Thirteen years after his death, the reviled and hated Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, Wei WuXian (Xiao Zhan), is mysteriously summoned back to life. Accompanied by his longtime “friend”, Lan WangJi (Wang YiBo), he finds himself on a quest to put an aggressive spirit to rest, and maybe clear his name at the same time.
A few months ago, I read somewhere that my beloved Mo Dao Zu Shi was about to be adapted into a live action drama. Knowing what we all know about Chinese censorship, you bet I was… less than thrilled. In fact, after rumors started going around that the writers had made Wen Qing (whom I love, don’t mistake me) into Wei WuXian’s love interest. I swore to myself to stay far away from the garbage
Then came July, and Tencent suddenly dropped the first episodes out of nowhere. Twitter happened again, and all I could see were exclamations about how gay it all was. Then I watched the first impressions video made by the fantastic Donghua Reviews (@cuchallain on Twitter, for those who’d like to check him out), and well. He kinda ended up singing “two bros sitting in the bathtub five feet apart” at the end.
I was sold.
Two hours later, I was officially a goner for the show, and praying very hard that it would keep up that way.
So, three questions:
- Was it worth it? Hells, yes.
- As a fan of both the book and donghua, did it hold up to the standards? More than.
- Was it perfect? Well, no. But it came really close, and is now an all-time favorite.
Let’s get to it.
It should be pointed out right off the bat that Xiao Zhan makes for a fantastic Wei WuXian. More than portraying him, he is him, perfectly showing the full extent of this mischievous, lively, devoted, ruthless, deadly smart character. Each and every one of his movements is vibrant and full of life, his face always alive with one expression or another.
On the other hand, I have to admit that I was far from convinced by Wang Yibo at first. Someone somewhere said he had dead fish eyes, and it’s hard to disagree when you’ve only seen the first couple episodes. However, you can’t deny that Lan WangJi is a hard character to play, because he’s supposed to be expressionless pretty much at all times, and hardly ever talks.
But you know what? In the end, Wang Yibo turned out to be perfect. His ability to convey Lan WangJi’s feelings through a series of micro-expressions (be it the tiniest smile playing at the corner of his mouth or just the minute softening of his gaze) seriously impressed me. After a couple episodes of looking at this straight, dignified posture (it really struck me, the way he held himself), I just couldn’t imagine anybody else in his place.
As for the secondary characters, I was very much convinced by Zhu Zan Jin as Jin GuangYao. There was just something about him, about his smiles and wide eyes that was a perfect match to the character’s core nature. Another that I absolutely loved was Zheng Fan Xing (Lan Sizhui), whose clear eyes pulled at each and every one of my heartstrings. And, of course, there was Xuan Lu as the beautiful, kind, wonderful, adorable Jiang YanLi.
Did I mention Wen Ning? Yu Bin was a fantastic Wen Ning.
On the downside—and I’m probably gonna get lynched for this—Wang Zhuo Cheng’s overacting almost turned Jiang Cheng into a caricature. His features would distort, he would frown all the time, and I do know that Jiang Cheng is not a happy person in general, but this was just… too much. Thankfully, he got better by the end of the show (or I got used to it, I don’t know), but more than that, it was the obvious conflict he strained under that made up for the bad acting in my opinion.
Additionally, and I don’t often talk about that, the voice acting was stellar. I have two specific examples of when it struck me, and which I shall not cite because I don’t want to spoil anything (feel free to DM me on twitter if you want to know), but Lu Zhixing and Bian Jiang did an amazing job as Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi respectively, and should be revered for their talent. I couldn’t find who voiced Lan Sizhui, but his gentle tones were a perfect match for the character, and I just adored him, too.
Yes, they did diverge from the book a little.
How? The first and most noticeable aspect is clearly the relationship between Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi. Where in the book and donghua they barely qualified as friends, their bond is much, much stronger in the show, to the point that you really don’t need to be explicit for it to be very clear what’s actually happening between them. Besides, the team decided to use all the drama land romantic codes when it comes to their scenes, so… yeah. I definitely approve of this change.
What I didn’t like, on the other hand, was that they stripped Wei WuXian of everything he invented that could be seen as bad or controversial. In the books, he killed thousands, invented Demonic Cultivation, as well as many techniques and spiritual weapons such as the Spiritual Compass. Instead, in the drama, Demonic Cultivation was invented and used by the bad guys well before he ever did.
Just… I don’t understand the point? Why can’t a good guy create bad things? Also, as recently stated in the donghua, “a sword is a sword. It can be used to protect or kill”. Why would Demonic Cultivation be any different?
One of the reasons Mo Dao Zu Shi is so good is that it’s a tragedy on many levels, a tragedy born from the actions and choices of people. Sure, they’re cultivators with powers and so on, but they’re still, at their core nature, human. Which is why it is disheartening to see that the production team chose to go with the usual stereotypes regarding the characters rather than remain faithful to the original novel and donghua.
For example, in the source material, Wen Ruohan lives in a very normal, very beautiful palace, wears white robes embroidered with red, and certainly doesn’t surround himself with corpses. In the live action series, however, he lives in a dark room with lava all over the place, wears black and red robes, wears his hair down, and keeps having bouts of manic laughter. Cliché much?
