Samseng Zhabor

By Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor

Guardian: The hot mess that kind of works

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Samseng Zhabor
Last week, I checked myself into a hotel. For a glorious six days and seven nights I did very little apart from chilling out and doing cross-stitch. I wanted something to put on in the background while I was stitching, and settled on the 2018 web drama 《镇魂 Guardian. It turned out to be the perfect choice, because I don’t think I would have been able to make it all the way through if I watched the entire series straight.
Zhu Yilong as Shen Wei, and Bai Yu as Zhao Yunlan = the Wei-Lan "socialist bromance"
Zhu Yilong as Shen Wei, and Bai Yu as Zhao Yunlan = the Wei-Lan "socialist bromance"
Guardian is set on a fictional planet where, many many many years ago, aliens landed. Half of them stayed on the surface of the planet — already inhabited by humans — where their interactions with organisms caused mutations that allowed them to shapeshift between animal/human/plant form, ending up in Snake, Crow, Flower, and (obviously my favourite) Cat tribe demi-humans known as the Yàshòurén. Meanwhile, the other half went deep underground, where, living in the dark depths, they too mutated and developed special powers that varied from individual to individual. Following a meteor strike that caused havoc with the planet’s resources, Humans, Yashouren, and Dìxīngrén undergrounders fought a terrible war that was only brought to an end with a treaty in which the Dixingren agreed to retreat below ground.
10,000 years later, the roguishly handsome Zhao Yunlan (Bai Yu) heads up the Special Investigations Unit in Dragon City, the capital of Haixing (which is technically the name of the entire planet; it’s kind of suggested that there might be countries/continents/hemispheres, but we never see any actual evidence of it). His team’s job is to investigate odd cases likely perpetrated by Dixingren who have snuck up to the surface. Once the culprits are caught, they get handed over to the enigmatic Black Robe Envoy, a masked, powerful Dixingren who enforces the ancient peace treaty and whisks the naughty Dixingren back underground, via a B-grade CGI portal, for their sentencing.
While investigating a new suspicious murder, Zhao Yunlan crosses path with the genius bioengineering professor Shen Wei (Zhu Yilong). From the very beginning, Shen Wei gives Zhao Yunlan Meaningful Gazes that suggests to the viewer that there’s Something between them, even though Zhao Yunlan thinks they’re meeting for the first time. But it doesn’t take long for Zhao Yunlan to develop an interest in Shen Wei, because there’s something odd about the guy: for a bookish academic, he has nerves of steel, doesn’t freak out even when staring hostile Dixingren in the face, emerges from all sorts of scrapes unscathed, and — most importantly — keeps showing up. And I don’t just mean at crime scenes; Shen Wei even ends up moving in to the flat across the hall from Zhao Yunlan. Coinkydink? I THINK NOT!
The two soon become partners — we tell the Chinese state censors they’re partners in investigating crime, but actually we mean they’re in love. Nothing explicit happens in the drama, of course, but come on, you don’t need to have read the original Boys’ Love web novel to figure it out. (There’s even an academic article about Guardian, its fandom, the use of “socialist brotherhood/bromance” as a euphemism in discussing the Wei-Lan OTP, and Chinese state censorship.)
The Special Investigations Unit gang. I love them. Almost everyone else in the show you could take or leave.
The Special Investigations Unit gang. I love them. Almost everyone else in the show you could take or leave.
The reason I call Guardian a hot mess is because, well, it is. On paper, this show should absolutely not work. There are many things that one can make allowances for, considering the obstacles that Chinese state censorship presents. The whole premise had to be quite significantly changed from Priest’s original novel; not just the whole BL thing, but also because of the references to Chinese mythology. But even after considering all that, one can’t run away from the fact that the production quality is not great: the CGI is amateurish, the ADR/dubbing is poor (like, suddenly you’ll have a completely different voice dubbing in a line here or there), and the dialogue can sometimes be really bad, especially when it comes to side characters or extras. The world-building is inconsistent and befuddling, to the point of being frustrating because it feels like they’ve put zero thought or effort into it.
For instance, Dixing is meant to be the underground civilisation where Dixingren live. Because there is no sky, there is no sense of night, day, or time at all. This is a very interesting concept; what would a civilisation without a sense of time be like, and how would it differ from the lives of those above ground? We never find out. And somehow, even though they’re underground with no access to sunlight — and therefore, I assume, no agricultural industry — there’s food and alcohol like what they have up top. How did the Dixingren get access to the crops to cook this food, or distill the alcohol? Also, why is it that civilian Dixingren are dressed in the same fashion as humans — where did they get the cotton for the clothes? Why are there the same fashion trends when these two societies generally don’t interact at all? — whereas the Dixingren officials are still dressed in robes like they’re a few centuries behind? How long do people live? ‘Cos sometimes they talk about having regular lifespans and then suddenly one character will go, “And when I did this 100 years ago…” I’m sorry, WHAT? I have so many questions.
The story can be pretty random too; there are mini-mysteries from episode to episode, and some are better than others. There are plot twists that don’t trigger surprise as much as a sense of “you just made that up, didn’t you?”
There were moments when I felt that they might have accidentally spent a large chunk of their budget on just the music, because the soundtrack is of a higher quality than so many other aspects of the show. As it turns out, I was closer to the truth than I’d expected; they apparently had more money at first but an investor went bankrupt partway through. 😫
This is one drama where I didn't actually skip the opening titles, which is in large part thanks to this song.
This is one drama where I didn't actually skip the opening titles, which is in large part thanks to this song.
Why, then, did I still watch all 40 episodes? Why, when it was first released, was Guardian such a huge hit, amassing a serious fan base?
Because of these two 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼
The decision to cast Bai Yu as Zhao Yunlan and Zhu Yilong as Shen Wei was just *chef’s kiss*. Whenever they were onscreen they made you forget that everything is taking place in a low budget, B-grade dramaverse where the pillars (presumably supposed to be rock) quiver, the extras can be quite terrible, and random shit just happens from time to time.
While Bai Yu lights up every scene with Zhao Yunlan’s energy and schemes, Zhu Yilong’s Shen Wei is serious and steady. Their starkly different personalities end up complementing one another rather than clashing, and you get a sense of the strength of their relationship from the little things that they do and say from scene-to-scene. When Zhao Yunlan gets injured while on duty, Shen Wei automatically assumes the role of caregiver, making sure he eats on time and that his flat is kept clean. In the middle of a doctor’s visit, the alarm on Zhao Yunlan’s phone goes off; a prompt for him to remind Shen Wei that he’s due to teach a class that morning. From big life-threatening situations to small daily responsibilities, they look out for each other, and I love it (as do thousands of fans who call themselves “镇魂女孩 Guardian Girls”).
Apart from them, I also developed a soft spot for Chu Shuzhi, the Dixingren operative of the Special Investigations Unit and mentor to the timid, wide-eyed newbie Guo Changcheng. The affection and protectiveness that he develops towards Changcheng is super sweet; they’re such an odd pair but it works. Also, there was one episode where Chu Shuzhi undergoes a personality change and it’s just the funniest.
All in all, I’d recommend watching Guardian if you’re a fan of either Bai Yu or Zhu Yilong (I recommend The Story of Minglan). Also, the Special Investigations Unit are a really nice Scooby gang when it comes to solving cases, so that can be quite a fun ride if you just allow yourself to let go. Just remind yourself that there’s no point in asking questions ‘cos no one is going to answer them.
The music video of a song performed by the two lead actors.
The music video of a song performed by the two lead actors.
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Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor
Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor @kixes

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