Secret Healer / Mirror of the Witch

Overall Rating: B
Subtitles: Overall I think these subtitles were fine (I watched on Netflix), though they did suffer from some of the confusingly literal translations that many historicals do.
Brief Synopsis: In a desperate bid to get herself a child to secure the throne, a Queen Dowager (or just the queen maybe?) enlists the assistance of black magic, resulting in a dark curse that hangs over the lives of the entire royal family if her daughter is not killed before her 17th (16th?) birthday. But the daughter is kept alive and hidden and must eventually choose to face her fate or find a way to dispel the curse entirely. Watch on Viki here or on Netflix here. (Wow I really remember so little about this show).

**Full show spoilers below the image. If you do not wish to be spoiled, do not proceed**

Ending Type: Tragic. More unnecessarily tragic than it needed to be, though I did like how they handled the final scene. Overall I felt like they set us up for one of the main crcs to die in a way that would have been fulfilling but instead we lost the princess we’d spent the whole show trying to save and that sat with me uncomfortably.
Characters: There are many main players in this so I’ll be as brief as possible with each.
Princess Seo Ri/ Yeon Hee (Kim Sae Ron) was an interesting main character but to me she often lacked consistency. We meet her initially as someone who is both wary of the outside world and charmingly naive and sweet. She does Go Through Some Stuff pretty early on so her more prickly nature later is perhaps understandable, but it was hard for me to tell why she fluctuated so easily between affection for those closest to her and this sort of angry, aggressive other character. I did like how much agency she had and thought she made a good adversary for our main villain, but she did make a lot of choices that I found puzzling (especially her final choice to take her own life so save her lover’s–OK I understand why she wanted to but considering literally the entire story was about her fighting to stay alive that was just super baffling to me).
Heo Jun (Yoon Si Yoon) is a poor boy (if I recall correctly he is the son of an aristocrat and a servant with some underlying assault themes there (I think this was actually a huge plot point but I barely remember it so take that how you will)) who is clever, good at conning people out of money, and has a heart of gold. He was a super consistent character and once he’d teamed up with Yeon Hee and Yo Gwang he could always be counted on to protect Yeon Hee, listen to her when she had something to say, and generally be the consistent unwavering hero the story needed. I liked him a lot as a character and I remember Si Yoon doing an excellent job handling the dramatic and emotional moments for the character (really I think he had a lot of personal crap to go through but I barely remember any of it and it hasn’t even been that long so… not a great sign overall). Overall he was not super memorable, though, largely because I did not spend a lot of time wanting to scream at him.
Unlike our beloved Poong Yeon (Kwak Si Yang) who sure did Go On a Journey. In many ways I was predisposed to be invested in this character because I am a huge fan of Si Yang and I think he is one of the most dynamic actors out there right now, but I also think it’s safe to say he’s the most memorable and interesting character in the cast considering he was by far the most flawed. He is Yeon Hee’s older brother who is also in love with her (he is not her blood brother and they both know this, though I am always a little uncomfortable with the family romance stories, like can’t we all agree to not???) who initially knows nothing about her curse or true background. One fateful day he decides he wants her to see the world, resulting in a really cute scene that ends in her curse being activated which threatens his life. He is haunted by that experience, and the image of the demon that he does not know is her (even though is clearly is but it’s OK Poong Yeon, we’ll give you this one). In general Poong Yeon is an upstanding kind of guy, very driven by ethics and loyalty and his father’s legacy which he wishes to carry on. The only problem is he’s also a young man who is in love with a girl whose existence could kill him and who seems to be falling for another guy, and when all of this comes to light he has a bit of a crisis. Dark magic isn’t great, a person whose love will end you in an agonizing way is a little scary, and when you have to deal with it all while being pressured by a weak king regent, missing your father who has disappeared, and dealing with your psycho mom you can understandably waver. He does. Which I love. Poong Yeon is the one character who kept me engaged in the story and kept me guessing because I was never quite sure what choices he was going to make and who was going to ultimately influence him–his choices always made sense based on his character and the context even if I wanted to reach through the screen and throttle him on multiple occasions. I felt kind of “eh” about the eventual conclusion for his character but I sure was along for the whole journey.
Shoutout to Yo Gwang (Lee Yi Kyung) who was an excellent addition to the cast of characters, providing us with clarity about Yeon Hee’s task to break the curse, with some cool af action scenes, and with blessed comedic relief. I spent a lot of the show not exactly sure who he was and where he came from (eventually it became clear he was a disciple of Lord Choi but like how and why he was the most badass of martial artists or how and why he survived that one time he was clearly killed on screen… all unclear) but I sure was grateful he existed and appreciated having him around.
