2020 was, for me, the Year of Xiao Zhan. He captivated me in The Untamed (and yes, I watched both the Netflix version and the special edition version — more Xiao Zhan/Wang Yibo scenes), made me catch my breath with his cliffhanger role in Joy of Life, broke my heart with the traumatic negativity and cyber harassment to which he was subjected, and tickled my fancies with each musical appearance and small sighting on Weibo or Douyin (Tiktok), so there was no question that when The Wolf was released in one surprising all-in-one upload (rather than weekly installments) that I was going to watch it. Sure, it was his first major role, he’d expressed concerns about how nervous he was to have people see him as such a novice and judge him for his inexperience, but baby, he had nothing to worry about!
Oh, and note: I’m going to avoid specific spoilers in this review, but there will be some comments that indicate a direction or two in the plot that are minor hints of outcomes. Feel free to read on without risk of having things ruined egregiously 🙂
That’s not to say that this is a perfect drama, a perfect drama, even a pretty good drama because, to be frank, it’s got some rocky moments. It’s also important to note that technically, Xiao Zhan is not the lead male character — Darren Wang is the titular Wolf — but for a number of reasons, for all intents and purposes, you could argue that he is the male protagonist, the one who truly walks away as a survivor, just as he has at the end of this horrible year.
The story is a hybrid fantasy, star-crossed lovers mish-mash that was not helped by the scissors of censorship; originally the Wolf in question was intended to be more of a werewolf (per early trailers), along with his loyal pack, er, team of the “Night Fiends” (members of a sort of a crack paramilitary squad), but with the cuts came a loss of character depth and plot for Darren Wang’s part of the story. He’s now just a human raised by wolves (but with the benefit of being hyper in-tune with nature and being shockingly strong and vulnerable to a certain herb that brings out the beast in him). He meets the lovely, strong, brave, and often naive daughter of an important member of the court, head of an important army supporting the king of Yang. She’s played by Li Qin (you may remember her from Joy of Life, or Xiao Zhan’s movie Jade Dynasty). They frolic and live a happy life exploring the mountains of her hometown, until things go wrong and suddenly they don’t. Misunderstandings and tragedy happen and the big, bad Emperor of Yang is at fault. Said big, bad Emperor of Yang is played by a familiar face, Ding Yongdai, who was the big, bad emperor in Nirvana In Fire. In fact, there is a lot of his performance that feels like he was just channeling that previous (better) performance.
He’s captured wolf-boy (yes, that’s how he’s called by his sweetie), tamed him, made him a tool of war, and even adopted him, making him Prince Bo. But this is never an easy task; just as in all court scenarios, there are ambitious other princes/misunderstandings/tragedies/suspicions/etc. and Prince Bo is often called upon by his adoptive father and Ruler to do his dirty work. This dirty work involves an engagement to his former playmate Ma Zhaixing (Li Qin) in order to keep the army loyal to her under control even though he now hates her/loves her. I did say big, bad Emperor was involved in cooking up some misunderstandings and tragedies, right? Well, he did a number on Ma Zhaixing, but because he’s put the blame on a neighboring kingdom, the Jin, she’s unaware of the truth and labors along under various misconceptions. “Why does he look just like Wolf Boy? Why does he hate me one minute and is nice to me another?”
Into this mix comes a rough-and-tumble brash bounty hunter, Ji Chong (Xiao Zhan), who is captivated by Li Qin and works hard to be her friend and supporter. He’s the one who stands behind her when Prince Bo is treating her badly, and is a clever and resourceful ally. And he’s easily the best-looking of the men in her circle, in spite of the fact that the shooting conditions where rough, causing Xiao Zhan eye problems and skin issues (but we love the stubble the director encouraged him to grow). The minute Ji Chong enters the story things pick up, in part because he’s not part of what must have been the werewolf part of the original plot and therefore his storyline is not as choppy, but mainly because he just brings a freshness and visual honesty to his performance that is lacking in his love rival’s. The open, observant gaze of Xiao Zhan’s Ji Chong is so much more realistic and appealing than the often shifty, squinty, surly gaze of Darren Wang’s Prince Bo. Ji Chong’s emotions and intelligence is right at the surface level; when he’s feeling something, you know what it is and it’s not overplayed. When he’s not speaking in a scene, he’s acting his role as the listener too and frankly, it’s no wonder that when Ma Zhaixing is delivering a speech the camera is often on Ji Chong capturing his reactions! I wonder just how much they changed the story to give him more screen time when they saw how much the camera loved him…
Another person who is just loved by the camera (in spite of the absolutely atrocious hair and costumes given her character — and let me add that the costumes in general for this show look like they were constructed from the scrap yardage bins at the local fabric shop, opting for shiny and/or frayed and/or netting whenever possible) is Xin Zhilei, playing Yao Ji, a sort of hybrid priestess/healer/maybe ex-werewolf? and rival/frenemy to Prince Bo. She was the lovely Haiting Duo Duo in Joy of Life and she has a luminous quality to her performance. I think she outshone Li Qin on a number of occasions; for all her beauty, Li Qin often looks fragile and brittle, but as that’s not out of keeping given what traumas her character endures, it’s not a negative against her looks, but at times her performance is as brittle as she looks. Being a dubbed drama, it’s hard to know how much of this is the way lines are delivered on set versus in dubbing, but it’s clear that she does not have the fluidity of Xiao Zhan’s delivery, nor of more seasoned actors, such as the one who plays the King of the Jin.
Is this drama worth 49 episodes? IMO, if Xiao Zhan were not in it and he did not deliver the performance that he did even as a rookie, I would have to say “no, no it’s not.” There are some good moments, but very few very good moments, and a lot of meh or even borderline laughable moments, but definitely not enough to put this drama in the must-see category. (Of course if you’re a Darren Wang or Li Qin fan, have at it!) I spent a lot of the non-Ji Chong scenes with my finger on the fast-forward button — watch a minute to get the plot advancing gist of the scene and zip to the next — and I’m not in the least bit sorry!