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‘Gyeongseong Creature’ mashes up monsters, sci-fi and romance in a crazy Korean drama

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — As South Korean dramas flex their muscles on US shores, Netflix’s “Gyeongseong Creature” vaults to the top of the charts, offering an addictive mix of history, romance, mystery, science fiction and monsters, in roughly that order. Built around a desperate Japan’s tyranny in Korea near the end of World War II, it might not match “Squid Game’s” viewership, but for sheer entertainment value surpasses it in a way that deserves to be a monster hit.

The title reflects an earlier name for what is now Seoul during the spring of 1945, with Korea still under Japanese colonial rule and occupation. Yet with the war going badly, Japanese scientists in Onseong Hospital engage in wild experiments on human subjects hoping to create an equalizer, inflicting a horrific toll on those being held there. “Do not leave a single trace of what we did here,” one of the scientists says, recognizing the crimes they’re committing.

That’s the backdrop to what becomes an unlikely love story involving Jang Tae-sang (Park Seo-jun, previously featured in “Parasite,” whose off-the-charts charisma suggests this won’t be the last US audiences see of him) – a wealthy pawn-shop owner adept in navigating the politics of wartime survival – and Yoon Chae-ok (Han So-hee), a finder of missing persons who, along with her father (Jo Han-chul), has spent the last decade looking for her mother, pursuing a clue that has led them to Gyeongseong.

After establishing the players and stakes, much of the action unfolds within the hospital, which fosters a kind of “Alien”-style claustrophobia. Yet the narrative cleverly moves in and out of that setting, incorporating flashbacks to flesh out the characters in episodes that consistently run more than an hour but don’t feel that way due to the crisp pacing and steady stream of what-next situations.

Jang, meanwhile, becomes the classic self-involved rogue who, motivated by Yoon, finds reservoirs of heroism that prove surprising even to him.

While the history overlaps with Apple TV’s “Pachinko,” the sci-fi element somewhat mirrors that of “Overlord,” a 2018 movie about Nazis conducting outlandish horror-tinged experiments during the war. What really elevates “Gyeongsong Creature,” though, is the way writer Kang Eun-kyung and director Chung Dong-yoon almost casually weave in great little moments for relatively minor characters, all of whom are imperiled the longer they spend walking around those hospital corridors.

As has become common with some of its higher-profile titles (see “Stranger Things” and “The Crown”), Netflix is splitting the show’s run into two parts, separated by a few weeks, in an effort to spread the wealth.

Having screened six episodes, it remains to be seen whether “Gyeongseong Creature” can maintain its juggling act over the final four chapters. But if those are anywhere close to the mad-scientist insanity that initially unfolds at Onseong Hospital, consider this operation a rousing success.

“Gyeongseong Creature” premieres December 22 on Netflix.

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