Word of Honor on My Mind
Posted on March 26, 2021
Once in a while, a show comes along and completely takes hold of me. This year, Word of Honor has cemented itself in my heart like its previous counterparts The Untamed in 2020 and Nirvana in Fire in 2019. It was not a slow creep or a one-two punch, it was a complete and utter knockout that I didn’t see coming. And so there I go, falling flat on my back, wondering how I can piece together stray words or wayward thoughts to convey the heavy fall I’ve taken.
I haven’t found a lakorn that captured my heart much the same way that Chinese dramas have in recent years. Not to say that any style of storytelling is superior to another, they all have their own market and audience they cater to, and it has to fit in the overall mood of said audience while they’re watching it too. It takes good timing, great writing, acting, directing, and a bit of luck to make something spectacular, and Word of Honor does that in spades. The greatest strength in this show is the scriptwriting and the chemistry between the two male leads and the cast, which help carry this show into the addicting phenomenon that it is. And the best part? It’s a boy’s love drama.
Even as a lakorn enthusiast, with its myriad of BL Thai dramas readily available, I haven’t quite fallen into its hold. The bromance in The Untamed gave me a taste of what BL dramas can be, in that finding your soulmate in a vast world makes no difference if it is a boy or a girl, and Word of Honor takes it to the next level by openly expressing the devotion between two men. The romance is flirty, sweeping, perceptive and like a warm blanket you didn’t know you needed.
Another familiar and comforting aspect that compelled me to watch it is its wuxia genre. Growing up seeing Jin Yong’s words come to life, wuxia – the world of martial arts – has a special place in my heart. If you’re not familiar with wuxia, the characters usually go on a hero’s journey in the pugilistic world where they learn new martial arts skills, meet fascinating people, be chivalrous, uphold their own beliefs and usually come out on top. This type of storytelling is truly one full of hope and optimism.
Interestingly enough, Word of Honor follows two characters who are almost at the end of their journey but has no interest in calling themselves heroes, because they know such endeavors come at a price. There is Zhou Zi Shu, leader of an assassin group called Window of Heaven, who knows this all too well. As the founder of this sect, he aspired to bring light into the dark world, but in reality, he ended up carrying out a prince’s order and implicating the lives of everybody he cared for. Thus, he slowly relinquishes himself from the sect by going through with the punishment on his own terms – that means putting a nail in his body every three months until it reaches seven nails, instead of putting all of the nails in at once – which as in the case for others, resulted in immediate death. Although he manages to free himself completely from the sect, his prognosis is morbid, three years to live. But to Zhou Zi Shu, that’s three years of freedom to follow his dreams and wander the martial arts world with wine in hand.
Disguising himself and going by the name of Zhou Xu, he meets Wen Ke Xing. Ah, this is when the magic happens and when I fell irrevocably in love with the show. Nothing could make exploring the martial arts world more interesting than to spend it with an all-around teaser like Wen Ke Xing. Ah Xu, as Wen Ke Xing intimately calls him, denies the feelings and attractions at first, but through Wen Ke Xing’s relentless wooing and kindred spirit they share, Ah Xu realizes that wandering the martial arts world with a soulmate is the only thing worth doing for the remainder of his life. The two not only step in the middle of the fight for the glazed armor – which is a key to opening an armory of specialized martial arts skills from well known sects – they also share parenting duties to raise a young master of Mirror Lake Sect, Zhang Cheng Ling. While they have no interest in the former, the latter they relish in – or maybe I relish in watching them play house with Cheng Ling. I probably could watch fifty more episodes of this happy family – Ah Xu as the tiger mom, Wen Ke Xing as the cat dad, and Cheng Ling as the son who has to keep peace between his parents. They also have a grown up “daughter” that is Gu Xiang, she is Wen Ke Xing’s maid whom he raised since she was a little girl. Their bond is truly something special and we see Gu Xiang’s experience in the martial arts world run in parallel with that of Wen Ke Xing’s.
Wen Ke Xing can flirt and tease with that contagious smile of his like the best of them, but his whole identity will keep you guessing for a long time to come. From the outset, Wen Ke Xing touts himself as Philanthropist Wen and one of the good guys. But he also hints that even among the living, there are ghosts/demons who hide in plain sight. This is a clue to Wen Ke Xing’s truth, as the Lord of the Ghost Valley who reigns over three thousand ghosts that have been shunned by the living. He decides to wreak havoc on the martial arts world by releasing himself and his ghosts out of the Ghost Valley cage, something that hasn’t been done in twenty years. While he wants to unmask the demons that disguise as people, the true test is if the dead can mingle with the living. It speaks to his own fears that he is a bad person who may never stand a chance to go to heaven, thus why not watch the world burn when the world has turned its back on him?
