“Only those who have not seen the world want to be a hero. Those who have knows every stroke of the word hero is written with blood, if not their own then that of others. I’m past the days when I want to be a hero. I’m just a wanderer among the world. What do you want to be? “– Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing, the leads of Word of Honor
“Let them have their gathering of heroes. For a wanderer among the world, you and I suffice for me.”
Word of Honor 山河令 is super shippable and closer to boy’s love than bromance, but it’s also one of the best wuxia series recently. The storytelling is the closest I’ve seen to Jin Yong in a long time, and the two leads are solid Gu Long lead material. While the rest of the world fights over the key to a cave full of wuxia secrets, our two lovebirds alone have no interest in what’s in the cave. One just wants to be left alone, while the other just want to watch the world burn.
There’s Zhou Zishu (Zhang Zhehan), the head of the secret police who commits self-timed suicide when he realized that his allegiance to Prince Jin had led to nothing but death and destruction. With only three years to live, he hides his identity and wanders jianghu alone wasted. When a small act of kindness leads to him agreeing to help a newly-orphaned teen find safety, he finds himself in a new paternal position to someone in the eye of the incoming storm.
He’s joined by Wen Kexing (Gong Jun), the head of the Ghost Valley, a safe haven for crazies who were mostly forced there by the outside world. Nicknamed by himself as “The Great Philanthropist Wen”, he stirs up trouble in jianghu by fueling the ongoing search for the key to a cave full of martial arts secrets. Wen Kexing is immediately fascinated by Zhou Zishu, and unabashedly chases after him romantically. Here I have to praise Gong Jun’s treatment of the character, who walks the thin line of sexual advances vs. sexual harassment. He could’ve easily felt like a creep, but luckily never does.
Through their journey together, Zhou Zishu discovers that he doesn’t want to be left alone, and Wen Kexing finds out that he gains no joy from watching the world burn. Instead, they find solace and joy in each other and the small group of people they care for. Yet the world may not let them have even that little joy.
The script is by Xiaochu, a former wuxia forum mod who graduated from the prestigious Tisch School of Arts. She worked on a few indie films before returning to China. This is her first script written in Chinese, and it’s a good one.
Somewhere in episode 2, when two minor characters decked in matching peach-pink and leaf-green showed up to mess with everyone, I knew this drama has got it. The two come sweeping in as backup for the Beggar Clan, yet the first thing they do is pick a fight with one of the Beggar Clan’s allies because they couldn’t help but be sarcastic. The way even two minor characters chose to follow their own rules instead of social decorum just makes it feel so wuxia. Through their indiscriminating caustic words targeted at everyone on site, each of the supposedly righteous clan members is caught off guard and the audience quickly picks up that everyone in the scene has ulterior motives, although it’s uncertain exactly what they are. Within a few lines, you could immediately tell apart most characters and become interested in the below-surface struggle between a large number of side characters. Xiaochu said that for a later scene in the drama, she watched every version of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils to study how to introduce so many characters and shift points of tension in a large scene. That scene has too much going on for me to write about, but let’s just say you can tell she did her homework.
Xiaochu gave an interview recently where she was asked whether women can write wuxia, and honestly, the most “wuxia” feeling dramas for me in the past five years have all been written by women- Word of Honor‘s Xiaochu, Legends’ Jiulufeixiang, Yang Qianzi, and Peng Yunrui, and to a lesser degree Ever Night‘s Xu Run. They are able to create characters who are grounded in personality but enlightened in action, and worlds bound by honor and jianghu rules without binding the characters. Their characters feel alive and full of conviction of the world they believe they live in vs the world they are forced to live in, and it’s honestly refreshing after all the characters whose actions are all just reactions to the world around them. I can’t wait for the day when this new group of writers (probably with years of fanfic experience behind them) is given reins over more serious wuxia as opposed to dramas whose main selling point remains the romance.
The series is loosely based on the book Faraway Wanderers / Guests at the World’s Edge 天涯客 by Priest and streams one episode per day on Youku. You can also watch it delayed with English subs on Youtube here.