Thoughts on: Of Monks and Masters

It is so rare these days to bump into a drama that totally captures me, to the point of pushing everything else aside. Of Monks and Masters / 侠僧探案传奇… or as my pal Mookie calls it, “Tales of a wuxia-hero-monk-detective” managed to do just that. I got so absorbed in it that I had the hardest of times stepping back for a brether. I really had to fight the compulsion to just keep going till the end. The oddest part is that there are no subs for the drama and save for a word here, another there I don’t understand a lick of Chinese. o_O
I’m sure my lack of linguistic abilty made me miss quite bit of the context (there’s a LOT of talk) but as far as I can tell, Of Monks and Masters is a variation of a typical wuxia story. A young male protagonist, who is a skilled martial artist and intelligent problem-solver, goes through several trials and tribulations while solving murder mysteries. The end result should be the hero emerging as a powerful fighter whom few can equal and ending in final dramatic showdown between him and the Big Bad… but, there’s a twist. The Buddhist background of our hero gives the whole thing it’s own special flavor. According to TPTB the drama explores topics like wealth, adultery, gambling, anger, greed, malice, displeasure etc. Each episode has it’s own special theme/s. The story is also heavily centerd on “jianghu”/”wulin” (explanations can be found here, just scroll down) and the proper path for the members to take. Not all of the sects and/or members are particularly ‘righteous’ nor agree on what’s ‘proper’, so there are factions who are antagonistic. Plus the Big Bad. Hence plotting, conspiracies and bloody fighting ensues. There is an over arching storyline that started to emerge as the episodes went by. How it all ties together was still a bit of a surprise. That ending is a doozer and the last epi left me in slack jawed wonder. This is a surprisingly complex story and one that is sure to mess with your head. It is also a violent story in places, which is to be expected. I mean, with these guys even their fingers are leathal weapons. If scenes with blood and slicing and dicing makes you queasy, this may not be for you.
The drama is only 10 episodes long but at 80-90 min each, it felt like watching 10 mini movies. It’s a total feast for the eyes; cinematography to die for and directing that adds layers to it. I often had to pause just to look at a scene, how it was composed and lighted to showcase a part the director wanted us to pay attention to. Well, sometimes hide or obscure things too. The storytelling isn’t always linear and at times it was a bit hard trying to figure out the order of things presented, which may not appeal to everyone. I think it suits the story and adds yet another layer. I loved the use of BGM, all those tonal effects and haunting melodies really added up to the overall feeling of mystery and impending doom. Despite of an opening with a bang, show starts quite lighthearted and even humorous, but as the story progresses it gets darker, quite literally. The colour tones get more cold and muted, and scenes are often set at night, in darkened rooms or it’s raining, with just a spot of bright colour to accentuate it all.
Of Monks and Masters is set in a world of wuxia, so beautifully choregraphed fight scenes and people with superhuman abilties are expected. I guess it’s technically somewhere in ancient China but don’t ask me where or what dynasty, as I don’t have a clue – actually, I read it’s late Song. 🙂 It’s a world with all the common human vices and failings and where violent death is a frequent visitor. Which is why they need the help our ‘super seuth’ HeroMonk Li ShaoBai (lit. Li Lil’ White.) Apparently this is a shoutout to the real Li Bai – the genius drunken poet. Making our Hero a lesser genius, I guess. XD Well, the boy IS smart and knows his way around a crime scene. He is also a shaolin monk, I suppose one of the ‘lay’ brothers who doesn’t live in the monastery, though he did grow up there. He does have the shaolin fighting skills too but is by no means invincible and gets bested several times. There seems to be some mystery in his background and I say ‘seems’ because I’m sure it gets explaned in the end but… no can do Chinese.^^

Our hero has 3 sidekicks who all feature in the cases in varying degrees. We meet all of them in the first episode, aptly called “Murder at the Lending House” and that is where this tale of murder and mayhem begins.
Sidekick nbr one is an imperial official, Detective Dee BaFang. Dee is synonymous to upright detectives of Tang/Song dynasties i.e. Han Chinese legends. BaFang means all direction, implying he is sharp and alert of everything. Mr Detective is the one who gets ShaoBai to assist him on the case and thus is a bickering partnership born. Detective Dee is part of almost all of the cases, though sometimes only in the background. He is an important part of the story and I rather luff his gruff self.

