LEGEND OF THE CONDOR HEROES 2003
Number of episodes: 42
Li Yapeng as Guo Jing
Zhou Xun as Huang Rong
Zhou Jie as Yang Kang
Shui Ling as Mu Nianci
Shediao Yingxiong Zhuan, commonly known as Legend of the Condor Heroes or Legend of Arching Heroes, is the first novel in Jin Yong's Condor Trilogy. The story is set in the Song Dynasty during an era when China is under the threat of invasion from the Mongols and the Jins. The theme of patriotism is shown through the contrast in the two male protagonists: Guo Jing, born and raised among the Mongols yet choosing to fight for his people, the Hans, and Yang Kang, raised by a Jin prince and unwilling to forsake the life of wealth and ease.
The 2003 version is the third Legend of the Condor Heroes TV adaptation I've watched, and my first Mainland wuxia series. After the indoor studios and the limited budget of the TVB productions (the latter is painfully true in the case of the 1994 version), the lavish settings and numerous extras in the 2003 version floored me. For example, the scenes in Mongolia were actually filmed in Mongolia, unstintingly showing off the expansive grasslands and tall craggy hills. The Mongolian army itself looks imposing, whether on foot or on horseback, with their long hair, beards, overall buff looks, and armors. All through the series viewers are taken to locations that are not only pleasant to the eye but also suitable as settings for a wuxia story.
The costumes in general give off the impression of being extravagantly made. The characters wear clothes that are appropriate for the era, except for, at times, Guo Jing, Huang Rong and Mei Chaofeng. There's Guo Jing's leather jacket, and Huang Rong's low-cut yellow dress, and I can't imagine that any Sung Dynasty lady would ever let her bare belly show in public (Mei Chaofeng). This might be a minor factor, but small details can contribute to the palatability of the series as a whole.
Li Yapeng (Guo Jing)
When I first saw him, I thought that physically he looks like a Guo Jing - tall, sturdy and honest-looking. Acting-wise, he brings out Guo Jing's kindness, slow-mindedness and naivete quite well. It would probably help if he smiles more often rather than wear that bemused, earnest expression most of the time, though I suppose that's just the way he interprets his role. Probably this is also why the oft-heard objection to his Guo Jing is that he looks far too dumb.
Zhou Xun (Huang Rong)
Some viewers dislike her soft, husky voice, but it doesn't bother me. My first impression of her Huang Rong is that this is the Huang Rong whose portrayal is closest to the novel: naughty, intelligent, self-confident, and in control of her emotions. She and Li Yapeng have a married-couple chemistry that I find both convincing and endearing.
Zhou Jie (Yang Kang)
This Yang Kang is a very spoiled youth who always tries to get what he wants by any means. This portrayal might have worked wondrously if Zhou Jie were charming or good-looking or even ten years younger. Also, he looks too untrustworthy, like a crook who's constantly on the alert. There is more emphasis here on Yang Kang's love for Wanyan Honglie rather than of luxury, which is a redeeming quality for his character.
Shui Ling (Mu Nianci)
Shui Ling's prettiness from her younger years has evolved into a classic kind of beauty, and to me she's easily the most beautiful Mu Nianci so far. She's also the strongest-willed - I've never seen any other Mu Nianci who actually throws the "spar for a spouse" banner into the fire, or is as relentless in telling Yang Kang to repent.
The Five Greats
Initially I was very disappointed with this version's Huang Yaoshi, who is just too harmless-looking for a "heretic." I'm not as disappointed now, but it would've been nice if they had chosen an actor who can do a naturally fierce attitude. Ouyang Feng is too friendly at times, and I have no idea why, at one point, he cooks for Guo Jing while acting like a benevolent uncle. Hong Qigong is carefree and easygoing, but doesn't have the sufficient charisma or dignity befitting the leader of a large clan. Zhou Botong is funny and mischievous like he should be.
The Seven Freaks
Ke Zhen'e is a classy old man, and the other Freaks have an easy air of camaraderie among themselves and with Guo Jing. A solid bunch.
Easily the most memorable Mei Chaofeng so far: elegant, graceful, but still menacing. Her tragic life is also more stressed upon than her evilness. The "theme" assigned to her can be a bit of an overkill, though, along with the cracking bones sound effect.
The Quanzhen priests
I actually like the Quanzhen priests here - or at least, I like Qiu Chuji (hot-tempered without being ruffian-like), Wang Chuyi (righteous and firm), and Ma Yu (mild-mannered and gracious, and I like it that he's half-bald on top - a nice little realistic touch).
Yideng looks intimidating - it's probably his thick eyebrows - which is all right during his emperor days, not so much after he becomes a monk. This version's Ying-gu is my favorite, both for her cool ruthlessness and hysterical fury, and her matronly beauty, which the long white hair only enhances.
Out of the four versions I've watched, this is the only one where Qiu Qianren has a notable lack of dignity. His short stature, round face and shifty attitude make him appear more clownish than villainous, so I have a hard time taking him seriously.
Wanyan Honglie is princely, passionate, proud, and genuinely loves Yang Kang. You could almost like him if you overlook the fact that he has destroyed two families in order to kidnap another man's wife. His lackeys are part second-rate scoundrels and part excellent comic relief, and Ouyang Ke has a vaguely and appropriately sleazy air about him. Huazheng is the spoiled princess she is, but for some reason I find her cute, certainly the most tolerable Huazheng by far. Sha-gu is a bouncy girl, more childish than insane, and the actress tries to be as natural as possible in her portrayal.
This series is my second favorite wuxia TV adaptation of all time; however, I can understand why some viewers would find it off-putting. For one thing, there's a glaring lack of good-looking male faces while almost all the women are lovely, and some of the miscasts are major and therefore painfully difficult to ignore. Despite all that, I still recommend it for its faithfulness to the novel, the mostly natural acting, and the colossal atmosphere.