The historical series could turn out to be something great—but until then, it’s lukewarm at best
River Where the Moon Rises gave fans plenty to look forward to from the get-go. A new historical drama. Ji Soo in a leading role. His reunion with Kim So-Hyun and Kang Ha-Neul five years after Page Turner and Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo. Like any highly anticipated production, the bar was high for River Where the Moon Rises. With ten episodes currently available on streaming platform Viu, it seems they’ve stuck a decent, albeit imperfect, landing.
The first episode begins in medias res, with an armor-clad On Dal (Ji Soo) appearing to die in the arms of the female protagonist, Pyeonggang (Kim). They share what looks like one last kiss as he clutches on to a jade necklace, an item revealed to be of great value as the drama progresses. The rest of the story is one long flashback, leading up to the fateful moment that kickstarted the pilot.
The storytelling should leave viewers sticking around for answers. Does On Dal actually bite the bullet? How do On Dal and Pyeonggang fall in love? Who and why was On Dal fighting in the first place?
The daughter of the reigning king and a former member of the Jeollo tribe, young Pyeonggang aspires to follow in her father’s footsteps. Despite the worries of her handmaid, she dreams of becoming ruler of the troubled kingdom of Goguryeo. By chance, she overhears Go Won-pyo, one of her father’s right-hand men, and the royal consort plotting to assassinate her mother, whose quick wits and courage pose a threat to their plans to overthrow the king. While Pyeonggang and her mother visit the Sunno tribe, Go Won-pyo’s plans come into fruition. He manipulates the king, getting orders to dispose of his wife.
In the midst of all this, she meets On Dal. The son of the general of Sunno, he takes Pyeonggang away from the scuffle and helps her escape. They get separated when he falls into a river, and unwittingly meet again eight years later when they have both assumed new identities. On Dal lives in seclusion with his blind mother, while Pyeonggang lives as Yeom Ga Jin, an assassin who has lost recollection of her royal past.
A female-led redemption story set against a historical background, River Where the Moon Rises has all the potential to be interesting. And for the most part, it is. You find yourself feeling for Pyeonggang, the rightful princess of the kingdom, as she attempts to recall who she truly is. You end up rooting for On Dal, who has nothing but pure intentions.
Image via Tenor
Ji Soo does a fine job of portraying On Dal, partially because it’s a character he’s played before. As far as we can see, On Dal is the same sensitive, soft-hearted guy we’ve seen on screen—only this time, with a high half-pony and robes. It’s clear that Ji Soo excels at this kind of role and he knows it. Kim So Hyun does Pyeonggang justice too. I admit it’s all kinds of refreshing to see an ambitious female character unapologetically wielding her sword. This dynamic—the nice guy bf and badass gf, as Twitter would call it—is the classic kind of trope that the audience can’t resist. He makes her laugh! She gives him direction! IT’S A SHIP.
Unfortunately, it takes some crawling to get to the good parts. The first couple of episodes do little to keep the audience engaged. River Where the Moon Rises boxes itself right into the typical weaknesses of historical dramas. The pacing is slow if not dragging, picking up only when On Dal and Pyeonggang unwittingly reunite as adults. When they do, they all too conveniently bump into each other in the wilderness or while being chased down by bad guys; the happenstance feels a little cliché. The members of the secondary cast—the tribes, armored officials and palace-dwellers—are ambiguous despite the show’s slow strides. There’s a vast network of characters who get a fair chunk of screen time, but getting a good grasp of who they are remains a challenge.
Such is the challenge of historical tales. River Where the Moon Rises builds a story around the legendary character, On Dal the fool. It’s a modern adaptation of Princess Pyeonggang, a 2010 novel by director and screenwriter Choi Sagyu. Its unspoken challenge is to make the complexities of Korea’s Goguryeo era understandable, to visualize a legend and effectively turn it into a riveting small-screen production.
River Where the Moon Rises relies mostly on its charm and less on its storytelling, but with half the series left to go, there’s plenty of room for positive change. For now, we’ll keep waiting.
River Where the Moon Rises is streaming on Viu.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver