With dramas like My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho, Hwayugi: A Korean Odyssey, and Hotel Del Luna under their belt, the Hong sisters are experts at building fantastical worlds with human nature as the beating heart. Alchemy of Souls, perhaps their most ambitious project yet, was unfortunately loaded with redundant and exhausting subplots that contributed little to the overall story.
Fortunately, Alchemy of Souls: Light And Shadow is shaping up to be a tighter and more engaging show than its predecessor. Perhaps it’s the limited 10-episode order, but this time around, the show strips away the lingering sequences and dives right into the mysterious yet devastating aftermath of the first season. The result is a considerably more confident storyline that does not feel the need to impress viewers with glorious CGI, though that’s still aplenty.
We pick up three years after the incidents of the first season, which ended with Jang-uk (Lee Jae-wook) being resurrected and becoming the bearer of the ice stone, and Nak-su (Jung So-min) being extricated from the depths of Lake Gyeongcheondaeho by parties unknown. Jang-uk is now a formidable soul-shifter hunter, ironically wielding the same sword that Naksu stabbed him with. It’s clear, however, that using the powers of the ice stone makes him a hotbed for nightmarish supernatural hauntings. Blunt, isolated, and bitter, he whiles away his nights drinking until an encounter with a soul-shifter leads him straight to Jin Bu-yeon (Go Yoon-jung), who we now know is actually Nak-su.
Jin Bu-yeon, however, does not have any memory of her life up until three years ago. She’s confined to sequestered quarters inside Jinyowon, which has since the events of season one closed its gates to outsiders. As far as the world is concerned, Bu-yeon is still dead. Any hope she has of freedom is quickly dashed by the family matriarch Jin Ho-gyeong (Park Eun-hye), who announces that her betrothed is to live with her in her quarters. So, when Jang-uk shows up at her door, Bu-yeon sees a rare opportunity to escape and begs him to marry her. The prickly Jang-uk declines at first, but upon realising Bu-yeon’s divine powers might help him search for Nak-su, he relents and whisks her away on her wedding night.
While Jung So-min’s Mu-deok/Nak-su is certainly missed in the first two episodes, she and Go Yoon-jung share a buoyancy and brazen confidence which makes the difference imperceptible. Go adds layers of complexity by contrasting Bu-yeon’s endearing youth with an arresting poignancy and playing on her dynamics with the people around her, especially Jin Cho-yeon’s Arin. Arin cuts a scathing representative of Jinyowon, but turns into a caring little sister rebelling against a domineering mother in her own way.
Lee Jae-wook also seems more comfortable in his role. While he leaned into Jang-uk’s misplaced pride and juvenile tendencies more in season one, in Light and Shadow he channels Jang-uk’s personal tragedies and lovesickness with a quiet confidence that makes him a looming presence on screen. Despite this, Lee hasn’t lost touch with Jang-uk’s comic side – his awkwardness and confusion around Bu-yeon contrast his misanthropy wonderfully. Lee’s maturity has also bled into his interactions with Seo Yul (Hwang Min-hyun) and Park Dang-gu (Yoo In-soo). Reunited years later, the three friends are clearly settling into an evolved dynamic.
Much of the storytelling benefits from the rich world articulated by season one, and in Light and Shadow’s first two episodes the Hong sisters trust their viewers enough to pick up right where it left off without pausing too often for recaps. Even when there are parallels to the first season – Bu-yeon trying to weasel information out of a hotel attendant closely mirrors Mu-deok’s inquiries in the pilot – they’re cleverly executed and inspire intrigue.
It’s a refreshing switch-up from the first season, which doled out information erratically and created offshoots in the storyline which took too long to contribute meaningfully to the larger narrative. The successor to Alchemy of Souls is emerging as a focused show, where filler only offers much-needed respite or contributes to character dynamics. In being cognisant of the misses the first time around, this so-far satisfying sequel looks set to do justice to the original story without pandering to increased viewership. Now that’s what we call a comeback.
Alchemy of Souls: Light And Shadow airs every Saturday and Sunday on tvN and on Netflix in selected regions.