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.
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! 🙂