The Return of the Condor Heroes


Reviewed by: Ian Liew

January 22, 2007

Rating: three-point-five

"Condor Hero" was the English name given to Zhang Jizhong's 2006 adaptation of Jin Yong's "Return of the Condor Heroes" (ROCH), and marks Zhang's fourth series adaptation of Jin Yong's fifteen wuxia stories. Zhang started off with a bang, 2001's "Smiling Proud Wanderer" (SPW) quickly being a firm favourite of wuxia fans, even though it was generally underrated by the public. "Legend of the Condor Heroes"(LOCH) followed in 2003 and continued to thrill wuxia fans, even though the series had some flaws and some weak miscasts in some major supporting roles. Still, the professional, big-screen quality cinematography and classic feel won over many critics, and firmly entrenched Zhang as the man to watch for wuxia. Then came "Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils" (DGSD) in 2004, and many people, myself included, were disappointed. While the cinematography remained beautiful, the music classic, and the actresses totally beautiful, there was a lack of cohesion in the plot, something which prevented the story from flowing in a smooth, entertaining and meaningful way. I put it down to the novel (DGSD was always rather disjointed given that it had to follow three almost separate plots until the middle when they converge) and the poor editing - there were too many noticeable errors in the filming which made the whole experience feel unprofessional.

Condor Hero was the most hyped of the four serials, production having dragged on for a very long time, and in the end, the actual release was around a year later than everyone had originally expected. Zhang must have been doing something special, and I was excited. Surely the lessons of DGSD were learnt, and we would have another gem like SPW or LOCH on our hands...


Synopsis
The plot is familiar to most wuxia fans, ROCH being arguably one of the most famous of Jin Yong's stories. Yang Guo is delivered by Guo Jing to Mount Chongyang to tutor under the best sect in the martial arts world. Yang Guo's rebellious nature, coupled with some rather unfriendly and bullying sect-mates, make the relationship a bad one, and eventually Yang Guo flees to the neighbouring Ancient Tomb sect and tutors under Xiao Longnu, a reclusive young girl. Over time, they develop strong feelings for one another.

Li Mochou, the Crimson Goddess, storms into the Ancient Tomb searching for her old master's martial arts manual, and Yang and Long are forced to flee. They split up through misunderstanding, and Yang finds his way back to Guo Jing, who had always treated him like a son. Guo is trying to rally the Chinese martial artists to help defend the city of Xiangyang against the Mongol invasion, and in the midst of the meeting, the Mongols come to create trouble. The Golden Wheel Monk and his disciples challenge the Chinese martial artists to a duel to dictate who should lead the martial arts world. The Mongols cheat and bully their way to win, but then Long appears, both Yang and Long help Guo push the Mongols away, much to the admiration of everyone. Trouble then strikes as Yang and Long reveal their love for each other, and this teacher-student love which is completely against Chinese Confucian values, is rejected by everyone. With no one else to turn to, Yang and Long wander the martial arts world trying to find a place for themselves.

Along the way they run into many situations, and always end up helping the good people. They make many new friends (and enemies) and even split up several times. Finally, however, after a lot of hardship, they are reunited, but both on the verge of death through their own injuries. Yang's injuries are treatable, but he refuses to take the antidote if Long cannot be saved. Long then takes it upon herself to leave a message for Yang, saying that she will meet him again at that spot in sixteen years, after which she commits suicide by jumping down the cliff. In this she hopes that her sacrifice will buy Yang another sixteen years of life, or perhaps better, give him time to forget her and find someone else.

Sixteen years later, Yang has created a name for himself as a hero of the oppressed people, and has righted many wrongs in the martial arts world as the "Condor Hero". Striking up a friendship with Guo Jing's younger daughter Guo Xiang, Yang helps Guo beat back a Mongol vanguard before heading off for his rendezvous with Long. His friends know that Long won't be there, and try to catch up to save him but it is too late. Yang, knowing that the whole thing was a lie, leaps down the cliff to join Long, Guo Xiang leaping in after him. By some miracle, Long had survived and recovered from her injuries, and both of them rush to Xiangyang to help Guo Jing repel the final Mongol invasion, slaying the khan and buying the Song Dynasty another twenty years of time before the inevitable.


