The Untamed: Why Here? Why Now?

Though I have very much appreciated The Untamed and Modao Zushi, and have written about both the works, and the phenomena of their success, I have generally avoided being drawn into the fandoms, (though there’s nothing wrong with enthusiastic love for a show) or dampening any gushiness with my cultural critique. However, I knew that I would invariably be talking about it professionally at some point, as I ended up doing on a panel discussing the show at 2021’s Eastercon, ConFusion2021, along with two enthusiastic fanfic writers, and a moderator who turned out far more interested in joining in the discussion than facilitating it.

The conversation began on fan-subbing (which a lot of Chinese series, including The Untamed, rely on to reach a non sinophone audience) and continued into the minutiae of the inference of titles demonstrated in the story, as I gently nudged it back to cultural elements that might be missed by an audience not used to Chinese fantasy, we finished just in time for questions. All in all, I’m afraid the panel rather gave the views of fansub snobs who looked down on the casual watcher, who lacked knowledge about the tropes of the genre and can’t be bothered to look into it themselves.

On the contrary, as a cultural writer who looks at Chinese pop culture and its place in the West, I’m always interested to see when things cross over from niche to mainstream, which is certainly something The Untamed has done. Yes, I have always maintained that as China advances on the visual and audio quality of its films, subtitling is an area that has been heavily overlooked and underrated. A good set of subtitles is key to a culture-heavy film and should facilitate understanding, rather than expecting the audience do all the work.

It’s true that the topes employed in The Untamed are nothing new to seasoned consumers of xiuzhen (stories about Daoist cultivators) and xuanhuan (fantasy with Eastern and Chinese elements), but this TV series had employed them exceptionally well, and was an absolute gem for a newcomer to start with. This brings me to the actual subject of the panel, “The Untamed: Why here? Why now?” which I’d actually like to discuss here.

If The Untamed is your first Chinese series, before you get frightened by the thought of finding the subtitles confusing, or feel you may not understand the storytelling rhetoric employed, let me reassure you that both can be overcome, and everyone starts somewhere, and If you have enjoyed it without maybe getting every nuance? What place has anyone to tell you, you didn’t enjoy it correctly (though I hope to give you enough insight that you’ll enjoy it at a different level if you ever rewatch it). It’s wonderful that The Untamed has the power to reach out to you and help you discover Chinese fantasy. It is made to be enjoyed, and if you love the series, you are as much of a legit fan as someone who’s grown up watching fan subs and has seen every fantasy series since the mid 80s. This article has been written for you. If you’re a seasoned fan of Chinese fantasy and period series, you might find the following historical and cultural background behind the success of such works interesting, as well as the examination of what has finally got a new audience to click with your beloved genres.

“The Untamed” is what is known as a ouxiangjü, or idol drama. The concept was introduced into China via Taiwan and the popularity of K pop culture. China ventured to make its own idol dramas in the late 1990s, but series such as “Sweet Sixteen” and “You Don’t Cry at Seventeen” received only slight interest from the viewing public. That was when Hong Kong TVB dramas really held sway. In 2001 however, “Meteor Garden” (now on Netfix), a romance series staring the Taiwanese boy band F4 exploded in popularity in mainland China. I was already living in the UK by then but when I returned for the summer, you could hear the series theme blasting out of every shop and household with its door open on a hot summer night. It was much the same when “Lavender” came out in the same year, with posters of the stars on the streets advertising a whole range of merch, from clothing brands to bottled drinks at Seven Eleven.

This opened a market for Taiwanese idol dramas in mainland China, and looking at the wider picture, this was also around the birth of China’s consumer economy. I remember honing in on the mainland’s attempts at dramatisations of well-known wuxia epics such as Wing Shing Ma’s “Storm Riders” and Jin Yong’s “Demi Gods and Semi Devils”, picking up big box sets of both in the early 2000s, and being disappointed that the quality didn’t match the Andrew Lau film or earlier Hong Kong and Taiwnese adaptations I’d enjoyed. With their entertainment market now open to the world, Chinese TV and film makers, who no longer had a lot of state support, were under real pressures to up their game on and make their output a commercial success. Eventually, with increased investment and cross-pollination of expertise, the efforts paid off.

One of the first mainland idol dramas to become hugely popular in the fantasy category was the 2008 “Legend of the Condor Heroes”, adapted from the famous novel quartet by Jin Yong, and staring Hu Ge and Taiwan’s Lin Yichen in the lead roles.Hu Ge also fronted another notable series around the same time, the xianxia ” Chinese Paladin” (from 2005 onwards), adapted from a video game, and also staring Liu Yifei. As the quality of these series increased, fandoms developed around the world. One of the groups I worked with around this time was wuxiaedge.com, a space for wuxia and xianxia enthusiasts to post news of releases, hold discussions, and collaborate in fansubbing their favourite series to support a community with no direct access to the works.

