"Xiao Ao Jiang Hu" is one of my TOP 3 favorite Jin Yong's wuxia fiction novel. The other two are "Legend of Condor Heroes" and "Heaven Sword & Dragon Sabre." There are so many English titles for this novel, so I prefer to mention it generally with its original Chinese title. There's something special about this novel and its adaptations that sets it apart from other wuxia works.
First of all, most probably the hero, Linghu Chong who might just be everyone's most favorite Jin Yong hero, because he is a happy-go-lucky, carefree, confident guy, with a high sense of humor and not indecisive when it comes to women, unlike other Jin Yong heroes who mostly gets wishy-washy with the ladies and some are reserved and introvert.
Second, the story is not only about martial arts but also about martial artists who loves music, and for the first time in wuxia fiction history, a music score book is passed down instead of a powerful martial arts manual. A few characters' passion in music makes the story interesting and I like the idea that the characters are not all about martial arts, it makes them humane and real.
Third, I find it very interesting that each TV series adaptation has a very different approach and style. In my opinion, the fact that the main female character, Ren Yingying's face and identity aren't revealed, until the exact middle of the story makes the novel's adaptations gets creative in an effort to make the leading ladies appear since the beginning. Ren Yingying's very late appearance in the book, plays a big part as to why one adaptation can be very different than the other.
For instance, "Legend of Condor Heroes" TV series adaptations aren't that different from one to another, because the main female character appears quite early and stays by the hero's side for most of the book.
It's not just Ren Yingying. "Xiao Ao Jiang Hu" also has many flashback stories that can be adapted as the first few episodes of the adaptation. Some adaptations shows how Dongfang Bubai rebels and takes over the Sun and Moon sect, another adaptation shows how Huashan split into two factions, another one has the first met story of Qu Yang and Liu Zhengfeng, the music book composers, etc.
Not to mention a Tsui Hark film, Bridgette Lin's version of Dongfang Bubai has also made a revolution in the "Xiao Ao Jiang Hu" fandom and has many followers among the TV producers, that they develop the character and imitate her version for their TV adaptations. Dongfang Bubai's line in Tsui Hark's film "I want you to remember me, always" (or smth like that) has been repeated in, at least, two TV adaptations.
I find it really interesting to watch each and every adaptation of "Xiao Ao Jiang Hu" because each of them has different approach due to those various factors. I will fully compare and review of the seven TV adaptations and will only make short review for the widescreen films, because I don't think the limited duration of films can do any justice to the book and so it'll be like comparing apple and orange if I include them.
The Smiling, Proud Wanderer / TVB (Hongkong) / 1984 - The THEMESONG version
The very first TV series adaptation starring Chow Yun-fat, Rebecca Chan, Jamie Chik and Tung Wai, this series doesn't get much recognition as much as the other Jin Yong adaptations in the Golden 80s. The problem lies mostly on the miscasts. Also the fight choreography depends too much on the colorful CG effects unlike the other TVB 80s series. I dub this as the THEMESONG version because the only amazing and memorable thing from this adaptation is the themesong "Siu Ngo Kong Woo" (Xiao Ao Jiang Hu) sung by Johnny Yip and Frances Yip. It's one of the most epic and classic wuxia themesong and the tune really suits the spirit of the story. I feel like inserting this song somewhere in every TV adaptation of this novel! Other than the themesong, there's nothing much I can praise about this adaptation. It's not that bad either, actually, it's just really, really mediocre and fails to shine.
The Smiling, Proud Wanderer / TTV (Taiwan) / 1985 - The FORGOTTEN version
The forgotten adaptation starring Bryan Leung and Leanne Liu. I feel sorry for this version, it has never been mentioned at all in any "Xiao Ao Jiang Hu" discussion. Chow Yun-fat's version is constantly mentioned here and there as a comparison, but I didn't know this version exist until I check Wiki, ha. As a matter of fact though, I find this version, actually, slightly better than the TVB84 version. This one turns out quite an okay and decent adaptation, to my surprise. It has a relatively better cast, nice story pacing and beautiful outdoor locations. This one certainly has bigger budget than any TVB series in the 80s. Also, there's no draggy parts or overly dramatized moments, that I'd expect from Taiwanese series. I will also remember this old Taiwanese adaptation for casting the 2nd best Yue Buqun next to the CCTV version.
