LOOK IT’S SO GOOD OKAY?
*CAVEAT: To be honest, I put off watching this series for a bit because there were some mixed reviews, and for the first episode(s) the critics are legit. The beginning is … a lot. They throw a lot of shit out there, and introduce characters that are instantly killed off. Also, for whatever reason the first (few?) episodes – I’ve replaying from E1 as I write this review for me … third? fourth? rewatch – anyway, especially in episode one it’s like the director firmly told everyone “hey, overact as much as humanly possible.” Even knowing that/having seen some gifs that had me facepalming, I almost DNF’d at E1, but powered through, and am so glad that I did, because this series truly is excellent. (You need to watch the first few episodes the first time to get the background, but IMO the series only really starts/gets good once the hero loses is stupid awful “disguise.”) So … lol truly – if you pick up this series, which I hope you do … POWER THROUGH THE FIRST FEW EPISODES. Ping me, tweet me, email me, I will let you bitch all you want! I’ll encourage you and we’ll get through it! (It’s taken me months to write this review where I started and stopped…) Anyway, here’s the blurb/summary.
As leader of an elite unit, tasked with protecting the imperial family, Zhou Zi Shu was not a man to be taken lightly. A man of great honor, who commanded much respect, he served with the utmost loyalty and was rewarded accordingly. However charmed his life may have seemed on the outside, in reality, it was not the life Zi Shu desired. Unsettled within himself, Zi Shu ultimately decides to leave his position in order to pursue his own dreams.
Putting the past behind him, Zi Shu is determined to start anew but even the best laid plans can be waylaid by fate. Not long after setting off to see the world, Zi Shu finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that rocks the martial arts world. At the same time, he meets Wen Ke Xing, a mysterious martial artist from the Ghost Valley, who is on a quest to avenge his parents’ death. Brought together by fate, the two become fast friends as they share a series of adventures that leads them ever closer to a legendary treasure that is rumored to give its owner ultimate power over the martial arts world.
Entangled in conspiracies and hunting treasure, Zi Shu and Ke Xing find themselves caught up in an adventure so epic, it could alter the course of history forever.
Adapted from the novel, Faraway Wanders by Priest, Word of Honor is a 2021 adventure fantasy drama directed by Gary Sing and Jones Ma.
I posted online a little bit about this series while I was watching it and I said it has some of the most complex main characters I’ve ever read or watched. One was basically forced to become an assassin to protect not only himself but his entire martial [arts] sect (Four Seasons Manor) of nearly 100 people that he was entrusted to lead at just 16 years old. The other is willing to watch the world burn as he tries to avenge the tragic death of his parents – and with good reason, because they were betrayed by the world. Then there’s the added level of this being a same sex relationship/romance drama which is definitely ~not allowed in China, so the whole thing is overall subtle and it’s mostly hints and innuendo. (Since the airing of this show there’s been an outright ban…) Still, I really enjoyed Word of Honor and started rewatching it to write this review. Again, I also entreat people to “endure” through the first few episodes because there’s some pretty painful overacting in them which thankfully doesn’t last.
The “prompt” of the TBR challenge this month is “love is love” – and this is a “BL” series – “boy love” which is unfortunately banned now, so shout out to the iconic Word of Honor. (LOL seriously – considering comments I’ve read, these characters live rent free in a lot of people’s heads. 💯) And truly. Gong Jun and Zhang Zhehan give a masterclass in chemistry here, with just looks.
