Mermaids in Korea – The Legend of the Blue Sea

Of the many different genre combinations offered by Korean TV dramas, one of my favourite tropes is the importation of myths and folktales of the past into the modern day. A Korean Odyssey [Hwayugi] (2017-2018) reinterpreted the tales of Sun Wukong the Monkey King popularised by Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West [Xī yóu jì] (c. 1592), while My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho [Nae yeojachinguneun gumiho] (2010) (reviewed here) provided a more sympathetic take on local folktales about nine-tailed fox spirits. Both of those shows were firmly rooted in contemporary Seoul, dipping into the past only to provide relevant backstory. The Legend of the Blue Sea [Pureun badaui jeonseol] (2016-2017) has its feet firmly anchored in both eras: a tragic romance between a human and a mermaid in 1598, based on a story or “unofficial history” collected in Yu Mong-in’s Eou yadam (1599-1623); and a modern romantic comedy in which the star-crossed lovers (and most of their associates) have been reincarnated in new roles, creating a second chance in which historical patterns recur with the chance for a happier ending.

Heo Joon-jae (Lee Min-ho) is a con-artist who targets the unscrupulous wealthy, those who think their power and position in society gives them the right to trample over the rights of others. Originally from a wealthy family, his mother (Na Young-hee) left when he was young to make way for his deceitful stepmother (Hwang Shin-hye) – he eventually cut ties with his family in order to look for her. His team consists of Jo Nam-doo (Lee Hee-joon), the mentor who took him in as an abandoned youth and trained him in the trade, but whose moral compass is much more flexible; and Tae-oh (Shin Won-ho), a young hacker who avoids conversation if at all possible. Scattering after their latest target (Kim Sung-ryung) puts out a hit on the people who swindled her, Joon-jae travels to Spain to lay low. Encountering a strange mute woman (Jun Ji-hyun) stealing clothes from his room, he becomes intrigued by her priceless jade bracelet and rescues her from the police – but can’t go through with his plan to take advantage of her naivety. Naming her Shim Cheong, he’s shocked to discover the next morning that she’s not as stupid as he thought – she’s learned to speak Korean overnight from bingeing on television. The beginnings of a whirlwind romance are cut short when the hired killers catch up with him. A hilarious action-packed pursuit sequence ends with the two end dropping off a cliff into the ocean. Joon-jae wakes up on the beach alone with his memory wiped and the jade bracelet on his wrist.

Shim Cheong is, of course, a mermaid – and now is as good a time as any to go into what that means here. Contrary to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid [Den lille havfrue] (1837), mermaids do not need to bargain with the Sea Witch to be able to walk on land – all mermaids gain the ability to change back and forth once they reach adulthood, although their legs will revert to being a fish-tail if they get wet. Mermaids are also able to selectively erase people’s memories via skin-to-skin contact, allowing them to keep their existence secret from the world at large (although evading detection underwater has become more difficult). They can communicate with sea creatures, but also have no hesitation in eating them – they are, after all, the only food source available in their environment. Their tears become pearls, providing them with a steady source of income when on land – but also providing a motive for the greedy to keep them in captivity. And the legend that they are able to summon storms to wreck ships is nothing more than a nasty rumour invented by those who would exploit them.

Having wiped Joon-jae’s memory of their encounter to keep her identity as a mermaid secret, Shim Cheong swims all the way from Spain to Korea to meet up with him again. It hasn’t occurred to her just how difficult it might be to find one person in a city of 9 million, although she picks up more hints on the workings of society via chance encounters with Seo Yoo-na (Shin Rin-ah) – a worldly wise primary school student picked on by her wealthy classmates – and an unnamed homeless woman (Hong Jin-kyung) with a strong sense of self-worth. These tips are far more helpful than those she takes from a woman who educates her in the ways of television drama tropes, such as the awareness that a prop glass of water has only been placed on a table so that one character can throw it in another’s face – resulting in an extremely entertaining misunderstanding later that same episode. Although it doesn’t take her too long to meet Joon-jae again, she hasn’t considered the difficulties of re-starting their relationship from scratch – and he is far more interested in working out her connection to the hole in his memory than she is in explaining herself. To complicate matters further, a seaside encounter with a heartbroken merman (Jo Jung-suk) leads her to discover that she has a time limit – once a mermaid/merman leaves the sea their heart begins to harden, leaving them with three options: secure the love of their chosen one before the process is complete; return to the sea; or die.