State of Divinity / TVB (Hongkong) / 1996 - The FAITHFUL version
For novel purists, this is definitely the best adaptation ever, starring Jackie Lui, Fiona Leung, Cherie Chan, Timmy Ho, and He Meitian. If you don't like reading books but you want to know how the original story goes, then watch this adaptation. It is 95% faithful to the book, almost zero changes and there're just two or three additional plots/scenes. I watched this without subtitle and opened the novel translation in another window and I can understand what's going on without any problem, because they took the lines straight from the book word by word. The faithfulness rate is amazing. However, it doesn't make a single effort to correct things in the book that does not go well for TV screen. Although it has a good script and relatively quite solid cast, with the terrible fight choreography, terrible themesong and music, low-budget sets, props and costumes, this adaptation fails to impress me, or maybe I expected too much, because many fans praises this one as the best. I do find it enjoyable though, because I like some of the cast.
State of Divinity / CTV (Taiwan) / 2000 - The DRAMA version
Produced by an old lady, Yang Peipei and starring Richie Ren and Anita Yuen, this adaptation probably is the most popular with its negative critics toward Richie Ren. I read negative comments about Richie before I see this and I confirmed with my own eyes that Richie Ren was one horrible Linghu Chong. Actually, I enjoyed the first few episodes as it focuses on Ren Yingying and the Sun and Moon cult. I like the drama weight puts on the characters in the beginning. Qu Yang and Ren Yingying became adopted father and daughter, and QY tried to raise RYY to grow to be a kind lady with moral. It's pretty much like Yang Peipei's very own fanfiction. The story in the beginning also gives the feeling like the Sun and Moon sect members are one big, warm family. The conflicts between them looks more like a family problem rather than conflicts between martial artists. I really don't mind the changes in the beginning. However, when Qu Yang was accused by Xiang Wentian that he had an affair with Ren Woxing's wife, so RYY might just be QY's biological daughter, the drama element is getting out of hand and gets too soapy to my liking. There was also an additional plot of Qu Yang's romance with Ren Woxing's wife's younger sister. Then the story gets more and more draggy, and sometimes it takes so much time for one part to get to the point, too much talking. I really like the themesong a lot though, "Si Bu Liao" sung by Richie Ren.
The Legendary Swordsman / TCS (Singapore) / 2000 - The ROMANCE version
Starring Steve Ma, Fann Wong, Jacelyn Tay, I read so many bashing about Steve Ma's noodles hairstyle in this version, LOL. To my surprise, I actually like this adaptation! *gasps* It's quite an enjoyable and likeable adaptation, for me. I find it funny that this adaptation has the most romantic Linghu Chong and gives the overall romantic feel to this adaptation. I mean, Linghu Chong flirted and teased Ren Yingying since the first time they met in Episode 1, lol. It also has an additional subplot of Tian Boguang and Lan Fenghuang's romance. It has pretty good, romantic original music scores, as well, I love the BGMs and the romantic insert song by Fann Wong. All romantic elements aside, the overall production is actually pretty good and I respect the Singaporean crews for their effort and passion in making this series. To be honest, I underestimated this version because it's a Singaporean and I had low expectation. Turns out, the choices of locations are pretty decent, nice and beautiful, though they shot in Singapore and Myanmar, so it's kinda funny to see "Xiao Ao Jiang Hu" with tropical atmosphere as background, lol. Not great, but pretty good! Maybe people who criticized this version, got too distracted with LHC's noodles hairstyle, lol. I managed to keep my focus other than the noodles hair, so I quite enjoyed this version.
Laughing in the Wind / CCTV (China) / 2001 - The BADASS version
The first Jin Yong novel adaptation produced by Zhang Jizhong, starring Li Yapeng and Xu Qing, this adaptation was said to be the one adaptation that Jin Yong was most involved with. I dub this as the badass version because anything were made more badass than it is in the novel. The changes were made to make either, a character or a scene looks more badass. This might be the only adaptation where you can see bald, badass nuns kicking butts. This is the first adaptation focuses on showing how harsh the martial arts world is and focuses on showcasing artistic and innovative fight scenes rather than telling the story. They even made up impressive fight scenes that doesn't exist in the book, and all the fights are done in a very cool style. It has a darker tone than the book, so it might not be to everyone's liking. This adaptation is very realistic, detailed and artistic. It has a very solid cast and excellent directing style too, in my opinion. Unlike most of XAJH adaptations that starts really good but then goes downhill in the last half, this version is the exact opposite. The most exciting part is the last half, instead, and the first ten episodes were quite boring and stale. Well, I love badass stuff, I guess that's why this series is my #1 all-time favorite. Too bad, Zhang Jizhong's other adaptation weren't made as badass as this one, except maybe, Demi Gods and Semi Devils 2003. I also love the themesong "Xiao Ao Jiang Hu" sung by Liu Huan and Faye Wong, it suits the badass fight scenes in the series.
You can read my detailed review on this series.
