‘The Untamed’: Chinese boy love drama we can’t stop watching
One of China’s biggest and most controversial hits of last summer is now on Netflix, and you need to put your life on hold to watch it. The Untamed is part of Netflix’s new initiative to diversify its lineup with more international shows. This Chinese series has earned itself a full-blown Netflix binge weekend – we promise.
Based on the fantasy web novel Mo Dao Zu Shi (translated as Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation) written by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, the story was told as an animated series before The Untamed’s live-action adaptation.
The Untamed sets itself apart immediately
Starring two boy band icons, Wang Yibo (王一博) of Korean-Chinese group UNIQ and Xiao Zhan (肖战) of Chinese band X NINE, The Untamed immediately received attention from young-adult viewers. Wang Yibo (王一博) and Xiao Zhan (肖战) are two of China’s biggest stars in both music and film.
The Untamed follows Wei Wuxian (Xiao Zhan) and Lan Wangji (Wang Yibo) as “cultivators”, with supernatural powers from different worlds who are forced to work together to protect the peace in their worlds. The two fight villains, solve a series of murders, and uncover a dark mystery.
Wei Wuxian & Lan Wangji couldn’t be more different in The Untamed. Wai Wuxian is irreverent, good-natured, and ruthless. In contrast, Lan Wangji is stoic, spiritual, and tragic, providing a perfect foil for his animated co-star.
What makes The Untamed so controversial?
Lovers of the novel Mo Dao Zu Shi know the most dynamic storyline is the relationship between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. While not a topic that is taboo in the U.S. anymore, in China the “boy love” or homoerotic theme of the novel put a faithful adaptation of The Untamed in doubt.
In fact, rumors that The Untamed would introduce female love interests may have contributed to the series’s weak start. As word got out that the show stayed truer to the novel than expected, the series took off in popularity.
In Mo Dao Zu Shi, the heroes’ homosexual relationship is explicit, while The Untamed presents their relationship as a brotherhood-style bond. However, the series is impeccably performed by Xiao Zhan & Wang Yibo, creating palpable sexual tension with microexpressions and lingering eye contact. The Untamed takes inspiration from the slow-burn heat of the original and sizzles on our screens for the full 50 episodes.
The Untamed flipped the story to avoid censorship and made something truly beautiful
Fans of the series knew the regulations it was up against in China and were careful to protect the storyline. In discussing The Untamed online, chatters avoided explicit mention of the show’s gay undertones, referring to the topic using the misleading but politically charged hashtag “socialist brotherhood” in hopes of avoiding attention from regulators.
Why you can’t miss The Untamed
The Untamed is captivating. The characters, story, and artistry are all top-notch examples of great television. S1’s fifty episodes take us on a powerful path of complex storylines and heart-wrenching longing. We get to watch the characters of both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wang Ji grow and develop in compelling and sometimes surprising ways.
The agonizing love story between Wuxian and Wang Ji becomes all the more powerful through hidden smiles and heartfelt looks. Wuxian and Wang Ji perfectly embody the profound torment of a love that can’t be.
Criticism of China’s authoritarian censorship practices is undoubtedly warranted. The creators behind The Untamed have taken these limitations and crafted a piece of powerful subtlety in their expressive art. The Untamed paradoxically may be all the stronger for sweet nothings left unsaid.
Viewers can stream The Untamed’s entire 50-episode first season on Netflix.
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I have been watching this a lot and have done a lot of thinking as to why I am hooked to this drama.December 15, 2019
At first I was like everyone else, praising the deep affection and devotion of LAN Wangji towards WEI Wuxian and was greatly touched by that. Then it occurred to me that there is something else. It is not just the romance part that is captivating. It is the much bigger themes like injustice, helplessness and the blurry line between right and wrong.
I watched episode 32 a lot and still feel angry each time. When Wei arrived on the scene where everybody else was pledging to besiege and destroy him, he argued with them. That argument I think is the highlight of the whole drama. It was a superhero against the whole self-righteous world which was determined to destroy him because they were afraid that his existence would keep them in check. Think how we relate to this theme in this day and age.
