Heavenly Dragons

Reviewed by: Siew Lee

December 31, 2007

Rating: four


They are creatures of mythology, fantasy and imagination. The Chinese believe that dragons are the most powerful beasts of all and they represent 'yang'. In ancient times, Chinese emperors wore nine embroidered dragons on their robes as they believe that they were sons of the heaven and naturally, only the dragon is fit enough to represent them. In fact, it was a crime in olden days to draw a dragon without eyes as this meant that the emperor was weak. The penalty: death.

Alright, enough on emperors. Today, I'm going to talk about one of Jin Yong's more popular works: Tian Long Ba Bu. Literally, it translates to 'Eight Sections of the Heavenly Dragon'. No-one knows for sure how Jin Yong got this name. Some say he initially planned to write about eight characters, but only managed three. Some say that it was based on some mythology. All the same, he wrote a classic.

I personally *do* like this story for all those unexpected twists and turns, except that I don't really like some of its characters. I am not a romance fiction fan, just for the record. This is also the only Jin Yong novel which I have read *after* I watched the television adaptation. Since I don't think I would want to write two different articles for the novel itself and the television adaptation each, I shall stuff the two into one single review.

I'll start with the book first. Basically, Tian Long is a story about three entirely different people who, by chance, meet and become sworn brothers. The story is really interesting but I just dislike certain characters in the book. The three then have many adventures together but I shall say that one hero (my favorite too...) ends in tragedy.

The book starts off with Duan Yu, a prince from Dali with no knowledge of kungfu and a heart of gold. Along the way, he meets quite a few pretty girls and of course, he falls in love with them. There is Mu Wan Qing who is very fierce and slaps Duan Yu at the slightest provocative. It is by chance that she chooses Duan Yu to be her husband but Lady Luck isn't by their side when they finally discovered the truth that Mu is actually Duan Yu's half sister. After that, he meets a few more girls who each, turns out to be his half sister. Sometimes, I do pity him. Every girl he meets has to be his half sister... He has to be the most unlucky guy in the entire wulin.

The second hero is Qiao Feng, the leader of the Beggar Clan. A man of principles and bravery, he is respected and admired by the wu-lin as one of the most powerful fighters. By resisting Mistress Ma's seductions, he becomes the subject of treachery and evil plots to destroy him. A tragic character, I say, but so far, my favorite Jin Yong hero.

The third hero is Xu Zhu, a monk. He too has a heart of gold and is really into Buddhism. He meets a old lady who has the looks of a young girl (!) and she abducts him to Xi Xia. On the way, she tries to make him break the five pillars of Buddhism. She finally succeeds when Xu Zhu sleeps with the Xi Xia princess in some cold storage room filled with ice. I honestly don't really like this character, but since Jin Yong wrote about him in the book, I'm not in any position to say anything as I'm only a fan of his works.

Since this article is written mainly for tv drama review sites, I'm going to go into detail about 1996 TVB adaptation of this story. I think I better tell the story in full, rather than saying a rough outline because the plot is rather, er... X-rated, if readers think on the wrong side.

Basically, 'Tian Long' is full of that three-lettered-word. I guess Jin Yong must have been on this weird mission to write about exotic stuff when he started this novel. Incest, infidelity, betrayal, cruelty... You name it.

First, we see Duan Yu meeting Zhong Ling, a young girl of about 15. Somehow, both of them get into trouble and Duan Yu is sent by their kidnappers to get help. On the way, he meets Mu Wan Qing, a masked girl. After that, Mu and Duan Yu rescue Zhong Ling and later, under strange circumstances, she chooses Duan to be her husband. The story goes on to the point where Duan Yu returns to Dali with Mu and they plan to get married before discovering that Mu is actually his half-sister. Mu then runs away and meets one of the 'Four Evils', who happen to be the ousted heir of the Dali throne.

