Arthdal Chronicles Episode 3

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There was a lot of set up in Episode 3 for future conflicts and developments, but on its own, the episode lacked momentum and a sense of pay-off. There was a lot of build-up, particularly regarding Tagon’s subsequent fate, but there was no narrative climax within the episode, which also made it more difficult at times to watch and follow.

I am less invested in the Tagon storyline because we haven’t gotten to know him as a character. While we know he’s capable and scheming, he really has been rather distant, except for the short exchange we saw between him and Taealha in Episode 1 about the Igutu boy he adopted – which we still haven’t seen yet. More time has been spent showing us how people around respond to him, rather than helping us to understand him or his motivations. So when we learn that his future potentially hangs in the balance, that has much less impact – also since he has been shown to be largely cruel thus far and defiantly stepping beyond boundaries like performing the Ollimsani though he is not sanctioned to.

I was much more invested in Eunseom’s continued quest to understand his identity which received two major hits in this episode – first, he learns he is an Igutu, which is a mix between Sarum and Neanthals; then he realises that he cannot find out more about his Neanthal identity because they have all been eliminated (or have they, really?). Ironically, just as he discovers his roots, he realises he needs to cover up his identity with the help of the woman at the farm, Chaeeun. She warns him that he needs to cover up his identity or else he will die or kill more people – interesting. With the help of some commonplace clothing and lip pigment, he manages to disguise himself and finally enter Arthdal.

While that aspect of understanding his roots and establishing a sense of belonging has suffered, what has grown for Eunseom is how discovery of his abilities and strengths and how to use them to his advantage – something that he never had an opportunity to find out while living with his mother and with the Wahan tribe. That is a childlike delight in him as he discovers how he can use his memory to his advantage, which is nicely complemented by his playful internal monologue that we gain insight into.

While I did feel the narrative energy flagged in this episode, we do see the overall storyline deepening as the powerplay between the tribes takes centre stage. Often I find that political powerplay, if not handled well, becomes a show’s downfall because in general, Kdrama fanatics are less keen on such aspects. Many shows have suffered because of over-emphasis on powerplay, whether it is political or corporate. At this moment, Arthdal still manages to keep it engaging because there’s a strong element of cleverness in how the manipulation is engaged. Asa Ron, Tagon’s father, seems to think he is in control and gaining an edge over Sanung, who similarly refuses to fall into the ‘trap’ of punishing his song. However, we know that Tagon has a bigger plan, which Taealha is aware of, and she has manipulated Asa Ron to put the chess pieces in place.

Going even deeper than the political powerplay is the mythical/spiritual world of Arthdal, which the mother figures in the show keep watch over as the men engaged in their powerplay. In this episode, we are introduced to Asa Sakan, the mother of the White Mountain, who acts as the guardian of the mystical world to remind Sanung that communication with the gods is not something to be taken lightly. This is a sentiment echoed by Mother Choseol as she looks at the huge lift that Tagon has created to transport people up the Great Black Wall. This layering of the story certainly adds depth to the story and makes it more intriguing and engaging to watch.

With all the set up done in Episode 3, I’m all ready to be swept away in more excitement in Episode 4. When the episodes are so long, there must be key payoff events within each episode to keep the narrative momentum. Let’s hope the remaining episodes manage to keep that momentum strong, while still building up its world and its characters.

Arthdal Chronicles Episodes 1 & 2

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Started this show a little late as I was turned off by negative reviews and episode length. I’ve heard the show starts off slow and only builds momentum later. Well, if people consider the first two episodes “slow”, then I think I’m going to enjoy this series very much.

I’ve always series that engage in deep and meaningful world-building and this is one show that leaves no stone unturned within its first two episodes, lovingly building a rich world where war breaks out due to the greed of the Sanyeok tribe. The Neanthals, Wahan people and Sanyeok tribe are all so distinctly characterised in such a detailed manner, highlighting their beliefs, cultural practices and way of life. Every scene is shot with such attention to detail in terms of the setting, the characters’ costumes and their reactions. The show is truly a visual feast.

While engaging in world-building, the plot still progresses at a steady pace, with weighty and significant events occurring throughout each episode and not simply left to the end. In the first episode, we have the key events of the war against the Neanthals, Asa Hon deciding not to return to Arthdal, the death of Raguz, Tagon taking an Igutu child with him and Asa Hon’s long sojourn into the land of Iark, which leads tragically to her death. The second episode builds towards the assault and capture of the Wahon tribe, but not without spending time to make us fall in love with them and the key characters of Eunseom and Tanya. While I did feel some of the scenes between Eunseom and Tanya dragged on for too long, the narrative energy was certainly strong while also leaving enough open to keep the tension strong.

The performances have certainly been strong and I would have expected no less, given the efforts taken to cast the show strongly. I’d have to give many props to the child actors though – Rottib and the child Eunseom and Tanya in episode 1 really brought life to their roles. I found baby Eunseom really charming and adorable too. Chu Ja-yeon’s performance as Asa Hon was so raw and compelling and she was able to convey the emotional and physical strength arising from maternal love so convincingly. Her final scene where it dawns upon her that Eunsom is Aramun Haesulla and tricked her was particularly well acted.

Kim Ji-won and Song Joong-Ki performed up to expectations – truly breathing life and owning their characters. They had to deliver deeply emotional scenes within the second episode they did them very well. I really appreciated the thematic unity within the second episode of how names can tether us and hold us back, but also empower us and give us strength. This is what Tanya comes to realise in the second episode. While she initially sees her name as binding her to the Wahan tribe and tells Mother Choseol that she cannot leave with Eun-Seom because of her name, she eventually decides not to leave her people because she is a child of the Azure comet.

Eunseom, on the other hand, is frustrated and lost because he does not seem to belong anywhere. He spent most of his early life with only his mum who died and in the Wahan tribe, he is told he does not belong and needs to leave. He’s tired of defined by what he’s not and desires for belonging and identity. At the end of the episode, he’s truly alone, with nobody around him that he knows or love except the horse, Helper. Yet in his solitude, what he has to hold onto is the name – Dream – that Tanya gives him because she is brutally captured again. And unbeknownst to him, his riding of the horse Helper has further cemented his identity of Aramun Haesulla that Asa Hon mentioned at the end of episode 1.

The budding friendship and romance between Tanya and Eunseom is charming and really provided many laughs in the second episode. I really loved how Tanya threw Eunseom a curveball with the horse and how he fumbled towards an explanation of the horse. What really struck me when watching the show is how physically demanding this show is for its cast – they have to walk through cold waters, dance, fight, run a lot, work with animals; they certainly laboured hard to bring the of this story alive.

As we move ahead, there are so many intriguing questions that have yet to be answered. So who exactly is Aramun Haesulla and how does that fit into the mythology of Arth? Hoe and why did he trick Asa Hon to bring Eunseom to Iark? What does it mean for Tanya to be a child of the Azure comet? What plans does Tagon has for the Igutu child that he has adopted? These are the bigger questions that continue to draw me into the mythological fantastical world of Arthdal and will keep me coming back for more.