Guinea Pigs

*Written by Siew Lee

Recently, I have visited a lot of Jin Yong related websites and out of curiosity, I began to count the number of different adaptations made based on a same novel. 'State of Divinity' (Xiao Au Jiang Hu) has four different versions and a handful of movies which boast of big names like Jet Li and Brigitte Lin (Lin Qing Xia). 'Legend of the Condor Heroes' has two serials credited to its name and at least a dozen of movies with stars like Jackie Cheung, Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung in them. 'Return of the Condor Heroes' has four tv dramas and tons of movies starring Andy Lau, the original Yang Guo.

Alright, I'm not going to talk about the movies today as those productions last only for two hours and I don't think they can really tell the entire story contained in four volumes (average length for Jin Yong super-style novels). Instead, I'm going to ramble on and on about the television series.

What really strikes my fancy is that Jin Yong novels are increasingly getting used as 'guinea pigs' by film producers. Why guinea pigs? C'mon, why is it every time a new actor springs up and not long after, he gets to star in a Jin Yong wuxia tv series? For example, let's take Benny Chan as one of the more recent examples. After being spotted by TVB talent scouts for a Vitasoy (?) tv commercial, he was signed in as a new actor in 1996. Weeks later, he was cast as Duan Yu in Tian Long Ba Bu. As on his acting, I can't really give a fair judgment because I haven't watched it yet and I have only seen one of his series, which is 'Journey to the West II' (IMHO, is not really good). Another popular example would be from the 80's : Felix Wong and Chow Yun Fat were new actors during the early 80's and they get to star in 'Legend of the Condor Heroes' (LOCH) and 'State of Divinity' (SOD) respectively, even though Felix did produce a classic Guo Jing eventually. What about Adam Cheng, Julian Cheung and Louis Koo? One of their first few TVB serials is also Jin Yong based!

The point is, why is TVB always using Jin Yong novels as a stepping stone for new actors? I have been thinking of this question for quite some time now. My best take is that maybe those film producers thought that by using a Jin Yong novel, they can actually 'popularize' a new actor. Perhaps that is true for some cases such as Benny Chan, Adam Cheng, Felix Wong and the late Barbara Yung. What about the rest? Some are miserable failures like Chow Yun Fat's Xiao Au and Tony Leung's Yi Tian.

Most people watching television wuxia serials are fans themselves of the original books and to earn their money, this is the simplest way. Besides, using wuxia novels to film an entire series saves them money because they don't need to write a script from scratch and every single adaptation they make guarantees high viewing rate no matter how bad it is. In Malaysia, we even have Malays watching Jin Yong adaptations, plainly because they know that it's from a famous Chinese novel and they want to see what is so special about wuxia novels? In fact, Jin Yong's works have cult-like legions of fans who actually have Jin Yong wuxia research as a hobby.

Simply, it's all a trick of trade by selling Jin Yong adaptations. Personally, I will not get tired by watching different adaptations of a same story, particularly Tian Long and Yi Tian. Perhaps this is because I haven't seen a version of the characters I love being portrayed correctly and perfectly by an actor. Sometimes I get really depressed and upset when I watch versions where the casting director do not even care to read up the character descriptions in the original novel, never mind the entire book. I see ugly Yang Guos, stupid Ling Wu Chongs, brilliant-looking Guo Jings, girlish Zhang Wu Jis... The list is endless here. The only version of all Jin Yong adaptations which I really love and enjoyed is 'Legend of the Condor Heroes 1983'. The casting was so perfect that each actor is exactly like what I pictures in my mind! Guo Jing (Felix Wong) is dumb-looking, Huang Rong (Barbara Yung) is so witty, Yang Tie Xin (Patrick Tse) is so pitiful, even Miao Qiao Wei as Yang Kang is so good that it is an instant classic at first glance.

Sometimes, I don't get it. If the first version of the adaptation is so successful, why bother to make another version? All of us are mortals, and humans are inclined to compare. Now, don't anyone dare to tell me that they can watch a few different versions without comparing. I know this is a little contradicting with my earlier statement about wanting to watch different portrayals, but I often end up disappointed because the new version was not up to my expectations. Sometimes, they often give the opposite effects to the extent of me hating a certain actor's skill. Say, Richie Ren? I saw in the papers that TV3 is going to screen Richie's version of 'Xiao Au' and I don't think I'll enjoy it at all. In fact, I am a little disappointed since I want to see Benny's version of Tian Long very badly indeed.

To tell the truth, I think TVB is taking a very big risk by letting new actors test out Jin Yong-styled dramas. Yes, TVB is still earning fans' money but most won't take another look at a certain actor if he/she gives such a bad impression. For example, I don't think I would want to watch another Tony Leung movie or television drama after seeing his miserable attempt at Zhang Wu Ji.

Nevertheless, being an ardent wuxia drama fan, I'll always anticipate every new television adaptation of any Jin Yong novel. Just then, I hope TVB will create more classics on the way, especially on Xiao Au Jiang Hu and Yi Tian.

Thank you for reading.

Best regards, Siew Lee

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