Drama

Currently Watching: Alchemy of Souls

WARNING! May contain minimum spoilers. Episodes covered: 1 to 4. 

ALCHEMY OF SOULS

Country: South Korea

Native Title: 환혼 (Hwanhon)

Genres: Action, Historical, Romance, Fantasy

Episodes: 20

Duration: 1 hr. 20 min.

Airing dates: 18 Jun, 2022 – 21 Aug, 2022

Airs on: Saturday, Sunday

Where to watch:

Trailer: Netflix     |     Drama: Netflix

INTRODUCTION

Because of the numerous characters and places in this drama, I will make it easier for future viewers to introduce a simple layout along the article by connecting the main and significant supporting characters with the place or institution where they belong to. The layout set up the background of the main plot with minimal spoilers. 

Alchemy of Souls (further referred to as AoS) is set in a fictional country called Daeho that does not exist in history or on maps. Long time ago, a super energy from the sky collided with the earth and formed the country that is surrounded by an energy-charged lake, Gyeongcheondaeho. The ones who can control this super energy are called mages (magicians). There are four families of powerful mages in Daeho. 

Upon the opening of the drama, the mages are under threat to be killed by none other than our Female Lead Naksu.

NAKSU/MU DEOK

Jung So Min as Mu Deok

Naksu is a powerful mage and a skilled assassin who has been trained to kill other mages. During a hostile showdown with them, she is gravely injured. To survive, Naksu soul-shifted herself into Mu Deok, a blind country girl who is sold to a brothel. Although she is weak, Jang Uk from the mage family of Jang recognizes Mu Deok as Naksu. He saved Mu Deok by purchasing her to be his servant. Jang Uk then asks Mu Deok to be his secret teacher.

Go Yoon Jung as Naksu

WHAT IS SOUL-SHIFTING? 

In Daeho country, soul-shifting is a high level of magic that allows the soul-shifter to exchange him or herself with a dead body, or a living body, with or without the other party’s consent. Because of the danger of misuse for ill-intentioned purposes, soul-shifting is a forbidden practice in Daeho. In the drama, the practice of manipulating the super energy intending to harm is called sorcery. Despite being illegal, a few mages practice it secretly, including Naksu. There is a lengthy detail with great CGI on the process of soul-shifting shown in episode 1. Unfortunately, I cannot make the GIF on the process for this article since it’s a major spoiler.

The desirable process of soul-shifting is completed with the return of both souls into their respective original bodies. However, the soul-shifting can go wrong, resulting in the soul shifter needing to feed him or herself with the energy of living souls, or the soul shifter will turn into stone. On the left is a non-spoiler GIF on an energy-sucking soul shifter whose only fate is death.

THE FAMILIES OF MAGES

Below are the outlines of the four powerful families of mages in Daeho, each with its respective head of the family, their successors, the entities they own, and other significant characters under their institutions.

The Jang Family of Cheongbugwan

Lee Jae Wook as Jang Uk

Jang Uk is the elegant yet trouble-making young master of the Jang family. He has a tragic backstory, with the entire nation of Daeho whispering about the shocking secret behind his scandalous birth. Upon the birth that caused the death of his mother, his father Jang Kang (Joo Sang Wook) left the family. Jang Kang (left image) is the head of Cheongbugwan, an institution that examines and records astronomical signs. After Jang Kang’s disappearance, the operation of the institution is managed by the deputy head of Cheongbugwan, Jin Mu (Jo Jae Yoon), on the right image.

With the absence of his parents, Jang Uk is brought up together by the magnanimous housekeeper of the Jang family household, Kim Do Ju (Oh Na Ra), and Park Jin, whom I will introduce later. Miss Kim wields significant power over the household. She is neat, proud, and strong-willed, but has a soft spot for Jang Uk. She often clashes with Park Jin for Jang Uk’s interest.

For some reason I cannot spoil you, Jang Uk is prohibited from practicing magic spells. That’s the reason he wants to become Mu Deok’s pupil. She secretly teaches him to be a mage.

The Seo Family of Seohoseong

Hwang Min Hyun as Seo Yul

Seo Yul is the young master of the most reputable noble family of Seo from Seohoseong, the westernmost part of the country. He has been living and studying in Jeongjingak, the top education institution, since he was young. Seo Yul is a genius young man who seems perfect, with nothing missing in literature, personality, and appearance. 