Sidekicks nbr two and three get roped in because they get tangled up in the Lending House murder case.
The seemingly sleazy robin hood, well known in the Jianghu (a fictional society of martial artists in wuxia stories), kungfu master thief is Flying Thief Long Jiu (lit. Nine Dragons). He may not fly but is sure damnably fast, can jump high and scale walls like nothing, LOL!! He’s been described as eccentirc, smart, playful, free and easy.
Feisty lady is Zhao LingEr, word play/same romantization as the well known heroine in Chinese Paladin. She knows her potions and medicinal herbs all right and is also known to use disguises (sometimes to spy on our hero :D). Lady can hold her own in a fight too. There is definately something going on between her and ShaoBai, though it’s not all that explicitly shown to begin with. She has a very important part to play towards the end of the drama.

I pinched parts of the above character descriptions from Mookie – thank you kindly! 😀Besides the main foursome the story presents us with a plethora of interesting characters, both friends and foes, some of them recurring. All the actors do a bang-up job too. The cases are pretty standard fare in any murder mystery but spiced with local lore and myths, and presented in a way that had me glued to the screen.

I ended up screengrabbing the heck out of this one, so… A sample pickspam! 🙂

32 thoughts on “Thoughts on: Of Monks and Masters

  1. Pingback: Drama Grab Bag – A Touch of Drama

    • The ending is kinda ambiguous. Shao Bai “faked” his own death. He turned out to be a better martial artist than his daddy dearest so that he was actually able to survive that hit on his chest. Now all the interested parties believe he’s dead, though I guess the Master of Poisons probably guessed what was going on. The new emperor will also die soon (I think SB somehow knew it was going to happen), so SB will eventually ascend to the throne. He fought hard but in the end came to accept his fate. What we don’t really know is whether SB is still one of the good guys or if he’s crossed over the border now, that is open for interpretation. That’s my take anyway.

      • Thanks. Looking at his look when he laughs/smiles when he wakes up, it seems that he becomes evil. Maybe because he knows that he would be the next king? Too bad that almost half of the series have no English sub (yet).

        • I’ve watched the ending several times, and I’m still of the opinion that it could go either way. He starts out with tears that then turn into that manic laugh, creepy grin and finally a smile that looks genuine and rather mischievous. Great acting there.

          I’m generally not a fan of open or ambiguous endings but this one just fits.

          Yup, it kinda sucks with the subs but I’ll take whatever I can get with this show. Guess I’ll be checking back every once in a while to see if we get another miracle. 🙂

  2. After waiting for some years now for some subs, i have decided to hire a good friend of mine (professional translator and pay for good subs) … the question is, where do i the original subs from the 4 films of the series, that i ”got” online have only internal Korean subs that i don’t know how to extract. And paying for audio to subs is 500 dollar more expensive (timings and so on) than having a Chinese sub file with the timings that just need translation ….
    So, does someone have any kind of subs i can use as a basis for English?

    • Oooh, I’d love to have someone sub this marvellous drama, it’s so worth it!

      All 10 episodes can be found @ YouTube these days you just have to search with the Chinese name 侠僧探案传奇. The videos are hardubbed aka with internal Chinese subs. Here’s a link to one batch. Most of them are pretty newly added 1080p versions too. I think ep 9 and 10 in 1080p can now be found on CCTV6 中国电影频道 CHINA MOVIE OFFICIAL CHANNEL as well.

      Unfortunately I don’t know if hardsubbed YT subtitles can be extracted but maybe your friend can use these videos as a basis. Timing is a pain, I know… but I might be able to help with that if needed.

  3. I have been following your post and comments about this very drama. But I have not been able to lay my hands on it. If it’s available online please where can I download it from? I really would love to to watch it.

    • It’s a great drama allright. 🙂 Just search with the original Chinese name 侠僧探案传奇 at YT and you’ll find several playlists, some even in 720p. Hope that helps.

  4. I just finished Nirvana in Fire and came across this blog trying to find something just as good to watch (stumbling through NiF reviews). But you’re saying this drama will never be subbed? How can this be?!

