There is no dearth of supernatural Korean shows and films, which delve into unusual aspects of Korean folklore and craft masterpieces in storytelling. There is careful attention to detail, and the ability to build something real out of the unreal. In shows like Tomorrow, the Grim Reapers work in an ineffective bureaucratic system from 9-5, clad in black suits, slogging away in different departments. You have shows about friendly ghosts. There are a slew of shows about ‘gumihos’ (nine-tailed foxes), each providing new insights about the creature that the world might not know. Yet, Lee Dong-wook’s supernatural figures make a stronger mark than the rest. Perhaps it’s his ability to effortlessly showcase different sides to magical figures, bringing out the realism in them, blended in with his knack of effortlessly creating a strong chemistry with his co-stars on screen.
Lee Dong-wook has experimented with a lot in his career spanning almost 20 years, starting from My Girl, the melodrama of melodramas, and then a host of several other shows till he struck gold as the Grim Reaper in Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, one of the highest-rated shows in Korean cable history. He is probably responsible for the image of a grim reaper that many of us have in our heads–in a crisp suit with the trademark hat, waiting at bus stops and carrying out his morbid jobs as if he worked in the corporate sector.
In Guardian, he gave the viewers the severe ‘second-lead’ syndrome. In the show, he is compelled to become roommates with Gong Yoo’s Goblin and the two squabble over meals and torment each other over rents, like you would expect from any two flatmates, except with a lot of magic involved. Yet, he brought out the emotional and vulnerable side of the character, a man with a tainted past, that is connected to the Goblin. Lee Dong-wook brought out the battered emotions of such a character, who is to forego the potential chance of happiness that he finally finds. As true with all second-lead syndromes, his love story with Yoon In-na’s Kim Sun found a strong fan-base, perhaps more than the main leads themselves.
However, it’s in Tale of the Nine Tailed, where he took the reins of the main lead. It’s also why the ‘supernatural’ tag has been attached to him, even though he has tried many other shows. It’s almost hard to dissociate him from the unearthly realms, even though he puts up a strong performance in everything he does.
Tale of the Nine Tailed Fox chronicles the story of a gumiho (a magical creature in Korean folklore), played by Lee Dong-wook. He’s lived for what seems like an eternity and has seen the death of his lover, played by Jo Bo Ah. And here’s the thing about gumihos, they can love only once in their life. As the show progresses, he meets a girl named Nam Ji-ah (Jo Bo-ah) again, who resembles his dead lover. He’s a bitter, cynical man now so he doesn’t believe it’s her again, but quickly, as they keep falling to devastating traps and unravelling supernatural mysteries as well as the horror of the ‘imoogi’ (a demonic spirit), they fall in love and save each other countless times.
The show itself has its highs and lows, but it’s Lee Dong-wook’s charisma and his chemistry with Jo Bo-ah that keeps the story going. His little quirks, of winks, the wistful smile as he remembers his past, and the confusion regarding the present, enhances the storytelling infinitely. He almost looks surreal when he stands in a fiery orange blaze, out to turn his enemies to ashes. There are many such memorable scenes from the show matched with a resounding OST, but one of the best and most impactful scenes is when Lee Yeon, who is to fulfil a punishment after killing a demon, is crawling across a bridge of knives while Nam Ji-ah is in trouble, (damsels in distress is a required ingredient in every K-drama). Lee Yeon crawls across the bridge and mutters the words, “I don’t know if she is (the past lover) but I must save her.” He finishes his sentence and saves her from falling from the terrace.
The instrumental, ‘Parting of the River’ reaches almost a crescendo here, which just makes it one of the memorable supernatural scenes in Korean dramas. It’s an unpopular opinion maybe, but his love story with Nam Ji-ah was a little more alluring than his tale with Kim-sun in Guardian.
Lee Dong-wook is truly the master of the supernatural realms, even though he’s starred only in a handful.