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Alchemy of Souls' Linguistic and Character-Driven H(yoo)mour

reviewed by Toyosi Begbaaji

Netflix’s Alchemy of Souls is another in a long line of successful Korean series funded and produced by the streaming juggernaut. It follows the shadow assassin Naksu (Go Yoon-Jung), whose soul becomes trapped in the body of a blind common woman named Mu-deok (Jung So-Min). While trying to regain her power and escape capture, she becomes close with the mages (users of magic) of Songrim, particularly Jang Uk (Lee Jae-Wook) and the rest of the Four Seasons—the children of the four great mage families with whom Naksu has a complicated past.

Naksu, the Shadow Assassin, played by Go Yoon-Jung. - Image credit: https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220615000732

Mudeok (left) and Jang Uk (right) - Image credit: https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220615000732


The show has been praised for its intricate plot, impressive CGI, commitment to fantasy in a time of excess realism and law dramas, and how it harkens to the Chinese xianxia genre. As I’ve been watching and thoroughly enjoying the show, I feel that one of its strongest elements is its humour. Like many K-Dramas, Alchemy of Souls offsets its darker moments with light moments of humour, typically in the form of hijinks and interactions between the characters.


In particular, Naksu/Mu-deok carries much of the show’s funniest moments on her back. Most notable is the distinct way she talks when she is presenting herself as the frail and dopey common woman Mu-deok to other mages. Jung So-Min, in a neat bit of characterisation, adopts the equivalent of a Southern accent, making use of the 충청 (chungcheong) dialect. Listen to how in scenes with other mages or out in the world, Mu-deok ends her sentences with -유 (-yoo), instead of with the standard 요 (-yo) or more formal and polite 십시오 (-shibshio). Aside from signifying to others that Mu-deok is (seemingly) nothing more than a weak country woman, this -유 ending makes everything Mu-deok says sound cutesy and nauseating. When you compare it to how she speaks normally, such as when she is alone with Jang Uk, the difference is night and day, and makes scenes with Mu-deok hilarious. I’m especially fond of her scenes with the Crown Prince and how she strokes his ego enough to make him not suspect her at all.


Another source of humour is from how Jang Uk and Naksu/Mu-deok speak to one another, in general. As a master (Naksu) and student (Jang Uk) masquerading in public as a young master (Jang Uk) and servant (Mu-deok), they bicker. A lot. Lee Jae-Wook’s comedic timing in delivering his lines as a petulant but still likable aristocrat never misses — the way he tries to assert his authority only to be left muttering dumbfounded beneath his breath whenever Naksu/Mu-deok flusters him is a common occurrence from episode to episode. Not only is this funny, but it’s doing vital character work, building and developing their individual characters and relationship. Too often, K-Dramas of this type will rush its romance between the main leads, leading to either both characters or the relationship as a whole feeling underdeveloped. The writers of Alchemy of Souls, in contrast, have built the foundation of Jang Uk and Naksu’s relationship off their humourous banter.


And other course, there are the personalities and interactions between non-principal members of the cast: the dopey but capable Park Dang-gu (Yoo In-soo); the stoic and tortured Seo Yul (Hwang Min-hyun, formerly of NU’EST); the “deserves-so-much-better-than-she’s-given” Jin Cho-yeon (Arin from OHMYGIRL); the posturing and ruthless Crown Prince Go Won (Shin Seung-ho); and Jang Uk’s pseudo-parental figures, Park Jin (Yu Jun-sang) and Maid Kim (Oh Na-ra). There’s so many more, making Alchemy of Souls sprawling and epic in scope, despite its relatively small-scale story.

From left to right: Jin Cho-yeon, Park Dang-gu, Seo Yul, and Jang Uk. - Image credit: https://www.kpopmap.com/4-reasons-to-watch-fantasy-kdrama-alchemy-of-souls/


As a whole, Alchemy of Souls doesn’t take itself too seriously 100% of the time, allowing for levity that is always welcome amidst the heavy themes and plot of the show. If you’ve not seen the show yet, be sure to check it out and watch for the bits of humour within the show!


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Tony Mike
Tony Mike
Nov 29, 2023

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