Cast has been and remains the biggest draw to dramas/movies for me. Over the years, however, behind-the-screen team like the director or scriptwriter started playing a part too, especially once i started noticing some familiar names and how some of my top — and least — favorite dramas were brainchilds of the same people. Among the directors line, Kim Won-suk is one of them; he made me check out Signal, then My Ahjussi, and now Arthdal Chronicles.
Well, the cast was probably the more effective pull here, because i couldn’t possibly pass up on a drama led by Jang Dong-gun, Song Joong-ki, and Kim Ji-won. Moreover, i somehow forgot that he was the director because of how bad the dark scenes were. There are lots of night scenes in his previous two dramas too, but i don’t recall them being this bad, like the frames are grainy and faces are difficult to see even at my screen’s brightest level, to the point it’s tiring to look at. The slow pacing and bloated runtime (my pet peeve with tvN dramas) only worsen my watching experience. So to avoid dropping this drama, i speed up the playback, fast-forward through draggy scenes, and pace my watching. These tricks helped me move through the episodes though they still couldn’t make the 80-minute narrative feel like 60 or less.
Especially in the first week. The story felt like crawling. But that’s where the foundation lay and key characters were introduced. Given the colossal nature, there are lots of names and faces in this drama; to make things easier, i’ll summarize the basics:
- Arthdal is where the most technologically-advanced and greediest species, Saram, reside. The biggest three tribes there are Saenyeok, White Mountain, and Hae.
Respective heads: Sanung (Kim Eui-sung), the father of Tagon (Jang Dong-gun); Asa Ron (Lee Do-kyung); Mihol (Jo Sung-ha), the father of Taealha (Kim Ok-bin).
- Atturad is home of the strongest and most gifted species, Neanthals. Their blood is uniquely blue and their soil is incredibly fertile.
Most prominent character: Ragaz (Yoo Teo), the father of Eun-seom (Song Joong-ki).
- Iark is the faraway land of the smallest yet happiest tribe, Wahan. They curiously speak the same language as Saram and share the ability to dream as Neanthals.
Matriarchal head: Mother Choseol (Kim Ho-jung), mother of Tanya (Kim Ji-won).
The story is set in the time when there is no nation, every plant and creature has a name, and humans live in harmony with nature. Things start getting messy when Saram covet Atturad’s fertile soil but the Neanthals refuse to join hands to cultivate it. So the former launches a dirty attack to seize the land by exterminating its inhabitants. After 10 long years, they claim to have wiped out every single Neanthal and shift their focus to Iark in search of slaves, which take them another 10 years to reach due to its challenging terrain.
Once they do, hellish never-ending nightmares await the Wahans.
Besides slow-moving, this ancient drama is also hard to watch. Especially in the occupation scenes. These imperious Saram deem Neanthals “monsters” and call Iark dwellers “barbarians”, not realizing they are the true savages. Ugh.
Due to differences in standard of living and living conditions, there are some deer-in-headlights moments, but they’re not played out for comedy; they’re half fascination, half terror. Arthdal is an advanced yet scary place. There are ranks in the community, slaves are treated as if they’re animals, denizens are seen as pawns, and lives have little values. Body count is countless, and murder may not be something to put against the characters since both the good and bad guys have done it. It is a union yet feels like a nation: there’s law and order, military forces guarding the borders, and a leader. Not to mention politicking.
The three main tribes of Arthdal actually form a great synergy: Hae is the brain, Saenyeok is the brawn, while the Asa Clan is the spirit. But there’s an interesting dynamic within its population: although there’s a union leader, people sometimes look up to their spiritual leader more. Which naturally causes friction and tension between the heads. Neanthals massacre and slaves hunt are two of their maneuvers to extend power and gain public approval, among other ploys and intrigues to keep their position. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Eun-seom who simply wants to free his folks.
This plot direction/development is certainly not my cup of tea, but when the power play is brewing between the antagonists, it becomes much more bearable and rather fun to watch, because i’m not rooting for anybody.
Sanung is riding on his estranged son’s tactics for successful military invasions, Asa Ron is interpreting oracles to his advantage, Mihol is playing both sides, whereas Tagon is getting less dimensional by each episode. Seriously, young Tagon (played by ONE/Jung Jae-won) appeared to be the most intriguing and layered character who took care of dying comrades and took an Igutu (meaning mixed blood) baby home, yet became just like cunning and wicked as other villains once Jang Dong-gun took over the role. He even goes as far as killing his own father and faking being possessed by Aramun Haesulla, a worshiped god in Arthdal, to rise to power.
While these men busy trying to one-up one another, it’s interesting to note how strong the female characters are. First off, i love the fact that Wahan is a matriarchal tribe; Mother Choseol is a wise and sympathetic mother figure for her people. Taealha is a commanding and sly charmer who manipulates future Arthdal leaders in order to have the union under her feet eventually. Tanya seems like a damsel in distress, but she isn’t just Eun-seom’s love interest; she steps up to the plate when push comes to shove: placing horrible curse on Daekan Forces, enough to stop them from killing more Wahan folks. Then there’s Chae-eun (Go Bo-gyeol) who mentors Eun-seom on his bloodline, teaches him the ropes of Arthdal, including how to hide his purple lips, and basically prevents him from being mobbed due to his identity.
So yeah, i do enjoy the ensemble cast and the production so far despite not being too big on the plot. It’s quite convoluted and tedious which makes me miss the warm and bright atmosphere of Iark that’s taken away from us way too soon. The episodes still feel long despite my efforts to breeze through them; in fact, the first six episodes are actually an uber drawn-out introduction to The Children of Prophecy born on a certain unlucky day who will end the world.
We know that Eun-seom and Tanya were born on that day, but i didn’t expect a third child in that equation. Yes, there’s that Igutu baby ‘saved’ by young Tagon whose identity has been kept under wraps for some reason, and while i expected a twist, i didn’t expect it to be Eun-seom’s mirror image. I never realized Asa Hon (Chu Ja-hyun) had twins! Or that we’d see Joong-ki in dual role here! What a pleasant surprise!
What ain’t shocking is Tagon’s mixedbloodness. Though i wonder how no one except his dad and lover knows about it — like, was he never scratched or injured in the two long decades he was in the front line? — and how this shall affect his road to ruling Arth. If anything, it’s nice to know that there are (at least) three purple-blooded Igutus left, although it’s a pity they will end up as enemies instead of allies. Imagine the kind of formidable team they could make.