It’s a Jin Yong double whammy. Last week, I discussed a manhua adaptation of The Laughing Proud Wanderer, Jin Yong’s penultimate novel. Now, I’m discussing the 2007 TV adaptation of Sword Stained with Royal Blood, one of Jin Yong’s earliest novels.
Yuan Chonghuan was a patriotic general, and the emperor rewarded him with assassination (what a nice emperor). His son, Yuan Chengzhi, is rescued, and reared at Mount Hua, where he learns some martial arts. Yuan Chengzhi, as a young man, decides to leave Mount Hua to embark on adventure, and eventually finds the martial arts manual, “Golden Serpent Sword,” and bones of Xia Xueyi, a mysterious man who had incredible martial arts skills. By studying the manual, and wielding the Golden Serpent Sword, Yuan Chengzhi inherits Xia Xueyi’s awesome abilities.
Yuan Chengzhi wants to avenge his father’s death. That’s a tall order when the target of your revenge is the *emperor of China*. During his adventures, Yuan Chengzhi discovers that the world is not quite as simple as he thought.
If you don’t know/remember who Jin Yong is, a search can help you.
This is a TV series produced by Zhang Jizhong, who is China’s star TV producer. He’s known for big-budget TV productions in which local governments often fund the construction of the lavish sets … but the local government gets its money back when tourism drastically rises after the TV series is aired (in some places, I’ve read, Zhang Jizhong’s TV productions have caused tourism to increase ten fold). He has taken much more control over artistic decisions than earlier Chinese TV producers, which is why his name is more strongly associated with the TV series than the director’s.
By Zhang Jizhong standards, this series is a bit modest.
The opening song really grew on me. In particular, I love the lyrics – they have a nice, bold rhythm and punch to them (unfortunately, this is the kind of thing which is almost always lost in translation). I think the song’s baroque tone suits the story quite well.
Of course, people who prefer sappy wuxia tunes (and hey, I like some of them) can enjoy the ending song. However, one of my favorite wuxia TV theme songs for sappiness value is not this one, but the song for the 1985 version of Sword Stained with Royal Blood, “Passions Cold, Passions Hot”.
Overall, the fighting is excellent, particularly in the first half of the series.
There is a conscious effort to be specific with the moves, and to show them clearly so that the audience can follow the fights and notice how the balance between the fighters change (fights which cannot be easily followed are boring). There’s also variety – it’s not the same fight repeated over and over again.
Most importantly, the fighting styles – by which I mean the actually choreography – are tied to the characters. Most distinctive, of course, are the strange techniques of Xia Xueyi and his strange Golden Serpent Sword. When Yuan Chengzhi picks it up, we can see the resemblance. Meanwhile, Princess Changping’s style – with her incredible flexibility – is also distinctive.
And some of it is straight-out creative. For example, there’s a scene where characters fight over a bunch of treasure chests. Yuan Chengzhi first tries to defend the chests, then the chests get used as weapons, then Yuan Chengzhi knocks the chests into the air, creates a single-stacked column of chests, and then has a precarious duel on top.
The Lighting and Colors
Look at these pictures:
Notice how it looks like all of the characters have a halo effect around their heads, in particular, their hair gets turned white by the backlight? The back-lighting forms a white silhouette of their bodies, particularly their heads.
I don’t know about your life, but in my life this type of lighting is very, very rare. So the fact that this type of lighting is the default in this TV series gives the entire show a feeling of being grander than life. Specifically, it makes the characters feel grander than life, since it is they who are highlighted by the white-silhouette effect.
Of course, by making this the default lighting scheme, deviations do stand out, which can be put to good artistic use (the best example of this I can think of is a spoiler, so I’m not going to point it out).
To get this particular lighting effect, you need to keep lots of stuff in the shadows, which explains why this series is more heavily weighted towards darkness.
Different kinds of scenes have different palettes – for example, the scenes at the palace tend to use a lot of yellow, orange, and red. However, when I look back on my impressions of the show, it seems to me that the palette was emeralds in the background, and lavender in the foreground. That palette feels just right for the story (then again, if somebody did a good job filming the story with a different palette, I might then feel that that other palette is just right for the story). These screen shots show what I mean:
I do notice a lot of the screen shots I’m using in the post are heavy on the electric blues.