Our main character and first male lead is Zhou Zi Shu (ZZS) aka Zhou Xu. The show opens with him (and the other assassins from “The Window of Heaven (TWoH)” wiping out an entire family, including a woman he ~forced to take poison that he didn’t know was his (dead) favorite sect brother’s love until it was too late. Then he has to go and torture his very last remaining original sect member, before he tortures himself, and then dons this … truly terrible “disguise” that’s really just an extreme and bad overuse of bronzer plus some facial hair (this is his “Zhou Xu” persona). So … he definitely starts out as a villain. He says at one point – he controls hundreds, and is above thousands, only has to answer to one man, but it’s a terrible life and he wants out. A key part of the story is the torture, and what that is … so the rule of TWoH is that once you join, you can’t leave. The only way out is to endure the “Nails of Seven Torments” – you die in three years after they’re inserted. You lose all your martial arts skills, your senses, your ability to speak … you become a vegetable. But your brain still works so you just lie there in silent torment, unable to say anything or do anything – and can’t expose any secrets. (It’s a deterrent to leaving, because a simple or straight death is too easy.) However, if you insert the nails one at a time every three months and let each grow into your body, you’ll still die in 3 years, but you keep half of your martial arts and your senses will gradually disappear instead of going all at once. So you’re tormented for nearly five years instead of 3 (maybe? I don’t have the timing right/maybe the show doesn’t because when ZZS sees the prince he says he’ll have two more years to live…). And all of this happens in just the first ~30 minutes of the show. It’s a lot. The prince is actually his cousin, and his “savior” – the cousin offered him protection and a place for he and his sect, Four Seasons Manor, to stay, but in return the martial arts sect had to work for the prince. Thus Four Seasons Manor turned into The Windows of Heaven.
(General/universal background…) In the martial arts world your sect is like your family. Sometimes even closer than family. Your shifu is your teacher and your parent. The “Jianghu” is the martial arts world (Wulin is the martial arts specific world, which is encompassed by the Jianghu), and then there’s the “official court” world. They generally coexist – in some series they’re totally independent of each other, and in other series the Jianghu gets more drawn into political scheming. The ideal of the “Jianghu” though is to not be constrained by the official government rules and laws. (Or sometimes even “civil society.” In the Jianghu strength means power, but there’s also an unspoken and technically unspoken rule of justice and morality.) Sometimes country borders don’t matter to them, sometimes they do. As a personal aside, I love how in wuxia/the Jianghu generally the older you are the more powerful you are, so we get to see a lot of older actors being absolute badasses. I’m not going to get into neigoing or qingong. Like, here’s a link to irl qing gong, and OF COURSE dramas exaggerate it to a painful degree – I don’t like at all how unrealistic it is … but this video shows you what actually is possible. Which is mind bending already. Anyway, martial arts in this society isn’t just about fighting skills – they’re also schools of philosophy, and each sect has slightly different schools of thought. It’s not just the physicality, it’s a lifestyle, or almost a religion. Anyway seriously, I just … what.
ZZS leaves his position(s) and decides to be a hobo, returning to the martial arts world, but really just to travel as he wishes, drink, and live without responsibility or being forced to kill anyone until he dies. I’m hoping this conveys he’s actually very upstanding – he’d rather die free in three years in torment, than live a life of wealth and influence, but where he’s forced to be the blade of a [corrupt] prince. His relationship with his cousin the prince is extremely complicated, and although it’s mentioned a number of times in the dialogue, they don’t really get into the details of it. Just the mere fact that the prince saved ” ” him though does mean ZZS owes his life to him. (They also say numerous times their relationship is so complicated it’s hard to determine who owes what/how much.)
I don’t normally talk about the actual actors (other than if I think they did a good/bad job) but I kinda feel like I’m obligated/need to here, because Zhang Zhe Han (the actor) got canceled in China. And in China when you’re canceled, you’re canceled. All his originally upcoming shows/projects were shitcanned. I won’t get into it more other than to say it was because he went to Japan/two places there – you can look it up if you care to, or we can discuss in the comments.
