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Review: Unrest

Netflix, 2017. 1 hr 37 min.

This wasn’t the thing I thought I’d be blogging about today, but nevertheless, the thing I started writing isn’t quite working, so let’s go with another review.

Unrest is a 2017 documentary about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) by Harvard PhD candidate Jennifer Brea, who also gave a TED talk about her condition in 2016 from her wheelchair (16:32 min).

She made the documentary for several reasons: it records her story and her struggle with the disease—the medical appointments; the good days when she is able to walk—when she appears “normal”; the bad days when she can’t do anything except lie there; the days when she has to drag herself along the floor, crying in pain, in order to get herself into bed; the things that she grieves, because the disease has robbed her of so much; the impact of her condition on her relationships (particular her relationship with her husband, Omar Wasow, a politics professor at Princeton); and her own journey in trying to understand the disease.

But it’s also partly a chronicle of the stories and the range of experience of other CFS-sufferers and their carers around the world, whom Brea connects with via video chat. There’s Jessica in England who has been severely unwell for eight years; Leeray, a middle age mother, whose husband did not believe there was anything wrong with her and who left her because of it; Casie, Leeray’s daughter, who was diagnosed with the same condition; Ketty and Per in Denmark, parents of CFS patient Karina, who was taken from them because Denmark does not acknowledge CFS as a medical disease; and Ron Davis, Professor of Biochemistry and Genetics, Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Centre at Stanford University, and father of CFS-sufferer Whitney, who has not talked in over a year and who lives in almost complete darkness in his room. Their stories amplify and highlight Brea’s, giving voice to the many who suffer from this disease, who have all but disappeared from view in everyday society.

In addition, through their stories, the documentary touches on different issues affecting CFS sufferers, such as not being believed; the social stigma of people thinking you’re just making up your symptoms; the blindness of the medical community, most of whom have little idea of what the disease is, let alone how to treat it; historical misconceptions of CFS/ME, and how it is often dismissed because the majority of those affected are women; different treatments that patients try in order to try to alleviate their symptoms (with varying results); and the struggle of those in the field of medical research to attract support and funding for their work. As Ron Davis explains,

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is the lowest funded of any major disease by a lot. Many of the people that are at the NIH [National Institute of Health] and have in the past not believed it’s real. So why would you fund something that’s not real?

This sort of gaslighting highlights the need for Brea’s documentary—as an engine of activism, raising awareness among the general public (see also the Millions Missing global campaign). CFS/ME is bad enough on its own, but compounded with the judgement and prejudice of an ableist society, it can be devastating for those affected. You can see Brea herself struggling with the hopes and expectations that society has placed on her: in one heartbreaking scene, she confesses,

It was like I had died, but was forced to watch as the world moved on … If I completely disappear and I’m in this bed, then it’s like I don’t even exist or that I never existed. And then what was the point of it all—of being born in the first place? You know and honestly there are a lot of days when I just feel like I’m doing a good job by just holding it together and not killing myself. And it’s not—I really don’t want to die—like, I really don’t want to die—but at a certain point, it’s hard to call this living, and I think the grief of all those things I might not do or see or have … yeah, so it’s sad.

I couldn’t help thinking that if the world was less focused on markers of life success and achievement and more understanding and compassionate about the circumstances of those who don’t fit a certain mould, Brea and others like her would be having a slightly easier time of things. It is tragic—and also, I think, a damning judgement on a society that has failed to listen to them—that so many CFS patients end their suffering by taking their own lives. There is so much more that we ought to be doing to relieve their burdens.

If you, like me, know someone or multiple someones with CFS/ME-type symptoms (and there are so many more now in the wake of COVID, which leads me to hope that the disease will receiving proper funding and attention soon), please watch this documentary. If you don’t know anyone with this disease and understand nothing about it, then you should definitely watch it. It’s upsetting and distressing at places, and it contains no easy answers, which many will find frustrating. But it is very much worth it if only to help you understand the suffering of many and the miracle of their resilience in the face of such crushing odds.

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The Rurouni Kenshin live action films: An appreciation

Almost three weeks have gone by since I last wrote a blog post. I keep composing them in my head, but actually committing them to digital ink is another story. One of the things I have been struggling with about this lockdown is the inelasticity of time: my days at the moment have to operate to a strict schedule, otherwise everything falls off the rails—home learning, paid work and that pesky of all duties, housework. This means that things like blogging get relegated to the bottom of my priority list.

But I wanted to write something about the Rurouni Kenshin films because I watched them all recently after the two most recent films premiered on Netflix. (Unfortunately all five are not available on that platform at the moment—at least in Australia; I think they are in the Philippines.) I watched the first one (Origins) a couple of years ago and quite liked it, then went away and watched the anime as that was on Netflix (though it is no longer). With the release of The Beginning and The Final, I thought it was high time I watched all five films together. Plus it gave me something to look forward to during lockdown.

(NB: Perhaps because of the release of the last two films, the first two were going cheap on Apple TV, so I bought them. But I had to rent The Legend Ends as that was $19 to buy. I am hoping that one day, Apple might sell all five as a bundle.)

My interest had mostly to do with the novel, of course, though Rurouni Kenshin is set mostly at the beginning of the Meiji period, not the Edo. Still, I thought it would be interesting to watch it as a counterpoint to Samurai Champloo, plus I kept reading that the live action films were one of the best—if not the best—anime adaptations of all time. (It will be interesting to see how the upcoming live action Cowboy Bebop TV show does.) Aside from samurai films (both eastern and western), there isn’t that much on Netflix that is set during the Edo period, even though Japan produces a prestige period drama every year (I’ve read that it’s due to copyright issues?!), and much of Netflix’s original Japanese content is contemporary or sci-fi/spec fic. And while dramas are no substitute for history, the thing that interests is me is how people lived and moved in those spaces—in that architecture—with those furnishings and those everyday household objects. As I said in my post about my novel, there are things I just haven’t been able to discover in my research. But there are also things that research wouldn’t unearth—for example, how people thought about inside and outside spaces (and therefore when to remove their shoes), and how the removing shoes thing works in, say, a restaurant. (I have no idea how it works with their ox-drawn carts; did you know the inside of those don’t have seats, but are covered in tatami mat flooring? I realise those carts were for the rich, but did their servants carry their shoes for them??) These are things that people wouldn’t write about because they’d just do them without thinking. Which then makes it very hard for me to figure out just through Googling.