While Joon-jae and Shim Cheong attempt to navigate the ups and downs of getting to know each other, Joon-jae and his crew continue to carry out con-jobs while attempting to hide their work from Shim Cheong. Their latest targets are the venal social-climbing couple Ahn Jin-joo (Moon So-ri) and Cha Dong-shik (Lee Jae-won), who are themselves trying to cultivate a connection with Joon-jae’s father (Choi Jung-woo) via his stepmother. Unfortunately the team’s background check on their new targets failed to reveal that they are also the brother and sister-in-law of Cha Shi-ah (Shin Hye-sun), an old friend from Joon-jae’s university days who has been relentlessly pursuing an unrequited romance with him for the past seven years – nor does anybody realise that their maid is actually Joon-jae’s mother! Meanwhile Detective Hong Dong-pyo (Park Hae-soo) – who sees Joon-jae as his personal nemesis – is attempting to catch escaped killer Ma Dae-young (Sung Dong-il), a man with a secret connection to Joon-jae’s stepmother, whose son (Lee Ji-hoon) is beginning to suspect her intentions towards his stepfather.

Cha Shi-ah’s work in the care and restoration of archaeological artefacts provides a link to tie together the events of the modern day with the events of the 16th century when the original Joon-jae and Shim Cheong first met – allowing most of the supporting cast the opportunity to play dress-ups and take on roles which may be strikingly different from their modern counterparts. A flashy conman in the modern day, Joon-jae’s original incarnation Kim Dam-ryeong was a respected magistrate travelling to a new posting in a seaside town. Once unhappily married to Cha Shi-ah’s original incarnation but now widowed, upon his arrival he is greeted by the corrupt merchant Yang Seung-gil (whose deeds in the past were responsible for his reincarnation in the present as a short-tempered murderer haunted by bad dreams). Seung-gil attempts to show off by displaying Se-hwa, a mermaid captured by the townspeople, but Dam-ryeong – sensing a connection with her (childhood memories she had previously erased) – lets her go, incurring the merchant’s wrath and setting the events of their tragic relationship into motion. Seung-gil’s equally amoral concubine is familiar to us as Joon-jae’s future stepmother. The master/servant relationship between Joon-jae’s mother and her employershas been flipped in the past, where the reason for her karmic reversal can be seen in her treatment of her future employers (who nevertheless feel strangely deferential towards their housekeeper in the modern scenes). Joon-jae’s surrogate father (Park Hi-il), his biological father’s right hand man, reappears in younger form as Dam-ryeong’s best friend (Choi Kwon); the Detective is an officer of the law in both eras; even Joon-jae’s neuropsychiatrist Professor Jin Kyung-won (Lee Ho-jae) has a role as the village elder, dispensing key information and advice in both time periods. As events unfold, Joon-jae and his past incarnation begin to undergo flashes of shared experience, with Dam-ryeong learning the date of his own death and Joon-jae struggling to prevent key events from recurring. And the past roles of two key characters – Joon-jae’s unscrupulous mentor and troubled stepbrother – are kept secret for as long as possible in order to ratchet up the tensions of possible betrayal from one or both.

There’s a noticeable shift of tone between the modern day and period settings. The events taking place in the modern day, which occupy most of the screen time, are generally lighter in tone and more comedic. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of room for bad things to happen, but the overall character interplay is more humorous and accessible. The events of the past are told in a much more serious manner, a straightforward melodramatic romance with little opportunity for humour. The choice to open the series with a lengthy section set in the past was initially off-putting – while I’m fond of the Joseon Dynasty as a setting for fantasy stories, I was hoping for something less po-faced. Although this began to change with the introduction of the present-day characters in the back half of the episode, it wasn’t until the second episode that the character interactions between the central couple really brought the show to life – I quickly became enamoured of the unusual choices Jun Ji-hyun made in the portrayal of her almost-literal fish-out-of-water character coming to terms with human society. It’s difficult at first to root for the success of her relationship with Joon-jae, whose portrayal in the first episode is less than sympathetic, but as his personal ethics become clearer and his behaviour begins to alter, her unwavering belief in his worthiness becomes more justifiable. By the end of the series, the writer has managed to confront and resolve each of the various ethical issues and power imbalances which might otherwise get in the way of their relationship being a healthy and successful one.

