Based on a classic tale by Jin Yong, whose adventure works have long provided source material for Chinese films and tv, Book and Sword (2002) was another in a long line of adaptations. This DVD is a movie length edit of the first part of the tv mini-series. The end of this disc ends with "TO BE CONTINUED IN BOOK & SWORD: THE FINAL BATTLE", so there is more to come.
The telefilm takes place in 1644 during the Ching Dynasty when the Manchu's seized control of the government and armies. This didn't set well with all of the Han Chinese people, and those not pacified or paid off formed rebellious groups like the Red Flower Society. It is within the Red Flower Society that we find our hero, their newly anointed leader Chan Gar-lok
(Vincent Zhao- Green Snake, The Blade, The Black Sheep Affair). At the core of the series is the Manchu emperor and main villain Qian Long (Chen Chao Yong). While he sets out to destroy all of the Red Flower Society and anyone who is sympathetic, Chan and his group find out that Qian Long is not only a Han, switched at birth with a Manchu, but is Chan's blood brother.
Action. Adventure. Intrigue. Will our heroes survive? Will Qian Long beleive the evidence that says he is Chan's brother, and, if not, will Chan be forced to kill his own brother in order to save the country?
Vincent Zhao has unfortunate eyebrows. I realize harping on a non-porn actors physical appearance seems superficial, but, lets be honest, appearance matters and that is why you never saw Marty Feldman in any serious heroic roles. Vincent Zhao has two hairy caterpillars sitting on his brow, which just further emphasizes the fact that his acting range varies from expressions of slightly smarmy and bemused in dramatic scenes to sightly pissed in the action segments.
Okay, pettiness aside, Vincent Zhao also has an unfortunate career. Not only did he get his start as an action hero in the waning days of HK films that actually required guys with some stunt/martial skill to be action stars, but Vincent also had the unenviable task of starting off filling Jet Li's shoes in Once Upon a Time in China 4 & 5. So, as the lead for an entire series, he isn't exactly perfect. The "Book" and "Sword" of the title, I assume, refers to the fact that Chan Gar-Lok is a fighting scholar. Well, Vincent Zhao has the fighting part down pat but he's not quite as convincing in the brains department.
Luckly for Vincent, like 99% of Chinese adventure novels, Book and Sword is an ensemble piece. There are plenty of other roles, with people nicknamed Thunder Palm and Twin Swords, as well as dastardly henchmen, to help shoulder the pain of carrying the series. Chen Chao Yong is also a bit of a miscast as the villain. He's all sour mouth and weasel moustache, but never, to my eyes, convincingly menacing. You do have to focus to keep up with everyone because...
I'm not sure exactly how long the series was; though I checked around and found that the Chinese DVD release says "Parts 1-46" and is on 16 DVDs. So, it doesn't take a genius to realize that chopping the first half into 115 minutes obviously robs the tale of some information, subplots, and makes the rhythm and flow very speedy. There is hardly a scene that lasts for more than a couple of minutes before it is rushed along. When it moves on, it moves on to an action scene. The pacing of every five minutes goes- "They stole a sutra!" *FIGHT* "They stole a precious jade jar!" *FIGHT* "At last, we've cornered the rebels!" *FIGHT*- rinse and repeat.
So, for the US release, they have left a lot of Book and Sword on the cutting room floor, mainly character and comprehension. You can tell there are a lot of romantic bits between the characters that has been trimmed and is now just hinted at. I'm all for action, but it does get a little tedious, especially when you are trying so hard to catch up with who's who and who's doing what, only to have some action scene pop up just as you were figuring things out. Plus remember, this is Chinese tv, so its not like the stunt budget had room for complex choregraphy and a cast of seasoned stunt pros. Hell, in one part where our heroes seem to be cornered by the Manchu army, the soldiers have these ridiculously huge battle axes and spiked maces like they just signed up for the GWAR army. Actually, that was my favorite bit. I kept expecting Oderus Urungous to pop into frame and throw down with Chan Gar-lok.
The DVD: Tai Seng.
Picture: Full-screen Standard. Some kindness please. Chinese television is not anywhere near our standard. They don't have CSI-like shows that look as good as a film (at least none that I've seen). Chinese tv looks like good cable access televison. I've seen a fair amount of Chinese tv, and I can say that Book and Sword definitely had a large big budget. So, bear in mind, don't expect anything stellar, but for Chinese tv this transfer looks damn fine.
Sound: DTS and 5.1 Mandarin, 5.1 English, or 2.0 Cantonese language tracks. Optional English subtitles. The DTS and 5.1 mix is a bit strange. I doubt that it was originally intended to have a powerful surround mix. I mean, cheap is cheap, generic is generic, and that is how most of the fx and score sounds. Not that it is bad, but right on par with the production values of the series, which is limited. The subs are easy to read and move at a good, always readable clip.
Extras: Nothin', some Tai Seng trailers and that's it.
Conclusion: Quandary. Just who is this for? Lets say I'm a Chinese living in the US and I'm homesick for a little Chinese tv. Well, I'd probably be peeved at the editing, feel I was missing the whole shebang, and just import the whole series. So, lets say this is aimed at a US audience, who admittedly, might not have the patience for the entire series. Well, its still pretty scattershot, action-packed, sure, but hard to penetrate because so much has been trimmed away. Therefore, I have to lean towards this being a rental, a foreign curio, worth a glance, but will not merit much revisiting.