Exploring Korean Drama: Arang and the Magistrate

arang and the magistrate poster

One thing I love that I’ve never gotten from kdramas is a rich fantasy world.  I’ve seen dramas with fantastical elements — My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, Faith, Queen In Hyun’s Man — but aside from the parts that technically put them in the genre, they’re more or less set in the real world.  It’s something that I don’t get much on television at all, and it makes me sad.

Until Arang and the Magistrate.  Oh, Arang, I love you.  Thank you.  You might not have been a perfect drama, and some parts might have lagged, but you gave me something that’s so rare on TV, especially in dramaland: a lush, detailed, beautiful historical fantasy world.  For that, I’ll be forever grateful.

eun oh and arang in a fieldArang and the Magistrate stars Shin Min Ah, who’s apparently trying to corner the market on adorable supernatural beings (she played the titular Gumiho), and Lee Jun Ki as Arang, an amnesiac ghost, and Kim Eun Oh, a man who can see ghosts.  Arang just wants to find out who murdered her.  Eun Oh just wants to locate his missing mother.  Eun Oh doesn’t want to help Arang at first — he’s spent his whole life pestered by ghosts asking favors — but then he notices that Arang holds a clue to his mother’s whereabouts: she has the hairpin he had engraved especially for his mother.  If it’s in her possession as a ghost, that means she had it on her when she died.

Thus Arang is many things: a murder mystery, a missing persons mystery, a ghost story, a fantasy, and a romance.  At the end of the day it’s a fantasy first of all.  This is a world with gods and demons, heaven and hell, ghosts and reapers, shamans and spells and talismans.  Yes, much of the drama takes place in a historical village in Joseon Korea, but the characters still live in a fantastical world.

Everything that happens has been influenced by the forces of heaven and hell.  They’re not locked in a constant struggle between good and evil; rather, they’re the two halves that make up a whole: balance and order, yin and yang.  In each episode, we visit the Jade Emperor and his brother the King of the Underworld.  The Jade Emperor cares for the Earth, which appears as a garden on the back of a lamb, to which he tends.  The King of the Underworld sends out his Reapers to round up any ghosts that cause too much trouble on Earth.  They play go, and their moves determine the fates of mortals and other inhabitants of the Earth.

The cinematography on Arang is stunning, especially in the fantasy world scenes.  We get the gorgeous back drops of Heaven and the somber halls of the Underworld in nearly every episode.  Other times we see the River Styx, and the swirling vortex that plunges its voyagers into the Underworld.  Maybe it’s a bit green-screen at times, but I appreciate the effort.  Even when they weren’t perfect, the special effects still served to deepen the show’s mythology, and most of the time it avoided needing to employ computer graphics.

The Jade Emperor, The Lord of the Underworld, and an angel, in Heaven.

The Jade Emperor, The Lord of the Underworld, and an angel, in Heaven.

That mythology is what Arang serves first and foremost.  Any questions that you might have — why doesn’t Arang remember her life, why can Euh Oh see ghosts — are all answered, and those answers have to do with the overall mythology and plot of the series.  Those two questions are actually some of the only that are left until the end to answer: most other mysteries, such as who killed Arang and what happened to Eun Oh’s mother, are answered before too long. 

Arang doesn’t drag much out; most questions are answered not too long after they’re raised.  Then they’re replaced by other questions.  Every mystery serves only to further deepen the overarching story and mythology of the show.   Everything was clearly plotted out from the beginning.  Yes, the series gets bogged down in earthly political machinations a bit toward the end, but even that is a way of wrapping up all of the story threads.  It’s rare to see a kdrama with such a tight, preconceived plot; the only other one that comes to mind is City Hunter.

The other elements in Arang are strong as well.  The romance is cute, with a delicious slow burn at the beginning.  Again, I have to praise the cinematography; it’s really one of the best-shot kdramas I’ve ever seen.  The humorous moments peppered throughout the show are genuinely funny.  But I keep coming back to the fantasy/mythology, because that’s the show’s driving force, and it’s what makes it so unique and fantastic.

Reapers chase down ghosts that cause disruption on Earth.

Reapers chase down ghosts that cause disruption on Earth.

Arang plays with the question of what it means to be human.  All of its messages and themes are self-contained, played with only within the context of the world of the show, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting or meaningful.  We see the Jade Emperor and Lord of the Underworld playing with people and events on Earth as pieces on their go board, but that doesn’t mean that everything that happens has been dictated by higher powers.

The gods can only maneuver humans into certain positions, and give them tools and knowledge.  What the human does is up to that person alone.  That ability to choose, and to feel emotions, is what makes life worth living.  If it weren’t for that, the grubby, difficult life on Earth would seem like a terrible alternative to the bucolic paradise of Heaven, and yet, Arang convinces us why characters would keep making the decision to remain on Earth rather than in heaven.

In fact, the series’ villain is motivated by just that fact.  She’s struggling to stay on Earth because while the alternatives might seem better to humans, they were worse to her.  Only humans on Earth have the freedom to really feel and revel in their emotions, as well as to dictate their fates.  It’s not hard to tell why someone might be corrupted by the desire to feel, but in her quest the villain has killed too many people; she’s too far gone for redemption.

arang and eun oh by the lakeEven so, I like how the show makes us feel for all of its characters, even the most evil ones.  No one slots easily into a “good” or “evil” role.  We understand everyone’s motivations and feel for them at some point, despite the fact that later we might lose that sympathy for certain characters.  One of the very last scenes even made me feel a pang for the one guy I unequivocally hated the whole way through.  Because that’s life: it’s complicated, most people have complex motivations for doing many of the things that they do, and we can find the good, or at least the sympathetic, in just about anyone.

I’ve heard Arang described as the most underrated drama of 2012.  I can’t speak to that, because I don’t know what ratings it received in Korea.  Though I can’t say I’d be surprised if it didn’t do well; most fantasies don’t on television.  It certainly deserves to be popular and well known, because it’s a bold, fantastical, rich gem of a kdrama.

Kdrama tropes to watch out for: Noble idiocy.  It doesn’t get dragged out for more than an episode, but what Arang tries to do to supposedly help Eun Oh is just so dumb that it’s annoying nonetheless.

Tags: ,