The Sound of Magic: Episodes 2-6 (Series review)
A tale of dreams and hope at its core, this magical musical takes us on a ride through wistful nostalgia and splendid dreamscapes to arrive at the question — what does it mean to grow up?
How do I even begin to sum up the magic of this show? As much as I love writing, mere words can never hope to capture the sense of awe and wonder that The Sound of Magic evokes. If you haven’t watched it already, I strongly recommend that you do, if only to experience its magical world for yourself.
Beneath all the splendor — scores of (unfortunately fake) money bills raining from the sky, anyone? — Ri-eul’s magic is always undergirded by earnest sincerity. Even when he gets beaten up by Ah-yi’s creditors for his trick, he reassures her and invites her to learn magic from him. The scene then segues into a heartfelt duet with one of my favorite lyrics from the show — “It hurts because you look so comfortable leaning back into sorrow again” — which perfectly encapsulates Ah-yi’s resignation to weather through her pain so she can take on the mantle of being an adult much earlier than she ought to.
It’s this theme of growing up that’s woven throughout the drama. Children who wish to grow up quicker, and an adult who wishes he never had to — all pushed to the brink by the adults who pressure children to grow up just the way they selfishly want.
(The first part of this review contains story spoilers; the second part is an overall spoiler-free review.)
One thing this series does well is the development of its characters in a layered way that makes them feel like fully-realized people. We get to see more of Il-deung as the show progresses, and he’s a nuanced character to say the least. His interest in Ah-yi quickly grows into a full-blown crush — he even writes a speech on his palm before talking to her, ha — and there’s a very cute interlude where he imagines serenading her in an open field.
Unfortunately, upon hearing from Ha-na that Ah-yi could be involved with the magician in exchange for money, he doesn’t know how to deal with his concern and jealousy. He ends up offering Ah-yi money to mess up on her tests and do his portfolio assignments for him, in a misguided attempt to steer her away from the magician and towards him instead. Oof.
Il-deung’s actions become a lot more sympathetic, though, when we get a glimpse of his circumstances. He’s stifled and micromanaged by the worst kind of helicopter parents — my excitement upon seeing Yoo Jae-myung soured pretty quickly — and he’s expected to follow the smooth asphalt road to success that they’ve paved for him.
Driven by poverty and desperation, Ah-yi accepts Il-deung’s offer, but the deal soon goes awry when someone photographs Il-deung handing her money. It gets escalated all the way to the dean, and though Ah-yi ends up blurting out the truth of their agreement, the school covers it up by handing Il-deung a good conduct award for “helping out a peer in need.”
It’s an awful and cruel way to put Ah-yi in her place, reminding her of her lowly social status and humiliating her in front of the entire cohort. The fiasco also drives a deeper wedge between Ah-yi and Il-deung — her relief that she didn’t get expelled, even at the cost of her pride, makes her feel pathetic. Il-deung’s guilt just makes her feel even smaller; she doesn’t even have the luxury of honesty.
Looking back, it wasn’t money that pushed me to the brink, she thinks, but the adults.
The only thing keeping her holding on is Ri-eul’s magic; when he catches her crying alone at the amusement park, he takes her on a carousel ride that has them soaring through the sky. In another scene, when Ah-yi has reached her lowest point, he transports them through time and has her meet her younger self.
Recognizing her childhood pain all too well, Ah-yi tells her younger self that she never gave up and is still fighting to live to this day, reassuring little Ah-yi that she’ll pull through, too. It’s the words Ah-yi’s always longed to hear, and it makes it even more meaningful that Ri-eul didn’t simply tell her the words, but had her say it for herself.
Ri-eul advises Ah-yi that she should do the things that she wants, too, just as much as she has to do the things she doesn’t. It gives Ah-yi the push she needed to chase happiness, and she begins learning magic from him. During their lessons, she’s able to let go of her worries for a while, and it’s the brightest we’ve ever seen her smile.
Il-deung meets Ri-eul for the first time when he follows Ah-yi to the amusement park and ventures in after she leaves. Ri-eul’s extremely astute, and he instantly recognizes Il-deung’s posturing for what it is — a desperate need to be the best, because that’s what his parents expect of him.
Ri-eul transports Il-deung onto an asphalt road, where countless students are feverishly taking a test. It unfolds into an impeccably-choreographed and synchronized musical number, which serves as a metaphor for the mindless rat race towards an arbitrary definition of success. Afterwards, Ri-eul leaves Il-deung with a yellow origami butterfly on a playing card, and it’s clear the magician has left a profound impact on the smothered boy.