Since the Seo family household is far away in the country, the family is represented by his far relative Dr. Heo Yeom (Lee Do Kyung). Master Heo is the Head of Sejugwon, a top medical institution of Daeho. A wine drinker with a bright personality and a frivolous sense of humor, combined with outstanding healing skills.

The Park Family of Songrim

Yoo  Joon Sang  as Park Jin

Park Jin is the head of Songrim, the largest business enterprise in the country. There are two institutions under Songrim: Jeongjingak, the largest educational institution, and Sejugwon, the top medical institution. Park Jin is a charismatic and righteous leader of Songrim. He is also a good friend of Jang Kang, Jang Uk’s father. Therefore, when Jang Kang left, together with Kim Doo Joo, he raised Jang Uk. He is often troubled by Jang Kang’s conduct that is not up to his expectations.
Since Master Park is single, his nephew Park Dang Gu (Yoo In Soo) is the successor of Songrim. Even though Dang Gu is the sole heir of the top 1 % of the rich, he rather has fun than learn how to take care of the conglomerate.

The Jin Family of Jinyowon

Arin  as Jin Cho Yeon

Young Miss Jin Cho Yeon is the youngest daughter of Jin family. She is a celebrity in the country, with a lovely princess charm and superpower prowess, but actually she is naive with child-like innocence. 
The Jin is a matriarchal family, so the head of the family is the charismatic Lady Jin Ho Kyung (Park Eun Hye), Cho Yeon’s mother. Jinyowon is an institution that is responsible for securing and storing mystical objects of Daeho.

The four young successors of these mage families are the celebrities in the country, and are dubbed as the Four Seasons of Daeho. Jin Cho Yeon has the vitality of spring. Park Dang Gu has the energy of a hot summer. The genius Seol Yul is as noble as the sunset of fall. And lastly, Jang Uk, who is as dazzling as the winter snow.

The Royal Family of Daeho

Shin Seung Ho as Crown Prince Go Won

Crown Prince Go Won is the son of the reigning King Go Soon (left image). The Crown Prince, although he’s aspired to be a generous and wise king, is petty and mischievous.

King Go Soon (Choi Kwang Ilsucceeded his older brother, the childless former King Go Sung on the right (Park Byung Eun), to become king. He is insecure about his position.

Traditionally, the monarch of Daeho and the mages do not go against each other, they coexist peacefully and mind their own business. There is an unspoken rule that they would not waste energy on each other.

A complete character relationship chart is shown below. If you have not watched AoS yet, these relationships may mean nothing to you. Once you watch the early episodes, this chart can either become a spoiler or a tool to help you understand the many characters in this drama. Please use it at your own discretion.

credit: KDrama Commenter

TECHNICALITIES

As I mentioned in the article summary, AoS is an ambitious project of Studio Dragon, South Korea’s leading production house, that filmed this drama. The company spent ₩ 5 billion (≈  USD  3.8 million) to build an open set specifically for filming this drama in Mungyeong, South Korea. The construction transformed the 13,829 square meter total area of an old landfill into Maseong Open Set with 2,298 square meter of 32 buildings. Maseong Open Set will be the filming location of future historical dramas and movies, together with two other established historical sets in the area: Mungyeong Saejae Open Set and Gaeun Open Set (source).

The director of AoS is Park Joon Hwa, who also directed Bring It On, Ghost (2016), Because This Is My First Life (2017), What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim (2018), and Touch Your Heart (2019). Let’s hope that the director did a great job directing this fantasy sageuk, since he’s never directed a historical drama before. 

During a press conference to promote this drama, Director Park mentioned that this drama features the first part of the story, with a second part already in the works (source). The scriptwriters of AoS are the popular duo Hong Jung Eun and Hong Mi Ran, who are not new in writing scripts for several fantasy/supernatural dramas such as My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho (2010), The Master’s Sun (2013), A Korean Odyssey (2017), and Hotel del Luna (2019). Hong Sisters have a tendency to reinterpret history, legends, and fairy tales for their dramas. For the Male Lead character, Jang Uk, it is possible that they were inspired by Korean folktale Lady Dohwa and Bachelor Bihyeong (도화녀비형랑 ) – thank you to Sooyi who pointed this out! I suggest to the readers who haven’t watched the first episode to watch it first, before reading about the legend since it may be a spoiler.

During the discussion about the plot, Director Park and Hong Sisters agree that 20 episodes would not be enough to show the different families, characters, and their development. So prepare for an open ending for the first installment! I just hope if it’s an open ending, it will be a satisfying one.

