Cursed from birth by the terrible creature known as Bulgasal, Dan Hwal (Lee Jin-Wook) is an outcast wherever he goes. In a world where Monsters, man-eating creatures, walk amongst humans, Hwal longs for a way to put an end to his eternal days. His fate seems interwoven with that of Min-Sang-Un (Kwon Nara), a young woman who looks exactly the same as the Bulgasal who cursed him, as well as the mysterious Ok Eul-Tae (Lee Joon).
How should I put this? This drama was… an emotional roller-coaster.
Author’s note | I’ll be doing things a bit differently this time since I had a lot to say about this show and what happens in it: spoilery analyses will be hidden under a spoiler tag, but the rest will be safe as usual.
Money, Money, Money
As a Netflix original, Bulgasal received a lot of budget, and it certainly shows. Indeed, if there’s one thing that remains consistent throughout, it’s the quality of the visual and sound effects : the pilot catches the eye from the get go with gorgeous snowy landscapes, and the monsters’ vocalisations are worth wearing headphones if only to appreciate them properly.
And as opposed to some dramas which go all out in the first few episodes before settling for mediocrity (cough cough Vincenzo cough cough), Bulgasal keeps offering beautiful shots and a carefully-tended photography with focuses on greenery, interiors filled with plants, gorgeous colors and interesting landscapes.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that the production quality remains one of the main assets of the show from its very beginning to its very end, although the way it keeps shying away from actual fight scenes was quite disappointing. (So were Kwon Nara’s clothes, to be honest: while only Dan Hwal had a decent wardrobe, Kwon Nara must have offended her costume designer somehow, because she looked like an ajumma the entire time.)
Lee Joon at the Top
It took me much longer than I’d like to admit to realize that Lee Joon, whom I loved in Vampire Detective, played main antagonist Ok Eul-Tae, but his performance was definitely one of, if not the highlight of the show. Truly, he was so very excellent that he outshone all the other actors combined. Every single one of his scenes was captivating, so much so that I quickly came to regret that he wasn’t there more.
Additionally, his character is much more interesting than the others, who seem completely bland compared to the powerful and ever-mysterious figure that is Ok Eul-Tae, to the point that I and many others ended up on his side rather than the protagonists’. It was the first time I genuinely didn’t support the good guys, and I thought the big reveals from the last episode would change my mind by finally providing some key answers. Except they didn’t. In fact, they convinced me more than ever that Ok Eul-Tae was right all along.
To be honest, I think Ok Eul-Tae deserved better, and from the moment we started to understand a little of what was going on, I couldn’t help but see the story through his eyes rather than Hwal or Min Sang-Un’s.
On top of that, I’m sorry, but Ok Eul-Tae was nowhere near the evil figure they all made him out to be. Far from it, in fact. For over a thousand years, he waited for Hwal in constant agony, and followed his instructions to the letter. All this loyalty and faithfulness, and for what? To be rejected over and over again by every single person he came to care from: his father, who considered him useless because of an illness he couldn’t help; Doo-yun, whom he pretty much raised and who dropped him like a hot potato as soon as he met Hwal who treated him badly. And Hwal himself, whom he waited for all this time and endured unspeakable torment for.
Eul-Tae didn’t ask for much, in the end: even as he was dying, the only thing he wanted was for someone, anyone, to look at him and pay attention to him. The person who did that would have earned his undying loyalty, a fierce protector and a faithful friend, somebody who’d have fought to the death to protect their interests. One just had to reach out and talk to him like an actual human being.
Hwal’s decision to ignore everything Eul-Tae had to say even though he was the only one with all the answers made no sense at all. Sure, it was understandable that he’d hesitate at first, not knowing who to believe. But he should have, for one, let him speak his piece, and for another, spoken with him to try and understand what had happened when it became apparent that he was speaking the truth, and then taken responsibility for his actions. If Hwal was indeed the one who’d started everything and put Eul-Tae on that path, the very least he could do was to accept it and try to reason with him, instead of jumping straight to “let’s kill this bothersome guy, I don’t like what he has to say”.
Instead, Eul-Tae finds himself tossed aside after having given all of himself once more, his actions over the past millenia invalidated by a man who decided on a whim that he’d changed his mind, deal with it.
Worst of all, even at the very end, Eul-Tae kept reaching out to Hwal, offering him an out, going as far as to offer himself to him as a meal if only it could get him at least a fragment of the recognition he so desperately craved.
