ONCE UPON A TIME IN MIRYANG
The daughter to the magistrate, Arang (Shin Min Ah), is viciously murdered and she returns from the dead as a ghost to discover how she died. She enlists the help of many Miryang magistrates but when she appears before them they all die of fright. Until she meets a young magistrate, Eun Oh (Lee Jun Ki), who has the ability to communicate with the dead. She convinces him to help her investigate and punish the person responsible for her death.
What’s interesting about the folktale is that we know a great deal about Arang but not much is said about the magistrate. Before the drama started airing, the producers informed viewers that they would be veering off from the original tale to create their own story. There are many supernatural elements at play which weaves so well with the original tale.
Recently, Wednesdays and Thursday nights have been a battle between Jun Ki versus Joong Ki. Since Arang and the Magistrate came first, I always ended up watching this drama the day of and saving the Nice Guy episodes so I could watch them back to back on Fridays. This is my first time watching Lee Jun Ki in a drama and despite his young looking face (even though he’s not really that young), he can certainly hold his own as the lead in a project. Eun Oh is such a strong character and Lee Jun Ki has this gravitas in his voice which is really effective in playing Eun Oh well.
If Eun Oh is the character that grounds the drama, Arang is the character to give it a flight of fancy. I think I really, really enjoy seeing Shin Min Ah play these off-the-beat folktale characters. From Gumiho to Arang, there is something about Shin Min Ah that makes imaginative characters come alive and 3-dimensional. She can be funny and overly naïve and yet really bring a lot of depth to her characters. They always seem to come from this place of innocent wonder. Unlike in The Devil where she was a bit unmemorable for me compared to Joo Ji Hoon and Uhm Tae Woong.
Just like Eun Oh’s mother (Kang Moon Young), Joo Wal exposes his weakness so openly that Moo Yeon was able to manipulate him.
In Joo Wal’s case, he just wanted to love and be loved and I grew to pity his character who didn’t have anyone. Sure, Eun Oh had a hard life but he always seemed to have the backing of his noble father, even if it was from a distance.
From a greater distance, there is the Great Jade Emperor (Yoo Seung Ho) and King of the Underworld (Park Joon Gyu) debating and wagering on the choices humans will/may make. While the humans and other supernatural beings are the heart of this drama, these two are the brains of the drama.
They look down on the humans, calculate and it would seem that their plotting resembling moving people like chess pieces on a board. Though they have seemed cold at times and lacked understanding of the human heart even if they respected it, from their station they are looking at the bigger picture and discussing what those implications might mean in terms of keeping the world balanced. It’s not often done so well or as visually, like the use of the game of go.
Speaking of the visuals, the drama’s cinematography, set design and costumes added a vivid and often vibrant layer to the drama. We got to see the human world, the world in between and the other world. With all of the little details in each of these worlds, it completely immersed you into the setting on many different levels. You got to know the lore, the character’s personalities and feel the expanse of the universe and it enhances how you view the drama.
On the other hand, I did find the OST problematic at times. You had your traditional K-drama/sageuk music, you had your score and then you had, what I like to call, experimental tracks. I like all the songs individually. Within the individual segments, the way they used the song was also interesting. However, you don’t watch a drama in pieces. There has to be a consistent flow to it.
I love MC Sniper’s “탈춤 (Masked Dance)” for the hip hop elements and I even loved hearing it being used in conjunction with a sageuk drama but the way it was edited into the show was a bit jarring. If the score was done with these disparate genres in mind, then perhaps a smooth transition could have made it work. However, it distracted me from watching the fight scenes and brought the song into the forefront. I strongly feel that music should not be the star of a television show. It should only be there to enhance the emotions.
MC Sniper – 탈춤 (Masked Dance)
Then, there was “신기루 (Mirage)” by Yoo Seung Chan which is a lovely jazzy number. I’ll confess that I don’t remember hearing this in the drama so maybe that’s a good thing because while the words seems to fit the subject matter of the drama, the tune was a puzzling choice. But like I said, I do love the soundtrack and both songs are still playing on my current playlist.
Yoo Seung Chan – 신기루 (Mirage)
As it is often something that remains in people’s memories, it is also important how you leave things off in a drama. There are times when I feel a drama cops out as it resorts to rescuing our hero and heroine at the last possible moment after finding a loophole. The gods present a challenge to Eun Oh and Arang and although they can act out of free will there are rules that need to enforced. There are so many dramas that throw the rules out the window in order to give audiences their happy ending. Then, what was the point of all the struggling if it doesn’t matter anymore? This drama stuck to its guns and yet was able to make me feel satisfied.
Overall, I really loved the drama and especially the ethereal feel to it. It seems like this drama will remain with me like a good ‘ol fairy tale. It contains the warmth and charm of your average romantic K-Drama but there were also some life lessons and thought-provoking philosophical debates that still remain with me. We got to see issues involving life, death, the afterlife and rebirth all rolled into one.