Wei had his shortcomings in that he was unbridled and arrogant in challenging those in power (hence the title, The Untamed). But he was young (17? 18? then. They were 15 when they attended lectures at the Lan residence) and he had suffered a lot. JIANG Cheng was consoled and sympathized for losing his parents, but who was there to console Wei who lost his foster father who loved him more than he did his own son? No one. Instead he was blamed for their death. His donation of his golden core to JIANG Cheng meant that he could never be a true cultivator again. This was a heavy blow to him as much as it had been to JIANG Cheng and even more so. It was not just the loss of the ability to cultivate, it also created a barrier between him and his love, LAN Wangji, whom he loved without realising it. He was no longer Lan’s equal now. He used to be a proud prodigy and now his sense of inferiority when facing Lan was excruciating. In the past he could ignore the fact that Lan was perfect and exemplary and kept pestering Lan to be his friend, now there was a chasm between them as he was practicing in an unorthodox way and was therefore thought of as evil, while Lan was still the embodiment of virtuousness and loftiness. He handled this by avoiding Lan or quarrelling with him when they did encounter and Lan attempted to advise and help him, which hurt them both. Viewers are frustrated by his denseness when facing Lan’s affection, but if we stand in his shoes, we can easily see that in his mind Lan was way out of his league for him to imagine that Lan actually fell for him.
He had been thrown into the Burial Mound to die, where no one ever survived. He was haunted by all the ghosts and evils there, yet he rose above it and soared again like a phoenix. This together with other amazing things he did proved that he was indeed a prodigy. A prodigy who did not conform could not be tolerated.
Let’s go back to the argument in episode 32. He was accused of being cruel, ruthless and evil because he killed the people who ambushed him and intended to kill him; he was labeled as the culprit who placed the curse on JIN Zixun and when he said he didn’t do that, he was asked to prove it. His counterargument that the other person should then also prove that he himself was not the culprit was met with ridicule. All in all, when they said he was the villain and threw all blames on him, there was no way that he could win the argument.
Earlier in this episode he arrived on the scene where some cultivators were defaming him behind his back. When he beat them they dared him to pick up fights with the powerful clan leaders, instead of themselves who were only low-level and insignificant cultivators. I like Wei’s argument that “just because you are at low-level doesn’t mean I should endure your behavior”. It is very much relevant in our time with so many keyboard warriors. Wei had always been eloquent. But the well had been poisoned and whatever he said was wrong because he was said to be evil in the first place.
Can you feel the helplessness here? The whole world turns against you unjustly and you are in no position to defend yourself. He lost all loved ones, and with the death of WEN Qing and WEN Ning, all his sacrifices were futile. He wasn’t really connected to WEN Qing or WEN Ning. His efforts in rescuing them were merely an act of heroism. He once said that he would have done exactly the same for people other than WEN Qing and WEN Ning. The pledge he made as a teenager to eliminate all evils and protect the weak proved to be a joke. WEI Wuxian lived for that ideal and when he was disillusioned, he died.
These are the true causes of Wei’s death. The drama is ambiguous as to how Wei died. Legend had it that JIANG Cheng killed him, which we later find out to be untrue. Those who read the novel say he died because all the ghosts and evil spirits he utilized backfired. What we see in episode 32 is that he jumped off the cliff himself. Whatever the direct cause, he just lost the will and drive to live, which is poignant
Well said, Lily. It is tragic. Everything that could go wrong does in ways I didn’t see coming, and it’s the righteous hypocrisy and mob mentality that are the truest villains. There’s no need for me to repeat what you wrote so eloquently, but I agree. The only thing I hadn’t thought of was how you saw Wei feeling unworthy of Wanji. That is interesting. He’d certainly been pursuing their “friendship” relentlessly from the start and was obviously proud of being his equal. Certainly a valid slant on why he wouldn’t still want to live and not leave Wanji behind. (Telling him to let him go.) Well, not to mention the fact that they are facing off themselves moments before during the chaos! Even though Wanji doesn’t go through with it, Wei is so devasted by ALL of it. At that point, it seems he sees he’s lost control and IS evil. I mean, that’s heavy! I don’t think it’s cleared up in Wei’s mind that Wanji truly trusts him and doesn’t think he’s evil until the scene at Cloud Recesses, if my memory serves. He wasn’t even sure himself that he’d heard a second flute. Well, dang! Maybe now I HAVE to go watch it again. Such a torturous task. Thanks for sharing. It takes tremendous actors to pull me into a world so foreign and out there that I’d be reading about it and now answering you. What a beautiful ride. BTW, the scene that made me cry, for real, was the one in the rain with the Wen clan remnants, where Wanji is holding the umbrella. When Wei said what he said…wow. What is deeper than that? The acting from both is outstanding. But it was Wei’s delivery that sucker punched me. He MEANT it.January 9, 2020