Part I : The Music Score http://yanie02.livejournal.com/231979.html
Part II: One Year Punishment in Huashan http://yanie02.livejournal.com/232368.html
Part III: Granny at the Green Bamboo Lane http://yanie02.livejournal.com/232676.html
Part IV: Rescuing the Holy Maiden from Shaolin http://yanie02.livejournal.com/311732.html
Part V: The Chief of Northern Hengshan Sect http://yanie02.livejournal.com/312042.html
Part VI: Final Battles http://yanie02.livejournal.com/312212.html
Swordsman / Cathay Media (China) / 2013 - The FANTASY version
Yu Zheng's first Jin Yong adaptation starring Wallace Huo, Joe Chen, Yuan Shanshan, Yang Rong and Chen Xiao. This adaptation merges fairytale and wuxia, everything in this adaptation is fantasized. Be it the costumes or the sets, the overall production provides striking, candy, rainbow colors that makes everything looks like a Japanese animation. The costumes looks really similar to those RPG games characters' costumes. They made the Sun and Moon cult looks more like a kingdom than a cult. They even call Ren Yingying, the princess. I actually enjoyed the first few episodes. The prologue story that tells Dongfang Bubai's rebel against Ren Woxing was done in a very cool style, it was exciting to watch, though I had to roll my eyes when RYY's mother and her maids jumps off the cliff with umbrellas ala Mary Poppins. However, Yu Zheng has a huge problem in casting actors. Most of them are miscasts. Watching Linghu Chong vs Tian Boguang scenes, I immediately think they should've cast Han Dong as LHC instead, he is more natural in comedic scenes, while Wallace is like a wooden doll. Yang Rong (Yue Lingshan) and Yuan Shanshan (Ren Yingying) should've switched roles! It irked me when RYY acted more like Yue Lingshan. And everyone in the cast are just too young and too handsome/beautiful, although I squealed watching how handsome and cute Qu Yang and Liu Zhengfeng are in this version, but it gets tiring because I'm the type who can't keep much of a suspension of disbelief. It's also tiring to watch Dragonball style fights instead of martial arts fights in a wuxia series, for me. Everything goes down the drain when it was Dongfang Bubai who forced Tian Boguang to find Linghu Chong, instead of Monk Bujie (Yi Lin's father), it was Dongfang Bubai who made Linghu Chong's inner wound becomes worse instead of the Six Fairies of Peach Valley, and it was Dongfang Bubai who sacrificed herself confined in Shaolin in change of Linghu Chong's life, instead of Ren Yingying, and then... it was Ren Yingying who took Linghu Chong to the Plum Manor instead of Xiang Wentian.... WTF!? The story changes got out of hand to the extent that it's missing the whole point of the original story. This adaptation is no doubt the version that I hate and cannot stand the most. I really don't mind plot changes, but this one I cannot tolerate. If you have never read the book or watch any of the previous adaptation, and you're a young adult or younger, I think you're definitely gonna like this series, because overall it's a good, eye-candy and decent production.
I will start from the ones I dislike: Richie Ren and Wallace Huo. Aside from the fact that Richie portrayed LHC as an innocent and a bit dumb young man, he lacks acting skill, on-screen presence and charisma to be a lead. I think Richie suits Guo Jing more and there was a rumor that Yang Pei Pei have bought copyrights for LOCH in 1999 and was going to produce the series with Richie Ren as Guo Jing and Ruby Lin as Huang Rong, but the production never progressed, most probably because Jin Yong have banned Yang Pei Pei after SOD00. Wallace Huo was really disappointing, because his facial expressions are so stiff, I'm not sure what's wrong, but it doesn't seem like he put his heart and mind at all in portraying the character.
I'm indifferent toward Chow Yun-fat and Bryan Leung. I guess the character just doesn't suit them and Bryan looked too old to be Linghu Chong. They portrayed LHC playful and outgoing quite okay or just so-so, in the first half but then mostly serious and depressed in the last half.
My third fav is Steve Ma's portrayal. Though, I totally hated his Zhang Wuji in HSDS94, I quite like his portrayal as Linghu Chong, funny, laid-back and over-confident. Though his Linghu Chong is more of a casanova and acts like "I'm the hottest guy in this planet" throughout the series, lol, but his portrayal is still fun to see because he portrayed the carefree, outgoing, playful side of LHC very well. His LHC is very confident too, more confident than the book, probably. I read that Steve acts here the same like he does in other TV series, then I'm guessing he's just acting as himself, which suits half of LHC's character, and that's a good coincidence.
