The Untamed – A Review

Publicity poster from The Untamed

The Untamed is a 2019 web drama that is also available to stream on Netflix. It’s based on the Chinese novel Mo Dao Zu Shi, or Grandfather of Demonic Cultivation in English. The drama runs for 50 episodes and is entirely in Chinese, so anyone who doesn’t speak Chinese will need to view it with subtitles. But even with the language barrier, this show is phenomenal.

The story, which takes place in Ancient China, revolves around our main character, Wei Wuxian, a young and talented cultivator, which is someone who uses both sword fighting techniques and magic/talismans to keep demons, ghosts, and monsters from harming the living. He lived a life before and is remembered as the Yiling Patriarch, who was able to control the dead and make them fight for him by playing a flute. The Yiling Patriarch was supposed to have died 16 years ago, and Wei Wuxian is the most shocked when he reappears in the world, faced with both a new mystery and the faces of his past.

Now that sounds exciting enough as a premise, but I did call the show a drama, and not an action or fantasy show, because that’s really what it is. “The Untamed” focuses much more on its very human characters, their relationships, and the choices they have to make. There are sword fights here and there, big action packed battles, full on wars, mystery and detective elements, but that’s not the main focus. The show asks questions about what is right, what is wrong, when is the right time to follow your heart, when is the right time to put family first, and what making choices can force you to sacrifice. Each character’s actions send ripples into their world, affecting both the political world and their personal relationships. The story is really one of the strongest things about the show. It gave me my fair share of laughs and smiles, but it also gave me a lot of tears. The story, while it has its happy and playful moments, is often tragic, but it earns it.

The characters, although they live in both a time and place much different from ours, are relatable and empathetic. From the cheerful Wei Wuxian, to his hotheaded brother Jiang Cheng, to the quiet and reserved Lan Wangji, and even to the straight up psychopathic mass murder Xue Yang, they all seem very, very human. They all have a story. The way they interact with each other, on personal, political, and indirect levels, is really the heart of the show. You get to watch relationships be built, and you get to watch them slowly fall apart. There’s a very wide cast of characters, but they’re all distinct, even with the similar qualities that each clan shares! You won’t have a hard time remembering who each character is, even if you have to juggle 3 names for almost all of them.

The acting in this show is absolutely amazing. All the characters seem very real, and no performance seems either phony or over the top. Xiao Zhan, who plays the main character Wei Wuxian, does a great job with line delivery, facial expressions, and body language. He sells both Wei Wuxian’s highs and his lows. His acting really made the character! Another stellar performance was put on by Wang Yibo, who played Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji is a man of few words and even fewer faces. He hardly talks and mainly keeps a straight face. However Wang Yibo was able to portray his hidden emotions with small but noticeable changes in his voice and body language, and his very, very subtle facial expressions. It’s a big challenge to convincingly portray the silent and non-emoting type, but Wang Yibo is able to do it! He never looks uninspired or boring- there’s always something going on beneath the surface. The other actor I wanted to shout out was Zhu Zanjin, who plays Meng Yao. Meng Yao is a very … complicated character. There’s a lot going on with him, and there’s quite a few changes he goes through. However Zhu Zanjin was able to capture each and every of the many facets of his character spectacularly! I can’t say much without giving something away, so you’ll have to take my word on this one. He’s great.

The set design was also fantastic in this show! Each set is detailed, and each region has personality, usually corresponding to the cultivation clan that rules that area. The show features many shots of the forests, mountains, and overall scenery of (ancient) China, which was a joy to see!

I do have two complaints with the show. The first is with the special effects. The actual, done on set effects are fine, but some of the CGI is a bit … off. It’s not terrible, and not very distracting, but you can definitely tell it’s not real. I get that that’s kind of obvious when someone’s holding a lightning whip, but CGI in the modern era is typically much more refined. Again, it wasn’t too distracting and the CGI/magic isn’t the main appeal of the series anyway, so it’s all forgivable.

My second complaint is that the episodes sometimes just kind of end, right in the middle of scenes or in awkward places, like they couldn’t find a better place. Normally you can tell when an episode is going to end, but it often came out of the blue for this show. It sort of makes sense, since it was a web series and often two episodes would be put out at the same time, but it’s a bit jarring when you’re binging it, like I did. Still, it wasn’t a huge detractor from the show.

Overall, I’d give this show a 9/10! I recommend it to everyone over a certain age. The show features some mature themes (mentioned, not shown) and quite a bit of violence during the fight scenes (blood, stabbing, and other graphic scenes are shown). It doesn’t have an official rating in the US, but I’d give it a PG-13 rating, maybe a bit older for some kids. It’s really nothing terrible, but it might be rough on the squeamish. But aside all that, I think everyone should give the show a shot! It gets continually better as it progresses, as it’s strongest aspects are the characters and their relationships, which both take time to build and explore.

So, if you’ve got Netflix, are OK with subtitles, and aren’t squeamish, definitely give this show a whirl! It’ll play with your heart strings and you’ll love every minute of it.

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