We’re entering the third week of this fusion sageuk drama, where every single possible genre is mixed all together into this odd stew that tastes better than it looks but leaves a confusing aftertaste. Basically, I’m just confused. What is The Night Watchman’s Journal all about, and what is it trying to be?
Right off the bat we learn that ghosts and supernatural beings coexist with humans not too peacefully, and the humans have been able to banish the evil spirits for the most part. However there are evil shamans in the world too, and one of them, Sadam (an unrecognizable Kim Sung Oh) is ready to take over the world.
So we have our villain and now we need our hero. At first we think the King Hae Jong (Choi Won Shin) will be the one to help save the day but he ends up being nothing more than a puppet for the evil spirit. He kisses another shaman, who is also Sadam’s victim, and suddenly she decides that she’s no longer fit to be a shaman. So… I guess shamans are meant to be virgins? Or she happens to be fully aware that an evil spirit resides in her and so she’d rather give in completely to the dark side (as in, die) rather than wreak more havoc alive. Oookay…
By the way what happens in the first couple of episodes is not a spoiler as it’s what sets up the rest of the series.
At this point, the drama is really dark and heavy on the CGI. It’s not scary dark, just visually dark. (Honestly, can you even really distinguish figures in the screencaps above?) The CGI isn’t even that impressive because it doesn’t make the dragon (yes, there’s a dragon) or the ghosts very fearsome. Ghosts appear as black wisps of smoke that go through humans’ bodies, and the dragon looks like the Host’s anemic cousin.
What made this drama somewhat confusing is that you aren’t really sure about the rules of the world. Yes there are evil spirits and evil shamans trying to take control over the monarchy, but you’re not really sure what they can control or what their special abilities are. Right now I think Sadam is a form of Jafar from Aladdin, where he uses smoke to hypnotize his king, he can see ghosts, and he uses spells to cast magic. But I don’t understand what Do Ha (Go Seung Hee) or her sister could do. They just seem to pray – to whom? – and Do Ha can see ghosts.
And then you have Lee Rin (Jung Il Woo) who can see ghosts. It seems that he inherited his father’s ability to see ghosts, which makes them both ideal leaders of the Night Watchmen. He was then told that seeing ghosts will put him in a dangerous position as it threatens his brother’s rule, so he spends most of his time ignoring the ghosts even though he has a hard time doing so. His other brother Prince Kisan (a menacing Kim Heung Soo) can’t see ghosts, but can see the deeper side of him that feeds on his insecurities. It makes him appear a little crazy too. This whole family is crazy, and the psychological horror that befalls the two princes when they’re young in episode 2 is so harrowing. One can’t help but wonder how much more psychological stress Lee Rin has to go through watching his father become mad and violent? From a young age Kisan is already quite malicious but I think watching his father brutally murder all of his loyal soldiers and go mad certainly made him go even further into the dark side.
After two episodes of a dark, melodramatic, action historical the drama suddenly takes on a brighter tone. It’s full of comedy as Jung Il Woo portrays Lee Rin as a flippant noble who’s both quirky and carefree. (His costume in episodes 4-5 really represents that too, thanks to his mother Shim Youn Ok who designed it. Seen above.) He can see ghosts, including those of his Eunuch/nanny, a loyal minister, and a young girl whom we don’t know how she’s connected to him. However he continues to pretend that he can’t see or hear them. He uses each situation to his advantage though; When he hears them talking about angels in a secluded mountain river he quickly heads over for the chance to spy on naked angels. When he hears of a popular gisaeng who never seems to be able to get through one night with a man without killing him, he takes up the challenge and discovers that a ghost is killing all of the gisaeng’s suitors out of jealousy. And he manages to survive the night.
It feels like Lee Rin is so aware of his life’s narrative that he wants it played out as quixotically as possible so that his life can resemble a Korean drama or a movie. However everyone else is rooted in reality and they quickly snap him out of it. Think he’s above everyone else? Do Ha is always there to point out that he’s just a stuck-up fool. It’s funny because the script seems a little self-aware, especially when you have such soaring soundtrack to make the drama feel like a sweeping historical only to have it cut out and be replaced with such lighthearted music.
I’m really not sure how I’m supposed to take this drama at all. It’s part mystery, part melodrama, part comedy, part thriller, part action, part historical. When I think I should be scared of a ghost, I’m not. When I think a ghost is non-threatening, it actually is. I am never sure who is looking at what because there’s a lot of chance for misdirection (ghosts and whatnot), and not everything is clarified immediately in the drama. I feel that there will be many flashbacks to help cover necessary information when we need it, but it’s a bit of an unsettling feeling because I don’t know how I’m supposed to understand the characters just yet. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about our hero yet because I can’t help but laugh at him rather than with him.
It’s fun to watch, but then I end up not understanding what just happened. Hence the confusing aftertaste.
If anyone out there is watching it, what do you all think about this drama? And how do you make sense of this world, if you make sense of it at all?