The ousted heir is portrayed in this story as a guy with blond hair and walks around with crutches. Naturally, his kungfu is really good and he is on this mission to destroy the Duan family, who he sees as his enemies. He then told Mu that he is able to turn her half-brother into her husband and tells her to follow him. Mu is led into a cave where she finds Duan Yu there (he was abducted by the blond guy's accomplices). After eating food laced with aphrodisiacs, the two fight their will to... well... uh... consummate their relationship. Somehow, Mu and Zhong Ling switch places and the entire plot to destroy the Duan family is shattered into a thousand pieces.

Later, Duan Yu meets Wang Yu Yan who looks like a statue he found in a cave and he falls for her. This time, head over heels. After a very long and torturous courtship, they finally become a couple only to have Duan Yu heartbroken once again when his father reveals that Wang is actually his half-sister. I tend to believe that the Semi-devil in this series has to be Duan Yu's father. I mean, he is why everything happened in the first place. During his heydays, he went around sleeping with women who later bore him at least five daughters, including all the girls Duan Yu fall for. This guy's a big sinner.

Next, Qiao Feng's story is very different from Duan Yu's. This guy's unfortunate. First, he is ousted from his position as the leader of the Beggar Clan. Next, his beloved Ah Zhu died because he mistook her as his enemy and landed a fatal blow on her chest. After that, he is torn between the Hans and the Ji Dans. Also, Qiao Feng is the center of a plot to destroy the Song dynasty. At least for once, Qiao Feng's story doesn't revolve around 'it'.

As for Xu Zhu, I don't know what to say about him. This guy is lame. Very lame. He is dumb. He is weak. He is ugly. Somehow, he is the luckiest guy I have ever come across. Just because he wins a game of 'wei-qi' by luck, he is given 70 years worth of 'zhen-qi' and 'nei-gong' by an old man. After that, the poor guy is abducted by an old lady to Xixia and there, he breaks the five pillars of Buddhism. At that time, he is even enthusiastic about sleeping with that 'Meng- gu' of his. Worst still, he has the guts to talk about it in front of those Shaolin monks. ::Siew Lee still can't believe that Jin Yong wrote about someone this dumb::

Alright, case closed on the story. Here, I'll talk about the casting before going into other sections. Overall, the casting is okay and I don't really have any complaints about them. For once, TVB has finally filmed a viewable television adaptation since 'Legend of the Condor Heroes 1983'.

For the role of Duan Yu, Benny Chan was cast. I am not really a Benny fan and I have only seen him in one drama which is 'Journey to the West II'. He didn't give me a very good impression (I would say that his performance is mediocre) and I am not expecting anything perfect out of him since 'Tian Long' is his first try at acting. Anyway, his portrayal of Duan Yu is better than I expected and he is able to show the compassionate feelings Duan Yu has in his heart. Better still, the Duan Yu he played managed to make me feel like wringing his neck out. ::laughs:: That was one thing which the Duan Yu of the 80-s version failed to do and that's a good sign since the Duan Yu who Jin Yong wrote about also gave me the exact same impulses. I only have one single thing to comment about his acting: when he is trying to help others, he looks as if he is going to play a trick on them.

That disturbs me.

On the second thought, I think Benny didn't really understand Duan Yu's character before playing him. In the book, Duan Yu is quite dense when it comes to sex and intimate relationships, but in this adaptation, he sounds and looks like he is Mr. Karma Sutra incarnated. I mean, Benny doesn't look (or at least, act) like some innocent young man. Yes, I do think that his Duan Yu is in heat or something. I mean, not many guys are able to make me blush and Benny is the second guy who managed that (Takeshi Kaneshiro is the first). There are many situations in drama itself showing that flirtatious look in his eyes. For example, in the scene where he carries Zhong Ling out of the cave, that very grin he has on his face will make any viewer think that he had sex with the girl on the grounds that he didn't do anything with except for the moaning. Another example is the part where he helps Wang Yu Yan to get her clothes on. In the older version, Tang Zheng Ye did bring out the 'dumbness' of Duan Yu perfectly. I guess Benny just didn't bring out the innocence Duan Yu possesses. If I am to cast Benny as any wuxia character, I'll give him Xiao Yu Er's role in 'Jue Dai Shuang Jiao'. He is better off playing a mischievous person.

