‘Word of Honor’ Review: Fantastic Story, Flawed Plotting

Word of Honor

Skip to the final section for a quick, spoiler-free rating.

Word of Honor (Chinese title: 山河令) is one of the series I’ve been putting off reviewing for the longest time. The popularity of this drama is such that I feel like the English-speaking side of the internet isn’t missing my singular opinion—that it’s a fumbling execution of a great story. 

Word of Honor Synopsis

Zhou Zishu, leader of the assassins group sworn to the Prince of Jin’s service, steps down from his position following a devastating mission. He disguises himself as a drunk and homeless wanderer, seeking peace and freedom in his final years. Meanwhile, a conspiracy about five pieces of “Glazed Armors” that can open a legendary armory takes the martial arts world by storm.

Zhou Zishu crosses paths with Zhang Chengling of the Mirror Lake sect and the mysterious Wen Kexing, who’s really the chief of the nefarious Ghost Valley. Following the sudden destruction of the Mirror Lake sect, he’s tasked with bringing Chengling safely to the Five Lakes Alliance; Wen Kexing invites himself (and his maid Gu Xiang) along. Despite Zhou Zishu’s attempts to avoid him at first, they grow close. 

The four find themselves embroiled in the conspiracy and infightings of the martial arts world. Zhou Zishu learns the hard way that he can’t run from his past, while Wen Kexing’s hidden past and identity reveal that the conspiracy isn’t what it seems. As the two men help each other find redemption, they become critical in exposing a secret evil decades in the making.

My Viewing Experience

Like most people in The Untamed fandom, I ecstatically anticipated the premiere of a second live-action series based on a danmei novel. Between the budget (biggest ever for a danmei-adjacent drama, allegedly), the cast (Gong Jun’s cute, and I’ve previously seen Zhang Zhehan in 2018’s Legend of Yun Xi), and the favorable things I heard about the source material, I had high hopes for Word of Honor

Instead, I was so bored and confused on my initial watch that I quitted after episode 22 out of frustration. The bustling fandom convinced me to give it another chance a couple of months later, and I found the second attempt equally difficult to get through until around episode 25. Considering the entire drama is “only” thirty-six episodes, that took some patience.

Make no mistake. Word of Honor is amazing as a story. While not unique, its take on a tale of revenge and redemption is a wholly authentic and compelling one, with a rich world full of colorful, distinctive characters. 

It is, however, also poorly handled, and the root problems are particularly evident from the start.

The Overacting

I don’t believe any of the main cast are horrible actors—I’ve seen some of Word of Honor’s actors before, and they were all fine in those other series. Here? They were questionably directed at best. Framed by the drama’s propensity for the melodramatic and lack of attention to background details, the overacting was cringey to experience.

Case-in-point from the first episode, Gu Xiang’s exaggeratedly animated movements…

Zhou Ye's overly animated movement

…whatever Wen Kexing’s doing with his eyes here in episode 2…

Gong Jun's eye acting

….and Zhou Zishu during his entire Nails of the Seven Torment scene in the middle of episode 1. (It’s too long for a .GIF, but you know what I mean if you’ve seen it.)

Acting isn’t an area of expertise of mine, so I lack the knowledge to explain exactly why the choices in this drama seem so excessive. But it’s fairly evident, especially early on when you’re not used to it. 

Some, like Huang Youming as Ye Baiyi, did the best with what they were working with, but not even their natural skills can hide bad storytelling choices, which is a whole other thing we need to address.

A Burdensome Beginning For New Audiences

In the first episode, our main character, Zhou Zishu, kills a seemingly important court official within the first five minutes. Then, we’re immediately ushered into an emotional confrontation between him and a princess, who commits suicide after delivering some backstory about the death of a third character. This is followed by yet a second emotional, exposition-packed scene between him and Lao Bi, ending with Lao Bi’s death, after which we get a third, less expository, but equally emotional scene of Zhou Zishu quitting his work for the Prince of Jin, followed by a sequence of him monologuing about past regrets and reinventing himself to reenter society anew. It’s all a lot to take in.

The emotional beats have trouble landing because we’re not given enough time or context to process them. I found it awkward to sit through three character deaths in episode 1, confused and not yet invested, when everything about how they’re framed, from the background music to Zhou Zishu’s reactions, tries to prompt the audience to be sad. 

What’s more, the infodumping is done in such a way that it feels excessive in some places and not enough in others. The story feeds us information as events take place, but often too little of the right details, and too rushed. Things are happening, but without discernible cause and effect, rhyme or reason, making the first few episodes an absolute chore to sit through. While the pacing and exposition issues eventually get better as secrets and backstories get revealed, the overloaded beginning does the rest of the drama no favors.

Keep in mind that I went into Word of Honor without reading the novel it’s based on. Perhaps if I did, I’d feel differently, but I’m of the opinion that an adaptation should be able to stand on its own. In this respect, the drama took a while to get on its feet.

The Infodumping Issues Later On

These exposition and emotional delivery problems persist for the majority of Word of Honor. The drama also has an affinity for conveying information through long monologues with occasional snippets of flashbacks, and not always to the best effect. 

The reveal of what actually happened with Rong Xuan and Wen Kexing’s true identity in episode 19 is one such example. You’re basically watching four people having a conversation for forty-something minutes, interspersed with arguments, hand-to-hand combats that don’t lead anywhere, and scenes of what other characters are up to (I can’t remember if any of it has any lasting consequences beyond breaking up a long scene, to be honest). What’s more, we’ve been fed clues earlier on that Wen Kexing has some sort of a childhood connection with Zhou Zishu, so by the time he’s revealed as Zhou Zishu’s long lost younger martial brother, I pretty much found myself going, “Yeah… I know.” The emotional impact just isn’t there.

