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.

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Notes from the lockdown: “Touch Your Heart” is delightfully lighthearted

Lee Dong Wook and Yoo In-na as lawyer Kwon Jung Rok and his secretary Oh Jin Shim, respectively.

I have lost count of how many times I binged watched Touch Your Heart, which I discovered on Viki after watching Guardian: The Great and Lonely God (or Goblin for short). You know how it is when you’re searching for something else to watch whilst having withdrawals from the drama that you’ve just finished: either ask friends for recommendations or jump into the rabbit hole that is the list of all the works of the actors involved in the show.

While this will be an unpopular opinion amongst fans of Gong Yoo (he’s fabulous and will always be a favourite since Coffee Prince), I maintain that Lee Dong Wook whose portrayal of a Grim Reaper stole some of Yoo’s thunder from right under his feet. In the Goblin universe, there are quite a few of them, thus the indefinite article “a”. The guy strutted his way onto the screen as if straight from the pages of a fashion magazine (it turns out he endorses the Boy de Chanel line) as the hat-wearing Reaper, albeit one that’s compassionate and with a rather more interesting back story than Goblin’s main character.

As viewers of k-dramas know, most series from this genre also feature a “second couple”, a pair that supplements the romantic highs and lows that the lead characters provide and for the most part, serve as a plot device. In Goblin, the Grim Reaper is half of the second couple with Yoo In-Na’s Kim Sun. Together, Grim Reaper and Kin Sun provided a supplemental love story that, although heartbreakingly tragic, was more compelling than that of the first couple’s. It’s the only reason I didn’t give up on Goblin halfway through and explains the hype surrounding the show. More about Goblin in another post.

With viewer’s ratings of 98% on Google and 9.7 on Viki which thankfully did not geo-block the series, I decided to give Touch Your Heart a go, thinking if I could manage my way through to at least a quarter of episode 1, it should be okay. It was all fun and kilig from this point onwards.

Speaking of geoblocking, about three quarters of the shows I want to see on Viki are unavailable in Australia—is there another service that owns the rights to these shows Down Under? How do I subscribe?

Fans of the “pichi couple” were delighted by the announcement that they would be working together again, this time in a much more upbeat series and playing not-at-all tragic characters. The reunion features a strait laced star lawyer Kwon Jung Rok (Lee) and an actress down on her luck, Oh Jin Shim (Yoo; stage name: Oh Yoon Seo), whose career has suffered almost irreparably after getting implicated in a drugs scandal involving a well-connected heir to a chaebol. Think of it as a case of #metoo, but one in which the victim more harshly was judged more harshly by the public instead of the perp.

Casting projects and endorsements dry up in the years that follow Oh Jin Shim’s career downfall until she stumbles on a script meant for someone else. To convince the project’s creators that she can act and play the part of a lawyer–or just to have a whiff of a chance at getting cast for the role–she must get an experience at a law firm. Jin Shim ends up working as a secretary for the “prickly” Kwon Jung Rok at Always (LOL, the name!), a boutique law firm where the managing partner is a cousin of her agent and is a big fan of hers.

Her introduction to the handsome lawyer is not exactly meet-cute: Jung Rok shows no interest in her as a former A-list celebrity nor approves of her fashion choice, which he thinks is inappropriate in a corporate environment. Nor is he impressed by her turning up an hour late on her first day, by her apparent lack of any useful skills beyond acting and product endorsements, and the fact that the rest of the staff are fawning over her just for being the so-called Korea’s goddess (“my goddess, your goddess, the universe’s goddess”).

To prove that Jung Rok’s assumptions about her are wrong, Oh Jin Shim steps up to the challenge and learns the job of a lawyer’s Secretary (something short of a paralegal in the show’s context): report to work before the boss arrives, wear office-appropriate attire, manage to forward calls and operate the printer/copier, prepare coffee, organise files. There are missteps that follow that are not entirely of her making, but to her credit, Oh Jin Shim knows how to answer back to her superior and explain that although she is not highly skilled, she is driven and willing to learn.

Taken aback and realising he needs to show a little compassion somehow, Jung Rok eventually assigns a task that is relevant to the drama role that, unbeknownst to him, his secretary is secretly preparing for. Thus by successfully researching a set of legal precedents and proving that she has exceptionally good recall (something the scene implies actors are known for), Jin Shim manages to convince him that she is worthy of the job after all.

What follows is one of the most touching scenes that demonstrates the strength of Oh Jin Shim’s character, thanks to her experience as a public figure (i.e. a target of nasty online comments), and a reminder to always be kind, for others are fighting battles one does not know about. It’s a piece of clever writing that’s acted brilliantly by the two leads.

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