“Goblin” or “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God” is a 16 episode fantasy Korean drama. The initial action takes place in the Goryeo era. Kim Shin (called “god of war and doom” by the enemies) is a general during the Goryeo era, under the rule of the teenager king Wang Yeo.
The king rose to power while still a child and was brought up by the cunning and ill-intentioned eunuch Park Joong-Heon. The king marries Kim Shin’s younger sister in an attempt to strengthen his power over the military. Although his feelings for his bride are sincere, he is manipulated by his eunuch into becoming more fearful and suspicious of the Shin family, whom the people considered as the real pillars of the country.
Filled with rage and envy, Wang Yeo sends Kim Shin into a battle to secure the Northern border and orders him to die on the battlefield. When Kim Shin returns victorious, the king brands him as a traitor and threatens him with the lives of his family in order to force him to take his own life.
Encouraged by his sister (the queen), Kim Shin refuses to capitulate and makes a final attempt to reach the king in order to persuade him to break away from the evil influence of Park Joong-Heon.
He takes steps toward the king while his family members are executed one by one. Eventually Kim Shin stops and accepts to be killed while watching his sister shedding a tear as her life fades away.
Twenty years later the Deity resurrects Kim Shin. As a reward for his righteous life and unfair death (but also as a punishment for the innocent blood spilled because of him) the Deity transforms him into a Goblin, a quasi-immortal being with god-like powers.
His immortality and supernatural powers are both a blessing and a curse: he must live his life protecting and guiding the elected souls. He shall live in loneliness, watching his loved ones die generation after generation. The only one able to put an end his existence is his Predestined Bride by removing the mythical sword piercing his chest. Only then he may finally turn to ashes and move to the afterlife. Trailer
The Premise of the Story
For more than 900 years Kim Shin (assisted by the descendants of his loyal servant) has lived his life roaming the world, hoping to meet his predestined Bride and put an end to his long and empty existence.
Fast-forward to the modern time, Kim Shin (back in Korea after many years) is watching the city of Seoul from the top of a building on a winter night, trying to tune-out the sounds and voices of the city. But a faint voice pierces through the cold night, begging for help. Kim Sin looks down and notices a young woman (victim of a hit-and-run accident) lying in a pool of blood, praying for someone to save her unborn child with her last breath. Moved by her selfless plea, Kim Shin brings her back to life.
Soon after, she gives birth to a baby-girl, Ji Eun-Tak. She is branded with a mysterious birthmark and the spirits call her the Goblin’s Bride.
At the age of nine, Ji Eun-Tak becomes an orphan. She is brought-up by her aunt who abuses her and who is after her mother’s the life insurance money. On her nineteenth birthday, missing her mother, Eun-Tak goes to the beach to pour out her sorrows.
In the meantime, Kim Shim is preparing to leave the country again for a long time. He cannot remain for more than 20 years in one place without raising suspicions regarding his lack of aging. He goes visit the field he once died in for one last time. But suddenly he feels he is being summoned by someone. Before he can understand what had occurred, he finds himself on a beach, in front of Ji Eun-Tak.
Kim Shin was born in 1077 in a family of the Goryeo military aristocracy. He is the most feared warrior among his enemies who believe he might descend from the gods. Nothing remains standing when he is on the battlefield. After dying an unjust death and resurrecting as a Goblin, he dedicates himself to guarding the elected souls throughout their earthly life. Having lived nine centuries of loneliness and suffering the excruciating pain caused by the invisible sword in his chest, Kim Shin hopes to find his bride who is able to see and pull the sword out of his chest. This way he could finally rest.
He meets the young and cheerful Ji Eun-Tak. As time passes, his ice-cold heart starts melting under her bright and sunny personality. For the first time, he realizes that there is something in his life worth living (and dying) for. He will become torn when he realizes that the one he loves is the person predestined to end his life.
Ji Eun-Tak is able to see the souls of the dead since birth. She has heard from them that she is the predestined bride of the Goblin, but she does not know who he is or what it entails. Eun-Tak is immune to the Goblin’s powers. She is able to “teleport” with him and has the ability to summon him in an instant wherever he might be. Not even grim reapers are able to read her mind or influence her behavior.
The Grim Reaper: he is in charge of guiding the souls of the dead on their last voyage. Similarly to Kim Shin, he is immortal. However, his existence is not a blessing, but a punishment. Only the souls of the worst sinners will become grim reapers. They have to pay for their sins by witnessing death time after time. He has supernatural powers; but, unlike the Goblin, he is not free to use them outside of his duty as a grim reaper. He agonizes over the fact that he cannot remember his name nor can he remember the sin he is atoning for.
After a sequence of events, he rents the house belonging to Kim Shin and the two become “roommates”. Much of the comedy elements of the drama come from the interaction between the Goblin and the Reaper.