But back to Rurouni Kenshin. I should say up front: I have not read the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki. I have not seen the prequel anime series Trust and Betrayal, nor the widely panned Reflection or New Kyoto Arc. I won’t be commenting much about how they are as adaptations as I feel quite unqualified to do so. Also, when I rewatched them, I did so in the order that they were made, not in the order of their chronology. (It would be interesting to do that sometime. Maybe one day when I have another 12 or 13 hours to spare!)

Furthermore, this isn’t going to be a thorough review. I just don’t have the time, nor the inclination, for that. I mostly want to share my love for the films as I think most people have never heard of them, and while most of the people I know probably won’t like them (they’re samurai films, after all, so they’re pretty violent), some of my friends might. They do have the most amazing action/sword fighting sequences I have ever seen on film, so from my perspective, it’s worth the extended runtime. (Each film goes for about 2 hours and 15-20 minutes, and if you’re not an action fan, you’ll probably think them too bloated.) That said, there will be probably be a few spoilers in this post, so consider yourself warned.

Right. One more thing before we get started: it helps to know something of Japanese history, because some of the characters are real people, or are based on real people. If you know nothing about Japan, I do recommend this episode on “Samurai, Daimyo, Matthew Perry, and Nationalism” on John Green’s Crash Course: World History YouTube channel (11:52 min). (This animated history of Japan on Suibhne’s channel is also helpful, but it goes for 25 minutes.)

I will attempt to give you the short version: during the Edo period, the Shogun (or war lord) ruled Japan while the emperor was more of a figurehead and didn’t have any real power. Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world, maintaining a policy of national seclusion. No foreigners were allowed into the country, except those from the Dutch East India Company, and even they were only permitted to go certain places.

Then Matthew C Perry arrived in 1853 with his black ships from America and fired his cannons over Edo Bay to showcase America’s technological might and to force Japan to open up to trading with the west. From what I’ve read, the Americans were interested in whaling as whale oil powered their ships at the time, but I think Japan’s location was also important to them for strategic reasons.

At the time, the shogun was ill and those in power could not come to a consensus on how to deal with the foreign threat. Furthermore, the treaties that Japan entered into with America were seen as bad and humiliating. The country fractured, with some urging for modernisation and others wanting to return to the old ways. The Boshin War was fought between those who supported the shogun and those who wanted to restore power to the emperor.

The Beginning (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Beginning kicks off in 1864, 11 years after Perry’s arrival, just before the Boshin War. Himura Kenshin (played by the ridiculously photogenic Takeru Satoh) is already serving as an assassin (Hitokiri Battōsai—literally “manslayer”) in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, taking down those who support the shogun. He is nothing short of gifted with a sword: there is a fight scene right at the beginning of this movie where he’s basically holding his blade with his teeth and he still manages to take down an entire room full of samurai.

But even so, he is uneasy with killing: in the next scene, while up against some of the members of the city watch, he strikes down a young guard who is not so easily killed and who keeps crying out that he can’t die because he has someone he loves. He gives Kenshin the first slash in the facial scar that distinguishes him in later instalments.

Kenshin still does his duty and murders the guard, but the act does not sit easy with him, and that shows when he goes to meet up with his handler, Kogoro Katsura, who relates to his mistress the story of how Kenshin was recruited in the first place.

Kenshin goes to drink alone at a local tavern. A young woman named Yukishiro Tomoe enters and sits at the table next to his, intending to drink alone too. But because some other patrons start bothering her, Kenshin intervenes, then leaves.

In the street, he is attacked and quickly puts the other guy down. But his actions are witnessed by Tomoe, who came out to thank him. She faints, and faced with the prospect of being reported as a murderer, Kenshin takes her back to the inn where he is staying with a bunch of other loyalists from Chushu. As Tomoe has nowhere else to go, she earns her keep by helping out at the inn, and she takes care of Kenshin, who is often out doing his work at night, watching over him during the day as he sleeps. Kenshin clashes with the Shogunate’s police force, the Shinsengumi, resulting in a brief encounter with Saito Hajime, a character who becomes more relevant in later films. The conflict reaches a fever pitch, making the city unsafe for the loyalists. Yet in spite of the turmoil of the era and the turbulence of what is happening around them, an odd and unexpected sort of kinship begins to form between Tomoe and Kenshin.

Of the five, I think this was my favourite movie. It’s a shot like an indie arthouse film, not a big budget action movie, and while the action scenes are outstanding—particularly the opening one I mentioned before—everything is muted and subdued, as if trying to keep the rising tension in check. Even though the action scenes are dynamic and amazing, I suspect many might find the plot a little boring: in a sense, not a lot happens. But it’s all about the characters and the subtleties in the way they interact. Takeru Satoh does a lot of acting with his eyes, which are often hidden by his hair in some of the scenes anime-style. (It amuses me how little eye contact the characters make when speaking to one another sometimes.) It’s not always clear what he’s thinking or feeling, but I rather liked that: as the lead figure of the franchise, there was a lot about him that made me think of characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne—characters who are less about personality or charisma, but more about what’s happening around them and how they respond to it.

The way the final act of the story plays out is devastating—like Shakespearean tragedy—and I loved how the various plot threads are brought together in such a way that it brings things full circle. The movie ends in 1868 with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi towards end of the Boshin War. I rather liked this as it set things up to the next movie, which is …

Origins (2012)

Apple TV (2 hours 15 minutes)

Origins begins with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, where Kenshin puts down his killing sword. Here he encounters Hajime once more, but refuses to engage with him. He turns heel and walks off the battlefield. But unfortunately for him, someone else takes up his sword—a man named Udō Jin-e.

Fast forward 10 years: it’s 1878 and Kenshin has just arrived in Tokyo. He’s now a “rurouni” (i.e. a wandering samurai) and while swords are banned, the sword he now carries is not, because it’s a reverse blade sword—i.e. the sharp edge is on the top, not the bottom. Even though his work as an assassin has given his position as Battōsai notoriety, he is able to enjoy anonymity as virtually no one actually knew what he looks like. That said, the x-shaped scar on his cheek gives him away to those in the know.

