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 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:
EVERY PERSON TELLING YOU HOW TO WRITE A SCRIPT: You have to have the audience hooked within the first five minutes or they're not going to read any more.
EVERY PERSON RECOMMENDING A TV SHOW: You have to watch the first three seasons before it starts to get good.
— Tom Little, The "PINGU but it's SOPRANOS" Guy (@ThisIsTomLittle) March 30, 2020
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:
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.):
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:
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:
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:
(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—
—these people from the Jin clan—
(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—
—and these people from the Wen clan:
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:
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 (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.
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:)
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):
(I do like that the costumers chose to dress Xiao Yu’er very differently from most of the people around him.)
(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!
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.
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 …
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.
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:
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!