Review: Arang Fights Heaven and Hell for a Good Cause (and Saves the Universe)

This review was written for Korean Quarterly and appears in the 1st quarter 2014 issue.

Here is some advice before viewing the fantasy period drama, “Arang and the Magistrate”: let the story unfold like any good ghost story told before a crackling fire on a dark and stormy night, but pay attention! There are hundreds of little plot details that are laid out in each episode. In fact, this drama unfolds like a complex mystery novel, or perhaps a better analogy would be painting a picture. You begin with an initial sketch and the composition is interesting, it tells a story, but as the layers and layers of paint are added the image becomes richer and more nuanced. As each incremental piece of the tale is revealed, you become more and more engaged in it, wanting to know why someone is a particular way and what will happen next… and then bam! You get the answers, and they shock you!

In an opening that is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” in which the reader is told that it’s important to believe that Jacob Marley is dead (or else you won’t believe in the miraculous tale that unfolds), the drama begins with a similar explanation. There is something odd about things these days; the barriers between the living and the dead have altered and now ghosts roam freely amongst the living. Oh, and ghosts have the advantage of being able to see humans but not the other way around. Except for one person, that is: a young man by the name of Eun-oh.

Lee Jun-ki as Eun-oh

Eun-oh, accompanied by his man-servant Dol-sue, are on their way trekking through a gloomy forest to a godforsaken town (rumored to be the hangout of ghosts and bad things) of Miryang on a quest to find his missing mother. Portrayed by Lee Jun-ki, Eun-oh is soon revealed to have the special and unwanted ability to see and communicate with ghosts, and to be an emotionally distant and seemingly unfeeling young man.

Also present in those same woods is a ghost in the form of a young woman; this is Arang. Played by Shin Min-ah, Arang is bold and intrepid and out to punish some fellow ghosts who are out to cut her out of some of the action in robbing some humans. The fight that breaks out, however, attracts the attention of a group of mysterious black-clad figures. These are Reapers; beings from the kingdoms of the afterlife that are there to capture these errant ghosts and return them to their rightful place (most likely in Hell). Arang is more resourceful than the other hapless ghosts; she takes off at a run and is almost cornered by the imposing figure of Reaper Mu-yeong, played by Han Jung-soo. Racing through the forest they cross paths with Eun-oh who does his very best to play it cool and not reveal that he sees what is transpiring. She’s later cornered, but manages to pull a trick out of her pocket (literally) and makes good her escape.

Shin Min-ah as Arang

Eun-oh cannot turn on or off his supernatural ability, much as he would like to do so, but he does a fairly good job at tuning them out and ignoring their importuning ways. Fairly good, that is, until Arang works her way into his space. This occurs in a deserted hut in that same forest where both take shelter and here we get the first example of the sparkling chemistry between Lee and Shin. Lee’s Eun-oh would have to be made of stone to be unaware of Shin’s Arang with each further encounter, but even with the apparent growing interest in her and her story (she is, after all, a ghost and not a real woman, so there are limits), it’s very telling that he never forgets his goal of finding his mother and that Arang is the key piece to that puzzle. He’s not using her, but he does make it clear that he desperately wants to find his mother and nothing will stop him.

Arang’s delight in discovering that Eun-oh can see and hear her is so palpable; you sense the relief she feels at finally having someone with whom she can talk, someone who might have the way to help her. It’s as this gives her more than just a voice, it is a tangible link to her living past, whatever it is, and her mission is to find out what that past was. Who was she? How did she die?

Eun-oh is not inclined to help Arang; he has his own problems as the illegitimate son of a rich and powerful man. He is neither noble, nor a nobody, and his mother is missing. Arang is not about to give up. Through a little manipulation of her own working, she maneuvers things so that Eun-oh is trapped into being the local magistrate. This is not a plum position; magistrates have had a tendency to die after one night on the job and this is, it should be mentioned, a town where bad things happen, in no little part due to the cruel and highhanded ways of the local nobleman Choi (played by Kim Yong-gun) and his dead-eyed son Joo-wal (played by Yun Woo-jin). Eun-oh has never been the helpful sort, so this is not something he’ll just accept. It is not until he spots a unique comb in Arang’s hair that he changes his tune; he gave that comb to his mother just before she disappeared.

Yun Woo-jin as Joo-wal

As the story unfolds, more is revealed about Arang’s identity and her relationship with the inhabitants of the village, particularly Joo-wal. Once one mystery is solved, another equally challenging one surfaces to challenge Arang and Eun-oh.

One aspect of the drama that works particularly well is the way in which it creates this “ghost world” and the world of heaven and hell too, ruled over by the proverbial King of Hell (Hades) and King of Heaven (Great Jade Emperor), and that there is a real sense of rule and order. The twin rulers of the afterlife are played with good humor by veteran actor Park Joon-kyu (Hades) and the much younger Yoo Seung-ho (Great Jade Emperor).  They are shown playing game after game of badeuk, a tile-based game, on a watery board that represents Earth. It’s a game of give-and-take, with Heaven usually triumphing over Hades, but with natural consequences for the humans and spirits on Earth.