Saito Hajime now works for the police, investigating a series of murders of undercover officers by someone styling himself as the Battōsai. While some believe the Kenshin is back, Hajime is not so sure and suspects that someone is impersonating Kenshin.

Kenshin has a run-in with a young woman named Kamiya Kaoru who has inherited her late father’s Kendo school. The school’s reputation is in ruins because of the Battōsai’s crimes and, desperate to clear her father’s name, Kaoru attacks Kenshin, believing him to be the Battōsai because he carries a sword. When he shows her that it is a reverse blade, she lets him go, but later she has a run-in with Jin-e and is rescued by Kenshin.

Meanwhile, an unscrupulous and wealthy businessman named Takeda Kanryū is plotting to take over the city and enrich his own coffers by making a woman named Takani Megumi invent a kind of opium far more addictive than the regular sort. Megumi is aghast when the others involved in the drug’s creation are killed before her eyes, and tries to escape.

The plot of Origins, as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve read this much, is far more complicated than The Beginning and involves so many more characters, it starts to get a little confusing. (I haven’t even mentioned Sanosuke, who becomes Kenshin’s right-hand man, and Yahiko, the orphan and Kaoru takes in.) If you’re familiar with the anime, you can see how the film is setting up the principal characters and their relationship to one another. Kenshin is ostensibly retired and has vowed never to kill again, but because of what happens to Kaoru and Megumi, he gets drawn into the conflict and is almost thrust into his old role again. But unlike Jin-e, he’s not a bloodthirsty killer who enjoys killing for the sake of it; he’s always doing things for the sake of the greater good—in a way, seeking to atone for the lives he’s already taken. He’s attracted to Kaoru’s way of thinking—that the sword, rather than being an agent of death, is, instead, a tool that brings life—and the rest of the movie bears this out.

If you can handle the large cast and the intricate plot, this one is worth a watch—if only the for the fight scenes alone, which are astonishing. Consider this one at Kaoru’s dojo where Kenshin engages his foes mostly with his hands, not even bothering to draw his sword until halfway through:

I love how the fight isn’t just confined to one plane: you see Kenshin rolling and sliding along the floor, doing backflips off the walls, spinning and attacking, taking down an entire gang of thugs. He’s entirely in control of the situation, and he doesn’t need a weapon to establish his superiority over them. It’s all the more impressive when you know that Takeru Satoh is doing it all himself (and in waraji—straw sandals—no less!): he did not have a stunt double, and trained relentlessly to get the fight scenes right.

Emi Takei’s Kaoru is also an improvement on the anime character, who is often played for laughs because of her vanity and strong will. Even though I wondered why Kaoru wasn’t better in combat, given her martial arts training, I admired the way she sticks to her principles and encourages Kenshin towards virtue.

The other thing that really struck me about this film was the visual contrast between the old and the new—the Edo and the Meija eras: while most of the locals dress in kimono and hakama, the police and even Kanryū and his cronies are clothed in Western garb. Kenshin and many of the police carried swords, but some also had guns (which the Portuguese introduced to Japan in 1543), and Kanryū himself is armed with a Gatling gun.

I also liked the ending and seeing how Kenshin struggles with how to resolve his old life as the Battōsai with his new life as a rurouni, who has vowed never to kill, in the face of those who would do harm.

Indeed, the filmmakers could have left it there and I would have been satisfied. But instead, the story continues with …

Kyoto Inferno (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

Kyoto Inferno opens with Kenshin’s world at peace: Kenshin is still living with Kaoru, whose Kendo school is now thriving. Hajime is still working for the police, Megumi is working as a doctor, and Sanosuke is just being Sanosuke. But all is not well: the police are tracking the activities of a man named Shishio Makoto, who, like Kenshin, worked as an assassin during the Boshin War and was even Kenshin’s successor. (He’s mentioned briefly in The Beginning.) Because Makoto’s methods were so brutal, the new regime sought to have him quietly killed as they could not defend his actions. Unfortunately for them, he survived and now seeks to bring down the Meiji government in an act of revenge.

Once again, Kenshin is drawn into the conflict. Although he initially refuses, when a top official and friend is assassinated, Kenshin feels as though he has no choice but to go to Kyoto where Shishio is amassing followers and holding court.

On the way, he meets a young lady named Makimachi Misao, who attempts to steal his weapon, and has a run-in with some of Shishio’s followers—notably, Seta Soujiro, who breaks his reverse blade sword. Kenshin’s actions impress Misao, who takes him to stay with her people—former ninjas who worked for the shogunate—when he reaches Kyoto. However, one of their number—a former lieutenant of the shogunate named Shinomori Aoshi—is after Kenshin, having made it his personal mission to kill him and become known as the strongest man in Japan.

If the size of the cast of Origins confounded you, you’ll find Kyoto Inferno worse as the number of significant characters pretty much triples. It can be hard to keep the relevant people and factions straight, particularly as most of the cast don’t get the same airtime as in the anime series, which had the time and leisure to explore some of their back stories. Even so, I think the script made the stakes and the emotional highs and lows clear, and while some of the characterisations and action scenes border on mawkish in the way of superhero comic book adaptations, they don’t obscure Kenshin’s loyalties and inner conflicts.

Be warned, however: after two hours and 18 minutes, this movie ends on a cliffhanger. Which means you then need to watch …

The Legend Ends (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Legend Ends picks up almost immediately where Kyoto Inferno ends—well, it does after a flashback prologue during which we are introduced to a young Kenshin who has been saved by a man named Hiko Seijūrō. (The anime goes into more detail about that scene, which makes me wonder what newcomers think of it.) Seijūrō, impressed with Kenshin’s tenacity, decides to take him on as his student and teach him his “High Heaven” style of fighting—the style that makes Kenshin so good at killing.

Back in the present day, Kenshin wakes up in Seijūrō’s hut, worried about what happened to Kaoru and obsessed with the idea of taking down Shishio. He begs Seijūrō to teach him the ultimate technique of his fighting style. His former teacher agrees and they begin training.

