The classic tale of “Journey to the West” is retold as a Korean drama with Lee Seung Gi in his first role since leaving the army and an exciting combination of CGI and special effects. The latest addition to your list of favorite dramas, “Hwayugi” combines sharp wit, fantastic performances, and thrilling fantasy to keep you in front of the television this holiday season and beyond.
An unfortunate little girl with the power to see ghosts, Jin Sun Mi makes a deal with a conniving spirit (Son Oh Gong) to release him from a magical prison in exchange for his protection. She wisely makes him pledge a contract with her, but he wiggles out of his obligation as soon as he is free. Twenty-five years later, she’s still plagued by spirits, and when she coincidentally sees him passing in the street, she’s keen to collect on her contract.
Through the help of Woo Whee (another spirit keen to return to the heavenly world, played by Cha Seung Won), the use of a Geum Gang Go (essentially a magical handcuff), and Sun Mi’s quick thinking, Son Oh Gong’s got his work cut out for him if he is to remain free and continue his path of self-gain.
Oh Yeon Seo as Jin Sun Mi
We first meet Jin Sun Mi (Oh Yeon Seo) as a friendless little girl being bullied at school. Despite being quite isolated, she presents herself as socially adept, well-spoken, and confident, brokering deals with strangers, first to exchange umbrellas with a magical man who rescues her with the use of his powerful umbrella, and then with a mysterious spirit whose strength she sees as a solution for her unearthly problems.
She is essentially duped both times and comes out empty-handed, but jump to twenty-five years later, and she seems to have successfully gotten her life together. She is a wealthy CEO of a real estate group, she’s sweet and empathetic to the ghosts she meets, and benefits financially and professionally from haunted houses. She still has no friends or family and is clearly lonely, but doesn’t seem to be doing too badly until she comes across the mysterious spirit she released twenty-five years ago, just casually passing by on the street.
It is later revealed that as punishment for releasing Son Oh Gong from his prison, Sun Mi is hunted by evil spirits who believe that by eating her they will gain great power. They call her Sam Jang and believe her blood, which smells like lotus flowers and attracts them to her, will grant them great power if consumed. This forces her to seek protection from the very man that caused her all this trouble in the first place. So far, Jin Sun Mi is a strong-willed, courageous, and determined character whose lust for life has kept her alive in the face of adversity.
Lee Seung Gi as Son Oh Gong
A self-confessed very bad man. Son Oh Gong is first introduced as a trapped spirit, alone in a house, waiting to be rescued; he’s wily and manipulative and is soon freed without too much loss on his part.
Twenty-five years later, he’s working as an exorcist to build brownie points so he can get back up to the heavenly world, where he will be able to drink alcohol again. He’s motivated by selfishness, but is forced to act against his nature to become a deity again.
He soon realizes he’s being manipulated to commit good acts for very little return, so he gives up on that venture and starts searching for Sam Jang instead. If he eats her, he will possess great power, which is good enough in his books. However, once he realizes the little girl he once conned is the woman he is now supposed to eat, he struggles with his conscience.
So far Oh Gong has shown himself to be a gentle spirit playing at being bad. He seems to have warmed to Sun Mi almost immediately, and despite threatening to eat her, he has protected her in more ways than one, visually struggling to stay on the right track and achieve his selfish goal.
Cha Seung Won as Woo Whee
Devilish over-reactor, talent show host, and debonair fairy, Woo Whee is the Chairman of Lucifer Entertainment, a well-known public figure with more than a few secrets. He too is being good so he can become a deity, a mission he is clearly struggling with as his temper often boils over, leaving him snarling almost like an animal.
When we first see him, he is recruiting a young Sun Mi to retrieve the Princess Iron Fan from Oh Gong’s prison, a tool he requires to put out a long burning forest fire. Little does he know he is unwillingly setting in motion the events that free Oh Gong, earning him a burdensome housemate.
Now, twenty five years later, he is motivated by his dislike of Oh Gong and his desire for Sun Mi’s blood. Mostly he just wants Oh Gong to stop hanging his coat on his bull statue.
Lee Hong Ki as P.K
Lee Hong Ki is essentially playing a supernatural twist on himself with a smidge of ego and self-flattery thrown in for good measure. He’s a popular singer with a band of loving fans whose energy he draws from. He has some powers and knowledge, which makes him useful to the other characters, but so far up to episode two, he has yet to show his full potential and arc within the story. Anyone familiar with his previous work in dramas will be excited to see him develop throughout the show, as Hong Ki has a great sense for comedy and can’t help but be cute.
Lee El as Ma Ji Young
She only has a small part so far, but I couldn’t help but mention Ma Ji Young. Assistant to Woo Whee, she’s limited to a few lines per episode, but they’re always amazing. Casually asking if her boss would like to eat Sun Mi or offering to murder people with the ease of someone offering to put the kettle on, she’s one to watch for more great one-liners and hopefully a lot more.
“Hwayugi” is a complete fantasy within the realms of the real world with several references to real Korean stars and TV shows. Of course, if you’re familiar with the story of “Journey to the West,” then you’ll spend more time looking out for the original story elements than you will being surprised by them, but there is a fun twist round every corner to keep things fresh.
Not for the feint at heart, this one has gone all out on the creepy spirits, shadow monsters, possessed dolls, children, and paintings. The wooden puppets especially were a terrifying treat, moving in a way that prompts both laughter and goose bumps.
All of the lead characters are fun and exciting, the female lead has gumption, and it would be difficult not to empathize with her plight. The male lead is cocky and charming, and the two lead characters’ gravitation towards each other is already showing. Nothing about this drama is ordinary, the special effects are on point, and the magical universe slowly developing before us is thrilling.
Overall, I think “Hwayugi” is going to be a fun ride, so buckle up!
Start watching “Hwayugi” below:
MizWest is an English Teaching Assistant with way too much time on her hands. When she’s not watching dramas or shaking it to K-pop, she’s studying everything Korean culture with a view to move out there some day soon!