Thursday, November 1, 2012

Drama Review: Arang and the Magistrate (2012)

Grade: A-

Supernatural fusion sageuk

What it’s about
In the Joseon era, a memory-less ghost and wayward young nobleman cope with a host of supernatural beings while working together to solve the mysteries that are key in each of their lives.

First impression
Bright, beautiful, and crisply written, Arang and the Magistrate might just be the sageuk I’ve been dreaming of—one that’s serious without being boring, and lighthearted without being stupid. Let’s see how long the charm of its pretty sets and prettier cast will last.

Final verdict
I’ve been burned by fusion sageuks a lot more than I’ve been satisfied by them. For every carnival of delights like Sungkyunkwan Scandal, there seem to be a football stadium’s worth of over-the-top train wrecks. Two of these duds almost convinced me to give up on the genre altogether: the shallow still-life that was The Moon that Embraces the Sun, and the low-rent Iljimae, a drama characterized by cartoony characters doing cartoony things, like occasionally bursting into fits of Hong-Kong style violence.

And then there’s Arang and the Magistrate, a gorgeous, lavishly imagined piece of worldbuilding with only one major flaw: it slightly overstays its welcome. Had this show been compressed into 16 episodes, it would have benefited from jettisoning some useless characters and repetitive plot twists. But Arang still has a lot to offer—it’s a charming love story, a spooky murder mystery, and a silly comedy all rolled into one. Its expansive world ranges from the gates of Hell to the misty flowerbeds of Heaven, and everywhere in between.

Most impressive is the show’s ability to balance the emotional heft of traditional sageuks and the cheerful impossibilities of the fusion genre. It manages tonal shift after tonal shift with aplomb, somehow making flower-growing goats, death angels, killer fairies, and earth-bound courtly intrigues all coexist in one diverting world.

As far as I’m concerned, the story’s one real weak spot is its development of the character of Arang. As the series progressed, the plot’s focus moved away from Arang to the male lead. In the meanwhile, she changed from the spunky, take-no-prisoners ghost of the first few episodes to a passive MacGuffin with little to offer as a human being. Even at her most sketchily drawn, though, Arang’s emotions ring true, in spite of the fantastical improbability of the things that inspire them.

Although they travel through fantasy landscapes that are part myth and part magic, Arang’s leads still deal with issues of life and afterlife in a compellingly earnest, believable way. A perfect, goose-bumpy fit for the Halloween season, this show is just what I wanted it to be: a transporting sageuk that never commits the crime of taking itself too seriously.

Random thoughts
• While it’s certainly possible to enjoy Arang as a Westerner without a lot of knowledge about Asian culture and history, I suspect that its multi-layered world is full of in-jokes that I didn’t really get. I can’t quite find the dividing line between whole-cloth invention and things that might based in long-standing tradition: The Jade King is certainly a “real” mythological figure, and those beans that ghosts are so afraid of bring to mind the Japanese holiday of Setsubun. But the blooming goat? The peach-blossom injuries? I’m not so sure.

Episode 1. The most unbelievably supernatural thing in this drama so far? Lee Joon Ki’s bone structure.

Episode 3. The Christian view of the afterlife is certainly not all puppies and rainbows, but this concept of hungry ghosts is really upsetting. Especially when it’s happening to cute-as-a-button Shin Min Ah in what’s supposed to be a romantic comedy. With foundations like this, no wonder Asian cultures seem to be having a harder time accepting homosexuality. If you die without children, your afterlife is a horror show.

Episode 4. The theology in this show is fascinating—from this episode’s creation myth to the duality it establishes between creation and destruction. That’s not really an understanding we have in the West: if you’re a religious person, there’s pretty much one God and you need to believe that he’s responsible for everything that seems good and everything that seems evil. Of course, you might argue that a lot of that evil is a result of the free will we treasure so much. I wonder how Asian tradition deals with the concept of fate versus self-determination?

Episode 11. Props to this show for making Arang a ballsy character, but guess what’s not at all hot? Kissing someone who’s unconscious on the lips.

Episode 14. I’m always amused by how they style characters in these fusion sageuks. When historical accuracy is barely even on a show’s radar, they feel free to do things like leave bright red dye-jobs peeking out from under period wigs, cast actors with obviously pierced ears, and slather on the ivory-toned makeup. Now that Drama Fever has high-def options, this stuff is all the more obvious: Every time Shin Min Ah is shown from the back, you can see that her ears and neck are about four shades darker than the foundation they’ve used on her face.

