Lovers of the Red Sky: Episode 1
Billed as a sageuk love story between a female painter and a blind astrologer, the premiere of SBS’s Lovers of the Red Sky was surprising in more ways than one. Welcome to a fantastical world of gods, curses and supernatural powers.
Note: This is a first episode recap only.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
The episode opens with an animated prologue which tells the story of the goddess of childbirth, Samshin, whose three aspects were responsible for life, death and maintaining the balance between the two. One day Mawang, the god of death, devoured the god of balance and went on a rampage across the land, spreading terror and chaos in his wake.
A woman whose lover died as a result of Mawang’s actions created a painting and prayed to Samshin, who sealed Mawang inside it and brought his rampage to an end. The woman then disappeared without a trace.
In the dead of night, the king and his closest advisors conduct a secret ritual. While inhabited by his spirit, the king harnessed Mawang’s powers and used them to conquer the world but now fears what might happen if he should lose control. To keep his kingdom safe, he has resolved to pass the throne on to his son, KING SEONGJO (Jo Sung-ha), and seal Mawang’s spirit away inside a painting.
The sealing ritual is to be conducted by the Taoist sect and led by HA SUNG-JIN (Han Sang-jin), much to the chagrin of MI-SOO (Chae Kook-hee), head of the shamans. As the royal painter HONG EUN-HO (Choi Kwang-il) adds the final touches to his portrait of the former king, his wife, praying alone at a secluded shrine, goes into labour.
Wolves surround her and the baby, and she uses the last of her strength to pray to Samshin to protect her child before dying of blood loss from childbirth. A golden butterfly appears and transforms into SAMSHIN (Moon Sook), who takes the baby Hong Cheon-gi in her arms and vanishes.
Once the portrait is in place the ceremony begins, and Sung-jin draws Mawang’s spirit from the abdicated king’s body. His physical form is a towering black demon with glowing red eyes, and Sung-jin warns not to make eye contact with him.
As the painting was carried away, Eun-ho’s assistant was seized by a mysterious energy, which rendered both of them unconscious. While the ritual is taking place, the assistant rises with glowing green eyes and vanishes into thin air.
Mawang makes an effort to tempt King Seongjo into forming an alliance with him, but the king refuses to look at him and Mawang is repelled by the glowing gold embroidery on his robes. Sung-jin’s faltering efforts are bolstered by Samshin’s golden energy, and together they manage to draw Mawang’s roiling mass into the former king’s portrait.
Mawang uses the last of his strength to place three curses: the first on King Seongjo, that his kingdom will suffer drought and famine; the second on Sung-jin, that his descendants will be lost in darkness; and the third on Eun-ho, that his descendants will never paint again. With that Mawang is sealed away inside the portrait, and the painted eyes turn red.
Mawang’s curse has blinded the baby Cheon-gi. It’s beyond Samshin’s powers to reverse it, so instead she blesses Cheon-gi with a destined partner who will help her to break the curse — and baby Ha Ram is born.
As King Seongjo watches his servants lock the cursed portrait away, he confesses to his father that he has doubts about whether they’ve done the right thing. After the royals have left, the guards suddenly draw their swords and surround the Sung-jin and the Taoists. Mi-soo and her shamans watch on as the Taoists are slaughtered, but Sung-jin manages to break free and throws himself off a cliff before he can be killed.
For the next nine years the kingdom suffers from drought and famine thanks to Mawang’s curse, and none of King Seongjo’s efforts to bring rain bear fruit. Things are getting desperate when one day Mi-soo happens upon HA RAM (Choi Seung-hoon), a boy blessed with a gift for water divining.
Realising that Ram could hold the secret to making the royal rain ceremony a success, Mi-soo follows him back to his home and discovers that his father is Sung-jin, the Taoist who escaped. After a brief telekinetic battle of wills, Mi-soo informs Sung-jin that she’s now the king’s head shaman and will be escorting Ram back to the palace to take part in the rain ritual whether he likes it or not.
Eun-ho’s sanity was fractured by his brush with the divine, and he now sits in the street painting indistinct scribbles and muttering nonsense. The neighbourhood boys taunt him and steal his painting, pushing HONG CHEON-GI (Lee Nam-kyung) to the floor when she confronts them, but run off terrified when Eun-ho comes to her defense.
Mi-soo’s procession passes by, and wisps of black smoke begin to emerge from Eun-ho as he babbles about not looking into “his” eyes. Sensing demonic energy, Sung-jin instinctively strikes Eun-ho, knocking the energy out of him and restoring him to his senses.
Cheon-gi steps forward to shield her father and Sung-jin notes an odd energy emanating from her, but is distracted when he recognises Eun-ho. The two men greet each other as old friends, both having spent the last 9 years believing the other to be dead, and Eun-ho and Cheon-gi accompany Sung-jin and Ram to their lodgings.
