Chinese Paladin 1 (34 Episodes)
Li Xiao Yao (Hu Ge) is an orphan who lives with his Aunt, whose considered a lazy trouble maker by many. When his Aunt falls ill, he's instructed to travel to a mystical island to retrieve the antidote to save her. Once there, he runs into Zhao Ling'er (Liu Yi Fei), a young and naive girl who claims Xiao Yao's the savior who rescued her many years before. Though he's confused and denies it, he quickly falls in love with her, and they get married at the insistent prodding of her nanny/grandmother. Soon after, however, the island is attacked by the same mysterious men who sent Xiao Yao there to retrieve the antidote, and Ling'er is forced to send him away in order to protect him.
Once home, Xiao Yao quickly awakens to find his Aunt healthy, but after a sudden confrontation with the men who attacked the island, his memory is stolen, and he forgets all about Ling'er and their subsequent marriage. Though the two are easily reunited, to stay together they must battle not only their own crippling self-doubts, but demons and monsters, the evil Lunar Sect, and the cruel hand of destiny itself.
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I'm not sure if this is a rating everyone would agree with, but for me, something about this drama touched me in a way Chinese Paladin 3 never managed to. Perhaps after watching that series first, my expectations were much lower, so they had no where to go but up . . . yet aside from a fairly slow beginning, I was glued to my screen from beginning to end.
Honestly, I loved everything about it. The characters. The relationships. The music. The writing, the directing, even the dreamy, muted colors they used to blanket their shots. It felt old and ancient to me, like a video recording you find a decade later that's all the more memorable because of its grainy, understated quality. Or maybe I was so willing to give it a chance because I read so many criticisms online, comparing it against its sequel, that I felt almost protective of it. Like, it couldn't be that bad.
But before you read any further, I should caution you that this review will be chock full of spoilers, especially regarding the ending. I was going to try and make it spoiler-free, but there's just so much depth and substance in this story and its characters, I couldn't stop myself from exploring it all!
Also, this review is strictly on the drama series, not the video game it's based on, and it's completely my own interpretation. That means a lot of what I say is probably wrong, so don't use this review to win an argument, or leave a message saying I don't know what I'm talking about - this is me admitting you're probably right. ;)
So proceed at your own risk.
One thing I felt this drama did exceptionally well was in the way it depicted all the different forms of love, not just the romantic kind. The student/master bond, especially, was touching and beautiful and spanned several different relationships. In fact, it's interesting that while every single one of them was depicted differently, the bonds they shared were equally deep and meaningful. Xiao Yao's relationship with Drunken Sword may have been silly and playfully antagonistic, but the pain at losing him was just as great as Tang Yu's grief at losing General Shi. The latter's relationship may have been more traditional, respectful and restrained, yet because they also shared a god-father/god-son bond, their connection ran even deeper than that (and deeper still, considering the "failed" role General Shi played in the antagonist's upbringing). Likewise, Xiao Yao's dynamic with Seven was more friendly and haughty since they began as friends, yet losing him was all the more bitter and painful because their relationship was multidimensional; he lost a friend, an ally, and a disciple.
Which is to say, the death scenes were all extremely well-done. That's not normally something I'd praise a show for, but it's really impossible to discuss Chinese Paladin without bringing it up. All of the characters may have started dropping like flies, but every single death lingered and was felt deeply. Though it's not strange to find yourself growing angry when a character you love dies, it's all the more frustrating when their death doesn't serve a dramatic purpose or make sense to the overall plot; oftentimes, it's like they're killing them just to manipulate us emotionally, to wring tears simply because they can. But that didn't feel like the case here. We're shown quite clearly and repeatedly that there IS a purpose behind every loss, that it is possible to be happy - physically and spiritually - if you can let go of what's holding you back. Sometimes it's anger. Sometimes it's fear, resentment, greed, or regret. And sometimes it's love.
I'm no expert on Taoism, but this entire series seemed to be based on the concept of yin and yang, of duality and opposites. Love may be a great and powerful thing, but this drama seems to be saying it's not everything. If love truly conquered all, then there would be no balance, and without balance, there would only be chaos. Sword Saint and Qing'er perfectly embody this concept. Despite how epic and "destined" their love supposedly was, they managed to achieve true happiness and enlightenment by finding greater purpose outside their feelings for one another. For someone like Drunken Sword, a person who obsesses over missed opportunities and clings desperately to the past, only regret and emptiness await them.
Also, in a strange twist of fate, in the present it's Ah Nu and Tang Yu who end up in possession of the jade pendant, which technically makes them the "fated" couple. It's their love the head priest chose to test, and it's their love which ultimately stops the villain when they combine the pendant and make their wish. Ling'er and Xiao Yao's love may have been genuine, but it wasn't the ultimate representation of destined love; as individuals, they were meant for something greater.
Of course, something so depressing and tragic isn't for everyone, but then again, maybe that's part of its appeal . . . there's something cathartic about tragedies. If there wasn't, Shakespeare never would've penned so many!
So if you're fan of of this type of story, need a good cry, or are ready to leap into the world of ancient Chinese dramas, I couldn't recommend this drama enough. It may not leave you feeling particularly happy, but I can guarantee you'll leave feeling something.