Most of the time I can’t stand urban fantasy: werewolves, vampires, zombies, half-demon/half-angel hybrids, and other such figures crammed into a big city somewhere, interacting (having sex) with ordinary humans who happen to be half-angels themselves or whatever. It’s a crowded genre, both in its conventions and its representation in fiction.
But the South Koreans do it right. At least on television. While I mostly enjoyed the urban fantasy drama Black (except for the end), I really enjoyed Possessed, which has a terrific take on faith, love, death, and the supernatural.
At its heart, Possessed is a show about transformation: not only do the characters undergo significant changes, but the world itself transforms, and with it the show’s tone. Halfway through the sixteen-episode run, the story gets much darker, and the bits of humor interspersed here and there save it from becoming a grim, dreary fable. Because of this, the show takes risks that few American dramas do: characters make reasonable, if destructive choices, and become more believable as a result.
As a primarily character-driven story, Possessed relies heavily on the performances of its principal actors: Song Sae-byeok as detective Kang Pil-sung and Go Joon-hee as psychic Hong Seo-jung. This reliance is not misplaced. Kang Pil-sung is a character with tremendous depth, and it shows in his portrayal. In a lesser actor, he would merely come off as gruff and dim, but here he shows a multilayered personality behind his awkwardness. Hong Seo-jung, as the psychic, has an amazing way of communicating either humor or sadness in a single glance; with her perfect face and wide, serious eyes, you can’t help but be drawn in.
As is often the case with these long-form, complex K-dramas, the side characters take on a life of their own, including the antagonists. They’re well-drawn and fleshed-out, and as the story progresses, endure terrifying trials. At no point does Possessed ask you to take them for granted, and they would steal the show themselves if the protagonists weren’t so riveting.
The story isn’t original, but makes the tropes seem unworn. A serial killer of women named Hwang Dae-du is caught, tried, and executed, and decades later, a psychopathic doctor makes a shaman pull Hwang Dae-du’s soul from Hell to possess him and make him a more effective murderer. Psychic Hong Seo-jung, who lives a simple life as a clothing shop employee, gets involved, meets detective Kang Pil-sung, and the two team up to stop Hwang Dae-du. Ghosts, ritual magic, and psychic journeys ensue, while Hwang Dae-du initiates a plan to turn the entire world into the Hell he escaped from.
As you can guess from the show’s title, a number of people get possessed by others, but not in a casual, body-jumping sort of way. The more powerful Hwang Dae-du gets, the more desperate the main characters become to stop him, hampered by a world that doesn’t believe in the supernatural.
Unlike Black, the end is satisfying, if sad. The writers didn’t cut corners: no one is safe, and the genre considerations take a back seat to good storytelling. That’s rare. It’s good TV. Check it out.