Bring It On, Ghost!

Yes, it’s late November, but I still see no reason to let go of Halloween. The main television series keeping me entertained last month was Bring It On, Ghost [Ssauja Gwisina] (2016), a supernatural horror romantic comedy which should appeal to fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) – flipping the template of the central pairing to match a university student moonlighting as an exorcist with a teenage ghost.

Park Bong-pal (Ok Taec-yeon) is a 23-year-old Economics student who aces his classes but has no interest in making friends. He can also see ghosts. And punch them. He first discovered these abilities when, as a young child, he witnessed a billowing black cloud pushing his mother into traffic. Not long afterwards his father pretty much disappeared from his life for reasons he doesn’t understand, and he was ostracised and/or bullied by his fellow students in the belief that his abilities were evidence of a curse. The only reliable presence in his life has been Monk Myung-cheol (Kim Sang-ho), a washed up exorcist who was once at the top of his profession but whose abilities have been minimal to non-existent for as long as Bong-pal has known him – he’s even listed in Bong-pal’s phone as “Fake Monk”. Bong-pal has a single goal in life – to earn enough money to pay for the unspecified procedure which will remove his abilities. To this end he has secretly been working as an exorcist for hire, beating up ghosts until their ectoplasmic forms disperse into the ether – although, since he’s not a very good fighter, he’s mainly picking on the weak ghosts and running away from those who fight back.

That all changes when he meets Kim Hyun-ji (Kim So-hyun), the ghost of a 19-year-old high school student who has been lingering on Earth for the past 5 years without any memory of where she lived or how she died. Masquerading as a client, she contacts him via email to book him for a job at an abandoned – and notoriously haunted – high school. At first Bong-pal makes the mistake of assuming that she is the target, not the client, and Hyun-ji takes great pleasure in giving him a thorough ass-kicking. As it turns out, she lured him to there to deal with another ghost who had been stalking her – the ghost of a teacher masquerading as a Sadako-type spirit who haunts the girl’s toilets and kills trespassers. The two prove to be an effective team, making two key discoveries during the course of the fight. For Bong-pal, the key discovery is that Hyun-ji is not just a better fighter than him, she is also able to spot other ghosts’ weak points. Hyun-ji’s discovery is more personal – tumbling down the stairs together during the fight, a chance meeting of their lips caused her to briefly flash back to the moment of her accident for the very first time. Will kissing him again help her to remember more? Amidst the various “I need to kiss you but it doesn’t mean anything” hijinks that ensue, the two make a deal – she will help him to fight ghosts and he will use some of the proceeds to keep up her energy by buying her food (which ghosts can only eat if prepared for them by a human) and clothing (which, like ghost money, must be burned for her to possess).

Filling the role of main villain is Joo Hye-sung (Kwon Yul), the new young Professor of Veterinary Science at Bong-pal’s university, fortuitously filling a position which suddenly and not-at-all-suspiciously became vacant between semesters. Quickly attaining heart-throb status among the female student body – including, much to Bong-pal’s dismay, his secret crush Lim Seo-yeon (Baek Seo-yi) – it soon becomes clear that he’s a far more sinister figure than his friendly demeanour would suggest, with an unexplained animal mutilation and the disappearance of a student just the tip of the iceberg. Stronger than he appears and expert at covering his tracks, he nevertheless attracts the suspicion of Detective Yang (Yoon Seo-hyun), who continues to delve deeper into Hye-sung’s activities despite the lack of any concrete evidence, attracting the ire of his boss.

Rounding out the supporting cast are PE student Choi Cheon-sang (Kang Ki-young) and Computer Science student Kim In-rang (Lee David), the founders and sole members of the university’s about-to-be-deregistered ghost-hunting club. Accidentally discovering Bong-pal’s abilities while filming a video for their YouTube channel, they desperately try to entangle themselves in his life in order to retain their clubroom (which doubles as their rent-free residence) and achieve internet fame. Along the way they rebrand themselves as a social eating club, sneakily recruiting Bong-pal’s crush to ensure his presence, and set themselves up as commissioning agents for his exorcism work, becoming the cowardly sidekicks of his de facto Scooby gang.

