The Heavenly Sword and Dragon Saber

Reviewed by: Yanfeng and Puckers

December 28, 2008

Rating: four


If you like strong female-characters and in particular adore Zhaomin’s cunning, strength and wit, this might be your favorite version of HSDS. In my opinion, this is the closest-to-the-spirit-of-Zhaomin interpretation of Zhaomin to date, and is Gigi Lai’s pièce de résistance, where she takes her best type of role (smart but willful yet ultimately sympathetic) to a new level.

If I could be intellectually honest and not let my memories of childhood taint my opinion, I would tell you that this is one of the strongest version of the 5 I’ve seen (’78, ’86, ’95, ’00 and ’03). However the special spot in my heart for HSDS is reserved entirely for Tony Leung and Kitty Lai in the ’86 version, so ’00 must settle for a tied second place with HSDS ‘03. It is an honorable second spot, that is based to how well this version upholds what I think is the spirit of the serial - the characterizations are splendid, the scripting memorable and the acting added the right icing to the cake! The shortfalls here are also script related, with some jarring side-stories and poor development of minor characters (which is a crucial point to the HSDS novel, where the focus is on brotherly relations). However, this version does a very good job bringing some of the major characters to life in a different light compared to the novel. From Zhaomin to Xiao Zhao, Zhu-er to Qingshu- this version gives us fresh, and stronger persona's that we can sympathize with.

True, changing the story line has led to complaints that this version of HSDS is very unfaithful to the novel, however many of the changes worked for me. It may be worth noting that major changes to the story line of any novel are usually badly done and do not add to the story. The 1995 version that tried to make a melodrama of HSDS falls squarely in this category. And even in this version, some of the plot changes were dubious and made me roll my eyes (Zhaomin’s ‘death’ plot was a little overdone, as was the extended story around Wuji’s 6th Wudang swordsman’s romance with Bu Hui), but I consider many of the changes true to the spirit- if not letter- of the story and hence found they added to rather than subtracted from the experience.

For instance, the many twists introduced on the war between Ming Sect and the Mongols made Zhaomin’s switch over to the side of the Ming Sect seem less abrupt and more reasonable. One of the sore points for me in all the versions and the novel, has been the way Zhaomin has been shown to, in a moment, abandon home, family, her people- all for Wuji. Here Zhaomin is shown to go back to save her family- only leaving to get Wuji out of the quandary, but not willing to abandon her beloved family nor stir trouble for her people, which raised my level of respect for her another notch.

As an unrelated aside, it was charming to see TVB put up another HSDS, even using the actor who was the clever 4th Wudang swordsman in the ’86 version here as Wuji’s maternal uncle, the flirtatious Ying Ye Wang. Similarly the actor for Zhaomin’s father in ’86 played the same role in the ’78 version. It lends continuity to the series of serials and reminds us that TVB’s wuxia-legacy goes back many decades.

Characters & actors (Spoilers warning!)

Charmaine Sheh as Zhirou was a very pleasant surprise. I’ve generally found the characters Charmaine portrays to be unmemorable- she lacks a certain spark that really makes a role seem real to me. Casting her as the complex Zhirou seemed a risky move, but paid off richly as Charmaine painted for the audience a vulnerable Zhirou who, out of a twisted self-defense, turns into a vengeful head of Ermei. I have never been a fan of the character Zhirou – neither in the novel nor in any screen version– but this Zhirou inspires much sympathy without alienating me with overly done craziness. Charmaine Sheh’s tendency to underplay her characters pans out well here, as she give us a Zhirou who is essentially a passive villain – evil only in reaction to the cruelties done to her. While many other actresses are either too abruptly cruel (Gao Yuanyuan in ‘03 struck me that way) or do not make the transition into evil well (Sheren Tang in ’86 was not as convincing in the part of villain), Charmaine managed to make Zhirou’s change believable – she was sweet and soft as the initially innocent Zhirou, and she kept her soft and hesitant nature, but grew capable of evil as the tormented-by-her-shifu Zhirou. Overall a great performance and insightful casting.

Gigi Lai as Zhaomin was the highlight of the serial for me. I like Zhaomin – ever since Kitty Lai won me over with her sweet portrayal of this clever, willful character, I have been a fan of the character. In HSDS 2000, it’s half the script and half Gigi, but this Zhaomin has a distinct mean streak and her cunning is definitely not entirely roses and sugar. She’s spoiled and willful, capable of being cruel and also full of herself. She has plenty of reason to be so confident, being also supremely capable- in fact almost unbelievably masterful. She is the jewel in her father’s house – playing political games with the “big boys” and skillfully navigating the intricacies of the Mongolian imperial court. She is the mastermind of her family and, together with her battle-proven father and older brother, they are a family to reckon with in the Mongolian empire. Where other versions of HSDS gloss over her capabilities, here a few side plots are devoted to showing us just how cunning Zhaomin is, and also why she has every reason to be cunning. Growing up, and dealing every day with power-hungry fellow royals who would happily swallow her and her family whole at the least let up of wariness or least show of weakness.

