Two weeks ago I spent a weekend binge-watching Candle in the Tomb, a Chinese web-series about the exploits of a team of grave-robbers trying to find (and loot) an ancient lost city in the Gobi Desert. Despite the sometimes rough humor and the clunky SFX, it was a great fun – and for this reason, I moved on to the follow-up series, Candle in the Tomb: The Weasel Grave.
A long weekend approaches, and this is just what I need to keep my spirits up during my long sleepless nights.
In the original Candle in the Tomb, we met Hu Bayi, a former soldier that once cashiered finds his only marketable skills come from a family heirloom: a book about the theory and practice of tomb raiding. Set in the 1980s China of Deng Xiaoping, the story tracked Hu Bayi and his not-too-bright sidekick Wang Kaixuan as they joined a legit archaeological expedition along the Silk Road – and a confrontation with ghosts, curses, giant cannibal ants, and other wonders.
The series was based on the first novel in the popular series by Zhang Muye, and the follow up adapts the second novel in the sequence.
The Weasel Grave is actually a prequel, and is set in the ’60s, in the rural provinces of north-eastern China. Hu Bayi and Wang Kaixuan are two earnest students, imbued with the words of Mao Zedong, and a mix of idealism and youthful bravado. The down-to-earth people of the village where they have been sent to work their asses off look at them with a mix of derision and suspicion. Unjustly accused of having stolen some chickens, the two kids (together with Yan Zi, a local girl that nurses an obvious crush on Hu Bayi) set out for the hills to track the weasels responsible for the theft. This will lead to the discovery of am ancient tomb, and a curse will be unleashed on the unsuspecting population – but also, a legend about a lost, haunted gold mine will come to the surface.
It’s up to the three unlikely adventurers to get to work and set everything straight – and possibly strike rich. Along the way, Hu Bayi learns the basics of tomb-raiding, and the viewers finally get the general layout of the complex grave-robbers society – four traditional schools, each with its techniques and secrets – that will become essential later on.
And of course, various competitors are set to interfere with the main characters’ plans.
Once again distributed as a web series of 20 episodes that you can find on Youtube in a decent sub, The Weasel Grave boasts a different, younger cast, and higher production values than the first series, which translate into essentially, better CGI and SFX. The humor is still a little off-color by Western standards, and still we are left to wonder if the frequent references to Party propaganda are to be taken with a straight face, or are intended as satire. Also, the tone shifts from the ridiculous to the thrilling to the downright horrific in a matter of seconds, which gives the story a strange rhythm – but not unpleasant, only weird. It feels a little like a rollercoaster.
For the rest, the story is a mix of two-fisted archaeology, Chinese folk horror and action adventure, and if the start is somewhat slow, the plot promises to pick up speed as the intrigue progresses.
The location shots are once again part of the fun of this series – and the early episodes, filmed in snowbound forests, are particularly suggestive.
While not earth-shattering in terms of originality and execution, The Weasel Grave is highly entertaining fluff, and done with enough class and good ideas to be a perfect pastime.