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Review: Mulan

Mulan (2020)
Screening on Disney+

Tonight’s movie was the live action remake of Mulan (streaming on Disney+), and I have THOUGHTS.

Thing is, I don’t know if my thoughts can be pounded out in the time I have before bedtime.

Thing is, I wonder if I don’t do it now, I won’t get another chance. So here goes.

Given the Twitter reaction, I expected this film to be more of a trainwreck of a movie than it was. I had heard various things about it and some of the reasons why people were unhappy with it, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from. I think it’s mainly two camps: one, the people who loved the 1998 animated film and were sorely disappointed because they were expecting something like that, and two, people who love the story of Hua Mulan and who wanted to see it done well as a Hollywood blockbuster in partnership with China, and they ended up disappointed too.

The 2020 Mulan is neither and therefore it’s sort of hard to figure out where it fits. This was symbolised somewhat by the opening credits, which featured the familiar mouse castle in a not-so-familiar Asian landscape with the addition of a great wall.

Firstly, it has some of the trappings of the 1998 film in its characters, storylines and even the music: Hua Mulan is a simple girl who comes from a small village and who struggles to figure out her place in the world that sees her as different. She does not act the way society thinks girls should act, and furthermore, she’s in possession of a very strong qi (which, if I’ve understood this correctly, refers to one’s vital energy or life force—something which is essential to Chinese martial arts). She knows that her role in life is to marry well and better her family’s social standing. But her spirit rails against this, and she somehow can’t help being who she is. (Note that the cricket scene in the original is sort of still there, but now it involves a spider.) Unfortunately being who she is means public shaming.

Meanwhile in the north, Böri Khan is rallying the Rourans and attacking garrisons all along China’s northern border, plotting to avenge his father, who was killed by the current emperor. He is aided by a powerful witch who can shapeshift and disguise herself as anyone she chooses. She is aiding him because she has lived much of her life in exile, rejected by her own people for who she is, and under Böri, she hopes to be somewhere where she can be free.

The emperor, realising that war is unavoidable, sends out a decree that every family must send one male to join the army. As Mulan’s father only has daughters, he consents to go. And as Mulan loves her father and knows he won’t survive a second war, she disguises herself as a man and goes in his place, bearing his sword, which has the characters etched on it “Loyal, brave and true”.

If you were hoping for singing, you will be sorely disappointed: although the music sometimes picks up some of the themes of the 1998 animated film soundtrack and Christina Aguilera belts out “Reflection” over the credits (and Liu Yifei, the actress who plays Mulan also does so in Mandarin), no one in the cast sings about their hopes and dreams, or about how they’ll “make a man out of you” (truly the best song of the original). The soundtrack is mostly instrumental, and I liked that it used a lot of traditional Chinese instruments.

In addition, if you were hoping for Mushu, you also be sorely disappointed: the red dragon has been replaced by a CGI phoenix who answers her father’s prayer and watches over her as the spirit of their ancestors (or some such thing). I rather liked that as Mushu was always a bit of a Jar Jar Binks character for me.

However, no singing, no cricket, no Mushu and even no grandma (who arguably had the best lines in the original) means that the movie is far less child-friendly, lacking much of the comedy and humour of the animated version. Mulan’s army buddies are still there as a bit of light relief (retaining some of the dialogue of their animated counterparts), and I kind of wish we had had a few more scenes with them as I liked the friendship that Mulan develops with them (and more particularly with Chen Honghui, who is the only one in the skinnydipping scene and who sort of slides in the Li Shang role, only he is not a commander). But otherwise, the movie takes itself very seriously (i.e. no cross-dressing in the other direction): the stakes are clear and the cost of Mulan’s choices weight heavily on her as she tries to live up to the creed on her father’s sword.

The last virtue—“true”—gives her trouble, however: how can she be “true” when she is lying to everyone around her? This moral quandary weighs heavily on her and, as the witch points out to her later, it is poisoning her qi and is preventing her from serving the emperor the way she should be. (Commander Tung recognises this in an earlier scene, though of course at that stage, he does not know her secret.) This is interesting as there are plenty of cross-dressing girls in other xanxia dramas I have watched and none of their qi was ever affected. This is also a big change: in the 1998 version, she was just an ordinary girl trying to spare her father and honour her family the only way she could; in this one, she is special.

When she is finally convinced of the value of being herself and is, in a sense, reborn like the phoenix, she suddenly has the power—or the qi—to save her country, her people and even her friends. But of course society is still a step behind, and her shaming and expulsion from the army seems overly harsh for western audiences, who would be more sympathetic towards acts of bravery than eastern audiences who, perhaps, would be more in agreement with values regarding law and virtue. (Something similar came up in the K-Drama Romance is a Bonus Book where one of the main characters is vilified for calling herself a high school graduate on her resumé when she was really a university graduate.)