OK, back on track with Lord Choi Hyun Seo (Lee Sung Jae) who was our good guy shaman and all around moral compass except for the parts where he was like, dead and possessed by the evil witch (OH GOSH WE HAVEN’T EVEN GOTTEN TO HER YET) except then later still had some control over himself? somehow? I don’t know friends, the magic in this lost me sometimes. In general he was an upstanding father and person and I thought Sung Jae did a great job bringing a quiet and determined grace to the character. His dramatic back and forth with our villain was peak acting for me, especially towards the end when we had the full backstory and could really feel that blend of love, disappointment, regret, and hate all hanging out in a delightful melting pot of super-charged emotions.
And finally we have our villain, shaman lady Hong Joo (Yum Jung Ah) who had a pretty rough life and learned that magic could bring her power and the ability to tear down the system and family that had brutalized her and that’s frankly a great motivation but it turned her into a psycho who like, ate people’s hearts and went out of her way trying to kill children that she had created through black magic so. Pretty hard to not just want her to die at all times. Probably one of the more interesting villains I’ve seen in a historical K Drama, not the least of which because she was a woman with the whole Kingdom basically in the palm of her very dark and evil hand, but I’d have enjoyed her more if they’d given her a redemption arc instead of late season character development via flashbacks and then… nothing else.
Relationships: Yeon Hee really, really loved her adoptive father and he was very fond and protective of her. A+ family relationship.
Poong Yeon really, really loved his adoptive sister and wanted to marry her but also repeatedly rejected her whole self and saw the curse/demon version of her as something to get rid of and save her from (WAS HE REALLY WRONG THOUGH?) and also could never quite figure out if he wanted to be her brother or lover, A+ complex relationship, F- confusing romantic/familial relationship.
Yeon Hee and Heo Jun were very cute and loyal to each other and it was sweet and the ending was tragic, A+ boring but nice romance.
Yo Gwang gets the most points here for being loyal to both his master and his charge and slaying the whole side character gig by also giving us a bromance with Heo Jun.
I don’t have much else to say about the relationships in this one because, to be completely honest, by the time the show was over the only thing I cared about was Poong Yeon’s character arc and everything else felt like it had been resolved in the first half of the season and just kind of…. existed there afterwards.
High Points: POONG YEON. What a fun and interesting flawed character, brought lots of life and dimension to the later episodes that were otherwise tired repeats of themselves. The lore/magic system was super neat as well and the cinematography was absolutely stunning. I appreciated that the three main centers of power in this were women (Yeon Hee, Hong Joo, and the queen), even if they all ended up dead in the end (on no wait the Queen lived probably? Gosh I don’t remember anything about her).
Low Points; So in episode like…. 8??? we get our first confrontation between Hong Joo and Yeon Hee. It felt very climactic like wow OK the story is already coming to a close since the whole point is that Yeon Hee was supposed to have been killed as a baby and if she doesn’t get killed Hong Joo will die and so will the people who love Yeon Hee so Hong Joo’s entire purpose in life is to like… kill the princess. And OK after this first encounter Yeon Hee ends up in hiding and learns she can break the curse and is on a quest to do that and separated from everyone who would otherwise protect her. So it was fine that this confrontation didn’t end the show. But then suddenly around like ep 10 we started this process of each episode ending with a confrontation that always ended in one party like, “Oh wait we can’t kill the other party for x y z reasons but DON’T WORRY NEXT EPISODE WE’LL TRY AGAIN AND THEN FIND ANOTHER REASON NOT TO.” It got…. really old and really boring really quickly. I stopped caring about the main plot and pretty much just wanted to know who was going to end up sacrificing themselves to break the curse for Yeon Hee. The wording was vague enough that I was like… will it be daddy Shaman? Will Poong Yeon come through for us in the end?
Spoiler alert it was supposed to be Heo Jun because people can’t end up together and happy in historical dramas (I have happily learned that this is a lie and some do end happily but those are rare) but then when Yeon Hee figures that out she? sacrifices herself? And as I discussed earlier like fine, it’s sure hard to watch the person you love die for you, 10/10 get this motivation, but also in a story that was 20 hours of “how are we gonna save the princess,” the princess killing herself was a really… unsatisfying ending overall. And Heo Jun goes on to be this great physician and like good for him, good for him, but does anyone else remember this being a big plot point or major motivation for his character? Like was there any reason to view this little tidbit as emotional payoff for losing our main character?
Final comments: Anyway yes let us just say that this was not my favorite K Drama and like, I didn’t hate it. If you loved it, more power to you (this is absolutely genuine not sarcastic–embrace the things you love, people). If you read spoilers before watching things and are considering it, maybe it will be your jam. It was not mine.

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