How should I describe Arang and the Magistrate after one episode? Give it a better name? It can be called Run, Arang, Run! with how much Arang has been running in one episode alone. Or maybe The Ghost and I? Or how about I Love You Drama, Marry Me? If there was such a thing as love at first sight between a Koala and a drama, episode 1 of Arang sealed the deal. No ifs, buts, or any reservations – this drama rocks my world and spins it on its own axis. A fantastic cast crackling with chemistry and a general dexterity with sageuk acting (with a few weaker links) paired with a fascinating story, Arang is cute, funny, spookily romantic, and filled with tons of potential that is already pushing at the seams even within one meager episode. The directing could be toned down a notch, but the gorgeous cinematography smooths out the rough edges and paints this magical world where the spirits walk with the humans in vivid strokes. I found myself smiling cheek-to-cheek watching this baby, so how could I not recap it to capture the wonder.
Episode 1 recap:
Eun Oh (Lee Jun Ki), a yanban, and his servant Dol Swe (Kwang Oh Jung) walk through the forest at night headed for a new village. Eun Oh is searching for his mother who disappeared a few years ago and Dol Swe is accompanying his master on this quest. Dol Swe is nervous after hearing stories of ghosts haunting the village, which is the site of the deaths of successive magistrates, whereas Eun Oh is strangely unperturbed in the slightest.
Arang (Shin Mina) grumpily races through the forest and finds her target, which is a bunch of ghosts who are trying to thieve from a caravan of humans. Arang intends to teach them a lesson about double-crossing her, when suddenly a group of Soul Reapers descend from the sky to capture errant spirits who need to depart the earth. These guys are scary and mean serious business, easily roping up the ghosts.
Arang starts running and one Soul Reaper in particular chases after her. It’s Moo Young (Han Jung Soo), who looks like he has a particular beef with capturing Arang. Eun Oh and Dol Swe continue walking through the forest and Eun Oh plays a joke about ghosts to scare Dol Swe. Which is when Arang races past him and we see Eun Oh freeze and his eyes shoot in her direction. He can see dead people, and clearly isn’t pleased to have this special power.
Moo Young uses a staff to strike Arang in the back and she falls down. Moo Young sighs and tells Arang to stop trying to escape him. Before he can rope her, she tosses some peach blossoms at him. When he shields himself from the attack, Arang slips away and Moo Young is foiled (again). After Arang is safe, she grumbles at the Heavens for doing this to her.
Cut to the Heavens, high above the mortal coil, where the young Celestial Jade Emperor (Yoo Seung Ho) is playing a game of Go with the King of Hell (Park Joon Kyu). Jade Emperor sneezes, which he attributes to someone (Arang) bitching him out down below.
Hell King is pleased thinking he’s won this match, while Jade Emperor is more interested in flirting with the pretty serving girl. He compliments her hairstyle, and she wryly tells him she’s had the same hairstyle for the last thousand years. Ha! Jade Emperor returns to his game and easily wins the match, then acting like he didn’t mean to win it. Oh what an adorable snot.
While the Hell King is stewing in yet another loss, Jade Emperor takes a walk through his celestial realm. He sees a pet goat and reaches down to talk with it. He waters the flowers on the goat’s back and it starts to rain down on earth. Eun Oh and Dol Swe find shelter in an abandoned hut while Arang is also getting soaked and she’s bitter enough to rage at the Heavens for being such a nuisance.
Inside the hut, Eun Oh thinks back to his mother, who wanted him to go live with his nobleman father instead of staying a slave if he lived with her. Eun Oh doesn’t care and wants to live with her, but she slaps him and ends the conversation there. The next day she promptly disappeared, and Eun Oh has been looking for her since then.
While Eun Oh and Dol Swe rest in the fire they started, Arang passes through the walls and sits down next to the fire to dry herself. Eun Oh tries to pretend he can’t see her, but when she starts to take her clothes off his eyes widen and he stares despite trying not to. Arang sees it and wonders if Eun Oh can see her?
She tries to confirm it by getting really close to him but he manages to maintain his pretense that he can’t see her. Arang accepts that it might’ve been a fluke and continues to warm herself. She talks to Eun Oh despite knowing he can’t hear her, but he can hear her yet doesn’t want to. Arang reveals her story – her current memory started when she woke up to find herself walking behind a Soul Reaper with her hands bound by a rope being led by him. When the rope became loose, she used that opportunity to escape and has been walking the earth as a ghost since then.
Eun Oh lays down and pretends to sleep, hoping Arang will go away or shut up. Instead Arang lays down next to him and stares admiringly at his beautiful face. Eventually they both fall asleep, and when Eun Oh wakes up in the morning, Arang is gone. Eun Oh and Dol Swe continue their travels and reach the village.
When they reach the village, they see the local powerful Nobleman Choi being carried in a procession through the streets. Accompanying him is Joo Wol (Yeon Woo Jin), and the villagers appear to be quite fearful of them yet seek an audience to air their grievances. Since the magistrates have all died, Nobleman Choi is the de facto ruler of this village. But neither Nobleman Choi nor the haughty and cold Joo Wol appear to want to dispense any justice and send the villagers scurrying away with rude dismissals.
Dol Swe reveals to Eun Oh that the taxpayer money is being wasted to build an annex to the Palace near this village, but Eun Oh is uninterested in helping the oppressed and downtrodden. Eun Oh walks away and then turns to address a group of ghosts begging for his help to avenge them. Eun Oh coldly tells them to go away. Arang watches this from a roof and confirms Eun Oh can see ghosts.
