Updated: Oct 3, 2022
The Hong sisters' 20-episode tvN/Netflix historical fantasy romance k-drama Alchemy of Souls Part 1 (2022) follows the adventures of the unskilled heir Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook, Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol), and his unlikely master Mu-deok (Jung So-min, Because This Is My First Life). Their lives become intertwined because of the “alchemy of souls,” a forbidden spell that enables souls to switch bodies.
Directed by Park Joon-hwa (Because This Is My First Life), the series has been in the Netflix most watched non-English TV series global top five for nine consecutive weeks.
Set in the fictional nation of Daeho in a mythical period, Alchemy of Souls Part 1 tells the story of the smart troublemaker Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook) and his mysterious master disguised as his servant, Mu-deok (Jung So-min). As Daeho surrounds the mystical Lake Gyeongcheondaeho, which contains heaven’s element-transforming energy, people have tried to control its power. Those who succeed are called "mages," and they comprise the “nobility” in Daeho.
After Uk is born, his mother dies, and his mage father Jang Gang (Joo Sang-wook, Good Doctor) does a series of seemingly unconscionable deeds—he closes his son's gate of energy, disowns Uk, and abandons both his family and his duties as leader of Cheonbugwan. Twenty years later, a dangerous encounter with Songrim leader Park Jin (Yoo Jun-sang, The Uncanny Counter) and other mages forces the deadly assassin Naksu (Go Yoon-jung, Sweet Home) to perform the forbidden soul-switching spell, the “alchemy of souls." However, her soul ends up in the weak body of a poor woman named Mu-deok. Suddenly powerless, she is then sold to the Chwiseonru courtesan house and meets Uk. Recognizing something different about Mu-deok and being unable to learn spells from his previous teachers, Uk asks Mu-deok to be his master, in exchange for his protection as a young master of the Jang family.
Can Uk shield Mu-deok from her enemies? Will Mu-deok unlock Uk’s gate of energy and his potential as a mage? Together, can they protect their loved ones from the forces of evil threatening to destroy Daeho?
Scriptwriters Hong Mi-ran and Hong Jung-eun (Hotel Del Luna) have created an astonishing mythical universe free from the demands of accuracy in depicting ancient Korea. They have created a k-drama that slices through several genres: fantasy, romance, historical, comedy, drama, suspense, adventure, and even some action, but they still manage to weave the non-linear scenes into an epic and coherent narrative—one that would probably be remembered for years to come.
While I support accurate historical representation, I welcome period dramas with less discrimination. Choosing a fresh set of socio-cultural norms allows the characters to be less enslaved to classism and sexism. For example, Mu-deok can interact freely with Uk, Yul (Hwang Min-hyun, Live On), and Crown Prince Go Won (Shin Seung-ho, D.P.) without being beheaded for mocking them. Uk’s foster mother, Maidservant Kim Dong-joo (Oh Na-ra, SKY Castle), discusses matters concerning the Jang family with Park Jin, Uk’s father figure. The clincher: The highly influential Jin clan is matriarchal and led by a powerful priestess.
With Director Park Joon-hwa at the helm, the cast did a superb job of bringing the characters to life (see diagram of settings and characters). Jung So-min deserves to receive a Baeksang Best Actress nomination (I will protest if she doesn't!) for effortlessly switching personalities between the servile Mu-deok and the ruthless Naksu. Lee Jae-wook had amazing chemistry with Jung So-min and effectively depicted his growth as a mage. I could also understand how Naksu’s icy heart could melt at the sight of Hwang Min-hyun's pining as Yul, one of the most skilled mages of Songrim. The veteran actors certainly played up the palpable tension between good, evil, and everything in between.
Studio Dragon and High Quality invested USD 3.7 million to build a 13,829-sq-m filming set in Maseong-myeon, Mungyeong City, contributing to the stunning cinematography: the canals give the fictional city center a Venice-like romantic vibe and the bridges above the canals make the love confessions even more memorable. At another drama location, the towering tree (Mt. Seongheungsan Love Tree which was also in Hotel Del Luna) where the young Yul (Moon Sung-hyun, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha) gives his bird whistle to the young Naksu (Gu Yu-jung) provides an ethereal feel. While not perfect, the computer-generated imagery (CGI) gives a magnificent rendition of Jang Gang’s alchemy of souls, Naksu’s wuxia-like battle with Park Jin, and the power of the ice stone among others.
Finally, the music beautifully amplifies the impact of the scenes. The ending theme “Scars Leave Beautiful Trace” by Car, the garden (the same artist behind the hit Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha track “Romantic Sunday”) wonderfully marks the final scene of each episode. Jeong Se-woon's lullaby “Just Watching You” captures Yul’s longing for his first love and may as well be the latest unrequited love anthem. The ballads “Raindrops” by the multi-awarded singer Gummy and “Breath” by the prolific singer Kim Na-young also set the right mood for Mu-deok and Uk's scenes. And playing Oh My Girl’s “Nonstop” traditional version to fit the period is daebak!
Despite the unexpected ending, I look forward to Part 2, Alchemy of Souls: Light and Shadow, airing in December. I hope it answers my burning questions and shows more fight scenes involving Naksu and Cho-yeon (Oh My Girl’s Arin).
A few viewers have noted some elements that parallel those of the worlds of Harry Potter, Naruto, etc. This is probably because Alchemy of Souls encapsulates universal themes such as perseverance despite crippling circumstances, the destruction that follows human greed, and the different manifestations of love—subjects that have been at the center of the universal human experience.
Available on Netflix, 20 episodes