On the other hand, Benny's looks do match Jin Yong's description of the Dali prince. He's fragile looking (for a guy) and he has that sad and droopy look in his eyes. Half of the time, he looks so sad and adorable at the same time that it makes you want to give him a big hug. He acts pretty well for a first timer and his portrayal of a traditional Chinese scholar is very good indeed. ::Siew Lee shudders at the memory of Gallen Lo's acting in few of his first dramas::

Next, I would like to comment on Felix Wong's portrayal of my beloved Qiao Feng. I know it's difficult to find an actor who can play this character I love so much right up to my expectations. It is just human nature to find fault in the actor who is playing your favorite Jin Yong hero. In other words, I think Felix is a good actor but I just feel that he wasn't acting 'in' character enough. Felix seems to be restless and agitated throughout the entire series. I tend to picture Qiao Feng as a solemn and quiet man who expresses his feelings through actions, rather than words. The Qiao Feng in this version is too talkative and this reduces the 'tragic-ness' of the entire story. And, he looks too brutal at times, especially when Ah Zhu died. I will gladly prefer Felix to act really heartbroken than look like he wants to kill anything moving in sight. At least, he should try to look tragic and act tragic instead of just trying to explain the entire misunderstanding. In fact, Qiao Feng didn't get any chance to clarify his stand in the book. Just for your information, he failed to bring tears to my eyes except for the part where he killed himself. As for the physical actions (all the kungfu fighting), they are good. Honestly.

As for Xu Zhu, Terry Fan did play a very good version of the shy and straight-forward monk, which is as good as Felix's (Felix played this character in the 80's version) portrayal. Although his acting is a little fake-looking, but I guess it is still good. His doe-eyed look did get me quite frustrated at him but I guess that is a good sign since Jin Yong *did* say that the monk is a fellow who thinks only of Buddha and good deeds. Yeah, he acts really dumb. I mean, just look at his face when he was jockeyed between Xiao Yau Sect and his original Shaolin Sect. By the way, he has one of the nicest bodies among TVB actors. Even better than Richie Ren's. ::Siew Lee drools at the thought of those perfectly sculptured muscles:: Seriously, I'll be the first to give Terry the role of Guo Jing if I am to be in charge of the casting in any future productions. He's good, in a strange way.

As for Carmen Lee, I don't think she played a very good Wang Yu Yan, but it is passable. From my point of view, she just acts like she is playing Xiao Long Nu. The coldness... ::shivers:: To top it, I don't really like Wang Yu Yan either. Look, she rejected Duan Yu for Mu Rong Fu. Later, when Mu Rong dumped her, she went back to Duan Yu looking for someone to comfort and love her. Earlier, she told the poor guy (who is madly in love with her because she looks like a stone statue he found in a cave) that she would only love Mu Rong. How lamer can she get? I just can't believe that she can just love another person seconds after she was just dumped by Mu Rong. I don't think Wang really fell for Duan Yu all along. In other words, I feel that she is an opportunist. A clever one, at this rate. As a conclusion, I just don't think that she deserves Duan Yu and all the sacrifices he made for her. I guess all these factors do contribute towards my negative outlook on Carmen's performance. In fact, I do prefer her double role as Wang Yu Yan's fierce mother. She looks a lot more domineering and bold.

Ironically, Mu Rong Fu is also my favorite Jin Yong villain. I mean, he is strong-willed and outright cool. Let's not talk about how he dumped Wang Yu Yan for the Xi Xia princess. If he didn't dump the girl, there would be no story on Duan Yu and Wang Yu Yan. I admire Mu Rong for his will to revive his family throne and also, his wish to succeed. In the older version, Shi Xiu played Mu Rong. Although he wasn't handsome, he carried out Mu Rong's dashing etiquette and chivalry perfectly. Truly, I regret ever seeing the '96 version of Mu Rong Fu. The actor is too old and you can actually see the wrinkles around his eyes and forehead. In short, he looks like a wimp. I mean, Mu Rong Fu is about 28 in the book and why did TVB cast a 40 year old man as Mu Rong? Next, he didn't bring out the hidden will for vengeance and hatred beautifully enough. I used to picture Mu Rong Fu as a dashing and handsome (and tall) man with very powerful kungfu, but the actor disappointed me here. Not only did he whimper along the entire show, he also didn't show all those cunning actions Jin Yong wrote so well about. I guess he didn't have the height and looks needed for a basic portrayal of this villain. I guess he is the only actor who isn't acting well enough.

