Memories of the Alhambra

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Created by Jinni Choi & Lee Myung-han
Written by Song Jae-jung
Directed by Ahn Gil-ho

The experience of watching many a K-drama can almost be like downloading five years of television into your head in one go and Memories of the Alhambra is no exception.

In fact, and it seems like a strange thing to complain about, there is almost too much plot here, with many an episode frequently threatening to tangle itself up in knots with each episode relying on multiples timeframes that would most likely have Christopher Nolan nodding his head with appreciation.

It opens with considerable pace and mystery, as a chase sequence involving programmer Jung Hee-joo (Park Chan-yeol) culminates with what seems to be his violent murder on a train that nobody appears to be reacting to. There are so many unanswered questions right away that it very much ensures that you’ll want to stick around just to see where the story is going to go, but with hindsight you can see writer Song Jae-jung (W-Two Worlds Apart) laying down clues and hints that will come into play and recur in later episodes.

Suffice to say, thunder and lighting legitimately become a triggering source of fear and tension over the sixteen-episode run of Memories.  

After its opening bout of action, it very quickly gets romantic and funny for a while. A good chunk of the first half of its sixteen episode run sees Memories of the Alhambra set itself in and around Granada and it gives this K-drama a different vibe with its lush scenery and gorgeous architecture before settling into the sphere of skyscrapers and technology of Seoul for the latter stages of its story.

Old and new clash frequently throughout here. The technology is state of the art and effectively turns the historical environment of Granada, complete with its cathedrals, churches and century thriving landmarks, into the setting of a living, breathing video game complete with antagonistic non player characters (NPC) just waiting to kill the user. Before you know it, everything soon becomes a literal story of life and death as the contact lenses that controls the tech and allows the user to indulge in sword fights, weapon collecting and quests turns dangerous very quickly and where death can literally mean exactly that.

There is an abundance of fantasy, action, suspense and imagination to go with the central romance, corporate dramas, entangled relationships and celebrity scandal, and for the most part it’s all very entertaining, even if it does threaten to come off the rails at various points in its near sixteen hour run time as those conflicting timelines and various character interactions come together with increasing intensity.

The central romance at the heart of the drama grounds so much of the more explosive action-packed nature of many of the episodes in a way that frequently comes as relief and a chance to catch your breath.

That the two leads of the show are Park Shin-hye and Hyun Bin means that there is considerable chemistry in the quieter romantic moments, and with Hyun Bin, as he would do a year later in Crash Landing on You, bringing a wealth of complexities to Yoo Jin-woo, going from charmingly sweet to someone with an angry heart as evidenced when he makes Park Shin-hye’s character Jung Hee-joo cry during an argument early in the story, we’re presented with a male lead who doesn’t fall into the camp of simply being swoon some or horrible, but instead occupies a middle ground that makes him more three dimensional and interesting.

Better yet, Park Shin-hye increasingly becomes the soulful heart of the story, grounding it with concern for her brother and developing feelings for Jin-woo that feels honest and genuine, but which are written and portrayed in a way that makes her more than just ‘the girlfriend’ or ‘the sister’. Essentially playing dual roles, she also plays ‘Emma’, an NPC who proves vastly important to the quest at the heart of the game and whose performance of the titular piece of music becomes an increasingly haunting presence.

It’s their moments that allows the pace to slow down just at the point when it threatens to become almost too much too quickly. Things move so fast that  you barely have time to catch your breath, but given the augmented reality nature of the technology at the heart of the narrative and that Jin-woo is severely injured only several episodes into the series, there is plenty of opportunity for angst, miscommunications and bittersweet moments as ‘Is You’ by Ailee plays sweetly over the soundtrack.

The plot takes in themes of technology and big business, while the antagonists range from Jin-woo’s boss and mentor Professor Cha (Kim Eui-sung) to his ex-wife Ko Yoo-ra (Han Bo-reum), both of whom pose serious threats throughout, although in the end it’s Professor Cha who proves to be the truly effective villain of the piece and whose actions in the final two hours have considerable impact on the story.

Even more potently, there are consequences to many of the twists and turns of the plot. Characters have a habit of getting killed off and staying dead, and while there is the potential for the series to effectively take everything back because of the video game nature of the technology at the heart of the show and game-like nature of its action sequences, instead it doubles down on themes of loss and bereavement for the final episode, with heartbreaking goodbyes handed out to some of our favourite characters.

More remarkably, and what might come as a major source of frustration for some, the series opts for a more open nature with its conclusion. There’s a flash forward to a year later with a nicely paced epilogue that brings closure to those who have won our sympathies over the course of the story, but as for the final reunion that it feels like the episode is building to, surprisingly is turns away right at the final moment and leaves it to the audience to decide on some of its final answers.

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