I recently saw the entire 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ (or rather San Diu Haap Leoi since it’s in Cantonese), a.k.a. Return of the Condor Heroes, starring Andy Lau as Yang Guo (or rather Yeung Kuo, since it’s in Cantonese – you know what, I’m not going to try to keep track of the Cantonese names, I’m sticking with Mandarin).
In the Hong Kong wuxia TV shows of the early 1980s, they clearly put a lot of effort into fight choreography, and make it really seem like the characters are making lots of physical contact with each other. Additionally, unlike 21st century wuxia TV shows, there was no CGI in the 1980s, which makes the fights look more ‘real’. A lot of people really like the early 1980s wuxia fights, and I can see why.
So what are my problems with the fight scenes?
The first problem is that it is monotonous. After a while, all of the fight scenes just seem to be the same. Though I have my own criticisms of the fight scenes in newer wuxia TV shows, at least they have more ~variety~ so I do not feel like I am watching the same fight over and over again. For example, in the 2006 TV adaptation of there is the fight scene with umbrellas (is there an umbrella fight in the original novel? No. Do I care? Not really).
My favorite fight scene in the 1983 adaptation specifically is when Guo Jing is taking Yang Guo to the Quanzhen monastery. One of the reasons it is my favorite is that it displays more creativity than most of the other fights.
Another problem is, well, notice that my favorite fight scene in is Episode 3. Out of 50 episodes. Having the most satisfying fight so early in a TV show is not so great.
Take a look at this fight scene in the final episode where they are trying to rescue Guo Xiang. Aside from the weird lighting, there is nothing special about this fight scene. It’s just a bunch of characters using standard fight moves that the viewer has already seen a zillion times by this point. It is as if the fight choreographer was tired at this point and was just phoning it in.
Yet another problem with the fight scenes is that the emphasis placed on them is sometimes out of proportion to how important they are to the story. For example, while I really liked Guo Jing fighting the Quanzhen monks in Episode 3, that is a fight with relatively low plot value. So it is jarring when key fights which have very high plot value are cut short. For example, when Xiaolongnü fights Golden Wheel Monk the first time, it’s a big deal. There has been a lot of plot build-up to this specific fight, and the outcome changes the direction of the story. In the original novel, this fight scene is about 10 pages long. Yet in this TV adaptation, the fight is only about a minute long. It was a let down for me.
I also do not like the 2014 version of this fight. I definitely prefer the 2006 version of this fight over both the 1983 and 2014 versions because at least if feels epic. I also prefer the 1995 version because a) Gordon Liu is the best Golden Wheel Monk and b) it feels like Xiaolongnü is in greater peril in this version than in other versions, which makes the fight feel more exciting.
An additional problem is that sometimes a character is totally beating everyone up in one scene, and then in the next scene they are concerned that their fighting skills aren’t good enough. Or the reverse, in which a character is totally losing against a relatively weak opponent, and then in the very same episode they are winning against a stronger opponent. For example, just before Xiaolongnü gets into that fight with Golden Wheel Monk (which she wins), she gets into a fight with Huo Du, which she loses (by the way, this Xiaolongnü vs. Huo Du fight does not happen in the novel – the 1983 TV show made it up). She has no improvement in her skills between the fight with Huo Du and the fight with Golden Wheel Monk, and it is clear that Huo Duo < Golden Wheel Monk, so this makes no sense. The novel does not have this kind of inconsistency – if a character beats an opponent they were previously unable to beat, it explains how that happened.
Speaking of which, not explaining how the characters get better at fighting is another problem. Okay, there is ~some~ explanation in the TV series, but not enough for the viewer to appreciate the logic of how the characters are developing their fighting skills. In the novel, there is enough explanation that it is interesting for the reader. In the TV show, the explanation is so minimal that it fails to be interesting.
But what I miss most about the fight scenes in the novel which do not come through in the 1983 TV adaptation is the metaphorical meaning and how it is woven into the overall story.
For example, Lin Chaoying and Wang Chongyang were in love with each other, however their romance did not work out, so Wang Chongyang founded the Quanzhen sect created the Quanzhen swordplay, while Lin Chaoying founded the Ancient Tomb sect and created the Jade Maiden Swordplay. The Quanzhen sect and the Ancient Tomb sect continue to have a love-hate relationship with each other, and the relationship gets even worse when Yang Guo leaves the Quanzhen sect and joins the Ancient Tomb sect. There is a whole subplot around Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü studying the Jade Maiden Heart Sutra so they can learn the Jade Maiden Swordplay. It seems at first that the Jade Maiden Swordplay was designed specifically to counter the Quanzhen swordplay, and they believe that Lin Chaoying did it in order to spite her ex-lover Wang Chongyang.