Il-deung finds himself returning to the amusement park yet again, partly out of indignance over how widely Ri-eul makes Ah-yi smile with his tricks, and partly out of a newfound fascination with magic. Ri-eul indulges him, putting on a magic show for the pair and startling Il-deung with a fake spider. (Il-deung literally jumps up onto his chair, HAHA.)
Unfortunately, the lighthearted moments are soon undercut. Ah-yi’s deadbeat dad returns, but only for a night; Ah-yi wakes up the next morning only to find that her dad has absconded with her money. When he calls, it’s the last straw, and she finally lays it out like it is. He’s running away like a coward, yet he expects her to take on the responsibilities he left behind. She’s scared, exhausted, and sick of having to carry her burdens like an adult when she isn’t even one.
Heartbroken and lost, Ah-yi sings to the moon, and there’s a nice bit of wordplay here — the lyrics say that the night comforts the child to hurry and go to sleep, but the word for “go to sleep” can also mean “grow up.” It makes the last lines of the song, “Good night, my childhood dreams / Goodbye, my past days,” land a little more poignantly.
The drama only gets darker from there. Ha-na, a lot more malicious in the drama than in the webtoon, plants a hidden camera to expose Ri-eul’s true identity. It ends up capturing an incriminating video of him seemingly attacking a man, which she then uses to plant seeds of doubt in Ah-yi and Il-deung’s minds.
Worse yet, Ha-na confronts Ri-eul at the amusement park, insulting his magic and calling him a fraud. Her denigration of his magic enrages Ri-eul, causing him to fly at her in a rage and demand for the hidden camera she’s pinned onto her jacket. In their tussle, Bella’s parrot cage gets knocked over, and a distraught Ri-eul advances upon Ha-na to strangle her.
All that — combined with vague sightings and victim allegations of a man in a cape — gets Ri-eul suspected for a neighborhood robbery case, as well as the murder of a high school student.
There’s someone who can vouch for Ri-eul’s innocence, though, and it’s Il-deung. After a heated argument with his parents, in which they shamed him for his budding interest in something as useless for his future as magic, Il-deung seeks solace in the abandoned amusement park. Struck by another one of his debilitating migraines, he sees his past accolades, then his projected future self, sharply dressed and driving an expensive sports car.
Before long, he realizes that he’s going too fast to even see his surroundings clearly, and that’s when the tunnel opens up into a beautiful flower field. Stunned by its vastness, and the hope it represents, Il-deung begins to question what success and happiness truly mean to him.
He wakes up on the stage with Ri-eul’s cape draped over him, and all around him are bright yellow flowers, chalked onto the stage.
Ri-eul’s magic seems to fall apart, though, when Ah-yi’s creep of a boss returns, claiming that Ri-eul made him disappear that night by pushing him over the railing. Il-deung tries to assert Ri-eul’s alibi, but both his parents and the higher-ups dissuade him from defending a societal failure like the magician. Both their reproachful words and the judgmental gaze of his peers begin to overwhelm him, and the splitting migraine returns — broken only by the chair that Il-deung hurls at a window.
Internally calling out for Ri-eul, he asks despondently if the magician can break the curse of the asphalt road. Someday, Il-deung wonders, will I be able to break free from this cold path and run through a vast field of flowers just like you?
It’s a powerful moment, heightened by Hwang In-yup’s phenomenal acting, and I wish the episode closed on this note instead of shoehorning in a scene for the murder mystery’s dramatic effect. Sigh.
In any case, the murder investigation continues, and Ri-eul is apprehended by the police. Turns out Ri-eul’s real name is Ryu Min-hyuk, and he’s a thirty-year-old high school dropout who escaped from a psychiatric facility and has a history of criminal suspicions. Lost and confused, Ah-yi sings a forlorn, heartbreaking song — perhaps it’s not that she wishes to believe him, but that she wants to say that she does.
To her, Ri-eul represents her hopes and dreams; he’s the one person that validated her struggles and told her it’s okay to follow her heart. Losing that means falling back into inescapable darkness once again, and she’s understandably terrified that the ray of light Ri-eul had given her might all just be a lie.
Thanks to Ri-eul’s high school classmate, we learn that young Ri-eul (Nam Da-reum, yay!) was more like Il-deung than anyone expected. A bright kid with a stellar academic record, Ri-eul had buckled under the expectations placed upon him. He’d gone from passing out in the hallways, to frantically studying even in the infirmary, to following an imaginary butterfly right off the school rooftop.
Ah-yi finally realizes that to her, Ri-eul had been the person he’d wished for but never had — someone to answer his desperate calls for help. He’d wanted to forever remain a child who believes in magic, because he was afraid of growing up in a world where even dreams have to meet a certain standard.
