Earlier this year, a wonderful thing happened to me: I fell hard for a Chinese drama series called The Untamed (Chen Qing Ling), a sweeping tale about two magic-wielders battling demonic forces and complicated power struggles in a feudal-era fantasy world.
I had been seeing references to the show all over social media for months, buoyed by Netflix’s release of the full 50-episode series in October 2019. (It’s also free to stream on WeTV with English subtitles.) The show consists of one long story arc, based on a queer romance novel called Mo Dao Zu Shi, or The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation.
My plan was to sample a few scenes, since watching 50 full-length episodes is no small time commitment. But instead of just sampling, I found myself inhaling episodes at a pace approaching total derangement. I was immediately hooked on the beautiful costumes, the lavish production design, the sword fights, the constant emotional turmoil, and most of all, the beautiful love story. The Untamed is an epic fantasy with a romance at its center, led by a problem child who comes back from the dead in order to fix the broken world he left behind — and finally unite with his true love.
The Untamed is an unlikely international hit — and an even unlikelier joy
Released in summer 2019 as a web series on Tencent, The Untamed was a huge hit, racking up nearly 8 billion views by the end of the year and turning its two leads, Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, into major celebrities in their home country.
The reason for the show’s success isn’t immediately evident. The Untamed has a complicated story structure that can be initially confusing to first-time viewers. The first three episodes plunge you deep into the middle of a convoluted plot, with a main character who’s abruptly returned from the dead and has no idea what’s going on. Then we pivot to a 30-episode-long flashback that comprises the main story arc, set roughly 18 years before the main character’s return. There’s a huge cast, and most characters have two or three names; I found it immensely helpful to keep this Wikipedia page full of character names open as I watched.
But if you just roll with all of that, The Untamed rapidly becomes addictive, as interesting and watchable as it is complex. Like many stories within the Xianxia fantasy genre, The Untamed features highly advanced magic-wielders known as cultivators. We follow a brilliant cultivation student, Wei Wuxian (Xiao) as he first excels, then rebels within this tradition. While at cultivation school, he forms an unlikely frenemy-ship with dreamy but untouchable ice prince Lan Wangji (Wang), Somewhere between the first and third or fourth time he’s tried and hilariously failed to flirt with his crush, you stop sweating the confusing plot details in order to enjoy their blossoming chemistry.
From there, the story entangles you in gnarled plot threads and subjects you to constant, delicious emotional upheaval, as Wei Wuxian becomes a target of scorn due to his ability to wield black magic. Alongside becoming completely invested in the two main characters, you start to love nearly all of The Untamed’s expansive cast; I came for queer exorcists, and by the end, I was obsessing over villain hats and sobbing about adoptive families and sworn brotherhood.
The three stages of watching The Untamed:— Dr Kate Wiles (@katemond) February 24, 2020
1. This is ... nonsense? This is very bad.
2. Oh, this is quite watchable nonsense.
3. I HAVE NEVER CARED ABOUT ANYTHING MORE IN MY LIFE
The Untamed is a big story full of big, big feelings
Mo Dao Zu Shi’s author, an anonymous online writer known as MXTX, is shrewd about using its historical landscape to explore themes like protecting refugees, cancel culture, and the use of propaganda to spread misinformation. The Untamed, staying faithful to its source, critiques collectivism and mob justice while exploring the way individual corruption, left unchecked, can spread to taint an entire system of power. And it doesn’t stint on arguing that sometimes those systems need to be completely dismantled and rebuilt.
This is all pretty weighty stuff. But The Untamed lightens the mood through both its frequent comedy, its many soft moments — our heroes bond over bunny rabbits! — and Wei Wuxian himself, played by Xiao Zhan as an irrepressible ball of sunshine. Sure, in the middle of the series, he kind of falls off the rails and becomes a dark lord, but what ostracized gremlin teenager rebelling by experimenting with the occult hasn’t?
The Untamed’s swoon-worthy romance unfolds around Lan Wangji, who comes from the most rigid and restrained of all the clans. He’s an unlikely match for Wei Wuxian, but it rapidly becomes clear that in his own way, he’s just as untamed. Their bond — which Netflix translates as “lifelong confidantes,” but which alternate translations usually interpret as “soulmates” — becomes transcendent, a chaste but heady yearning holding them together across time and tragedy. Wangji exudes soul-spilling longing, which Wang Yibo conveys primarily through mesmerizing infinitesimal facial adjustments that somehow contain Grand Canyons of emotional depth that will leave you clawing the floor. It’s like watching an inflamed Victorian melodrama, except instead of North and South it’s 50 hours of Wangji pledging eternal love to Wei Wuxian with the smallest curve of his mouth.
The Untamed was produced in the context of a deeply homophobic society, and thus had to adhere to strict Chinese censorship regulations. So many viewers will see its queerness as purely subtextual — or perhaps not see it at all. But despite the best efforts of Chinese censorship, for me, the queer themes are unmistakable. The production team seems to have fought for the most romantic interpretation of the show it could get away with, and recently released a special edition re-edit of the show that’s just an even more homoerotic edit of all the scenes between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian — all the moments of touching, hand-holding, and ogling they weren’t able to sneak into the final cut.
If you’re a fan of queer romance, or any intense drama full of soulmates saving each other while standing back-to-back united against the world, then The Untamed is an obvious rec.
If you’re just looking for a really big, engrossing world to get lost in, then this is also a great show to consider. As a franchise, Mo Dao Zu Shi has produced a huge amount of material: There’s an animated adaptation released on YouTube, a Chinese comic series (with an official English translation) currently in progress, an audio drama, and two side movies, The Living Dead and Fatal Journey, the latter of which was coincidentally released just this week. There’s also a metric ton of behind-the-scenes footage released for both the show and the aforementioned special edition.
If you need a conduit for a lot of big emotions, The Untamed has plenty of tear-jerking moments, including lots of character deaths and a few rebirths. It’s obsessed with family bonds, both real and artificial, but doesn’t pretend those bonds are sacrosanct. Nor does it provide easy answers for its myriad sociopolitical questions. Instead, it offers us a deeply layered story with thematic parallels, rich symbolism, and loads of dramatic irony.
And shameless flirting for 50 hours straight.
Many fans frame The Untamed as a guilty pleasure melodrama, and I can see that. But it’s also carefully crafted. It’s fully committed to its serious, layered themes, to thoughtfully embedding character twists that don’t pay off for decades, and to faithfully adapting its source material, even and especially its controversial central relationship. The Untamed is good, in the virtuous sense. It’s loving.
Like Lan Wangji, The Untamed wears its heart on its sleeve, and like Wei Wuxian, it’s gleeful about its own small rebellions: it’s perfectly imperfect — a little untamed itself.
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Update: This article has been slightly revised for clarity.