Lawrence Ng as Zhang Wuji gives us an exceedingly gentle portrayal of the indecisive, accidental hero, which unfortunately made Wuji pale in comparison to the colorful and interesting women who surround him. Perhaps it’s the script that focuses mainly on the women, and perhaps it is how warmly but placidly Lawrence chose to portray Wuji, here Wuji is a sweet, charming, good, torn but ultimately forgettable lead. Lawrence gets a lot of flak for being older than Wuji is supposed to be, and lacking the young, innocent, guileless facet of Wuji’s. Its also true that he seems very serious and not as light-hearted as other adaptations have shown. However, I think Lawrence makes up for part of that by his ability to generate chemistry with Gigi Lai.

Wuji and Zhaomin’s relationship, for me, is one of the key points of the series. Lawrence’s Wuji in particular had a very different relationship from Zhaomin as from other serials. In other adaptations Wuji was very inexperienced and comes off as less exposed to the world than the razor-sharp, street-smart Zhaomin. Here, Lawrence plays a much more mature Wuji, who is, while still bewildered and charmed and confused by Zhaomin’s lightning fast changes, and yet flattering attention to himself, still holds his own. I think that makes the relationship a very grown-up one, where there is mutual understanding and acknowledgment (e.g., its clear from Snake Island that Zhaomin is the dearest to Wuji). This is not to say there’s not any funny moments in their romance! Actually, the script here scores by giving Zhaomin a very sharp, incessant tongue and strong understanding of Wuji which she uses to her advantage- e.g., watch for her amusing teasing of Wuji about being distracted by passing pretty faces. A particularly funny added scene is one where Zhaomin rags at Wuji over Zhiruo- she keeps cutting Wuji off until he is forced to seal her acupoint for speech in an effort to be heard, and even then he keeps having to turn her head back toward him so he can talk to her! J This is then followed by a touching speech by Wuji about him having decided to resolve the matter between him and Zhiruo by dissolving their marriage agreement. Again a mix of humor with a much more grown-up, communicative relationship between Zhaomin and Wuji than we’ve seen prior to this version. Not my favorite portrayal, but I have to say it has its own charms and I was moved by their mutual, mostly unspoken commitment to each other.

Cherie Chan gives us a very sweet-looking (even if still disfigured) Zhu-er. One of the interesting twists to the plot in this version of HSDS is the expanded role of Zhu-er. Like in the novel Zhu-er does not really die on Snake island, instead she lives, but unlike the novel or other versions she reappears soon after Wuji and company leave the island and there is a side story related to her finally making peace with her father. I like the new Zhu-er- Cherie’s Zhu-er is impulsive, does random small acts of kindness or cruelty, and has a bizarre form of logic, not entirely in sync with the rest of the world’s. Yet ultimately she is compassionate, fully of smiles and provides some comic relief in a series populated by more serious characters. It was amusing watching her interactions with Zhaomin on the island- manipulative Zhaomin managed to corner Zhu-er into doing something Zhaomin wanted, but Zhu-er, ever the peculiar one, does it her own way (in this case by nearly drowning Zhaomin first!)

Liz Kong as Xiao Zhao does not fare as well in her role. While the script also gives Xiao Zhao an expanded role, Liz Kong applied a relatively limited emotional range to her persona, which did not leave the audience feeling much for a character that is meant to be smart and yet struggling with torn loyalties. It was also difficult to see what affection was meant to be between her and Wuji.

Damian Lau as Zhang Cuishan, Mi Xue as Ying Susu. I was as delighted as Jinyong is reputed to have been (apparently he considered the casting to be “a long-held dream come true”) when Damian accepted the role of CuiShan. Long time favorites of mine, Damian was charming as Cuishan and Mi Xue was stunningly beautiful as ever (not a hint of age!) and between them flawless created on screen romance as they have many times over the last 2 decades. The level of comfort that these two brought to their roles was undeniable and in particular their death scene was one of the most moving in the series.

As a general comment, I’m impressed at the pedigree of actors and actresses who have graced the HSDS screen as Cuishan and Susu- I imagine because they are relatively large roles which nonetheless have short screen times and can be slotted into busy schedules of well established actors like Simon Yam, Dodo Cheng, Francis Ng (in the Jet Li movie version), Damian Lau and Mi Xue. In the novel, Wuji as an adult doesn’t really appear until halfway through the novel- so there is quite a lot of character development and storyline progression with his parents, which I am glad this and the 1986 version pay homage to.

