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March 17, 2012

Hon | Soul - mid-series Korean drama review

Soul, aka Hon (혼), Possessed, and Ghost, is a 10-episode 2009 MBC Korean drama series. Since I’m on a Lee Seo Jin kick, it was a natural choice for my next drama (on DramaFever it’s called Soul). I couldn’t wait to see what Korean drama did with the horror format.

After 5 episodes, I can report that there are plenty of horror staples in Soul – angry dead people with zombie make-up and gravity-defying locomotion, lots and lots of blood, baby-faced psychopaths, mirror tricks, innocents in white and villains in black, and, making a late entrance, religious references.

For the first couple of episodes, I wasn’t sure I’d continue watching. From the opening scene, the story is disjointed, leaping from dream to hallucination to reality (or is it?), and across multiple, seemingly unconnected storylines. The timeline jumps around too – flashbacks, flash forwards, alternate timelines, you name it. We are never quite sure who is who, or what is what.

I wondered whether the multi-episode drama form could sustain the customary horror tension over such a span. It does, not only with the non-sequential elements mentioned above, but through a pervasive sense of isolation and alienation. Although Soul is set in an urban environment, the streets are often curiously empty, or when there are bystanders to witness abnormal behavior, they glance and move on. Authorities are conspicuously absent.

I was initially unimpressed with Lee Seo Jin in his role as a renowned forensic psychologist. After LSJ, self-loathing vampire, and LSJ, self-reforming gangster/lover, LSJ as a successful professional seemed superficial, too normal. I actually thought his ability to delve into inner conflict was wasted. Hah! By episode 5, I was ROFL at the irony of my earlier impression. This may be his most twisted character yet. Whereas the vampire and the gangster knew they had issues, and were inspired to confront them when an innocent was endangered, this LSJ has a different reaction to “purity,” as he calls it, and justifies to himself some very immoral and unethical behavior indeed. Watch out, LSJ – don’t become that which you seek to destroy!

And yet, the morality of this series is complicated, and that is really what it has to offer. It tackles issues like the boundary between mental illness and spiritual experience, between law and justice, and most importantly, between growth and innate personality. It’s no accident that of the several Korean words that translate as “soul,” “hon” refers to “inner character.”

So it won’t surprise you to hear that Soul is not light entertainment. I’m not sure it’s entertainment at all. But if you are interested in Korean culture, or in what makes people tick (or both), you will find it fascinating. One character says to LSJ, “The world is a giant mental hospital. No one’s sane. There’s no need to be smug about being less mad.” As the series progresses, we’re not at all sure that LSJ IS less mad. But how sane is it to let monsters walk the streets?

There’s no genre like horror to reveal a culture’s collective subconscious, and Korea clearly has some major guilt about prospering on the ashes of unavenged ancestors, and similarly neglecting present-day victims. So far, neither law nor vigilantism is a satisfactory solution. Will Hon offer us a third path? Stay tuned. (Review Pt. 2)

P.S. – Note to Lee Jin: when your BF gives you a demonstration on helplessness by holding a knife to your throat, RUN! Don’t EVER come back! Seriously, girl!

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