First, a quick update. I’m now the station manager for DotA FM, a growing audio/internet radio station providing DotA related content. You can see our page (showreel to the bottom left) at mixlr.com/dotaFM, and follow us on Twitter @theDotaFM . We’ve recently added a bunch of new hosts, and people doing larger production value content as well.
The other interesting surprise has been the ‘new’ Three Kingdoms series, from 2010. Now initially, I hated the first few episodes of the series…Cao Cao’s character sounded too casual, the plots and characters didn’t seem well developed, and each scene seemed to pale in comparison to its 1994 equivalent. The 1994 series live-acted everything, ran into serious budget issues, but managed to create a mystique and atmosphere around the show, especially in terms of dialogue.
Just compare these two scenes, for example, of Zhuge Liang admonishing Wang Lang:
The first one just seems more vigorous and detailed, and frankly I like that Zhuge Liang actor (Tang Guoqiang) a hell of alot more, because he comes off smug and trollish while the 2010 Zhuge Liang seems a bit over his head.
Another great example of this is the ‘Debate with Wu Scholars’ Episode:
In the 1994 edition, Zhuge Liang absolutely puts the Wu people on BLAST. In the 2010 one, he’s mostly answering insults from one person, and the ‘debate’, one of the best-known novel events, is reduced to a bicker.
I was pretty sure that the new Three Kingdoms was just an excuse to shoot some modernized action scenes and profit off the Three Kingdoms “brand”, and I actually stopped watching the new series.
But for some reason, I started again…and the new series has grown on me. I initially chafed at having my fond recollection of these favorite childhood characters defiled by some cheap newage knockoff, but here’s the biggest differences about the two series, after I’ve been through about 70 episodes of the latter:
In the first series, the dialogue and ‘environment’ is amazing. But you’ll notice that the character voices are dubbed, using a few stock ‘acceptable’ Chinese voices to represent all of the characters. And this is the most striking part of the first series as well…it’s something that the Chinese government totally would have approved of. It sides unequivocally with Liu Bei, the embodment of rulers’ morality. But it’s too clean at times, the characters too perfect. Zhuge Liang is just this knowing genius, who doesn’t seem to have any doubts or hesitation in what he does. Everyone aligned with their lord displays absolute loyalty (except when they don’t and are derided as traitors), and there’s no in-between…they are either traitors, or unquestioning servants. Noone seems to have their own aims or qualms about what they are doing, and whether their lord is worth serving. It’s an all-or-nothing view that doesn’t portray the characters as people, but as exemplars of loyalty and commitment. I can’t help but feel the influence of politics on the show, that this is the same with-us-or-against-us doctrine that the Communist Party emphasized, useful for encouraging ‘good soldier’ behavior. Everything’s too black and white.
It takes some time, but this is where the 2010 series really diverges from 1994. There are numerous scenes and intrigues of internal politics; the adopted brotherhood between Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei for instance is tested and strained at times. They aren’t just people who swore unwavering loyalty on a whim and never question it. Zhuge Liang is not portrayed as an all-knowing sage, but as a brilliant strategist who faces opposition and suspicion from the adopted brothers, and frequently relies on his lord for moral fortitude and direction. He has the brains, but not the ‘stomach’ so to speak, to make the tough decisions. He’s frequently hesitant or doubtful about what to do, and this humanizes both him and Liu Bei to a significant degree.
Everyone’s story arc is much more complex now…there is internal politics within each of the three ‘kingdoms’. Cao Cao is more than just a stock villain, but a true Machiavellian figure. This dialogue between Cao and someone who attempted to kill him is something that would never have been in the original series: http://youtu.be/s9eWlYt0C9c?t=19m24s . Even the Wu kingdom arc with a young ruler trying to prove himself and find his way (Sun Quan), and the differing temperaments and approaches of his two most able advisors (Zhou Yu and Lu Su) is fraught with tension and conflict.
Look, there’s still plenty to complain about in the new Three Kingdoms…it’s just hard to beat the standards that nostalgia set with the 1994 series. The music gets really annoying at times, because it’s nowhere near as good and can really get repetitive depending on situation. Some of the scenes are just….too pedestrian, and not as memorable. Maybe I’m just getting old.
But the new series has really come on strong in its own right, for doing what maybe wasn’t possible in the domestic political climate of two decades ago: a more nuanced exploration of characters. I want to call it a new openness that blurs the line between hero and villain and exposes cracks in some of the strongest mythological hero characters that Chinese history has ever known. It’s art that has finally been able to step away from “the Party line”, still a bit stiff and corny but headed in the right direction.