This review refers only to the 20-episode first part of the series.
tvN’s Alchemy of Souls (환혼) is an irresistible package of fantasy, action, romance, humor and soapy drama. The prolific Hong sisters have crafted a story that allows you to be immersed in this rich, vibrant and fully-realized magical world. And Lee Jae Wook and Jung So Min’s magnetic chemistry helps lead a strong ensemble cast to bring that world to vivid life.
The fictional country of Daeho provides the spectacular backdrop for a world where ruling noble families maintain a tepid relationship with each other while forces within each secretly vie for power and control. Young mages train to master the magical arts as sources of knowledge and defense for their clans.
Naksu (Go Yoon Jung) is an elite assassin who has grown up seeking revenge for a tragedy from her childhood. She is also a soul shifter and is able to transfer her soul into another body after being badly injured in battle. Unfortunately, she finds herself in the body of the weak Mudeok (Jung So Min) and is unable to use her magical skills.
Having to now live as Mudeok, partly to avoid capture by her rivals and partly to find a way to regain her power, she meets young mage Jang Uk (Lee Jae Wook). His own past makes his training a bit of a rough road. But in meeting (Naksu as) Mudeok, he feels he has finally found the master who he can truly learn from. Mudeok, meanwhile, agrees to take Jang Uk on as her pupil while also becoming his servant as a way to get herself closer to regaining her own power.
Their relationship evolves from there and is the heart of an intricate and wide-ranging web of a story. One that is made even more complicated by the battle over a forbidden spell known as the alchemy of souls.
The series’ initial 20 episodes are more than enough time to effectively establish the world in which Daeho exists. And with that strong foundation, the series is able to effortlessly tell its wide variety of stories.
Our main characters Jang Uk and Mudeok expectedly develop romantic feelings for each other, but their stories are much more than just that. Having to deal with fate and responsibility make their characters multi-faceted and always captivating. Again, Lee Jae Wook and Jung So Min’s chemistry is a huge part in making that possible. And the romance never overpowers other equally intriguing story threads. Of which, there are many.
Alchemy of Souls supports their story with those about friendship and youth as well as familiar soapy themes like politics and greed. All with a its unique mix of fantasy and relatable slice of life beats.
With these 20 episodes, it might be best to take things slow. Watching the series as it first aired might have been the preferred way to go. Being able to slowly, but surely be introduced to this world and peel back the layers of the large cast of characters enhances that immersive quality. It is easy to get lost in the series. Especially when the series is able to balance legitimately thrilling action sequences with the quieter, character-driven stories.
Alchemy of Souls is a rare breed in Korean drama. A high concept story that is able to draw from many different, but familiar genres. It is at times modern, other times traditional. Unique touches across the entire series help to set it apart from others that might better fit into a more well-defined box. Alchemy of Souls is never afraid to break out of those boxes, yet it is also very confident in what kind of series it wants to be.
That’s not to say the series is without its faults. The latter half does encounter some slower periods. But never being a threat to its overall creative success.
BEWARE! Spoilers ahead!
The first 20 episodes end with a cliffhanger that was always meant to set-up the final 10 episodes which (at the time of this review) have just begun airing.
Without getting into too much detail, Episode 20’s ending essentially signaled a bit of a reset. Jang Uk is killed, then resurrected. A mind-controlled Naksu/Mudeok is the perpetrator. And realizing what she’s done, she escapes to the cliffs by the lake to jump to her death. Only to mysteriously get pulled back to the surface.
But in the preview for the final ten episodes and in the media reports after Episode 20, it was clear that Jung So Min would not be reprising her role. And instead, Go Yoon Jung would take over the role of Naksu. Which, she of course originated in the very first episode. And in quite the most badass way, actually.
And that’s the interesting thing here. It absolutely makes perfect sense that there would be a change of lead actress. Naksu is a soul shifter. In fact, she brags in one of the episodes that she could choose any body she wants. There is even an amusing sequence in which she imagines hopping inside a male body instead.
So if Naksu can no longer reside in Mudeok’s body, then of course she’ll have to find a new one. I think what some might take issue with is that the body she ends up inside is the body she originally had that was supposed to have been burned to ash.
In reading what Episode 21 entails, it appears that the series gives an overly convenient explanation as to why Naksu ends up being played by Go Yoon Jung instead of Jung So Min. Or even a brand new actress entirely.
But again, even if something makes perfect sense, it might still feel… well, not right. Something about it feels awkward.
Possibly the strongest aspect of the first 20 episodes was the chemistry between Lee Jae Wook and Jung So Min. Their playful banter, back and forth made their romantic development feel natural and well-earned. Not contrived and shoehorned-in like many other dramas might do. They are the pairing that many fell in love with. So seeing a completely different actress in the role will feel different.
And again! Even if having a different face/actress makes perfect sense, with the way the story is written, Jang Uk should still be in love with Mudeok or Naksu or whoever was inside that body in the first 20 episodes, regardless of what she looks like now.
Now, a decade ago, I was disappointed in KBS’ Big. The series involved body switching with the female lead falling in love with a man who was temporarily inside another man’s body. I was disappointed because we never got a scene of the female lead with her love interest back in his actual body. I thought that would be an amusing, cute and novel scene to end the series with. Instead, Big avoided that final scene reveal. Almost like a cop out.
I am reminded of that disappointment because I feel like there’s similarities and also not here on Alchemy of Souls. It definitely would be an amusing and novel scene to have Jang Uk and Naksu (in her real body) ride off into the sunset together in the final scene. But when there’s ten whole episodes of what should probably be relegated to just a gimmick scene, then that’s where the awkwardness might come into play.
And this is absolutely nothing against Go Yoon Jung. Again, she was absolutely badass in her short scenes at the start of the series. But when the dynamic that the audience fell in love with was between Lee Jae Wook and Jung So Min, it presents an extra challenge for Go Yoon Jung to make that seamless transition.
Sometimes, even if the writing is perfectly sound, it is the actors’ performances that ultimately get you to fall in love with the story and the series. Not in that “I am a loyal fan who will support and defend everything my favorite idol is a part of!!!11!”-way. But in a way where through their performances, the actors are able to forge that connection with the audience.
For now, I’ve seen mixed reactions to the already aired episodes of part two. But I’ll wait to judge for myself later on.
Still, it is a fascinating dynamic to think about. And adds a whole other layer to how one might receive Alchemy of Souls.
It is possible that breaking up the series into two parts might have been the smartest thing to do. That is, if part two is just as vastly different to the first part as many (including myself) fear. But we’ll wait and see.
With all that said, this review is focused only on the first 20 episodes. And those 20 episodes were an absolutel joy to watch. Though certainly not perfect, Alchemy of Souls was able to piece together a number of different themes and genres into one unexpectedly complete package. Mixing fantasy, romance, action and drama, the series’ fully realized world is something unique for Korean drama. And the 20 episodes, complete with intriguing story and excellent performances especially by Lee Jae Wook and Jung So Min, provide for a totally immersive and thoroughly enjoyable and fun viewing experience. One like you don’t normally see on Korean television.