Ever wanted to see another culture take on the ever so familiar High Fantasy genre? Wonder what those trappings may look like when a completely different culture gives it their own spin? What would become of elves, unicorns, mermaids, magic, etc?

Well, now you can.

幻城 (literally “Imagined Cities”, but more commonly titled “Ice Fantasy” in English) is a Chinese tv series[1] that really feels like the production team has been huffing all the most popular fantasy that the Anglosphere has to offer and remixed it all into its own strange, derivative yet unique series.

I mean, a glance at the sets and costumes puts one in mind of Lord of the Rings[2], with more than a dash of World of Warcraft thrown in. Unicorns and mermaids and winged lions abound. The Ice Prince, Ka Suo, has an air of Legolas about him as he strides forth with his white braided wig, pointy ears and silver circlet. The Healer tribe is reminiscent of Lothlorien and other forest-based elves. There’s an old woman with a nest on her head who’s a little Movie!Radagast. The characters communicate via messenger owl (a very distinctly Hedwig-like snowy owl makes an appearance) but instead of carrying letters, they seem to just magically record the speaker’s voice.

Others have thought the aggressive Fire Elves[3] attacking the Ice Elves as the base plot seems ripped straight from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but I’m inclinded to believe it to be taking the Song of Ice and Fire quite literally.

Despite the unmistakable sheen of CG on everything[4], it’s still quite pretty and I do recommend dipping into it for the visuals alone. It’s not just fantasy influences; cherry blossoms are a recurring addition to the sumptuous sets. There are interesting weapons (chain whips and dagger pistols) aplenty as well as wire-fu and other wuxia staples such as pressure point paralyzation.

But more than that, I promised you that there is a certain unique flavour to the proceedings and there very much is. Imagined Cities doesn’t attempt any sort of ambitious world building with its setup, yet the King of the Ice Elves has a Queen and Concubine. This goes by without explanation and it’s very much this moment of Chinese culture and history seeping in at the edges. Why, of course, a monarch has a queen and concubine! That’s just how monarchies work[5].

The gods imbibe the scent of flowers to sustain themselves, which is very much in keeping with the fact that Chinese spirits are sustained by incense. The healers in the tribe of healers, despite the Lothlorian-look all speak fluent Chinese traditional medicine. Also notable is the race of mermaids (yes, there are mermaids) being all unsteady on their feet until they marry, giving the princess an excuse to be a romcom heroine klutz all over the place.

In episode five, there is this beautiful moment where a bridal procession appears and it is pitch perfect traditional Chinese bridal procession (sedan chair, banners, music, etc) but with the colours and shapes slightly shifted. The cultural shorthand at work is striking, especially amid all the obviously western fantasy influences. Just as something made in the Anglosphere would keep the trappings of presiding authority figure (oft religious) and an exchange of vows & tokens (oft rings) for a wedding, here the shorthand is different.

That feeling of familiar-yet-not comes into play as the series draws from this compeltely different tradition of tropes for many of its characters and subplots. Recognisable stock characters from wuxia appear including the disposable bandits, idiot guards and pale-robed scholars. Plot-destined lovers suffer through a protracted seemingly non-diegetic gaze into each other’s eyes as a romantic pop song plays and the camera swooshes around them.

That all said, it’s not what one might call well written. It’s beautiful, full of bonkers characters, elaborate backstory and moments of brilliant ridiculousness[6], but the acting is just really stilted (one might charitably term it stylized) and it is full of odd musical choices.

Almost every scene runs long (it is 63 episodes, after all, and even then there are so jarringly stark cuts that speak of missing plot beats). The humour can also be strange, to say the least and the tone can shift from dramatic to ridiculous so fast as to give you whiplash[7].

And that’s it. You might find it a worthy distraction, you might not. You probably won’t want to watch all of it.

If you want to see more promotional stills, there’s this pinterest for more pictures. Or you can just google “Ice Fantasy”, there are some amazing promotional images.

The series itself is all over the internet, but I’m given to understand it’s even on Netflix. It’s really quite long, at 62 episodes, but the episodic plot goes by quite quickly.

[1] It’s apparently based on a serialised novel by Guo Jingming, who also has a teen pop career as well as being something of a film director. Often named as most hated male celebrity by internet forums, I sort of like to imagine him as Christopher Paolini crossed with Justin Bieber. But much more prolific.

[2] Their team has also just hired Dan Hennah, the production designer of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. So he is cribbing off himself, but he’s also worked on King Kong, The Water Horse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, etc that doesn’t look like this. So this is all very intentional derivation.

[3] They’re termed “gods” in much of the dialogue, but translations have also rendered them “immortals.” But really, they’re kinda elfin.

[4] For those unaware, the Chinese Emperors are infamous for their many wives and concubines.

[5] There is an unintentionally humorous moment there when it cuts to the long-suffering unicorn.

[6] Someone clearly thought Legolas shield-surfing is the best thing, and, well, you’ll see…

[7] Chinese tv serials have a habit of injecting “romantic” “tension” “humour” at the strangest times, so the music cue will go all comedic even as the protagonists are running for their lives and Ha! Now they have to pretend to be a couple! In Bed! Embarassment! Shenanigans!