Spoiler Warning: I spoil a key plot point in Return of Condor Heroes. If you want to be surprised by a very important twist then ignore paragraph eight (which I will italicize for your convenience).
Return of Condor Heroes is based on the works of Louis Cha (also known as Jin Yong), and the second installment in the Condor Heroes Trilogy. It can help to watch Legend of Condor Heroes/Eagle Shooting Heroes before viewing Return of Condor Heroes, but I do not feel this is necessary, because if you watch RoCH first, you experience the story from Yang Guo's point of view. This is how I entered the series and it only made me more more interested in the first installment when I watched it. So I think it is okay to start with this one.
Just to give you an idea of what the show looks like, this is the opening credits sequence of the show:
Told over the course of about 40 episodes, the basic plot is a story of forbidden love between master and student. The protagonist is Yang Guo, a chaotic and free-spirited character who is placed into the care of Quanzhen Sect by his father's sworn brother, Guo Jing (the protagonist from the first book in the trilogy). Yang Guo proves too wild for the sect and bristles under their strict methods, and eventually runs away, encountering the old auntie of Ancient Tomb Sect (who takes a liking to the boy and tries to protect him from the Quanzhen Priests). Ancient Tomb Sect is virtually extinct at this point. Only the auntie and Xiaolongnu remain after their Sifu died and Xiaolongnu's senior sister, Li Mochou, left to find love in the secular world. Auntie dies fending off the priests as they attempt to take Yang Guo back to their temple, and she forces Xiaolongnu to take a vow to protect the child.
|Yang Guo and Xiaolongnu|
This is how Yang Guo and Xioalongnu's relationship begins in the 2006 version. Reluctantly she takes him as her student and he is more receptive to her methods than he was to the Quanzhen Priests. As Yang Guo gets older, their relationship turns into love. In the context of the culture they are part of, this is regarded as a form of incest (because the teacher-student relationship is like the parent-child relationship), so as they go out into the world (chased from their tomb by the now hell-bent Li Mochou who wants her master's secret manual) they must contend with the hostility of the entire martial world (including Uncle Guo Jing and his wife, Huang Rong).
The plot is pretty intricate and involves an enormous cast of characters. Yang Guo and Xiaolongnu continually get separated through circumstances and misunderstanding, and this leads him on a path to train under a number of different masters as he encounters many of the world's greats. Through these adventures he also learns more about his father from people who know bits and pieces of his past. Yang Guo's father, Yang Kang, was the sworn brother of Guo Jing, but he took an evil path and was ultimately killed by Guo Jing's wife, Huang Rong (this wasn't necessarily intentional). Basically through Yang Guo, the viewer learns more about the first installment in the trilogy from characters that were in it. This is why I am kind of glad I saw Return of Condor Heroes first.
Eventually, when Yang Guo learns the truth about his father's death, it pits him against Guo Jing and Huang Rong. I won't spoil how that part of the tale turns out, because it is important, but it leads to a number of interesting developments.
Yang Guo and Xioalongnu continue to have many adventures both together and separately. At one point Yang Guo even has his arm chopped off (Yang Guo is actually the basis for the character in the One-Armed Swordsman). For me, this is where the series gets truly interesting. First off, it comes as a complete surprise when he loses his arm if you have never seen it before. This floored me as a viewer because it is pretty deep into the series, so he is a well established character at that point and you've invested a lot of energy into cheering for his success. Second, the circumstances of how he loses the arm are both hilarious and tragic. But more importantly, maimed characters would be a reality in a world with martial sects who spend their time fighting with swords. Yang Guo is a character shaped by hardship. It fits the theme, and in Yang Guo's case it is hopeful because he learns how to overcome the loss of his arm by training with a special sword under the care of a very unusual master. So this just takes the story in a direction you don't expect and leads to all kinds of interesting things. What is more, it isn't even Yang Guo's lowest point in the story.
I won't spoil the rest of the plot but it involves battles with Mongols and a tibetan Lama, dealing with the ferocious nun, Li Mochou, facing the wicked lord of a strange valley filled with toxic flowers, and a terrible poisoning that brings everything to a head. There is also a siege and countless side treks. It is a meandering love tale filled with blood, adventure, tragedy and triumph. At its core it is the story of an orphan who is rejected because of his father's misdeeds, but goes on to become a hero of his own making and finds true love in a world riddled with hypocrisy and deception.
There are plenty of reasons to like Return of Condor Heroes. For me though it comes down to the characters. That is what makes the story, and this series, work.
The villains of Return of Condor Heroes are particularly vibrant. And most of them have clever backstories that explain their behavior. They are not less evil because they have a past, but their actions and motives make more sense once you understand them. Li Mochou is one of my favorites. She is a perfect example of how a single grudge can explode in the wuxia genre. She carries her resentment for someone who wronged her and vents it against the world (particularly those with connections to the individual in question). But she is also the most passionate person in the story, because like Xiaolongnu and Yang Guo, she found (or at least thought she found) true love. Jinlun Guoshi (called Reverend Jin in my DVD copy) is a former tibetan Lama and one of the great martial experts in the world. Now he serves as an adviser to the Mongols and finds himself pitted against and allied with Yang Guo at various points in the series (their relationship is somewhat complicated). What I love about Jinlun Guoshi is how things end for him. He is probably the most despicable character in the show, but you really feel for him as the end approaches. Another villain who stands out is the master of Passionless Valley. I won't say about about him, except he is delightfully more despicable than Jinlun Guoshi.
The protagonist is complex, and his path grueling. Yang Guo is both passionate and untamed, yet dutiful to those he deems deserving of his respect (the first two qualities are a real contrast to the protagonist in the first installment), the side characters are all stark and enjoyable, and Xiaolongnu is earnest and graceful.
One thing that works here is there is room for complicated friendships, alliances and feuds. Li Mochou may be one of the villains of the story, and she is frequently hounding the couple through their adventures, but she is also their senior disciple. Their relationship isn't one built entirely on enmity.
If you like Star Wars, I think there is a good chance you'll like Return of Condor Heroes. Not only does it have many similar plot elements (albeit in a very different setting and structure) but the extensive use of swordplay and acrobatic heroes should feel familiar. The swordplay scenes are entertaining and have enough variety to keep them interesting over the course of all 40 episodes. Like many wuxia stories, the sword is the most common weapon, but you see people using everything from fly-whisks to sticks.
The action sequences are pretty good for a television series in my opinion. Here is an example of a battle between Huang Rong and Li Mochou:
If you are a gamester looking for ideas, this is a great place to find inspiration. There are endless characters and scenarios to draw on for a campaign. Ancient Tomb Sect is basically a big dungeon. Passionless Valley could serve as an excellent basis for an adventure, somewhat in the spirit of Ravenloft. The different sects and the backstories between the characters are also things that could serve a GM looking to give a campaign a sense of a past that is recent enough to still have important echoes in the present. I definitely recommend the 2006 Return of Condor Heroes if you can find it. It is an exciting and engaging adaptation of a classic wuxia story.
*Last I checked the complete series was still available at amazon for 79 dollars. When copies of these shows become rare, the price can go way up, so not sure if this is going to remain available at this price or not.