Wen Ke Xing’s anger and resentment stems from abandonment issues. His parents were abandoned by their friends as they take the fall to protect the secret of the armory, and thus he had to be raised by ghosts and spend most of his life killing or be killed and plotting his revenge plan. If the whole world can go up in flames, there will be no one left to abandon him. That is until he meets Ah Xu, whose ability to diffuse his anger is the most gratifying thing to watch, he simply takes the wind out of his sail. Even Ah Xiang mentions that when her master is around Ah Xu, he becomes a little more human.
What I love most about their relationship – other than the crazy chemistry – is their ability to understand each other during their most trying times and that their different perspectives ultimately change how they make each other see things differently in the world. Wen Ke Xing always asks Ah Xu if he thinks he is a good or bad person. Ah Xu replies that “a bad guy can be forgiven by god if he put down his sword, so why should a good guy go to hell for doing something bad once.” He also goes to add that if he (Ah Xu) can’t tell if a man is good or bad, then he has wasted his life. Ah Xu can flirt right back. This perspective gives Wen Ke Xing pause. Ah Xu has taught Wen Ke Xing one very important thing: that choosing to let go, instead of caging himself with hatred, can allow Wen Ke Xing to find his place in the mortal world.
Their relationship is just beautiful to watch. It is rare to find two people who equally give themselves completely to the other. Whether that is their heart, their support, or their life. They are soulmates who accept each other, grow with each other, and have faith in each other. You cannot say the same for many relationships we see on the small screen, let alone in reality. We can all aspire to be Lao Wen and Ah Xu! At the end of the day, our significant other is comforted by the words we say, so while everybody can say stupid things during a dire moment, we cannot. While their words can be harsh, it is effective. There is a scene when Lao Wen finds out that Ah Xu doesn’t have much time left to live, he is devastated and made it about himself, instead of focusing on the one who is suffering. Ah Xu chides “who are you crying for? I am the one that is dying.” But this scene also shows how much Ah Xu has come to mean to Lao Wen and that he suffers too. Lao Wen can’t stand anyone hurting his Ah Xu and will destroy the world to protect him.
There is another scene where Lao Wen tries to bury the Four Anjis – the exemplified hope of soulmates being able to live together in this world – Ah Xu asks if Lao Wen is satisfied that he had fueled the fire in the fight for glazed armor and thereby causing the death of innocent people. Lao Wen asks Ah Xu if he has only killed bad people then. Ouch, Ah Xu knows better than anyone that he is responsible for the demise of all of his clan members. They always know to give perspective to each other, and thereby becoming more humble and better versions of themselves. I think it’s adorable that they are always seeking approval, being the best person for their significant other. At the end of the day, we just don’t want the people we love to think badly of us. The drawback of this type of relationship is the mutual self-sacrifice, it is part and parcel to the noble male lead of wuxia stories. The rescuing each other though, always leaves me breathless.
Besides the main relationship storyline, I truly adore the relationships they have with their “kids”. It is a mutual adulation, and as much as the kids (Cheng Ling and Gu Xiang) think that their parental figures are their heroes and have saved them, the opposite is true for the parents. Zhou Zi Shu just wants to roam the world with his wine but ends up taking responsibility over Cheng Ling and becoming his master. Ah Xu feels that god has given him a chance to start over and to stop running from his fears. Just as he admits to Wen Ke Xing, “traveling is fun, but home is sweeter.” The pugilistic world on the other hand, makes him wonder if he’s destined to be a wanderer forever. When it comes to his Uncle Wen, Cheng Ling would look for him the minute he opens his eyes. He plays the peacemaker between his parents, and always knows what to say to diffuse the situation. Adorable.
And then we have Wen Ke Xing who raised Gu Xiang since she was little. During a poignant scene where Wen Ke Xing has to send her off to be married to Wei Ning, he tells the younger man that Ah Xiang had been the one to save him: save his soul from the bottomless pit of despair. She was his companion in the Ghost Valley, a daughter figure so to speak, and someone whom he loves dearly. I found it incredibly moving that they save each other and share the same fear. Gu Xiang had decided to follow Wen Ke Xing even as she grew up for fear he would abandon her. During the scene before the sendoff, Gu Xiang cries that she’s afraid to tell Wei Ning the truth about her identity, because she heard that evil and justice don’t end well. She fears that she may not end well with Wei Ning. Which is the same fear that Wen Ke Xing has for Ah Xu, that if Ah Xu finds out that he is the Ghost Lord, he would come to hate him. Wen Ke Xing advises her to never tell Wei Ning, and he too would rather die than to be exposed. But these fears are not completely unfounded, due to their upbringing, it’s just they don’t yet realize how much they are loved by their significant other. We do get our answers in the conclusion of the show, whether a ghost can really walk the path of the mortal even when he/she gives up the ghost path, so prepare yourself.
