I’ve consumed countless SFF books and numerous shows in my life. However, I have never been a fan of anything.
Until now. People who follow my Twitter feed may have noticed the preponderance of images of pretty, long-haired Chinese wizards with flowing robes and magic swords. Welcome to the world of The Untamed – a complex, beautiful story set in ancient China. The entire 50 episodes are available on Netflix and apparently on Youtube as well. I have – ahem – seen it twice. I’ve probably seen my favorite scenes ten times.
So what is this beautiful, addictive drama all about? It’s based on the Chinese mythology/fantasy adventure novel Mo Dao Zu Shi (which means Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. There is sadly no official translation in English that you can actually buy, but a fan translation is available here. I’m currently on Chapter 9. I do advise watching the show first, though. The storytelling, acting and emotional depth of the live action drama are phenomenal. And the costumes, cast and locale are gorgeous. I mean, look at them:
The series follows the adventures of two soulmate cultivators, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. From what I can gather, cultivation refers to magical martial arts. Those with a ‘golden core’ can practice cultivation, and various sects are organized around its study and training.
Our two heroes first meet in Cloud Recesses, home of the GusuLan sect (and of Lan Wangji) when they are around sixteen. Lan Wangji is the younger brother of GusuLan Sect Leader Zewu-Jun. The two start off on the wrong note. Wei Wuxian is an irrepressible rascal, and Lan Wangji the stern, aloof rule-enforcer. Some very entertaining episodes follow involving alcohol, sword fights, water demons, bunnies, weaponized music, punishments in the library, and the beginnings of an intense romance that will be derailed by tragedy. There is an evil mastermind – aren’t there always? I don’t want to spoil it for you except to say that this show will make you laugh, and cry, and cry some more, and break your heart, and then patch it up again. Somewhat.
The series (and the book) starts on a much darker note, however. Flash forward sixteen years in the future. The first scene: a battlefield. Wei Wuxian with tears running down his face, standing on the edge of a cliff, and then just letting himself fall. Lan Wangji flies forward to save him, and catches his hand. Wei Wuxian smiles through his tears. “Lan Zhan, let me go,” he says. At that moment, Wei Wuxian’s sworn brother Jiang Cheng strides to the cliff with his sword and dislodges Wei Wuxian, telling him to go to hell.
That’s the first scene. It’s super confusing, as are the entire first two episodes. But stick with it, and I promise it will all make beautiful sense. If you aren’t in love with the characters by Episode 6, then it is probably not for you. But, I mean, look at them:
The above image is from my favorite, Episode 13. It involves being thrown into an abyss with a literal monster. That’s not why I love it, though. I love it because for the first time, Lan Wangji’s feelings for Wei Wuxian are made abundantly clear – to the viewer, if not to the clueless Wei Wuxian, hah.
In the original novel, the relationship between the two leads is quite explicit. But China has a censorship policy that forbids depictions of homosexuality on TV. So the producers of the show had to walk a very fine line between staying true to the source material, and at the same time sliding past censorship. They managed to do this beautifully because of the phenomenal acting by Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan, who manage to convey entire paragraphs of conversation just with their eyes. I mean, look at them:
The above clip is a very sweet one from Episode 7. It involves bunnies and lanterns.
While the forbidden, obstacle-plagued love between the two heroes is the heart of this show, there are also strong themes of family, duty, sacrifice, courage and nobility. Both Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian have deep integrity. They want to do the right thing, no matter what. And sometimes, knowing what the right thing is can be extremely hard. Sometimes it pits you against your family and your clan. Sometimes, doing the right thing will make you an outcast.
Have I converted you yet? I want everyone to join me in my obsession with these two! I did ask myself why I can’t stop watching this show, and concluded the answer lies in brain chemistry. A beloved show can be as (pseudo)addictive as a drug because it releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in how we feel pleasure. That’s right, every time you’re binge-watching your favorite show, your brain is releasing dopamine. So your addiction to the show is actually your body’s addiction to dopamine. (This is me, rationalizing my obsession.)
Oh, if you’re already into this series, and have seen until Episode 13, I leave my favorite Untamed Crack videos here and here. And there’s a super-cute interview of the two leads here. Oh, and a translated version of the #WangXian song here.
ETA: I have finished the source novel. The plot and dialogue are very similar to the show, however the plot does diverge in small but important ways that affect both clarity and characterization. I much, much prefer the show even though it sometimes lacks plot clarity. I especially much, much prefer TV Lan Wangji as compared to novel Lan Wangji. There’s lots of non-consensual stuff in the novel that made me super uncomfortable. OTOH, I will forever be grateful this novel exists, because without it, The Untamed would not exist.
Update: I wrote about my other favorite Asian dramas here.