Shades of Gray
What makes Wei WuXian such a brilliant protagonist is that he’s a good person who, like everybody else, is capable of both the best and the worst. He’s a hero, but he’s flawed, is affected by love and happiness and fear and rage and grief just like anybody else, and his decisions cause as much harm as they do good.
Yet it seems like this sort of gray character doesn’t fit with China’s morality standards. A hero can’t create bad things. A good person can’t lose their way. So in the end, they took away everything that makes Wei WuXian the Founder of Diabolism, and made his techniques into pre-existing evil stuff invented by the bad guys.
The Untamed is all about shades of gray. Or it should be, anyway. People who could be considered as part of the “good guys” turn out to be manipulative and devoid of any compassion, while villains with a kill count high enough to give vertigo can make you feel somewhat sympathetic for all that they endured. People who’ve never committed a wrong in their lives meet a premature end, and people who try to stand by what they believe is right die in infamy.
It’s a beautiful lesson in humanity.
As an orphan, Wei WuXian has learned to appreciate his family. His relationship with the Jiangs—especially Jiang YanLi, I won’t lie, is so powerful that it just breaks my heart every time I think about it.
Shijie (“Senior Sister,” in Chinese), as he calls her, knows him better than he knows himself, mediates between her impetuous siblings like a pro, and her knowing smile and pointed questions when Wei WuXian speaks of Lan WangJi had me grinning more than once. Whenever he’s feeling down, she’s the one he’ll seek out, her mere presence a balm to his soul. She’s such a kind person and my love for her knows no bounds.
(There are few female characters in The Untamed, true, but be it Yu ZiYuan, Wen Qing, Jiang YanLi or MianMian, they managed to make each and everyone of them memorable in her own way.)
And the best thing about The Untamed is that since it takes place over two separate timelines, we get to see the Found Family trope happen twice. Do you understand now why I’m still in withdrawal even after an entire month?
As a show that features characters who practice musical Cultivation, it was important for The Untamed to pay special attention to its score. I’ve got to say, it was mostly excellent.
Because there was this track. This awful, awful track, which nearly destroyed my ears during one of the most important scenes of the show.
The rest was perfect, though. Beautiful and haunting, and every time I listen to many of them, I find myself choking on emotion. This… hadn’t happened since I watched Nirvana in Fire.
But to those of you who have read the novel, watched the donghua, or listened to the audio drama. Let me tell you. “WangXian” was drop dead gorgeous.
Subpar Production Values
It was bad.
It was SO bad.
It was the one thing marring this otherwise gorgeous masterpiece of a show, and it makes me so sad! The CGI was terrible, to the point that there were people fighting absolutely nothing in the background in some scenes, the creatures weren’t believable in the least, and I just don’t understand why they didn’t have more budget when this was already based on such a famous novel.
Another thing that bothered me was that the show failed to recreate the magic of Mo Dao Zu Shi: as cuchallain pointed out in his video about The Untamed, what made Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation so magical in the donghua was the sheer vibrancy of its colors: YunmengJiang and his bright purple, QishanWen and their flaming sleeves, LanlingJin and their sun-gold peony, QingheNie and their earth-green robes, GusuLan and their immaculate cloud-patterned white robes… Those colors are all so defined, so bright and eye-catching in the donghua, just like the characters.
The Untamed chose to go with pale highlights, and in the end, loses the stark contrast of the sects in the process. For example, the Jiangs’ purple matches their loud, straightforward personality. The Lans’ white is a testament to their quiet, reserved personality. The Jins’ bright gold is as ostentatious as they tend to be.
Take a look at the pictures below. The donghua shot has more color with three characters and two clans than the drama does with a dozen people from three different sects…
One Last Detail
It may seem inconsequential, but… I’ve gotten so used to period drama characters keeping their hair absolutely immaculate all the time. It flows smoothly when they fight, runs down their back like a lustrous waterfall when they walk, and always remains absolutely pristine, except in those rare scenes where it gets a tiny bit disheveled because they underwent some trial or another. And they never, ever touch it the way people do.
What I loved about The Untamed was that the characters’ hair would get in their face when they fight, or get leaves or random bits of stuff tangled in it. Often, I saw Wei WuXian reach up to tug at his hair or just push it back into place, and it struck me as something a real-life person would do, and characters…don’t.
All in All
Heart-wrenching relationships, evolving characters, terrible tragedies, shades of gray and an epic romance… The Untamed is now at the top of my all-time favorites list, right up with Nirvana in Fire and Guardian. If you haven’t seen it already, what are you waiting for?
Want to know more? Check out the article I wrote for Soompi: 8 Reasons To Watch C-Drama “The Untamed,” A Study In How To Rip Your Heart To Shreds And Mend It Again.
Title: The Untamed
Starring: Xiao Zhan, Wang Yibo, Wang Zhuo Cheng, Zoey Meng, Xuan Lu, Yu Bin, Zhu Zan Jin
Aired: 06/27/2019 to 08/14/2019
Number of episodes: 50
Genres: Wuxia, Mystery, Horror, Fantasy, Cultivation, Romance, Adventure, Martial Arts, LGBTQ+
Where to Read: Exiled Rebels
My grade: ★★★★★