The scriptwriting is poetic and beautiful, the storyline intricately laced and well written. Things that make you curious usually gets explained in latter episodes, and if it doesn’t, you can draw conclusions based on the logic of the story world. You won’t catch everything unless you watch the episodes a few times, and then some. Speaking from personal experience. The scriptwriter has made Wen Ke Xing a fan of poetry and poetic justice. But his flaw is that he thinks he’s too clever and can be arrogant, which is a required trait to be successful in a dog eat dog world such as the Ghost Valley. Having said that, the theory of who’s the real tiger and who’s the real hunter gets tested over and over again in this show, lamenting the fact that even the best laid plans can go awry due to everchanging human and environmental factors. There are times I don’t know what is up or down or inside out. All I know is that I am at the mercy of a clever writer who is out for blood. And your tears, oh the tears. Ah xu always says that life is about eating three meals a day, but I beg to differ, life is about coming out of this story mostly alive maybe not completely intact.
Gong Jun (Simon Gong) as Wen Ke Xing is a blessing to the small screen. Not only is he absolutely gorgeous, but he gives his character so much depth. From the coy Philanthropist, to the crazy Ghost Lord, you can’t help but fall for him and feel for him. Truly, Wen Ke Xing is written for Simon Gong. In fact, our Simon Gong fanclub over here has dubbed him “lao gong” which means husband in Mandarin, and the hashtag #blamelaogong has been the culprit behind many procrastinations and distractions. My fellow lao gong enthusiast, Neko and I have suffered greatly – but we’re not complaining! Things will get done, eventually. Life goes on, inevitably.
On a side note, I have devoured almost all of Simon’s work thus far, saving Unique Ladys (there are two parts) for when the withdrawal gets real, and I need more lao gong vitamin. Watching his shows has become a daily ritual of mine (and I’m sure for his new fans too), but I would say my favorite among his work that I’ve seen thus far in this order is Word of Honor > Advance Bravely (another BL drama in his younger days, an absolute must watch!) > Begin Again > The Love Equations > Flavor Its Yours. I do hope he continues to pick challenging roles, and I look forward to his future work.
Zhou Zi Shu or Ah Xu is a hero of his own right, or a heroine for that matter. As the wifey role alongside Wen Ke Xing, he plays a vital role in making Wen Ke Xing human again. Slowly and patiently he peels the many layers to Wen Ke Xing, until he is left with the vulnerable little boy that Ah Xu has taken under his wings back in Four Seasons Manor. Yes, they have a childhood history together! For that short period of time, Ah Xu has made an unforgettable impression on young Wen Ke Xing, that when they reunited as adults, Wen Ke Xing remembers his movement, his body and that Ah Xu is the very Zhou Zi Shu, the senior that gave him a puppy. I love that the minute Ah Xu realizes Wen Ke Xing’s true identity, he became the protective tiger mom that he is, and would do anything to make Wen Ke Xing’s pain a little less painful and a little more bearable. There is no outlandish misunderstanding between the two, they simply accept each other’s past and present, and strive to build a future together. If there are any angst, it’s their internal turmoil that they personally need to sort out. And so, when they cry, we cry along with them.
Zhang Zhe Han, the actor that plays Ah Xu, balances Simon’s Wen Ke Xing’s craziness just right. Zhe Han goes from a stark guy who doesn’t want to get attached, to a quivering mess when he realizes that he does not have long to live and must fathom leaving behind the soulmate he just found. The hugs he initiates, the comfort he gives, and the fight that he would take on to seek revenge on Wen Ke Xing’s behalf, Zhe Han is the female lead we didn’t know we needed. And his ability to sing so well? Chef’s kiss. The entire score is chef’s kiss. I need to check out ZZH’s other dramas too.
Their story isn’t the traditional wuxia storyline, just as Zhang Zhe Han had commented, Cheng Ling would be the hero/main lead had this been any regular wuxia story. And he’s not wrong, because Cheng Ling does go on his own pugilistic journey, meets his master, learn martial arts skills, and stay true to himself. But because Word of Honor is a story about our vulnerable duo, Wen Ke Xing and Ah Xu, who fight their own demons, fight each other’s demons, but always find a way to save each other, this makes for a moving, often therapeutic, and satisfying watch. But their story will also come for your tears and your heart, maybe even your gut. Being a staunch believer of avoiding spoilers at all cost – and not being able to watch this raw and understand – I stayed away from all forms of social media until English subtitles are out. Which I suppose comes as no surprise that when I did end up consuming the remainder of the show, the emotions I felt were extra raw. Very sashimi.
I love the characters to pieces and was very invested in them, but ultimately you win some and you lose some, and sometimes, if the world doesn’t give your characters what they want, perhaps they just need to create their own world.
Word of Honor is going to stay with me for a long, long time. Don’t mind if I cry into my wine, because a wise man once said, if a bottle of wine doesn’t relieve your sorrow, have two more. Come join me as we drink, hold hands, and talk about this gem of a show.