K-drama review: Legend of the Blue Sea

Legend of the Blue Sea poster

Yes, yes, I think I am addicted. I wanted to give Lee Min-ho another chance after the awfulness that was The Heirs, because it was his acting (and maybe also his looks) that got me hooked on K-drama in the first place. Legend of the Blue Sea (SBS 2016/17) had been recommended to me as a K-drama with an awesome female lead, and also happens to star Lee Min-ho.

This is a bit of a mix of genres. You could boil down the plot summary to: mermaid comes ashore for the first time, bumps into attractive man and much hilarity ensues. It’s a literal fish-out-water story. It’s Splash. But it’s also a historical drama (there are two timelines: one in Joseon era and one modern day), a crime drama, a family drama and of course a romance. And all of those genres appear in both comic and serious guises. Which could have been a hot mess, but it actually works pretty well.

The series opens with a crime caper: Heo Joon-jae (Lee Min-ho) is part of a team of conmen ripping off a rich woman. Joon-jae uses hypnosis and suggestion as his contribution to the team, while Jo Nam-doo (Lee Hee-joon) leads the team and Tae Oh (Shin Won-ho) handles the computer wizardry. After the con they need to lay low for a while, so Joon-jae goes to Spain.

Here we meet our mermaid Shi Cheong (Jun Ji-hyun) who comes ashore (her tail automatically turns into legs on shore) and is at first completely clueless – but she does have supernatural strength and the ability to erase memories. She takes a shine to Joon-jae and follows him around wordlessly until he caves and takes her under his wing.

There’s a real charm to these early episodes. There’s lots of comedy, great acting and some stunning scenery (this section was filmed in Catalonia and Galicia). Some of this comedy and charm disappears when the action moves to Seoul and the plot gets complicated with family relationships, a serial murderer on the loose, lots of trust issues and some very earnest falling in love.

Legend of the Blue Sea still
Superstrong mermaid Cheong stands up to some tiny bullies.

I did like the folklore element. The show was apparently inspired by a historical tale about a mermaid contained in the short story anthology Eou Yadam by Joseon-era scholar Yu Mong-in. It gradually becomes clear that the Joseon-era scenes (featuring all the same actors as the modern-day) are telling a parallel tale and the key becomes whether both stories will have the same ending.

I must admit I’m a sucker for that story of love so strong that it can’t help but repeat itself if the couple keep dying and being reborn. I know it’s not original, and neither is the evil stepmother or the estranged son hiding from his family, but that didn’t bother me.

Guest star Jo Jung-suk (from Oh! My Ghost) has an adorable small role. I would have loved to see more scenes with him. I should definitely search out more of his work. There’s also a supporting role in the form of a young girl who helps Cheong when she first arrives in Seoul and I love that she remained a key part of Cheong’s friendship circle. Their relationship is very sweet.

I did think that the show drags in the middle of its 20-episode run. I found myself wondering how there could possibly be another half a series still to come – but then it got exciting and plot-heavy again (in fact, the show could be accused of juggling too many subplots). I also found it suffered from that common problem of the stars being initially perky and sparky and then turning sad and earnest. And there were a few too many people giving precisely the wrong advice in a way that made them seem either sinister or stupid.

The repeated K-pop songs (some of which must have been written for the show, as their lyrics seem to be specifically about its storyline) did get a bit irritating. That said, I think I went full circle and some of them grew on me to the extent that I’m tempted to buy one or two songs from the soundtrack.

This is not a realistic TV show. But it has a magical sparkle, a romance that I actually found romantic, fabulous costumes and a satisfying ending. Check it out on Viki.