Oh My Ghost – Cooking, Romance and Spirits

It’s October, which means I now have a blatant excuse to indulge in entertainment involving horror and the supernatural (as if I needed one). Oh My Ghost [O naui gwisinnim] (2015) is a Korean drama series from the lighter end of the supernatural spectrum, a mixture of spiritual possession, romantic comedy and cooking lessons with a dash of darkness involving a dangerous killer hiding in plain sight. It’s a delicate dish, requiring a couple of bites before the flavour becomes apparent, but it matures on the palate and leaves a pleasant aftertaste.

The two female leads have diametrically opposed personalities. Na Bong-sun (Park Bo-young), an assistant chef at Sun Restaurant, is shy, timid and self-deprecating to the point of self-abnegation. These characteristics are exacerbated by her constant state of exhaustion, since she inherited the shamanic gifts of her grandmother (Lee Joo-sil) and is able to see ghosts. The only way she can keep them at bay is to burn incense, which is impractical in her ventilation-free closet-size apartment, so she is constantly on a knife edge between being lack of sleep and being expelled by her landlord. Shin Soon-ae (Kim Seul-gi), in contrast, is vivacious and outgoing. She’s also a cheonyeogwisin or virgin ghost. She’s been roaming the city for 2½ years since her untimely (and unexplained) death, possessing attractive women in the hopes that she can seduce a man and thus resolve the “grudge” keeping her tied to the earthly plane. The only trouble is that she’s been unable to find a man with the right sort of energy to endure her presence, leaving a series of mysterious hypothermia cases in her wake – and unless she can find a solution within the next 6 months, she will be unable to resist transforming into an evil spirit.

On the run from local shaman Seobinggo (Lee Jung-eun) and spotting an easy target whose energy reserves are low, Soon-ae hides inside Bong-sun – only to find that her new host is such a good match that she’s unable to leave. Her disappointment is leavened somewhat when she finds out that her new body’s workplace gives her the opportunity to spend all day around five hot men, who are immediately freaked out by the new sexually aggressive Bong-sun. Most notable among them is head chef and restaurant owner Kang Sun-Woo (Jo Jung-suk) – who is not only Bong-sun’s culinary hero but also her long-term secret crush. Sun-woo is a classic Mr Darcy type, arrogant and abrasive but inspiring loyalty in those who know him well and secretly more of a softy than he will admit, even to himself. He spends his leisure time trawling through cooking blogs and leaving pseudonymous comments of encouragement, but he keeps coming back to his favourite, the blog run by Sunshine, who is secretly – did you guess? – his assistant Bong-sun. His spiky nature derives largely from an unhappy childhood as a latchkey kid who was bullied at school and whose widowed academic mother (Shin Eun-Kyung) was barely present, throwing all of her energies into a mixture of working late and chasing men. His younger sister Kang Eun-hee (Shin Hye-sun) had a promising career in ballet until a car accident 2½ years earlier (hmm, that sounds familiar) left her wheelchair-bound. She now works as a receptionist for her brother’s restaurant and is married to Choi Ji-woong (Oh Eui-shik), a friendly neighbourhood police officer who is devoted to her – although it quickly becomes apparent that there’s something… off about him on occasion.

When she’s not sexually harassing her co-workers, Soon-ae spends time checking in on her over-worked father (Lee Dae-yeon) and lazy brother (Lee Hak-joo), helping out at their failing diner and generally inveigling herself into their lives. This results in her learning that she is supposed to have committed suicide, although she has no memory of this and can’t think why she would have done so. Just when it starts to appear that we’ll never see the original Bong-sun again, she falls ill and Soon-ae finds herself ejected from her body. After waking in hospital, Bong-sun discovers that she’s suffering from memory loss and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her co-workers have wild stories about her behaviour, there’s some strange local people who talk to her as if they know her, she’s now living in the storeroom at the back of the restaurant, and she’s become a minor TV star as the assistant to her boss on a new celebrity cooking series – which is produced by Lee So-hyeong (Park Jung-ah), Chef Kang’s long-term university crush who married his now-deceased best friend and has recently begun making tentative romantic overtures.

