Netflix’s surprise hit ‘Word of Honour’ is an epic will-they-won’t-they wuxia drama

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It was only last week when I stumbled upon a new 36-episode wuxia (martial heroes) series on Netflix called “Word of Honour”. Since then, I have blazed through the series, rewatched many favourite scenes and scoured YouTube for behind-the-scenes videos and other extras.

The series, which was a surprise hit when it aired on China’s Youku video service earlier this year, is about a disillusioned former leader of assassins who meets an enigmatic man in the jianghu or pugilistic world, and becomes entangled in a conspiracy.

From that premise flows an epic, swoon-worthy love story between the two men, who have different views of the world but learn to understand and support one another, even as they plumb the complicated depths of each other’s past while investigating the conspiracy.

While the series, adapted from a gay web novel called “Faraway Wanderers”, couches the men’s relationship in China censor-friendly terms most of the time, there is no mistaking its romantic nature due to the thinness of the veil placed over the subtext. 

A mentor figure tells the two men to stop flirting at one point, and their grand acts of love are interspersed with intimate gestures that will be especially resonant for viewers aware of their cultural context, as in a quiet and lovely scene involving the gifting of a hairpin. 

Actors Zhang Zhehan and Gong Jun, who play the assassin Zhou Zishu and mysterious man Wen Kexing respectively, have intense chemistry that charges every shared scene, whether their characters are teasing each other, at odds due to their beliefs or fighting death together. 

Their characters’ soulmate connection is also only the anchor in a series that features many complex bonds, including one between a godfather and son that is twisted, creepy, desperate and sad, often all at the same time, and culminates in a magnificent, Shakespearean scene.

As Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing search for the truth, the series peels back its world’s dense history and mythology, replete with grudges, betrayed loyalties, cover-ups, immortals, ghosts and more sects than you can shake a stick at.

The many threads connecting the characters and deep sense of the past lend a mythic quality to the story, especially in the gradually-revealed backstory of Ye Baiyi, a long-lived swordsman whose regrets and powers become key to the two main characters’ future. 

Speaking of that future: the ending of the series on Netflix is not the end of the story, as viewers may guess from the abrupt freeze-frame that begins the final fade to black. An online bonus episode with an epilogue, aired separately for several reasons, caps the series. 

When I finished “Honour” and raved about it to others, some recommended that I watch “The Untamed”, a similar series. Instead, I’ve been discussing “Honour” with other fans, revisiting scenes to catch nuances that I’d missed, and spreading the word. 

The series is not perfect. Some digitally generated landscapes are laughably bad, and the final stretch has plot and pacing issues. But the true measure of a series is perhaps in how much time you would spend in its world, and, even now, I’m not ready to leave this one just yet.

Feng Zengkun

Zengkun is a freelance writer based in Singapore who covers a wide range of topics, including science, environment and culture.

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