Alchemy of Souls (2022) First Impressions
In a world that’s neither Goryeo, Joseon nor modern day South Korea the alchemy of souls is a spell or technique that facilitates body swapping between two souls. Like everything that’s strictly forbidden, there are always unpleasant consequences when offending parties transgress the bounds of The Laws of Magic. A child is born as a result but instead of doing right by him and raising him properly, the adults who are responsible for him do the most *facepalm* irresponsible things and tell him all kinds of lies in the name protecting him as well as in the hope of averting a future catastrophe. Although he was conceived through a mage’s body, he is no son of a mage but the progeny of a king whose soul was inhabiting the mage’s body at the time of copulation — a predicament that requires a bit of mental of gymnastics. Let’s say it’s a McGuffin. Still has no one read Sophocles’ Oedipus or Oedipus Rex? Or even seen the Frozen movie? Probably not. More’s the pity. Every strategy is counterproductive and obviously calculated to lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unless of course love finds a way to defy the cruel hand of fate. *rolls eyes* It has to be love because 5 episodes later, I’m not really sure why else Mu Deok is in the story. Apart from playing nursemaid, de facto naggy mother and love interest, her role is almost entirely to create problems for Jang Uk which a well-written villain could do just as well. She is written almost like Oh Young-seo’s character in Cafe Minamdang. By causing problems for him the leads get closer, rely on each other and then hopefully around Episode 15 finally realise their feelings for each other and kiss.
If you haven’t already worked it out, I already have mixed feelings about this one.
As a longtime wuxia fan, Alchemy of Souls is an entertaining enough piece of fantasy with obvious nods to the genre but ultimately it’s far too nonsensical and fillery for there to be much substance. On top of that, the humour doesn’t really land for me. It worries me that this is a 20 episode drama, a discovery I made only after the second episode and it occurred to me even then that there’s not really enough to this story that suggests a compelling reason for 20 episodes, much less a second series.
The first episode was undeniably fantastic with some of the best special effects I’ve ever seen in an Asian drama that money can buy. It’s not Sam Raimi’s Multiverse Madness but it’s pretty darn good for television. The introduction to the world building is breathtaking and the fight sequences are clearly among the best in a K drama. There’s no doubting the quality of the production and the action set pieces particularly featuring swordfights. It’s a veritable visual feast and the cinematography especially of location shoots is excellent.
On the other hand the performances to be honest, varies. Jung So-min who plays Mu Deok is a definitely a standout. I’ve always liked her even in the very mediocre adaptation of Playful Kiss and she does her best with what she’s been handed. Lee Jae-uk is new to me but I’m not especially wowed by his performance yet. He does what he has to. Oddly enough I like how the character of Yul is written but the actor doesn’t have much of a repertoire to show off. Most of the actors even the ones I respect don’t feel to be at their best. Part of the problem in this regard really boils down to the writing and the other part the direction.
To put it kindly the writing is uneven. Even as a homage, it selects salient aspects of the wuxia genre without really understanding what holds them together. For instance the script takes shortcuts like the Frozen premise to avoid having to go deep with the world-building about The Rules. Then the utter stupidity of Jang Kang (Joo Sang-wook) sealing the boy’s gate of life and then abandoning the boy to the charge of others as if that is some kind of solution to a problem he helped to create. All that’s somewhat forgivable if the characters had more layers to them rather than just playing roles to push the narrative forward. It demeans and dehumanizes the characters and I’m not at all fond of this type of writing. The cracks begin to show particularly in the writing of Naksu who we are informed is a well-trained assassin, highly skilled and efficient. If we are ever tempted to forget after watching her pigheaded antics, she’s always happy to brag about who she used to be. As a former assassin in someone else’s body, she doesn’t adapt as readily to her new circumstances as one might expect. It feels like she’s not only swapped bodies but had a brain transplant as well. There were a number of occasions when it would have been expedient for her to accommodate Jang Uk’s terms but instead she’s silly about going her own way. She lacks discretion. This doesn’t reflect well on her character or on the writing which is so forceful about making the romance the centrepiece.
A lot of what I’ve seen so far reminds me of aspects of The Condor Trilogy probably the best known old school wuxia franchise which features a male lead who at the start of the story knows practically little to no martial arts but picks up from various experts along the way and ends up becoming the most powerful pugilist in the martial arts world. I could be wrong but I imagine that this is the trope that they’re going for. In fact I think this particular narrative in broad strokes reminds me most of the second of the trilogy, Return of the Condor Heroes (my least favourite) where the male lead is despised by the martial arts community because of his parentage, meets a mysterious woman who becomes his teacher and then lover.
Obviously the show is going for what plenty of C and K dramas go for and that’s the time immemorial debate around fatalism and self-determination. That was certainly a feature of Love Like the Galaxy too but in this instance the foundations are shakier than the final moments before the collapse of a Jenga structure.
It’s watchable if you’re willing to go along with the set-up without too much of a quibble but I can’t say that it rates highly among the K dramas I’ve seen this year.