I have watch this three times already with a box of tissue but can anybody help me I am looking for the book in EnglishApril 8, 2020
search for “Exiled Rebels Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation” on Google and you’ll find the novel there. It’s a fan-translation and completely free. It has 113 chapters + some more bonus chapters though, so reading it will take way longer than watching the series but it’s worth it (there’s no censoring at all in the novel). The story is different though, so I’d advise you not to skip anything.June 18, 2020
At the cliff part：After WWX jump off, Lan Wangji grabbed him and Jiang Cheng came to them… WWX closed his eyes & waited. He expected to be stabbed by Jiangcheng. He opened his eyes when Jiangcheng stabbed the rock coz he was surprised. Then he saw the blade turns towards LWJ’s wrist. That was then his expression turns confused/fearful/worried (all within the span of seconds) and he flung off LWJ’s arm and fell. WWX was protecting LWJ 😭😭coz he didn’t want people who cares about him to get hurt again. So it made him even more determined to kill himself.😭😭😭😭😭 (Seems many viewers missed this plot detail in the drama… different from novel) Please all go watch and feel your heartache all over again😭April 30, 2020
I really like to think that their relationship are only brotherhood-like, I respect BL but I’m not a fan, so it somehow calms me that the they represent it as brotherhood style. I can’t get much sleep thinking about the movie and the original novel, (which gave me goosebumps and not a good one), but seriously, I really love the untamed because of its amazing action genre.December 30, 2019
Some thoughts should remain unsaid.January 9, 2020
you are rightAugust 8, 2020
Why thinking about the original story line which is BL gives you goose bump? Because it is a love story between 2 men? Love is beautiful, whatever it is and need to be celebrated. I’m glad that the series adaptation is faithful to the storyline- I still can feel and see romantic love pictured between 2 characters.January 31, 2020
Really!! imagine eating omelette and enjoying it then Said eggs gives goosebumps! Can’t believe you just Took time to read all that and still write that trash. I am really sad we didn’t get more romantic scenes to further your goosebumps and nightmares in addition. You should just enjoy the review! Love is love.. and if you don’t like it, Respect it no need for some mindless opinion.April 10, 2020
i am so glad that i am not the only one who thinks that way.August 8, 2020
The original novel was actually BL, but the director changed it to brotherly love. This showed recived lots of backlashed in china becaused of that.May 11, 2020
Everyone likes and dreams chivalry, honor, respect but not sexual perversion (whether rape, gay, child sex slavery, etc..)February 1, 2020
so yall really just gonna compare being gay to rape and child sex slavery lmao,,, the homophobia jumped out
“sexual perversion”? is this the 1800s??February 11, 2020
Yeah actually the bl novels many times showcase rape, harrassment, fetish and labeling two males with special names as semme and uke. one is always the top and manly and dominant and attractive one, one is the bottom more feminine, poor thing gets harrassed and enjoys it! Even in this book lwj literally raped wei ying at their first time and of course the one which was claimed as the bottom was said to have rape fetish! So no problem! in their next experiments he wouldn’t have problem to be raped again (these scenes are for catering horny females readers and the person who enjoys reading a rape scene and find it beautiful is sick!). Also he was claimed as the wife! The other one as the husband! Their bl books themselves are toxic. If the drama was going to be exactly like the book it would have some terrible parts and wouldn’t turned out as a beautiful craft that shows a true and sincer love without sick fetishes.August 23, 2020
Everyone likes and dreams about chivalry, honor, and respect, but not morally backward bigots.February 12, 2020
What’s interesting is that people are super hung up about classifying this love. Why can’t it just be about two human beings who love one another? My best friend is female. I love her. I am female. I am heterosexual. Maybe sometimes we as a society classify this “love” thing too strictly. Certainly there are innumerable examples in British literature where Americans read a text as “that’s gay love!” and then had all sorts of feels.
I understand the original work of literature was explicitly gay. I’m just making the observation, why does all love have to have a sexual classification? Can’t it just be about agape love, the universal love that binds humanity together? Can’t a love story simply be one human being loving one another simply because …they love that person? I am often tired of this political climate where we must CLASSIFY LITERALLY EVERYTHING.
LOVE. We are drawn to LOVE.March 19, 2020
Hm, an interesting point, but in my opinion why love has that sexual classification because it seems to be the common thought, apparently (eye roll). As for the classify everything, you are not the only one that is tired of that, even my friend’s nephew as me are tired of it.
