Debate: Is Michelle Chen Suitable to Play Little Dragon Girl?

Beauty and appearance can be a touchy subject, but when it comes to casting the right choice for the role of Little Dragon Girl (aka Xiaolongnu) in Jin Ying’s classic novel, Return of the Condor Heroes, the struggle is real. The Chinese producer casted 32-year old Michelle Chen for the role in 2013 and TVB bought the rights to air the 57-episode TV series on their channel in 2015. It’s a little late, but episodes of the Cantonese version are just rolling out now.

Before I started watching the drama, of course, I was curious which actress was lucky enough to land the role. It’s no surprise that if the producer casted the wrong Little Dragon Girl, it will create a tornado of negative sentiments from fans. And it did. But perhaps that’s what he needed to do — to create publicity for the series. Even Michelle herself admitted that negative sentiments are better than no feedback; it means people are actually paying attention to the show. True that.

While the novel adaption may sell itself after the successes of many previous versions, also for the same reason, this leaves more pressure to the producer and stars because other versions have set the bar high.

Many fans of the previous adaptions are making the same claims that Michelle isn’t qualified to be the ethereal, stunning beauty of Little Dragon Girl. Also, the youthful, but highly-skilled in martial arts goddess who lives in an Ancient Tomb is known for her cold and indifferent appearance. Michelle, on the other hand, gives a more cute, bubbly, and girl-next door vibe. It’s not a bad thing because Michelle was known for her girl-next-door role in You’re the Apple of my Eye. It just so happens that her looks and talents lie elsewhere.

At 32 and being the oldest to portray the role, she still looks really youthful. The other females who played the role were either in their late teens or early twenties. Young or not and physically suitable or not, Yu Zheng revealed that he produced the drama with the underlying intention to “create a new type of Little Dragon Girl” as a way to infuse the show with a sense of novelty. Why am I not surprised that this is his reason? Because it’s the only reason the casting choice would make sense.

After twenty episodes into the series and having seen Michelle in an adequate amount of scenes, I have to admit that as open-minded as I tried going into the show (and wanting to like her in the role), I feel exactly the same way Little Dragon Girl feels about the world: indifferent. Beyond the lack of physical resemblance, Michelle’s hairdo isn’t any more attractive that his casting decision either. The two strands of white cloth resembles that of a nun — and even though she isn’t suppose to fall for men in the beginning, that’s besides point. Why is it that she has the most unattractive hairdo in the entire show?

Let’s not go far, there is even comparison between Little Dragon Girl’s beauty and the rest of the female cast. Between all the young females who have appeared already, Li Mochou, Guo Fu, and Lu Wushuang, Michelle really doesn’t make a statement nor leave an impression. Even Wong Jing joking said, “If I was Yang Guo, I will marry Guo Fu, have an affair with Lu Wushuang, and have Little Dragon Girl look after my children.”  Ouch.

Photo: Viann Zhang, Sun Sunqi, Rachel Momo

Also, it’s really hard to rave for Michelle when your feelings don’t align with that of the characters. Each time Michelle makes an appearance, they claim it’s “a goddess descending from the heavens.” I’m like, “What just happened? What is it that you’re seeing that I don’t?” It becomes so anti-climatic that I’m not sure to feel embarrassed about the casting or sorry for the actress.

It’s inevitable that Michelle will be compared to her predecessors who has played the role: Idy Chan in 1983, Carmen Lee in 1994, and Crystal Liu in 2006. Every actress who played the role seemed to have received criticisms, more or less, with the exception of Idy, who is Jin Yong’s favorite Little Dragon Girl. In terms of perspective onscreen, height matters and Michelle, being 5’3, doesn’t seem to command enough presence onscreen. But this seems like a camera angle issue since Idy and Carmen at 5’4 and 5’5, respectively, appeared fine and they were only taller by one or two inches.

Little Dragon Girl has a cold demeanor and not someone you’ll want to be friends with, but someone you’ll be admiring from afar. Carmen’s cold and icy demeanor is the finest, followed by Idy. While Crystal is a pretty face, she doesn’t have that cold demeanor and like Michelle, she seems more like the friend you’ll like to have than the goddess you admire.

Photo: Idy Chan, Carmen Lee, Crystal Liu

One thing I have to give it to Yu Zheng is that Michelle is more expressive when it comes to love here, which I like. If you’re a character who is cold and indifferent, that kind of defeats the purpose of love in the first place.

Lastly, It’s not only that she isn’t suitable to be Little Dragon Girl, she just doesn’t suit the wuxia drama niche in general. Thus, I find it difficult to focus.

Following Yu Zheng’s decision, there has been many consequences. Besides upset and disappointed fans, even Michelle herself has considered suicide due to netizen’s negative sentiments on the casting decision. We all make poor decisions every now and then, but this one is to be remembered. Before the airing of the series, Yu Zheng announced on Weibo that he should be the one to take full accountability of the casting decision. Let’s just hope that he doesn’t make the same mistake again for future wuxia dramas.

It’s not that I mind Yu Zheng’s creative attempts in his characters or even the series in general, but some changes come out better than others and Michelle as Little Dragon Girl just isn’t one of them. To be fair, I enjoyed the scenes of Viann Zhang’s Li Mochou with Li Zhanyuan in the first few episodes. I just wished he elaborated on why Li Mochou was so vicious. Michelle’s narration claimed that she grew up in the Ancient Tomb and doesn’t feel remorse for murder. Why is that? Even she and her sifu grew up in the same place, yet clearly their attitude towards human lives are different. Other story lines that I found are better gone are Ouyang Feng and Hong Qigong’s love subplots. If it’s a good love story, a few is enough — not every character needs to have one.

I don’t take novel adaptions as literal or as seriously anymore and I’m open to anything that is enjoyable given that it’s logical. I really can’t imagine how it’ll be like if every adaption is the same. How boring will that be?

I hope Michelle will change my mind during in the remaining episodes to come and see if a different Little Dragon Girl will make the show better.