Notes from the semi-lockdowns: Goblin Part 1

Gong Yoo as the titular Goblin

Before Crash Landing on You, the most viewed drama on Korean cable was Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, or Goblin to non-Korean viewers. Broadcast in late 2016 to early 2017, the show reached as much as 19% viewership in South Korea, with +20% viewership in Seoul alone. I remember everyone was going about this show on social networks back then (mostly fangirling over Gong Yoo, obvs), but I was too distracted by the plethora of shows that were new to me, thanks to more access to US, UK and local content via Australian TV as well as streaming services. It was also a time when I had a k-drama funk: I just lost interest in the genre and instead switched to Anglo-centric productions that included Game of Thrones, Sherlock, and Doctor Who, to name a few.

The massively popular show stars Gong Yoo in the titular role of “Goblin”, a supernatural who has been roaming the earth for 900-odd years as punishment for crimes he committed as a general in the Korean army during the Goryeo dynasty. Lee Dong Wook (My Girl, Hotel King, Touch Your Heart), Yoo In-na (My Love From the Star, Touch Your Heart), Yook Sung Jae (BTOS), and Kim Go Eun (The King Eternal Monarch, The Cheese Trap) round up the main cast of this fantasy romance novela that captured much of the imagination of viewers across Asia and elsewhere five years ago.

Goblin’s origin story

gong yoo as goblin/kim shin
Before turning into Goblin, he is known as general Kim Sin in the Goryeo dynasty.

Goblin used to be a brave army general, Kim Shin, whose successful campaigns to defend the kingdom against invaders cost so many lives and eventually his own. With every victory in battle, he becomes more popular amongst the citizens, resulting in jealousy and insecurity on the part of the young king, Yeo (or Wang Yeo, as “wang” directly translates to king).

Although Shin has constantly faced danger in the battlefield, life at the royal court is not safe either. When members of the royal family start to die one after the other, Kim Shin receives an order from the previous king to protect the young prince by arranging a marriage with his sister, Kim Seon (or Kim Sun, depending on where you’re watching). Fortunately, Wang Yeo and Kim Seon fall in love in spite of the increasing jealousy and suspicion on the part of Yeo, no thanks to the malicious advice he gets from his mentor, Park Joong Hyeon.

After winning yet another battle, Kim Shin returns to the capital in defiance of the Wang Yeo’s orders to remain in exile, prompting the young king to order the killing of everyone in the general’s company as well as members of his household. But worst of all, the killings also include Kim Seon, as the king fears that she has allied herself with her brother instead of him. When it is Kim Shin’s turn to die, his most loyal man volunteers to plunge the sword in his chest to give him an honourable death.

As he lays dying, Kim Shin taunts the gods for forsaking him and those he has fought for. The gods, insulted, punishes him by bringing him back from the dead to roam the earth as a goblin, an immortal who will never find peace, for even as he lives forever he also witnesses the passing of his loved ones.

Only the goblin’s wife can see the sword stuck in Kim Shin’s chest

In Korean folklore, goblins (or dokkaebi) have extraordinary powers and the ability to interact with humans. They are also often surnamed “Kim” and come into being when they possess objects or artefacts that are stained in human blood. In the series, the artefact is the magnificent sword that Kim Shin receives from the young king as a gift but is eventually stained with the blood of all the people that he killed in battle. It is the same sword that ends his mortal life and has remained stuck in his chest; no one else apart from the Goblin’s Wife can see and pull it out. Once the sword has been removed, Goblin will finally die.

The Goblin’s Wife

Kim Go Eun (left) as Ji Eun Tak, the Goblin’s Bride

It will be more than 900 years before Kim Shin meets Ji Eun Tak (Kim Go Eun) whose life he saves when her mother is hit by a car whilst pregnant with her. As a result of Kim Shin’s intervention, Eun Tak comes into the world with a unique gift that allows her to see ghosts who in turn inform her that she is the Goblin’s Wife. On the other hand, escaping death also means Grim Reapers are hot on her heels and the threat of death shall continue for the rest of her life.

On the night her mother dies, Eun Tak meets the Grim Reaper who is supposed to guide her mother to the afterlife but accidentally identifies her as the missing soul that he has been looking for. With a god who comes in the form of an old woman (and sometimes a beautiful woman in red) on her side, she manages to escape the Reaper and eventually lives with her cruel aunt and obnoxious cousins.

On her 19th birthday, she unknowingly summons Goblin/Kim Shin after blowing her birthday candle whilst celebrating on her own. Quick to pick up on the nature of the person who suddenly appears in front of her, she learns how to summon him at will and starts to build a relationship with the immortal to whom she introduces herself as his wife.

Goblin crosses paths with a friend from the past once again

Lee Dong Wook as Grim Reaper

In the series, Grim Reapers are the work horses of collecting souls. They only exist to do the job handed to them by some sort of Grim Reaper Bureau – it’s so bureaucratic, it comes with a team of Reaper Auditors. Although technically undead, they must exist among the living, eating, sleeping, dressing up, shop and staying in human dwellings. They can be seen by humans if they so choose, but to be visible only to the souls of the departed, they must wear the hats that complete their work ensemble. Crucially, they can see a person’s past life upon touching them. Reapers offer cups of tea to departing souls to erase their memories before moving on to the afterlife.

Grim Reaper (Lee Dong Wook) passes himself off as someone “in the services” and one day signs a lease on a house advertised by Deok Hwa, whose family has been managing Goblin’s affairs for generations. Not known to Reaper, the house belongs to Goblin, who as expected is livid when he learns that he will share the same room with another supernatural upon his return from abroad. It turns out, the gods have a hand to play in the mix-up, ensuring that Goblin and Reaper are to cross paths once again.

