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A Korean Odyssey retells Journey To The West as a comedy about crazy love

The Advisors Alliance stars Yu Hewei (above left) as general Cao Cao and Li Chen as his son Cao Pi. Right: Lee Seung Gi stars in A Korean Odyssey as the monkey king, protecting a woman (Oh Yeon Seo) from hungry demons.
Lee Seung Gi stars in A Korean Odyssey as the monkey king, protecting a woman (Oh Yeon Seo) from hungry demons.PHOTOS: SINGTEL TV, NETFLIX
The Advisors Alliance stars Yu Hewei (above left) as general Cao Cao and Li Chen as his son Cao Pi. Right: Lee Seung Gi stars in A Korean Odyssey as the monkey king, protecting a woman (Oh Yeon Seo) from hungry demons.
The Advisors Alliance stars Yu Hewei (above left) as general Cao Cao and Li Chen as his son Cao Pi. PHOTOS: SINGTEL TV, NETFLIX

A Korean Odyssey retells the story of Journey To The West as a comedy about crazy love

The monkey king and the bull king are now squabbling housemates, stuck in the mortal realm and grudgingly sharing a luxury apartment in Seoul, according to A Korean Odyssey.

As the story goes in the South Korean drama, the monkey spirit, Son O Gong (Lee Seung Gi), is still a bad boy, the kind who parks his sports car like a rock star, trashes meeting rooms and breaks promises. He once made a deal with a little girl who freed him from an enchanted, invisible prison. He said he would go to her rescue if she called his name, then slyly plucked her memory of his name from her mind.

The bull spirit, Woo Hwi (Cha Seung Won), runs a K-pop talent agency, all the better for him and his stars to feed on the ambrosial energy of jam-packed stadiums and screaming fans.

Once upon a time in Hong Kong cinema, A Chinese Odyssey became a cult classic by breaking the mould of adaptations with an insane, tragicomic, bleeding-heart romantic take on Journey To The West. The two-part 1995 movie made such a wild detour from the original tale of a monk's adventures with his unruly animal-spirit disciples that other retellings are bound to seem tame.

Nevertheless, A Korean Odyssey, transplanting the story to the fertile soil of the South Korean urban fantasy romance, plays like a snazzy, sassy upgrade.

The drama's odd-couple set-up may invite comparison to Goblin, the 2016 show that also had two immortals under one roof, but what was scarce in that drama, which A Korean Odyssey has in spades, is a welcome sense of mischief. In other words, this show is very much the work of Hong Jeong Eun and Hong Mi Ran, the writing sisters whose hits range from the silly (My Girl, 2005) to the supernatural (The Master's Sun, 2013).

With A Korean Odyssey, the Hong sisters' brightest idea is to turn the monk into a female incarnation, Jin Seon Mi (Oh Yeon Seo), a lonely property dealer who sees dead people and whose lotus-scented blood makes her a magnet for monsters.

  • VIEW IT / A KOREAN ODYSSEY

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    3.5 stars

    THE ADVISORS ALLIANCE

    Jia Le Channel (Singtel TV Channel 502)

    Mondays to Fridays, 10.10pm

    3 stars

She was that little girl O Gong misled years ago, but now Hwi has bought her a killer gizmo to help her deal with that naughty monkey. It's a magic bracelet - an upgrade from the headache-inducing circlet from Journey To The West - that, ta-da, will chain up the most defiant deity's heart and make him an obedient bodyguard/boyfriend/slave.

"A disaster has befallen me," as O Gong later proclaims. He is in love with Seon Mi crazily, but as the monkey king and the personification of anarchy, he is sure as hell going to jailbreak the bracelet and get rid of his mistress - and yet the thought of that also breaks his heart.

With these tweaks, the show morphs into a zany romantic comedy in which love is a jinx, a wicked joke and its own funny-sad punchline. And Lee, who plays the id-driven monkey king as petulant yet vulnerable, seething and weeping, really gets it. His O Gong is a bad boyfriend, so bad that he's downright irresistible.

It has become de rigueur for Chinese historical dramas to be sophisticated and engaging - to find the sweet spot between high-class and middlebrow - and much of The Advisors Alliance, a political story set in the Three Kingdoms era, looks like business as usual.

Still, the show is notable for its unusual focus and modern perspective. The story is about Sima Yi (Wu Xiubo), who rises from a meek family man to become a fierce strategist in general Cao Cao's twilight years. The show, which is mainly seen through the eyes of the wily Yi, also sheds some intriguing light on Cao, one of the most notorious villains in Chinese legend.

In this telling, the paranoid, pitiless Cao is capable of being enlightened and forward-looking.

After a trusted official apologises for keeping him in the dark about an investigation, Cao smooths away his worries. The two should have the relationship of a married couple by now, Cao says. Each is allowed his little secrets, as long as they are united when it comes to important matters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2018, with the headline 'Monkey and bull story '. Print Edition | Subscribe