Bring It On, Ghost is based on a web comic which was originally serialised on Naver between 2007 and 2010. Although I can’t comment on its faithfulness to the original, Lee Dae-il’s script is effective at juggling the comedy, horror and romance aspects of the underlying concept. Although the various ghostly antagonists are capable of looking like normal humans, most of the time they appear in a classically scary form – all pale skin, bleeding eyes and facial contortions. Their motivations, on the other, are never quite so clear-cut and as the story progresses there’s a gradual shift in emphasis in the way the ghosts are portrayed. The ghosts of the first few episodes are outright malevolent, but are generally presented with a twist – the long-haired female ghost of the first episode turns out to be a perverted male teacher; the ghost dragging people into cupboards turns out to be trying to hide them from the ghost of the man who killed her. A dash of nuance is introduced with the ghost of a celebrity who killed herself as a result of internet bullying – her vengeful quest to eliminate all of those who hurt her is complicated by the fact that her main antagonist also left comments using hacked accounts, opening up innocents – including Cheon-sang – to her attack. From this point on the stories begin to introduce more sympathetic ghosts, shifting the emphasis increasingly towards attempting to understand them rather than simply punching them (although there are still plenty of fights to keep the viewer entertained).

This shift from antagonism to empathy parallels the development of the relationship between Bong-pal and Hyun-ji. Conscious of the awkwardness of asking an audience to identify with a relationship between a university student and a high school girl, the showrunners make it clear that while Hyun-ji was 19 when she died, she would now be 24 and is thus one year older than Bong-pal (although since the actress was 17 and the actor 28 at the time of filming, this may still present a problem for some viewers). Initially pursuing him only with platonic intent, Hyun-ji is the one who takes the lead in the relationship and it takes Bong-pal some time to come around to the idea that he might be falling in love with her. Once they finally give into their feelings for each other, the audience will of course begin to have some concerns about how a love story between a ghost and a human can possibly have a happy ending – concerns which I was pleased to see Monk Myung-cheol raise and to which all three characters give due consideration. But while I’m reluctant to say too much for fear of spoilers, I can assure the hopeless romantics in the audience that there are further twists and revelations to come which make such a happy ending possible – while also redressing any power imbalances inherent in the perceived age gap.

Despite this gap, Ok Taec-yeon and Kim So-hyun make a charming on-screen couple. So-hyun in particular displays a talent at acting which belies her age, even taking into consideration that she was a 10-year veteran by this point. She attracted a great deal of attention for her role as a villainous young queen-to-be in Moon Embracing the Sun [Haereul Pum-eun Dal] (2012) and starrred more recently as folk heroine Princess Pyeonggang in River Where the Moon Rises [Dari Tteuneun Gang] (2021). Ok Taec-yeon, best known as the main rapper of Korean boy band 2PM, made a shift from romantic lead to main villain earlier this year in the dark comedy/crime series Vincenzo [Binsenjo] (2021).

Kim Sang-ho, who brings a wounded dignity to his (mostly) comic role as the hapless Monk, is likely to be familiar to viewers of hit zombie historical drama Kingdom [Kingdeom] (2019-2020), in which he plays the bodyguard to Prince Chang. Kang Ki-young’s exaggeratedly physical performance as the obnoxiously over-confident and socially awkward leader of the ghost club is very much in line with his sous chef character in the previously reviewed Oh My Ghost [O Naui Gwisinnim] (2015) – intentionally irritating, but funny too. Lee David fills the straight man role in their comedy double-act, but shows off more of his range in films like The Fortress [Namhan sanseong] (2017) and Swing Kids [Seuwingkijeu] (2018) (reviewed here). Lee Jung-eun, who played the Shaman in Oh My Ghost, has a guest appearance in episode 2. And I was delighted to spot comedian Kim Hyun-sook, who played Reporter Jo in Are You Human? [Neodo Inganini?] (2018) (reviewed here), in a final episode cameo appearance as a dodgy Shaman – a character who appears to be set up as a foil for Monk Myung-cheol just in case there was enough demand for a second season.

Lee Dae-il’s follow-up script Life on Mars [Raipeu On Maseu] (2018) took on the unexpected challenge of adapting the hit UK series Life on Mars (2006-2007), shifting the action from England in 1973 to South Korea in 1988 and winning that year’s Asian Academy Creative Award for Best Adaptation. Director Park Joon-hwa went on to make What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim [Kimbiseoga Wae Geureolkka] (2018), another web comic adaptation, in this case a romantic comedy about bonding through shared trauma.

Basically, Bring It On, Ghost is a lot of fun. It does go dark in places, but nothing that a Buffy fan shouldn’t be able to cope with. The first (subtitled) trailer below provides a good introduction to the characters, the basic premise and the sense of humour. The second trailer, which lacks subtitles, showcases more of the action – but I mainly included it because the opening 20 seconds (which don’t appear in the series) made me laugh.

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