Meanwhile, Shishio in his battleship drops anchor just off the coast of Tokyo and demands that officials from the government meet with him to discuss the situation, otherwise he will expose their crimes during the Boshin War and completely undermine their authority.

Provided you’ve managed to follow the events of Kyoto Inferno, in my opinion, The Legend Ends is a mostly fitting conclusion to that plot arc. I like Kenshin’s return to his roots: Hiko Seijūrō is one of my favourite characters of the series—mostly because of this scene:

I also liked the realisation Kenshin comes to about himself and how it changes him: it makes his second encounter with Seta Soujiro all the more dynamic and almost joyful. Furthermore, the action he takes to stop Shishio in putting himself in the hands of the fickle Meiji government are very much in keeping with his role as a hero, and while the government does not come off very well, I like that Kenshin very much sticks to his principles in spite of them.

That said, the Shinomori Aoshi arc isn’t quite given enough room to breathe, and I think that audiences might find his plot thread a little exasperating. The final climactic fight scene could be seen as laughable and I’m not sure that the outcome is earned, but I do really like that Kenshin is not alone—that because of his principles and the decisions he’s made as a result of those principles, he’s earned himself allies who are willing to fight alongside him for this new age. The very last scene of the film doesn’t quite land as the plot thread concerning the government isn’t resolved to my satisfaction. But fortunately we now have …

The Final (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 19 minutes)

Just as Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends were released and meant to be viewed back-to-back, so too are The Beginning and The Final, I think. They bookend the series, bringing the story almost full circle. As with Kyoto Inferno, The Final begins with Kenshin’s world mostly at peace: it’s 1879, he is still living with Kaoru and enjoying life with his friends. But a new enemy is making himself known—someone from Kenshin’s past: Yukishiro Enishi, brother of Yukishiro Tomoe, who Kenshin loved. In the intervening years since his sister’s death, Enishi has been living in China and working his way up the ranks of the Shanghai mafia to become their leader. Now he’s hell-bent on revenge: he wants to see Kenshin suffer and he will do it by striking Kenshin’s friends and the city where he’s made his home.

Of the five, this film has the thinnest plot: revenge takes a lot of energy to sustain, I think, and not all of us can be John Wick. But one of the wonderful things about it is seeing old characters return—Hajime Saito, of course; sword-mad Cho Sawagejo, who Kenshin fights in Kyoto Inferno; Shinomori Aoshi; Makimachi Misao, who we get to see being awesome with a blade; and even Seta Soujiro, whose previous encounter with Kenshin left him a changed man. The other wonderful thing that rises out of the frenetic violence is the twin themes of atonement and redemption—the putting right of old wrongs and the breaking of the cycle of revenge. Even though Tomoe only appears on screen in flashback, with footage lifted directly from The Beginning, her character permeates the story, bringing healing and closure to both Kenshin and Enishi.

Oh dear, somehow I’ve managed to write another long one! I’m not sure I’ve done the Rurouni Kenshin series justice, but if you do decide to watch them, let me know what you think.

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Review: The King’s Avatar

(I’m reposting a review I put on my personal FB profile because this show deserves more eyes, and if you’re looking for something fun and engrossing to watch while you’re in lockdown, I highly recommend this one.)

The King’s Avatar (2019)
Screening on Netflix
40 episodes. 45 minutes each.

I’ve been meaning to write about this one for months. Once again, this was a Netflix recommendation: I don’t think I would have started watching it by myself. I mean, it’s about esports. I don’t even like sport sport; why would I want to watch something about esports?!!

Well, I was wrong about that!

The King’s Avatar (based on the web novel by Hu Dielan) is about esport athletes who play a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called Glory. Think World of Warcraft but sort of more medieval, with lots of armour and swords, but also gatling guns, ninjas and magic. (Yeah, that combination doesn’t make sense to me either.) (Also, it’s not a real game. Yet.) Ye Qiu (Yang Yang who was also the male lead in Love O2O), who plays with the avatar One Autumn Leaf, is the number #1 player in the league and captain of the team Excellent Era. Despite a successful season in which Excellent Era placed first in the league, Ye Qiu is forcibly retired by the team’s manager who wants to bring on new blood. However, instead of staying on as a consultant (the manager’s preference), Ye Qiu chooses to break his contract and walk away, handing over One Autumn Leaf to the new captain (Sun Xiang) and starting again.

As no one other than his team members and a few others in the league actually know what Ye Qiu looks like, because he always wears a mask in public, Ye Qiu is able to go wherever he pleases. In need of a new job, Ye Qiu goes to the internet café across the street from Excellent Era’s headquarters where he meets the café’s owner, Chen Guo, another Glory player and massive One Autumn Leaf fan. She is in need of a network manager and hires Ye Qiu as soon as she discovers how good he is at playing Glory (but not realising that he is actually her idol). She also provides him with room and board, and computer/internet access that allows Ye Qiu to start again in Glory—this time, on a brand new server and using a new avatar who he names “Lord Grim” (and his relative anonymity does result in some very amusing scenes with those who don’t know any better). However, instead of choosing a particular role (in Glory, you can be a Launcher or a Battlemage or a Cleric or a Warlock, etc.), he plays as an unspecialised, which means that he can deploy a number of different skills across all the categories.

He is also developing a new weapon that was designed by a childhood friend and fellow Glory player Su Muqiu (who died, though we never really learn the circumstances behind his death). I’m not sure if the translation really does it justice: the weapo is called the “Myriad Manifestation Umbrella” and it can be wielded as a spear, a sword, a gun, a shield, and so on and so forth.

Lord Grim starts breaking records and making waves, drawing the attention of other players—both amateur and professional. And slowly over time, Ye Qiu starts to build himself a new team …

I liked this series far more than I was expecting to. The script really leaned into many of the tropes of sports movies (a genre that I sometimes enjoy despite the sports. I like Pitch Perfect, which is essentially a sports movie): there’s the rules of the game, training sessions, assembling the team, conflict between the members, different team members learning to work together, progress, advancing through levels, setbacks, stakes … I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Most significantly (for an Asian drama), there is NO ROMANCE. None. Zilch. You might expect there to be something going on between Ye Qiu and Chen Guo, or even Ye Qiu and Su Muqiu’s sister, Su Mucheng (Launcher for Excellent Era). But no: the script steers well clear of that. Everyone is just friends and that’s just so refreshing.

