[REVIEW]: Arthdal Chronicles 1 & 2

Hey all, I’ll be waiting until September to do my full Arthdal Chronicles series review, but people seemed to be interested in knowing my thoughts about the show at this stage of the series, so I said I’d be willing to write a post about what I think so far and what I’m hoping for in the last third of the drama. Since this will mostly be thoughts and commentary, I’ll only be focusing on a few major categories in order to save others for the final review. This will also be a more casual post and I will not yet be assigning a rating to the series at this point! Hopefully you’ll still enjoy it nonetheless, and feel free to share your own thoughts on the show in the comments.

[Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].


HIGHLIGHTS:


PLOT & STORYLINE:

Arthdal Chronicles is VERY fantasy; definitely suited to particular audiences. Lots of people don’t, and won’t, like this show. It’s a genre Korea is trying for the first time, but I personally enjoyed the first two segments of their experiment. The story is original with thoughtful development of concepts, characters, settings and mythologies. I appreciated the amount of attention, complexity, and creativity that went into creating the origin story, backgrounds and details of the gods, as well as the particular elements that defined each tribe and or species. It is no easy feat to put together an entire fantasy world from scratch, but so far, I’d say Arthdal Chronicles holds its own in this department.

I’m not going to waste too much breath on the dusty GOT comparison discourse. If anything, Arthdal Chronicles harkens back to Homeric epics and mythology among many other ancient tales and origin stories. Moreover, all fantasy narratives share certain aspects. GOT wouldn’t exist without LOTR as a model and inspiration (which George R. R. Martin has acknowledged himself), and so forth. Anyone slapping a label on Arthdal Chronicles as a blatant copy of GOT, simply because they share basic elements of the fantasy genre, are terribly uninformed on the topic, as all fantasy origins can be traced back to ancient literatures, traditions, and religions of various different cultures and countries. GOT borrowed from these ancient traditions, and certainly wasn’t the first mainstream American series to do so. There are thousands of examples of these kinds of stories in literature, television, and film that pre-date GOT. If you don’t believe me, try going to the library and checking out a few books. And just in case anyone tries it, yes, I have both read and watched the American series (up to Season 6) so I’m not just talking out of my a** when I say they are entirely different tales.

ACTING:

Song Joong Ki: Song Joong Ki’s performance as Eun Som felt pretty ho-hum at first. I thought he was doing okay, but I kept waiting for scenes that required more …charisma and authenticity. Once I unexpectedly found out that he was playing dual roles, I wanted to wait and see how his second character panned out in comparison to his first before making any judgements. Now that I’ve seen both characters at play, I can understand why Eun Som is portrayed in a much more muted manner. However, I do hope that he will add a little more flavor to Eun Som in the final arc, as he will need to do so in order for us buy into Eun Som’s journey of growth. Though surprising, I applaud SJK for taking on that kind of challenge. Playing dual roles is never easy, and I was unimpressed with his post-military works, as they did not feel very dimensional to me. Saya proved to be the extra element that made SJK’s acting finally stand out amongst a crowd of strong contenders. Episode seven was a great showcase of his talents compared to prior episodes. The final chunk of the episode, where Saya completely pulls the rug out from under Taealha’s plans, is chilling. Saya’s cleverness is showcased, but even more unnerving is how SJK manages to jump from such an innocent look of concern to a demonic smirk in a manner of seconds. His thoughtful expressions made the plot twist all the more satisfying to watch. Overall, SJK’s presence was much more memorable in the second segment of the show. Saya is an intricate character, and very alluring to watch on screen. The transitions SJK made from Saya to Eun Som were noteworthy, and thankfully by the end of the second leg of the series, things are looking promising in terms of Eun Som’s character potentially having his moment to really shine as a hero of our story. Hopefully SJK can pull through in making it memorable and believable.

Jang Dong Geun: Jang Dong Geun unabashedly commands the screen as Tagon. This is my my first experience watching him in any series, but I can assure you that I am not disappointed. Admittedly, it took me a while to warm up to his performance, but once I understood more of Tagon’s story, I really started feeling JDG’s portrayal. He was an excellent pick for a layered character like this. There are so many things to despise about Tagon, but there is an undeniable charisma oozing from JDG, paired with a bit of subtle warmth, that makes it increasingly more difficult to completely write Tagon off. Yes, I want him to be punished, but I think JDG is successfully and consistently creating ways to make Tagon relatable, understandable, and charming. Is Tagon a good person? No. However, thanks to JDG, you can’t help but enjoy Tagon every time he graces the screen, even if you’re somehow simultaneously hating every minute of it. I love the power that JDG is able to inject in to Tagon when he’s facing off against foes, the calm he emits when Tagon is cleverly outsmarting and outspeaking his enemies, and the softness that laces every scene Tagon shares with Taealha. One thing I must commend JDG is his outstanding expressive nature. He has really been able to communicate the world through his eyes.