Wen Ke Xing (WKX), our other lead, is the king of the flirty eyes. Only upon rewatching E1 for this review did I remember how epic his introduction is, which is a bit of a secret/spoiler, and also … how murdery it is too. Our two heroes are truly the perfect match. When WKX is introduced “in character” he’s wearing white and presents as a very glamorous and elegant young noble. He’s instantly intrigued by ZZS, and wants to figure out who he truly is, because WKX knows ZZS’s wearing a disguise. What’s fun about wuxia (martial arts) stories is that characters often “recognize” strangers based on the martial arts style they use, or the weapon(s) they wield. WKX saw ZZS using the steps of Four Seasons Manor, which was basically thought to be lost as everyone thinks the Four Seasons Manor was long gone (if they even still remember it). WKX is torn because he lives for his vengeance, but upon meeting ZZS he doesn’t want to be constrained or controlled by revenge – he wants to live up to ZZS. He now has something else he wants in life. I also loved that WKX’s weapon is often a fan.
The director said this story is in part about ZZS and WKX playing a game of cat and mouse. Considering how often they’re thrown together (or really, it’s WKX “following” ZZS, although he definitely has his own motives for being where he is), each wants to figure out who the other person really is – but they also don’t want to get too close for fear of exposing themselves. WKX definitely has a lot of secrets, and then ZZS has to avoid the prince/his people. (Like damn bro, can’t you let a dying man just go?) ZZS and WKX also have an extremely complicated relationship on multiple levels, but a big part of it is a spoiler. I loved how complicated the plot was though – it was nice after watching/skimming a number of much fluffier (or bad) series.
I’m conversationally fluent in Mandarin, but there (obviously) are certain terms and phrases I don’t know – and would ~never know (seriously there’s like only one word I remember from my ancient/classical Chinese course in university), so the phrase English subtitles translated as “soul mates” … I don’t think actually is that/it’s more “the person who knows you best” and in the Mandarin doesn’t necessarily have a romantic connotation. Also a number of times the characters quote … I don’t know that “poems” is the best word for it, but it’s accurate/sufficient I suppose – poems that fit the mood and circumstance. I don’t know how well the translations did there either so I’m sure I missed a lot of context that the original audience would get. While I’ve heard AvenueX is controversial, this post in and of itself should be fine/explains a lot of the ancient Chinese poetry references in WoH and is worth a watch.
There are so many complex characters and relationships in this series, and I loved that almost nobody was “black or white.” There’s no clear “this person is all bad” – other than the main/ultimate villain – and it was so satisfying to see what happened to him. It’s hard to discuss without spoilers, but pretty much everyone who is bad gets what they deserve. (T_T Unfortunately there are good character who DON’T get what they deserve too.) There are epic lines, and like I said, the chemistry of the actors is insane – the connection! The emotion and drama is so good. The parallels and “easter eggs” are at 10,000 too.
If you watch this series you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get so mad at certain characters or storylines … but it does have a happy ending – if you find the “special episode” that’s effectively available on youtube, or on Viki. I absolutely know I’m going to re-watch this series in the future again. (Seriously – power through the first few WTF episodes. I’m wheeze laughing as I look at ZZS “in disguise” in E1. It’s … why. So bad.) But Word of Honor has some of my favorite scenes and lines. On is this tiny blip but when WKX tells Ye Baiyi “I’m going to drink you [under the table] until you call me daddy.” Their bickering is epic and so enjoyable. Or in E2, where a very minor character threatens ZZS with cursing eighteen generations of his family, even from the netherworld, if he doesn’t fulfill a task.
The costumes are also fantastic. You can’t tell but oftentimes the actors are wearing seven layers. (Hooray for historical accuracy?) WKX is much more “rich young lord” and ZZS’s style is “casual elegance.” He’s never sloppy once he’s out of the disguise, but his clothes are looser, more slouchy… it’s all very deliberate. WKX has one costumer that’s incredible too – these red robes Gong Jun (the actor) says took 2-3 seamstresses a full two months to embroider. That’s the level of detail that went into this series.
You can watch the series on Youtube here – which is how I watched it the first time(s):
And it’s on Viki too, as I said: https://www.viki.com/tv/37730c-word-of-honor
Oh! And the OST (original sound track) is good too! And some of the actors sing on it too – in fact ZZH and GJ sing the song for the closing credits. 😀