Is a discussion I’ve been having on Discord with some very intelligent authors, and it always goes something like this:
But the clothes.
They’re so pretty.
It’s just piling up of devastation after devastation until your heart explodes. But in a good way.
But everything’s just so gorgeous.
But, my heart. I’m not okay. My heart.
But, but, but.
In other words, no one I have spoken to who has seen it and fallen in love with it can accurately form coherent sentences about it. The conclusion I have come to is that it genuinely has some magical alchemy going on that means all your usual complaints or observations about a show are just irrelevant.
Now, there are probably only three people left in the world who don’t know about The Untamed at this stage, so I’m writing this for you (it’s on Netflix. Watch it). Also because it allows me to post a lot of pictures from the show – all copyright to Tencent etc etc. Obviously, I’m just writing this to be able to show you pretty pictures.
The plot is either extremely complex or extremely simple or very ill-thought-out. I can’t tell. It doesn’t matter. According to Wikipedia, “The series follows the adventures of two soulmate cultivators who travel to solve a series of murder mysteries, eventually finding and defeating the true culprit.” I literally had no idea they were attempting to solve a series of murder mysteries and I only finished watching it on Friday night. The plot is merely a series of events to showcase the actors smouldering at each other.
Many characters play a variety of instruments, notably flutes and guqin. And, clearly, not one of them (a) can play, or (b) is actually playing. Fingers randomly move over strings or stop holes (oh god), and lips are pursed very beautifully to indicate blowing (oh god!), but it’s abundantly clear they’re either not even playing or they’re making a godawful racket over which the soundtrack is edited. In anything else that would bug the hell out of me. In The Untamed I barely notice it.
Also, the structure. What even is the structure? It opens with three episodes set in the ‘today’ of the timeline, and then enters a thirty episode flashback that slowly twists your heart apart, and then follow seventeen episodes of emotional devastation that alternates between destroying and reviving your heart until you’re a sobbing wreck.
So, the first three episodes will make barely any sense the first time you watch it, but when you rewatch (and you will) everything will start to fall into place. Caveat: probably won’t make sense if you’re a Western audience and/or are unfamiliar with xianxia or danmei media or cultivation and Daoist stories.
And yes, everyone is exceedingly pretty, as are the costumes and the settings. Everything is pretty, which definitely helps with the devastation – pretty people bleeding while being held by other pretty people who love them but can’t admit it is the definition of good visuals and emotional trauma.
But I’m not a fan of pretty. In the game, ‘who would you sleep with from LOTR’, Legolas is at the bottom of the list below Gollum, and Aragorn-pushing-open-the-doors-to-Theoden’s-hall is at the very, very top. (Honourable mentions to Boromir and Eowyn’s “I am no man”.) And yet in The Untamed, everyone is astonishingly pretty in various ways and it hits me somewhere in the heart every episode. Now, I don’t want to sleep with Wei Wuxian or Lan Wangji – and I have hit that heartbreaking age where if I did it would be creepy, because they are so much younger than me – but my god do I want them to get married and adopt a bunch of kids, rabbits and chickens. I have never wanted to see two people kiss so much in my entire life.
And I think this is what the series does do incredibly well – it has trodden the insanely thin line between what the Chinese government will allow in terms of its strict conservative anti-LGBT+ censorship laws and what people want to see happen. It tells a deeply emotional and romantic love story that is entirely made up of smiles, intense looks and holding each other’s arms, a love story of two people utterly unalike who are nevertheless approaching life from opposite sides and finding each other in the middle. It’s a story of self-sacrifice and betrayal, abandonment and retribution, guilt and forgiveness, and the acceptance of responsibility for actions. Choosing to stand together for love and for what is right no matter the consequences. Living with regret, and living despite regret.
And it does it all with nothing more provocative than a look or a gentle touch on the wrist. It’s exquisite. There isn’t even so much as a Poe Dameron lip-bite. Which I’m adding, because, well, look.
Not to say there hasn’t been controversy around the show anyway, though none of it has come from any of The Untamed’s actual content. Instead, fanfic that appeared on AO3 made the relationship between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji explicit and in response, some fans of the actor playing Wei Wuxian (Xaio Zhan) reported the website to censorship authorities. AO3 got shut down in China as a result and fans of AO3 then started boycotting products endorsed by Xiao Zhan, forcing him to offer a public apology on behalf of people who loved the show so much they wrote fanfic about it. Which is … so messed up.
EDIT: Someone has pointed out that the fanfic was actually written about the actors themselves, not the characters. So an explicit fanfic about Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo. Which, I suppose, may justify an overreaction from the fans? But does it really? And his apology didn’t directly reference that controversy, merely stating there was a controversy and he’s sorry it happened and can everyone please just calm down.
First, Xaio Zhan has no control over fanfic or anything else his fans do. Once art is out in the world, it’s open to interpretation by anyone. Second, he knows – all the cast know – exactly what type of show they were making, and the book it’s based on is openly explicit that the relationship between the main characters is both homosocial and homosexual. That the actors managed to illustrate that so eloquently without a single overt move throughout 50 episodes is testament to their ability.
But, the fact he was forced to make a public apology effectively means that he is denying the queer content of the book and the show. EDIT: Turns out he didn’t apologise for that, but I’m leaving this here because I think it bears noting anyway. I don’t blame him for doing it – I don’t understand the censorship laws in China but I would definitely not want to run afoul of them, and he has a career that is tanking as a result of the reporting by his ‘fans’, so well done there – but to be forced to apologise for what someone else did that was entirely without his control is ridiculous and deeply unfair. And as far as I’m aware, it’s only related to his fans, and not Wang Yibo’s (who plays Lan Wangji).
Also, considering all the censorship laws etc, please let’s just take several hours to admire the photoshoot for Harper’s Bazaar China magazine from last year. I mean, definitely no slow burn romance going on here. No way …
All copyright to Harper’s Bazaar China (as far as I’m aware).
Anyway, these are just my initial thoughts after watching the show through for the first time. On the advice of lots of people, I then went back and rewatched the first three episodes so that I could understand the opening in light of all the events of the flashback. And then … I watched episodes 4 and 5, so it appears my rewatch is going to be immediate because who the hell can stop now?
It should also be noted that the show has catapulted the actors to stardom particularly in East Asia, while the original web-novel, Mo Dao Zu Shi, can be read in English translation here. There have also been webcomic (manhua) versions created, as well as an animated series (donghua) available on YouTube.
Full disclosure: I wrote this blog post in order to justify spending an hour looking at photos of The Untamed while listening to the soundtrack from The Untamed in order to distract myself from watching more episodes of The Untamed instead of working.
Currently watching: … Have you read anything I’ve just written above?
Currently reading: ARC of She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, featuring beautiful disaster gays and a slow burn romance… sound familiar?
Currently listening: The Hu, Gereg; and the soundtrack to The Untamed. On repeat.