even see the point of having Lau Dan act as SGJH in that half scene.

The story feels as if halfway during filming, half of TVB decided to leave or boycott production, forcing them to change actors and actresses, but it really leaves a black mark on the series. In some cases the changes were improvements, in some cases not, but it's confusing, annoying and downright ugly. Even the themesong had to change at the exact same spot, and while after a while I loved the new themesong, I was just hoping that they'll play the old one once just for variety, but they never did. I don't know what the full story behind this debacle was, but it certainly feels like I'm watching two decent half-serials rather than one excellent one.


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