Review: A Korean Odyssey

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Do we need another version of Journey to the West? We’ve already had the Japanese TV series Monkey! (exclamation mark damn well included), the massively cool anime series Saiyuki, The Monkey King, and numerous other versions of the 16th century Chinese story about Great Sage Equal Of Heaven, otherwise known as the Monkey King.

And my answer is yes, gentle reader, we absolutely do. We need this particular version because we need the mesmerising Son O-gong that only Lee Seung-gi could give us.

Lee brings this character to life. Yes, he was engaging in My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho, and convincing in You’re All Surrounded. But he really shines as Son O-gong, Great Sage Equal Of Heaven. It’s a difficult role – too far one way and you get an overblown caricature, too far the other and you get a cardboard cut-out. But Lee is ideally cast here: fresh out of military service, this older Lee is leaner, meaner, and more dangerously attractive – he’s effortlessly credible as the Great Sage who can declare love in one breath and an intent to eat the heroine in the next.

Lee’s Son O-gong is the quintessential Bad Boy, but he’s leashed, firstly by a promise made to the child Jin Seon-mi/Samjang (Oh Yeon-seo), and then by the Geum-gang-go, a magical bracelet that the adult Jin Seon-mi uses to bind him to obey her, not knowing that it will make him fall in love with her.

As love stories go, the one within this series has to be the most painfully fraught of any I’ve seen. Writing duo the Hong sisters have crafted a relationship with conflict and heartbreak built in – a nice contrast to the contrived conflict we see so often. Declarations of love are all very well, but when they’re followed by a bland statement that removal of the bracelet will mean the end of the love, that’s bound to put a damper on things. And discovering that your supposed beloved has a fridge full of sauce he’s made for when he kills and eats you would cool even the most passionate woman’s ardour.

But it’s not all ill-fated love and seasonings, because that would be boring. What we get is something more like a symphony, with episodic stories, the development of several individual character threads, and a grand over-arching storyline. The writers deserve credit here for creating a series that’s totally binge-worthy – this is one that will keep you up late, as you “just want to see what happens next”. Among the things that happen next are the revenge of a mermaid (fairy tales aren’t nice, folks), a dancing zombie, and the summoning of a dragon (not as cute as kids’ movies suggest).

One really annoying feature is the insistence on conflating love with beauty: Jin Seon-mi repeatedly asks Son O-gong if he thinks she’s pretty, as if that’s equivalent to love, and that really grinds my gears. But that’s about my only complaint – everything else is pretty damn good. Performances are great across the board, with special guernseys going to Cha Seung-won (Devil King Woo) for being larger than life, and to Oh Yeon-seo (Jin Seon-mi/Samjang) for giving her character enough fire to match Lee Seung-gi’s mercurial Son O-gong.

Do we need it? Yes, damn it, we absolutely do.

You’ll find MVs for 3 songs from the OST here.

TV drama – 20 episodes

Alison blogs at Still Just Alison, where she writes about Korean drama, movies, music, and, very occasionally, things that aren’t Korean. But only occasionally.

9 yellow umbrellas out of 10.
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