With so many new series beginning in the past month, this has certainly been the most hyped about series, featuring two very popular stars Lee Min Ho and Jeo Ji-hyun. Given that writer Park Ji-eun’s previous inter-world romance “My Love from the Star” was such a big hit that it was extended to 20 episodes, this series certainly enters with very high expectations. With all the hype generated, it was certainly not unexpected that it garnered such high ratings, even higher than Descendants of the Sun.
Amidst all the hype, what’s most important for a good series is whether it tells a meaningful story and the kinds of discussions it can generate. Based on the premiere, there are some good elements in place.
First of all, we have two concurrent storylines going on with the sageuk story that takes place in 1598 in Gangwon-do province and a modern storyline that moves from Korea to Spain. Thus far, it seems like the sageuk storyline and the modern storyline will serve more as parallel story-lines for comparison rather than storylines that actually interact (i.e. W Two Worlds, Queen In-hyun’s man). Storylines that interact can be interesting, but they always end up relying too much on convenient plot-devices and bewildering explanations that sometimes simplicity is better. As it is, the parallel structure works well for the premiere as it provided the episode with a nice variation in tone from past to present, with the past being more serious and mythical, whereas the present is more light-hearted, playful and fun.
In terms of character dynamics, there are also nice comparisons and counterpoints between the both. In both the past and present story, we see a situation where the mermaid is saved from captivity by Lee Min-ho’s character – Dam Ryung and Joon Jae. However, the way that they do so is so different. Dam Ryung stands on the side of the law, and threatens to expose Lord Yang’s corruption, in return for taking the mermaid with him. Joon Jae, on the other hand, uses corruption to take the mermaid with him, hypnotising the police officer into believing that she’s his wife (a very hilarious sequence, by the way). Joon Jae’s freeing of the mermaid is far from noble as he has set his eyes on a jade bracelet, which we know comes from Dam Ryung. It’s a nice little detail and neat way of putting in elements that will help build the story.
Joon Jae is an interesting choice as a protagonist, because he really is an anti-hero. He’s a conman who builds his life on changing identities and deception through magic and hypnotism. He relies very much on changing people’s views of reality to get ahead. He’s a man without loyalties, moving from place to place as he pleases because he has both the freedom and the money to do so. He’s the kind of character that you may come to love, but certainly won’t admire – at least not at this stage. There’s a certain sweet irony that the responsibility of having to induct the mermaid to the rules and etiquette of the world.
The mermaid, who still hasn’t been named, is also not your typical “damsel-in-distress” protagonist. She’s clearly able to defend herself physically with her superhuman strength. In both the past and present storyline, she may be in captivity but she has no sense of needing to be saved, because she does not understand what is going on. While she remains largely objectified in the sageuk storyline was a beautiful, mythical creature to be admired from afar, in the modern day storyline she’s quickly ‘humanized’, dressed in clothes and interacting with people within a shopping mall. As is common with such storylines, the adaptation to the real world storyline is played for humour and it is done so to great effect here. It’s all the more admirable because a lot of the humour is so physical, relying on facial expressions and actions. Coming from the sea, where things move more slowly in the water, she’s fascinated by the ease at which tissue paper can fly out of a box so rapidly and lightly. That scene and her mimicking of the traffic light man were certainly hilarious. I did like though how the show showed us the way in which the mermaid was making sense of the world and connecting things together, especially evident during the lift sequence where we see her eyes light up with expectation each time it arrives. Eventually we get insights into her mind and we see her piecing words together – the first being “pretty”, then “wait”, which has positive connotations for her now.
The premiere also starts building up the mythology of the mermaid in the sageuk sequence, where we first learn from the fisherman that if someone mistreats her, she can suck out their soul and erase her memories as a protective measure against humans. We later learn that mermaids can erase memories selectively, choosing to take away the ones that they want. These elements will certainly be played out to a greater extent subsequently and I am almost certain Joon Jae will have part of his memories erased at some point of time.
The first episode manages to set up its characters, its plot elements and mythology in an entertaining and engaging manner. It remains to see whether it can bring everything together meaningfully in the subsequent episodes.