Kim Ji Won: I might not like many of her projects, but I really do like Kim Ji Won. I appreciate that she has taken on various kinds of roles since becoming a lead actress. I firmly believe that this is her most complex and challenging role yet, as it not only demands a wider range of emotion, but also pushes for mastery of bodily expression through extra elements such as meticulously choreographed rituals and dances. KJW is, by no means, perfect. There are moments where I feel she underperforms, like the occasional crying scene where we get the awkward half smile, half grimace while she tries to force out the tears. This isn’t true for all her crying scenes, just a few that I’ve noticed. But that’s okay for me, because she’s shown tremendous growth and potential as an actress, and Arthdal Chronicles is proof of this. There are several scenes where she makes a marvelous impact. Among these impressive scenes includes an intense moment where Tanya stands up for her tribe and confronts Tagon’s crew by placing a curse upon them. KJW’s arresting expressions as she smeared the blood across her face were poignant and lasting. Another scene is of course in the second segment’s finale, where Tanya replicates Mother Cho Seol’s dance in order to find the star bell. KJW performs the dance exceptionally well, which made for a very breathtaking and sensational moment. KJW really makes Tanya her own. There is an authenticity about KJW’s portrayal of Tanya that is remarkable and very earnest. I have no trouble buying into Tanya’s plight and the wholehearted urgency she has to save her tribe thanks to KJW’s fervent performance.

Kim Ok Vin: I’m a longtime fan of Kim Ok Vin, who always manages to deliver an outstanding performance. She is certainly no different here. I find her very alluring as the manipulative and refined Taealha. She has exhibited an excellent chemistry with JDG. In fact, it’s one of the few on screen romances that is mature and authentic. They also don’t have those prudish kiss scenes either, which is a relief, because boy are those cringe (and this is coming from a person who’s not even remotely into romance). JDG and KOV are qualified adults, so thankfully that allowed for them to showcase an intimate on-screen relationship with more forgiving camera angles than we’re used to seeing in the average rom-com. I equally enjoyed the intense, well-acted, scenes she shared with actor Cho Seong Ha, who plays her on-screen father, Mihol. KOV adds a level of sophistication and glamor to Taealha that makes the character enchanting and irresistible in more ways than one. Not only that, but Taealha has many different facades and plans in the works at any given moment in time. KOV handles this well. I was often fascinated with the way she could switch her vehemence off and on depending on the situation. Equally commendable, was her vast range of micro-expressions, which made all the difference in Taealha’s most crucial scenes.

I just want to comment on a few more standout performances. I don’t have time to get to everybody, but I intend to talk more in depth about the supporting cast in my final review. For now, I will keep things more on the brief side. Cho Seong Ha, who plays Mihol, is a fantastic veteran who never fails to nail the greasy and unsettling villain. So far his performance has been spot on and I’ve enjoyed all of his scenes. Similarly, Lee Do Kyung, who plays Asa Ron Niruha, has outdone himself as the phony old hag with a hunger for power. I’ve also fancied Ko Bo Gyeol as Chae Eun, and Park Hae Joon as Mu Baek. Both feel well suited to their respective characters and have put forth reliable performances. Finally, I cannot round out this section without expressing appreciation for Yoo Teo and Choo Ja Hyun‘s cameos as Ragaz and Asa Hon. Superb. These two characters felt like the heart of the story. Their scenes were short, but continue to be some of the most profound and well acted of the entire series. I was sad to see their characters leave so soon, and I honestly believe my love for them is due to the impeccable chemistry and delivery of their roles. Kudos to these two actors.

CHARACTERS & DEVELOPMENT:

Eun Som: Naturally, I assume Eun Som is supposed to be our main hero, or at least one of them. Unfortunately, out of all the core leads, he is the character that I feel has been given the least amount of productive screen time. He’s had some moments, but most of them have included getting beat up or finding himself in deep trouble with his hands both metaphorically and physically tied. Eun Som is alarmingly boring when compared to his identical twin, at least in this stage of the game in terms of what he has shown us on screen. However, I can’t ignore the pieces of information we learn about him that have surfaced from other characters and developments, such as revelations from Tanya’s flashbacks and new connections and discoveries about the mythology concerning Aramun Haesulla. Thankfully, things are looking promising for Eun Som’s character development. The end of the second segment leaves us with the impression that Eun Som has his resolve back and is ready to kick things into high gear. This is what I’ve truly been longing to see, and I hope we get it. Though I am yearning to know more about his character, I easily prefer Eun Som to Saya. Saya may be a more theatrical and enchanting character, but Eun Som is pure hearted, loyal, and likable. I’m invested in his success and have no worry that he has Tanya’s best interest at heart.