Here, I'm giving extra credit to Rain Lau who played Ah Zhi. Boy, she is really evil. That demon-like girl... I like her acting very well indeed. In fact, she is one of those few actresses who has actually managed to play a better version than the portrayals from the 80-s. Rain Lau plays Ah Zhi, a girl who is brought up by her evil and cruel master and later, falls for her own brother-in-law. Naturally, she is very cruel too and enjoys torturing other people. I kind of pity the guy who she burnt an iron head-like mask onto his head. The guy sacrificed so much for her yet she took him for granted. Oh well...

Speaking of kungfu moves, I do think that Terry Fan's punches and kicks are very solid and stable. In fact, better than your regular karate black belts. I mean, I have trained martial arts for a decade and I still can't get my moves as sharp and solid as his. Unlike those moves by Benny and Felix which are mainly enacted by swinging their legs and arms, Terry did act like he is really skilled in martial arts.

Next, I'll rant on the costumes. The costumes are basically alright, but there are still quite some irritating points. First, it is Duan Yu's headgear. I don't care what excuse they are going to give me but does that kind of Chinese headgear exist back in the olden days? I don't get it. Jin Yong *did* mentioned that Duan Yu wears a 'fang jin' (literally, it means square cloth) but is it worn like how Benny wore it? I personally think that the 'fang jin' which Jin Yong meant is a type of square-like hat. It was popular with Chinese scholars all along; that was, before the Manchus had their turn at ruling the country. TVB just took Jin Yong's descriptions literally. Otherwise, the rest is viewable.

Naturally, I still prefer those shiny fabrics TVB used to make their costumes back in the 80-s. The 80-s Duan Yu had really beautiful clothes (all those velvet and satin...) and those lavish- looking fabrics would really fit a Dali prince. In this version, Benny Chan just looks like any normal scholar. C'mon, Duan Yu is royalty and second in line to the Dali throne yet he wears clothes made for a commoner? I don't get it sometimes.

Here, I'm going to recommend this to TVB: please send your makeup artists for a professional course. The makeup is very poor, I dare say. From my point of view, those bald heads (monks from Shaolin, namely) look really fake. I mean, all of us know that those shiny bald heads are mainly makeup only but at least show us the effort taken to make them look real. What is this suppose to mean? People in Malaysia spend so much money renting the entire series and they give us monks with skin-colored plastic fabrics glued to their heads? Luckily I managed to be patient until Golden Star had this promotion where old serials (1 year or older ones) were rented out for only 1/4 of the original price. That means, I watched the entire set for merely RM23 (US$1 = RM3.80). At least I got my money's worth.

Next, I shall give a thumbs-up for the directing and the script writing. The directing is well above average because the director himself actually made sure that the actors didn't go out of character too badly. I have seen Taiwanese directors mutilating those Jin Yong characters I love so much (namely the person who directed the Taiwanese version of 'Shen Diao') and the man who directed Tian Long did a comparatively better job than the other party. As for the script writing, I'm really impressed as they didn't change anything obvious. Frankly, the serial is 95% accurate! I mean, they did cut out some parts and changed some scenes like the section where Qiao Feng looked at a broken teapot (it was a wood carving, originally) in his old home. Also, the part where Ah Zhu imitated an old man was gone. As I said, those are minor parts and they do not affect the main story in any possible way. All the same, they are telling the same story. Qiao Feng was *still* reminded of his childhood, regardless of what he looked at.