“Look at me,” he begged with his dying breath, “don’t go.” It was just so sad.
…and the Others
On the other hand, I found both Lee Jin-Wook and Kwon Nara quite bland. Weighed down by nonexistent chemistry, their characters and their performance ended up dull, which made it difficult to empathize with them or even get attached. In the end, the only positive emotion I felt towards them was maybe a vague sense of pity for Hwal. Maybe. (In their defence, it was very hard to shine with Lee Joon right there slaying everything.)
More precisely, while Lee Jin-Wook’s permanent frown seemed natural considering his terrible past and taciturn personality, the 180° turn his personality took once he fell “in love” was enough to make one dizzy: simply put, he was unrecognizable. Solemn, silent and sullen one minute, he became a besotted fool the next, which reminded me of all those strong Chinese drama female leads who start asking permission to breathe as soon as they meet The One.
Similarly, I understand that they wanted to make Min Sang-Un the type of solar personality who puts everybody before herself, spreads cheer everywhere she goes and has people helplessly gravitating around her, but I found it forced and endlessly boring. On the contrary, I kept hoping for the screenwriters to have made her the final boss. She was just that fake.
So then, what sort of romance could we get from two boring characters with zero chemistry? One that feltforced and didn’t bring anything to the plot except for artificial conflict. I’d already thought to myself that they had no reason whatsoever to fall in love with each other when it started getting cheesy, but it turned out that I was more right than I thought.
Yes, because it turns out that the only reason those two were together in the first place was that they were the only two of their kind: it had nothing to do with love, desire or affection, no. And in the end, the first time Bulgalady came across a couple humans, she just dropped Bulgaman for ten years to play house with them without a single word of explanation.
And when the poor man finally left his lair after more than a decade waiting for her as she had her fun, she preferred to kill herself so as to kill him rather than to thank him for, you know. Trying to protect her. Let me reiterate: he respected her choice, only came to rescue her when she was under attack, never even tried to bring her back by force or do anything she didn’t like… and she killed him for it.
Apart from the fact that this entire chain of events was frankly ridiculous and could only elicit “all this for that!” sort of reactions, I don’t really understand how we could be expected to support Min Sang-Un when it’s her selfish desire and irrational hatred for Dan Hwal that caused all that suffering to not only the person she claimed to love, but also the people in their orbit.
And I’m very, very annoyed by this stupid belief that all women will one day succumb to their maternal instincts, as well as by the way the responsibility was all put on Hwal’s shoulders, to the point that he spent his dying moments apologizing for a situation he was a victim of, while the actual culprit tearfully whined her forgiveness.
The sheer hypocrisy!
The overall plot also really annoyed me. Sure, at the beginning, I was so into it. There was so much mystery, so many questions I couldn’t wait to get the answers of. Except the further the story unfolded, the more inconsistent it got, to the point that the few rules that had been established got conveniently forgotten and trampled upon. In the end, nothing made any sense anymore.
- Why was Eul-Tae the only “half Bulgasal” on Earth, and why must he endure this agony to become immortal while Hwal or Bulgalady never had to?
- Why did Bulgalady stab Hwal in the back to get his soul, in the end?
- Why did Bulgalady protect Hwal when he was a kid, if she hated him so much?
- How come both Bulgasal could reincarnate if they had no soul?
- And by the way, how come one of the twins could reincarnate and not the other, if they shared a soul? How do you share a soul?
- What about all those creepy foretelling scenes in which the old shaman kept saying that everybody would die if “the one with no memories” remembered?
- Why was Ok Eul-Tae systematically paralyzed with agony everytime he tried to approach and/or hurt Min Sang-Un?
- Since Ming Sang-Un’s soul was in fact Hwal’s which was in the end Eul-Tae’s, shouldn’t Si-Ho have seen the men’s memories as well when she was diving into her sister’s past lives?
- What about all those times Min Sang-Un suddenly became a Terminator whenever no man was around to rescue her before losing her memory? What was going on there?
- How come Hwal’s curse on Original Si-Ho ended up not working? She did give birth to his son, didn’t she?
- Where did Bulgasal originate from? How are they born?
- Why was the old detective so very stupid in all his incarnations?
- And really, why was Hwal so obsessed with avenging his family even though he never was a good father or a good husband, and hardly ever spent time with either of them even when he found their reincarnations?