Saya: Saya is a tough riddle to crack. I am thankful that he is not just a passive bystander, but rather, an active player. However, I’m not fully sure of his true motivations and desires. Saya tries to manipulate Taealha into getting revenge on her father Mihol by playing to the similarities they share in the sense that they both grew up in the hands of someone who mistreated them. He holds a grudge against Taealha for ordering the killing of his maid, Saenarae, though it seems he knows that Hae Tuak carried out the job. Saya wants to be proud of being an Igutu while, his father Tagon understandably loathes it (Tagon’s entire life has been plagued and burdened by his Igutu identity). It seems like Saya has conflicting feelings about Tagon. I can’t tell yet whether he really loves and wants his father’s care, or whether it’s just a scam and Tagon is nearly a pawn for his ultimate plan. He puts his father in danger, but also attempts to work together with his father depending on the situation. It seems as though Saya slightly cares for Tanya, but he still regards her as “filthy.” He is concerned enough that he doesn’t want her to kill herself, and yet, it he was essentially egging her on in some kind of way… like he wanted her to thirst for power. He grows more attached to her over time. I can’t tell whether this is another part of his act or whether he truly harbors feelings for her, since she is the first person to show him any sort of affection and insight into his mental state. However, I don’t trust Saya at all. He is unhinged, conniving, and manipulative. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is merely using Tanya to fulfill one of his secret plans. It will be interesting to see how his character develops in the final chunk of the series.

Tagon: I have a love hate relationship with Tagon. At first, I thought he was the absolute scum of the earth for hatching the plan that obliterated the Neanthals. Of course, we find out later that this was not something he did out of a thirst for glory or will of his own. Because Tagon is an Igutu, a species feared and hated by the Sarams, Tagon had to find ways to blend in with the Sarams and gain power. Basically, his whole life has consisted of an ongoing necessity to find ways to make and keep himself desirable among the people. The second that he is unwanted by the people, the easier it is for his enemies to either kill him, or discover and expose his identity, which could also get him killed. Even as child, Tagon had to fight for his father’s mercy. He became the best warrior so that his father would find him useful and keep him around instead of killing him, which is challenging when considering the prophecy stated that Tagon would kill his father. Sanung Niruha was aware of this, which is why he was constantly wavering back and forth between whether or not he should do away with Tagon. Tagon has had to fight tooth and nail for his survival since day one. Is it greedy for him to want to live? No. Sadly, because his survival is so complex, it has put him in an unforgiving position where he has killed many in an effort to keep himself safe. Along the way, he has lost many morals. If a situation will benefit him, he doesn’t mind following through with anything that could be at the expense and suffering of others, and this is why, I think he needs to be punished for his actions. While I may understand why he has done many of his egregious deeds, that doesn’t mean that they are excusable. He must accept the responsibility for his actions. What I respect about Tagon, is his intelligence, tenacity, and his pure affection for Taealha. I think Tagon really wants to love and protect Saya, despite the fact that Saya is making this difficult for him. Tagon was forced to know the weight and terror of being an Igutu from an early age because of his father’s brutal slayings of anyone and everyone that found out about it. He seems to have a genuine desire to prevent Saya from living this same nightmare.

Taealha: Taealha is so bad, but so, so good. Her character is easily one of the most enjoyable of the show. She cruelly orders the killing of Saya’s former maid, Saenarae, for unknown reasons. I’m interested to know what her true motivations for killing Saenarae were. The dynamics shared between Taealha and Tagon, and Taealha and Saya, are arguably the most enticing part of the series for me thus far. Taealha has a pretty upsetting background, like many of the core characters in the series. She was forced by her father to become a spy and share a bed with someone twice her age when she was young. She habors a lot of anger (and rightfully so) after her father makes her a child bride for Sanung Niruha. She was so excited for her wedding, having no idea what kind of pitiful predicament was awaiting her. Obviously, she was traumatized after finding out that the old hag would be the one taking off the special dress Yeo Bi had made for her. This has led her to become very manipulative and hungry for control. She decides who she abandons, she decides who she will work with, what she will do, who will have power, and who she’ll throw away. She always wants to be driving the decisions and never wants to be used by anyone. Making her own choices is vital to her and her survival. She claims it is she who will make Tagon King, and that if anyone is to be betrayed or abandoned, she will be the one to betray or abandon them first, “just like I did to you father” she says. Taealha’s not interested in working with or maintaining the Hae tribe, because it is her own tribe, that she feels, used and betrayed her. Now, she will reach for the top on her own, with whoever she chooses to have next to her. I can’t blame Taealha for having such ambitions after what happened to her, however, like Tagon, I think she will need to face the music at some point for her wrongful deeds.

