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The Legend of Condor Heroes [2003] - Movie Poster
Original Title:
She Diao Yingxiong Zhuan

China 2003

Number of Episodes: 42
Running Time: 45 min.

Wuxia, Drama

Based on a novel by:
Jin Yong

Zhang Jizhong

Li Yapeng
Zhou Xun
Zhou Jie
Shui Ling
You Yong
Sun Haiying
Zhao Liang
Cao Peichang
Zhou Haodong
Bao Dazhi
Lu Liping
He Qing
Xiu Qing
Liu Liwei

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The Legend of Condor Heroes [2003]

aka The Legend of Arching Heroes; Eagle Shooting Heroes

Story: Yang Tiexin and Guo Xiaotian are neighbors and sworn brothers. They take an oath that their two sons shall be blood brothers one day, also. But suddenly their village is overrun by Jin soldiers. The two nurselings are seperated. While Guo Jing is brought to Mongolia by his mother, where from that day on he grows up and even becomes a general under Genghis Khan, Yang Kang is adopted by the king of the empire of Jin, who introduces him to the world of luxury and power.
The taoist monk Qiu Chuji was a good friend of Yang Tiexin and Guo Xiaotian, but he meets the "Seven Freaks" with whom he gets into a fight, so that Qiu loses track of Guo Xiaotian's wife, who at that time is still pregnant with Guo Jing. Qiu and the Seven Freaks decide to continue their battle 18 years later, but then through a contest between Guo Jing and Yang Kang. The taoist monk will search for Yang Kang and instruct him into the teachings of the martial arts, while the Seven Freaks will have to look for Guo Jing as their new disciple.
After several years, the Seven Freaks actually find Guo Jing (Li Yapeng) and they start to teach him, but they are are disappointed by his limited intellect and his bad martial arts skills. However, Guo Jing's pure heart lets him earn the respect of several masters in the martial world, so that Guo becomes an excellent fighter, eventually. On his quest of finding the murderers of his father, Guo Jing meets the smart girl Huang Rong (Zhou Xun), with whom he falls in love with. But Guo Jing's fate is also shaped by the schemes of his rival Yang Kang (Zhou Jie) and the plots of villian Ou Yangfeng...

Review: "The Legend of Condor Heroes" is based on a novel by Jin Yong, a famous writer of several wuxia-bestseller. This particular story of his has been made into a TV show several times before already, but it's the first time that mainland China brings the novel to the screen. The result is an ambitious and epic TV series, which really shows that there was more money involved in production than usual. Producer and director Zhang Jizhong brings out the best of the medium TV and oftentimes succeeds in letting his pictures even look like cinema. Naturally, there have to be some concessions, which is most apparent when it comes to the special effects, but all in all "The Legend of Arching Heroes" (alternative title) is a wonderful show, which proves to be addictive with time. And this even though it isn't that easy to get hooked up by the series at first. This is mainly the fault of a very long exposition and the introduction of numerous characters. The viewer needs some time to understand which face belongs to what name, and the many entanglements don't make things easier for that matter. But as time goes by we slowly but steadily grow fond of the characters. Furthermore, only during the last third we start to realize the true epic dimensions of the story.

When I talk about "epic dimensions", then I don't mean that the story's hero has to save the world or something. It's the different big names of the martial arts underworld (jiang hu), who all know each other in some way, maybe are friends or enemies, but in any case have strong impact on the future of the country, that I'm talking about. Guo Jing himself participates in several military battles and becomes witness of how Genghis Khan expands the borders of his land day by day. But all of this seems like nothing compared to what Guo Jing's masters or his master's enemies must have experienced. They all have their own story to tell and their martial arts abilities are on a completely different level than Guo's. And this even though Guo has almost no match under heaven!
Those who are familiar with the novel will be pleased to hear that the producers of the show closely stuck to the original. Story-wise this plays into the hands of the TV series. We accompany Guo Jing on his journey through the world of martial artists, sympathize with him when he helps the weak, and suffer when he becomes victim of several strokes of fate.

