Content Warning: Queer teen suicide.
Last night–for the fifth time–I experienced the final numinous moments of the Chinese drama, The Untamed, which has been playing on Netflix for the last year or so. And then I returned to the beginning for yet another pass through this sword and sorcery fantasy series (a hybrid wuxia/xianxia story). And why not? It’s still the pandemic. I live alone. My sources of happiness and indulgence are few. And…The Untamed is purely excellent in just about every imaginable way. It has almost everything I love, except for Norse Loki, cats, Elves, and Jane Austen (and I can get that stuff elsewhere), so why not? Why not indulge? So having thoroughly convinced myself of a right to wallow in unrestrained fandom, I was not prepared for what came next, for what arrived this morning.
This morning started well enough. I prepared for an 8 AM meeting with one or both of my hypnosis students in India, and had a client session booked a couple of hours later. While waiting for the India students to show up on Zoom, I decided to listen to some music. I clicked on this link to The Untamed’s main theme song, translated as Unrestrained. It is sung by the two main actors, Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, who are also wildly popular in China as singers, dancers, and public figures. It’s a song that has made it onto “my final playlist” even though it is not my usual thing. And then I went on to have my meeting. So far, so good.
And then, in an idle period before my client session, I recalled Wang Yibo’s tweet from January 23rd, which is the birthday of the fictional Lan Wangji, the character he played in The Untamed. (Xiao Zhan’s character, Wei Wuxian–the “grandmaster of demonic cultivation”–is of course given a Scorpio birthday, Oct. 31st.) In Western astroloogy, this makes Lan Wangji an Aquarius not far from the cusp of Capricorn. And his soulmate is a friggin’ Scorpio born on Halloween and the front half of the Celtic Samhain. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this… (and if you do, great, because I’m not so sure…)
Anyway, I found this tweet touching. It showed the actor’s compassion for the character and situation of Lan Wangji (aka Lan Zhan), who will probably always be one of Wang Yibo’s most beloved roles. I have also seen a touching video of many of The Untamed’s cast saying goodbye to their characters. Fifty episodes is a long time to be in any character’s head and this can’t help but have an effect on an actor’s life. Whether actor or audience, writer or reader, I think it is a very human thing to have strong feelings for and about fictional characters. (I know I adore my own and love them like family.) Fictional characters often reveal something to us about ourselves or our situations. I even feel that some great characters take on a spiritual life of their own, almost like demigods. I am not kidding. (But that is a whole other blog topic.)
Back to this morning. Back to the “shattering.” Back to the crazy, sad, and ridiculously obvious thing that I never saw coming. Somehow all this came together in my brain through the translated subtitles to the song–“preparing a jar of happiness and sadness of life and death to mourn a young man”–and the above Tweeted reference to “no more painful longing” for the character’s soulmate, Wei Wuxian.
Let’s talk for a moment about the understated but strong emotions of the character of Lan Wangji. Here is someone who has had his unrequited love literally slip from his hands to fall into an abyss, to be lost forever, just as Lan Wangji has come to realize exactly what Wei Wuxian means to him. (This is no spoiler–this happens in the first few moments of the series). Later in the series we get hints about what this loss has meant for Lan Wangji in the sixteen long years before Wei Wuxian is revived in another form, through someone else’s sacrifice and revenge curse. We see that Lan Wangji has whip scars on his back and a brand on his chest, identical to a brand suffered by Wei Wuxian during a conflict with a peevish courtesan and a giant Tortoise of Slaughter. The brand on Lan Wangji’s chest is self-inflicted, perhaps to bring him closer to his lost soulmate through shared suffering. We also see that Lan Wangji “made a mess” (as the subtitles put it) and “fought everyone” and then is severely punished (the scars) and banished for three years to a cold place, in solitude except (we hope) for a few little white rabbits. We also learn that Lan Wangji has fostered a child that Wei Wuxian had cared for.