Ri-eul escapes from the interrogation room to put on one last show, where Ah-yi interrupts the confrontation between him and the police. She joins him onstage, a silent answer to his question of whether she believes in him. With that, snow begins to fall, despite it being indoors and in the middle of spring.
“Perhaps it’s not that you came to me,” Ah-yi sings, “you were waiting, and I noticed you.” It’s the first acknowledgement of his pain that Ri-eul’s ever received, and you can see it reflected in his eyes. Together, the two sing a heartfelt and wistful duet, and we see a young Ah-yi stick a bandage on young Ri-eul’s cast at the amusement park.
It’s unclear whether it’s a memory or a metaphor, but perhaps it doesn’t matter which it is. Either way, it reflects how Ah-yi recognized Ri-eul’s pain and sought to comfort it in an innocent and childlike way, just like how Ri-eul did for her, too.
After their song ends, Ah-yi tearfully tells Ri-eul that he’s a real magician — he made her truly believe in magic. Touched, Ri-eul thanks her for making his magic succeed, then gives her his magician’s top hat.
He turns to leave with the police, but Ah-yi calls out to him. With a spark in her gaze and renewed confidence in her shoulders, Ah-yi asks him — do you believe in magic?
Uttering the magic words annarasumanara, she flings a black cloth over Ri-eul, and by the time it flutters to the ground, he’s vanished without a trace.
The story wraps up pretty quickly after that — in a series of exposition flashbacks, we learn that the true culprit of the murder was Ah-yi’s boss. He’d killed his part-time worker for blackmailing him with a video of his sexual harassment, and tried to pin the crime on Ri-eul. Luckily, his actions were all caught on a broken CCTV camera at the amusement park, which miraculously started working again during the few minutes of the crime.
Turns out, it’s all thanks to Ri-eul’s magical fireworks show the night he helped Ah-yi to believe in magic again. Somehow, his magic had lit up the CCTV too, becoming the crucial piece of evidence needed to prove his innocence. I like that it came full circle — his earnest desire to save Ah-yi from her sorrow ended up saving himself, too.
We never quite see what becomes of Ri-eul, but in a way I like that the drama chose to leave it ambiguous. This show has always been one that requires a little suspension of disbelief, and I thought it quite fitting that his ending was equally magical.
Just like Ri-eul, Il-deung drops out of high school, but while it was an escape for Ri-eul, it’s an empowering decision for Il-deung— one that he makes of his own volition for the first time. We aren’t told how it pans out for him, but there’s a lightness to his steps now that makes me think he’ll do well forging his own path.
Some time later, we see Ah-yi all grown-up, now a college student. She still writes letters to her mom, Ri-eul, and Bella through the magical mailbox, and while she’s still working part-time jobs, she’s still holding on to her dreams — aww, one of her jobs is performing magic tricks for kids! Ah-yi’s giving little miracles to children, just as Ri-eul once did for her, and I think it’s a hopeful and heartwarming ending to this tale.
Admittedly, the drama did play into some well-worn tropes — how many times have we seen a poor girl struggle to provide for her family, and how many times have we seen helicopter parents admonish their child for not living up to their unrealistic standards? Yet if we look past how trite these scenes may seem, I thought the way the show fleshed out its characters’ stories made their circumstances feel even more suffocating.
The webtoon achieves a similar effect with its breakneck pace, but I thought the drama’s approach made the characters more sympathetic. It allowed the actors to properly show off their acting chops, too — Hwang In-yup’s tearful confrontation with his parents was so good, making my heart hurt for him in all the right ways.
Despite my initial reservations, I thought the series was overall quite well cast. The actors really grew into their roles over the course of the show, coming to embody their characters in a way that was both faithful to the webtoon and uniquely distinct.
Once I managed to let go of the image of webtoon Ri-eul that I had in my head, I was able to appreciate Ji Chang-wook’s interpretation of the character on its own merit. Webtoon Ri-eul is enigmatic because you wonder what lies beneath his exuberant facade — is he truly that simple and childlike, or is there something more sinister lurking beneath? Drama Ri-eul, in contrast, is a little more standard creepy, but I think Ji Chang-wook’s choice to portray him in a more serious manner gave him an air of gravitas that grounded him.
It did feel like he was still exercising a lot of restraint, though; I can’t help but feel that he resembled Ri-eul more when he was freely smiling and joking around in the behind-the-scenes videos. I think it would have been interesting to see a starker contrast between the carefree magician and the troubled teens, as the tonal discordancy would have reinforced how out-of-place Ri-eul is in society, while also adding to the fantastical atmosphere.
Still, I respect Ji Chang-wook’s interpretation of Ri-eul, and I think he did especially well in the scenes that called for emotion. The way he portrayed Ri-eul’s despair was so gutting in its rawness, and so was the childlike vulnerability in his eyes when he asked Ah-yi if she believed in him. By the end, I was charmed by his magic, and moved by his earnestness. (Also, he has such a nice singing voice!)
I know I said I wasn’t quite convinced by Hwang In-yup’s portrayal in the first episode, but I’d like to take it all back now — his performance in the rest of the show was so good! I suppose he was either finding his footing or holding back to reflect Il-deung’s initial stiffness. As Il-deung slowly began to acknowledge his repressed emotions and dreams, the life and conviction returned to his eyes bit by bit, and I thought Hwang In-yup did a remarkable job of expressing his inner turmoil and distress.
Also, he’s so good at acting smitten! The way he awkwardly circled around Ah-yi in the beginning was downright adorable, and I really have to give Hwang In-yup credit for being so believable as a lovestruck teenager when he’s over thirty.
Last but definitely not least — Choi Sung-eun! Choi Sung-eun! Choi Sung-eunnnn! Gosh, I don’t know how to write this part of the review without simply gushing over her. I loved how she was expressive and heart-rending, but never over the top. She clearly has a very good grasp on displaying just the right amount, and letting the subtleties in her tone and body language fill in the rest. (The way her lips trembled and her voice quivered! I teared up so many times.) Given that she’s not a musical actor like Ji Chang-wook, I was even more impressed by her ability to seamlessly imbue emotion into her singing.
Choi Sung-eun embodied Ah-yi so well that I never once saw the actress playing a character, I simply saw Ah-yi. She elevated Ah-yi above the role of a typical Candy, making it clear that Ah-yi was more than the role society had forced her into. Ah-yi was a responsible breadwinner who kept food on the table even at the cost of her own dignity, a loving sister who cared deeply for those around her, and above all, a lonely child who just wanted to be allowed to dream again.
I absolutely loved the musical numbers, and even as I’m writing this, I’m listening to the soundtrack on repeat. The songs were so well-placed within the story, elevating important scenes and stealing my breath away even when I expected them. In addition, the quieter songs took me by surprise in the unexpected moments, and I liked that such understated scenes were lingered upon. It was heartfelt and evocative without becoming campy or pretentious, and the sincere and poetic lyrics by brilliant lyricist Kim Eana made me cry several times.
The original webtoon made use of mixed media, such as photographs and paper cutouts, to convey its surreal magic. While today’s CGI technology makes it easily possible to replicate all that with stunning visual effects, magic is more than just the spectacle. At its simplest, most genuine core, it moves the heart, and so I think director Kim Sung-yoon’s choice to use music as a medium made the emotions that much more palpable and touching.
Also, I’d like to commend the show for its attention to detail, ranging from Ah-yi’s repeated outfits to her old phone with its cracked screen. It also made good use of a Chekhov’s gun; when Ah-yi first enters the convenience store, we see the high school student Ha-yoon leaving it, and the significance of that scene only becomes clear when the truth is revealed later on.
One gripe I had was that the murder mystery was drawn out a tad too long, taking up precious time that could have been otherwise spent on our main cast. The addition of this plotline was perhaps the most significant change from the webtoon, and while I suppose it made the stakes more dire, I wonder if it was necessary at all.
Still, I found myself choked up by the ending, and I had to take several minutes to gather myself. There’s something amazing about a show that makes you feel a whole gamut of emotions, even when you already know what’s coming, and The Sound of Magic was exactly that for me. It was by no way means perfect, but as Il-deung learnt from Ri-eul, perfection isn’t necessarily attainable or desirable. This show touched my heart, and that’s more than enough for me.
Also, I absolutely loved the post-credits scene, which was done in the style of a musical curtain call! It was such a sweet homage, and I love that the camera panned to the audience too, as if acknowledging the rest of the people that worked behind the scenes to bring this show to life. (I assume the audience was made up of the drama’s cast and crew, since I noticed illusionist Lee Eun-gyul, who was consulted for the magic aspects of the show.)
Taken objectively, the show treaded some very familiar waters, and didn’t quite subvert expectations or deliver jaw-dropping surprises. But The Sound of Magic was never meant to be a blockbuster hit, and I think it ultimately succeeded in telling a heartwarming tale that comforts and heals one’s inner child. My love for the original webtoon notwithstanding, this is a magical little gem of a musical drama that will linger in my heart for a long time to come.