Bulgasal: good but not great

Bulgasal: Immortal Souls arrived on Netflix last December seeming like it might be as amazing as Hellbound or Squid Game. The first episode is set 600 years ago and looks absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, from episode two onwards, when the story moves to modern times, Bulgasal feels like a very different drama. That’s not to say it’s a bad show. It’s good, it just isn’t spectacular. Light spoilers coming up.

Bulgasal is about an immortal being who used to be human. His name is Dan Hwal. For six centuries he’s sought out Min Sang-un, the woman who apparently stole his soul, cursed him with immortality, and killed his wife and son. Dan Hwal is played by Lee Jin-wook, possibly one of the most handsome men on the planet.

To follow the plot you’ll need to understand two key points. Everyone is reincarnated looking exactly as they did in their previous lives. And souls are fated to meet each other in life after life, replaying the same relationship dynamics over and over.

The reincarnation part of the story makes for some fascinating twists. Where Dan Hwal meets people and remembers who they were 600 years previously, Ok Eul-tae remembers the same souls from 1,000 years back. Dan Hwal’s story is old, but in a sense he has walked in half way through Ok Eul-tae’s much older tale. I love the layering of stories here and can’t wait to see how this aspect of Bulgasal unfolds.

Of course, Ok Eul-tae and Dan Hwal have the other characters at a disadvantage. And Ok Eul-tae knows far more than Dan Hwal. Meanwhile, Min Sang-un is told she did something very significant 600 years ago, but she can’t remember what. She also doesn’t know why Ok Eul-tae is out to get her.

I love the concept of a story that stretches over a millenium and perhaps even longer.

The characters are the reason why I like Bulgasal but don’t love it. They’re all likeable but I don’t know, perhaps there are too many players in the story. Or maybe some of them are too perfect. Dan Hwal is heroically stoic and wise. Min Sang-un is terribly courageous and self-sacrificing. I don’t even know what to say about Sang-un’s blandly sisterly sister.

My favourite character is Ok Eul-tae, the petulant, bored monster who eats human flesh, wears fabulous clothes and sometimes surprises himself by caring about people. Flawed characters make for interesting viewing. I think that’s something the writers of the truly great K-dramas know very well.

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