Although things do not start out right between Goblin and Reaper, their willingness to aid Eun Tak becomes a foundation for a friendship that will sustain them later in the story. Even though he is under orders to collect her soul, Reaper decides to alert Goblin each time Eun Tak faces the possibility of death.

Just like Goblin, being a 300-year-old Grim Reaper who can teleport and erase other people’s memories is a punishment in and on itself. Someone is becomes a Grim Reaper when they commit a grave sin in their past life, and this particular Reaper did quite a few horrible things to his loved ones, his country and himself. As punishment for his sins, he is reincarnated as the dreaded collector of souls and must do as he is told, for as many times, and as long as is needed to merit forgiveness and finally be allowed to go to the afterlife where he can join the queue for rebirth as a human. Reapers have no memory of who they were in the past and the sins they committed.

Enter Sunny…

Yoo In-na as Sunny

Grim Reaper’s list of misdeeds grows longer when he meets Sunny (Yoo In-na), Eun Tak’s boss and eventually, friend. His reaction upon setting eyes on her forebodes that they are connected one way or another, for even though he has lost his memory, the emotions linger.

Likewise, Sunny falls for the handsome Reaper, but her exacting nature and quick smarts prevents her from forming a serious relationship with him. Who can blame a woman who only wants to make sure that the man she wants to be with isn’t hiding his true identity, much less his name and the nature of his work, for a start?

Apart from Reaper’s true nature, what is also not known to Sunny is her connection to Kim Shin. This discovery sets into motion the next act which sees Kim Shin seeking vengeance for the injustices he suffered as a human being. On the other hand, Reaper must finally face the consequences of his actions as Wang Yeo, the young king who betrayed Kim Shin, ordered the killing of Kim Seon, the love of his life, who is reincarnated as Sunny in present day.

Sunny once again is caught between her brother and the man he loves. It is only her love that stops Kim Shin from taking revenge on Grim Reaper and as the story evolves, she must once again make a sacrifice.

Inescapable fate and redemption

Although I found the six episodes of this drama so slow and tedious, I still ended up enjoying it a lot. The first few episodes show Kim Shin and his neverending pushing and pulling with Ji Eun Tak, but things pick up when one of the gods schemes to make Grim Reaper cross paths with Sunny.

As a standard k-drama, the show features deeply emotional parts followed by funny scenes that lighten up the mood when things start to get really dark and heavy. Although wielding magical powers and are hundreds of years old, Goblin and Reaper, must grapple with modern life and with modern women who have strong concepts of who they are and what they want in this life. One of the most hilarious sequences also show them learning how to use modern technologies, particularly making voice and video calls on mobiles.

At its core, it is a dark and sad tale of someone who has been waiting to die, but before doing so must avenge the injustices done to him. Sharing space in his world are characters shown as complex individuals dealing with falling in love, anger, dark secrets, and the quest for forgiveness. Because, again, this is k-drama, all characters can be funny one minute, romantic the next, and then tragic victims of their own making.

Even as the story revolves around Kim Shin/Goblin and his quest to be at peace with his lot, he also falls in love in the process for the first time in his 900-something years. But the real arch of the series is truly about redemption. Kim Shin, for all his valour, still spilled so much blood in the battlefield and ultimately cost the lives of his men and loved ones when he defied the orders of his ruler. Wang Yeo, on the other hand, must atone the crimes he committed for the rest of his mortal life and for hundreds of years in his reincarnation as Grim Reaper. Worst, he must once again lose the woman he has ever loved.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Eun Tak and Sunny. There really is no need to redeem them, but it’s as if they are only meant to be offered as sacrifices between two opposing forces, and the only way to change their fates is through rebirth — one with memories of her old self intact whilst the other, with no knowledge of her history in order to finally be happy. Even after fulfilling her role as Goblin’s bride and life eventually learns to be kind to her, Eun Tak still cannot escape her fate.

Wang Yeo and Kim Sun/Kim Seon

I feel that the story has been especially cruel to Sunny in the present and her previous life as Kim Seon/Kim Sun. As both queen and devoted sister, she pays the ultimate price for protecting the men she loves and then gets her heart broken once again when she finds out that the man she falls in love with in her current life is the same person responsible for her death. Worse, when everyone else has moved on, she has to pretend that she has forgotten ever having been hurt, betrayed and abandoned. The only way to find peace and learn to forgive in the present is to leave, with the understanding that although Reaper feels the same way for her, he is neither human nor living.

Grim Reaper and Sunny, still can’t make it in the present

Thankfully, she reemerges in another life, still meets her soulmate, and both of them are free at last to pursue the happiness that previously eluded. In this, fans of the “peachy couple” are ecstatic when Lee Dong Wook and Yoo In-na reunited in Touch Your Heart as a successful but humourless lawyer and an actress down on her luck, respectively. I am more emotionally invested in their story than that of Goblin and Eun Tak’s, as theirs spans several lifetimes and is at the very heart of the redemption arch. Where as Wang Yeo, he fails to protect Kim Seon, as Reaper he has to step up and save Sunny from danger. It’s also worth nothing that only Sunny and Reaper were the only ones whose memories remained when Goblin goes away.

The series has plenty of things that I like and not like so much which is a long list that should be in another post.

Overall Guardian: The Lonely and Great God is 10/10 recommended viewing to distract oneself from news stories about racism, injustices committed against people on the basis of their skin colour, fascists and corrupt leaders who would rather cook up any excuse to allow them to cling to power instead of protecting their citizens from a deadly virus that is currently sweeping across the globe.

Rating: 5 out of 5.