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.