Episode 19. In the Drama Fever subs, they keep referencing the Styx River and the word Abracadabra, both of which are associated with Greco-Roman traditions, not Eastern ones. Is this a case of Drama Fever overcompensating by targeting their translations toward North American viewers, or does the show really use these words? It is fusion, after all—anything goes.

Episode 20. Finally, Kdrama zombies! Huzzah!

Watch it

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Tamra, the Island, for its silly sageuk fun


  1. I'm tempted to finish this sometime. It officially went onto my "On Hold" list some time ago, but I'm not sure if it's because I just didn't like it, or I was never in the mood for it, or because it happened to coincide with DramaFever's new updated viewing system, which for some reason never seems to want to load as fast as it used to, and getting freeze frames every few minutes whilst watching Arang started to annoy me too much.. Perhaps this winter break I'll give it another chance.

    1. If you're in the mood for it (as I clearly was), Arang is great fun.

      And speaking of great fun...I just read your new article at My Drama List. The marathon/currently airing dilemma haunts me, for just the reasons you mentioned. At this point, I think a mix of the two styles is best: you get the feeling of completion when you wrap up a marathoned drama, but having an ongoing drama or two in the mix helps stave off the "What do I do with my life now?" feeling when you finish something good.

    2. That's sort of what I'm saving Spring Waltz for.. Some niice, rainy day where I'll have 0 chances of being distracted. :) (Hope I get the opportunity soon!)

  2. I never got around to reviewing this (I will eventually), but I totally agree. It was a really beautifully done drama with one major flaw, Arang's lack of depth as a character. But the rest of it was so good to me that I didn't even care, I really enjoyed it from beginning to end. One of its strengths was a musical soundtrack that actually not only made sense with the scenes, but heightened the emotional charge of the moment.

    1. I just started watching Faith, and it really makes me appreciate how great Arang really was ;) It was lush and beautiful and had a strong storyline from beginning to end. The music sometimes struck me as a little weird, I have to say—I get that it's a fusion, but rap during the fight scenes? Really?

    2. Oh I forgot about the rap. Yeah that was a little awkward, but I was more referring to the instrumental track.

      Yeah I am watching Faith right at this moment and wishing I could get more into it...

  3. If only Arang stayed a sassy character until the end, I would vote for her to stay with Jade Emperor and she would make a good arguing partner for him ,along with Hades.

    I actually stopped watching around episode 10 because of the slow development (and real life commitments butting in) but soon picked it up again because of the pretty. Or maybe I just loved Eun oh and Arang too much to let them go just like that.

    I actually agree with the awkward music,but some of the instrumental ones are good! Worth keeping and listening to them once in a while :)

    Regarding the peach blossom injuries, I was curious about that too and got myself Googling about it. Here's what I wrote in one of my recaps:

    "This is just a random tidbit: I was curious why Arang was so scared of the peach Eun oh offered to her and I looked around for the explanation. Peach is the fruit that symbolizes longevity and and immortality, hence it’s a strong ghost repellent. Not just the fruit, even the tree is effective in chasing away the ghosts and wandering souls. So that explains why Arang and Moo young were hurt even by the small peach blossoms."

    sorry for the long comment ^^;

  4. I watched Arang and the Magistrate with more of a grimace than a smile most of the time. I'm just not a sci-fi type, I guess. I loved Park Min Ah in My Girlfriend is a Nine Tailed Fox/Guminho, which is pretty out there too but that was more animalistic rather than supernatural. To each his own....

    1. Elaine, I loved My Girlfriend is a Gumiho too, but I didn't love Arang and the Magistrate. I wanted to love it but I couldn't even finish it, and I do like sci-fi. But I think My Girlfriend is a Gumiho was just more romantic (which is my type of thing), where Arang was more of a murder mystery with a side of romance. I also don't like the bickering type of "romances", and for me, there was too much bickering in the episodes I did see of Arang (at least on the hero's side. I didn't like his attitude). I really appreciated My Girlfriend is a Gumiho for the lack of bickering. Most people seem to love this drama and I was beginning to think I was the only one who didn't. -Lora

    2. Me too. I read all the glowing reviews of Arang and the Magistrate but found that I couldn't really get into the plot, it felt lacking to me somehow. I guess I'm the more romance and less suspense type.

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