Eun-ho explains that ever since they sealed Mawang away, he has suffered seizures and lapses of memory. The two men quickly discover that both their children were born on that momentous day, and dismiss Cheon-gi and Ram to discuss it privately.
After a little bickering, Ram follows Cheon-gi to the Baekyu Painting Institute, where they sit in on a painting lesson. Cheon-gi tells Ram to close his eyes and listen to the brushstrokes on the paper, then let his imagination bring the drawings to life. Smiling contentedly, Cheon-gi explains that sound allows her to see the world.
Afterwards Gyeon-ju, the Institute’s housekeeper, notices a tear in Cheon-gi’s sleeve and takes her outer robe away to sew it up. Cheon-gi accuses Ram of intentionally not mentioning it and secretly laughing at her dishevelled appearance, since she doesn’t have a mom to make sure she looks neat, but Ram quickly assures her that he tears his clothes all the time so he didn’t even notice.
Crouching on the ground, Cheon-gi sulkily draws a spiral in the dirt — her impression of a star. Placing his hand over hers, Ram guides Cheon-gi to trace out the shape of the big dipper, a real star, making her smile.
Ram’s stomach grumbles and Cheon-gi offers to find him some food, but they’re waylaid by Samshin, disguised as a normal woman, on their way through the streets. Telling him he’ll need it soon, Samshin places a butterfly charm in Ram’s hand which disappears when he tries to return it. Baffled, Ram assumes he must be imagining things but as he turns to leave a golden outline of a butterfly is visible on the back of his neck.
Mi-soo announces to King Seongjo that she has found a boy blessed by the water god to take part in the rain ritual — the son of Sung-jin, the Taoist priest who sealed away Mawang and then survived the abdicated king’s cull. Mi-soo believes that a human sacrifice is necessary to break Mawang’s curse, and implores King Seongjo to kill Ram during the ceremony.
The rest of the king’s advisors are horrified by Mi-soo’s plan and King Seongjo agrees with them, declaring that the ritual will be carried out without any loss of life. Mi-soo bows her head, but silently vows to do whatever must be done to end the drought.
Cheon-gi leads Ram to a private peach blossom field and under her instruction he nervously climbs a tree heavily laden with fruit. Afraid of what might happen if the sleeping servant wakes and catches them stealing, Ram tries to back out but changes his mind when he sees Cheon-gi’s disappointment.
The peaches Ram knocks down thud to the ground around Cheon-gi, making her smile in delight, but he soon overbalances and falls out of the tree himself, landing on top of her. The servant is woken by the noise and runs towards them shouting, so the kids quickly grab their peaches and flee the orchard hand-in-hand.
The kids collapse by the river and Ram blames Cheon-gi for wanting to steal peaches and almost getting them both thrashed. Cheon-gi is very hurt, and tearfully tells Ram that he’s just like everyone else who scorns her and calls her cursed because she’s blind, her mom’s dead and her dad’s mentally ill.
Ram apologises, but tells Cheon-gi that none of those things are her fault so she shouldn’t blame herself for them. The two of them eat their misbegotten peaches and Ram complains that they aren’t ripe, but Cheon-gi smiles and tells him hers is delicious. Noticing that Cheon-gi’s knee is bleeding after she tripped running from the servant, Ram carefully bandages it using his handkerchief.
Ram carries Cheon-gi home on his back that evening, describing the stars in the night sky to her as he walks. When they reach their destination, Cheon-gi tries to return Ram’s handkerchief but he re-ties it around her knee and promises to come and collect it after the rain ritual the next day instead.
Cheon-gi gently traces her fingers over Ram’s face before leaning up to kiss him. The two of them shyly promise to return to the peach fields together the next day and then head inside.
By the next day Eun-ho’s sanity has slipped again and an encounter with an angry customer in the marketplace gives him flashbacks that leave him a shrieking wreck. Determined to help her dad, Cheon-gi leaves to find some medicine.
Meanwhile preparations for the rain ritual are well underway. The crown prince greets his younger brothers, PRINCE YANGMYUNG (Kim Jung-chul) and PRINCE JUHYANG (Park Sang-hoon), affectionately but Juhyang cautions him to behave in a more dignified manner. The crown prince takes this criticism in good humor and thanks Juhyang for having his best interests at heart.
The crown prince watches in disappointment as an unhappy Juhyang leaves the ceremony followed by Yangmyung. As they walk away Juhyang explains that every time he looks at their older brother he feels useless, like a lifeless hydrangea flower which blooms but is unable to produce berries. Yangmyung tells him that a flower that lives so vibrantly could never be considered lifeless.
To cheer him up, Yangmyung takes Juhyang to the royal portrait hall. The hall is normally guarded but since everyone is at the rain ritual they’ll be able to sneak in to see the portraits of the former kings. Juhyang’s amulet for protection against evil spirits falls to the ground as he steps over the threshold, and as he ties it back onto his belt he notes that it seems ominous.