Characters

Yang Guo
Huang Xiaoming's portrayal of Yang Guo could be split into two parts - the older post-sixteen years Yang Guo and the younger pre-sixteen years Yang Guo. Huang excelled at the former, but struggled with the latter. Huang's age was suitable for the older Yang, and he brought a lot of charm and class to the role. The white hair and rugged feel only added to the mystery and given the mysterious nature of the Condor Hero it was an almost flawless performance. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the younger Yang Guo. Huang (and I suspect most actors his age) has trouble trying to act as this young rebellious teenager, and only ends up being a very immature adult. It's difficult to like him at all unless he's having one of those mature phases. He overacts when showing emotion, screaming and yelling and trying to cry but it somehow doesn't come out well. Even when just having a casual chat with Brother Condor he ends up shouting all the time - perhaps because he wasn't speaking to anything and he had trouble judging how far that imaginary condor was. All in all, it was a decent effort, but I think a bit of a miscast. It's easier to get a young man to act old, rather than vice versa, especially a young character as exuberant and as .. colourful as Yang Guo.


Xiao Longnu
The surprise package of the series. After Liu Yifei's wallflower performance in DGSD, many people didn't have much high hopes for the role of Long. Discussions kept going on about who should have played the role, and that Long shouldn't just be a pretty face, but somehow Zhang Jizhong knew what he was doing in this case. Liu's Wang Yuyan in DGSD was a wallflower because that was the character. In ROCH, she probably wouldn't win any awards with her acting, but nobody could really say that she can't act. Her expressions were subtle, but so unmistakable. Long is cold, calm and serene, and only occasionally gives in and loses control, and even then Liu manages to hold the character together. Liu looks wonderful in fighting scenes, and her natural beauty makes the role very believable (Long is supposed to be almost ethereal in her beauty). While there are a lot of beautiful ladies around, Liu has this.. Oriental beauty (I don't know how to explain it) which is quite unique from other beautiful girls. It doesn't make her prettier than the others, just different, and it suited the role well. She had her voice dubbed, which helped a lot as it was a more forceful and mature voice behind the girl, which shows that she's really not as young as she looks, although every bit as naive. Whatever the merits of this series, Liu has gained a lot of respect as an actress, and that can only be good.


Guo Jing
Wang Luoyong is credited as being from the US in the ending credits, which probably explains why I've never seen him before. He has a very commanding screen presence (although he really shouldn't have gone without any facial hair at the beginning) and is very likeable as the leader of the Chinese fighters. His expressions and body language are also top-class - his stumbling fall backwards upon seeing Yang Guo's arm on the floor come to mind. He steps backwards, stumbles, trips over his feet and falls, his head thumping against a side table. He is totally unfazed, stays in character, gets up looking just as worried, and runs around yelling for Yang Guo. The way he interrogated his wife and daughter when he suspected something wrong was priceless.. the simple-minded man scoring a jackpot and being able to read everyone's mind.


Huang Rong
Huang Rong is Guo Jing's wife, and supposed to be the brains of the family. Kong Lin was beautiful and for me, bore more than a passing resemblance to Zhou Xun, who played Huang Rong is LOCH 2003, so it made me like her even more. Her performance was passable, and when she looked in control of the situation she looked confident and intelligent like her character always was. However, somehow in this series those scenes were few and far between, and she came across as being more weak than I expected her to be. She comes into her own when dealing with Li Mochou and the Passionless Valley storyline, though, so she does have her moments.


Golden Wheel Monk
Ba Yin now joins TVB's Zhang Lei in not only two roles, but in three, having replicated Zhang's roles of DGSD's Jiu Mozhi, LOCH's Jiebie and now ROCH's GOlden Wheel Monk. Ba Yin was pretty much groomed for this job with his performance as Jiu Mozhi - both characters are similar in style, being foreign monks with very good fighting ability. There was nothing much to set Ba Yin apart from the other characters, apart towards the end, when he develops a paternal affection for Guo Xiang, and wants her to be his student. It helps that Guo Xiang was immensely lovable, but their scenes together were rather charming.


Guo Xiang
The darling of the series. When she appears she just steals the scene. Yang Mi is cute, exuberant and immensely lovable - the perfect person you'd want as a kid sister.. or maybe not, really. Guo Xiang is brave and straightforward, but with a very kind heart and consideration for other people, unlike her older sister Guo Fu. Guo Xiang sets out on a quest to find the Condor Hero after she hears about his exploits, gets her wish, and ends up befriending a whole horde of shady characters which she happily chats with without any suspicion or prejudice. This trusting nature eventually leads to her downfall when the Golden Wheel Monk takes advantage of her naivety and captures her, but even then he is moved by her character and would have given up everything, even the war with China, just to be with her and pass on his skills - such was Guo Xiang's character, and Yang Mi makes it all so believable.