Eun Oh goes to ask around about his mom, and afterwards he senses that he’s being followed so he turns to grab the person. It turns out to be Arang and she’s amazed he can both hear and touch her. Eun Oh wants her to leave him alone but she tries multiple tactics to get him to help her – from correctly guessing that he’s looking for his mom to pouting that they’ve already slept together and he needs to take responsibility for her.
Eun Oh, who saw Arang’s petal attack from last night, pretends that he’s going to toss the same at her to drive her away. He ends up tossing red beans and he doesn’t even aim in her direction. But he warns her that he’ll do it for real if she doesn’t leave him alone. He tells her to go find the magistrate for help, and Arang gets him to promise that if he were the magistrate he’d help her.
Nobleman Choi and Joo Wol, clearly plotting evil plans, sit and discuss their need to find a certain woman.
Bang Wool (Hwang Bora) is a terrible shaman who can’t even swindle clients properly. But in truth she can hear ghosts, because she is upset when Arang goes to ask for her help (again). Arang gets Bang Wool to convince the three officials of the magistrate’s office that there is a new guy in town who would be perfect as the magistrate. The three stooges simply need to fill the post to avoid getting in trouble with the government, they don’t care who it is since the guy is going to die the first night in office anyways.
Later that night, Eun Oh gets shoved into a sack and carted off to the magistrate’s office. He wakes up wearing the magistrate uniform and trussed up like a chicken. Instead of being scared, he angrily tells Arang to show herself.
Arang descends from the roof upside down, looking for the world like a haunting spectre. Eun Oh tells her to turn herself upright otherwise he’ll drag her around by her hair. Arang descends right side up and they sit down to talk after she unties him.
Arang explains that all those magistrate deaths were accidents, she swears! To get them to help her, she took an herb that made her visible to humans. The first magistrate was old and keeled over upon seeing a ghostly and disheveled Arang. She cleaned herself up for the second one but didn’t take enough herb so she was only half visible, so that guy got scared to death as well. The third magistrate was a warrior but when Arang appeared with only her lower half to ask for help, even that guy promptly died from fright.
Despite Arang’s sob story that she just wants to know her name and who she is, Eun Oh continues to refuse to help her. He sees through her crocodile tears and says she lost her memory so how could she miss her parents if she doesn’t even know if she had any. Arang leaves in a huff.
Joo Wol is walking across a bridge when he hears some servant girls discussing the harvest moon tonight which supposedly means that ghosts walk among humans. Joo Wol tenses when he hears this and he fingers a ring he’s wearing nervously.
The next morning, Dol Swe finds Eun Oh, who is already laying down some whoop ass on the three officials, who were completely shocked to find him alive and well. They are even more shocked to learn that Eun Oh is the son of a very high ranking nobleman. Eun Oh and Dol Swe leave.
Arang goes to find Bang Wool to discuss her failure at getting this new magistrate to help her. Since Bang Wool can’t see Arang and Arang can’t see her own reflection since she’s dead, Bang Wool thinks Arang’s failure is due to her being an ugly girl. They decide to pretty up Arang, which involves Bang Wool shoplifting items from the marketplace to give to Arang since that is the only way a ghost can make use of living things.
While Arang helps Bang Wool shoplift successfully, they bump into some officials at the same time the shopkeepers scream that there is a thief on the loose. Bang Wool makes a run for it and Arang helps her get away by using her ghostly scare abilities. Eun Oh sees this and doesn’t do anything to help.
Suddenly the Soul Reapers arrive on the scene, once again descending from the skies to capture errant ghosts. Arang books it and as usual it’s Moo Young that goes after her. Arang runs past Eun Oh, who suddenly sees that she’s wearing a hair pin that appears to trigger a memory for him. Eun Oh freezes for a few moments before suddenly running after Arang. He grabs a horse and rides out of the city.
Arang runs through the forest with Moo Young hot on her tail. Eun Oh is faster on the horse and he quickly overtakes Moo Young. He rides up to Arang and reaches down to pull her on the horse. Arang turns back to look at him in shock, while Eun Oh looks determined.
Thoughts of Mine:
It’s probably necessary to clarify that while I find Arang and the Magistrate (AitM henceforth) pretty much perfect, the drama itself obviously isn’t flawless. The PD has a fixation with slow mo camera work that was really over-used in episode 1, but the good news is that it was front-loaded and he calmed down towards the end of the episode. The music is good but not great, and the broad comedy mixed with snippets of spookiness and pathos was at times a bit uneven. But those little nits aside, everything else was damn awesome, raising the stakes on what it means to do a fantasy sageuk that aims to blend the mystical with the historical in a way where people need to feel real even if the world they inhabit is incredible. AitM succeeds masterfully at this, while Faith does not. Aside from Arang, all the rest of the earthly denizens come straight out of a sageuk in characterization.
In terms of acting, my beautiful Jun Ki is knocking it out of the park as Eun Oh. I’m not surprised since he cut his teeth on The King and the Clown, and he was the best thing about the otherwise spotty Iljimae. He’s got all the sageuk cadences and presence down pat, wheres Mina tries so hard but has a smidge of modernity that she can’t shake which does detract a tiny bit from her portrayal. The otherworldly characters are fun and entertaining, though really Yoo Seung Ho is the only one coming across as a bit too self-aware. But he’s clearly enjoying himself and that comes across, so I’m both laughing at and with him. I also feel so much chemistry between the two leads it’s going to cut me to pieces once they start falling in love despite knowing the whole ghost-human divide. But then again, aren’t the best stories filled with seemingly unsurmountable odds that make us love every moment of it.