Happy New Year, and welcome to our Best of 2022 list. Or at least, our best “things I watched and haven’t already covered” list. There were a few good shows (like Tomorrow) that came out in 2022 and that we’ve already talked about. And there are some great-looking shows I haven’t had a chance to watch yet (Troll and Kleo both look pretty promising). That aside, these are the four titles that spoke to me in 2022 above all the rest. Each of these is not just among the best things I watched this year – they’re among my best ever. 2022 was a stellar year, and here’s the four stars that shone the brightest for me.
Alchemy of Souls
The much-anticipated show that inspired the very first Subtext column finally arrived on our screen this June. A new drama by Hong Jung-eun and Hong Mi-ran (the Hong Sisters) was here. And, unlike our year-long wait for Hotel del Luna, this time it was going to be broadcast worldwide by Netflix simultaneously with its Korean release. Part 1 (the first 20 episodes) was released from June to August, and part 2 (the final ten episodes) began in December, with the Korean release imposing a weekly schedule that still feels a little unnatural for Netflix.
Alchemy of Souls takes place in Daeho – a country that, the introduction assures us, “does not exist”. (It is fairly similar to Joseon-era Korea, though.) The kingdom of Daeho is arranged around a lake filled with magical energy, and Daeho itself is a country of mages. The show opens with a dramatic magical sword duel on the frozen lake, where the assassin Naksu (Go Yoon-jung) is wounded in a battle with the mages of Songrim. She flees into the city, and when she realises she is cornered she uses the “alchemy of souls” to shift her spirit into the body of a nearby blind girl, Mu-Deok (Jung So-min). This allows her to escape her pursuers, but she finds out that this new body is physically weak and unable to use her magic. Through an accident she encounters Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook). Uk is the son of the kingdom’s former royal head mage, although we (unlike him) know that the alchemy of souls played a role in his birth. All he knows is that his father sealed his ability to use magic before going into exile, and every mage in the kingdom is too scared to teach him. The two form an unlikely pact: Mu-deok will teach him magic, and he will help her to regain her own powers – and to avoid the fate of a “soul-shifter”: running wild before turning to stone.
So, the question is: did it live up the hype? Two episodes from the end, the answer is a definite yes. The writing and the world-building are all the best that the sisters have ever produced. The acting is stellar. Jung Soo-min is the most experienced of the main cast, and was previously best known for her lead role in Because This Is My First Life (a very different story also about two people put into the role of a couple by chance). That also shared a director with Alchemy of Souls – Park Joon-hwa, who also directed one of my favourite shows that isn’t on Netflix any more: Bring It On, Ghost. As for Lee Jae-wook, this is his only his second leading role but I doubt it’ll be his last. Alchemy of Souls has been the most popular show in its prime time slot every single week, and it’s tied for the most popular Korean drama show broadcast on Netflix in 2022. (It was equalled by Our Blues, an ensemble romance drama set on Jeju Island. Both were beaten by reality dating show I Am Solo, which isn’t available here.) The final two episodes of Alchemy of Souls air on January 7th and 8th, so it remains to be seen if the Hong Sisters can top the finale of The Master’s Sun (still my favourite episode of anything ever). But even if they fail to clear that high bar, this will still be the best show the Hong Sisters have created so far. Now we get to see what they do next.
Another new show from creators we’ve seen before, this time Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar. The head writer and director of Dark had a tough act to follow, since that German time travel mystery had been their first major international hit. (They had previously co-created hacker movie Who Am I?, but that didn’t make an impact outside of Germany.) How did they chose to follow it up? By making something truly international, a multi-lingual story of crossing the Atlantic by steam-ship to America. Hearing Spanish, French, German, English and even Mandarin in the same show gave it a uniquely realistic character for such a very strange tale.
The passengers and crew are on board the Kerberos, an ominously named liner travelling from Southampton to New York. Four months earlier, their sister ship the Prometheus had vanished on the same route. Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham), a doctor haunted by nightmares, is on the ship after receiving a postcard from her missing brother that made her think he was on the Prometheus. She’s not the only one on board with secrets, of course. In fact it soon becomes clear that everyone on the ship has their own story, and the ship itself is not without mysteries. And that’s all before the ship receives a mysterious transmission that seems to be coming from the missing Prometheus.