Li Mochou
Meng Guangmei was credited as being from Hong Kong in the credits, but I can't for the life of me recognise her from anything I've watched in Hong Kong. She was beautiful - the most beautiful Li Mochou I had ever seen, and was a very class act. The cold ruthless side of her was executed with a healthy dose of evil eye stares and sneers, but the softer compassionate side of her was done very convincingly, until after a while you forget she's a villain, and you wonder why all those people wanted to attack her when they should all be on the same side. Then you think back on who she really was and you remember Li Mochou, the Crimson Goddess. For some reason I felt less pity for her when she dies as compared to Shirley Suet Li's version in ROCH 95, even though I liked this version more. Maybe the death scene wasn't played out tragic enough.


Other characters

There were a lot of other supporting characters, but there's really not much to say about them, not because they didn't do a good job, but because I felt that they weren't given enough time to fully develop and convince me whether they did well or otherwise. It seems like when Zhang Jizhong planned it, he wanted it to be about Yang Guo and Xiao Longnu almost exclusively. While they were the main protagonists, there was a lot of delightful and meaningful scenes with many of the other minor characters, all of which added to the plot and character development of both major and minor characters, but sadly, a lot of it is missing. The pace of the whole thing seems like there was an urgency to cram everything into 40 episodes, which was fine, but in order to cater for those long scenes where Yang and Long stare into each others' eyes, where their hair flows with the wind, where the leaves billow around them, where the haunting music plays as one or both of them cry, where the scenery pans slowly as they sit side by side staring at the natural beauty around them, etc., a lot of good stuff from the novel had to make way. It's a shame, as even though all these scenes add a lot to the artistic value of the series, the opportunity cost was, to me, far too high.

Nevertheless, what was left of the others was well utilised in most cases. Cheng Ying and Lu Wushuang were both likeable - Cheng Ying had the misfortune of having quite a bad Hello Kitty hairdo for most of the show, but when she let her hair down at the beginning she was absolutely cute. Chen Shasha's Guo Fu was, as most ladies are in this serial, beautiful, and carried the spoiled brat character well. She was also more sympathiseable than the '83 or '95 versions, as Huang Xiaoming's younger Yang Guo can come across as being rather unlikeable and provocative, as opposed to Andy Lau and Louis Koo who were both very likeable in the young Yang Guo stage.

Kenny Bee's Gongsun Zhi was one of the highlights - he carried the character with a lot of class, and was extremely charming and good-looking in the role, a villain with character. Gongsun Luer was beautiful and tragic, and was arguably the saddest part of the story. She really deserved much better than what she got, and Fu Miao and Huang Xiaoming really looked like a good couple (much more compatible than Huang and Liu Yifei, actually). Everything was perfect for the two of them, and he could have taken her out of the valley away from her father and they would have done heroic things and made the martial arts world proud, save for the existence of Xiao Longnu.

Zhou Botong was as good as he was in LOCH (meaning very very good), and was, with Yideng, the only Great who was played by the same actor as the one in LOCH (Zhao Liang). As exuberant and lovable as ever, his scenes with Long were well done from both parties, and they provided good contrast to each others' personalities.

Huang Yaoshi looked very out of place, as I had always seen Yu Chenghui as being an orthodox sect leader. Having seen him as Mei Niansheng in Linked Cities and Feng Qingyang in SPW 2001, it was hard to accept this wizened old man as the eccentric Huang Yaoshi - he would have been much better off as Wang Chongyang, Qiu Chuji or someone like that. Nevertheless, he lent a lot of class to the role, but just looked far too gentle, reasonable and kind to be the Eastern Heretic, even an older mellowed version. For some reason I couldn't find his name (or Huang Yaoshi) listed in the credits at the end, though.

Yideng was played by the same actor, and carried on his good work, but the role really didn't have character to start with anyway. Hong Qigong and Ouyang Feng only had cameos, their already limited screen time cut even shorter to make more time for extra lovey scenes between Yang Guo and Xiao Longnu, no doubt, and they got two random actors to play the roles. Not using the same actors was a mistake, as you hardly have time to introduce the two of them, and somebody who doesn't know the story well won't have a clue who those two old men were. A special mention to Zhao Dandan, whose Hong Lingbo was oh so cute and adorable, and so tragic when she died. Completely lovable!