The quality of Chinese series improved at a drastic rate, and personally, I tended to dip in to taste, rather than sit through every series, watching how the genre was developing. The first few episodes of “Nirvana in Fire”, the 2015 series adapted from Haiyan’s net novel “The Layang League” was the first time I really felt that China was there with its fantasy screen productions. Not only is the quality now on par with output elsewhere, but there’s a lavishness, deference to traditional cultural accuracy, and sophistication of the semi-classical script that’s unique to the Lujü (mainland drama, or C drama), now a thing of its own right. The stereotypical image of the Chinese pirating foreign films and TV series is now being reversed, as global audiences resort to Youtube, YoukuVPN and other streaming sites for unofficial videos to bypass regional copyright restrictions set by mainland China. It is a sure sign and testament that C Drama output was getting really good.

Today, a lot of the barriers that global audiences had faced in watching Chinese series have been removed. The barrier of language has now, to some extent, been removed by global distributors, joint international releases and the army of fansubber working to bring the works they love to the audiences in their linguistic regions. Physical access also used to be a problem. If you did not have a huge satellite dish, you would have had to go to Chinatown to pick up boxes of VCDs or later, DVDs, and lug them back, from the arcane and randomly stocked gift stores. The second trial of luck and perseverance began once you got home to try to run the discs on your local regional player, with both Cantonese and Mandarin simultaneously blasting out your speakers, and hoping beyond hope they would have foreign language subtitles. All this has now pretty much disappeared over the last half a decade with the prevalence of streaming services. The dedicated fans of Chinese series can find not only their favourite big name successes on Netflix and Amazon Prime, but wider ranges on apps like WeTV, Iqiyi, and sites like Rakuten and Viki that let you watch the latest series, at the same time as Chinese audiences.

Coming to a Chinese series of any type can be daunting. Even if you have a perfectly subtitled series in a format you can watch at your whim. The lengths of these series, which unlike Western series, are not divided into handy 13 or 26 episode seasons, can be daunting. The Untamed comes in at a relatively manageable 50 episodes, but others can run on to 70 or 90. Whilst this past year has been filled with hardships, the lockdown has made us all a little less worried about committing to a 30+ hour televisual experience, especially when it gives us more fuel for socialisation through social media or just discussions with friends.

Like many other series in China, The Untamed has been designed with the idea of group watching in mind, with platforms such as Bilibili providing group watching options either with your friends or the entire audience of the site, sharing comments made by viewers in fast scrolling messages across the screen. We now have English sites such as Cfensi dedicated to Lujü news and reviews that keeps its pace with China. And with a multitude of accounts now appearing on platforms like Twitter and Facebook purely discussing their latest C Drama series and idol obsessions, dedicated fans no longer feel isolated or awkward in their fandom, and even novices can find new friends to share their interests.

The Untamed is not a standalone phenomenon, but part of the current flourishing of the Lujü around the world, with series such as Eternal Love, The Rise of the Phoenix, Novoland, The Legend of Qin, keeping it company on Netflix, but none of them have quite had the incredible appeal of The Untamed, which seems to transcend genres of interest, age, sexuality, gender, background, race and nationality. All things that home entertainment marketing tends to categorise products into these days. Its appeal lies not in the originality of the misfit hero who creates his own style of kungfu, the complex dynamics between different clans, or the genteel, aloof characters whose powers derive from their guqin or xiao, all of which are quite common to traditional fantasies, but its excellent rendition thereof. Quality will out, no matter the style or genre, which is why the series was also an immense hit within China.

Yang Xia, the producer of the show and content commissioner at Xinpeng, a small media company, like thousands of others in China, took a huge risk in purchasing the rights to net novelist Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s Modao Zushi (Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation). The purchase was made based purely on the fan chatter on social media while the novel was still being serialised on jjwxc.com. It took her two years to get the first book adapted into a TV script, which she wanted to be true to the original work. It was a series of astute creative decisions to focus the budget on building gorgeous sets and costumes rather than invest in CG, and to commission an amazing soundtrack by Lin Hai, whilst also hiring Kan Lam Chan and Wan Man Cheng, two directors from Hong Kong experienced in their wirefu action but who also took great care to properly represent the story’s range of well-round and complex characters. Of course, one could argue that the biggest boon to the series was the idol appeal of the leads Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, both singers who had gained considerable following in their respective boy bands X NINE and UNIQ.

The writing and characterisation in “The Untamed” are more intriguing than just a banal “you killed my father and therefore I must kill you” revenge arc, and the wide cast of characters is very open to personal preferences and reinterpretation. Fans have generated a huge range of fan fiction, from AUs of the clans as workers in competing cafes, to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji as a modern couple. Even though set in an ancient Chinese world that relies heavily on what the West considers as esoteric practices to regulate the activities of ghosts and spirits that co-exists with mortals, The Untamed explores themes that are universal and exceptionally relevant to a contemporary Chinese (and also global) audience, such as our collective responsibilities towards war refugees, the distinction between following the rules and doing what is right, the fate of the misfit in a conformist society, and how far does one’s class and social status determine one’s future.

We mustn’t forget that a key factor in all these successful adaptations is the excellent original works they are based on. The output now coming out of China via the phenomenal growth of its internet publishing, has led to an explosion of new fiction, new genres, amalgamations and hybrids. It is pleasing to see how much of these new works are also coming from young, female writers, in a publishing environment that may otherwise exclude them, but that is another subject entirely, and one on which you may hear more from me, later.

 


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