Skip to content
Close this search box.

Daily Helping for December 20th, 2020 – The Untamed

A promotional still of the two lead actors from The Untamed, Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo.

So, remember my first post when I outlined this challenge? Remember how I said that I have the tendency to shout about the things I love? Well, get ready for some all caps, because it’s time to talk about The Untamed.

I’m actually late to this party, as The Untamed originally aired in China in the summer of 2019. The entire series dropped on Netflix a couple of months later, and since then, it’s taken over social media. Apparently. As you all know, I am spectacularly bad at social media, so as a general rule, I’m usually out of the loop when it comes to Tumblr’s latest obsession. But even I couldn’t avoid all the talk and screaming about this show, and I finally decided to dive in. Let’s just say, this show may have saved my 2020.

I’m actually not even sure how to summarize the plot. In the opening scene, we witness the death of Wei Wuxian, the lead character, and are told that this is a good thing. According to the voiceover, Wei Wuxian is a terrible person, responsible for countless atrocities, and everyone will be thrilled to hear of his death. The episode then immediately flashes forward 16 years, when Wei Wuxian is brought back to life. We spend two episodes in this future point, before flashing back several years before the opening scene to get the story of what originally led to his death. This flashback lasts 30 episodes, before skipping ahead 16 years once more to finally finish the story. Still with me? Good. You also need to know that this is a xianxia high fantasy show, meaning there are cultivators, sword fights, and magical musical instruments. Yes, really.

I know that everything I’ve just said sounds convoluted, and it is. Especially if you’re not familiar with the genre conventions of xianxia. In fact, there are so many things going on, I would absolutely understand it if people can’t get into this show. The first two episodes make no sense, as you are literally dropped into what should be part 34 of a 50 part story arc. You’re introduced to about a thousand characters who all go by at least three different names. The timeline spans nearly 20 years in two episodes, and yet none of the actors appear to age. And the first episode contains some extremely questionable acting choices. I almost stopped watching after episode two, but I promise you it’s worth it if you keep going. As bonkers and convoluted as it is, The Untamed also does so many things so well.

First and foremost, it’s probably the most beautiful television show I’ve ever seen. Everything about it is gorgeous. The sets, costumes, hair, production design; everything is simply stunning. I can’t tell you how many times I bemoaned the fact that I don’t speak Mandarin because I had to tear my eyes away from the visuals in order to read the subtitles. I don’t even want to know what they spent on this show, but it was money well spent. Except for the few times it had to use CGI. It would seem that all their budget went into wigs, because the CGI is straight out of the 80s. And gloriously so.

But aside from the visuals, the story itself is also fantastic. Yes, it’s not structured in the most easily understandable way. And yes, there are a myriad of plot points that go unexplained. Side note, if anyone who has watched this show can explain the Burial Mounds to me, I’d really appreciate it. But the show has a lot of fascinating things to say about a lot of topics that are extremely relevant today. Fake news, scapegoating, cancel culture, nationalism, and abuses of power are all explored in deeply moving ways. As are an incredible array of family dynamics and power structures. It’s extraordinary how relevant this show is to our current point in history.

And yet, despite all this, the best part about this show is the romance. The Untamed is probably the most romantic show I’ve ever seen. Which is saying something, because technically, The Untamed is not a show about a romance. At least, not this version of it. The series is actually a live action adaption of a novel that is explicitly about a romance between Wei Wuxian and his soulmate/confident (depending on which translation you get) Lan Wangji. But portraying same sex relationships in mainland China is expressly forbidden by the Chinese censors. Meaning some things had to be changed in the live action adaption.

So did the creators of The Untamed manufacture female love interests for their male leads in response? Nope. They rolled up their sleeves instead, and employed every single trick in their arsenal to make it as clear as possible that these two men are in love without explicitly saying so. It’s simply astonishing to watch. And hilarious. Seriously, the lengths they go to push right up against the lines of censorship are extraordinary to witness, and had me howling with laughter on numerous occasions. In particular, the first ten episodes of the flashback feature Wei Wuxian outrageously flirting with Lan Wangji at every opportunity. And then, right when the scene is about to end, he throws in a “but we’re just friends!” tag for the benefit of the censors. It’s honestly one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time.

I also need to give a shout out to the actors on this show. As already stated, the first episode is… interesting. But it gets so much better. Xiao Zhan as Wei Wuxian is in turns a delightful ball of sunshine, shameless flirt, and impassioned leader. But Wang Yibo as Lan Wangji is a revelation. This is a character who communicates almost entirely in micro-expressions and intense stares. Seriously. You will wait seven episodes for him to crack the barest hint of an expression, but when he does, it will take your breath away. Because somehow this actor manages to convey exactly what he’s thinking at all times while remaining as stoic as a pole. It’s all the more extraordinary given that he was 21 at the time of filming. I’ve seen actors twice his age fail miserably at what he manages to pull off seemingly effortlessly on this show.

In conclusion, there is so much that is frustrating about The Untamed. The plot almost demands multiple viewings because there’s so much going on. Some things are just never fully explained. Seriously, Burial Mounds? Anyone? And there are plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. And yet I COULDN’T. STOP. WATCHING. I had to force myself to go to bed on multiple occasions because I just couldn’t look away. Even when the show ripped out my heart and shredded it in front of me, I couldn’t get enough. And now that it’s over, I WANT. MORE. NOW. So if anyone has any suggestions for what I should watch next, I’ll all ears.

So yeah. That’s The Untamed. It’s beautiful, it made me laugh out loud, it made me ugly cry, and it saved my year. Highly recommend.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!