Visitors to present-day Jeju Island will notice what look like humanoid sculptures, made of porous basalt rock, standing outside numerous entryways around the island. Called dol hareubang, they were revered as symbols of the gods’ offering of protection to the people of Jeju from demons who travel between realities. While the superstition surrounding these statues has dissipated over the centuries, they are widely considered iconic symbols of Jeju to this day.
In the world of Island – TVING and Amazon Prime Video’s latest fantasy action K-drama series – the story behind dol hareubang is slightly different. Their history, in the Island universe, goes back to when Jeju was known as Tamna Island before South Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. Demons brought chaos and carnage upon the peaceful isle, which prompted God to imbue the blood of 46 of his children into the dol hareubang to prevent more demons from terrorising Tamna. As counterfeit statues were erected as a means to protect the original 46, some were eventually imbued with an evil energy by an unknown source, which led to an undercurrent of demonic magic running through Jeju.
Won Mi-ho (Lee Da-hee), a chaebol heiress banished from her family and company after a scandal, heads to the island but gets ambushed by demons the minute she arrives. But she’s saved by the immortal demon hunter Van (Kim Nam-gil) – who strangely seems to recognise her. Also in the picture is is Yo-han (ASTRO’s Cha Eun-woo), a young Catholic priest under the tutelage of Butler Jang – who works for Mi-ho and is involved in much more than she knows – with preternatural talents for exorcism and a penchant for modern methods; he wears a pair of headphones while effortlessly battling evil spirits.
If that seems like a lot to grasp, it is – and Island doesn’t make that an easy task. The series scatters morsels of explanation – about why the demons are targeting Mi-ho, her inexplicable connection to Van, who their enemy is in the first place – between all the fighting and demon scenes seemingly injected for shock value. Perhaps this was done so viewers could share Mi-ho’s own perspective of the situation, but in doing so the showrunners have made the story more confusing than alluring.
Pacing is also a significant issue. With only six hour-long episodes to cover its exhaustive lore, Island has spread itself too thin. The series’ primary antagonist only has one brief cameo four episodes in, leaving only two hours for the show to cover not only his backstory but his motivations – all while trying to wrap up the catastrophic circumstances befalling Jeju Island. Island has been renewed for a second season, but the slapdash, harried manner with which the first season concluded could well make viewers lose interest in a sequel.
It must be said that the series’ leads – Lee Da-hee, Kim Nam-gil and Cha Eun-woo – do endow their characters, despite the messy and one-dimensional writing, with as much life and substance as possible. Kim is especially bewitching as the hero Van, masterfully executing fight scenes while showing the character’s softer side in the more personal (albeit rare) scenes with Lee.
The fantastically choreographed action scenes aside, Island also looks breathtaking, especially the carefully crafted CGI used to depict the show’s otherworldly spiritual entities. It’s no surprise that Studio Dragon, who also worked on the similarly vivid Alchemy of Souls, is involved. Although it’s another interesting addition to the subset of K-dramas branching out into fantasy-action territory, Island’s sloppy writing is its downfall. It feels futile to hope that a second season will fill in the many blanks left by the first’s ending, but it may be worth it for Kim, Lee and Cha’s stellar performances as well as the gorgeous CGI.
Island season 1 is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and TVING.