XIAO AO JIANG HU 2001
Number of episodes: 40
Li Yapeng as Linghu Chong
Xu Qing as Ren Yingying
Miao Yiyi as Yue Lingshan
Wei Zi as Yue Buqun
Li Jie as Lin Pingzhi
Xiao Ao Jiang Hu 2001, which is marketed under the English title of Laughing in the Wind, is the first of producer Zhang Jizhong's TV adaptations of Jin Yong novels. The protagonist of the story, Linghu Chong, starts out as the most senior disciple of Huashan Sect, considered as one of the righteous sects in wulin. However, as the story unfolds, he learns that power can overcome the sense of righteousness, sometimes too easily.
I will start with the minuses first. A lot of the scenes are prolonged for no good reason that I can see, resulting in dull moments. In the beginning, for instance, when someone climbs up or down a set of steps or a hill, the viewer will be able to see every second of their progress - it's just like watching the action in real time. Conversations that are supposed to be gripping spin out longer than necessary, which blunts the dramatic impact. It got to the point that I wish the series were only 35 episodes long instead of 40.
If you watch the English-subbed version released by Knight Media, another disadvantage awaits: the subs. The timing is often off, and the English ranges from passable to atrocious, robbing many emotional dialogues of their power. For viewers relying on the subs to understand what the story is about, this can be mildly frustrating.
On the upside, the series has an excellent cast in general. Mao Weitao's Dongfang Bubai is sweetly self-confident, and more dignified and classy than the novel counterpart. Zuo Lengchan is suitably ambitious and boring as villains go. Ba Yin is too young to be the loyal and protective Xiang Wentian but otherwise perfect. Abbess Dingyi can alternately appear maternal, tough, and commanding with equal effectiveness. Of course, there are exceptions, like Ren Woxing's actor, who really, really should laugh a lot less.
The fighting sequences in this series are nothing short of magnificent - the actors act out their roles as pugilists convincingly, and the choreography is well-crafted. Fights are presented as bloody and sometimes messy, which I personally find satisfying, since it underlines the fact that jiang hu is a dangerous world where early and violent deaths are very common occurrences. The OST, which consists solely of traditional music, you will either like or find too melancholy; to me it's flawless and very fitting for the series.
The sceneries are, needless to say, stunning. Viewers are treated to, among others, soaring mountain peaks, panoramic rivers, labyrinthine caves, and a picturesque bamboo forest. As for the costumes, almost all the men wear neutral or drab colors, the better to blend in with their surroundings, which makes sense since they're supposed to be pugilists who often have to stay out of enemy sight. The clothes worn by the Yue women are pretty without being too striking, while Ren Yingying is given darker but still eye-catching colors.
As an adaptation, XAJH 2001 takes some liberty with the original material by changing a few things here and there. Ren Yingying appears much earlier than in the novel and is involved in more fights. Characters that survive until the end of the novel bite the dust before the series is over. Personally, I have no problem with most of the changes. Certainly not with the ending, which, while it differs from that of the original story, resolves the conflicts in a satisfying manner.
Li Yapeng (Linghu Chong)
In the novel, Linghu Chong is pictured as a carefree, cheeky and jocular young man, and Li Yapeng doesn't give off this impression as much or as often as he should. Part of the reason may be his naturally solemn face and manner. His acting in cheerful or comedic scenes comes across as somewhat by-the-number, but still very much watchable. Overall, a decent performance.
Xu Qing (Ren Yingying)
Xu Qing is undeniably one of the major highlights of the series. She portrays a very capable and intelligent Ren Yingying who is a little bit bolder compared to the novel and who matures throughout the story. Her expressions are right on target without bordering on the melodramatic, though her performance is sometimes marred by her dubber's voice, which can be rather shrewish.
Wei Zi (Yue Buqun)
The role of Yue Buqun, the ruthless hypocrite masquerading as a gentleman, requires acting subtlety and proficiency, which Wei Zi delivers in spades. At the outset, when everyone still believes him to be just and upright, he displays a calm dignity and a few small hints at the narrow-mindedness within. After his true colors are revealed, the calm remains, which only adds to his sinister aura.
Miao Yiyi (Yue Lingshan)
Her Yue Lingshan is just as described in the novel: everybody's darling, spoiled, stubborn, and girlish. If she comes across as a bit annoying, it's because she acts very much in character. Unfortunately for Miao Yiyi, however, almost all of her wigs don't flatter her face - she looks more natural as the ugly wineshop girl, when she wears virtually little to no makeup and no hair ornaments.
Li Jie (Lin Pingzhi)
Li Jie portrays every phase of Lin Pingzhi's life superbly, from the arrogant young master, the frustrated and subdued junior disciple, and the sly, vengeful person. His acting as post-Bixie Lin Pingzhi is what makes him stand out, as Li Jie chooses to infuse a dash of insanity, that of a man drunk with newfound power, into his portrayal. A very commendable performance.
As with Heaven Sword Dragon Saber 2009, I like XAJH 2001 for its intensely atmospheric setting, enjoyable fighting scenes (XAJH 2001 much more so than HSDS 2009) and great acting, not just from a select few but from almost everyone. Fast-forwarding through the dull moments helps, especially after the first viewing, and wouldn't make the viewing experience any less pleasant.