The allure of fairy tales and fantasy media hinges on the promise of escapism. In order to sustain the viewer, you must sustain the myth, the magic. Netflix’s Korean drama Alchemy of Souls, in its pursuit to achieve the same, creates an intricate drama that relishes in providing more comfort than intrigue.
Divided into two parts, Alchemy of Souls cannot be slotted purely into a single genre. With both parts totalling up to 30 episodes, each spanning more than an hour, the show packs in a long Ferris wheel ride, moving along the different emotional (and magical) subplots it has to offer. In wanting to fill this mammoth of screentime, the show desires to achieve a balancing act between two heavy plots — ill-fated romance and a fantasy political thriller.
Written by the Hong sisters, who have previously worked on other fantasy K-dramas such as Hotel Del Luna, the story takes place in Daeho, “a place that does not exist in both history books or maps,” and the mages that live there. Deriving their magical abilities from the elements that surround, the mages of Daeho must abide by one crucial rule: not using their skills to shift souls from one body to another, also known as ‘alchemy of souls’.
In the first part, which aired in June 2022, an infamous assassin Nak-su (Go Youn-jung) performs this spell to transfer her soul into that of a blind orphan Mu-deok (Jung So-min), to escape capture. A chance encounter with Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook), heir to one of the four major magical dynasties and one who is unable to channel his abilities, renders her a master (to Jang Uk who threatens to expose her sorcery if she doesn’t teach him magic) and a servant (as a cover for giving Jang Uk lessons). The next 20 episodes chronicle this dynamic, as Mu-deok and Jang Uk deal with royal and fantastical messes. However, to fulfil this show’s primary premise of romance, each subplot is set up to eventually conclude in a way that brings them closer or pushes them further apart. In doing so, it stumbles in executing the parallelly running high-fantasy plot, which doesn’t fit in organically with its romantic beats.
It weakens its magic by introducing too many elements, not all of which have a meaningful contribution to justify their screentime. The audience is also not entirely motivated to keep a track of the new episodic additions because each of these are repeatedly re-introduced through heavy exposition.
Alchemy of Souls: Light and Shadow (Korean)
The second part of the show, which began airing on December 10, 2022, comprises half the number of episodes and is instantaneously far sharper in its narrative than its predecessor. Set three years after the cliffhanger ending, the writing of the second instalment does a significantly better job of tying its more human elements to its fantastical ones. Jang Uk, now in possession of the ice stone, has become a revered hunter of those who practices soul shifting. Meanwhile, Nak-su undergoes her own resurrection from the dead. While the larger theme continues to be Jang Uk and Nak-su’s romance, which has always stood at a moral crossroads, the use of magic to hold up cliched themes of romantic longing (star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity, memory loss, and so on) makes it a much more compelling follow-up.
The show, therefore, particularly reaches its peak when it uses its magic to alleviate human drama, keeping the magic inherent to the actions, consequences, and emotions. The second instalment also improves in its characterisations. While of course when a show has spent 20 episodes with a character, they are bound to feel lived in. But this time, their choices match up with the information we have on them. Nak-su, in the first part, was a fierce assassin, who had grown up in the wilderness and was reviled by Daeho’s mages. However, once she shifts her soul into the frail body of Mu-deok, frailty seeps into the writing of the character as well. What is known of her determination, her virtually indestructible nature, is never fully brought to the surface again after the first episode. In contrast, the topic of a soul occupying a different body is given a much more self-enquiring treatment in the latest episodes. Following her resurrection, Nak-su’s struggle to reconcile her stray memories of a past life to that of a new one is foregrounded.
Alchemy of Souls is, at its heart, a demonstrably curious show that wants to poke around with impressive characterisations and storylines. It’s the tale of a mother who successfully resurrected the same daughter twice; it poses the question of what makes a person, and if the soul is only as strong as it remembers itself to be. The show is inquisitive, if not a little corny, in its treatment of personhood, death, and life after death, and one can’t help but wonder how the story would have panned out if certain subplots were given priority. Nonetheless, it achieves what it set out to do: serve the audience with a romance that gives you measured heartbreaks, but in the end, envelops you in the comfort of a happy ending.
Alchemy of Souls is currently streaming on Netflix