Review by C.J. Bunce
Despite living in an international economy with the ability to communicate via portable devices with literally anyone on the planet, it’s a shame that the exchange of culture between the Western world and China is still stuck in the 20th century. We only just saw an English translation of one of the best, most widely read, epic fantasy novels from China this year with the release of A Hero Born (reviewed here at borg), only the first book in author Jin Yong’s 1950s wuxia novel series. The books have been adapted and interpreted over the past 70 years into dozens of films, TV series, and spin-offs. But until recently they have only been available in China, or for those outside of China who have taken efforts to seek them out. A Hero Born is only the first of twelve novels in the saga The Legend of the Condor Heroes. Even without global circulation the series has influenced countless other stories, including so many elements of George Lucas’s Star Wars saga audiences will lose track of all the common elements. If you think Lucas based his story only on the works of Akira Kurosawa’s films from Japan, think again–there’s as much Condor Heroes in Star Wars’s galaxy as Hidden Fortress.
The most recent adaptation of the The Legend of the Condor Heroes story can be found in a 2017 series, starring well-known actors in China. It’s only available if you’re willing to pick up an international DVD player, or you track it down on YouTube (both available in subtitled English editions). But if you watch it–a whopping 52 incredible hour-long format episodes, you’re in store for one of the finest, most exciting genre series you’ve ever seen. The quality of the production, the incredible martial arts work and visual effects, and top quality acting is prompting us to add this series to our own “Best of 2019” review coming later this month. Sure, it’s two years since it came out in China, but there is no U.S. distribution channel. Ideally Netflix would pick it up as they did for this year’s Korean series, Kingdom. Two pregnant women escape an early 13th century conflict as their husbands, sworn brothers in spirit, are killed. Their sons grow up separately, unaware of each other. Guo Jing is honest, loyal and righteous, but slow to learn socially, and more importantly in the ways of the martial arts. The other, Yang Kang, is clever and suave, but scheming and treacherous. They eventually meet each other and their respective lovers, Huang Rong and Mu Nianci.
Directed by Jiang Jiajun (also known as Jeffrey Chiang), the series follows Guo Jing, raised as Song and living on a rural farm with his mother. He soon saves a man, a warrior in conflict with a general who will rise to become history’s Genghis Khan, and in doing so he is trained in bow and arrow in Khan’s legion. Soon he is also taken on by seven martial arts masters in the techniques of kung fu, but they train him for a reason he is not aware of. They made a wager at the boy’s birth with another martial arts master, a man who agreed to train the other boy, Yang Kang. On the boys’ 18th birthday they are to meet at a restaurant where they will compete–the winner will determine who wins: Jing’s seven masters or Kang’s master. Unfortunately, Jing is awkward at basic moves including skywalking, while the other boy takes to kung fu very well. But circumstances favor Jing, and others come along to fill in the blanks so that he can make a good showing when he turns 18, form a bond with friend and lover Rong, and go on to meet the Five Greats and compete in a mountain contest at the highest level.
The real-life war between the Song, the Mongols, and the Jin forms the backdrop to this adventure. Full of excitement, humor, and colorful characters, the series pulls out all the stops for its visual effects. Most Western audiences have never seen the hand-to-hand combat techniques used in the series, including the ancient “skywalking” mentioned above, walking across water, walking up the sides of mountains, and defeating opponents with secret strengths. It’s swordplay like you’ve never seen before in a Western film. The adaptation of the novels is painstakingly accurate, including the detailed movements of Tai Chi, each which carries its own meaning. Some characters are from Chinese history, while others were created by Jin Yong (also known as Louis Cha Leung-yung) for his story.
Jing is played by Yang Xuwen, also known as William Yang (Painting Jianghu), who you’ll watch grow from boy to man over 52 hours onscreen. Kang is played by Chen Xing Xu (The Last Prince). The women in the saga are equally compelling in the story–both Rong and Nianci are equal or better in fighting skill to Jing and Kang. The crafty, swift, and engaging Rong, played by Li Yi Tong, also known as Lei Yat Tung (Sword Dynasty), is one of those unique genre heroines that you’ll never forget. She’s as if you dropped the heroine of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the middle of an ancient Chinese battle–both dramatic, physically adept, and full of funny quips. The fourth member of the young lead cast of characters, Nianci, played by Meng Ziyi, also known as Zoey Meng (Starlight), takes to Kang in the story, and gets her own compelling story arc.
Other actors in the series include a legion of well-known major actors of China, each supplying the kind of supporting actor performance that would garner numerous Emmy and Golden Globe nominations in the states. More than sixty major characters include Zong Feng Yan (Switch of Fate) as Kang’s adoptive father, an opportunistic political leader; Ping Hui Tay as Genghis Khan; Violi Mi, also known as Mi Lu, as Mei Chaofeng or “Cyclone” Mei, a fantastic kung fu master who has delved into the dark side of the arts; and Fu Tianjiao as Khan soldier Jebe.
The scope is as big as China itself–it’s a film twenty times longer than, but of similar grandeur as Doctor Zhivago, Alexander Nevsky, Ben-Hur, The Fall of the Roman Empire, or Lawrence of Arabia. If you liked the series Knightfall and Wu Assassins, the aesthetics of the movie The Great Wall, or if you loved the Jedi Order in the Star Wars saga, you’ll be impressed with this series. The costumes are the most elaborate you’ll find on a television series, and the music as sweeping as the adventure.
You’ll need to do a little work to find the 2017 version of The Legend of the Condor Heroes. It’s available on DVD here at Amazon, but it is NOT playable on most U.S. players, so you’ll need to find a compatible player if you take that route. All 52 episodes also appear on different YouTube channels like this one.
The fantastic historical fantasy series The Legend of the Condor Heroes–it’s some of the most fun you’ll ever have watching television.