State of Divinity

Reviewed by: Andrew Leung

February 20, 2009

Rating: five

Genre: Swordplay Drama, Wuxia Drama

1996 TVB Production with 40 episodes

When I watch wuxia series nowadays, the atmosphere of the series feels a lot different than it did back in the 90’s. The series today are generally focused on the characters and their relationships to give the popular actors and actresses more screen time. This is all fine and dandy but sometimes this comes at the expense of the plot. We have long (and often boring) drawn-out relationships arcs that stretch a series past the 30 episode mark. Rather than being plot-driven, these new series tend to be overly character-driven. Haven’t you watched a wuxia series but got bored by the long “draggy” relationship arcs? Sometimes you start to wonder if you are watching a modern drama set in ancient times rather than a “pure” wuxia series. You start to wonder if the “wuxia” ingredient is indeed missing in the recipe. It seems like making a plot-driven series is a lost art these days. I consider the 90’s to be the landmark era for TVB wuxia because the emphasis was on the storyline rather than the actors or actresses. With plot their first priority, these wuxia series were generally more faithful to the source material (i.e. the novel). A plot-driven series tend to have excellent pacing since the “draggy factor” is driven to a nil. Don’t you miss the days where almost every scene in a series was engaging and helped push the overall plot forward? The character development also feels more "natural" in a plot-driven serial as the actors and actresses get just the right amount of screen time. When the focus isn't on the plot, the producers often get carried away with the character relationships and the series starts to feel less like wuxia and more like a modern drama.

While the 80’s TVB series had superior acting and the recent China wuxia series had great scenery and sets, the 90’s TVB series were the king of plot-driven wuxia serials. We’re talking about no nonsense, straight-up, pure, heavily plot-driven wuxia. Nobody does it better than TVB in the 90’s. State of Divinity (1996) with Jackie Lui and Fiona Leung is probably the best representation of TVB wuxia during this era. Unlike other adaptations of Jin Yong’s famous novel “Xiao Ao Jiang Hu”, State of Divinity is regarded by many as the most faithful adaptation of the novel to date. This was made possible because TVB believed that plot was paramount. This kind of faithfulness is nearly impossible today as plot is no longer the first priority. The producers have other priorities such as showcasing their star actors and actresses and making sure they get appropriate screen time. With many priorities, the plot itself is no longer king and the pacing of the series often suffers as a result. With State of Divinity, the pacing is perfect. There is no useless scene. Every scene contributes to the overall story. You don’t have to be worried about dragged out relationship arcs that contribute nothing to the overall arc. Every scene “feels” like wuxia. A perfect plot-driven series like State of Divinity literally feels like you’re watching a novel unfold on screen.

There is no doubt that China’s Xiao Ao Jiang Hu 2001 series was amazing. The authentic costumes, the amazing natural landscapes, the real authentic sets, the expensive special effects and the greatest fight scenes ever to be displayed on screen make this series my favorite wuxia of the entire decade. I loved how the atmosphere was both serious and dark, making it the most “mature” adaptation to date. It felt like I was watching a really long big-budget movie. But despite all that, I found myself enjoying the 1996 State of Divinity more. Why? How can this be so? Well even with its relatively cheap costumes and sets and a much lower budget, State of Divinity placed greater emphasis on its plot. And that my friend does WONDERS. With a perfect plot and pacing, you can watch the series over and over again and never get bored. This implies that the plot is the most important factor in a wuxia series. Everything else follows from it including the character development. When a series is driven by a fantastic plot, even the poor scenery and special effects don’t hamper the experience.

I won’t discuss the plot and character portrayals specifically because I’m sure most of you are already quite familiar with the story or read other reviews. Needless to say, I consider Xiao Ao Jiang Hu as Jin Yong's masterpiece. The story is just perfect (and dark!). The actors and actresses also did a fantastic job portraying the characters. They all played their roles really well with no over-acting or exaggeration. They also got just the right amount of screen time. Essentially, everything felt really natural in this plot-driven serial. Some of you may have watched one of the other adaptations such as the 80’s version with Chow Yun Fat, the 2000 version with Richie Ren or the 2001 version from China. If you can get your hands on State of Divinity 1996, I highly recommend you watch it even if you know the story inside out. It’s one of the greatest wuxia series to date and you get to see why TVB was king of plot-driven serials in the 90’s. My only complaint is that there is no ultimate showdown between Ling Hu Chong and Yue Buqun. They made it rather ambiguous as to how Ling Hu Chong could counter the Bi Xie swordplay. That's one aspect I liked about the 2001 version of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. Anyway if you want to see Dugu 9 Swords, Ling Hu Chong, Ren Ying Ying, Ren Woxing and Dongfang Bubai the way they were meant to be seen on screen, go find this series now! The only problem is that the series is quite rare. TVB still hasn’t released an official VCD or DVD version yet.

Overall I rate this 5/5 stars and is one of my favorite wuxia series EVER. Long live plot-driven wuxia serials!

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