Now we’re talking about what can the readers expect to see if you are a fan the genres of this drama: action, historical, romance, and fantasy.

ACTION. Since I love the action genre, automatically I look for great choreography of fighting scenes in this drama. You have seen Naksu’s fighting scene in the above GIF. Up to episode 4, I haven’t seen Mu Deok and Jang Uk action scenes yet, since Jang Uk does not learn swordsmanship and Mu Deok still needs to gain her magical power backBelow are non-spoiler fighting scenes of Seo Yul (left image) and Dang Gu (right).


HISTORICAL. Although this is a Korean sageuk, the story isn’t based on any South Korean dynasty, but a hybrid of genres with a unique setting, as promised by Director Park. The production team put great effort into the computer graphics, costumes, hair, makeup, special visual effects, filming locations, and more, to make a fusion Daeho culture. Their hairstyle, for example, we see almost all male characters have modern hairstyles but Park Jin and the royal family members. Their costume is rather simple, except for the Jin Family members and the social butterfly Dang Gu. He’s my favorite supporting character, with his sunshine personality and his dangling earrings! 

ROMANCE. So far, there is no romance yet, since they are in the master-servant and teacher-pupil relationship. I guess it will be a slow burn romance, and it’s hard to tell what kind of romance will happen between the leads. Jang Uk and Mu Deok, although they have a great chemistry, until episode 4 they are more partners-in-crime than a romantic couple. Naksu in Mu Deok’s body is an assassin targeting mages with the illegal power of shape-shifting, and now she is a wanted person. Jang Uk, who hides Mu Deok’s identity, also crosses the line by learning magic without permission. But they have each other’s back, and go the extra mile to support each other to achieve their goals.

I also love their meeting places. Since it has to be done in secret, because of Naksu’s hidden identity, mostly they meet outdoors. Either the places are natural or made-up backgrounds, they were shot with stunning cinematography and setting. The filming crew also took advantage of the breathtaking scenic landscape in Mungyeong, South Korea, where this drama was filmed. Do an internet search of the place and you will agree with what I’m talking about! Right click each image below to view it in a larger size.

FANTASY. Besides action, fantasy is my other favorite genre. In fantasy, the production team has a great deal of creativity beyond logic and realism boundaries to create a magical environment. A good fantasy drama should pay attention to CGI and special visual effects. You have seen the first GIF with the CGI of a mystical beast, and another GIF with the special visual effect of soul-shifting. There are many more scenes with fantastic CGI and special visual effects, mostly dark-themed. But let me show you the bright and cheerful visual effects of the magical Cho Yeon’s home at Jinyowon. This Disney-style setting is my favorite of all places in the drama.

ORIGINAL SOUND TRACK

So far, there are two OST songs being released:

  • “Scars Leave Beautiful Trace” (상처는 아름다운 흔적이) by Car, the Garden (Cha Jung Won) was released on 26 June 2022. 
  • “Aching” (아리운) by Kassy was released on 3 July 2022.

Future releases for Part 1 are from contributing singers: Gummy, Shin Yong Jae, and Jung Se Woon. (thank you, Kathryn_51 for the info!)

CONCLUSION

To close this article, I want to bring up the phenomenon mentioned in my article summary. Phenomenon is a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question. The production company of this drama, Studio Dragon, built a new open site to film AoS and other historical dramas and movies to come. Why did they have to build a new one if two other historical open sites exist in Mungyeong and more around South Korea? My guess is this site was built specifically for the fantasy historical setting, which doesn’t quite follow a specific setting of South Korean dynasties. With the speculation comes anticipation that South Korea will make more competitive fantasy sageuk in the future!

I also think that the distribution of this drama, besides for local consumption through tvN, definitely aims for the international audience by streaming it globally with intelligible subtitles on Netflix. Fantasy genre is quite popular on Netflix, and an added Korean historical flair mixed with other cultural tidbits makes Alchemy of Souls an interesting and entertaining watch for us non-Korean viewers! Give it a try!

  Thank you for reading and happy watching!  

AcknowledgementsThank you to the editors who edited this article. Credits: The images are linked to their sources; otherwise they are taken from the drama page on MDL, screenshots, and tvN Self-made GIFs are taken from the drama scenes.

Edited by: devitto (1st editor)
jung so min
fantasy
sageuk
hong mi ran
hong jung eun
lee jae wook
oh na ra
yoo joon sang
hwang min hyun
alchemy of souls
shin seung ho
park joon hwa

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