Yoo Deok-Hwa is the youngest descendant of Kim Shin’s loyal servant. The Yoo family has been living with the Goblin, keeping him company throughout the centuries. The Yoo family is one of the wealthiest in the country. Deok-Hwa is about to inherit the family business together with the most important responsibility: accompany Kim Shin through his long and lonely journey. He is irreverent, nonetheless, he is bright and goodhearted.
Sunny is the owner of a chicken restaurant where Eun-Tak works. She will get entangled in an endearing yet awkward relationship with the Grim Reaper.
“Goblin” is one of the best dramas the Korean industry produced so far. It is in the top 20 most expensive dramas and achieved the impressive feature of being the first cable TV-show to score over 20% on nation-wide ratings. “Goblin” was critically acclaimed and has won several awards nationally and internationally. It was broadcasted on television in over 15 countries.
The main themes present in “Goblin” revolve around personal responsibility and divine justice, repentance and atonement, love and sorrow, fate and free will. In Korean dramas the idea of destiny is very recurrent. The duty of a person is to fulfill their destiny, which is unavoidable, lest unimaginable consequences.
One of the interactions that I most enjoyed in the drama is the friendship between the Goblin and the Reaper.
There is great chemistry between these two immortal beings. The two are the opposite of one another in many aspects. One has an aura of solemnity, the other is cynical and humorous. One is in agonizing pain for not being able to forget even a single detail about his long life; the other is afflicted with his inability to remember his past. One would want to finally be able to go to a place of eternal rest; the other one wishes he would be alive and not a mere shadow. However they have something in common. They both yearn to see God who hides his face from them.
The divinity in the series is the Guardian of the eternal balance between good and evil in the universe, between light and shadow, between reward and punishment. In order for the balance to be preserved, humans must fulfill their destiny. But a new, unpredictable variable is introduced into the deity’s plan when Kim Shin decides to save the life of the young woman and her unborn child.
Although she is the predestined bride of the Goblin, Eun-Tak is not part of God’s initial plan. She would have reincarnated at a later date if she weren’t saved.Thus, the divinity cannot account for her actions and choices since she is but a “missing soul”. Hence, her existence brings imbalance to the universe.
The topic of the love between an immortal and a human is far from new in both cinema and literature; but “Goblin” brings something fresh to this theme. It is not a simple love-story where every element of the narration is rotating around it. “Goblin” is a series of multiple genres: fantasy, romance, drama, suspense. Most of all, it’s is a story about the meaning of life and death and about the relationships we form with ourselves, with our fellow humans and, ultimately, with the divinity. Above all, it’s a drama about the dreadful responsibility each of us has towards these three type of relationships.
Casting and Acting
The casting of “Goblin” is excellent. There is no one I would rather replace. When they first announced the cast, I was surprised with the choice of Kim Go-Eun (“Cheese in the Trap”) as the main female lead. I feared she would be overshadowed by the stature of Gong Yoo (“Coffee Prince”, “Train to Busan”) and Lee Dong-Wook (“Hotel King”, Blade Man”), who are two of the most accomplished actors in the Korean entertainment industry. But Kim Go-Eun proved to be an amazing choice. She portrayed perfectly the innocent, sparkling and exuberant 19 years old Eun-Tak; this came as a perfect contrast with the grave personality of the 900 years old Goryeo warrior and protector of souls, Kim Shin.
The soundtrack of Goblin has won several Awards in 2017. The album contains 16 tracks composed and interpreted by some of the most important Korean artists (Ailee, Crush, Mamammo). Some of the tracks have music videos with tens of millions of views on YouTube. The main theme “Stay with Me” (interpreted by Chanyeol and Punch) gathered over 123 million views as of August 2018. My personal favorite is track 3, “Hush” by Lasse Lindh.
The drama has been mainly criticized on two counts, both of which I refute. The first was the age gap between the two main leads. At the time, Gong Yoo was 37 years old, while Kim Go-Eun was 25 (playing the role of a 19 years old high-school girl). They have good chemistry together. The difference in age helped highlight the predicament of a nine-century old man tired of living who meets a fresh, lively young woman who is in love with living and is excited to begin the adventure of life.
The second aspect criticized was related to the fact that the female character is perpetuating the “Cinderella” syndrome. Her looking up to Kim Shin and not being a strong and independent woman (yet), offended the sensibilities of a few critics. There are two considerations to be made in relation to this criticism. Firstly, the drama would have lost much of its appeal if it weren’t for the fresh and cheerful character Ji Eun-Tak. Secondly, those critics analyze only the first part of the drama. But they do not focus on the second part where Eun-Tak is an accomplished young-woman who makes her own choices and even defies destiny.
Goblin might not be a perfect drama, but is the drama that got the nearest possible to perfection. Some have lamented the bitter-sweet ending, but I think the ending fits perfectly with the premises of the drama. Considering the “laws of physics” governing the universe of the drama, there could not have been a different ending.