If there is ever a drama or book that just showed me an agape love without the romantics, but just that deep care for someone I would want to watch that drama to see how the writer has brought it onto the screen.April 13, 2020
I completely understand what you are saying. There are beautiful stories about non-romantic love and friendship. I am not sure if you are familiar with a lot east asian cinema, but it is quite a common narrative and I find the stories beautiful that as human beings we can have such powerful bonds that transcend lifetimes. But also a gay man, watching this drama and reading the novel was a beautiful experience. Not very often are gay relationships depicted with an emphasis on romance, it is either about the sexual nature of the relationship, or facing aversion for their orientation. Labeling this relationship as queer romance is super important for a portion of the audience who can really connect with these characters and see their own fantasy of romance on the screen. Lol watching this show as a 23 year old half the time I felt like a little kid watching a Disney movie between a prince and a princess. Feeling giddy at the scenes of flirting between Wei Ying and Lan Zhan. But I digressed, having a drama show an explicitly gay romance especially in China is a huge step forward for the gay community in China where their isn’t the same freedoms for gay couples that I have in Canada and you may have in the United Kingdom. I’m just curious as to why if it were the same exact drama consisting of a male and female lead with the same romantic undertones it would instantly be accepted as a romance. However since it is a homosexual couple it is instantly seen as pushing a narrative further then it is.April 14, 2020
Maybe people are super hung up about classifying this as romantic love, because it is romantic love? Censored as it is, this story does not portray a love between two friends.
I understand your point, even agree with it to a ceartain degree. I understand why some people want to read WangXian’s relationship as a friendship. I really do. And hey, it even can be read as one if you decide to turn a blind eye at some details and go ahead, do it. It is a beautiful story, no matter how you decide to interpret their relationship. But seeing it as a romantic relationship has multiple reasons and I just can’t get it, why it is interesting that we want to classify this relationship. Not every love is romantic love, true (my native language even has different words for the two types of love) and not every love should be seen as a romantic one, not every love should have a sexual classification, because love, a real deep bond between friends is a beautiful thing that should be seen as nothing but that. But the Untamed is definitely not a good example for that.
The show is based on a novel about gay romance (and a pretty explicit one) and the creators literally did everything they could to stay true to the novel, to show Wei Wuxian’s and Lan Wangji’s relationship as it is. There are multiple symbols in there that are screaming at the viewer’s face that “hey, these two don’t just love each other, they are IN LOVE”.May 5, 2020
In episode 2 of the drama Jiang Wanyin calls Lan Wangji out on spending the last sixteen years going around in the world searching for someone (and we all know who Lan Wangji tries to find). In episode 6 Wangji clarifies that Wei Wuxian shouldn’t touch his forehead ribbon, because “the ribbon is sacred. Only parents, children and significant other are allowed to touch it” in that very same episode Lan Wangji ties them together with that very same sacred forehead ribbon and after that, he never once protests against Wei Wuxian touching and using his ribbon.
Also, lets not forget about the rabbits. Rabbits are representing WangXian in every version of the cannon. Rabbits are a symbol for homosexuality in Chinese mythology (the god of homosexuality is literally called Rabbit God) we see the bunnies in multiple occasions through the show, we even see two of them “kissing” (=bumping their noses together). If that’s not an implication than I don’t know what is.
And then, there are chickens (roosters). Chickens were traditionally given to women by men upon proposal. (Yes, that scene can be interpreted differently according to the book canon, but this discussion is simply not about the novel and in the series there is no prolouge to that scene, no other explanation, just the tradition.)
And they are bowing in the Jiang Ancestral Hall, they are completeing 3 bows in front of Wei Wuxian’s ancestors (because even if not blood related, the Jiangs were Wei Wuxians family) and that is something married couples do.
There is also the top-notch acting of the main actors. The way the boys look at each other, the longing clear in their eyes, is simply not the way you’d look at a friend. It’s how you look at the love of your life (and that is exactly what they do). The way Lan Wangji’s face softens and the way he smiles at Wei Wuxian and Wei Wuxian only is a telltale of his feelings. The way Wei Wuxian calls out “Lan Zhan” is also not the way you’d address someone you have platonic feelings for. That softness and pure devotion in his voice (even when he is at his lowest, hanging off of a cliff, maddened by grief) is something entirely different from the way he calls his Shijie or a-Yuan (and we all know how deeply he loves them and cares for them).
What I’m trying to say is we want to classify their relationship as a romance, because that’s exactly what it is. The creators and actors did a spectacular work at showing us their love story without any physical display of affection and any words declaring their feelings for each other. They did amazing at showing us that Lan Wangji did not wrote “WangXian” (their song and also the theme song of the series, officially releases as “Wuji”) for a friend. He did not bear a punishment, so cruel it would be better to be addressed as torture, for a friend. He did not roam the world searching and blast inquiry daily, waiting for an answer that never came, for a friend. He did not turn against the whole cultivation world, against his own clan for a friend. He did not brand his own chest in his drunken state for the memory of a friend (ok, I admit, this one is a weird examole, since the series never explained how the Wen mark got burned into his skin) and he did not took in, and raised as his own, a friend’s child. He took in the child who his soulmate (even though I don’t really like using this word in this context, because it can indicate a platonic relationship), the man he was in love with since he was 15 claimed as his own.
