Some of my earliest (and fondest) memories are of Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers martial arts films made in Hong Kong that my family would rent from video rental stores. Tales of martial arts clans torn apart by betrayal, quests for vengeance, and actors with very obvious hair extensions abounded. Just as ubiquitous as these staples of the genre were scenes where the martial artist heroes of these films inexplicably took off and flew in the middle of battles, buoyed by invisible wires pulled by Hong Kong’s famed special effects teams.
A Touch of Magic
The genre, I later came to find out, was called Wuxia. Meaning “Martial heroes”, these tales of warrior clans and roving fighters, set in a romanticized historical China rife with supernatural elements, have long been a staple of Chinese folklore and literature. With the advent of film-making, they became a staple of Asian cinema, as well. During the 70s, they were known in Hong Kong as “Seven Day Wonders”, because of the rapid rate at which these films could be filmed. Appreciation of them was long filed under ‘guilty pleasure’, the genre was bemusedly beloved for how much its production value often left to be desired. Those aforementioned wires were not always so invisible; the historical accuracy of the plots was negligible; the martial arts battle scenes were so poorly executed they would probably make Bruce Lee weep, and enough cannot be said about the hair extensions or the bad dubbing of poorly translated dialogue.
In 2000, Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s romantic action drama Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an international co-production between Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong and US film companies, took wuxia to new heights. An international success, it won Best Foreign Language Film at 2001’s Academy Awards, on the strength of its poignant story and sweeping cinematography and special effects. The characters of Crouching Tiger, with their broken hearts, passions, and secrets, brought humanity to the genre. When they soared above mist wreathed ponds, frothing waterfalls, and forests of bamboo, it was a far cry from the visible special effects wiring of the Shaw Brothers films, but rather uplifting and arresting magical realism rich with metaphor. There had been always been a touch of magic in martial arts cinema: Crouching Tiger added poignant humanistic layers to a martial arts story, creating a daring feat of cinema.
The Rise of Xianxia
In the wake of the international prestige of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an offshoot of the Wuxia genre, Xianxia stories became popular within the robust Chinese web novel community throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Written and posted by online users, Xianxia explores in depth the magical realism aspects of the martial arts genre that were brought to the forefront by Ang Lee’s masterpiece. The word itself means “Cultivator heroes”: tales of alchemists seeking immortality. These supernatural tales are often adapted into television dramas, comics, and animated films in China. The magical exploits of the genre’s heroes have their roots in ancient Chinese folklore, especially Taoist beliefs about immortality and alchemy.
In 2019, the Xianxia drama The Untamed premiered on Neflix. It quickly cultivated international popularity. Based on an online Xianxia novel, Grand Master of Demonic Cultivation by mysterious web novel author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, The Untamed tells the story of the rise and fall of Wei Wu Xian, a cultivator whose promising future turns dark. Wei dies in infamy, but is resurrected over a decade later and seeks to right his wrongs, recover his memory, and reconnect with his soulmate, Lan Wangji. For its romance between two male protagonists, this entry in the Xianxiia subgenre itself falls under the subgenre danmei-Chinese language media’s answer to the Japanese genre BL, ‘Boy’s Love’, tales of romance between male two lead characters.
The love story between Wei and Lan was sublimated via editing due to the government’s strict censorship in the Chinese produced drama adaptation, but the production team clandestinely filmed a much more overtly romantic edit and posted it on the YouTube channel TenCent.
In December 2021, Seven Seas Entertainment released the first installment of official English edit of the Untamed source material, promising to preserve scenes of a romantic nature between Wei and Lan found in Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’a original material. Mo’s other works, Heaven’s Official Blessings and The Scum Villain’s Self Serving System have also been translated, and are leading a wave of popularity in the English speaking world for Xian Xia novels, manhua (comics) and donghua (animation).
The magical elements of Wuxia and Xianxia are never quite explained. The stories are set in a time out of place, in which spirits, magic, human flight and immortality are not only possible, but obligatory. However, roughly twenty years apart both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Untamed managed to make an international splash by giving the world Xianxia and Wuxia tales that transcend the genre’s trappings and speak universally to the heart.
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