There’s been quite a bit of excitement and anticipation surrounding Bride of the Water God. This is due to it being based off a manhwa, and due to the fact that Nam Joo-hyuk of Weightlifting Fairy fame is starring in it. Even though the drama is straying from the source material, it was still highly anticipated, even drawing hopeful comparisons to the widely popular Goblin. However, Bride of the Water God ultimately fell far short of the exceedingly high expectations set for it.
This review contains spoilers for episodes 1-4.
The first episode started off strong with an introduction to the realm of gods. Gods reside mostly within their own world, except for when they are sent to look after the environment in the human world. The divine realm is split into the sky country, water country, and earth country, each of which has its respective ruling god who was fated to be king from birth. Along with becoming king of the water country, the water god is also fated to become emperor of the entire divine realm. It is only time for the next emperor to ascend his throne when the water country’s water runs red, an even which occurs right in the beginning of the drama.
This development leads to water god Ha-baek (Nam Joo-hyuk) getting ready to start the traditional quest emperors must complete before their coronations. Ha-baek must go to the human world, find the guardian gods who are in possession of the three god stones, and return back to the divine realm before the red water runs for the seventh time. Wasting no time, Ha-baek departs the realm of the gods along with his servant and guide to the human world, Nam Soo-ri (Park Kyu-sun). However, the duo’s problems begin immediately as they arrive in the human world and realize a mistake was made while traveling — rather than passing safely through the gate of the gods, they crash landed in an unknown area. To make matters worse, Ha-baek has lost the map detailing the god stones’ coordinates and his divine powers are not functioning. With no directions to the god stones, no powers, and no way to return to the divine realm, Ha-baek and Soo-ri are stranded, practically defenseless, in the human world.
Meanwhile, our female lead, So-ah (Shin Se-kyung), is a practicing psychiatrist with her own clinic. However, she has no shortage of problems either as she is not making enough income to pay all her bills. Drowning in debt and forced to eat ramen every night, she dreams of escaping Korea and living out the rest of her life in peace on the island nation of Vanuatu. She’s a far cry from the successful doctors we’ve seen in Descendants of the Sun and other medical dramas. So-ah has only a small circle of friends, namely her assistant at the clinic, Yoo Sang Yoo (Shin Jae-hoon), and an old friend who is a spiritual medium, Jo Yeom-mi (Choi Woo-ri). As it happens, So-ah is also the descendent of the family sworn to serve the gods till the end of time. She is the one whom Ha-baek was instructed to seek out if he runs into trouble, leading to the start of their relationship.
Unfortunately, most of the drama is quite boring with no real plot development. It’s mildly amusing watching Ha-baek and Soo-ri adapt to the human world, but it’s not nearly entertaining enough to base whole episodes on. Bride of the Water God lacks any real urgency, with its characters uselessly meandering without actually accomplishing anything. There’s no conflict or mystery to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. I usually grow quite attached to fictional characters, but this connection is lacking in Water God as it’s all so mundane and predictable. Ha-baek and So-ah will undoubtedly fall in love, overcome everyone trying to thwart their relationship, and find the god stones in time for Ha-baek’s coronation. It’s a shame because predictability isn’t even the drama’s only weak point; a predictable show can still leave an impact as long as it’s balanced with compelling characters, an intriguing plot, and overarching themes or commentary.
One of the worst parts of the drama is easily the fact that the plot drags on endlessly as So-ah and Ha-baek go back and forth for three episodes over whether he was truly a god or not. The plot could have easily been condensed into a much shorter conflict. I honestly would have preferred if Ha-baek’s kiss had woken her up right at the end to the first episode. It might have been ridiculously cheesy, but it would have been less painful than watching them go back and forth for ages. There was also too much repetition of the same dialogue and scenes; Ha-baek’s constant declarations of his royal status and titles became annoying rather than charming or funny.
Despite the banality of the plot, there are still a few scenes that manage to stand out. There’s a rather endearing moment when Ha-baek and So-ah are returning from the disastrous alumni fundraiser night. As they sit by the riverside watching the glittering nighttime skyline across from them, So-ah finally lets down some of her reservations to have an actual conversation with Ha-baek about his divinity. There’s a natural ease to the scene which provides a breath of fresh air and a lovely break from the stiffness that pervades much of the drama.
The most exciting scene of the drama, without a doubt, is when So-ah is pushed off a building by one of her vengeful patients. As Ha-baek watches in horror, his divine powers finally come back to him just in time to save So-ah’s life. Watching Ha-baek shoot through the building and transform into a water dragon circling So-ah and bringing her safely down was breathtaking and impressive. The flashy scene brought some life to the drama and also served as a reminder of Ha-baek’s true powers. This is also a breakthrough moment in So-ah finally accepting that Ha-baek is truly a god, allowing the plot to move faster now that she is no longer in denial.
The characters themselves are interesting enough for the most part, if not fully captivating or unique. So-ah’s character is fleshed out quite well, as we are given glimpses into her past to understand how her youth shaped her current personality. We are shown both her strengths and weaknesses, an honesty which creates a believable character. So-ah’s struggles with debt, trust, and family help to make So-ah a more sympathetic and realistic character, one who viewers find it easy to empathize with and root for.