Another instance that comes to mind is Zhou Zishu’s ten minute long deep dive into his past in episode 24. On top of this scene having similar issues to the previous example, it also suffers from the fact that, by this point, the main conflict of the Glazed Armors feels so disconnected from Zhou Zishu’s previous life as an assassin, you’re left wondering what the point of the reveal is plot-wise. His shame and regrets about how he came to serve the Prince of Jin are simply told to us as something important and we’re just expected to remember them as such. While the information eventually does become important, this setup feels incredibly blunt and clumsy in hindsight.

Word of Honor keeps doing this with minor reveals as well. For instance, by the time we find out Tao Hong and Lv Liu’s motive for bringing down the Five Lakes Alliance, they’ve already been stirring up shit for over twenty confusing episodes. The drama had that long to drop a hint or two that they lost their son and blame the Five Lakes Alliance for his death. Instead, that information is saved so Gao Xiaolian could have a bout of sympathy at the very last minute and beg Shen Shen to spare their lives? I’m sorry, but given their grievances aren’t even secrets, this just doesn’t seem like the most impactful way their storyline could’ve played out. 

(I’m not even going to get into how the Beggar Sect’s Huang He just dies off screen during that whole exchange.)

Patience Pays Off In the End

For all its mistakes, the various loose threads in Word of Honor come together nicely towards the end. By the time we get to Zhou Zishu’s confrontation with the Prince of Jin, we have sufficient enough context that the emotional deliveries in the later episodes pay off. The climactic fight with Zhao Jing is satisfying, even if its execution is a little cliché. I don’t love Gu Xiang and Cao Weining’s tragic “red wedding,” but knowing what we know about Cao Weining’s martial master, I thought it made sense.

The opening of the armory is the perfect conclusion to the grand conspiracy—that there is no shortcut to conquering the world, and that the armory is literally just a library and a grain storage. Too often, dramas with a “central mystery” either over deliver or under deliver upon the reveal. Word of Honor nails it.

The very end confuses me, but I’m not unhappy about it, mainly because all the questions I wanted answers to got answered. 

(And yes, I’m aware there are bonus contents, but I can’t find them, so…)

The Best of Word of Honor

I know I spent the a good chunk of this review complaining about what I don’t like about Word of Honor—and believe me I could’ve nitpicked a lot more—but it feels unfair just talking about the negatives when there are a lot this drama did right.

First of all, just the fact that this series got made the way it did is a feat. The production team did a wonderful job toeing the line and delivering a real love story. It’s something we’re likely not going to see again for a while from China with the recent crackdowns, so it’s worth celebrating while it lasts.

Secondly, I want to reiterate that I do think Word of Honor genuinely tells a great story in spite of all my complaints. You have two complicated men, both lost in their own ways, yet found themselves again through each other. You have found family. You have examples of love of all kinds, fromGu Xiang and Cao Weining’s puppy love, toZhou Zishu and Wen Kexing’s pure devotion, to the Beauty Ghost and Yu Qiufeng’s disappointing past affair, to whatever twisted thing “Prince” Xie and Zhao Jing have going on. And, like I said before, the ending wraps up the significant loose threads quite nicely.

Despite some background detail hiccups (for example, in episode 2, the crowd of onlookers are just standing around like statues when Wen Kexing tugs Gu Xiang towards him), the costumes and scenery look great. Word of Honor had a decent budget and it shows. The Prince of Jin actually dresses and lives like a prince. Zhao Jing’s residence is a believable-looking place for the wealthy man that he is. The Tragicomic Ghost’s whole getup is stunning (white wigs tend to look atrocious in most Chinese dramas). 

Character-wise, I personally adore “Prince” Xie. Not only did his actor give, by far, this drama’s best performance in my opinion—subtle, nuanced, and no melodrama—his character journey regarding Zhao Jing, and his own personal ambition is the best part of Word of Honor for me.

Other Thoughts

Some minor complaints and stray thoughts I had…

  • I don’t get why Zhou Zishu became a hobo of all things, to be honest? But you do you, king
  • His disguise sucks though… at least add a mole or something?
  • The fight choreographies are so unnecessarily showy
  • I wish my Mandarin is good enough to appreciate Wen Kexing’s lines

Final Rating and Recommendations

If you’ve read Faraway Wanderers by Priest and liked it, you’re going to have a great time. Based on fandom consensus, Word of Honor is a sufficiently faithful adaptation given the limits the production team had to work with. 

If you’re new to the story and don’t mind not knowing what’s going on for a while, you’re probably going to like it. Plot and pacing issues aside, the worldbuilding, character developments, and costumes are top-notch.

I personally had a hard time with Word of Honor between the acting (really, the bad directing) choices, and the mishandling of information and exposition. These issues left me disinterested for over half of the drama, unable to appreciate the story until late into the thirty-six episode run. 

Still, while I don’t think I have the patience to waddle through twenty-five bad episodes just to get to the good stuff again, Word of Honor is a drama many others out there should enjoy; I’m clearly in the minority given how many people out there absolutely adore it. Plus, the fandom is alive with tons of fun and passionate creatives, which is a bonus I didn’t even realize I miss for other Asian dramas that aren’t popular in the English-speaking world.

My Rating: 6/10

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