Subtext | Supernatural Guardians

Supernatural creatures walk among us, or at least in some TV shows they do. Bringing the fantastic into the modern world is a popular genre these days. We’ve touched on it many times before, such as when we looked at the Jeoseung Saja. A frequent figure in these shows are those who stand between the monsters in the dark and the innocent humans of the world. Sometimes they’re supernatural creatures themselves, sometimes they are mortals gifted with extraordinary abilities. Either way they make for great viewing.

Scene from The Devil Punisher

The Devil Punisher (2020)

The idea of an afterlife bureaucracy is common in a lot of Asian cosmologies, but it’s always fun to see it show up in a modernised form. Meng Po (played by Shao Yu-Wei, better known as Ivy Shao) is one of those bureaucrats. Her job is to brew the tea that allows the dead to forget their previous life and its woes before they reincarnate. She also works as a clerk, where the other afterlife staff tease her for her budding relationship with Zhong Kui (played by Mike He), the “devil punisher” of the title. His job is to bring back evil souls who have escaped into the mortal world, but a mishap while transporting one results in an explosion that creates a tear between worlds. Despite his attempts to save her, Meng Po is sucked into the tear and awakens in the mortal world with no memories. Now Zhong Kui has to find her, figure out what actually caused the explosion, deal with the evil spirits that escaped, and take on a second career as a baker into the bargain.

This Taiwanese show draws deeply on Chinese mythology. Most notably, Zhong Kui is a genuine Taoist deity who acts as a guardian against evil spirits. As with a lot of Taoist deities he was born a human, a scholar who achieved the top rank on the imperial examinations but was denied the honors of that rank by the emperor because he was disfigured. Enraged by this he killed himself in front of the royal palace. He was condemned to hell by the grudge he bore, but the god of death recognised his talent and offered him the role of guardian. Meng Po is also based on a deity, who brews the five-flavored soup of forgetfulness that allows souls to reincarnate without memories. She’s a little more obscure than Zhong Kui, though the 2018 film Manjusaka (a spinoff from the popular Ferryman series) was centred around the character. Zhong Kui, of course, has a laundry list of films and TV shows about him.

It’s safe to say this Taiwanese supernatural rom-com doesn’t take itself too seriously, though it’s nowhere near as zany as the KO One series. It does have one familiar face from those shows though. Chen Bo Jang, who plays Dong Zhou in K.O.3an Guo and various roles in other installments, plays one of Zhong Kui’s assistants, a bat spirit. Like most of the supporting cast he has a lot of fun with his role. Most notable is Amanda Chou, who chews up the scenery as Zhong Kui’s ice queen boss. This show is enjoyable, though the pace slows down and it drags a lot after the first few episodes. It does pick back up near the end though to deliver some payoffs that surprised me. Whether you can stick with it until then is up to you.

Scene from The School Nurse Files

The School Nurse Files (2020)

There are a lot of Korean shows about people with the ability to see ghosts. The School Nurse Files isn’t one of them. At least, not quite. Ahn Eun-young doesn’t see spirits, but she does see “emotional energy”, which sometimes takes the form of the dead when it’s tied to their strong feelings. More commonly she sees this energy in the form of “jellies”, strange little creatures made out of goo. Seeing this energy allows her to destroy it if it is causing problems, an ability she manages through combining the practices of different religions, and absorbing the energy from shrines. This ability manifests with the use of a glowing toy sword, a small toy pistol, and various other contraptions. At the advice of a friend she’s become the school nurse at a high school with something nasty in the basement and a connection to a disturbingly cheerful cult. In order to deal with these problems, she teams up with teacher Hong In-pyo, who has his own mysterious power and link to the school.

Ahn Eun-young is played by Jung Yu-mi, an award-winning actress who you might recognise as the pregnant lady in Train To Busan. She’s got a reputation for playing odd and quirky characters, so this show fits right into that. Hong In-pyo is played by Nam Joo-hyuk, a former model turned romantic lead. One very familiar face in the supporting cast is Go Youn-jung, who would go on to play Naksu in Alchemy of Souls. The story is based on a novel by Chung Serang. While most of her work hasn’t been translated to English, this year she wrote the episode “Journey To The Dark Head” for the second season of Star Wars: Visions. She’s also credited as the co-writer for this series, alongside director Lee Kyung-mi. Lee is much better known as a film director, and this series seems a long way from her most famous work (the award-winning political thriller The Truth Beneath), but her experience in building tension through the mundane is perfect for a show where emotion is such a factor.

The School Nurse Files is a really good series. It’s short, at only six episodes, but that just means it doesn’t outstay its welcome. The concept is fun and original, combining elements of eastern and western mythology. (The core conceit, for example, is based on the western spiritualist notion of “ectoplasm”: spiritual energy given physical shape as a strange gooey substance.) When so many series seem to revolve around the same plots it’s nice to see something a bit different. If you’re in the mood for some urban fantasy monster hunting shenanigans, I recommend checking it out.

All images via IMDB.