Bulgasal: Immortal Souls: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
Would you like some blood with your K-drama? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Gory folklore and sumptuous cinematography make Bulgasal: Immortal Souls a compelling tale of curses, fate, and monsters. Who knew a thing could be so bloody and beautiful simultaneously?
EPISODES 1-2 REVIEW
With long episodes, and lots and lots of backstory, Bulgasal: Immortal Souls is quite a drama to take a bite of. But before we even get to the story, the question that lingers on my mind is quite simple: how the heck is this only rated 15? It’s the bloodiest thing I’ve even seen in dramaland. The next question is this: I don’t like blood, so why did I enjoy it so much? And I guess the answer is that the blood suits the story, and the story is quite rich.
That story, and its logic, hangs very much on us believing in karma, bad fate, and the monster folklore mentioned above. If you’re ready and willing to get sucked into this world, Bulgasal: Immortal Souls is as frightening and brutal as it is the sort of story that engulfs you.
We start our story near the end of the Goryeo period, where a group of peasants and farmers are traveling through rugged terrain and come in contact with a monster. According to the world of the story, monsters were a physical and actual thing in those days. And in keeping with the folklore, they have names, stories, features, and predictable behaviors. Among those was the bulgasal, known to feast on human blood. (There’s our theme again!)
We meet our hero as a baby in the womb — his mother is a part of the group of peasants who meet the bulgasal. The shaman of the group says the baby is cursed, and sure enough, even though the mother kills herself, the baby is born and survives — but his ill fate is marked by the bulgasal.
The boy is abandoned and feared by all, and barely scrapes together enough to survive in the brutal terrain. When the bulgasal attacks the peasants, though, they’re quick to blame our little boy hero, and have no qualms about killing him to satisfy the beast. They’ve threatened it before, but it comes to a peak pretty quickly — it’s a tense moment, and the sweet little boy is about to die. But suddenly, he’s saved by a gorgeous woman (Kwon Nara) who rushes in and takes the dagger for him.
This same moment introduces GENERAL DAN (Jung Jin-young) who rides up with his men. He’s a breath of fresh air amidst the superstition and violence of the villagers. He saves the boy, takes him back to his home, and raises him as a son.
The boy is named HWAL and grows up to be a fearless warrior (Lee Jin-wook) in the footsteps of his adoptive father. General Dan has spent his career with Hwal hunting down the last monsters in the kingdom, as Goryeo gives way to Joseon. Though the General believes in these beasts and hunts them down, he also doesn’t believe in their power — he doesn’t pay heed to the talk of Hwal’s bad fate, and even lets Hwal marry his daughter SOL (Gong Seung-yeon).
It’s hard to know whether we’re supposed to believe in the cursed fate or not, because both the General and Hwal fight against it. But eventually, it’s too strong to fight. While hunting the bulgasal, Hwal learns that the beast was and is actually the beautiful woman who saved him as a boy.
They have a string of gorgeous, sumptuous, and incredibly bloody encounters — and tons more backstory – but in the end, what happens is that the bulgasal kills Hwal (and his family), and steals his soul. Our soulless hero is now immortal, and it’s a terrible curse. He’s taken on the role of the bulgasal, and lost everything. He’s now the very monster whom he was hunted down by his whole life.
We’re well into the second episode at this point, but the identity change of our hero marks a huge transition in the story. The woman who stole his soul became human, and would be reincarnated several times a human. And now Hwal, in order to avenge his stolen soul and immortal hell, vows to await each of her reincarnations and have his revenge.
With all that backstory behind us, we eventually meet our hero in the early 2000s. He’s clearly been hunting this woman down for centuries, and is now getting quite close. Interestingly, though — and in a way that’s both jarring and awesome at the same time — our focus shifts away from Hwal and onto our heroine.
But there’s a twist, of course. In her 2006 self, the woman is a young girl named SANG-YEON (Han Seo-jin). The clincher? She has an identical twin, SANG-EON (also Han Seo-jin). While the reincarnated ex-monster remembers her fate and each of her past lives, her identical sister knows nothing, and remembers nothing. And yet, because of their shared appearance, she inherits her sister’s fate with her.
The bulgasal finally locates and attacks Sang-yeon and her family. The beast slaughters Sang-yeon and her mother, and Sang-eon barely escapes. However, she now believes in the fate that her twin was always talking about, without any idea of the past lives and actions that caused it. She lives in hiding until her adulthood (where she’s played by Kwon Nara).
Again, the narrative shift at this point in the story is quite interesting. We all but forsake Hwal in favor of the twins and their utter terror of the bulgasal, and it’s hard not to be on their side (even though we agonized with Hwal just a few scenes ago). However, earlier on, we do learn briefly about Hwal’s struggles as a monster that was once human. Though he promised his father not to feast on human blood, he fails most terribly, and has become a fearsome bulgasal himself.
If it feels like the story has been incredibly detailed and drawn out at this point, that’s because it has. But more than the typical drama backstory, the history of our characters is crucial because it’s re-lived in the present day.
As we settle into the 2021 timeline, we meet General Dan again (as a detective), as well as several minor characters from Hwal’s (human) youth, and it doesn’t take much of this to realize — and appreciate! — the tightly woven tale of fate we’re going to get. I really love it!
It’s not easy to make characters (and echoes of past characters) feel so incredibly vivid and alive, but Bulgasal pulls it off. The past timeline echoes in creepy and amazing ways, and I love the pattern the drama has set up. Fate and karma take the lead in terms of themes, but there’s also the twist of fate, too.
The fact that Sang-yeon reincarnated this time as a twin throws the whole game. Hwal is hunting her based on her face — how he’s been able to locate her through history — but as Episode 2 draws to a close, we can surmise he’s actually hunting the woman who looks like his mortal enemy, but is anything but. I smell conflict, and it’s going to be epic!
Bulgasal certainly had the longest, bloodiest, and most complicated backstory in a while, but despite all the time spent in the past, none of it feels wasted. I’m completely taken with the concept of seeing our characters as they echo through time, and how their fates are rewritten. So blood and gore notwithstanding, I’m definitely pulled in by the characters and the rich conflicts.
Also, it’s lovely to have Lee Jin-wook back on the screen. It’s been a long time, and a longer time since any of his projects were this watchable, so I’m one excited fangirl. And he’s great here, of course, making us believe in his tortured fate, bloodlust, and endless pain. As a contrast to that, we have Kwon Nara, and those eyes that it’s easy to get lost in — she can somehow convince me equally that she’s a terrible soul-sucking monster, and an innocent and terrified young woman, so props to her.
Finally, the drama is just absolutely gorgeous in terms of cinematography, colors, lighting – all of it. It’s a high-budget production that looks it to every inch, but it also effectively pulls you right into the folklore, the setting, and the heart-pounding terror of being hunted by monsters and fate alike. With Hwal and Sang-eon poised for their first meeting in the 2021 timeline, things should get even more interesting. In short, I need a pillow to hide behind, and more episodes to watch.