Act 1 mostly focuses on Ye Qiu re-establishing himself again, and one of the delights of the series is seeing how good he is at Glory compared to how hopeless he is in real life. I really liked seeing Yang Yang in this role, rather than as Xiao Nai in Love O2O: he gets to do a lot more and his character is a lot more likeable. His motives are never in doubt: he’s not playing Glory for fame or money or accolades; he’s just a mad gamer head who loves the game and loves playing with other people. Furthermore, he’s quite other-person-centred: because he loves playing with other people, he’s a natural at identifying and nurturing talent. As he draws out other potential team members—such as Chen Guo’s best friend Tang Rou, warehouse manager Bao Rongxing (who plays under the moniker “Steamed Bun Invasion” [“Bao” means “bread” in Chinese]) and even the insecure Qiao Yifan, rookie over at Team Tiny Herb, he acts as a mentor figure, encouraging and instilling his protegés with confidence even as he trains them to play better and play better with others. This is a big contrast to other characters—like Sun Xiang, Excellent Era’s new captain, who is young, arrogant and not much of a team player or mentor figure, and even Xiao Shiqin, captain of Team Thunderbolt, who demonstrates his considerable talent for strategy.

The second act could have been the soggy middle where the momentum lags. Instead, the episodes focus on arcs for the minor characters—not just the above team members, but new ones that Ye Qiu brings on board to round things out. I enjoyed these a lot, along with the themes their stories brought to the fore—like ageing players who still love the game, but who can’t quite perform at the level of the pros anymore; young players who are over-eager to prove themselves; hot-headed players who can talk smack and yet who can’t quite deliver.

Indeed, the recurring ideas of perfectionism, how to deal with failure and loss of face was a powerful one: this drama takes place in an Asian culture, after all, and I wondered in particular how these ideas would have been received. I found it refreshing to see characters fail, and then recover and build resilience. I also found it heart-warming watching team members band together and support one another, instead of tearing each other down. Sure, there was an element of cliché in all these sports movie tropes, but the writers certainly executed them well, in my opinion; I loved them all.

Act 3 see Ye Qiu and his motley crew enter the Glory Challengers League. They’re the underdogs (and who doesn’t like to root for an underdog?!), and in some ways, you’d expect the ending to be a foregone conclusion. But (and I hope this isn’t a spoiler) The King’s Avatar leaves you hanging right up until the very end. Indeed, its ending was one of the things I admired about it, because it felt earned. But I won’t say much more about it.

Final thing: the game play for Glory is not like Love O2O, where characters played themselves in a live action bad CGI version of the game; instead, it’s all computer animated with the quality of something like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within—i.e. not great, but also, perhaps, what you’d expect of a MMORPG. (I wouldn’t know, though; I don’t play them.) That said, the character design of the avatars matches their real-life counterparts rather well, in my humble opinion. And thankfully, the game scenes aren’t shot like a MMORPG: they’re shot like movies, with camera angles and shots that take in the game’s gorgeous landscape and production design as much as they capture the frenzy and excitement of the battle scenes. (This being an Asian drama, martial arts is still a big thing, even in computer game form.) I normally watch Asian dramas at 1.5x speed, but for The King’s Avatar, I slowed it down to normal just so I could take in every move of the fight choreography. Furthermore, the action was never gratuitous: each in-game scene was there for a reason, furthering the story or our understanding of a particular character.

Right. I think I’ve raved enough. If you enjoy esports, sports movies, MMORPGs or even fun character writing, give this one a try.

(Also, according to this Wikipedia entry, there’s a second series of this live action drama in the works. Yay!)

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Netflix binge-watching Xianxia Chinese dramas

My mental health hasn’t been great lately and I’m finding it hard to write things. So rather than run around in mental circles, I thought I’d do something semi-productive and blog about some things I’ve been binge-watching.

But I’m hesitant to do it. We are living in an increasingly judgemental society—a world where it’s common for people to lunge for your throat simply for voicing an opinion. Spend a day on social media and you see such things in abundance. It makes me very reluctant to say anything, let alone what I think and feel about media. I don’t want to get into some pointless argument about whether the thing I like is actually “good”. I don’t want people to go tsk tsk and shake their heads because I’m appreciating something they think I shouldn’t be. (Christians do this a lot.) I’d rather not have other people laugh at me because I’ve gotten into this thing that’s an easy target for mockery.

And yet I do believe in consuming media outside of my usual diet. I believe in learning from other forms of art produced in cultures very different from my own. I will always be a student of story—paying close attention to why something works or doesn’t work.

Which is why, lately, I’ve been binge-watching a bunch of Chinese xianxia fantasy dramas on Netflix. It feels weird even to write that; I have a complicated relationship with the Chinese part of my background, and to date, I don’t think I’ve ever watched an entire television show in Mandarin. But I do remember spending some of my summers with my grandmother in Hong Kong winters, and occasionally she’d be watching dramas like these. (Of course I couldn’t understand what was going on or who the characters were because they were all speaking in Cantonese.) So when Netflix started recommending them to me, they looked and felt somewhat familiar.

Now, it’s important to note that I’m a newbie when it comes to all of this. I’m not that familiar with the xanxia genre at all. (For those who aren’t either, it’s a genre of Chinese fantasy that contains elements of Chinese mythology, Taoism, Buddhism, martial arts, traditional medicine and so on.) One of the things that make it distinctive is that the characters often practice a form of cultivation derived from qigong involving meditation and breathing in order to achieve immortality. Another is the world in which these tales are set: it looks very much like ancient China, with very similar styles of dress, architecture and interior decor. You could almost say that, in a way, all xanxia stories are part of a shared universe because they look so similar. This also means that the cast are pretty homogeneous—which, of course, is what you’d expect, given that the three shows I’m going to talk about are products of the Chinese entertainment industry. But I feel like it’s worth pointing out, because we in the West have gotten quite used to multiculturalism, and while representations of race in our media are nowhere near perfect, they are still waaaaaaay more diverse, and while it’s been refreshing to me to see so many Asian faces onscreen and holding major roles, I’m also very aware of how homogeneous they are within their own culture.

Another thing to note: I found the pace of these shows a little too slow for my tastes. Perhaps I’ve become too used to western media where things happen a lot quicker. Anyway, because of that, I tended to watch these shows on 1.5x speed using Video Speed Controller for Chrome. I know, I know: I’m one of those people directors hate. But I feel like if I hadn’t, I would have lost interest a lot sooner simply because at times, the shows could really drag; in one of them, three of the main characters spend the entire episode crying. THE ENTIRE EPISODE! Yes, they were going through something extremely sad and they were in mourning because of it. But non-stop crying for 45 minutes … perhaps the intended audiences have a higher tolerance for melodrama than I do. (I suspect the overdose of melodrama is what will turn a lot of people off these shows.)

All right; caveats and intros over. Let’s get into it.

The Untamed

The Untamed

The Untamed was the show that set all this off: Netflix can be quite aggressive in their recommendations, and this one just kept coming up. I wasn’t sure about it first, but I watched a couple of review videos on YouTube that were quite enthusiastic about the series, so I thought I would give it a try. And I was glad I did.

The Untamed is based on the yaoi novel Mo Dao Zu Shi by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (which I have not read). (If you know nothing about yaoi [I didn’t], I found this 2006 Village Voice article a helpful introduction. But be warned: it does go into some of the more disturbing parts of the genre. Basically yaoi are stories about homoerotic love between male characters, but the peculiar thing about it is that the stories are all written by women. The big question is why, and for that, you’ll have to read the Village Voice article.) Given Chinese censorship, however, that aspect of the story has been completely toned down, and if you weren’t looking for them, you could be forgiven for missing them altogether.

The series is also quite hefty: it clocks in at 50 episodes of about 45 minutes each. But given that it’s based on a novel (and most of of these shows seem to be), I felt like you needed that many episodes to get through the plot.

The plot: oh boy. I sympathise with this Tweep who wrote:

From episode 1, the writers throw their audience in the deep end of the world and the characters. The series opens with a climactic battle during which you hear a lot of people badmouthing a young man in black named Wei Wuxian (also known as Wei Ying/Young Master Wei/the Yiling Patriarch, etc.; that’s the other maddening thing about the series—the number of names the many many characters have), who looks like this:

The Untamed: Wei Wuxian

In despair, he hurls himself off a cliff and is narrowly caught by another young man in white called Lan Wangji (also known as Lan Zhan/Hanguang Jun [which means “Lord of light”]/Second young master Lan, etc.):

The Untamed: Lan Wangji

But then another young man with a sword (Jiang Cheng, who also happens to be Wei Wuxian’s sworn brother) comes along and appears to stab him:

The Untamed: Jiang Cheng

Wei Wuxian falls to his death.

Fast forward 16 years. A bunch of students in white—disciples of the Lan clan—are sitting in a lecture hall, drinking tea and hearing stories about Wei Wuxian/the Yiling Patriarch and how awful he was. (One of them is this young man, who keeps popping up throughout the series, but you don’t find out why he’s significant until pretty much the end of the series:

The Untamed: Lan Sizhui

That’s one of the things I admired about the series: all the characters are essential to the plot in some way. ALL of them. This of course only adds to viewer confusion because there are A LOT of characters.)

While this is happening, Wei Wuxian is resurrected in the body of a man named Mo Xuanyu, a member of the Jin clan. Mo sacrifices himself to give Wei Wuxian life again so that Wei Wuxian will carry out his revenge on all of Mo’s enemies.

Coincidentally the disciples of the Lan clan are summoned to the manor where Mo/Wei Wuxian is staying to deal with a malevolent spirit—a spirit that turns some members of the household (and Mo’s enemies) into “puppets”. (Think zombies.) With Wei Wuxian’s help, the disciples of the Lan clan try to get things under control, but in the end, they need the help of Lan Wangji, who appears at the very end to bring order to the chaos, revealing the malevolent spirit to be that of a sword ghost. (Yeah, I didn’t know swords could have ghosts either …)

I mention all this because the business of the sword ghost and the murder mystery behind it become the framing device for the series. But before the story gets to that, we need to meet the people who have a history with Wei Wuxian. In the first three episodes you meet some of the key players—Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng again, of course, but also Jin Ling, who is nephew to both Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng—the son of Jiang Yanli (their sister) and Jin Zixuan:

The Untamed: Jin Ling

The Untamed: Jiang Yanli

The Untamed: Jin Zuxian

(See: I’ve only introduced five characters from the cast and I’m sure you’re already confused! This is something that editors and writing groups tell writers not to do: don’t overwhelm your readers with too many characters! Take time to introduce them! Introduce them in a memorable way! Unfortunately The Untamed doesn’t do that. [Or the script sort of does, but it moves fast.])

But if you can bear with the overwhelm, confusion and disorientation for the first three episodes, what follows is a THIRTY-EPISODE flashback/recap/dream sequence that starts from the beginning 16 years ago, telling the story of how Wei Wuxian and his adopted brother (Jiang Cheng) and sister (Jiang Yanli)—all members of the Jiang clan (because, of course, there’s a Jiang clan AND a Jin clan; surely an editor would have told the author to change that)—*ahem*—how these members of the Jiang clan visit the Lan clan at their ancestral home of Cloud Recess to attend school with the children of the heads of the other four clans. This brings them into contact with Lan Wangji and his elder brother Lan Xichen from the Lan clan—

The Untamed: Lan Wangji

The Untamed: Lan Xichen

—these people from the Jin clan—

The Untamed: Jin Zuxian

The Untamed: Jin Guangyao

(though it should be noted that the fellow just above also spends time in both the Nie and the Wen clans)

—these people from the Nie clan—

The Untamed: Nie Huaisang

The Untamed: Nie Mingjue

—and these people from the Wen clan:

The Untamed: Wen Qing

The Untamed: Wen Ning

So, um, yeah, there are major five clans: Jin, Jiang, Nie, Lan and Wen. (Still with me?) Much of those early episodes are devoted to setting up the relationships between the characters (and Wei Wuxian’s rebuffed attempts at friendship with Lan Wangji). But then gradually the story takes a darker turn when the Wen clan tries to take over with the help of a magical object called the Yin Iron. There’s a war, the aftermath of that war, the unrighteous oppression of one clan as a result of that war, and a truckload of tragedy that culminates in the battle that takes place at the beginning of episode 1. During the course of things, you learn Wei Wuxian’s history, his relationship to all the other characters, why he does the things he does and how he ended up becoming the universally despised Yiling Patriarch.

