Memories of the Alhambra: Mid-season Summary & Thoughts

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Image from Jakartapost.com

I embarked on this series with high hopes, being a big fan of Song Jae Jung’s dramas. From her shows, I’ve come to expect original concepts executed in intriguing and exciting ways. Her dramas (Nine, Queen In-hyun’s Man, W Two Worlds) have always been about heroes/heroines who move between different timelines or worlds and the complications that arise. Centred on an augmented reality game developed in picturesque Granada, MoTA builds on her previous works.  

Synopsis (Summary of events from Episode 1-11)

Yoo Jin Woo (played by Hyun Bin), CEO of J-One Holdings, receives a phone call one evening from the game developer, Jung Se-Joo, to meet him at Hotel Bonita in Granada regarding the game. He checks into the hotel and meets his sister, Jung Hee-Joo (played by Park Shin Hye). Jin Woo does not manage to meet Se-Joo, but he opens an email sent by Se-Joo with instructions on the game. He starts playing the game using a lens invented by J-One Holdings, which allows one to fight various non-player characters like knights on horses and archers within the world setting, and gets addicted to the thrill of it. With every victory, he gains experience points and levels up, which gives him access to more weapons and abilities.

He realises soon that he is not the only one playing the game. His friend turned business rival, Cha Hyung Seok, is also a player in the game. With any player within the game, one has the option of either becoming an ally or an enemy to them. Once two players become enemies, they can engage in duels and gain experience points by battling and defeating the other player. Jin Woo thus decides to engage in a duel with Hyung Seok and defeats him in the game. He is triumphant and excited about his victory, but that takes a dark and sinister turn when he realises that Hyung Seok does not just die in the game; he is also dead in reality.

And to make things worse, the game seeps into real life as dead Hyung Seok reappears (and keeps reappearing) to engage Jin Woo in duel. Unprepared during Hyung Seok’s first reappearance, Jin Woo loses the duel and gets thrown down six flight of stairs, crippling him permanently. However, his physical infirmity does not compare to the mental breakdown he experiences as Hyung Seok keeps appearing again and again, and he keeps having to kill him again and again. Jin Woo goes to US for a year to receive treatment for his injuries and realises he can overcome Hyung Seok more quickly by levelling up. Nonetheless, Hyung Seok keeps reappearing. While in the US, his loyal ally, Secretary Seo, decides to enter the game too and he becomes a good support to Jin Woo, providing him with an extra pair of hands to defeat Hyung Seok.

What is happening with him and Hyung Seok gives him some clues as to what may have happened with Se-Joo, the inventor. He receives news that the other creators of the game, Marco, has been discovered dead, which suggests then that Se-Joo and Marco were engaged in a fight. However, the fact that Se-Joo’s body has not been found suggests he may still be alive within the game. While he is in the US, his company J-One has acquired the game and developed it further, with versions for Korea, China and other countries. Jin Woo returns quietly to Seoul and gets one of his subordinates within J-One to secretly create a space for him within the game where he can fight the non-player characters and gain experience points. He hopes to gain enough experience points, equal to that of Se Joo (above 90), so that he may have the chance to solve the mystery of what happened to him.

He eventually manages to hit level 90 and receives a quest from the game creator to go to Alhambra in Granada on a quest. He takes Secretary Seo with him on the quest, but things go terribly wrong when they reach Granada and Jin Woo is attacked by terrorists on the train and Secretary Seo, who disembarks the train first, is assaulted by archers and knights on the platform. Jin Woo is unable to save Secretary Seo in time and Secretary Seo dies (cause unknown). Jin Woo embarks on the mission on his own in the Alhambra and he is accosted by zombies, but his Secretary Seo returns as a zombie just like Hyung Seok did, and helps him fend off the zombies. Just as his life is almost depleted from the quest, Hee-Joo’s friend (who works at the Alhambra( comes to his rescue by shining a light, which apparently turns off the game. With the death of Secretary Seo and the failure to find Se-Joo, Jin Woo’s life hits rock bottom and he returns to Seoul to find that he has been removed as the CEO. He also faces the prospect of being jailed as investigations into Hyung Seok’s death are re-opened and he is the prime suspect.

As episode 11 ends, Hee Joo is the only one left supporting him and believing in him, and they finally lock lips and their romantic relationship begins. Jin Woo continues to be determined to complete his quest and find out what happened to Se Joo.

Review

While MoTA has done well ratings wise, it has also had its fair share of criticism, particularly about the weakness of Hee Joo as a character and her involvement in the main plot line of the show. In summarising the plot of the show from Episodes 1-11, it becomes increasingly clear that Hee Joo is really secondary to all that happens, which shouldn’t be the case given that it’s her brother who invented the game and went missing. There is so much scope for her to be written into the main plot line of the show and yet her role has been restricted to mainly being a support (and not even very actively so) to Jin Woo.

By relation, it also means their romance has not been well developed. The weakness of the romance does not detract from my enjoyment of the show as much as I’ve come to expect that Song Jae Jung shows don’t excel in this area. However this has to be the weakest romance thus far and I found the kiss in episode 11 rather abrupt, though it was definitely moving and won the hearts of many fans. It’s the top trending video on Naver currently and I’m sure it’s going to go up even more.

Nonetheless, as a story about Jin Woo as a fallen soldier, MoTA is very effective and it almost seems like a show written for Hyun Bin to shine. Jin Woo’s fall from grace and psychological collapse is well fleshed out. Hyun Bin’s given so much meaty scenes every episode to showcase his acting prowess and he balances charm and fragility so well. The brotherly relationships are very well written and Secretary Seo’s death was so poignant and powerful that all fans were deeply affected by it. I also appreciated how the relationship between Jin Woo and Seung Joon have been developed in recent episodes. Jin Woo is far from perfect as a man and has many flaws, but he has become someone we can sympathise and identify with because we see how isolated and devoid of love he is.

As for pacing, this show is progressing at a more steady pace compared to W Two Worlds which moved at breakneck speeds for the first half then lost steam in the last for episodes. MoTA has been moving steadily along; the twists in the game have come in gradually and the focus really is more on the characters and their relationships rather than the game. However I do feel that there have been too little answers provided by this point, which can also cause frustration. I’m willing to hold out for one or two more episodes, but we really need to know at this point more about Se Joo and what happened between him and Marco. I’m not even requiring full explanations on the fatal implications of the game, but it would be nice to finally have some answers on the design on the game and why it was created as such. Song Jae Jung has always been weak at endings because she has always written herself into a narrative deadlock; this time, she can still redeem herself but the explanations need to come soon or else she will lose viewers towards the end.

A final comment on the cinematography of the show which has been nothing short of stellar from start to end. The first few episodes could serve as a travel advertisement for Granada with so many shots of its beautiful streets and alleys. What I’ve appreciated though is how the show weaves in the game interface whenever the players are playing the game and how we often get a blend of perspectives whenever the game is being played: from the player (first person), from the game (seeing both the player and the villains) and from the innocent onlooker (where we see the player flailing about, beating into the air, looking really insane). I was hoping the show would take bolder steps into exploring augmented reality and its implications but so far it’s been rather thin on that.

With 5 more episodes on the line, there’s so much more than MoTA can do to perfect its rough edges. Its growing viewership indicates that it still remains popular. It has the potential to be SJJ’s best show if it starts providing more answers and starts bringing Hee Joo more into the game.

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