It takes a while to say the title (从前有座灵剑山) and this series takes a while to get going, but its quirkiness shines through. So did the warm, interesting characters, and sumptuous scenery and costumes. A big downside is the soundtrack editing and limited music often drowning out dialogue. And the cardinal sin of using sound effects to emphasise jokes. Please, don’t!
But let’s look at the positives. Xǔ Kǎi (许凯) is the charismatic and bumbling Wang Lu, a quintessential antihero not bound by convention. On the surface he seems self-centred, but loyalty and integrity are important.
Wang Lu enters the Lingjian sect as a disciple of Wang Wu, wonderfully played by Sandrine Pinna. One thing that strikes a chord is Lingjian’s multicultural cast. Pinner is a Taiwanese actress of Taiwanese/French descent.
Wang Wu (not to be confused with Wang Lu) is the fifth elder and rumoured to be having an affair with the seventh elder, who looks Indian but as an astute commenter has pointed out below, is of Somali heritage. I can’t find his name in the credits, but he appears in about five episodes and his Beijing-accented Mandarin is good, as are his clueless expressions. I’d like to see more collaboration between China, Africa and of course, India. If India can relinquish a bit of pride and China can broaden its perspective, like it has done here, who knows what we’ll see?
Politics aside, let us content ourselves with Wang Wu and her affair with the Seventh Elder, which is really a non-event. Wang Wu is extroverted, troublesome and extremely powerful. Her provocations often land her in a spot of bother but also help her overcome a motley band of seemingly more powerful foes.
Perhaps an apprentice will give her more purpose and fill the void in her heart caused by the disappearance of her former lover. So she takes Wang Wu under her wing. They look of similar age but Wang Wu is much much older. Thousands of years older. Could we be in for some Master-Apprentice romance? Or is the age-gap too much? Should master-apprentice liaisons be outlawed? Wang Lu has other suitors, including surly General Hai Tiankuo (James Wen), who claims to know what happened to her former lover.
Wang Wu teaches Wang Lu well, although many of her lessons involve punishment. The pain toughens Lu up, but one suspects Wu enjoys these S&M sessions more than she should.
Wang Wu’s training prepares him to face a plethora of otherworldly enemies, including an encounter with a powerful Taoist Priest. As the priest chants his mantras he is circled by luminescent Chinese characters. The mysticism of Taoism fascinates me, and with its dungeon setting and CGI, this showdown was really cool.
Maybe I can master some esoteric characters, learn a few spells and attract more visitors to my website. Or maybe I can find a spirit sword that can protect, entertain me, and turn into a beautiful woman. At first, Wang Lu’s sword doesn’t like him – she hasn’t got over her old master – but if Wang Lu has further trouble with it he can pass it on to me. I hope Veronique Zheng, who plays the feisty spirit blade, doesn’t mind me being its new owner.
One thing that stands out about Lingjian is the impressive costuming and interior design. Much care has been taken to create atmospheric rooms with scores of burning candles, hanging embroidery, classical furniture and antique curiosities. The same care is found in the garden design. Good use of CGI adds colour to many backdrops.
A special shout to Roger Kwok as Lingjian sect leader Feng Yin. He is powerful, and hilarious, and watching him bawl his eyes out when his adoptive daughter, the lovable Ling-er (Gāo yǔ-er 高雨儿) leaves the kingdom is a sight to behold.
Final verdict: 7.0
A brilliant show let down by poor sound and music. The repetition of annoying jingles tested my sanity, while tacky heavy metal limited many atmospheric scenes. I have nothing against heavy metal music in fantasy. It should work well. But it doesn’t here. I will give credit for the evocative ending song, but it doesn’t redeem the composer’s hatchet job on this great show.
I’ll climb Lingjian Mountain again if they release an edition without music. TV composers should know their role is to support, not dominate, and let the cinematography speak for itself. For examples of how this is done well watch The Untamed for a great orchestral soundtrack, or Wu Assassins for how to integrate moody electro and hip hop.