As for soundtrack and theme song, I have a separate rant for them. The theme song is by Emil Chau (Zhou Hua Jian) and it works rather well for a regular pop song, but that doesn't mean that it sounds like a song composed for a wuxia drama. As far as I'm concerned, the lyrics do not match the story in any way, unlike the Taiwanese Yi Tian which Emil also sang the theme song. It all boils down to personal taste. I prefer songs like 'Xiao Li Fei Dao' by Roman Lo and 'Cang Hai Yi Shen Xiao' by Xu Guan Jie.

One thing about the soundtrack is that TVB is infamous for copying background music from Western dramas. I nearly choked on my food when I suddenly hear that Xena song playing in the background while the guys are having some sort of a huge fight. I mean, it sounds awkward. Xena and Duan Yu do not go together and I am little shocked by all that blatant stealing. I know that Hong Kong dramas do steal background music from Japanese anime (cartoons), but grabbing that Xena theme is too disturbing.

Overall, I think the story is going to a little too fast for anyone who hasn't read the book. I mean, it's perfectly alright for me as I have already seen the entire story through words but for other people like my brother, everything is happening at a break-neck speed. TVB obviously couldn't spend more time on thoughts and explanations through the characters as the book did. I guess they are very obsessed with the cost where money is concerned and they don't bother to spend more film just to get the message across. Many wuxia tv fans who have either read the book or seen the older version will say that this version is the best among all adaptations made in the 90's. This is because they *know* what is happening and what will happen next. This makes the entire procedure of watching the drama considerably easier. My comment is: slow down when a break is needed for some thinking and get on with the story.

Please note that everything which I am going to write here in this paragraph is purely my personal opinion and I do not want people sending me flames over this. Frankly, I hated the ending TVB gave me and they destroyed the beautiful inner-character of Duan Yu which Jin Yong wrote so beautifully about. I tend to picture Duan Yu as a kind person who thinks of other's interests before his own, but TVB destroyed it by making Duan Yu act unfair towards Mu Wan Qing.

In the original story, Duan Yu married all three girls (Wang, Mu and Zhong Ling) and I think that is fair towards all three girls, since they are equally his cousins. TVB's version shows a different ending. In the mentioned ending, Duan Yu only married Wang Yu Yan and his true birth heritage isn't made public. I mean, what is wrong with saying that his real father is the ousted heir of Dali? Okay, maybe it is a little degrading to his mother, but what about Mu Wan Qing? To the very last scene, Mu still thinks that Duan is her brother and they can't commit incest. That is on the grounds that Wang Yu Yan is Mu's sister. That is really unfair after all the sacrifices Mu made for Duan Yu. She has the right to know the truth. Now imagine what will happen next. Mu will suffer from all those emotional scars for the rest of her life because Duan Yu refused to tell her the truth.

That is the thing which destroyed the entire series. Now, I won't give it a perfect 5.

Alright, I'll be ranting on the production costs. Obviously, Tian Long 96 is a low cost production initially intended to suck blood out of wuxia fans. All Jin Yong adaptations by TVB are low cost productions. A script written from scratch isn't needed. They have ready-made wuxia fans who will just rent any Jin Yong adaptation available in the video shop. That means, any Jin Yong production, no matter how bad it is, will get a considerably high percentage of viewers. They save thousands on advertising. Besides that, they can get people to see their new actors, hoping that they will soar in popularity. That means, more profits again.

All TVB productions are commercialized. The motto: minimum costs, maximum gains.

It is all very obvious. The scenery is made out of cardboard. The houses are constructed out of a mixture of cheap plywood and paper. The makeup artists did a really bad job. The clothes are old ones from previous costume dramas.

But 'Tian Long '96'' turned out to be a good watch. It has considerably good actors who did their best, a good director, a perfect script and I can see that nearly everyone did their best at making it viewable. Well, except for those makeup artists. At least I get to see Felix Wong in action. He is one of my favorite actors. Not handsome though, but he has excellent acting skills. At least I get to watch one of the better adaptations TVB came up with together with 'State of Divinity 1996'.