We want to classify their relationship as a romance, because the show asks as to do so.
Then write or produce such a work. These artists produce what they’re inspired to. Writing an epic novel with 100s of chapters and loads of well developed characters is no small feat.July 15, 2020
It’s neither a dark mystery nor a bad thing that people are interested in romantic love and other kinds of love, or that they notice the difference.July 22, 2020
The issue with your comment is that the characters in the story are gay. They are in love. There’s a novel for this show, that came before it and had explicitly gay scenes. You trying to diminish the clear, intended romance is almost… upsetting. In China, they cannot air gay content on television. Their love seems so pure and so genuine.. well, because they are in love. It is the agape love, and they love each other as friends, and as something even more. I don’t know much about this show, but I hear they’re above the idea of a typical relationship. Wang ji and Wei ying are soulmates… something pure, something above the boyfriend-girlfriend idea we all have.
Please don’t diminish their romance into something like a strong friendship. They’re a gay couple. It’s hard enough to even have implications of gay relationships in media, especially Asian, so trying to push the idea that they’re just friends, that their love is just platonic is just… almost a bit insulting.July 29, 2020
Oh good heavens, no one needs to “re-classify” this as a romance or a love story. It so overpoweringly obviously IS a romance and a love story. Everyone knows that it’s a novel – not something written for the screen – and everyone knows that the love story which is the focus of that novel, the relationship between Lan Wangji (Lan Zhan) and Wei Wuxian (Wei Ying), is explicitly described as a story of two men who fall in love – have a passionate sexual relationship – and actually elope/marry. No, the filmed version does not explicitly show the sexual dimension. But The Untamed does not show ANY explicit sexual scenes at all. We are aware of at least one heterosexual love story in the series, for instance (the marriage of Wei Ying’s sister) but there likewise no sexual intimacy is shown. Nevertheless, again and again we see much more than lingering glances. We see Lan Wangji hold Wei Ying in his arms for about 20 minutes in ep 46 – very tenderly, gazing at his face with intense adoration, weeping tears that spill onto Wei Ying (as he hears of Wei Ying’s self-sacrifice in giving his golden core to Jiang Cheng). We hear his brother, Lan Xichen, compare the relationship of the two men (at length) to a very romantic heterosexual love story, the account of his (and Lan Wangji’s) parents. We see them bow three times (i.e. like a couple intending to marry) at an ancestral shrine. We repeatedly see vivid traditional (Chinese) erotic/romantic symbolism – the rabbits, the lanterns, Lan Wangji presenting Wei Ying with the stolen chickens, eating the lotus blossom seeds in the lake, binding Wei Ying’s hands with his headband, etc etc. No, we don’t see them making love in bed – but we don’t see anyone making love in bed. If a novel about the romance of a heterosexual married couple were adapted as a video series without any explicit sex scenes, we would never dream of claiming “Oh, it’s not a sexual relationship – they’re like brother and sister to each other”. The Untamed shows us an incredibly ardent, deep, downright titanic love story. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. It is in no sense a “brotherly” relationship. After all, both men HAVE brothers – who are major characters. We see plenty of intimate brotherly interactions in The Untamed. What’s going on between Lan Wangji and Wei Ying is NOT represented in any way as “brotherly”. Yes, there are series in the Far East which depict close male/male friendships. Of course. But this absolutely is not one of them. It is a filmed adaptation of a real written text about the love of two men. It’s perfectly simple. Moreover, the outstanding music throughout the series only emphasises the romantic content.June 6, 2020
yeah you are rightAugust 8, 2020
@Viv, Well said :-)June 6, 2020
Just binged watched this series and my heart is broken that it ended and that they didn’t at least embrace or kiss or stay with each other. I couldn’t believe myself when I kept hoping they will just let go n love each other as I saw in their eyes. this series really showed me that am not homophobic which I tot I was. Damn , what a great love story.June 28, 2020
If you like this kind of shows, I recommend Handsome siblings(2020) on Netflix, Handsome siblings the actors, story, CG , quality, everything is wonderful.July 17, 2020
Shi Pei Pu
It’s a bro-manceJuly 28, 2020
I’m fanning myself after reading this amazing review. It’s so exactly on point and got me all worked up.August 21, 2020
why don’t they make a season 2October 25, 2020
i love this drama i watch this drama many time very heart touching i’m waiting for next seasonNovember 7, 2020
I liked xue Yang’s storyNovember 26, 2020
I was very upset xue Yang died 😢