‘Alchemy of Souls’ review: an ambitious spell that risks falling flat

This fantasy K-drama boasts a compelling world and mesmerizing CGI, but that might not be enough to make up for its faults

Fhose of us who grew up on a steady diet of anime will remember the concept of alchemy from Fullmetal Alchemist (Brotherhood, of course – we don’t talk about the first one). The science of transforming one element into another was built upon the fundamental law of equal exchange: for something to take shape, another thing of equal value must be provided. By extension, human transfiguration was forbidden, for nothing could compare to the value of a soul.

A similar rule exists in Alchemy Of Souls, albeit with a slight variation. The fictitious land of Daeho is no stranger to magic, but where there is power, there is also corruption. Mages, or magic-users, are forbidden from using soul-shifting, the power to transfer a soul from one body to another. A gross violation of the natural order of existence, soul-shifting poses the threat of having the host body clash with its given soul, birthing terrible soul-feeders that consume other human souls for existence.

Terrifying, but apparently the only option for formidable assassin Nak-su (Go Yoon-jung) to survive while she’s being hunted by the upper echelons of Daeho. With a few movements of her fingers, Nak-su – who is also a wielder of water-based magic – finds herself in the body of the frail servant Mu-deok (Jung So-min). Being trapped inside a form that starts heaving at the thought of a light sprint has its advantages though, as it brings Nak-su closer to her goal of getting rid of the higher-ups in Songrim – the ground-zero of magic training and maintenance in Daeho.

Enter Jang Wook (Lee Jae-wook), heir to the Jang family and inheritor of massive daddy issues. Despite being the heir to one of the four great magical dynasties in Daeho, Wook does not have any magic abilities, thanks to a powerful spell placed upon him by his father – the great mage Jang Gang (Joo Sang-wook) – when he was a baby. Can others in Songrim remove said spell? Yes. Do they choose not to? Also yes, because according to Wook’s father, his acceptance of his identity and destiny shall bring calamity upon all. Hint hint: soul-shifting is at play here.

Despite his limitations and general entitlement, however, Wook seems to be pretty resourceful. For one, he recognises early on that Mu-deok’s body has been taken over by Nak-su – the very assassins his family and friends were supposed to be hunting. Two, he decides that Nak-su shall be his master and gateway to remove the spell placed upon him and goes to great lengths to achieve his goals. A simple alchemy of souls, thus, brings about seismic changes in magical society.

Credit where credit is due: Alchemy Of Souls sports some of the most impressive use of CGI we’ve seen in K-dramas in recent years. Expansive fights feature mages expertly wielding one natural element after another; gorgeous, flaming energy spheres craft dark magical transformations; and soft tendrils flutter when magic turns beautiful, such as when Jin Cho-yeon (OH MY GIRL’s Arin) infuses the vitality of spring into her magic. Alchemy Of Souls commits to its worldbuilding, which makes for an enchanting cinematic experience… for the most part.

Impressive lore aside, the volume of knowledge in Alchemy Of Souls does make us wonder whether the writers may have bitten off more than they can chew. In addition to the existing families and magical objects, there are techniques, fighting styles, breathing forms and even mysterious lakes brimming with inexplicable powers. The show often suffers while balancing how this information is doled out – we get well thought-out explanations for some, while others are just performed and assumed perfectly understandable.

This creates another dilemma, perhaps one we should have addressed sooner: with how inconsistent information is here, why and how are we supposed to care about the characters? Why does Songrim hold the position it does? Why are the four families considered omnipotent? Why is everyone casually glossing over the fact that said four families may also have engaged in slaughter? Of course, there may be plans to address and/or simplify this over the course of the K-drama’s 20 episodes, but it’s clear for now that there may be a little too much going on here.

It also, unfortunately, is not free of age-old K-drama tropes; there’s a love triangle, the scorned former lover, the genial comic relief, the list goes on. All these dilute an otherwise interesting and compelling tale, where we clearly have bigger things to worry about. As awkward as the repetitive tropes is the comic timing. While we’re not docking too many points for it, it does at times feel forced, as if the writers thought that the best way to humanise these characters would be through awkward humour.

On their own, Jung So-min and Lee Jae-wook do a commendable job of holding the fort as the fearsome assassin turned servant and sidelined son itching to embrace his destiny. Jung, in particular, finds a charming balance between Mu-deok’s friendly features and Nak-su’s biting gazes – her unassuming build easily lulls us into deception, making her spitfire personality and straight-laced words even sharper and more hilarious.

As of now, Alchemy Of Souls seems like an easy watch – and in some places, compelling even. It might remain so, as long as it picks up the pace and starts revealing the right cards. Otherwise, this particular spell risks falling flat.

New episodes of Alchemy Of Souls air every Saturday and Sunday on South Korean cable network tvN, and is also available on Netflix in select regions.

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