Memories are chains for the broken.
It’s all in your head.
But in Memories of the Alhambra (MotA), the recently-completed drama that saw airtime on Netflix congruent to its weekend release on the Korean cable channel tvN, the haunting images manifest outside of one’s mind, concretized as video game elements in the real world.
This, Yoo Jin Woo (Hyun Bin) experiences when he invests in an augmented reality game that melds virtual features with real objects in Granada, Spain. Created by Jung Se Joo (Park Chanyeol), the first-person roleplaying game (RPG) seems immaculate, save for the fact that its developer was nowhere to be found—leading Jin Woo to Se Joo’s older sister, Hee Joo (Park Shin Hye).
Running into Cha Hyung Seok (Park Hoon), former business partner and current husband of his first ex-wife, in-game Jin Woo engages him in a seemingly harmless duel. However, he discovers a glitch in the system that quite literally puts the lives of the players at stake as non-player character (NPC) attacks begin inducing physical injuries.
Unexplainable magical elements overlap with the technology and logic-driven restrictions in the video game world, violating the physical boundaries of the real world. Just as the story blurs the lines between reality and the augmented dimension, MotA breathes in a speculative bridge between science fiction, thriller, and fantasy that produces a mysterious, albeit disconcerting, whirlwind.
The nature of trauma
Aided by splendid camera direction and breathtaking visual effects, Hyun Bin’s impressive portrayal draws the viewers in to experience things as his character does. The audience feels the excitement of navigating the game world with him, but also feels burnt out when the initial exhilaration wanes and the perils start to feel more real than virtual. As Jin Woo continues to break, the viewers also feel shackled and helpless—at a loss, not knowing how, but wanting desperately, to fix the mess that has unfolded.
With a pain that seems to emanate from his whole body, Hyun Bin goes beyond facial expressions to display his struggle for solace—suppressing his distress so he can carry on and complete his mission. Yet, feeling trapped as he is branded as a murderous lunatic. All this while attempting to find a space for a healing, comforting romance.
Hee Joo fills in a static, almost secondary function to Jin Woo. She isn’t exactly the independent fighter role but she displays maturity as the head of the household. At the very least, Park Shin Hye doesn’t quite return to the vulnerable damsels she has played in the past and conveys a subtle strength and persistence in between convincing crying scenes.
Though writing her with more dynamism might have catalyzed a deeper story, perhaps the trusting, caring persona was the emotional support necessary for Jin Woo and the audience to cling to, the romance a breather to counteract the intensifying agony.
“Oh no, not again”
The drama also incorporates (and I use this word with utter care) “triggers” that resurface frequently throughout the story. These incidents are plenty enough to make a supercut of torment that it’s no wonder Jin Woo is hurled involuntarily into what seems like incessant anguish. When the warning signs come, viewers are likely to find themselves apprehensively wondering how and when the NPCs will stop the chase.
The flashback-filled narrative is equally rattling. The audience is whisked back-and-forth through a tireless number of timehops; none of the episodes fully follow a sense of linearity, exhibiting a volatile yet intriguing way of storytelling.
The repetitive immersion is exhausting but necessary to keep up with. Even with the temptation to skip recurring scenes, each rerun brings to light new angles and new clues omitted from past episodes. Yet the answer is never fully laid bare, further mystified as more unsettling details emerge as the series progresses.
Delayed gratification…or not?
For all the magical and absurd happenings portrayed in the better half of the series, MotA also confronts its viewers with aching, unwarranted realities that become increasingly difficult to justify and accept. With Jin Woo enduring a road of pitfalls, the audience naturally pines for a redemptive finish after the suffering. Instead, the tumultuous ride brakes abruptly at a baffling ending that doesn’t vindicate the turbulence.
Vividly disastrous conclusions can nullify what good the rest of the series has accomplished, and the finale feels as though the writer was trying to tie loose ends by pulling on all the wrong strings.
I wouldn’t derail others from watching the series, though, if only for Hyun Bin’s award-worthy performance, the marvelous cinematography, and the daring approach toward the hybrid world. Perhaps one can stop after episode 14—one would be left without any answers, but one is also unlikely to be at peace with the disappointing explanations offered by the last episodes anyway.
MotA is an ambitious and bold project with all the tools to become an ingenious masterpiece, yet the story ultimately falls short at the most critical moments. Although it executes many aspects better than typical Korean dramas (Kdramas), the series is not as tightly written as the premise builds it up to be, teetering on expectations set too high by the enthralling first episode. It’s “what could have been” definitely outweighs it’s “what was”.
Still, its successes and failures may encourage others to venture into the non-romantic comedy side of Kdramas. This may be the dawn of integrating more sci-fi features in an industry accustomed to fantasy tales, as well as exposing the international audience to more mythical elements that perhaps appear illogical on the surface but are really just rooted in unfamiliar cultures equally meaningful and valid as Western ideologies.
In the end, Memories of the Alhambra leaves the audience as on-edge as they ever were with the cliffhangers framing the last scenes of many of its episodes, and as perplexed as the beginning, like an imprisoning yet gripping memory that keeps one’s head spinning, emotionally-invested and engrossed.