So-ah’s strong points are also showcased throughout the drama, with one of her best scenes taking place at the the alumni fundraiser. She is able to stand her ground against the bratty celebrity Shin Ja-ya (Bae Noo-ri), verbally sparring with her in front of their old classmates. So-ah’s strength is also shown when she stands her ground against Ha-baek both before and after she accepts his divinity. She lays down the rules she expects him to follow when in the human world, fearless even in the face of a god. Besides her strength, her kindness is also depicted when she slows down to walk alongside an old man crossing the street, staying by his side even after the crosswalk signal turns to red and cars begin to move on the road.
Unfortunately, not much can be said of Ha-baek’s character. He is demanding and arrogant, as expected of a god who has always been waited on hand and foot. One of the few godly skills he has left in the human world is his ability to learn any skill extremely quickly, from driving a car to performing professional skateboard tricks. Despite this interesting power, I’d prefer to see more character development of his own unique personality besides his supernatural abilities as a god. A few scenes do give us a more nuanced look into his mind, but they are too few to feel a true connection with him.
For instance, he’s shown to be quite perceptive when he is able to piece together the reason for So-ah’s shaking hands and trembling legs in front of the ocean, accurately guessing that she once attempted to commit suicide by jumping into the ocean. Ha-baek occasionally shows a softer side to So-ah as well, such as when he comforts her when the wild pig is attacking their car. He also stops Shin Ja-ya from following So-ah and harassing her, giving So-ah his suit jacket and offering her his arm when he sees how upset she is.
Most of Ha-baek’s characterization is rooted in his cool superiority, rarely displaying any genuine emotion. One of the few exceptions is when the goddess Moo Ra refuses to aid him in his mission to obtain the god stones, infuriating Ha-baek enough to break his controlled demeanor. In all honestly, Moo Ra is not at all that impressive. She comes off as dim-witted and self-absorbed, with no real bite to her character. When Ha-baek asks what he can do to obtain the god stone in her possession, Moo Ra can only come up with him reporting all the negative comments about her on the internet. While this was likely supposed to be a humorous moment, it was disappointing more than anything as Moo Ra could have been an interesting villain if she hadn’t been so dull.
It’s still not clear why exactly the guardian gods are even hanging out in the human realm to begin with. Gods are supposedly in the human world to protect the environment, but they seem to be doing an extraordinarily poor job of it. Moo Ra seems to be more concerned with her status as a human celebrity, only bothering to act like a god when she conspires with another god, Bi Ryeom (Gong Myeong), to stop Ha-baek from becoming emperor. It’s idiotic of them to even try to stop him because if the High Priest spoke true, Ha-baek is fated to become emperor of the divine realm no matter what. Moo Ra and Bi Ryeom are fools for trying to stop Ha-baek. They aren’t even young gods who don’t know any better; the two have been gods for thousands of years.
On another note, it didn’t make any sense as to why Ha-baek tolerates Moo Ra’s insolence, even defending her against So-ah’s sharp criticism. Ha-baek and Moo Ra are not shown to be close at all, which makes it all the more frustrating to watch Ha-baek put up with her. He demands absolute obedience and respect from everyone else but allows Moo Ra to mouth off to him and get in his way. Ha-baek shouldn’t have to put himself at her mercy when he’s going to be the emperor of the entire divine realm. If anything, he should be able to use his future status against her and threaten her into cooperating, but Ha-baek instead allows her to boss him around.
Another problem faced by Bride of the Water God is that it was unable to find the right balance between romance, comedy, and serious drama. The show is quite light-hearted for the most part, with a strong comedic undertone running throughout, but there are times when the humor falls flat. For instance, in the scene where So-ah’s patient is drowning and So-ah herself is experiencing severe anxiety and panic, Ha-baek only has eyes for his chicken drumstick. It throws off the viewer and just makes the whole scene uncomfortable. The drama might work better if the comedy is balanced with a heavier tone in important plot points when there is actual conflict occurring.
Besides the poorly constructed storyline itself, another huge disappointment came in the form of Nam Joo-hyuk’s acting. I adored him in Weightlifting Fairy, so I was sorely disappointed in his acting in this drama. In Weightlifting Fairy, his cheery and bright role as Joon-hyung suited him extremely well, allowing his acting to be charming and natural. But the role of Ha-baek does not appear to suit him as well since Joo-hyuk’s acting in Bride of the Water God can only be called lackluster at best. His facial expressions often come off as stiff and awkward, as if he’s restraining himself, and his delivery of some lines is rather offbeat and cringe-worthy. While he was previously a delight to watch, it’s now a little painful to watch him act. Shin Se-kyung’s acting is much stronger, thankfully, which helps to balance out Joo-hyuk’s less-than-stellar performance.
Despite the painstakingly slow first several episodes, I feel hopeful for the next bunch as the plot finally begins to pick up the pace. More conflict is arising, new characters are being introduced, and our main couple is finally growing closer. I’d also like to see more of the fantasy aspects of the show instead of so much focus on the human realm. Along with that, I’m interested in finding out what leads to the future shot of So-ah jumping off the same bridge from which she once tried to commit suicide. All in all, Bride of the Water God may have had an underwhelming start, but I’m still feeling hopeful for it’s future.
For those watching, how are you finding Bride of the Water God so far? Comment below to let us know!
(Images via tvN)