    • As far as I can tell, it isn’t all that well known within the Chinese speaking viewership either. No buzz probably because it doesn’t have any well-known/popular actors. It also isn’t thematically the type that would draw the crowds. Too realistic perhaps (there’s nothing fairytale like in Monks, more like soul searing), no pretty people and no romance. If you e.g. look through what’s on offer @ Viki, it’s very easy to see why. There has to be enough interest for anyone to take Monks on for subbing. I can’t realistically see that happening. Save for me and Mookie I haven’t seen anyone else mention this drama even in passing. 🙂

      • Hmm that makes sense. But thats why I want to try “of Monks and Masters”!!!! I’ve been looking for something to watch after Nirvana in Fire but all of these other dramas offered on Viki are too “fairy-tale” for my liking like you describe. Aahhhhh…so all hope is lost? I should just forget about this one and move on? I skimmed through some footage after reading some of your comments and honestly it seems like just my cup of tea. /cry

        • Well, I watched it, twice in fact (the last ep more than that) and I don’t understand Chinese myself. I found Monks such a compelling watch and I was totally hooked right from the beginning. NOTHING was going to stop me from going on, not even lack of subs. It’s surprisingly easy to follow regardless. There’s a 2nd post with some tips on how to get more out of it with a little help from my pal Mookie.^^ Throw caution to the winds and just jump in! 😀

  5. Even from mere pictures, I can tell that this must be visually stunning- I am impressed that you managed to figure out so many things, when you stated that you don’t know Chinese at all but I suppose “an image can tell a thousand words” must be the case here! ; p

    If subtitles ever arise for this, hit me up and let me know! I will give it a chance, definitely.

    • It truly is such a total feast for the eyes. And yes, the visual clues are darned good, kudos for the director. I don’t know if you glanced at the other post, but thanks to Mookie’s blog most of the lingeriang questions I had, got answered during the re-watch. 🙂

      I doubt this’ll ever get subs, more’s the pity. No well-known/popular actors and it seems to have flown under the radar in China as well. It isn’t stylisitically nor thematically the type that would draw the crowds. Too realistic in a way, no romance and no fluff.

      • I did and I think I would enjoy it- it’s a pity though, I DO need subs unlike you, loool.
        It’s a shame that it didn’t fly with the audience, maybe a broader recognition would have allowed for it to get picked up for subbing but alas. Well, one can hope!

        Thanks for rec’ing it though! ; )

  6. I am still floored. I am so tempted to hit rewatch right after I finished the last episode, This is almost ‘anti-wuxia’ when it delves deeper into the conflict of good vs evil… what if horrible deeds are required against every fiber of being for a greater good?! What if you have been abiding by an honor code, a moral compass, doing good yet what comes around is shit still hits fan per fate/destiny?!

    I see the ending as darkly optimistic, what glorious manipulations for this ‘flawless’ resolution for the country huh?! If everything could be designed by human effort, there should be a perfectly qualified successor of the throne, but alas, per history records, N Song dynasty was then hit by brutal invasions and natural disasters it never recovered from.

    • And I haven’t been able to push it back from my thoughts all this while. All the seasonal hassle has prevented me from a re-watch. Alas, no time till after the weekend as I’m off to spend the Juletide with family (in half an hour) and won’t be back home before Sunday. I just took a quick peek at your post but can’t comment yet, dang it!

  7. Pingback: The Best and The Worst | mookie

  8. Impressive that you don’t know chinese and still enjoyed this one. Testament to the quality of the production and your incredible ability to adapt and decipher the story. Though I grew up watching my share of wuxia dramas, somehow I’ve lost my interest along the way. But I’ll surely pass it along to family and friends that are really into wuxia. 🙂

    • I guess I’ve been conditioned by watching countless kdramas raw, even when I was a noob and didn’t understand a thing. 🙂 But yeah, the director knows his stuff, so that’s been a major motivator. I haven’t really watched much wuxia but I have a feeling this one is a bit different.

  9. Intriguing! Although, I don’t know if my Chinese is up to scratch to watch this raw 😛 Kudos to you for watching the whole thing and managing to decipher so much without knowing much Chinese at al!! I don’t think I’d have the same determination!