Tanya: Tanya is a great character, because she is deceivingly wise beyond her years, and possesses a quick wit. Tanya doesn’t sit around and wait to be saved; she springs into action and decides she will do the saving for both her tribe and Eun Som. I love Tanya’s ferocity and courage. Sure, she has her moments of fear and doubt like any other person, but when her people need her most, she stands her ground and takes a harrowing bite out of anyone who dares to challenge her. When her own life is at stake, Tanya knows how to use what she has to weedle out of a potentially lethal situation. The scene between her and Taealha where she uses the pieces from Eun Som’s dream to intimidate Taealha and save herself was brilliant. After listening to Saya, and believing Eun Som is dead she decides she will pretend to serve Saya in order to try and obtain power. She places a curse upon him, claiming that they will see who the real master is. Tanya once again uses Eun Som’s dreams, this time to get close to Saya and manipulate him, which is another depiction of her cunning. However, Saya figures out that she’s been trying to use him and angrily confronts her. What I like about this moment, is that Tanya doesn’t let Saya push all the blame onto herself. She hits him with the stone cold truth, reminding Saya that it was HE who told her that she would need to obtain power in order to find the answers to questions about her tribe’s misfortunes. She also expresses regret, because now that she knows how toxic the pursuit of power can be, she no longer wants any part of it, at least, not if it involves harming innocent people. We now know that Tanya is direct descendent of Asa Sin, so I can’t wait to see where this will lead us in the third and final leg of the series. I am 100% rooting for her to reconnect with Eun Som.

Mu Baek: I knew Mu Baek was going to end up being a key character, and I wasn’t wrong. It appears as though Mu Baek may have had feelings for Asa Hon. Eun Seom is Asa Hon’s son, and Chae Eun reveals this to her father Ha Rim and Mu Baek after seeing Do Ti holding an Asa clan necklace that had belonged to Asa Hon. Mu Baek is definitely working against Tagon and Tagon knows it. I like that Mu Baek was one of the only Daekan tribe members to actually take a closer look at Tagon’s actions and suspect that he wasn’t being completely honest with them. All of the other tribe members seem to be content in their blind worship of Tagon as a competent leader. At this point, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Mu Baek is going to try and make up for all of the pain Tagon and the tribe inflicted on the Neanthals. I think he will play a large part in assisting Eun Som and Tanya.

Chae Eun: I love, love, love Chae Eun. Unlike other people, I never suspected her to be an ill-intentioned person. Through her language and description of the Neanthals as “beautiful,” and constant concern and protection of Eun Som, even at their first meeting, I knew she had good reason to have positive feelings toward Igutus and Neanthals. This is entirely confirmed when she turns out to be the deciding factor that encouraged her parents to adopt Nun Byeol (a Neanthal), as her sister. Even more intriguing, was that she turned out to be a member of The White Peak Mountain Hearts. I really love how Chae Eun has been a constant supporting player throughout the series. She has showcased a lot of earnestness and made crucial moves to assist our heroes. I am waiting to see how she continues to contribute in the final portion of the story.

Nunbyeol, Itzruv & Rottip: I’m so glad that the Neanthals are back. They are honestly my favorite part of the show, and the species I root for the most. The new Neanthals are Itzruv and Rottip. They show up to Nunbyeol, who turns out to be the only surviving female Neanthal left. She was found and raised by Harim after Chae Eun fell in love with the idea of having the pretty young girl as her little sister. Chae Eun gave her new sister the name Nunbyeol. Itzruv would like Nunbyeol to join the five total survivng male Neanthals, in order to find a nice husband and save their species from dying out. However, Itzruv never threatens her to do so. Nunbyeol expresses her wishes to stay with her adoptive family, and Itzruv respects that. I love how all the scenes showcasing the Neanthals serve as evidence of their innately peaceful nature. The Sarams constantly describe them as a violent species, and yet the first to reach for their sword or act barbaricly are the Sarams themselves. I am interested to see if Nunbyeol will change her mind, as she seemed to be almost swayed by the fact that Itzruv was so gentle and understanding of her, as well as now having knowledge of their dire situation. It will be interesting to see what kinds of moves she will make moving forward. She seems like a very sweet and innocent girl, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up going with the Neanthals after some thought, of course I wouldn’t cast judgement or blame on her if she chooses to stay with her adoptive family instead. I also can’t want to see what happens with Itzruv, Rottip and the other remaining Neanthals as well.