Main protagonist is Guo Jing, played by Li Yapeng, who delivers a convincing performance, although he lacks some sort of true charisma which his character actually needs. He is a blockhead, who is a little bit slower when it comes to using his brain than others, but his heart is in the right place, and with his braveness and chivalry he affects many masters, so that he runs into the country's most proficient teachers, who all would like nothing more than to bestow their wisdom and skills upon him. Thus, it doesn't really come as a surprise that he himself starts to become one of the country's most skilled fighters. However, Guo's character is always outshined by Huang Rong, fantastically played by Zhou Xun ("Perhaps Love", "The Banquet"). She is extraordinarily smart, intrigant and with her ambivalent character would have had all the ingredients for depicting a villian, if it weren't for some other character traits, as well as her love to Guo Jing that also define her and clearly distinguish her from such a person. What's fascinating about Huang Rong is that almost no situation is too dangerous for her, as she always seems to have everything under control. That's how scheming she is. Only when it comes to Guo Jing and arguements she and him get into, she suddenly behaves according to how a girl of her juvenile age would, namely very naive and sulking.

Anyway, what's making "The Legend of Condor Heroes" truely entertaining are the several supporting characters. One who gives an especially memorable performance is without a doubt Yang Liping as Mei Chaofeng. She depicts an apostate disciple of Huang Yaoshi and is one of the show's villians. But the border between good and bad isn't easy to pinpoint in wuxia-stories anyway. They are flowing like a river, since even those characters are able to love or have a certain understanding of honor and moral concepts. It isn't any different with Mei Chaofeng. By a tragic love story she has been sent to her own misfortune. But what makes her so fascinating is her style and her appearance. Every time she enters the stage there is only one word that comes to your mind: "Cool...". There is something demonic about her, which is underlined by her fighting stances and the brutal way she finishes her opponents, yet her heart hasn't fully become a block of ice. Nonetheless, it's mainly the costumes, the lighting, as well as the way she moves, that make Mei Chaofeng one of my favorite characters of the show.

Coming to a close second is Zhou Botong, who after long-standing imprisonment has lost his marbles. Even though it's not safe to say that he actually had them in the first place... Zhao Liang, who embodies Zhou, brings a good portion of humor to the show, since he plays a greybeard who is still a child in his heart, always fooling around. A child who maybe has the most profound martial arts skills in the whole series!
Hong Qiqong (Sun Haiying) plays the leader of the beggar clan in an amusingly cranky way, whereas his prominent voice is the actors biggest feature. Only the main villian Ou Yangfeng lacks some real impact, since he doesn't manage to create the necessary presence of a true villian on screen.
Yang Kang, who actually was supposed to become Guo Jing's sworn brother, can't really convince either. Actor Zhou Ji is somewhat missing the charism, that Yang is in strong need of as an ambivalent personality. But to make up for it Shui Ling as Mu Nianci makes the love story between them work out quite well. Drama and (multiple) "betrayal" are without saying, naturally.

The series' strength obviously lies within the characters, especially the supporting characters. However, the fights are also something to look forward to, even if they go more and more over the top with the show's progression. Excessive use of wire-fu takes turns with old-school fighting. Only some special-attacks can't always be fully convincing, since the special effects apparently just were too expensive - even for such a high budget production.
Also very well done are several landscape shots, which along with some small army battles underline the epic impact of the story. Beautiful sets and costumes, as well as an appealing soundtrack add to the good overall picture. The story, the nice pictures and some of the characters make it easy for the viewer to fully dive into the show, even though it takes until the second half of the series to hook us up.
There may be some flaws, e.g. the very extensive introduction to the story, many jumps within it which could have been fashioned somewhat more carefully and fluently, as well as some supporting characters, which aren't that compelling, but all in all "The Legend of Condor Heroes" manages to do justice to the original novel and brings the Chinese TV-series format to a new height. If you are interested in epic wuxia-stories, then you surely don't want to miss this one!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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