So too do the ghosts have certain capabilities and needs; they can push or pull a human but they can’t take things that aren’t left for them. Arang, which is revealed to be a name given to any virgin ghost, much like “Jane Doe,” is part of this hardscrabble afterlife wandering Earth. They fight and scrounge and do their best to be caught up by the Reapers, grim reapers indeed! Once captured by a reaper, they’re off on a short trip to the underworld. Reapers have a defined job description too, and the tools for the job. The most intimidating of these Reapers is Mu-yeong. Even when it seems that these rules may be twisted (but not broken) to suit the players – and by players, one means Hades and Old Jade King – there is a logic to the world created by the drama.

As with most mysteries, particularly those of a supernatural bent, evil is present and must be defeated. This character is represented as Nobleman Choi’s wife, a cold and calculating woman with strange tendencies. The role of Lady Seo is played by Kang Moon-young. Unfortunately, Kang’s portrayal is at times the weakest aspect of “Arang and the Magistrate,” as she has a tendency to overact the role of the villainess.

Arang and Joo-wal

Overall, the sequences throughout the drama in which Arang and Eun-oh develop their relationship to be very satisfying and Shin Min-ah and Lee Jun-ki had a wonderful chemistry as a couple.  Watching the previously uncaring Eun-oh discover that emotional connections have slowly formed within his heart is a beautiful thing in Lee’s performance. Where he has previously shined in action sequences (notably in “Time before Dog and Wolf” and here in “Arang”), and he proves himself to be equally deft in comic portrayals, this is the most subtle and engaging he has been in conveying love. It’s also enjoyable seeing how this changes his character for the better and as a whole gives new meaning to his life overall. As noted, Lee’s skilled in action sequences and in this drama his real life training in the martial arts is revealed. The fight scenes are exceptionally well done and his fellow onscreen combatant and skilled athlete Han Jung-soo (Mu-yeong) praised his efforts highly.

Shin Min-ah is the complete package as Arang. She’s feisty, resourceful, playful, pure-hearted, manipulative, physically fearless, and oh yes, beautiful too. When an actor is so well known for his or her good looks (Shin has had a long career as a commercial spokesperson, especially for cosmetics), the tendency is to take roles that let that attractiveness shine and to do nothing to jeopardize them. In “Arang and the Magistrate,” Shin engages in fisticuffs with other ghosts, tussles with the baddest ghost reaper fearlessly, and let’s herself in for mud and grime without a second thought. She is also delightful as an amnesiac ghost, learning how to put her fears aside, cope, and “own” her own destiny. A ghost does what she has to do to get by!

Eun-oh roped into role as Magistrate

In discussions with other viewers, there was some argument about her character’s progress in the later episodes as she searches for clues to her past. The very take-charge, fearless Arang seems to take a bit of a more passive stance in her pursuit of facts, but it seems that this is fairly true to her ghostly character. She’s “lived” by her wits as a ghost, accumulating some hard knocks along the way, so it seems that this is her approach to things: she observes the status quo, and then waits for intuition or inspiration to strike. Arang needs the help of the worldly Eun-oh, but she’s also not had anyone to trust for a long time so even if she does instinctively trust him, telling him things (like what she plans to do) to advance the investigation wouldn’t come naturally to her.

Yun Woo-jin’s performance as Joo-wal is also compelling; it’s quite a different turn from his brash mak-nae in the drama “Ojakkgyo Brothers” and indicates a promising career ahead for him. The dead look in his eyes conveys perfectly the depths of despair and soullessness to which Joo-wal has stooped. His story in the drama is one that is one that will pull in the devotee of supernatural tales. It is nicely counterbalanced by the character of Mu-yeong. Both characters are doomed to perform their tasks by their ties to a woman and the way they struggle with their actions in their respective roles is an interesting comparative story arc.

Equally gratifying and most amusing was the very earthy relationship that develops between the supporting characters of Dol-sue, Eun-oh’s extremely loyal and sometimes dim manservant, played by Kwon Oh-jung,  and the local medium who can’t see ghosts (though she hears them just fine) Bang-wool, played by Hwang Bo-ra. They add a touch of humor to the story when it needs lightening and they are helpful sidekicks who provide the right amount of aide to the lead couple.

Arang and the Magistrate

The drama would have benefited either from a bit of story pruning or some additional clarifying information at one point late in the story, with the introduction of a sequence that introduces Eun-oh’s father to the story, but in spite of that this is a fascinating story with plenty of clever twists and turns. It’s also worth mentioning that the visual effects and general direction of the drama, including its visual style, is of fine quality.

And if you haven’t yet arranged a cozy chair by a fireplace (real or virtual), do so now. Then sit back and get ready to enjoy the fascinating, mysterious, and ghostly world of “Arang and the Magistrate!”

Watch the drama on licensed streaming sites like Dramafever.com

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