Arang and the Magistrate (아랑사또전) is a 20-episode MBC drama that aired in the fall of 2012. I LOVED the first few episodes. Arang the amnesiac ghost (Shin Min Ah) is an agile imp with absolutely no respect whatsoever for authority – in short, my kind of gal :)
The drama is a sageuk-fantasy fusion – my first. The fantasy element manifests as a whimsical, eclectic melange of religious and folk traditions. Upon a floating island in the clouds, traditional Asian (Yoo Seung Ho) and Greek (Park Joon Gyu) deities play Go (바둑 or baduk in Korean) with the lives of mortals. Yeah, Ingmar Bergman did it first, but did he think to embellish the scene with a flower-backed goat? He did not.
The over and underworlds provide an eye-catching counterpoint to the early Joseon setting, with as much flair for spectacle as a Kpop video. I particularly enjoyed the trip to Heaven via Hell, spread across two episodes and fraught with scenery changes and obstacles so it really felt like a journey. The computer-enhanced natural settings of this passage are among the most imaginative images in the series. Later, there is a memorable vision of eternity for the unrepentant.
The earthly sets were well done. I particularly liked the shaman’s cottage and the abandoned warehouse. Exterior scenes were nicely framed and located. Especially notable are the cliff and cave scenes.
Alas, after this promising start, the script becomes bogged down in its own exposition. The spiritual rules and regulations grow more and more complex, convoluted and inconsistent. This is a common problem for supernaturally-based U.S. dramas after multiple seasons, but surely it could have been avoided for a single-season drama.
Even the earthly rules are warped to fit the plot. An illegitimate son becomes a magistrate. Family members roam free after the family head is arrested for treason. Both are highly unlikely in the Joseon era.
WARNING: RANT AHEAD
There is also a disappointing meekification of Arang, which happens all too often to Kdrama heroines. Her abilities change, but it doesn’t slow her down much. And yet, Eun Oh (Lee Joon Gi) relentlessly and incessantly drags her around by the wrists for the rest of the series.
Since she is fully capable of stopping it, are we supposed to infer that she doesn’t mind? Well, I do. I’m fed up with the man-handling of heroines. ENOUGH, ALREADY! Physical restraint of another is abusive! I don’t know about Korea, but in the U.S. it’s a criminal offense. Being emotional is no excuse.
The 2012 Kdrama Grabby Award goes to… Arang and the Magistrate!
END OF RANT
The main villain (Kang Mun Yeong) is another weakness as the drama progresses. Her evilness is expressed primarily by a lot of head tilting and eye-rolling. It’s not enough. The coldness of the sub-villain (Yeon Woo Jin) is far more chilling. And was it really necessary to throw in an incest reference near the end when they had gotten through 16 episodes without one? Argh.
Although there is a lot of death in Arang and the Magistrate, the violence is relatively muted for sageuk. The featured weapon is a fan rather than a sword. The one exception is Arang, who cannot keep an outfit bloodless for the life of her (pun intended). And speaking of outfits, this series marks the introduction of romantic measurement-taking, the uninjured couple’s answer to romantic bandaging.
The second couple is ably portrayed by Hwang Bo Ra and Kwon Oh Joong (who barely seems to have aged since his somewhat similar role 9 years ago in Damo). Their slapstick interludes are entertaining, and their blushing-teen-like romance is charming, although their intelligence level seems to fluctuate to suit the storyline. As usual, Korean drama does a great job of integrating comic relief with serious themes. Kwon Oh Joong’s bromantic competitiveness for his master’s attention is pretty over the top, but I like to think that’s evidence of a relaxing attitude about same-sex romance.
Although Lee Joon Gi does a respectable job of transforming Eun Oh from cold to warm and indifferent to compassionate, Yeon Woo Jin’s transformation is more riveting, perhaps because he has so much more to come to terms with. His acts have been too extreme for redemption, and yet, in comprehending his own monstrousness and administering his own solution, there is redemption after all. With the even-handedness I love Kdrama for, we see the terrified, starving street kid inside the slick, well-heeled adult.
Our understanding of him builds slowly, as does his understanding of himself. For awhile I was distracted by the resemblance of his hatstring to a necklace I own, but eventually he made me forget that.
The ending of Arang and the Magistrate is something of a compromise, but the script had painted itself into a corner by then, so the options were limited. The wrap-up wasn’t great, but it was good enough, which also sums up my reaction to the series as a whole. If it didn’t fulfill its initial promise, Arang and the Magistrate was nevertheless entertaining, creative and thought-provoking enough to be worth watching.
Holiday Gifts for the Kdrama Heroine