Ragaz & Asa Hon: As mentioned above, these two characters provided a good framework for the main plot. In fact, these characters were so likable and compelling, that most people yearned for more background scenes concerning the pair. I wholeheartedly agree. I enjoyed the dynamic shared between the two of them. They barely had any dialogue at all, but the few lines and gestures that characters did share, spoke volumes. I hope there may be a few more flashbacks of this couple. Their story was so interesting, and sadly, we didn’t get to see their relationship develop on screen the way I had selfishly hoped we would. Ragaz was


PROBLEM AREAS:


PACING:

I’ll be blunt. This is a long a** show. Good god it’s long. Sitting down for an episode is truly a commitment. You better have your snack ready to go when you settle in for this one. Listen, I love a good show. I really do. However, no show needs to be a whopping hour-and-a-half long. Really, I promise. It honestly is possible to make a fantastic show with fifty to sixty minute episodes. Arthdal Chronicles is certainly not the first tvN show to brazenly sashay past the hour-and-fifteen minute mark, and it undoubtedly won’t be the last. To be fair, there were some episodes that were very well paced, and flew by. However, I’d say most of the episodes wheedled on way longer than they should have, due to the decent chunk of filler material they somehow felt the need to toss into pretty much every episode. This junk could take on any form, such as shamelessly extended ritual scenes, especially when those white robed goons from the Asa clan were chanting and summoning the dev-… Er…praying to their ancestors. My point is that, viewers want their precious time to be spent valuably, and there was a lot of time-wasting going on here. Yes, a little too much, I’d sadly venture to say. On top of that, some of the pacing was a bit off with certain episodes and developments. I don’t think think enough time was spent fleshing out Eum Som’s character, in parts one OR two, despite the fact that they generously managed to make that possible with Saya in part two alone. We still barely know the man who is supposedly our main hero, but I could tell you quite a few mouthfuls about his identical twin. Not sure why the development of Saya flowed so much more freely, but the writers have really put themselves in a difficult predicament. They have six episodes left to make Eun Som far more interesting than they have in the past twelve. He is, quite frankly, the only character out of all the leads that I feel was underdeveloped and uninteresting, despite my strong desire and instinct to like him most.

CGI:

Listen, when you have a big a** budget, one that was consistently flaunted to the media, I expect to see great things. This show deserves to be dragged to absolute filth for the pitiful CGI skittered throughout. I mean-… really? Was that all you could do? The green screen usage was offensively obvious and honestly, the CGI was just unabashedly shameful. I’ve seen some pretty atrocious CGI in my time, but more often than not, it has appeared in low budget shows for public broadcasting networks. This was a luxurious series with a fancy budget for a private broadcasting network. There is no excuse for such a failure with that kind of money on hand.

COMPLEXITY:

As mentioned above in the Plot & Storyline section, the narrative is rather complex. Depending on who’s watching, and their personal preferences, this could be a huge turn off. This series needs to be figured out and pieced together by the viewer, which requires patience. The average audience may not appreciate having to connect all the hints and parts that make up the, at times, puzzling origin story. On top of that, there are a plethora of intricate names, tribes, and characters to remember and keep track of. This series is not for the “sit back and relax” drama watcher. Critical thinking and close attention are crucial, as is a good memory.


OVERALL THOUGHTS:


I am really enjoying Arthdal Chronicles thus far. Despite some of the flaws I have pointed out, the unexpected route this series ended up taking has been refreshing and captivating. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before in a k-drama. I firmly believe that if they can continue this momentum, the final portion of the series could be the best yet. I felt the second section of the show successfully built off of the first and proved to be a thrilling and hypnotizing experience full of twists and turns. What I really love about this show is that it always has perfect cliff hangers at the end of each episode. There wasn’t a single week that went by where I wasn’t on my death bed waiting to see the next episode, which is extremely rare for me. All in all, this is meticulously thought out series that hasn’t failed to grab my intention. I can honestly say that I am fully invested in the outcome of all the key characters, and I absolutely cannot wait until September.

Did you watch Arthdal Chronicles Parts 1 & 2? What did you think of the drama? If you haven’t already, you can check out the preview for it here.

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