In times of yore, people commonly believed in crazy stuff like geomancy- the study of geographical formations and their relation to divination or feng shui. While this sounds weird enough today, a thousand years ago this was serious science with important political considerations at the higher forms of government. "The Great Seer" tells the story of soothsayers and their role in the rise of the Joseon era.
The strongest parts of this series, without a doubt, are the ones that focus on the geomancy. Even though the internal logic sounds weird, in the context of the times it's actually perfectly understandable why geomancy is considered such a respected science. Without access to modern medicine, studying basic stuff like water formations and land patterns can have surprisingly relevant importance in terms of living problems. When geomancy is used to solve mysteries, it's very easy to follow and the solutions are quite interesting.
Beyond this, though, "The Great Seer" is very clearly the story of the rise of General Lee Sung Gye. This more traditional story of political struggles is done very poorly. "The Great Seer" has a running time of thirty five episodes, but covers a time period of over fifty years. The writers seem determined to cram in every possible event that exists in the historical record within this series runtime. This would be a tight squeeze even in a drama exclusively dedicated to this kind of content- but by adding in the geomancy and focusing a great deal on the original characters, the plot ends up progressing at a comically fast pace.
Conflicts are regularly introduced and solved in a single episode. This isn't so bad as long as the conflicts are relatively small in scale, but increasingly as time goes on, actual major political struggles are summarized in this way, and the story is so busy that there's hardly any time for the characters to slow down and do something besides scheming. Even in the last episode, where we'd normally expect some serious resolution, two completely new conflicts are created and solved. After awhile it just gets too tiresome to keep track of it all.
Another major problem is that it's not at all obvious how much time has passed unless we're explicitly told. One character hasn't even been born yet at the beginning of the series- but by the end she's become the grandmother of a child old enough to speak in intelligent conversation. And yet this grandmother looks identical to her teenage self, and other characters will still even acknowledge her attractiveness. This isn't even the worst case of incomprehensible aging used in this show, either.
The central geomancy idea is strong, but by tying the show so heavily to the facts of history, rather than the tone of it, the geomancers are overwhelmed by scheming plots that don't even have anything to do with geomancy. The geomancers end up serving the same basic plot function as "the smart guy", when the whole interesting gimmick of this show is the way these characters scheme, not just that they're scheming.
A lot of why this becomes so disappointing is that there's a very interesting conceit at play. There's three basic factions in the show. There's the good guys, who are trying to lay the groundwork for the Joseon era. There's the bad guys, who are only interested in maintaining their own power and will do whatever's necessary to keep it. Then there's the Goryeo loyalists, who by and large are nice people who mean well- but because their first priority is the maintenance of the Goryeo dynasty (and not making sure they actually do a good job governing) they're easily manipulated by the villains and will go after the heroes for very petty reasons.
This is very easily the story that could have been told- how loyalty to abstractions, rather than actual principles, inevitably leads to tragedy. By the end of the series every character who is loyal to the Goryeo regime has either been killed or completely marginalized, and there's definitely a tragic air to this given how many of them were genuinely good people who agreed to do horrible things just so they could keep living under the Goryeo banner.
The problem is that in order to tell this kind of story serious characterization is needed- and "The Great Seer" eschews all that in the name of royal schemes. While all sorts of convoluted events are going on, barely any focus is given to motivation. This is particularly absurd as, for the geomancers especially, the only stake they have at all is abstract motivation. None of them have any interest in taking power personally.
For what it's worth, the relationships between characters are relatively well-defined. When one characters is willing to make sacrifices for another character, it's always believable in general context. This is less due to competence with the production, though, so much as effective utilization of stock character types who we can easily identify with. Because "The Great Seer" never takes a moment to relax, the characters are never ever to evolve their personalities beyond these basic archetypes.
The longer "The Great Seer" goes on, the more ridiculous and frankly stupid the conflicts and solutions become. The final storyline conflict (which, again, begins and ends in the space of the last episode) explicitly violates the main core rule of the story which had been emphasized as an inviolable rule from the beginning of the series. After all that time, it's just become painfully obvious that the writers weren't even trying anymore- they were just trying to get to the end of it as badly as the viewers were.
There's many changes that could have improved "The Great Seer". There could have been more episodes so that the plots could be gone over in more detail. Extraneous plots could have been removed and we could then just focus on on a small number of more interesting stories in greater detail. But most importantly, there had to be more genuine effort and commitment to making this a compelling story to begin with. "The Great Seer" had a lot of potential- and it's disappointing to see all that concept wasted on a substandard product.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Drama review] "The Great Seer""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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