And then at episode 33, following Wei Wuxian’s suicide, the story jumps back to the “present” (16 years later): Wei Wuxian wakes up in the house of Lan Wangji and the two of them set out to solve the mystery of the sword ghost—a mystery that involves a murder—a mystery that draws in all the key players from the story so far and reveals the truth of what happened 16 years ago.

Across all 50 episodes, the story actually holds together remarkably well: it’s a story about heroism, justice, right and wrong, magic and power, but it’s also a story about family, loyalty, brotherhood and love (and I don’t just mean the boy love kind). The characters (once you get them all sorted out in your head) are dynamic, compelling and interesting, and they all have their own arcs. (Even the minor ones!) It can be a little violent in places (because, you know, martial arts—though most of it is quite balletic:)

There is also a bit of supernatural horror involving not just the zombie puppets and sword ghost, but also an entire town devoted to funerals.

The other thing to note about it and a large part of what attracted me to the series is that it is visually GORGEOUS: I’ve included a lot of promotional images and stills so you can see how beautiful the production design and costumes are:

The Untamed: Cloud Recess
The Untamed: Lan Zhan plays the guqing
The Untamed: Bedroom
The Untamed: Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji seated
The Untamed: Nie stronghold
The Untamed: Wen Qing and Wen Ning
The Untamed: Props
The Untamed: Street at night

You can see how much thought went into everything—from the colours that each clan wears to the spaces they inhabit and even the objects they use. Who wouldn’t want to live in such elegant spaces?!

Of course, there were things that bugged me: not all the sets and props looked as “authentic” as they could be. (The throne room of the Wen clan seemed a bit tacky, in my opinion.) Some of the clothes the characters wear very much looked like they were made from manmade fabrics that couldn’t possibly have existed in this alternate Ancient China. Some of the special effects are on par with early Doctor Who and they will probably make you laugh.

But overall, the series gets major points from me in terms of the level of storytelling it achieves—costumes, props, production design, music (which I quite liked, though more the tracks featuring traditional Chinese instruments, not so much the synth-laden tracks), direction and acting all working together to tell a compelling tale. Xiao Zhan is charismatic and joyful as Wei Wuxian, switching effortlessly between the comic and lighthearted moments of the script to the more serious and emotionally intense moments. Wang Yibo’s Lan Wangji is the perfect straight man for him, often garnering the best lines—particularly in those early episodes where he’s on his guard against Wei Wuxian and their friendship is only just beginning to bud. The rest of the cast also do well in bringing their characters to life, and if there were occasional moments of over-the-top melodrama, I suppose they can be forgiven because how pretty everyone looks. (It should be noted that a number of the cast are members of Chinese boy bands.)

One final thing: I binge-watched The Untamed during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, and it was really really nice to have somewhere to wonderful escape to when all the madness was going on in the world. For that, I will always be grateful.

Handsome Siblings

Handsome Siblings

Handsome Siblings (44 episodes) is the second xianxia series I tried on Netflix and possibly one of the ones the algorithm recommended to me. (Ben would laugh at the name every time I mentioned it.) I chose it because much as I liked the characters in The Untamed, I wanted to watch a series that had more female characters in it.

It’s based on a wuxia (i.e. adventures of martial artists) novel called Juedai Shuangjiao by Gu Long that has been adapted multiple times in different formats, and it’s the story of twins separated at birth after the death/suicide of their parents because of a feud between two significant and powerful martial artists. One (Hua Wu Que) is raised in Yihua Palace—the only male in a world of women. The other (Xiao Yu’er/Jiang Xiao Yu) is raised in Wicked Canyon, a sort of hell on earth where some of the most famous villains in the world have gone to retire. When they turn 18, each are sent out into the world—Xiao Yu’er to see the world; Hua Wu Que to kill him because he’s been told that Xiao Yu’er is an enemy of Yihua Palace.

Handsome Siblings: Hua Wu Que

Handsome Siblings: Xiao Yu'er

The truth eventually comes out, of course (and it does in a most satisfying way). But along the way, the two land themselves in all sorts of adventures involving various people—commonfolk, a number of girls/love interests (both noblewomen and peasants), the Ten Great Villains, the Twelve Zodiac and, of course, the man behind the deaths of their parents.

Things I liked about it: the little stories that occur along the way as the characters get caught up in other people’s lives. (There’s a lovely subplot involving Murong Jiu and the Black Spider, who is one of the Ten Villains but who is also a really lovely young man:)

Handsome Siblings: Murong Jiu

Handsome Siblings: Black Spider

Seeing the friendship develop between Hua Wu Que and Xiao Yu’er, even in spite of Hua Wu Que’s vow to kill Xiao Yu’er. Watching Xiao Yu’er talk his way out of situations. (He boasts that he’s “the smartest man in the world” and sometimes that’s true, but other times you know it’s just because he’s awfully good at misdirection. After all, he was raised by half of the Ten Villains.) Exploring the countryside around them—not just the villages and towns, but also the cliffs and the caves, and the prairie fields that looked like they were on the border with Mongolia (or whatever Mongolia is in this alternate Ancient China). The way the story explores what a true villain is (as opposed to a hero), and how revenge is always bitter and unsatisfying, no matter how it is served.

Things that annoyed me: the villains get a bit cartoonish and ridiculous at times. Some of the sets looked very very fake—particularly the Rat King’s underground palace. Overall, I felt the production design lacked coherence: it had a certain aesthetic, but that aesthetic felt chaotic and clashing (I couldn’t find very good stills of what I mean though):

Handsome Siblings: Five of the Ten Great Villains
Handsome Siblings: Xiao Yu'er on a bed

(I do like that the costumers chose to dress Xiao Yu’er very differently from most of the people around him.)