For me, Jun Ji-hyun is the clear star of the show and the main reason for watching, never letting the viewer forget that while her character may look like a regular human being, she comes from a completely different culture. After an early career appearance as the title character in the international hit romantic comedy My Sassy Girl [Yeopgijeogin geunyeo] (2001), her other lead roles include the Japanese action horror movie Blood: The Last Vampire [Rasuto buraddo] (2009) and – more recently – the hit Korean historical zombie series spinoff Kingdom: Ashin of the North (2021). Her co-star Lee Min-ho does a fine job as romantic lead and the two have good chemistry in their roles, justifying their award as Best Couple at that year’s SBS Drama Awards. His other lead series roles include City Hunter [Siti hyunteo] (2011), adapted from the ’80s Japanese manga series, and the modern parallel world fantasy The King: Eternal Monarch [Deo King: Yeong-wonui gunju] (2020).

My favourites among the supporting cast were Shin Rin-ah and Hong Jin-kyung as Sim Cheong’s friends. Hong Jin-kyung is better known as comedian and television host – this show marks one of her rare appearances in a regular acting role. Shin Rin-ah, despite being only 7 years old at the time of filming, has a far more extensive CV – and given her performance here, I can only hope that she has a lengthy and fulfilling career ahead of her. Other notable appearances include the high profile thriller Memoir of a Murderer [Salinjaui gieokbeob] (2017) and romantic comedy/horror series Lovely Horribly [Reobeulli horeobeulli] (2018). Old favourite Sung Dong-il (seen previously in My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho and Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth [see review]) has the opportunity to display the greatest range in his two contrasting characters. His chuckling, scheming merchant is by far the most fun of the two, coming across as a wicked variant on his character in Hwarang. His contrasting role as a tormented killer on the run, who goes through a number of transformations in the course of the series, is less fun but more complex and probably a more interesting challenge from the actor’s perspective. And fans of Squid Game [Ojing-eo geim] (2021) may be interested to note the presence of Park Hae-soo as the Detective, who would play the lead in By Quantum Physics: A Nightlife Venture [Yang-ja-Mul-li-hak] (2019) [see review] before co-starring in Squid Game as the lead character’s childhood friend Cho Sang-woo.

I was delighted to see three returning faces from the previously reviewed Oh My Ghost [O naui gwisinnim] (2015). That show’s romantic lead Jo Jung-suk has a 2-episode role as the unlucky-in-love merman who explains the risks of falling in love with a human. Kim Seul-gi, the titular ghost, has a cameo in the final episode as another mermaid come to Seoul in search of her love connection, allowing Sim Cheong to take her own turn as a mentor. And Shin Hye-sun, who had a small supporting role as the chef’s wheelchair-bound sister, gets the opportunity to stretch her legs in a larger role as the hapless Cha Si-ah. Other notable cameos include Cha Tae-hyun, sharing a brief scene with Jun Ji-hyun as a mini-cast-reunion for My Sassy Girl; and Im Won-hee as doctor, a far more dignified role than his entertainingly dignified but incompetent crime boss in the previously reviewed Strong Girl Bong-soon [Himssenyeoja Dobongsun] (2017).

Although The Legend of the Blue Sea is no longer available on Netflix, those looking for more work from writer Park Ji-eun may wish to check out Crash Landing on You [Sarang-ui Bulsichak] (2019-2020), a romantic comedy about a South Korean corporate heiress who inadvertently paraglides into North Korea. Director Jin Hyuk’s work can be seen on romantic comedy/horror Master’s Sun [Jugun-ui Taeyang] (2013) and SF thriller Sisyphus: The Myth [Sijipeuseu: The Myth] (2021), while those after something a little more straightforward might want to try co-director Park Seon-ho’s Wok of Love [Gireumjin Mello] (2018).

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