"The Sword and the Fairy" is one of those series' that could easily be missed by people as being disposable garbage. I had never heard of the series prior to reviewing it, nor knew what it was about. I made the classic mistake of assuming the picture of the two leads in period clothing indicated a TV series that would be a sweeping epic like "Curse of the Golden Flower." When the DVD arrived in hand and the description spoke of battles with "evil snake spirits," I began to get suspicious of what the following 34 episodes had in store.
I have always felt a new television series should be able to hook you in the first few minutes. I don't have to know the plot exactly or even know who the characters are, but the opening scene (or scenes) should have me invested in the remainder of the episode. For me the high mark in vague opening scenes definitely goes to "Lost." Unfortunately, "The Sword and the Fairy" falls flat on its face in terms of a hooking opener. The viewer is treated to a frantic sequence set in ancient China of a woman being ordered to death. What follows next, out of nowhere, is a battle between a dragon-woman and a monster; the viewer is then thrown without context into a mid-air battle between what we could guess is our hero and a shadowy figure. All these fights are aided by some of the worst CGI I have ever seen and the sequences concludes with our protagonist waking up and entering a slapstick exchange with his aunt. I shook my head at the screen, got up, and turned off the DVD player.
I had to come back to the set and get through it for the sake of this review, but much to my surprise, despite featuring one of the most jumbled, nonsensical openings, "The Sword and the Fairy" turned out to be a fairly entertaining series. The series, also known as "Chinese Paladin" (named after the popular role-playing game it was based on) is your classic tale of a young hero on the path to greatness. Xiao Yao is our hero and his quest begins in a clichéd (a common occurrence) fashion. His aunt is dying and his initial motivation towards adventure is to find the cure to save her. As the story continues we get more poorly rendered CGI fights, plenty of action, but also a healthy dose of soap opera style romance as Xiao Yao meets Ling Er.
It's hard to write the series off as utter garbage, because it's obvious that the writers wanted to make a dramatic show that is still essentially light-hearted in nature. When the show is dealing with character issues and is on it's A-game it's a very pleasant experience, but at times it's held back by some sappy, uninspired dialogue, and a lot of bad CGI. The two consistent aspects of the show that did keep me hooked were the two leads; both are likable and have a lot of on screen charisma. The second aspect is the fantastic costumes; for as bad as the CGI gets, the costume work on this show definitely helps set the tone and setting.
"The Sword and the Fairy" is not going to appeal to everyone. It's far from high quality programming and honestly feels more like a show for teens, but the problems I had with the series are most likely still going to be a problem, even for that demographic. As pure escapist programming though it delivers the goods.
Unfortunately, Tai-Seng entertainment has dropped the ball doubly in terms video presentation. First and foremost is the aspect ratio. The back of the case states it is a Letterboxed presentation. I expected non-anamorphic video, but got a full frame transfer. I don't know the original aspect ratio of the show, so I can't say whether it's been cropped or the box has a typo. What I can say is the second major problem with the video, and that is consistent, heavy compression artifacts. Tai-Seng has decided to cram five hours of programming on each disc and the image is riddled with the same type of digital noise you'd expect from an average bootleg. It's a truly ugly transfer and doesn't do any of the costuming or cinematography the justice they deserve.
The audio doesn't fare much better than the video. Two flat front-channel stereo tracks are presented, the first being a Cantonese dub, and the other being Mandarin, which I believe to be the original recorded language. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are available, as are English subtitles. Unfortunately, the set-up menu doesn't work right and you will have to manually turn on the English subtitles.
Spanning 34 episodes, "The Sword and the Fairy" brings nothing new to the table in terms of storytelling. While I do commend it for being one of the few entertaining pieces of live-action entertainment based on a game, I can't say it will be a show I'll probably remember vividly five years from now. It's a fun ride once you can get past the horrible CGI and tendency to tell a saccharine tale. Rent It.