After years serving royalty, Zhou Zi Shu (Zhang Zhe Han), decides to leave his organization. With only three years left to live, his goal is to drink and enjoy the sunshine. The mysterious Wen Ke Xing (Gong Jun), however, is fascinated by him and refuses to leave him alone, and things only get more complicated when they both find themselves embroiled in the martial world’s problems.
A few years ago, back when I first finished Guardian, I looked up the novel’s author, Priest, and started to read this delightful book entitled Faraway Wanderers. It was fantastic, and I loved it dearly… right up until I realized nothing had been translated beyond chapter eighteen. Take note: it took literally seventeen chapters for Priest to make me experience severe withdrawal symptoms.
So I was very excited when I heard that this novel was to be adapted into a drama, and significantly less so when I saw that Zhang Zhe Han had been cast as my beloved Zhou Zi Shu. This casting choice, on top of the general risk one takes when diving into a danmei adaptation while having at least passing knowledge of the source material, had me fairly cautious going in.
Boy, was I wrong. Boy, am I glad that I was.
As I mentioned above, I was less than thrilled when I heard that Zhang Zhe Han had been cast as Zhou Zi Shu. Why? Because I’d seen him in two dramas already (Legend of Yunxi and The Blooms at Ruyi Pavilion), and was convinced that this man can’t act. But you know what? Yes, he absolutely can! It’s just that for some reason, he kept getting cast as the cold, aloof prince type, which doesn’t fit him at all. As Zhou Zi Shu, however, who’s a nuanced, complex character, he shone from the very beginning of the show. I kid you not, I was blown away. My brain just couldn’t compute that this was the same one who looked so stiff and inexpressive in Legend of Yunxi.
Zhang Zhe Han is amazing as Zhou Zi Shu. His eyes overflow with emotion, he manages to change an entire scene’s atmosphere by simply lowering his eyebrows a fraction, and he was actually the one who led his costar Gong Jun through all the swoon-worthy scenes that would later catch the attention of millions of fans and make Word of Honor such a popular adaptation, even though nobody expected anything from it.
Did I Hear That Right?
It’s no secret that danmei adaptations are always a risky challenge to take on, for production companies and audiences alike. I’ve seen some of various quality, ranging from the bad (Advance Bravely) to the decent (The Sleuth of Ming Dynasty) to the “great until they ruined it” (Guardian) to the great (The Untamed). But I never thought I would see… this.
To make it short, Word of Honor makes no secret of the nature of the relationship between its leads. Yes, they’re in love, and it’s crystal clear. How? Through symbolism. Scriptwriter Xiao Chu is a fan of Priest’s work, and used any and all means to make sure that there could be no mistaking the blatant flirting and declarations of love in there for anything else. Through poetry, close-ups to allow for lip-reading on lines they had to redub (there’s an “I love you” there, and I’m not kidding), symbolism (cut sleeves, anyone?) and so on, she used everything at her disposal to make it obvious that they love each other romantically, yes.
(For those who are interested in learning more about the poetry, lip-reading and symbolism, do check out AvenueX’s videos here.)
Truly, Wen Ke Xing and Zhou Zi Shu’s interactions are the pillar of the show, and I adored their dynamic. Two people damaged by life to the point they don’t even see the point of it anymore, who meet and slowly find a reason to live, a purpose, a family, and love. They’re very different, but they’re equals in every way, and so very complementary. (Which is especially refreshing when you’ve seen enough BLs to notice the frequent unhealthy power dynamics that tend to ruin them.)
One, who speaks little, dresses simply and observes quietly in the background. The other, flamboyant and outspoken, drawing attention everywhere he goes, and whose light provides the distraction and shadow the other needs to strike. From their
couple dancing sparring to their banter, they match each other blow for blow, word for word. They don’t extend trust easily, but once they do, their understanding is absolute, their mutual support, unconditional. They’re perfect.
And what makes their story even better is that when you look at the story carefully, they shouldn’t even be the main characters. Their protégé Zhang Cheng Ling on the other hand fits the bill perfectly and should, strictly speaking, be the main lead in this story. But instead, Priest decided to take a step to the side and tell the story of his mentors, two retired villains.
I love it. I love them.
A Tale of Life and Love
Another thing that I absolutely adore about this story, and which I mentioned in my shameless gushing on Soompi about this drama, is that this story is about learning to appreciate life and love every little moment it has to offer.
It’s a drama in which life isn’t necessarily good, but which emphasizes the importance of each moment, each encounter, each second in the company of your loved ones. The message doesn’t feel forced at all, and is conveyed through the loose slope of Wen Ke Xing’s shoulders as he shares a table with his soulmate, his eyes closed as he turns his face towards the sun, lips tilted in a small smile. It’s also in Zhou Zishu’s contentment as he lies down on the ground to savor his wine. Sure, Wen Ke Xing and Zhou Zi Shu have their big moments of sacrifice and protecting each other and fighting side by side, but the scenes which were most impactful, in my opinion, were those shared, tiny little gestures.
It’s nothing grandiose, but it’s what love is—complete acceptance of the other person as they are, even at their worst.
Unfortunately, Wen Ke Xing and Zhou Zi Shu’s relationship was basically the only thing that I really adored about this drama. Every single one of their scenes together was a pleasure to watch, but I didn’t connect quite as much with the other characters. Although I liked Zhang Cheng Ling, Gu Xiang and Cao Wei Ning a lot, I couldn’t really get into Gu Xiang and Cao Wei Ning’s romance, and didn’t care at all about the villains’ scheming. Which they did a lot.
I was also extremely disappointed by the last five episodes, because the plot suddenly accelerated to max speed, and left things that absolutely should have been discussed unaddressed. Some later revelations also happened without much reactions, hastily crammed into a flashback with no time to be processed and discussed.
All in All…
One of the best danmei adaptations out there, Word of Honor managed to overcome the loss of its leads, a lack of financial support and issues due to the pandemic to deliver a quality work. Filled with poetry, redemption, hope for the future and healing, this is a drama that received a lot of love from its staff, and in turn from its audiences. Although the last stretch suffered from pacing issues and the plot wasn’t all that captivating, this series remains one of the best of 2021, if only for its two leads—complex, well-rounded characters played beautifully by actors Zhang Zhe Han and Gong Jun. May their careers live long and prosper.
Title: Word of Honor
Starring: Zhang Zhe Han, Gong Jun, Zhou Ye, Ma Wen Yuan, Sun Xi Lun
Aired: 02/22/2021 to 03/23/2021
Number of Episodes: 37 (36 + 1 for the ending)
Genres: Wuxia, LGBTQ+, BL, Romance, Action & Adventure, Martial Arts
My Grade: ★★★★★
Read the Novel: Faraway Wanderers