Hello and welcome to Subtext, a new irregular column looking at the hidden gems among the foreign language shows and movies available on streaming services. On the 18th of June, a show will arrive on Netflix that promises to be one of those hidden gems. It’s called Alchemy of Souls, a Korean drama about magic, possession, love and sorrow. Details are scant, the cast a mix of new and familiar faces to K-Drama fans. So why are we so hyped for it? Because it’s the latest story to come from the pen of the incomparable Hong sisters. To explain why that matters to me, I want to tell you about four of my favourite TV shows. But first…
Who are the Hong Sisters?
Hong Jung-eun and Hong Mi-ran began working as screenwriters for South Korean variety shows in the early 2000s (with Mi-ran also working as a script editor for Dalryeora Oleomma, a drama about three middle-aged women who were in a gang together as teens). Their first script was for Sassy Girl Chun-hyang, a modern-day romantic comedy based on an old Korean folk tale. Good word of mouth about the show meant that from episode five it jumped from near the bottom of the ratings to the top, and it stayed there for the rest of the season. It was a genuine phenomenon, and is still the most successful show they’ve ever done. They followed it up with My Girl (which was almost as successful), Couple Or Trouble (loosely based on the Goldie Hawn/Kurt Russell vehicle Overboard), and Hong Gil-dong (a period piece about a medieval Korean folk hero). You’re Beautiful, from 2009, is the earliest of their shows available on Netflix and is about a girl who has to secretly take her twin brother’s place in a hit boy band (and the hijinks that inevitably follow). Then in 2010 they ventured into fantasy for the first time.
My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho (2010)
Sometimes localised as “My Girlfriend Is A Nine-Tailed Fox”, this drama is best known as an early role of South Korean superstar Lee Seung-gi. He plays a young student actor called Cha Dae-Woong who inadvertently releases a gumiho (a nine-tailed fox spirit) who had been imprisoned in a painting for five hundred years. When Dae-Woong suffers a fatal accident fleeing the scene, the fox spirit saves him by giving him a piece of her life force. This binds them together, with the initial premise of the show being a supernatural fish out of water scenario. The fox spirit “Mi-ho” (played by Shin Min-a, star of last year’s mega-hit “Hometown-Cha-Cha-Cha”) initially terrifies Dae-Woong, but her innocent naivete (combined with the powers of her spirit allowing him to become an action movie star) win him over. This was where the Hong sisters honed the structure they would perfect for their dramas. The first half is light-hearted escapades, allowing the audience to bond with the characters – making it hit all the more when dramatic tension rises and tragedy strikes in the second half. As a result while the series hovered around the middle of the ratings for most of its run the last four episodes rose right to the top of the charts, and the show won six awards at the SBS Media Awards.
Master’s Sun (2013)
The Hong sisters followed up with The Greatest Love which also rose from a slow start to wind up topping the ratings for its final few episodes. So when their next show Big (a bodyswap comedy very loosely inspired by the 1988 movie) had a mediocre start they were not too worried. However in that case the numbers failed to improve, and the ending of the series proved to be extremely unpopular among the people who did watch. They needed a big success to revitalise their career, and it’s fair to say that with Master’s Sun they succeeded.
The central idea of someone who can see ghosts is a common one in Korean drama, but Master’s Sun does a great job of showing how this “gift” makes life unbearable for Tae Gong-shil (played by Gong Hyo-jin, one of the leads from The Greatest Love). Her life takes a turn when she accidentally meets the rich but very grumpy young Joo Joong-won (played by So Ji-sub) and finds out that when he touches her all the ghosts flee from around them, giving her peace. Once convinced of her powers he agrees to take her on as an assistant, hoping she will help him solve a mystery related to his dead ex-girlfriend who was involved in a tragic incident in his youth. The result is a romantic drama that takes both comic and extremely tragic turns, with a final episode that is so perfect it’s still one of my favourite episodes of TV that I’ve ever seen. It was justifiably a major hit and marked the second high point of the sisters’ career.
A Korean Odyssey (2018)
Their next show, Warm and Cozy, sadly did not do so well. A modern story about a big city executive who moves to a rural island, it completely failed to find an audience and languished at the bottom of the ratings. A Korean Odyssey, seemed like a much safer bet though. Lee Seung-gi (now an even bigger star than he had been in 2010) reunited with the sisters to play Son Oh-gong, a character based on the legendary Chinese Monkey King Sun Wukong. Rising star Oh Yeon-Seo was cast as the protagonist Jin Seon-mi, another woman who can see ghosts but who has managed to use it to become rich as an estate agent selling formerly haunted homes. Rounding out the cast is veteran actor Cha Seung-won as a famous talent agency CEO who is actually a benevolent demon king, and K-Pop star Lee Hong-gi as K-Pop star (and secret demon) PK. All of these characters (drawn from the famous ancient Chinese novel “Journey To The West”) are caught up in a tangle of destiny, magic, romance and tragedy.
Fan interest in Lee Seung-gi’s first show after his mandatory military service helped the show to start out with the top rating in its timeslot, and the quality of the show helped to keep it there for 19 of its 20 episodes. This was despite its share of troubles – the second episode was delayed due to issues with its CGI, a staff member was injured in an accident, and the sisters were sued for plagiarism due to alleged similarity to a popular web novel. (The case was ruled in the sisters’ favour, with the similarities being dismissed as due to the shared inspiration.) Most notably though this was their breakthrough hit internationally on Netflix, with the show’s simultaneous transmission and high level of promotion part of a general push of Korean drama on the platform. Despite this (and perhaps because of the controversy) the show was notably absent from the awards that season, and the perception of it within Korea was that it was a misfire.
Hotel del Luna (2019)
Undeterred, the Hong sisters moved on to the third of their ghost dramas, Hotel del Luna. Based on an unused idea for The Master’s Sun, from the beginning it’s clear that this cable drama is a much higher budget and higher production value show than any they had done before. The opening sequence shows the heroine Jang Man-wol transporting a coffin through the wilderness, cut and battered from some battle, in search of the Guest House of the Moon. She is played by Lee Ji-eun, better known as IU, a singer and actress who is one of the highest earning celebrities in South Korea. After an encounter with a mysterious old woman and a flashback where she shows off her swordfighting skills, she reaches the end of her journey. The action then leaps forward 1300 years to (almost) the present day, where a man (played by veteran actor Oh Ji-ho) fleeing his debtors stumbles (apparently by coincidence) into a mysterious hotel full of ghosts. In order to be allowed to leave and return to his infant son, he makes a deal that when the boy is grown he will serve the mistress of the hotel (who is, of course, Jang Man-wol). Twenty years later his son Gu Chan-sang (played by former child actor turned leading man Yeo Jin-goo) is called on to fulfil that debt.
Hotel del Luna was a major success, topping the cable viewership throughout its run and being the most popular show on its network for the year. Its soundtrack was singled out for special praise (unsurprising, given IU’s involvement) and won several awards. In fact a musical based on the show is already in the works (along with an American remake of the series). For some reason the release of the show in English was delayed but it eventually arrived on Netflix in the summer of 2020, giving Hong Sisters fans something to be cheerful about in a depressing time.
Fortunately, there will be no such long wait for their next work. Alchemy of Souls is premiering on cable in Korea on the 18th June and being simulcast on Netflix the same day. The historical fantasy series promises to be like nothing the sisters have created before, and I for one can’t wait to see what they’ve got in store for us this time.