Sadly the more minor characters were mostly forgettable. Xie Xun, who is a towering figure throughout the novel, is here neither particularly imposing nor has a particularly warm relationship with Susu, Cuishan and Wuji. Ying LiTing (Wudang 6th swordsman) is not the dreamy romantic that you hope for, and even Song YuanQiao (oldest disciple to Zhang SanFeng) is not the tragic hero who leaves a deep abiding mark on Wuji and the audience. Where, one wonders, is the silly and disrespectful Zhou Dian, the sad and loyal Fan Yao, the clever 4th Wudang swordsman, the fiercely obsessed Mijue ShiTai? There are quite a few fine actors that fill these minor roles, but I feel their talents are wasted on either very little screen time (e.g., Song Yuan Qiao is not front-and-center at each scene with the Wudang disciples) or else poor scripting doesn’t give them the right character development (e.g., Ying LiTing’s extended story with Bu Hui added little, but instead seemed the same scene over and over, and left me yawning.)

The most notable exception is Lau Daan as Zhaomin’s father- Lau Daan (probably most famous for his role as Hong Qi Gong in the Condor Heroes serials) gave us an exceedingly cunning, grand and proud Mongolian Prince who loves his daughter heartily and was heart-broken by her final decision to leave for an (in his view) inglorious fate. Yet he would give his life so she could leave to pursue her love and life and it is his sharp-witted ploy that finally saves Zhaomin life and sets her free. Another fine role and performance from an actor from whom I expected nothing less.

Of the other minor characters, perhaps it is only Yang Xiao (played by Eddie Kwan), Song Qingsu (played by Raymond Cho) and Ying Ye Wang (played by Wilson Tsui- who was the memorable 4th Swordsman of Wudang in the 1986 version) stood out with some character development of their own.

Martial arts and visuals

Least the version seem perfect, let me say that I’m not a fan of some of the decisions on the visuals- one crucial example is the ‘love scene’ between Cuishan and Susu, which had Damian perched on a crevice, costume awkwardly whipping in the ‘wind’ kissing Mi Xue. It looked painful rather than romantic, distracting from rather than creating a mood.

In terms of the martial arts I’m usually content with some relatively suspenseful, fast action that’s not too full of weird cgi. This version’s martial arts work were mostly a wash- this had a good mix of wire work and creative hand-to-hand combat, though some of the cgi effects were not as discreet I’d hoped.


As I had mentioned earlier some of the script changes had me rolling my eyes as well- Zhang Wuji mistaking Zhaomin for dead not just once, but twice? Zhu-er almost dying falling off a cliff after almost dying in Snake Island? Some of the script-writers’ liberties seemed to be difficult to swallow- however, I’ll say that this version mostly stays true to the spirit of the novel and I‘m quite a fan of some of their changes that give us more insight into the characters.

Zhaomin’s character gets quite a revamp, mostly for the better! For instance, she uses suicide tactics on the Persian Ming Sect enemies out of desperation to save Wuji, not simply because she was jealous of Zhu-er (which made me cringe in both the novel and the other adaptations!) She also is made more sensually playful, where the novel and other adaptations have her biting Wuji’s hand to make sure Wuji remembers her all his life, this Zhaomin daringly bites Wuji in the lips during a kiss on Snake Island for the same effect! In addition, like in the 2003 version, Zhaomin has a very significant storyline away from Wuji’s storyline- e.g., when she is cast off from Snake Island, she faces multiple challenges trying to rejoin her family and endures much at the hands of her enemies- each time escaping on her own strength and the loyalty of her underlings. Through it all, we are shown that Zhaomin doesn’t believe in bowing to difficulties, if she’s trodden upon, she is trodden upon swearing revenge and plotting her next step- to borrow a cliché: She doesn’t get mad, she gets even!

The expanded role of Zhaomin’s family is also a nice call- perhaps a tad cheesy at points, but it does give us another facet of Zhaomin (loving daughter and loyal commander of her underlings- it was quite touching how she would care for her underlings when they got hurt and they were willing to give their lives for her). Plus it is a taste of all that Zhaomin ultimately sacrifices to be with Wuji, just as we can appreciate all the friends and honors Wuji leaves behind to be with her.

Costumes and scenery

Quite impressive costumes and scenery for a TVB production, though I think the more lavish Chinese productions leave this one still trailing. Nonetheless, Zhaomin’s costumes were unerringly lovely, particularly the final costumes she had in white and lavender- gorgeous!


Well worth the time to explore whether you’re a HSDS newbie or have read and seen multiple versions of the story- though if you’re a HSDS veteran, you would have to keep an open mind to see if the plot changes are to your taste!

In the end, the all round strength of the 1986 version of HSDS still makes that my favorite on-screen adaptation. Still this adaptation does have its great strengths (notably the scripting and casting for the main characters), alongside its flaws (some awkward plot twists and lack-luster scenes and acting for secondary characters), and I find it a ‘keeper’- one of the versions of a fine story that has withstood the test of time for me since I have taken great pleasure in re-watching this one over the years!

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