Bong-sun and Soon-ae eventually come to an accommodation: Bong-sun will allow Soon-ae the use of her body to kickstart a relationship with Sun-woo, while Soon-ae will have the opportunity to resolve her earthly issues by finally having sex with a man whose energy is compatible. But while Soon-ae is the one with the necessary confidence to pursue a relationship, Sun-woo is an old-fashioned type who prefers to take relationships slowly – an approach far more compatible with Bong-sun’s personality. Complicating matters from his perspective are her apparent mental health issues, his feeling of personal responsibility for her initial “breakdown” after a harsh performance review, and the dual-level power imbalance inherent in having his employee living under his own roof. As the characters run through various romantic comedy situations, Bong-sun and Soon-ae begin to rub off on each other, like two competing aspects of a single personality coming into balance. Meanwhile Soon-ae gradually begins to question the circumstances of her death and her reason for lingering in the physical world, with her investigations inevitably drawing the attention of her murderer to Bong-sun.

The possession aspect of the scenario raises a whole host of ethical issues about consensual relationships, and to the show’s credit it does an effective job of meeting every one of these issues head on. The first and most obvious concern Soon-ae needs to confront is her failure to consider how Bong-sun might feel about having somebody else use her body to have sex (something she has not yet elected to do herself), let alone the consequences of doing so with a co-worker and all the ways in which the inevitable messy aftermath could go wrong. Once this has been resolved, Sun-woo’s consent to the relationship needs to be considered, since he is effectively being courted by identical twins pretending to be the same person. Who is he actually falling in love with – Bong-sun, Soon-ae, or a hybrid individual who exists only in his imagination? If Soon-ae is doing most of the courting, what happens if she falls in love with him and wants to hang on to him herself? And how will Bong-sun feel when the man she loves talks about happy memories and key moments in their relationship for which she wasn’t present? How will she explain the difference in food preferences, life goals and personal history between herself and Soon-ae? All of these concerns and others that arise along the way are addressed en route to the story’s conclusion. After the escalating tension of the murder subplot comes to a head in episode 15, the final episode provides a gentle comedown, a leisurely aftermath extending roughly a year beyond the end of the main action to allow the central relationship room to breathe, granting the characters time to address any remaining imbalances and to demonstrate that their relationship is both equitable and enduring. It’s an aspect of Korean dramas I greatly appreciate, something rarely (if ever) seen in western TV series – I certainly can’t think of any examples.

There’s a secondary theme running through the show looking at the effects of childhood trauma on a person’s subsequent life. Sun-woo’s neglect as a child and the need to cook for himself was the first step on his journey as a chef, strengthening his relationship with his younger sister but distancing him from his mother, a gap for which she’s belatedly attempting to compensate with misguided helicopter parenting. His experiences of being bullied at school have made him careful in how he exerts his authority over those in his employ/care, but he briefly revels in the opportunity to rub his success in the face of an old bully who’s hit hard times, before rejecting this path and embracing the opportunity to be better. Bong-sun was orphaned at a young age and grew up with her grandmother, but her ability to see ghosts marked out her out as different and she was socially isolated – while she formed a strong bond with her grandmother, expressing her love for her most strongly through her cooking, she was never able to form bonds with others and her sense of self-worth became caught up in a cycle of negative reinforcement. Although their respective childhood experiences provide them with a strong point of connection, Sun-woo’s recognition in Bong-sun of aspects of himself which he has rejected have a negative impact on their ability to connect at first – his heavy-handed attempt to lecture her into being more assertive is interpreted by Bong-sun as harsh criticism confirming all of her negative self-esteem and prompts her resignation. Sun-woo’s sous chef Heo Min-soo (Kang Ki-young) is immature, frequently irritating and prone to minor bullying of his subordinates – but it eventually becomes apparent that he had a similar childhood to Sun-woo and his various dysfunctional antics are motivated by a need to be loved and admired. Officer Choi Ji-woong had by far the darkest childhood of the lot, constantly booted around between multiple orphanages and foster homes without ever finding acceptance. Considered in this context, his marriage to a woman whose mobility needs make her more reliant on him raises uncomfortable questions about potentially unexamined motivations – but while it’s clear that there’s a lot more to him than is immediately apparent, to go too far into other aspects of his behaviour is more of a spoiler than I’m willing to provide.

