Double whammy

War drama hastily withdrawn, as martial arts series also gets panned


Criticism pouring down: Tang Yixin stars in The Deer and the Cauldron

The Deer and the Cauldron was the last and most controversial work by the prolific writer Jin Yong (see WiC431 for more on the novelist whose real name was Louis Cha and who is often referred to as the ‘Tolkien of China’). Unlike the lead characters from Jin’s other martial arts novels, Wei Xiaobao is cowardly, lazy and not even very good at kung-fu. Instead the young man fakes his identity as a eunuch and uses wit and mischief to get out of trouble. As luck would have it, Wei befriends the young Emperor Kangxi and even helps him consolidate his power.

The story of this anti-hero has been adapted into TV series and films many times over the years. Famous Hong Kong actors Tony Leung and comedian-director Stephen Chow both starred as Wei (in 1984 and 1992 respectively). Mainland hearthrob Huang Xiaoming took on the role in 2008 too.

More recently, CCTV, the state-run broadcaster released the fifth TV adaptation of the novel. The 45-episode series, however, has not only failed to live up to expectations but has been lambasted as one of the worst TV dramas in history. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, the latest version of The Deer and the Cauldron was given a rating of just 2.7 out of 10, the lowest among all the TV adaptations. The score also renders it the third most poorly rated show ever on the platform.

Most complaints surround the performance of actor Zhang Yishan – who plays Wei this time – for being too cartoonish and over-the-top. “Is Zhang Yishan playing Wei Xiaobao or the Monkey King? I can’t even watch it,” one reviewer chided. “His exaggerated portrayal has us wondering is Wei Xiaobao actually crazy?” another wrote on weibo.

Others argue that the actor shouldn’t take all the blame for the poorly rated drama, which also stars Tang Yixin as one of Wei’s many lovers. Some say that the problem is that it tries too hard to be a comedy, losing what makes the complex book and its characters so special.

Another drama getting panned is Warrior of Thunder, a wartime TV series that the People’s Daily has savaged as a “departure from historical reality”.

Last week, Warrior of Thunder was pulled by Hunan Satellite TV and several video-streaming platforms – just a fortnight after its release.

The show portrays Chinese soldiers during the war with Japan between 1937 and 1945. Warrior of Thunder was supposed to run to 40 episodes but due to the People’s Daily outburst and the subsequent backlash, 31 of them will never get broadcast.

In an editorial, the People’s Daily complained that the producers had turned what should have been an authentic historical drama into an ‘idol’ reality show to appeal to young viewers. “It’s fine to consider young people’s habits and use innovative means of expression in television dramas, but respect for history must be a precondition,” it chastised. “The criticisms against Warrior of Thunder should remind all the people in show business that they still have the moral responsibility in their literary and artistic creations.”

There were hopes that the series could build on the success of The Eight Hundred, a Sino-Japanese war movie and the biggest box office hit since cinemas were reopened following the Covid-19 outbreak. But state censors’ crackdown on Warrior of Thunder indicates that the genre can still be a sensitive topic (see WiC286). The current China-Japan relationship might have weighed on state censors’ thinking too. Foreign minister Wang Yi visited Tokyo this week to reboot relations amid Beijing’s continuing stand-off with Washington.

However, the drama’s depiction of the Eighth Route Army – the Communist force that eventually became the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – proved particularly offensive to the People’s Daily.

That fighting force largely waged guerrilla war against the Japanese in rural areas with very limited supplies. But in Warrior of Thunder, its headquarters is a luxurious villa filled with crystal chandeliers and shirred fabric sofas. One divisional commander even drinks coffee and puffs on cigars, even as Japanese enemies are closing in.

The hairstyles also became a subject of ridicule. All the soldiers on the show are so clean-shaven and their hair so carefully coiffured that some netizens mocked, “Who brings hair gel to a war?” The female characters – mainly the nursing corps – wear form-fitting uniforms and patent leather shoes that some joked were less fit for a battlefield than a fashion runway.

The action scenes, too, feel like they were lifted from superhero movies. “Each soldier carrying a lightweight machine gun, without any cover, charges into battle as if there is no one there. Is that how real people fight on the battlefield?” Tencent Entertainment derided.

Critics adversely compared the TV series with Drawing Sword, a similarly themed but higher-rated epic from 2005. “One respects history and facts; is a classic wartime drama that showcases the history of China’s resistance against Japan and the sacrifices of our soldiers. Another glorifies the war with no historical accuracy whatsoever,” a critic wrote.

In a weibo post that has since been deleted, the production team defended Warrior of Thunder. It claimed that in preparation for the show its screenwriters had done extensive research and found that coffee and cigars were commonly consumed during that period. The statement did not, however, address the People’s Daily’s criticism of hairstyles and the lavish villa. Tencent Entertainment speculated that the production team had later deleted the post because it was attracting even more internet trolls…

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