As for the story itself, it is quite confusing and I think that most people would have to watch the drama two times before getting the entire plot clearly. For the very beginning, we are told that Duan Yu is Zhen Nan Wang's son and all the girls he fell for (Mu Wan Qing, Zhong Ling and Wang Yu Yan) are his half-sisters. That means, all of them share a father. For Duan Yu to marry any of them, he will commit incest. Then, right at the ending of the story, his mother revealed that Duan Yu is actually the son of Zhen Nan Wang's cousin, which makes those girls he fell for his first cousins. Talk about coincidence.

After that, Qiao Feng's story is equally confusing. He was jockeyed between the Hans and the Ji Dans. Poor thing... Basically, he was a hero searching for his identity who, I am very sad to say, ended in pure tragedy. His undying love for Ah Zhu was very touching too and to think that she died because he accidentally injured her...

All of these elements combined into a marvelous story with splendid acting from many actors, namely Felix Wong and Benny Chan. I admit that there are flaws but nothing is perfect in this world. At least I'm glad that TVB is still capable of filming good Jin Yong adaptations. In fact, I like 'Tian Long '97' better than 'State of Divinity '96'.

Anyway, one of those rumors I have heard is that Yang Pei Pei, the mastermind of that horrible adaptation of Shen Diao, is planning to film her version of Tian Long. After reading that piece of news in a local Chinese paper, I began to have really bad nightmares. I mean, just look at my earlier article on Shen Diao (which is entitled 'Who has the say? Jin Yong?') and you will get what I intend to say here. There are news too that Richie Ren is going to be cast as Duan Yu. ::Siew Lee blacks out from the shock she receives:: That guy has bad acting skills and really under average looks too. He has beady eyes (which his hard core fans say romantic) and he looks really ugly. No, not all girls say that he is handsome. Newspapers also report that Richie Ren is interested in the role of Duan Yu, which drives a shiver down my spine.

From my previous experiences, Yang Pei Pei is really notorious at mutilating novels while rewriting the script. It just leaves me cringing at the thought of having Duan Yu seducing every female in sight and Qiao Feng becoming a crying wimp. You know, Taiwanese dramas are famous for all that crying, weeping and wailing. What next? Maybe Mu Rong Fu as a saint? Xu Zhu as a brilliant person? Wang Yu Yan as a powerful female da xia? Who knows? Perhaps 'Tian Long' might even turn into another typical Qiong Yau story.

Now I know why Jin Yong is so happy with mainland productions based on his stories. They aren't so commercialized and they really go into the characters and plots. I do hope to watch one of those adaptations from China one day.

One day...

By the way, since I'm going to end this report, I might as well write something on those e-mails I have received since my review of the Taiwanese Shen Diao went online on both SPCNET and my personal website. I have read both positive and negative feedback sent in by readers and all the same, I wish to thank all of those who have spared some time to write me a letter. I may not be able to reply them all but this is just to let all of you know that I appreciate your e-mails.

One thing which really upsets me is how few of Richie's fans reacted to my review. Some of them even accused me of trying to sabotage Richie's name. Please, people. I am a fan of Richie's too and I love most of his songs like 'Xin Tai Ruan'. It is just that I don't admire his acting skills. As a true fan, try to accept your idol's weakness and I believe that is the way to show him support. He just isn't made to act properly.

Some people also accused me of not giving the Taiwanese Shen Diao a fair shot and I was only talking about the bad points, leaving no room for the good aspects. I'm a frank person and I don't like beating around the bush. I believe that honesty and frankness is the only way to write a good review and I don't think that 'giving face' works either way. When I see a good point in a series, I'll say so. If I don't see one, I will not going around forcing myself to think out a good aspect. I don't believe in giving chances when the drama doesn't deserve one.

Anyway, I still say that 'Tian Long '97'' is a better of the lot from the 90's and I'll give it a 4 out of a maximum 5. Do try watching it if you can and if possible, do read the book first before viewing this drama. You'll get terribly lost if you don't.

At least get a friend or relative to explain along the way.

Thank you for reading.

A Jin Yong purist,
Siew Lee
*I still like reading books...*

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