Bulgasal: Immortal Souls (Netflix) is another Korean import for the streamer, this time incorporating fantasy horror elements into its timeline 600 years in the making. An immortal man driven by revenge and cursed since birth conducts his quest for appeasement across the vast arc of time. Curses are gonna curse, however, and he soon learns it’s not that easy to shake what’s grabbed him. Karma is, as they say, a bitch.
Opening Shot: On a causeway high above a rushing waterway, two men struggle over a glinting, mean-looking blade, each trying to plunge it into the other’s chest. Quick flashes: a murky tunnel, a scared young woman; a clawed hand. The men go over the side and into the churning water below…
The Gist: “On this land 600 years ago, there lived beings that were not human,” a man says in voiceover. “They were monsters. Human-eating monsters.” But as it turns out, one of the men struggling over the knife is just such a being. He’s been walking the earth all of these years, cursed but impervious to death. And from the look on his face, that’s been kind of a drag.
600 years into the past, and a ragged band of freezing peasants trudge through the snow. It’s the late Goryeo period of Korean history, and an attack on their village by Japanese pirates has forced this group into the mountains. Problem is, that’s where the monsters live. And it only gets worse. One woman in their group, pregnant, hangs herself, but gives birth after she dies. It’s a cursed baby, a wise old hag says. “It should have never been born. It should have died with the mother. It has no soul and it cannot die. Bulgasal has cursed the baby. And Bulgasal has a grudge against your baby from a previous life.” Yikes!
Ten years later, it hasn’t gotten any easier. The boy, nameless, lives as an outcast from the village, which is constantly terrorized by monsters. But then Goryeo General Dan Geuk encounters the boy. He adopts him and gives him the name Hwal, which means “rebirth.” And the action flashes forward 17 years to the early Joseon Period. Hwal has become a fearsome warrior; the general trained him well. “Teoreokson, the water Monster of Yongsan River, and Gapsangoe, the Monster of Mount Gap that killed many people, all died at the hands of my son,” the general says with pride. “Those Monsters must fear him as much as they fear Bulgasal.” And Hwal proceeds to vanquish one of the last monsters standing, the bloodthirsty Dueoksini. All of this heroism, though, and he is still a haunted man. His marriage to the general’s daughter brings only children stricken with pain. There’s only one thing to do. Hwal vows to destroy Bulgasal once and for all, and be free of his curse.
It’s a quest Hwal was born to make. But there’s also the shiftiness of folklore to consider. Just how much of the information about Bulgasal is legend? How much of it is lost to eons of oral history, or the collective fears of commoners? Hwal has to consider that his connection to Bulgasal is not what it seems. And if that’s the case, then what is the nature of the curse on his children, in particular his young son?
What Show Will It Remind You Of? Speaking of monsters and terror, Bulgasal star Lee Jin-wook also stars in the apocalypse horror show Sweet Home for Netflix. And don’t forget about the streamer’s culty hit The Witcher, which just returned for a second season of Henry Cavill’s mutated monster killer Geralt of Rivia grumbling his way through the show’s twisted universe.
Our Take: The thing about curses is that they linger, and demand a hefty bounty. Make a cursed deal with the devil for a shiny fiddle made of gold, lose the resulting jam session, and the devil gets your soul. It’s always like that. And Hwal’s predicament is no different, shifting across the sands of time to bring the wraith-like grip of mythical folklore into the present, where he remains the haunted outcast in search of how to free his wretched soul. The introduction of Bulgasal: Immortal Souls promises more on that front to come, but in this first episode, it’s still concerned with the battles of 600 years ago, when monsters roamed and babies carried the stigma of a past life into their cursed present. Once it’s aged Hwal from an infant, to a ten-year-old, and finally to a grown man, Bulgasal delivers the conventional battlefield violence of sword thrusts and gouts of blood alongside its fantasy horror elements: the demon with massive bulk and a bulging eye that pledges its revenge on Hwal for slicing him open; the mysterious woman whose clawed hands wreak utter bloody havoc. But it always has Hwal’s tortured existence to contend with, and Lee Jin-wook gives great brood as Hwal, turning slowly to the camera or stroking his beard with his mind on malaise. This is the stuff of fairy tale, of legend, and yes, of curses, and Bulgasal: Immortal Souls leans into it with gusto.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: With a monster in the form of a beautiful young woman laying waste to his soldiers and stalking his wife and son into the deep woods of a dark night, Hwal struggles to protect them while facing down the threat. Blood is shed. Dirt is gotten in the eyes. And Hwal’s connection to the woman-monster becomes more tangible than ever before.
Sleeper Star: Jung Jin-young brings the proper amount of gravity to the role of Dan Geuk, the general who adopts and raises Hwal to be the monster slayer he is. Jung is no stranger to period battlefield dress – he co-starred in the popular seventh century Korean war comedies Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield and its sequel, Battlefield Heroes.
Most Pilot-y Line: “You will regret this. You will also get sucked into his bad karma. Anyone who stays by his side will throw up blood and dirt will get in their eyes. Not even you can avoid the curse of Balgasal, General.” Heed the words of the wise old hag, or dismiss them at your peril.
Our Call: STREAM IT, especially as an appetizer for your Witcher marathon. Bulgasal: Immortal Souls is full of the push and pull between curse, legend, karma, and the fight for one’s soul.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges
Watch Bulgasal: Immortal Souls on Netflix