K-drama review: Memories of the Alhambra

Memories of the Alhambra poster

For a while Memories of the Alhambra (a 2019 joint production of tvN and Netflix) was being heavily trailed on Netflix (at least, it was being advertised at me, but I guess I’m the target audience). It got lots of online hype (and apparently a petition for a second season), which I’m a bit bemused by. Honestly, this was beautifully filmed, well acted, had an original sci-fi thriller concept and unexpected plot twists, but I wound up disappointed overall.

It starts out well. Park Shin-hye (Doctors, Pinocchio, Heirs) plays Jung Hee-joo, a woman running a hostel for Koreans in Granada with her grandmother. She supports her younger sister Min-joo (who is still at school) and her brother Se-joo (a freelance game developer) by working two other jobs in addition to the hostel management. She has a Korean best friend who’s in love with her and a secret talent for playing classical guitar. It’s all very cosy and lovely.

Then along comes Yoo Jin-woo (played by Hyun Bin of Secret Garden) – the CEO of a tech company called J-One. He receives a mysterious phone call begging him to go to a certain hostel in Granada to discuss a business deal. When he gets there, he finds no sign of the man he was supposed to meet (who turns out to be Se-joo), but he does have an e-mail with a game attached to it – a game designed to work with J-One’s augmented-reality contact lenses. A game that could be worth billions.

The bulk of the first two episodes is establishing the game – in which users walk around real Granada collecting virtual weapons and fighting virtual warriors (think Pokémon Go but with almost realistic graphics). It’s pretty impressive, makes good use of the Granada setting and provides a source of some comedy as the camera view switches between Jin-woo’s point-of-view and what the rest of the world sees (i.e. some tourist flailing his arms around mysteriously and pulling strange faces).

There’s also some mystery about Se-joo, namely why both he and his business partner Marco have disappeared. There’s a fight over buying the rights to the game from Se-joo’s family between Jin-woo and his biggest rival (and former best friend) Cha Hyeong-seok. There are ex-wives and hapless assistants (including the adorable Seo Jung-hoon, played by Min Jin-woong). While there’s lots of ominous music and hints of something dark and terrible, for the most part it feels like a typical set-up of love triangles and business rivalry.

Then after just a couple of episodes, everything changes. A death in the game becomes a death in real life. The tone suddenly makes sense. This show is genuinely exciting, thrilling and even at times quite scary, with some good fighting scenes and special effects.

I watched the first few episodes with a friend who hadn’t seen K-drama before and it was interesting to see how frustrated she was with the slow moments. Those long, lingering reaction shots, spinning camerawork and slow-mo can be a bit cheesy and run counter to the largely action-packed plot.

There’s also a lot of hopping about in time, sometimes repeatedly within an episode, and it’s not always clear what order events happened in. But the first time there’s a big time jump it’s really interesting and a proper “Whoah! Didn’t see that coming!” moment.

Memories of the Alhambra stills
Hyeong-seok, Jung-hoon and Marco get some pretty intense fight scenes.

Jin-woo is appropriately geeky and enthusiastic about gaming for a tech CEO, and Hyun Bin is a good enough actor to convince that he’s suffering whenever that’s called for (which is often). Park Shin-hye, however, is woefully under-served by her character. Hee-joo is entirely a prop for Jin-woo and incredibly subservient for someone who’s spent 10+ years running small businesses. This show would have been much more interesting if she was a gamer too or even a martial-arts enthusiast who is persuaded to play the game (having seen her pull a few moves in Doctors). In episode one she has a bit of fire and calls out Jin-woo on his rudeness but we never really get to see her like that again.

The romance was a little stilted, though I don’t agree with some reviewers who’ve said there was no chemistry at all. But the script doesn’t segue particularly well between the romantic and thriller aspects of the story, and of the two the romance is definitely the minor (and weaker) part.

And that’s not the only script problem. There are multiple characters (both ex-wives, for example) whose motivations make no sense. The whole story revolves around a “technical glitch” macguffin that is never explained (even if it’s far-fetched, good writing could have made it convincing). I really wish more time had been spent on Se-joo’s story, which was very rushed considering how much of the plot hinged on it. And as always, there were way too many replays of scenes (which in some cases made sense with all the time-jumping, but usually just felt like filler).

Finally, I’m sorry to come back to this, but in 2019 is it really too much to ask to have some decent female characters? I know software and other big tech companies are genuinely male-heavy, but that doesn’t mean they only employ men. And the gamers should definitely have included women. This was a big-budget international production and it’s disappointing that an original, modern concept had such old-fashioned overtones.

All that said, this show did make me want to go to Granada (even though most of the Granada scenes were actually shot in nearby Girona, as well as Slovenia and Hungary) and wave my arms around like I’m sword-fighting an invisible ancient warrior. You could do worse than watching the first two or three episodes if you’re planning a trip to Granada.