First place... I gotta decide between Li Yapeng and Jackie Lui, none of them are perfect, imho. Many fans thinks Jackie is the best Linghu Chong, but I was slightly disappointed when I watched him in SOD96. No doubt, Jackie is very natural in portraying the fun, laid-back side of Linghu Chong. I love the scenes when Yue Buqun was lecturing him and he mouthed the same exact words like he has heard it so many times. But he doesn't do that well in emotional and/or romantic scenes. The overall feel of his version of Linghu Chong is relaxed, playful and calm. When he's making a joke, he jokes in a composed manner. When he's sad, he stayed quiet. While the book's Linghu Chong is very expressive and emotional, when he's happy he get all excited and funny, when he's sad he could cry his eyes out. I still enjoyed Jackie Lui's portrayal generally, though.
The best Linghu Chong's portrayal for me is Li Yapeng. Although the way he switches from funny mode to serious mode is too drastic and makes the "acting" too apparent, but I think he did a very good job in portraying the character's many sides. His version of Linghu Chong might be the only one who could make up his mind in turning Yue Buqun into his enemy in the last three episodes and felt no remorse when he killed him with his own hand, and that's why I think he's the most badass LHC. Other adaptations had Linghu Chong crying over Yue Buqun's death.
CCTV and Zhang Jizhong had several discussions with Jin Yong himself during pre-production, so I'm quite sure Li Yapeng's portrayal was generally close to what Jin Yong had in mind and JY did make a statement that he really liked Li Yapeng's portrayal. Li Yapeng is quite a versatile actor because he was also very good as Guo Jing, and he looked like a totally different person in LOCH2003.
I kept wondering if Andy Lau or Tony Leung plays Linghu Chong and Margie Tsang or Shallin Tse play Ren Yingying, would it make the TVB84 one a better adaptation? I'm just thinking either Andy or Tony can definitely portray Linghu Chong better.
I dislike Rebecca Chan's RYY because I think Rebecca looks like a middle-aged woman even when she was in her 20s and she lacks the acting skill, too. I irked the first time I see Yuan Shanshan's face cos I thought her face is so fake, I googled a bit and I was right! I really can't accept Ren Yingying with a face that has gone through plastic surgery T_T I want my RYY played by a natural beauty. She acts more like Yue Lingshan too, rather than Yingying, she doesn't has the commanding presence or anything evil in her portrayal.
I love Xu Qing's portrayal as Ren Yingying, above all. Jin Yong said to her "You're the Ren Yingying I've always imagined!" and I'm on the same boat with JY. She's definitely THE Ren Yingying. I absolutely love the many sides of Yingying she portrayed, esp. the fact she can command people with fierce expression and commanding tone, but then her face and voice turns to a 19 year old girl in love in a matter of seconds, so naturally. She's just phenomenal!
I love Anita Yuen's RYY too, but her portrayal is more mature and gentle than the book's RYY. I like her being cruel in the beginning and she definitely has the commanding presence. Fann Wong definitely suits an evil lady role, she's good in making fierce expressions. She lacks the commanding presence a bit, but the scene when she command DFBB's men to switch side and obey her, and then she turned to LHC with a little girl smile, was memorable for me. I quite like Fann's RYY cos she managed to portray different sides of her, although her acting skill is just average.
Leanne Liu and Fiona Leung portrayed Ren Yingying similarly, shy and introvert, but nothing really stands out from their portrayal. Leanne Liu played Dongfang Bubai in Richie Ren's version, so I thought she can portray RYY's commanding presence well, but I was wrong. Maybe it was the script.
In terms of their screentime, Rebecca-Leanne-Anita appeared since the beginning in a same way, they didn't really meet Linghu Chong until the Green Bamboo Lane in Luo Yang, but they get their own plotlines separately from Linghu Chong's plot. Which I think is weird and has no point for showing the male lead and the female lead's plotlines separately, without them meeting each other. People who doesn't know the story would be confused as the male and female leads are totally strangers and didn't know each other in the beginning.
Xu Qing and Fann Wong appeared in a same way, they met Linghu Chong since the beginning and LHC knew them as the Holy Maiden first. I find this way flows the plot more smoothly since at least, the male lead knows and familiar with the female lead already, so the audience won't be so confused when showed the female lead's separate plotline.
While Fiona and Yuan Shanshan didn't appear at all until the scene in Luo Yang for different reasons. Fiona in SOD96, because it stays true to the book. YSS in Swordsman, because the female lead in this adaptation is actually Dongfang Bubai.
Another interesting thing from Ren Yingying's portrayal in the TV and film's adaptations, is the fact, that each and every one of them makes RYY's trademark is a whip as her weapon, although that's not in the book. Xiang Wentian did use a whip as weapon in the book, but not Yingying. However the very first film adaptation of the book, the 1978 Shaw Brothers film had RYY using a whip to fight Dongfang Bubai, and somehow, since then, the other adaptation follows.
Continue to Part 2 of the review.