The Spirit of the Sword


Reviewed by: jotaro

February 13, 2010

Rating: five

This series which purports to be from the novel by Gu Long, features
excellent acting and masterfully choreographed fight scenes as I have
come to expect from anything written by Gu Long, although it is not
the fights that attracts the reader to his stories. Over the years
series producers and directors have paid loving homage to this
brilliant writer. This series is no exception. The scenery for the
story looks pretty good but the “desert” scenes leave a lot to be
desired. The performances by the actors are fine but the desert
scenery does not fool anyone. In his novels, Gu Long does not pay too
much attention to history and focuses his stories on the subtle and
overt emotional interactions between the characters. However the
period costumes look to be about the time of the Qing dynasty. In Gu
Long’s writings, history is assumed and understood but not something
that is dwelt upon. I don’t know how close this story is to the novel
but the series directors do manage to stay close to the spirit of the
novel with the very clever plotting that is the hallmark of the Gu
Long’s martial arts stories.

The Story:
The story begins where any good jianghu story should begin, along a
marsh by the rivers and a lake. The opening scene has a young couple
holding a baby child. They are Huo Feiteng and his wife (played by
the lovely Zhou Li) Yanzhu. Their peace is disrupted when a man
suddenly rides in and tricks Yanzhu into leaving her husband and going
back to her dad. It was all a trick conceived by her dad who hates
Feiteng. The man had switched the authentic goodbye letter Yanzhu had
written to a letter that denounced her love for Feiteng. Feiteng was
saddened and filled with anger. Feiteng never discovered the truth
and in his anger he chases down Yanzhu and confronts her with the
false letter. He shows her the false letter and with a flourish of
his sword destroys the letter and thereby destroys his relationship.
To Yanzhu’s utter horror, Feiteng takes his son away from her and
abandons her to her father and goes off to look for his mystical
swords.

The swords represent supremacy in the martial arts world (wulin).
Eventually the seeking for the swords would be the legacy he leaves
his son. In his searches, Feiteng discovers a rare sword but then he
must confront a rival in the form of a powerful Japanese swordsman.
He too is searching for these swords. In a confrontation Feiteng and
the swordsman have a spectacular fight and Feiteng is killed but out
of a deep sense of honour for Feiteng the swordsman decides to raise
and train Feiteng's son in the martial arts. Feiteng’s son (Nicholas
Tse), Huyan Dazang becomes the lead protagonist of our story and takes
up his father’s quest. Nicholas Tse's portrayal is charismatic.
Typical of Gu Long protagonists, the actions of Dazang speaks louder
than his words.

As our story continues, Yanzhu remarries and not much is said about
how that happens but somehow she has a child with Huo Yuan but her
deep love remains with Feiteng. Huo Yuan’s brother, (Patrick Tam) Huo
Feng is also deeply infatuated with Yanzhu. Patrick Tam’s character
in the opening scenes is very one-track. The focus is only on his
infatuation but as the series develops the skill and subtle
versatility of Tam’s performance is developed as his character, Huo
Feng confronts and interacts with the other characters.

Tragedy strikes twice in the Bai family when Yanzhu discovers the
truth of her father’s, Bai Sankong’s (brilliantly portrayed by Ji Chun
Hua) betrayal and trickery regarding the letter. In a fit of despair,
Yanzhu throws herself off a cliff while simultaneously Huo Feng
accidentally stabs Huo Yuan who also falls off the cliff to disappear.
They have fallen off the cliff supposedly to their deaths. The
opening scenes set up everything for the coming events and the
development of the martial arts protagonists. Before Yanzhu died she
gave birth to a second child, Fang Baoyu (elaborately performed by
Qiao Zhen Yu). Baoyu becomes our second main protagonist.

Meanwhile the two boys grow up in separate worlds. Huyan Dazang
becomes a master swordsman under the tutelage of his Japanese master.
Fang Baoyu grows up with his grandfather and is forced to watch from
the sidelines because his grandfather Bai Sankong does not want him to
know the martial arts.

In the wulin world changes are happening. The chancellorship is under
the Wudang master, priest Chisong. But Chisong is a man with a past.
Long ago he fell in love with a young lady and together they had a
child. The child is Benyue (played by the pretty actress Yang Rui)
who later is raised by Huo Feng. Huo Feng is like Chiu Liu Xiang from
Gu Long’s other stories. He has become powerful in wulin and he lives
on a boat with two lovely women.

In the course of the series we are introduced to several characters
including the secretive, Mulang (Zhao Hong Fei), the lovely princess
Tuochen (Annie Yi), the happy drunkard Jin Zuyang and some masters of
Shaolin who are all wonderfully portrayed by an excellent supporting
cast. The other lead character that needs to be mentioned is Pearl
played meticulously well by the very beautiful Gillian Chung. Pearl
is the main love interest of Huyan Dazang but she is also the daughter
of the conniving and despicable Wang Dian played by Xu Xiang Dan.
Wang Dian desires the chancellorship in wulin and with the help and
support of Bai Sankong he manages to attain his dream. Bai Sankong is
evil but never in a way the compromises his sense of honour and his
love for his grandson Fang Baoyu and his daughter Yanzhu. The same
cannot be said for the other main antagonist Wang Dian who comes
across as a psychopath. It will remain debatable whether he redeems
himself in the end or not.

The series follows four love stories cleverly woven together by the
directors into the complicated plot. There is the stormy love story
between Fang Baoyu and Benyue, the love between Huyan Dazang and Pearl
(there is one very moving scene in a flower field), the strange love
between Tuochen and Mulang and the complex love between Huo Feng and
Yanzhu. Yanzhu had somehow survived and became the head of a powerful
underground sect (Aqua Palace) and through much of the series she
wears a mask/veil.

The martial arts scenes are a wonder to watch. The protagonists’
skills are carefully analyzed and mixed into the plot. Fang Baoyu
discovers the tomb of his half-brother Dazang’s father. As he
accidentally falls into a pit he finds a powerful secret manual
engraved near the tomb. When Baoyu resurfaces from his undisturbed
training he becomes powerful in the martial arts.

An important supporting character is Jin Yuzang, the happy drunkard.
He fights with the drunken style and he bestows a special sword to
Baoyu. The directors of the series take care to pay attention to the
details of the martial arts as characters’ skills grow. The fights
have a progression. For instance, Huyan Dazang’s killing stroke is
eventually solved by Jin Yuzang. The key denouement to the story
comes in episodes 26, 27 and then again in episode 36 which leads into
confrontations to come at the end of our story. Of course, it is in
the final episodes that everything is resolved. I hope this series is
not underrated because it was a wonder to watch for the visual
effects, scenery and acting. I was pleasantly surprised.

As a fan of wuxia series, this series gets ***** stars for acting,
martial arts scenes and the story. The set design is excellent
throughout the series with the exception of the desert scenes. Set
design gets ****.


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