In general, the supporting cast was rather good, but under-utilised. Even the final battle, when previous versions had Huang Yaoshi, Yideng, Zhou Botong, Wu Santong, etc. all giving the Mongol army their best, this version had one short scene with Zhou and a few short scenes with other characters, and that's it. You even see Yideng riding out on a horse but he doesn't do anything. All this because they needed more time for Yang Guo to do his thing. It's the director's call and personal preference, but I felt that he had such good material on hand and just failed to maximise value with what he had. Imagine Yideng firing off a finger at some troops, or Huang blasting them away with some pebbles.. nothing, and they were supposed to be the Greats.

It's also a shame that they couldn't get the same actors for Huang Yaoshi, Hong Qigong and Ouyang Feng. Whatever their weaknesses were in LOCH, having them here would have given a lot of continuity to the story. Ke Zhener looked very close to the LOCH version, but after checking the credits I found it was a new actor, but at least it was convincing. The disappointment started from the beginning, when Lu Liting appears. From that moment I knew that Zhou Zhidong wouldn't be reprising his role as Qiu Chuji, and that continuity would suffer. Nevertheless, it was good to see Sha Gu, Yideng, Ying Gu and Zhou Botong as familiar faces.


Cinematography

As always with Zhang Jizhong, this was excellent. From beginning to the end, ROCH is a visual treat to the eyes. The filming, camera angles, colour palettes etc all serve to create this fantasy world which is so beautiful that you want to be part of it. The editing errors which plagued DGSD were also gone, resulting in a very smooth, calm, artistic audio-visual experience which will impress everybody who sees it.

The series did borrow a lot of inspiration from the "Lord of the Rings", although that's not a bad thing in itself. The siege of Xiangyang borrowed a lot of elements from the siege of Minas-Tirith, or at least from "Kingdom of Heaven". The fantasy colour palette made the whole thing quite surreal and the haunting music just made it feel like something fantastical, rather than historical. However, while "Lord of the Rings" was wonderful, and imitating it isn't really a bad idea, but when Brother Condor imitates Sauron with his wing buffet it does look rather cheap. Still, on the whole rather impressive, and miles better than the farcical and ugly disco lights which ROCH 83 had (although with over 20 years between productions it's only to be expected).


Music

The two main themes, "Tian Xia Wu Shuang" and "Jiang Hu Xiao" were nice. It was nice to have a proper opening theme again (after DGSD and SPW before it chose instrumental openings), and while the high pitch takes some getting used to, it fits the mood of the series very well. "Jiang Hu Xiao" is one of the most catchy wuxia tunes I've heard in a long time, and is sung by a group of singers including Emil Chow, Hu Jun (Xiao Feng in DGSD) and Zhang Jizhong himself. My sixteen-month old son loves that song, and will give the screen his undivided attention when it is playing (he has since he was nine months). The only complaints I have with the opening theme is that it was very Yang Guo and Xiao Longnu specific... it's not until the second chorus that you start seeing other things regularly, and by then it's ending. As in LOCH, Zhang Jizhong narcissistically manages to find a place for his own cameo appearance despite screen time during Tian Xia Wu Shuang being pretty much at a premium. Jiang Hu Xiao is much better, but suffers from advertisements blocking the whole centre of the video for most of the song, with only glances of the video between adverts, nicely timed to show, you guessed it, Yang Guo and Xiao Longnu. I was hoping when I bought the soundtrack they'll have an uncensored version of the video somewhere, but it wasn't to be. I think we'll always be seeing pictures of speakers, cows, cooker hoods and basketball apparel to the music, rather than the other excellent scenes.


Conclusion

So, was I disappointed? While watching the story was rather enjoyable and gripping, and the execution of the script was done so well that it felt good, however, after it was all over, and you look back, you wonder where all those parts you were looking forward to went to, and question why did you spend so much time watching Yang Guo and Xiao Longnu do .. nothing. It's a credit to Zhang that you don't notice it much (there are scenes which you feel that really should have been in there even while watching, but most of them only come to you after you've finished and you start to think). People who are completely unfamiliar with ROCH should find this very entertaining, but for those who love the story and all its subplots and side characters are going to be disappointed. Still, it's worth having a look at it if just to experience the interpretation, and to watch some really nice scenes. It's a wonderful mosaic of art, with audio-visual effects combining with beautiful natural landscape to produce an experience which will impress the casual viewer as to how beautiful a series can be, but somewhere along the line the director forgot that there was a very deep story in there somewhere which was not given enough opportunity to say its part, and as such the whole story seems shallow and underdeveloped. There is more to a serial than just beautiful cinematography, and hopefully Zhang will take that to heart when he films "Duke of Mount Deer".


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