I could go on…
In the end, the further I got into Bulgasal, the more familiar my mounting frustration felt: yes, because the scriptwriters also wrote The Guest, another show which started very well only to crash and burn halfway through.
Just like The Guest, Bulgasal started out really well, only to contradict itself and happily stromp on everything it had established as the plot unravelled. Sure, I had a lot of questions at first, but instead of answering them, the rest of the show added a ton of them!
On top of that, while those scriptwriters always manage to come up with interesting concepts and ideas, they’re really, really bad at character, relationships, and family. The “found family” Bulgasal kept trying to force down our throat was so forced and shallow it wasn’t even funny, if only because some characters (such as Si-Ho) were thoroughly useless, and pretty much all of them barely spent any time with Dan Hwal.
This is why Doo-yun’s great betrayal left me completely indifferent, for one. His confrontation with Dan Hwal was probably intended to make people cry and despair, but it fell hopelessly flat because Hwal never ever showed him any sort of kindness or affection, and had no qualms tossing him aside when it was revealed that he was working for Ok Eul-Tae all along. It was only when he realized that Doo-yun was his reincarnated son A-chan that he finally showed him some care, but even then, it was only a few scenes which ultimately led to nothing, since Doo-yun was just… weirded out. And so was I, really. Hwal was so awkward, it made me cringe.
The same applied to Si-Ho, who remained wary of Hwal for over half the show, only to suddenly worry about him a lot when she decided that he wasn’t that bad after all. Very suddenly so, considering they didn’t have a single significant conversation over the course of 16 episodes.
And let’s not forget that, just like in The Guest, out-of-character stupidity became a common plot device towards the last few episodes, which made everyone feel anything but relatable. Not one of them reacted like a normal adult, except maybe for Ok Eul-Tae, which is saying something given the state of his mental health.
Take Sang-Un, for instance. For over ten episodes, Hwal was terrible to her, kept telling her that he wanted to kill her, yet she “fell in love” with him. What the heck?
Hwal, who spent six hundred years tracking down Bulgalady’s reincarnations so as to kill her and get his soul back since he was convinced she was the cause of his family’s death, fell in love with her barely two days after learning that she was maybe innocent. Maybe. For six centuries he held onto this one belief and used it as his one reason to keep going, but nope, it’s all fine! Boy’s doing great.
Lee Hye-Seok, who’s supposed to be over fifty years old and therefore have at least some cognitive ability, fully aware that a vengeful Bulgasal was after them, decided that Si-Ho and Doo-Yun were both right and the luxurious mountain villain with a pool that they were staying at wasn’t good enough: better go back to the dilapidated house that their enemy knew about. Three guesses what happened next, the first two don’t count.
And finally, my friend the private detective, the stupidest of them all and one of the reasons this stupid story happened at all. His son got killed, and he went to kill Bulgasal even though the corpse didn’t have a single scratch on him apart from a bludgeoned head. Had he used his brain for two seconds, he’d have realized that something was off there, but nooo. The same for his latest incarnation: how easy it was to resent Hwal for his sister’s death when the man didn’t even know she was there, and couldn’t help the secondary effects from his presence! On top of that, his father was an abusive Monster who’d have killed them sooner or later, so Hwal did them a favor by killing him? Why does everybody keep blaming Hwal for things he can’t help?
All in All…
Yes, Bulgasal had a very enticing start, but quickly forgot all of its promises to become an irreparable mess, full of stereotypical and stupid characters, manufactured conflict, contradictory information and inconsistencies. Even Lee Joon’s formidable performance, the one light in this dark tunnel of a letdown, couldn’t save this disaster. Bulgasal, in the end, didn’t need much to hold up to its tremendous potential: the writers only had to flip the tables.
Had they made Min Sang-Un the bad guy as Ok Eul-Tae said, had she engineered everything as he claimed, this entire show could have been fantastic.
Alas, they didn’t have that courage. Let this wreck rest in peace with the most frustrating dramas I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch.
Title: Bulgasal: Immortal Souls
Country: South Korea
Aired: 12/18/2021 to 02/06/2022
Starring: Lee Jin-Wook, Kwon Nara, Lee Joon, Gong Seung-Yeon, Kim Woo-Seok
Genres: Horror, Mystery, Thriller, Fantasy, Supernatural
My Rating: ★☆☆☆☆