The final act of the story is, in my humble opinion, where the whole thing gets a bit sloppy. While the action scenes, for the most part, are terrific and exciting, with backwards riding archery, spear fighting, somersaults on horeseback and Donnie Yen being awesome, the characters made some decisions that made no sense to me. Why does Mulan cast off her armour when some of it was clearly instrumental to saving her life? Why does she fight with her hair out? (Wouldn’t that be annoying?) Why do people act like Mulan is the only one who can save the emperor? (Surely she’s not!) And surely jumping onto a plank that’s revolving slowly in mid-air is a bad idea, no matter how awesome it makes you look when you’re doing martial arts on it??

The witch also plays a pivotal role in all of this—both as a foil to Mulan, but also as something of an antagonist in her decision-making. Unfortunately that story thread is given no room to breathe; I imagine that had this been a TV series, the clash of worldviews between her and Mulan would have been developed more over several episodes, not several minutes. As it is, things progress so fast, I had whiplash.

That said, I liked where the film ended—back in Mulan’s village where the opening scenes are book-ended with ones that close out themes of filial duty, honour, and ideas regarding what women can and can‘t do. Although it could be argued that Mulan is a feminist story of empowerment and male recognition of that power, I liked that the ending to this film emphasised honouring one’s family. Perhaps it was a compromise between east and west? For me, it worked. For others, it probably didn’t.

Along with the script, there are many things that could be criticised about this film. The cast was made up of Asian actors, but their delivery of the English dialogue left a lot to be desired and, to me, was jarring after spending so much time watching xanxia dramas in Mandarin. The costumes, props and overall production design was gorgeous and colourful, with nary a synthetic fibre in sight. (I only mention it because that is something that sometimes annoys me about xanxia dramas.) I acknowledge that it probably wasn’t historically accurate; this article notes:

Online reviewers criticized Mulan‘s lack of character development; the actors’ performances; various plot holes; the historical inaccuracy of the makeup and costumes; and confusing, seemingly slapdash references to Chinese culture.

One Douban reviewer laid out a ten-point critique of the movie that included a complaint about one scene in which Mulan’s father sharpens a knife with a piece of jade with “filial piety” engraved on it. “[The jade] is related to military merit,” the reviewer wrote. “Why the hell is it engraved with ‘filial piety’?”

Another Douban reviewer called the film a “car accident” full of famous Chinese actors and “all the features of China that Americans could come up with … it’s full of Western images of China, especially ancient China.”

Also:

Concerns about how faithfully Disney’s latest Mulan hewed to Chinese history and culture started last summer, when Disney released the trailer for the movie. One complaint pointed out that Mulan’s house is a style of architecture that did not emerge in China until several hundred years after Mulan was supposed to have lived and is associated with southern China; the Mulan folk story is set in northern China. The scenes are beautiful, one Douban reviewer wrote, “but it will make any Chinese person who has studied geography go crazy.”

But as it had witches, magic and qi in it, I thought it was like other xanxia dramas I’ve watched that are set in some fantasy version of ancient China, so these things bothered me less.

That article also had this interesting part in it that only further serves to underscore the difficulty of where Mulan sits:

… joint productions between U.S. and Chinese movie makers like The Great Wall and Hollywood movies with Chinese cultural themes like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell have flopped at the mainland box office. Their failures underscore the difficulty of making a movie with Chinese themes that appeals to U.S. and Chinese audiences and succeeds critically and commercially in both markets.

It seems to me that both Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell come from less of an Asian background and more of an Asian American or Western Asian background, which is not the same thing. (It is interesting, though, that Disney chose a director who isn’t Asian. Was Chloé Zhao unavailable?) In my opinion, Mulan (2020) occupies the same space: it comes from Chinese culture, but its story is more Western in flavour, concerned with ideas surrounding identity, authenticity and the expression of those things in one’s society. So I’m not surprised Chinese audiences didn’t like it. I’m also not surprised that western audiences didn’t like it either. I enjoyed it, but one day, I’d also like to see a couple of the 15 adaptations made in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan if only to understand how others view the story.

Okay, perhaps that’s not the most comfortable place to leave a review. But I am out of time and this will have to do.

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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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Review: El Deafo (Cece Bell)

Next on the To Read list: El Deafo by Cece Bell (Amulet Books, 2014).