Then there is this fight scene:
In this fight, Yang Guo uses the Quanzhen swordplay, and Xiaolongnü uses the Jade Maiden Swordplay. This is how they discover that the Jade Maiden Swordplay is not meant to counter the Quanzhen swordplay, it is meant to complement it by covering all of the weak points of the Quanzhen swordplay. Thus, when one person is using the Quanzhen swordplay, and another person uses the Jade Maiden Swordplay, and they love each other (just as Wang Chongyang and Lin Chaoying loved each other), they are invincible. I think the metaphor here is really obvious, and I think it adds depth to this scene. It also helps develop the relationship between Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü.
Does any of this come through in the 1983 TV adaptation? No, it does not. The TV show takes one of the most memorable fights from the novel, and makes it seem like it is no more consequential than a couple dozen other fights in the series.
And this metaphor continues to build. Zhou Botong teaches Xiaolongnü how to have one hand fight the other (a technique which Yang Guo could never learn because he is too smart. Intelligent people can never master the technique, and the stupider one is, the faster one can learn. Xiaolongnü has an average level of intelligence, which is apparently low enough to learn the technique). Once Xiaolongnü has mastered the technique of one hand fighting the other, she is able to have one her hands represent Yang Guo and use the Quanzhen Swordplay, and have her other hand represent herself and use the Jade Maiden Swordplay, so she is an invincible fighter even if Yang Guo is not there. This explains how she can hold out in a fight in which she is badly outnumbered.
It also has a very rich metaphorical meaning, especially in the context that Xiaolongnü believes that she will never see Yang Guo again and is suicidal. She is growing further apart from him in that she is pursuing a way of fighting he could never join, yet the very way she is fighting is a testament to her love for him. She is also becoming emotionally more self-sufficient in the sense that she can experience his love without his physical presence.
The 1983 TV adaptation explains parts of this, but not enough for the viewer to put the pieces together (unless the viewer has already read the novel).
If you’re curious what this fight is like in the novel but cannot read Chinese, you can read this fight scene here (note: I’ve only skimmed a little bit of this translation, so I cannot tell you how good/bad it is).
Is this the kind of thing which is better suited for novels than TV shows? Maybe. Or maybe not. Most TV adaptations of Jin Yong novels don’t delve into the narrative meaning of the fighting techniques. The exception is State of Divinity (笑傲江湖) 1996, which most people who watch wuxia TV shows agree was the best wuxia TV show of the 1990s. During the fights which are key to story development, there is narration of what is happening in the fight, and what that means (sadly, I could not find a clip online to show this). The scriptwriters made sure that, when it is important, the audience would understand what is going in the fight and the intended meaning. The fight choreography in State of Divinity 1996 is nothing special, and it does not need to be special because the script takes care of the most important points.
Am I saying ‘tell not show’? No, I’m not. The 1983 version of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ neither shows nor tells the logic of the fighting techniques and their metaphorical/narrative meaning. Telling would have been an improvement.
Even though it was stripped of its metaphors, the 1983 version of the big fight at the Quanzhen monastery was not bad. In fact, it is one of the best fight scenes in the series. It takes up much of episode 38, which is appropriate, since it is IMO the most important fight scene in the entire novel. It breaks up the fights with little scenes which are meant to GIVE THE FEELS. I think this is good, since non-stop fighting devoid of logic, creativity, or metaphorical meaning would be boring. I dislike some of the mini-scenes the TV show made up (which were not in the novel) to flesh out the fight, and I like some of them. For example, I like this moment. I also like this part of the fight because it was slow enough that the viewer could actually follow the moves and understand the logic of how they were happening.
Still, without the metaphors, I don’t feel the 1983 version lives up to the novel. I do think it is at least better than the 2006 version of this fight. The 2006 version is more faithful to the novel in that it does not add a bunch of new material and follows the novel’s sequence of events more closely, it still lacks the metaphors, and it also fails to have the feeling of the 1983 adaptation.
All in all, while the fights in the 1983 TV adaptation have some good points, they were overall a disappointment for me. They lack many of the things which make the fight scenes so compelling in the original novel.