1899 is an ensemble piece, and the creators have taken advantage of the international nature of the show to assemble a collection of talents from across Europe. You may recognise Emily Beecham from Into The Badlands or Andreas Pietschmann from Dark, but there are few distractingly familiar faces here. On the other hand, I fully expect to see many of this cast on my screen in starring roles for years to come. (Including a great turn from Gabby Wong, who we interviewed recently.) 1899 is a different show from Dark – more forward in its strangeness, but just as well-constructed with its mystery. I’m looking forward to seeing where season 2 takes us.
Edit: The day before this post went up, Friese and bo Odar announced via Instagram that Netflix had decided not to continue with seasons 2 and 3 of 1899. Needless to say I’m a bit annoyed by that, since I really wanted to see where the story went.
Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean
This one may stretch the boundaries of a “2022 show”, since the first third was released in 2021, but since the second and third parts dropped in 2022 I’ve decided to allow it. Stone Ocean is the anime adaptation of the sixth arc of the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure manga created by Hirohiko Araki. He began the series in 1987 with a Victorian-era story of Jonathan Joestar (“Jojo”) fighting vampires. The second arc told the story of Jonathan’s grandson, and so the series continued. Only the adaptations of the first three arcs are also on Netflix (the fourth and fifth are on anime streaming site Crunchyroll), but that’s more than enough to give you the backstory for Stone Ocean.
The protagonist of Stone Ocean is another Jojo: Jolyne Cujoh, daughter of the protagonist of the third arc. The series begins with her being sentenced to fifteen years in prison after being unjustly convicted of vehicular manslaughter. She is sent to Green Dolphin Street Prison (the “Stone Ocean” of the title) but not before her mother gives her a pendant that her father left with them. This pendant unlocks a mysterious power within Jolyne, which she’s going to need to survive. Because it turns out to be no coincidence that her father’s daughter was sent to Green Dolphin Street.
There’s a running joke among Jojo fans that the show is impossible to spoil, because of how strange moments sound out of context. So if I tell you that one fight ends with a triumphant revelation about air pressure, that at one point an entire city starts turning into snails, or that the entire plot revolves around magical CD-Roms; well, none of that really explains anything. What I can tell you is that Stone Ocean is a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, filled with larger than life characters, spectacularly animated battles, and a perfectly timed soundtrack. It’s my favourite instalment in one of my favourite anime series. And I’m looking forward to seeing what this studio does with Steel Ball Run.
“Superhero historical fiction” was not a genre I thought I needed in my life, but after watching RRR I’m genuinely baffled why we don’t get more movies like this. RRR (the initials stand for “Rise. Roar. Revolt.”) tells the story of two historical Indian revolutionaries. Both of these men were active at the same time but who (as far as we know) never met in real life, forging a friendship in their younger days. This is not history as it actually was, but it is history as we feel it should have been – iconic, larger than life, great clashing forces. It feels like the relationship between the Illiad and the real Trojan War. Director S. S. Rajamouli has said that one of his inspirations was the moment in Inglourious Basterds where the film departs from historical reality in a shocking and extremely gratifying fashion. (No spoilers, but if you’ve seen the film…you know what I’m talking about.) RRR feels like those emotions across an entire movie, and right up until the final confrontation it was still surprising me with its daring.
The first of the revolutionaries introduced is Alluri Sitarama Raju (played by Ram Charan), who waged a guerrilla war against the British occupation between 1922 and 1924. Because of his name he was associated with the Indian demigod Rama, something the film really enjoys playing with. The other is Komaram Bheem (played by N. T. Rama Rao Jr), a leader of the Gond tribes. The tribal people were brutally oppressed under British rule, and Bheem led a revolt against them between 1928 and 1940. His motto was Jal, Jangal, Zameen (Water, Forest, Land), which the movie also weaves into its symbolism. Both men are stars, and the rest of the film’s cast are equally accomplished. In particular it was great to see Ajay Devgn (lead of The Legend of Bhagat Singh, which I’ll tell you about in 2023) back again as Rama’s father, still flying the flag of revolution twenty years later.
With a budget of 5.5 billion rupees (550 crore in the Indian counting system, equal to about $72 million dollars) RRR is the most expensive film India has ever made. Despite that it looks even better than you’d expect, matching Hollywood films with four times the budget. Rajamouli has been making films for twenty years, with his previous being the two-part epic Baahubali, but RRR is his first to explode into the international mainstream. Whether his next film is the sequel he has teased, or something entirely new, it’s likely it’ll get a lot more attention.
So that was 2022. As I said, I know I missed some potential gems, and hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with them in 2023. Either way, I look forward to seeing you then.
Images via IMDB