“The wars were so long ago nobody even remembers. Darkness and fear ruled until the time of the barons, seven men and women who forged order out of chaos. People flocked to them for protection. That protection became servitude. They banished guns and trained armies of lethal fighters they called Clippers. This world is built on blood. Nobody is innocent here. Welcome to the Badlands.” – opening introduction
In recent months, Into the Badlands has become one of my favorite shows. In the wake of a certain superhero “martial arts” show failing to live up to its hype and the popularity of its predecessors, Into the Badlands provided a refreshing look at how a martial arts show should be made. Rather than zoom in so close that you can’t see the action (in an attempt to mask how badly the “martial artist” fights), ITB pans out so that you can see the full scale of the choreography and work these actors and stunt people have put in. Rather than splice up the fight scenes (in another attempt to cover up the Living Weapon’s lack of skills), the camera follows the action properly so you don’t miss the details. Rather than teaching the Immortal One his fight choreography fifteen minutes prior to shooting, the actors of ITB come together for fight camp during the offseason to learn and train with the masters behind decades of successful Hong Kong martial arts movies.
It was also a new story. They created a post-apocalyptic world with its own system of government (however flawed), and centered it on martial arts. It’s awesome seeing Daniel Wu and Stephen Fung doing successful things in American media. Into the Badlands also gives us a type of media representation we hadn’t seen much of before in Hollywood: a strong, multi-dimensional, desirable Asian male lead.
As a quick summary for the two of you who still read this blog, Into the Badlands stars Daniel Wu as the main protagonist Sunny, the head clipper in service to his baron. Sunny is very stoic at the beginning, having become desensitized to years of service to his baron. His back is covered in hash marks–one for each successful kill. As the season progresses, we see Sunny struggle against the norm and have to learn how to become more human. He has a small group of people to protect, one being a young boy named M.K., who is also one of our protagonists. In the second season, Sunny befriends (I use that term loosely) a man named Bajie. Bajie is a bit of a “chaotic good” alignment–he follows his own moral compass, which, while good, may not align with the rest of the population. I introduce these three main characters for the following reason.
Despite having caught up on both seasons, it took me till almost the end of Season 2 to draw a connection between Into the Badlands and Journey to the West. Journey is a folktale about Tang Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk tasked to retrieve the original sutras from India (“the west”) and bring them back to China, but he is often accosted by demons and evil spirits because the flesh of a righteous person is more delicious (*cringe*), and—if I’m remembering correctly—grants special properties. Throughout the story, he gains three disciples: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King; Zhu Bajie, the pig demon; and Sha Wujing, the sand demon. Wukong joins him as penance for wreaking havoc on the heavenly kingdom, and this journey is also part of his own spiritual journey to deification.
I know, I know. What’s a professing Christian like you doing reading and watching stories about Buddhism? Right?
As it turns out, I was raised Buddhist for the first fifteen years of my life. My house was adorned with many idols, and it constantly smelled of incense. My mother was often found chanting the sutras, praying, and serving food and drink offerings. We spent festivals and holidays at the local temple, doing much the same in a larger community. I took the oaths (I’m not sure that they’re called in English, actually) when I was ten-years-old. One of the things I committed to when I did that was observing a vegetarian diet on specific days of the lunar calendar (because I was on the school lunch program, I made up for it on weekends), and those were the worst days of my life. I often felt very afraid and even judged by the ceramic idols in my home. We had them in the living room and one of the bedrooms. If I forgot something in the living room at night, I either decided I could live without it for the night, or, if I couldn’t, I reached into the next room and flipped on the light before I entered it, and would do so with every single light in my path. Then I’d turn them off behind me and run toward the light of the next room. Once, we noticed a green scepter in the hands of a small Guan Yin we had in the living room and to this day, we are convinced she did not originally have that. So yes, I understand the darkness of spiritual matters quite well. And you should take time to learn about things you don’t agree with so that you know why you don’t agree.
Anyhow, back to the point.
I’d seen how “Bajie” was spelled throughout the entire second season (I like subtitles and captions), but they pronounced it “bah-jee,” so I didn’t think much of it (more on why this is relevant later). Over the summer, I bought a Playstation off a grad student (refer to this post for details), so for the first time ever, I had Netflix on my TV in my living room (what a time to be alive!). (Note: Yes, I know people have had this ability for many years, but my most recent system up till then was a Playstation 2, sooo… yeah.) One thing I enjoy is watching Chinese movies and shows with my mom, so since Netflix had The Monkey King and The Monkey King 2 available, we gave it a go. Despite no longer being Buddhist, this story is still a part of my childhood, and I shared many hours bonding with my mom and grandparents over this story.
And it was the first time I noticed that the romanized spelling of “Zhu Bajie” looked familiar (in Chinese, every vowel is pronounced: “bah-jee-eh”—see? It was relevant).
So of course, this made me connect “Sunny” with “Sun Wukong.”
From there, I did some googling and discovered that this show actually is loosely based on my childhood stories, though the article was written early on before more players and plot were in put in play.
In Into the Badlands, M.K. holds the key to find a place called Azra, which exists outside of the Badlands. It’s fabled to be a utopia, but as no one has ever left the Badlands, its existence is shrouded in myth and legend. I’m considering a connection between Azra and “the West,” and I’m going to draw a parallel with M.K. and Xuanzang. Sunny and M.K. decide to find Azra, and Bajie eventually joins them. Both Sunny and Bajie protect M.K. like Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie protect Tang Xuanzang. While it doesn’t seem that Sunny does this out of penance, as his identity slowly begins to shift away from being a clipper and more toward being a regular human, he does realize he has much to do penance for. Another connection is that Wukong is the best martial artist who can even take on the strongest demons, like Sunny is the best clipper in the Badlands. In Journey, Zhu Bajie is lustful (which is actually what got him kicked out of the heavenly realm and turned into a demon) and sometimes a total blunder, though he has the party’s best interest in mind. He and Wukong give each other a lot of grief and grate on each other’s nerves. Bajie (ITB) is also pretty lustful and a blunder, and, as I’d said, chaotic good. He and Sunny butt heads a lot and definitely frustrate each other (sometimes comically, like Wukong and his Bajie).
The characters I have not placed are Sha Wujing and the White Dragon Horse.
I’m impressed by and I really appreciate how they’ve creatively re-contextualized a popular folktale. They don’t call it Journey to the West because it is not Journey to the West. It is something all its own while also drawing familiar elements from a beloved fable. This is what it means for something to be “inspired” by something else. It is still respectful to Journey because it hasn’t dismantled it to make it something else while still claiming it’s the same thing. It’s difficult to explain, but I hope you can kind of grasp what I’m communicating.
Lewis Tan just announced that he’s been cast in a recurring role in Season 3. If this goes in the same trajectory as it has been, I’m secretly (not so secretly) hoping that Gaius Chau is Sha Wujing, the Sand Monk, so that we can see more of him as the story progresses. Fitting for the man who could’ve been the Young Dragon in a corporate drama cosplaying as a martial arts show to instead be on a martial show cosplaying as… a martial arts show.
I can’t wait to see what’s in store.
This is what storytelling is all about. It’s the details and the intricacies that make it what it is, for better or worse.