Picking up from last week, here is even more State of Divinity.
This is a TVB production.
TVB Hong Kong’s (and the Cantonese-speaking world’s) biggest commercial television station, and one of the most popular television production companies in all of Asia. Their hit shows get dubbed in Vietnamese Indonesian, Hindi, Mandarin, Thai, and other widely major languages.
In wuxia, ‘TVB’ is a legendary name. Many people around Asia (and in Asian communities abroad) first got hooked onto wuxia due thanks to a TVB production. TVB has also been a launching point for the careers of many of Hong Kong’s top actors. In particular, the 1980s is known as the ‘golden era’ of TVB wuxia dramas.
Well, this drama, State of Divinity, was made in the 1990s, after the ‘golden era’. Yet on every single list I have ever seen ranking wuxia dramas from the 1990s, State of Divinity is always in first or second place. This is actually the second time that TVB has adapted this novel – the first adaptation was The Smiling Proud Wanderer 1984, starring Chow Yun-fat as Linghu Chong. Yet, in spite of the fact that The Smiling Proud Wanderer 1984 was made in the golden 80s, every single reviewer says that State of Divinity is much, much better.
This is also TVB’s last adaptation of this novel – in 2000, Jin Yong revoked TVB’s license to adapt his work.
State of Divinity is not ugly. At times, it’s pretty. But if you compare it to Laughing in the Wind, which is probably the most beautiful TV drama I have ever seen, it will lose really, really badly. Therefore I will be merciful, and not compare them.
Yilin and the Hengshan Sect
I think Yilin, the young Buddhist nun, might be one of the most under-appreciated characters in the story. Almost nobody takes her because she’s just a teenage girl, and as well all know, teenage girls – particularly teenage girls with strong feelings combined with doubt – are by default silly. But if you actually think about what she says and what she does … it actually does not seem so silly after all, at least not to me.
She says that if doing the right thing would mean going to hell, then she would willingly spend an eternity in hell. Think about that for a moment. If she things that doing the right thing *might* send her to hell, that means that she does not consider the Buddhist world order to be perfectly just. While her religion heavily influences her sense of ethics, she thinks it does not have the final word on what is right and what is wrong. And she is so committed to doing the right thing that she would be willing to go to hell for it.
Can you bribe someone who is willing to go to hell in order to do the right thing? Can you threaten them?
In this respect, Yilin and Linghu Chong are very much alike. For most of the story, Linghu Chong believes that he is going to die quite soon, so whenever somebody tries to bribe/threaten him, his standard response is ‘I am going to die soon, so why should I care?’
And then there is the doubt. Her religious order tells her on thing, her father tells her another thing, and then there are the feelings inside her own heart that she doesn’t completely understand. It is therefore quite reasonable that she is not sure what to do, and she is humble enough to recognize this. However, in the deepest levels of her heart, I think she has no doubt that she wants to do the right thing, it is merely a question of what the ‘right’ thing actually is.
Of course, Yilin is part of the Hengshan Sect, which is the voice of morality in the story. And many of the issues specific to Yilin also apply to the whole sect. The Hengshan sect is an order of Buddhist nuns who have taken vows to live a simple life and do no harm. While many characters publicly praise the Hengshan Sect for their upright way of life, they privately hold contempt for that ‘bunch of nuns’. I think this partially because the nuns are women, but I think it’s also because, by putting morality and humility first, they silently critique anybody whose goal is to amass power and prestige.
It’s interesting to note that, while the Hengshan Sect has many rules, whenever those rules come into conflict with what’s right, they always bend the rule and do what’s right. This is something which almost no other group in the story will do – and indeed the Hengshan Sect gets heavily criticised for bending its rules. How dare they put ethics first! Silly women!
Laughing in the Wind removes much of Yilin’s and the Hengshan Sect’s role in the story, and I understand why – its interpretation of the story doesn’t need them so much. State of Divinity, on the other hand, really does justice to Yilin and the Hengshan Sect. They are a crucial part of State of Divinity’s humanistic vision.
The Thick, Deep Humanity of It All
One thing that is really striking about this drama is the depth of the human relationships.