    Do you think this is going to get subbed at all? Or should I put my not-terribly-fluent Chinese to the test? Coz these period dramas use such formal, difficult Chinese, I find that I generally do need subs. The one episode of NIF I watched raw (coz viki wasn’t loading), my brain actually hurt afterwards – I had to work so hard to keep up!! 😛

    On a tangent, I’d always thought that Jianghu wasn’t a society per se, but just a general name for the realm of the pugilistic world. 🙂

    • I think it speaks volumes about the ability of the director to ‘tell’ a story that I got as much out of it as I did. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. 😉 I mostly missed all the philosophical debates, discussions linked to the themes/crimes and whatnot, which would have added yet another layer. This is oddly funny – the episodes are Chinese hardsubbed, so at some point I noticed I’d started to try matching words to the text, without any idea of their meaning, LOL!

      I’d be very surprised if this got subbed. I don’t think the drama is well know within the Chinese speaking viewers either. Give it a go, if I got this much out of it, I’m pretty sure you’ll be allright. The characters are mostly commoners so maybe the language is not as formal. Here, ep 1. Go for it! I dare you. *g*

      As for Jianghu – what I know about wuxia as a genre fits in a thimble, so it’s quite possible I got it wrong. XD Took that piece of info from the Wiki page.

      • You actually tried matching Chinese characters to dialogue?!? Wow. That’s insanely hard, if you don’t know Chinese 😛 It’s the hardest language I know, coz there can be so many characters that look similar. Just the difference of one stroke changes the meaning AND the pronunciation. Even though I took lessons for years, I sometimes had trouble matching characters to dialogue in NIF! XD

        I clicked on E1, and it really does look polished. The tone is so you, I must say! XD When I started the ep, though, I couldn’t get the netizen commentary to go away from my screen. All the large characters floating past made it practically impossible to see what was happening onscreen. 😛 Does that happen with every episode?

        I don’t think I’ll start on this anytime soon though. I realize I’m not ready to let NIF go, and have gone back to E1 😛 Now things in the early eps are clicking into place for me, since they didn’t make much sense to me the first time around when I had no clue who was who and what was what! XD

        • LOL! Yeah, that matching characters thingy was pretty crazy but it’s just what my brain seems to naturally do. Not that it got me anywhere much. XD I doubt I’d ever learn Chinese, written or spoken.

          Re. the ‘floating characters’ – I forgot to warn you about them. At the right side, bottom part of the screen (next to the volume control) is a samall, black ‘speech’ bubble. Click it and the text goes away.

          No worries, take a peek at the ep again when you have time and feel like it. I’m having a hard time letting go of this one, so I get you drift. 🙂 I’ve been scouring the internets for more info on the plot and characters and came across a page with synopsis and episode + character descriptions (very spoilery stuff). It’s in Chinese of course and the google translation is mostly garbage, but I did manage to glean some new insights. I’ll probably edit my post a bit to fit the new info. There was stuff I did not include as I wasn’t exactly sure I’d got it right.

          • Ahh.. thanks for the tip! I was randomly clicking things, & somehow the floating characters stopped floating, but I didn’t remember what I’d done to make them disappear. In fact, I was half convinced that they had disappeared on their own, and that my clicking hadn’t done anything! XD

            Hehe, Google Translate does turn out garbage! Last night my dad was just reminding us of the Google Translate subs he’d gotten on a DVD of Ip Man. Those subs had translated the name Ip Man as Leaf Ask. Coz that’s literally what the characters Ip Man (叶问) mean individually. It was stupidly hysterical trying to watch that show with the Google Translate subs! XD So I can totally imagine what you’re dealing with, in trying to understand those Chinese pages! I can definitely see just HOW much you love this how! 😉

          • Yup, the stuff that comes out of google translate can be hilarious.

            Heh, I guess I’ve become just a bit obsessive. Considering I also run several sentences through an online dictionary (a very good one) and then pieced the translated words together. LOL! Didn’t always work but I did mostly get the gist of it. The things we do for love… as 10cc sung way back when (one of my favourite oldies btw). XD

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