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Netflix’s Arthdal Chronicles: An Epic Saga

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Larinna is a movie buff and aspires to be a movie critic, hopefully. She also loves Korean dramas.

'Arthdal Chronicles' episodes are released weekly on Saturdays and Sundays on Netflix

'Arthdal Chronicles' episodes are released weekly on Saturdays and Sundays on Netflix

Recently released internationally through Netflix, South Korea’s Arthdal Chronicles is a fictional historical epic saga that boasts of prominent and popular Korean actors and of a gargantuan production budget. It is a large-scale production that promises to deliver a fantasy drama series of epic proportions. It is currently on its third week of airing, with six episodes already released.

The series stars Song Joong Ki (from the hugely popular, in and out of South Korea, Descendants of the Sun), Kim Jiwon (of Descendants of the Sun fame as well), Kim Okbin (who starred in the action-packed The Villainess, which had its world premiere at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in 2017) and Jang Dong-gun (of Hallyu’s All About Eve in 2000, and more recently, of “Gentleman’s Dignity” where he starred with Kim Ha-neul).

The Story of Arthdal

Set in a mythical historical world, the four main characters - Eun Som (Song Joong Ki), Tanya (Kim Jiwon), Tae Al-ha (Kim Okbin) and Tagon (Jang Dong Gun) are the moving forces that will change the fate of Arthdal.

Eun Som and Tanya are born cursed as signified by the falling of the Azure Comet when they were born. Born of a Neoanthal (a human-like creature that is stronger and more powerful than humans) and of a Saram (a human), Eunsom together with Tanya, of Wahan descent (who can speak the same language as the people of Arthdal) are destined to end the world, as prophesied.

Tae Al-ha, from the Hae clan – migrates, from another land across the oceans, who successfully established their own stronghold in the upper echelons of Arthdal through their knowledge of science – is beautiful, ambitious and intelligent, cunning even, who has both the Union Chief of Arthdal, San-ung and his own son and perceived rival, Tagon, in the palm of her hands. Her decisions will prove vital and influential to the power clash between father and son.

Tagon, the main antagonist to our protagonist, Eun Som, in the story, is a powerful and brilliant strategic warrior who leads the Daekan forces of Arthdal to its victory and probably, to its eventual doom? He was instrumental to the demise of the Neoanthal and Wahan race, and will, predictably, receive the wrath of vengeance and retribution in the foreseeable future.

In spite of its grandiosity, why the lukewarm response from the Korean audience?

As of this writing, it has received a dismal 7.7% rating as its highest since its first week of run in South Korea. Despite the hype, it has performed below expectations, to everyone’s surprise. It has great promise but failed to entice the South Korean audience.

From what I’ve gathered in various forums and discussions, some of the possible reasons for the low rating in Korea could be any of the following:

  • Low quality CGI. Given the hype and the production costs, there were high expectations in the graphic effects, but it was subpar and incomparable to other great productions.
  • Convoluted story . There are too many characters to fully immerse yourself in the story. It is not that kind of drama where you can afford to miss one episode then pick up on it a few episodes later. You have to devote time.
  • It’s a historical drama but it has no relation to Korean history at all. While this may seem absurd to some (most specially to international fans), the concept and plot of the series is too foreign to the Korean audience. Koreans love their historical dramas. Most of the time, historical dramas do very well in Korea, even if they were the type to seem to go on forever, having 50 to 100 episodes. Koreans are strong nationalists and they love watching their own history unfold before them in the screens. Some historical dramas are actual depictions of Korean history while others are adaptations, sometimes also infused by magic, but always inspired by their history. However, as historical as Arthdal Chronicles may seem, it is a complete fictional story that has no roots to Korean history.

It is, fortunately, making waves in the international arena

We love Korean dramas and thus, the CGI is somewhat forgivable and tolerable. Added to this fact is that there is no expectations with its CGI. The Korean actors cast in this drama, specifically Song Joong Ki, has a massive international following, and would be more than enough for the potential viewers to give this a chance.

Consequently, its timing could not be any more perfect. The epic giant of a series, Game of Thrones, has not too long ago released its final episode, putting a close to the heart wrenching saga which spanned eight long years. The fans of said series – which is a BIG fandom and which means there is a big market to tap into - are most probably looking for something to fill the drama void. The similarity in genre makes Arthdal Chronicles a welcome reprieve to quench the drama thirst.

There are a lot of characters and you have to truly follow the story to be able to understand, but it helps that Arthdal Chronicles has subtitles for the foreign audience. It does a lot of wonders and you can also always go back and replay what you missed. Unlike, I would imagine, for the majority of the Korean audience who watch it as it is aired on tvN – a cable channel. Although yes, it is also available on Netflix for streaming, the bulk of the TV audience share makes a huge difference.

The nuances of the culture that is shown or not shown in the drama, that can be off putting for Koreans, may or may not seep in the translation, which can be a plus for the foreign audience. It may be too presumptuous to state, but whether or not it is anchored in Korean history, may also not be a factor for the international viewers.

What then?

Despite and in spite of it all, it all boils down to one thing and that is, lucky or unlucky for Arthdal Chronicles, there is a significant difference in viewing preference and taste between the Korean and the international audience.

The game is not over yet, though. The saga has not yet ended and it will continuously run for three seasons. The second season starts next week, June 24. There is still the possibility of a reversal in audience share and reaction in Korea in the coming weeks.

But for now, the saga continues.

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