For example, more than any other version of this story I’ve experienced (including the original novel), this TV show establishes really well the relationships within the Huashan Sect. While
they certainly aren’t a perfect ‘family’, overall, it feels like a tight, warm group.
Of course, this makes the eventual fate of the Huashan Sect all the more heartbreaking.
And then there is Zuo Lengshan. Unlike most of the ‘villains’, he doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities. Yet in this adaptation, he feels human. That’s not to say he is *not* a villain – his actions, after all, are pretty much the same as in every other version of the story. But it feels like there is a human being behind those actions, rather than a mere ‘bad guy’.
I think what made the difference to me was the very first episode, where Zuo Lengshan was pondering something which puzzled him. Something about that very simple act – trying to figure out a something he doesn’t understand – made Zuo Lengshan feel like a genuine person.
Indeed, it seems much of the artistic directive in this TV drama was to make everybody feel like a real person. For example, there is an entire new subplot which is added just to explain why Yue Lingshan acts a certain way (she does the same thing in most versions of the story, but it usually difficult to buy it).
Clearly, the actors put a lot of work into making their characters feel genuine, and to make their connections feel authentic. In addition to the actors work, there’s also the work of the camera operators and editors – I didn’t realize just how much of this TV show consists of meaningful glances and reaction shots until I translated that scene for Part 1. It all works really, really well.
The Bad Gender Baggage
Alas, there is a huge exception to the story’s humanistic vision, and that’s the way it handles non-binary/cis gender. Or, if I may be blunt, it’s transmisogynist.
During the course of the story, four characters lose their testicles. One of them loses his testicles in an ‘ordinary’ way – while he loses his interest in sex, his voice doesn’t change, and he generally still seems fairly masculine. This is consistent with what happens in the real world to people who lose their testicles post-puberty.
The other three, however (I am making up a term in order to avoid spoilers) ‘go through the mork’. In addition to losing their genitalia, they become stereotypically feminine – they develop an interest in pretty clothes, make-up, embroidery, etc. Clearly this is due to ‘going through the mork’, not just the absence of their testicles.
The thing is, these three characters happen to be villains.
Now, in some versions of the story, you could argue that they were evil *before* they ‘went through the mork’, and that it’s just a coincidence that the characters transitioning from male to female are all evil. Well, in State of Divinity that argument doesn’t hold – it clearly depicts the characters becoming *more* evil after they ‘go through the mork’. Now you could say that it’s just a coincidence that the same thing which makes them evil also makes them feminine … but that’s not what the characters in the story think (to paraphrase Ren Yingying ‘Don’t trust him because he’s a neither male nor female freak’).
Believe me, I have tried to interpret this story in a way which is not transmisogynist … and basically the only two ways to pull that off is a) change the story (which is what Laughing in the Wind does to reduce the transmisogyny) or b) not be honest with myself.
Some people might excuse the transphobia/transmisogyny by saying that it was written in the 1960s. My response is that Liang Yusheng managed to write an wuxia novel in 1960s Hong Kong with a transwoman character *without* implying that MtF people are evil. If he could do it, why not Jin Yong?
I am really disappointed that such a great story is also transmisogynist.
If Laughing in the Wind is a Work of Art, then State of Divinity Is a Cat
As I’ve described before, Laughing in the Wind feels like it’s been curated by somebody with impeccable artistic taste. Part of the joy of watching that show is wondering what exquisite delight is coming next, for the TV show manages to get the viewer to trust its artistic sense pretty quickly.
State of Divinity is not like that. It does not dazzle the audience with its refined elegance. It feels like a typical wuxia TV show – just as the opening theme song announces. It submits itself so entirely to being a standard wuxia TV show that it has become a ‘cat’.
The actress Uta Hagen says in the book Respect for Acting that, if you put an adult human on stage with an animal, such as cat, or a very young child, then the audience will probably pay more attention to the animal/young child than the adult human. That’s because animals/young children are not very stage conscious, and will probably act more authentically than adults who have been trained to monitor themselves. Uta Hagen said that her goal, as a performer, is to always be more fascinating to watch than a cat.
State of Divinity is so true to what it is that it sucks the viewers in and holds onto them tightly. I actually cannot think of another TV show – in any language and any genre – which excels State of Divinity in this specific respect.
And I Still Have More to Say…
So come back next week!