A Note about Qingqing
Jin Yong’s early novels are full of tomboyish heroines who often try to pass as male. Li Yuanzhi in The Book and the Sword even asks a woman to marry her (albeit not seriously). However, I think Qingqing merits special mention because she is, if I recall correctly, the only Jin Yong female protagonist who hires (female) prostitutes to entertain her (actually, I can’t of any male protagonists who hire prostitutes either).
And I love the way Qingqing is dressed in this TV series, but since I’ve already gotten into a digressions about the lighting, I don’t want to get into a digression about costumes too.
Beijing strikes back at Hollywood
Since I had read the novel, I knew that there were some minor Portuguese characters, but I was quite surprised when I watching the TV series and suddenly heard … English???
At first I thought that maybe they had changed the nationality of the European characters, but nope, they are still Portuguese. Then I was puzzled why Portuguese people in 17th century China would speak English.
However, I would have put this issue out of my mind quickly and gotten back into the story if the Portuguese characters’ acting was good. It was not. It was terrible.
Considering that one of the readers of this column is a fluent Portuguese speaker who has experience in the film industry and lived in China for years—not to mention that there are still thousands of Portuguese speakers living in Macao—I think it probably would not have been so hard to bring in native Portuguese speakers (if you are that reader, I am interested in your take on this). And there are white men who establish entire acting careers in China. However, if getting decent Portuguese-or-English-speaking actors really was not feasible, I would have preferred it if the TV series had just let the Portuguese characters speak Chinese, with their lines dubbed in by good actors. That would not have broken the flow of the story.
That said, this is less than nothing compared to what Hollywood does to Chinese/Chinese-American people and culture (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, this website offers some clues).
And finally, as far as the story is concerned, I think the treatment of the Portuguese characters is quite kind considering the history of China-Portugal relations.
The Xia-Wen Drama
I was surprised by how caught up I got in the opera between the Xia and the Wen families. Like other reviewers, I found this arc to be the most engaging in the series.
I think this is partially thanks to the beautiful way that the choreography, cinematography, and Vincent Jiao’s acting all come together. The images of Wen Yi and Xia Xueyi on the swing are particularly memorable. This music video shows much of the footage I’m talking about.
Now, why is this more engaging than the main story, which is about somebody who wants to get revenge on the emperor, and then wants to help the peasantry, but things keep getting more complicated? After all, that is definitely more epic than a mere family vendetta.
I think it might be because the pain of the Xia and Wen families is simply more visceral. For all that Yuan Chengzhi is determined to get revenge, we actually don’t get to experience much of his pain over the loss of his father. By contrast, Xia Xueyi blaming himself for the fact that a man from the Wen family raped and murdered his sister makes his pain very apparent.
The story of Yuan Chengzhi/the Chongzhen emperor/Princess Changping is still interesting and has its moving moments, and towards the end there is certainly pain … but perhaps not enough. Even though he experiences a lot of internal conflict, Yuan Chengzhi doesn’t get thrust deeply enough into the fire to have his world burn down.
Availability in English
This TV series is available on DVD with English subtitles. Click here to be notified when it becomes available at DramaFever.
I liked the original novel – as a Jin Yong fan. Many of the ideas developed in later novels, particularly the Condor Trilogy, are present here. For example, Yuan Chengzhi’s own personality is basically a combination of Guo Jing, a little Yang Guo, and more than a little Zhang Wuji. Yet Yuan Chengzhi is much more boring than any of those three, which to me is evidence that more specifically defined characters are generally much more engaging. If, however, I weren’t a Jin Yong fan, I probably would have gotten a lot less out of the novel.
I think this TV adaptation is more fun than the original novel. Some parts are extremely entertaining, which is the main reason I’m glad I watched this series. Some parts are less entertaining, which is the main reason I’m not enthusiastically recommending it.
This TV series is superior to A Deadly Secret in every way except one: the basic story. The story of A Deadly Secret haunts me. While Sword Stained with Royal Blood is more fun, it had not made nearly as deep an impression.
Next time: Hokkien Hollywood and Anime Amoy (fandom)
Sara K. has taken a lighting design class. It changed her understanding of the world, particularly visual art, much more than she expected. She had underestimated just how much light affects people’s feelings.
On a completely different note, can you match up the theme songs of the 80s versions of Jin Yong stories with the 90s versions (i.e. figure out which songs are for the same story)? It’s pretty easy if you know the stories and/or understand Chinese, but I wonder about people who don’t know Chinese/the stories.