King Seongjo arrives at the rain ritual and Sung-jin watches from the crowd as Ram takes his place at the cauldron of salamanders, hands shaking. Meanwhile, as the young princes wander through the gallery, Juhyang hears a mysterious voice calling to “the one who will be king of this land” and follows it back to its source. Powerless to resist its beckoning, Juhyang tears the seals off the locked cabinet and throws back the doors, revealing the portrait of the former king within.
Yangmyung urges Juhyang to stop but Juhyang just snatches his brother’s candle out of his hand and kicks him down the steps, knocking him unconscious. Juhyang touches the candle to the painting and the flames quickly take hold, freeing Mawang.
Outside the rain ritual is underway and King Seongjo and his court look on excitedly as dark clouds begin to roll in and the wind picks up. Sensing that Mi-soo intends to sacrifice Ram to complete the ritual, Sung-jin tries to intervene but is trapped inside a barrier by her shamans.
Mawang attempts to possess Juhyang but is repelled by his evil-warding talisman, so switches targets instead. Drawn towards the golden butterfly mark Samshin left on Ram’s neck, Mawang shoots towards him like an arrow and knocks him into the lake. At the same moment, a lightning bolt strikes the ground at Mi-soo’s feet and Cheon-gi, who was walking across one of the bridges nearby, overbalances and also plunges into the water.
Ram and Cheon-gi both sink down into the depths of the lake, silently calling to their fathers for help until their struggles grow weaker and they lose consciousness. Rain begins to fall and the royal court rejoices as Sung-jin sinks to his knees in anguish and grief.
Servants carried the two princes from the burning portrait hall and Juhyang watches wretchedly as the rain extinguishes the flames. Gripping the burnt talisman he tells himself that the throne is rightfully his, as appointed by the heavens.
Black smoke surrounds Ram’s body in the water and when his eyes open they’re red — he’s possessed by Mawang’s spirit. The golden mark on his neck begins to glow and Samshin appears in front of him in the form of a butterfly to thank him for his sacrifice.
Samshin intentionally used Ram as bait to trap Mawang, and she now takes his eyes to render him powerless. She then visits Cheon-gi, “a child destined to save the world”, and bestows Ram’s eyes upon her so that she may “create the vessel of destiny”.
The people gathered by the lake look on in awe as Ram’s unconscious body rises from the water and hangs in the air above them. Sung-jin rushes forwards but his relief at his son’s survival is tempered when Ram opens his eyes and it becomes clear that he has lost his sight. Guilty and regretful that Ram has had to pay the price to break the kingdom’s curse, King Seongjo has Mi-soo arrested for disobeying his orders.
Meanwhile a soaking Cheon-gi wakes all alone at the shrine where she was born, and is shocked to find that she can now see. As Cheon-gi stares around her with wonder and Ram panics and sobs in Sung-jin’s arms when he realises that he’s gone blind, Samshin tells us that someday everything will be restored to its rightful place.
Years later, an adult Cheon-gi (Kim Yoo-jung) sits painting while an adult Ram (Ahn Hyo-seop), still blind, studies the stars by touch using a constellation globe.
Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention to the promos for this drama, but I certainly wasn’t expecting such a strong fantasy bent. They really dumped a lot of mythology and exposition on the audience from the get-go which made the first half of the episode a little dense, and I became a little impatient while I was waiting to reach the present-day within the drama. I can’t quite decide whether the animated sequence at the beginning of the drama was supposed to be telling us what has already happened or what will happen. Is this an in-universe legend? Or is it prophetic, and if so will Ha Ram be the lover whose death drives Cheon-gi to seal Mawang away?
I’m intrigued by whatever entity possessed the body of Eun-ho’s assistant and disappeared. Both Samshin and Mawang were accounted for at that moment, which implies a third deity at work — presumably the god of balance between life and death, since that’s the only other god that’s been mentioned so far. Mawang is symbolised by black smoke and eyes, Samshin is gold and butterflies, but the assistant’s eyes were glowing green.
At the moment Mawang, god of death and chaos, is very much being portrayed as evil and Samshin, goddess of life, is seen in a much more benevolent light but I’d quite like to see a more nuanced portrayal of the two — both life and death are fundamental principles of the universe. Offering Ram up as bait was certainly not a very kind and benevolent thing to do, even if his sacrifice was for the greater good. Samshin seems much more preoccupied with Cheon-gi’s health and safety than Ram’s, but perhaps that’s just because she’s fated to “create the vessel of destiny” which is presumably the painting that will seal Mawang away.
What does the curse Mawang put on Sung-jin’s descendants mean? What does it mean to be “lost in darkness”? And what was with Ram’s affinity for water? Was that to do with the curse, does he have supernatural powers of his own or will he become a conduit for someone else with powers? I have so many questions right now and though the world building is off to a good start, there’s a potential for things to go off the rails since there are so many elements, gods, and powers at play. With my curiosity sufficiently piqued I’m looking forward to seeing all our adult Cheon-gi and Ram interact and fight with/against the gods that be.