East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

A candle in a tomb

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According to an old saying among Chinese grave robbers, “The living light the candle and the ghosts blow it out”. That’s my story and I’m sticking it… or rather, that’s Chinese fantasy author Zhang Muye’s story, and by sticking to it, his first novel in the Candle in the Tomb series got six million online readers, and when it later was printed, it sold half a million copies.
More volumes followed, then an online videogame, and it was quite obvious that the movie people would come along soon afterwards.
Films were made, and then TV adaptations.

And last night, as I was once again dealing with my insomnia, I went through the first five episodes of 2016 the web-series that was based on Zhang Muye’s novels. The 35-minutes episodes can be found on Youtube, with handy English subtitles.

The story opens in the mid ’80s. Cashiered from the Red Army, Hu Bayi finds himself in dire straits in Deng Xiaoping’s China. A new entrepreneurial spirit has everybody thinking about money, and he has very little marketable skills – he’s been a soldier most of his life, and what he got from his father is a smattering of Feng Shui and stories from a long tradition of grave robbing. With a friend in tow, he goes back to his backwater village, in the hopes of retrieving enough ancient artifacts but state-sponsored archaeological expeditions have already recovered everything that was at hand. Completely broke, Hu and his sidekick decide to try and locate a fabled Japanese army bunker from World War 2, supposedly buried somewhere in the nearby mountains.

The sort of story in which an archaeologist’s premiere tool is explosives (or an assault rifle), Candle in the Tomb is very much a TV-oriented product, especially in terms of pacing. So much so, in fact, the first two episodes are closer to a soap opera than an adventure yarn. For the first hour, the weight of the story is carried by Hu Bayi’s sideckick, a felonious guy called Fatty, that is the sort of bumbling, avid dim-wit that is supposed to be funny but turns out to be only irritating. But then the protagonists take to the mountains, accompanied by a tomboy-ish young woman acting as a guide (and a great character), and the series finds its pace.

There is indeed a bunker the Japanese dug forty years before, and there is also something much older and evil, that the Japanese found underground and the adventurers are about to awaken again.
We are finally in a good Indiana Jones territory, complete with ancient artifacts and supernatural horrors, and at this point the solid production values, the nicely creepy atmosphere and the action help us forget about the slow start and we can even overlook the unfunny funny guy.

At the end of the fifth episode, alive but still pretty broke, the adventurers are hired by an archaeological expedition set to follow the Silk Road and explore the desert in Xinjian in search for lost cities – and, also, a previous expedition, that vanished into thin air. We are finally in the main plotline.

And I can’t wait to see where all of this will lead – there’s a total of 21 episodes in the series, and while many developments are predictable – this being a certain kind of story – my hopes are high: based on the first story arc – what in a traditional TV series would be more or less the pilot – Candle in the Tomb looks promising and diverting.
Yes, it’s very much my sort of thing – Silk Road, ancient mysteries, grave robbers and treasure hunters, a nice touch of pulp-style adventure, a bit of the macabre – and therefore I am biased, but there are far worse ways to spend two hours after dinner.

And there are more points that pique my curiosity and, this being a Chinese product, are worth mentioning.
The first, and probably the most baffling, is the fact that when Zhang Muye’s novels were published in print, all the supernatural elements had to be removed due to censorship guidelines. One wonders how the author managed to replace with something non-supernatural the ample catalog of ghosts, undead ancient warriors and curses that fuel much of the action.
Secondly, the writers of the series seem to be very eager to clobber the viewer with the idea of how wonderful is the Chinese system. But the series shows a bleak urban landscape, peopled with profiteers and mercenaries of every stripe, so much so that the enthusiasm for the beauty of the Chinese new deal sound almost like a satire.
Just as the shenanigans of the comedy relief character leave us wondering whether we should laugh or not, so we ask ourselves if this is blundering propaganda or a very tongue-in-cheek send up of the old rhetoric.

So yes, Candle in the Tomb is fun, it’s weird, it’s exotic and “ideologically dubious”. But it’s well worth a look.
And two more series were filmed, based on the second and eight novels in the franchise.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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