In other words, Lan Wangji’s loss and long grief has shaped his young adulthood just as the loss of his mother (and absent father) shaped his childhood. But because he is naturally taciturn and was sternly raised as a “cultivator” of Taoist practices and swordsmanship, Lan Wangji has very few ways to express his “untamed” emotions. Even his music is restrained, though it aches with longing underneath. In fact, I think some of my favorite moments are when Lan Wangji sits down at his stringed instrument to calm or heal Wei Wuxian and perhaps himself as well.
Though The Untamed is based on Mo Dao Zu Shi (Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation), a sexually explicit novel, Chinese film censorship forced the romantic elements of the narrative into a very delicate tension. The relationship between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian is allowed to be fond (though chaste) and perhaps even passionate (though chaste). The pair are called “confidants,” “soulmates,” and “cultivation partners.” Though I am a clinical sexologist by profession and can talk freely in mixed company about all sorts of things, I actually like the lack of physical sex in the series. The sexual tension between the two main characters–which is not even acknowledged as such–makes the series so much more interesting and romantic. Given the choice between the sex scenes in Outlander and the merest whispers of flirtation and devotion in The Untamed, I’ll take the latter every time.
Now I haven’t said much here about Wei Wuxian. I can relate to him as a trickster, as a “left hand” practitioner of magic arts; as a queer person; as someone scorned by a sibling who has become his enemy; as someone who is generally misunderstood; and as someone who has become weakened (he donated his golden core to the enemy brother) and is at times dependent as a result. He’s a gothy teen turned visionary outcast. He dies once and returns. He survives. He laughs. His birthday is right next door to mine. Plus, I’d like his wardrobe, thank you very much. (I’m partial to black.)
So what is so shattering about all this? I’m getting there. In fact, I’m here.
Here is my Soulmate. We met in our teens. I was seventeen. John was fifteen. John killed himself at nineteen. I’ve written about him before. John was more than a soulmate though, he was also a harbinger, a shape of things to come. I had a hard time telling the difference between the two of us at times. We were also very chaste. He was bi-sexual but more into men. This wasn’t the best option for me but that was the breaks. He’d gone in drag as me a few times and selected clothes for me that he would like to wear–and I, I never realized that part of me was loving him and identifying with him as if we were both queer, not just him. That I wanted my own beauty, my own being, to be as nonbinary as his. It took me several decades but I finally figured this out not long ago. Too late for the beauty part…
With John gone, I tried to piece my life back together. I was alone in my grief, mostly. And I struggled with the sadness and the strange emptiness of missing “my other half.” Yes, it did feel that way. I don’t necessarily think it is a healthy thing to feel so similar and bonded to another, especially when the other is self-destructive and mentally ill, but there is no denying that this kind of bond is very real. If you ever experience it, it can feel as if you’ve exchanged soul pieces with each other or were cut from the same cloth. Decades later, it is hard for me to believe that John is not somewhere in the astral or etheric realms (or wherever), waiting for me. But I actually hope that he’s gone on to some peaceful realm or incarnated again into a happier situation. If he appeared to me suddenly, in another form but recognizable to my heart and spirit sight, would I even know how to react? I’d feel old, and ashamed, and perhaps even angry.
So here I am–with his pictures on my wall, with quiet gestures of remembrance, with objects he gave me, with a scar on my wrist from the quarrel where he pushed me into an aquarium, and my ears that were pierced by him with a needle and cork, and a heart still raw. Still raw–even with all the other people that I have loved quite passionately in my life. Who would I want as a friend and a “cultivation partner” right now, but him? Who would follow me into the oaks and make witchery with me, but him? Who could talk to the cats and make up stories told by birds, but him? Who would drink tea with me and talk about “husbands,” but him? Was he my spirit brother or my real first husband, or a part of me that went down into a canyon one day with a bottle of pills and never came back up?
I’ll never know. I can’t know. The mysteries of death and the futile search of the living for clues to the missing beloved–this is why I found The Untamed so shattering this morning. Wei Wuxian returned to Lan Wangji. But John will never return to me. This is so final.
Will I watch the series again, for a sixth time? You betcha. Because there’s some solace there, even with what I know now.