Despite it winning a Newbery Honor and an Eisner Award in 2015, I hadn’t heard of this book. I saw it in the Scholastic Book Club catalogue and decided to get it because it sounded interesting (and Scholastic do a good job of selling books through Book Club at a nice discount).

I was glad I did.

El Deafo is the semi-autobiographical story of Cece Bell who, at age four, contracts meningitis and loses most of her hearing. The story follows Cece through the next five years as she tries to learn to live in a world of hearing-abled people who don’t necessarily understand her disability, and how it affects her life and her relationships.

The impact of deafness on Cece’s relationships is a major theme throughout the story—particularly with regards to her friendships. Cece’s longing for true companions is highlighted by her extreme loneliness: in certain panels, she’s visually depicted within bubbles. Friendship, which is always a rich subject for middle grade fiction, takes on other interesting shades when the children who try to befriend Cece also find themselves contending with Cece’s deafness. There are those for whom it is an issue, there are those for whom it is not an issue, and there are those who try to over-compensate for it. Mix that with friends who are overbearing, bossy and boundary transgressors; friends who are well-meaning but irritating; and friends who are terrific but human and flawed, and you get a sense of the rocky landscape that Cece must traverse in order to connect with her peers. The fruit of these vignettes is a very helpful guide to what helps and what doesn’t when relating to others who are hearing impaired.

Certainly one of the things I loved about Cece was her resilience: early on with the help of her phonic ear, which she has to use for school, she reframes her deafness, imagining herself as a superhero with super hearing and calling herself “El Deafo”. Whole scenes play out in Cece’s imagination, where she pictures herself saying things and dealing with others in a way she doesn’t quite feel confident enough to do in real life. The climax of the story is a wonderful culmination of Cece’s growth to self-acceptance, as well as the acceptance of the kids around her, and I came away from the story wanting everyone in the world to read it.

Final thing: there were a number of things about the artwork of this graphic novel that I really loved. The characters are all depicted as rabbits, which is quite clever considering how rabbits are known for having big ears. (I also wondered if it was a nod to Art Spiegelman’s Maus.) I loved how the effects of Cece’s deafness was depicted in empty speech balloons, faint lettering, and text that looked like a foreign language until you did the hard work of trying sound out the words phonetically and guessed what the speaker was trying to say. I also loved the diagrams showing how certain words look the same in lip-reading. All of these things helped put the reader in Cece’s shoes and so that you really feel what it’s like to be her and live her experience. As Harvey Pekar once said, “Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures”, and yet I never expected that a comic—which is, essentially, a silent medium—could do that in a story about deafness and hearing. 

Obviously I still have a lot to learn.

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Review: Allergic (Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter)

Next on the To Read list: Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter (Graphix Scholastic, 2021).

Maggie is excited: she’s turning 10 and her parents have promised that she can get a puppy. With young twin brothers and a new baby on the way, Maggie often feels like she gets lost in the noise and tussle of family. She just wants something of her own: she loves animals and dreams of becoming a vet. But when she goes to choose her new pet, she discovers to her horror that she is allergic to animal hair—all animal hair. In addition, because the zoning has changed, she has to start going to a new school where she doesn’t know anyone.

The story of Maggie’s journey towards acceptance of her condition and connection with others is told with gentleness and humour. I really felt for Maggie and understood her sadness and disappointment. (We have something similar at our place, with children who really love cats, but are allergic to them. In fact, everyone in our family is allergic to cats …) I liked the way her first day at the new school is depicted and the circumstances that lead Maggie to becoming something of a social pariah. I also really really liked the unlikely friendships she forms—first with her new next-door neighbour and then later with a boy who has a different set of allergies to her. I kind of guessed the ending ahead of time, but still found it satisfying, and I appreciated how Megan Wagner Lloyd took care to tidy up a couple of the more minor plot threads.

Other things I loved about it: the diverse cast, Michelle Mee Nutter’s wonderful facial expressions, the muted warm colours, and the splash page in the pet store where you can see Maggie and her friend Claire moving around the aisles.

My only piece of criticism is one that I have a lot with middle grade graphic novels that are being released at the moment: I really really wish the lettering was better. Perhaps I have been brainwashed by Nate Piekos of Blambot, but the main issues I noticed were crossbar Is, text stacking in balloons that could have been more diamond-shaped, accidental tangents, and the occasional panel where I would read the balloons in the wrong order. They threw me right out of the story, but I do acknowledge that my brain has been trained to notice these things, so perhaps they wouldn’t annoy anyone else as much.

Overall, Allergic is a great addition to the middle grade comic canon. Give it to anyone who loves the works of Raina Telgemeier.

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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!