Handsome Siblings: Birthday night
Handsome Siblings: Rat King palace

(It could just be me, but I found the look of the whole thing rather unsatisfying.) Also, the hairstyles on some of the female characters are just ridiculous: nobody needs hair that tall!

Handsome Siblings: Yao Yue

Handsome Siblings: Lian Xing

Finally, although I was pleased about there being more female characters, the women in this series seriously annoyed me, because pretty much all their focus revolved around the male characters. I don’t think this series would pass the Bechdel test. The two pictured above—the Masters of Yihua Palace—were bitter and vengeful. The main love interests had a bit more going for them in that Tie Xin Lan starts off disguised as a boy (something the smartest man in the world fails to realise!) and then her backstory is revealed, and Su Ying is gifted with medicine and is clever enough to outwit Xiao Yu’er at various points. But even so, both become obsessed with the male characters and all their actions revolve around them. I wanted them to do more than exist to serve the main plot.

Handsome Siblings: Tie Xin Lan
Handsome Siblings: Su Ying

Ashes of Love

Ashes of Love: Jinmi and Xufeng

Final show! Hope you’re still with me.

Ashes of Love is a 60-episode fantasy epic based on the novel Heavy Sweetness, Ash-like Frost by Dian Xian about immortals and their lives across the six realms—heavenly, demon, mortal, floral, and I’m not sure what the other two are. The story follows Jinmi, daughter of the Great Floral Goddess, who died of grief after giving birth to her. (The implication of the opening episode is that her lover married another and she was too heartbroken to live.) Jinmi was fed the Yun Elixir from birth, which prevents her from ever falling in love. She’s raised in ignorance of her heritage and only thinks of herself as being a lowly grape fairy.

After losing her best friend Rourou, who was killed by a terrible monster, Jinmi encounters the Phoenix/Xufeng, the God of Fire and God of War, who falls unexpectedly into the Floral Realm after his rebirth goes wrong. Since he arrives in bird form, at first, Jinmi doesn’t know what he is. But somehow she is able to nurse him back to health, and to repay her, he takes her out of the Floral Realm (which she was forbidden to leave) to the Heavenly Realm, where she seeks to increase her magical prowess by any means necessary so that she might resurrect Rourou. But then when both the Phoenix and his half-brother, the God of Night, fall for her, she becomes entangled in the politics of the Heavenly Realm and the struggle for power, and her true identity and heritage is revealed. Also, the Yun Elixir begins to crack …

Ashes of Love: Xufeng and Runyu

I really enjoyed this one. I enjoyed watching Jinmi transform from a completely clueless person incapable of romantic love (which lands her in some very amusing situations) to someone who becomes filled to the brim with it and who engages in certain actions because of it. You see how much pain and suffering love causes her—not just in the sacrifices she makes out of love for the sake of her beloved (and to atone for certain awful things she does), but also the grief he causes her in what he does. It’s a massive contrast to the love of some of the other characters—namely, Suihe, the Bird Princess and Runyu, the Night Immortal and the Phoenix’s brother: both Suihe and Runyu claim to love and act out of love, but their love, at its root, is selfish and self-serving, instead of other-person-centred.

The romance between her and the Phoenix is well-developed (in two realms, even; you watch it twice over in a sort of play-within-a-play/show-within-a-show narrative device): I believed their characters were truly in love and really wanted them to overcome the obstacles that prevented them from being together. Those obstacles included not one, but two love triangles—something that was frustrating as I don’t generally like love triangles, but which certainly served to keep the lovers apart for many many episodes.

Ashes of Love: Xufeng and Suihe

Ashes of Love: Runyu and Jinmi

The other thing I liked about it was that it showed the consequences of the characters’ actions—particularly that of the older generation—the Heavenly Emperor, his Empress (another vengeful bitter lady), the Water Immortal and the Great Floral Goddess. I couldn’t help thinking that had they made better choices, the younger generation wouldn’t have had to suffer so much.

Finally, a word about the female characters: I liked that the cast was almost evenly split between the men and the women, and while much of what preoccupied the female characters involved the men, there were things that helped the series to pass the Bechdel test—for example, the friendship between Jinmi and Rourou. I also really really liked the friendship between the Phoenix and Liuying, Princess of Bian City in the Demon Realm: they had a wonderful brother-sister thing going on there that, at one point, hinted at some future romantic pairing, but fortunately never went there:

Ashes of Love: Muci and Liuying

Plot things that made me sad: the Night Immortal’s character arc. The script does well to make you empathise with him, and then he goes and does some truly awful things. I wished that he ended up happy. (Suihe the Bird Princess totally gets what she deserves, though, and her commuppance is immensely satisfying.) Characters (and there were many) who didn’t respect other people’s boundaries. Characters who didn’t listen to other characters and constantly went against their wishes. I know all this is good fodder for conflict and drama, but it was very frustrating to watch.

Other things I wasn’t that into: the production design on this one was all right, but I felt like it could be better. The costumes, generally speaking, were very beautiful (synthetic fibres and all), but the sets, while impressive, sometimes looked a bit tacky. The special effects are definitely not great. The scenes spent in the Mortal Realm were probably the best on that front as I think the designers were trying to make the Heavenly Realm, Floral Realm and Demon Realm more otherworldly and didn’t really succeed (in my opinion). The music, while enjoyable overall, is used in a very clumsy manner in certain scenes—particularly in the third act. Some of the more soap opera-ish aspects of the plot greatly annoyed me, but I suspect that sort of thing goes with the territory. Also, the ending: I felt like it could have been more satisfying—particularly given what had gone before. But that’s just quibbling.

A final thing to note: even though in all these productions, the makers are very careful not to depict any sexual content given China’s censorship laws, there was one scene where it’s implied that it’s happening, and it kind of shocked me because it happens somewhat unexpectedly. And then afterwards, not much is made of it. It made me wonder why it was necessary, but perhaps it’s one of those things that was inserted just to please fans.

I was going to end this post with some reflections on Chinese culture and my growing appreciation for it, and how all three series have taught me interesting things about charater, narrative and storytelling, and how to sustain interest over many many episodes. But I think it’s long enough!

Well done if you got this far. I hope I’ve convinced you to give one of these shows a try!