Park Bo-young excels in her ability to portray two very different personalities, providing the necessary nuance to reflect the gradual changes in both Bong-sun and Soon-ae while always making it clear to the viewer which of the two she is playing. So effective is her performance that I found it genuinely hard to watch Bong-sun in the first episode – she was so thoroughly downtrodden and subdued that I questioned whether I’d be able to keep watching a show in which she was the main character. Thankfully her portrayal of Soon-ae provides enough of a counter-balance to carry any concerned viewers through the next few episodes, and it’s a joy to watch Bong-sun’s spirits begin to rise. Although I knew going into the show that she would later star in the more cartoonishly upbeat Strong Girl Bong-soon [Himssenyeoja Dobongsun] (2017), I genuinely found it difficult to recognise her as the same actress at first, which in itself speaks highly for her acting skills. Er dual performance won her an Excellence Award and a Best Actress Award, and I’m looking forward to seeing her playing one of the leads in the murder mystery reincarnation romcom Abyss [Eobiseu] (2019). I’m not familiar with her ghostly offsider Kim Seul-gi, although she has an engaging personality which lights up her character and the two women play well against each other. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that they won the tvN10 Best Chemistry Award that year, which is more generally awarded to onscreen couples than to gal pals. It will be interesting to see her cameo as a mermaid in the final episode of Legend of the Blue Sea [Pureun Badaui jeonseol] (2016-2017), which I’m now most of the way through. Also playing a mermaid – er, merman – in that series is Oh My Ghost‘s romantic lead Jo Jung-suk. While he’s quite tragically charming in that other role, here he’s difficult to like at first, but as he starts getting flustered more of his personality has a chance to break through and I was better able to see the nuance in his initially forbidding facade. And keeping the series crossover connections in the family is Shin Hye-sun. Her role as the once-effervescent sister who is still friendly but has become more subdued since her accident doesn’t allow her much scope to shine – although she’s a key figure in the plot, she’s largely consigned to the background (although comes more to the fore in the final episode. She’s given far more to work with in Legend of the Blue Sea, in which her archaeologist character is the main romantic rival, and the first season of Stranger [Bimileui sup] (2017), where she has a central role as an up-and-coming prosecutor.

Writer Yang Hee-seung’s other credits include Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo [Yeokdoyojeong Gim Bokju] (2016-2017), which shares a number of supporting actors in common with Oh My Ghost – Kim Seul-gi (the ghost), Kang Ki-young (sous chef), Oh Eui-shik (another of Bong-sun’s co-workers) and Choi Woong. I’ve previously encountered Oh Eui-shik in Are You Human? [Neodo inganini] (2018), and another of Bong-sun’s co-workers – played by Choi Min-chul – appeared in a much nastier role in Black [Beullaek] (2017). But among the various chefs, my favourite was the character played by Kwak Si-yang – quiet but observant and a genuinely nice person who clearly has a long-standing interest in Bong-sun but has never pursued it since that was clearly the last thing she needed at that point in her life. Once her interest in their boss becomes clear, he provides discrete support in smoothing the way for their budding romance and is generally the sort of character with whom I find it way too easy to over-identify. Further down the cast list, although I don’t recall Kim Sung-bum’s character, he’s also played minor roles alongside Park Bo-young in Strong Girl Bong-soon and Abyss.

Among the older members of the cast, two actors stand out for their work with two of Korea’s top directors. Lee Dae-yeon, who plays Soon-ae’s father, has appeared in four of Park Chan-wook’s films – Joint Security Area [JSA] (2000), Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance [Boksuneun naui geot] (2002), Oldboy [Oldeuboi] (2003) and Lady Vengeance [Chinjeolhan Geumjassi] (2005). Lee Jung-eun, who has a great deal of fun running around as a strapped-for-cash but ultimately decent shaman, has appeared in two film from Bong Joon-ho – the English-language kids’ film Okja (2017) and Parasite [Gisaengchung] (2019), in which she has a pivotal role as the housekeeper.

Oh My Ghost was popular enough internationally to be remade for Thai TV as Oh My Ghost [Phi puan chuan ma rak] (2018). From what I’ve been able to determine it’s an extremely faithful adaptation – and since the original Korean series is no longer available on Netflix, viewers who are purely in it for the plot (or who have more experience with Thai programming) may find it to be a good substitute. On the other hand, the original series is still available for free via the Rakuten Viki website/app – and since much of what drew me to the show in the first place was the actors, my personal recommendation would be to seek it out there instead.

Once again it’s proven difficult to find a subtitled trailer, so I’ve found a couple of subtitled extracts from early episodes. The first video is a Korean ad for episode 1; the second video shows Soon-ae’s first day in Bong-sun’s kitchen; and the third is an early example of Bong-sun gaining confidence.

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