The Untamed: The Measure of a Man

[My thoughts on something I never thought I would watch.]

This is the first Chinese Drama that I ever watched. I’ve caught a couple of Korean ones and Japanese ones but never a Chinese one. The Untamed was one of my random Netflix selections for background noise when I had work to do. I wanted a show where people didn’t speak English so that I wouldn’t be distracted by the dialogues while working. Well, it worked for a while but then I got very distracted. And then I had to set aside the work and just watch the show. For days. You know how it is.

UT8In all honesty, The Untamed is far from the best thing I’ve ever watched. The effects were shoddy and the plot could at times be patchy. The action sequences are the worst I’ve seen in a live action production to date. There’re a lot of awkward moments of guys sailing in air with swords brandished (really easy to dodge, by the way), making bizarre poses and spouting blood with alarming frequency.  I should be impressed actually; all that flying, spinning and flailing, and not a hair ornament out of place!

I also found it hard to understand what was happening, especially in the earlier episodes. Someone died and someone summoned someone and someone was scheming against someone. There wasn’t much of an explanation. Adding to that, I wasn’t used to Chinese names or the language so it was hard to keep track of the characters. To be fair, this was partly also because I wasn’t paying too much attention to the show at the time.

UT10Things did start falling into place and making sense as the narrative progressed and it got quite interesting. Overall, the story isn’t too bad – nothing ground-breaking, that’s for sure, but definitely decent. We have a protagonist who, with his BFF, has to solve the mystery behind a vengeful spirit, which also somehow ties back to his own tragedy from some years back. That’s a very succinct summary, by the way, which completely glosses over the emotional rollercoaster ride that the story takes us on.

The very emotional story isn’t the main reason I sat through fifty episodes though. The main reason was our protagonist, Wei Wuxian (or Wei Ying, as his BFF “affectionately” calls him). It didn’t take me long to fall in love with this wholly wonderful character. Flawed, funny and fierce, Wei Wuxian is the heart of this story.


He laughs easily, has a genuine twinkle in his eye and is generous with his smiles. He gloats, he grieves, he rages, and he cares so much that we can feel his pain. He calls things as he sees them, unafraid of how his rigid society will react. He breaks rules but he stands by his principles, no matter the cost. He shows off to his peers but he also willingly puts himself in harm’s way to save them. He’s a kind person with horrible habits and terrible powers – a creature of contradictions that many in his society find impossible to understand.

UT11The simple reason for this is that their values aren’t aligned with his. The people around him are far more fixated on rank and ability than right and wrong. Their measure of a man doesn’t take into account his morality while with Wei Wuxian, that seems to be the most important thing. It’s strange because he doesn’t seem to be that sort of person at first; one could be forgiven for thinking that all he is simply rebellious and irreverent. But his unorthodox way of thinking stems from a place of purity (and yes, also curiosity). At his core, Wei Wuxian possesses an unwavering moral compass and it is this that guides him down a rather tragic path of self-sacrifice, isolation and eventual suicide. 

Fortunately for him, he finds the one person who does measure up to his standards – his BFF, the noble and elegant Lan Wangji (or Lan Zhan, as Wei Wuxian “affectionately” calls him). While they may seem as different as night and day, they share the same inherent goodness. It’s probably why they keep gravitating towards each other and why they share such a strong bond.

UT5Their bond is another beautiful part of this story. The aloof ice sculpture, Lan Wangji, doesn’t lose his cool easily but it’s delighful to see Wei Wuxian crack that façade and bring out the man’s emotions. I was not aware of the original source material of this story but watching the show, it seemed clear to me that Lan Wangji had fallen in love with Wei Wuxian. It’s palpable in the way he brightens at the sight of his friend, showing that rare hint of a smile. So much is conveyed by the way he just looks at Wei Wuxian, in the micro expressions that he makes, that for the first time I’m actually happy that a story is told using real people in a live-action adaptation. Therefore, I must set aside this one sentence to praise the actors for their stellar performance (and good looks).

There is a lot heartache in their relationship which is strained by external forces, labouring in vain to set them against each other. It’s even more distressing because there are things that they don’t fully reveal to each other. Wei Wuxian never tells Lan Wangji about the extent of his sacrifice, which makes the latter unable to help him properly. Similarly, Lan Wangji never expresses the magnitude of his own feelings, so Wei Wuxian takes a really long time to see him as an ally. Nevertheless, the evolution of their relationship, which began with antipathy and ended with a profound bond is the most poignant and powerful aspect of the story. It is beautifully encapsulated by their theme song too.

UT16And that’s another thing I have to write about – the music. I adore the music. While not all the soundtracks were great, there were some pretty decent ones. I skipped the title sequence many times before finally watching it out of curiosity around the thirtieth episode. It was fittingly dramatic and I was rather impressed. Then there’s the anthem for Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s relationship. Their song is a marriage of traditional instruments and a moving melody – one that immediately enhances any scene it is used in. I really love the flute.

UT17The Untamed touches on many issues but one of its key themes, that I particularly liked, was about the unpredictability of life. Families may be torn apart, allies may become adversaries, heroes may fall from grace and love may be found in the last place one would look. Nothing is given and all one can do is to hope for the best and act according to what he or she feels is right. I think it’s even woven into the open-ended conclusion of the story – rather than feeding us a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, things are left to our imagination. Naturally, I imagine a happy ending.

So, the first live-action Chinese drama that I completed turned out to be a relative success. I’m glad that I didn’t let the unfamiliar language or the second-rate special effects keep me from this story. Having said that, I know not everyone would like it as much. Given how slowly it starts and how trying it can be to keep track of the characters, places and the plot at the beginning, it definitely does require a dash of patience to watch it. If one gets past the first couple of episodes, however, things do improve significantly. I watched the first half of the show over two weeks and the second half over three days. I think that says a lot.

If nothing else, it’s worth watching for Wei Wuxian alone.

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