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When inspiration comes in the form of a game: Famed screenwriter Song Jae-jung finds stories all around her

“These days, I’m too busy writing scripts, but I loved playing games in the past.”
Jan 22,2019
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Actor Hyun Bin, top, is the head of an IT investment company that invests in an augmented reality (AR) game. Park Shin-hye, above, plays the double role of Hui-ju, the owner of a Korean hostel in Granada, Spain, and Emma, a game character. [TVN]
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Song Jae-jung
Augmented reality (AR) technology has been touted for years now, but tvN’s fantasy romance series “Memories of Alhambra” was the first Korean drama to include the technology as a core part of the show. The drama, which aired its final episode on Sunday, is an attempt to familiarize the public with the technology that may eventually become a major part of our daily lives.

The series, which stars actors Hyun Bin and Park Shin-hye, tells the story of Yoo Jin-woo (Hyun Bin), the ambitious head of an IT investment company who one day heads to Granada, Spain, after receiving a call from Jeong Se-ju, played by Chanyeol from boy band Exo, who offers to buy his top-notch AR game. The game activates once the users put on special contact lenses; just like in a real game, they must fight off soldiers, go on quests, acquire items and level up to complete harder tasks.

Se-ju, however, mysteriously disappears on a train headed to Granada from Barcelona before he has the chance to meet Jin-woo. Meanwhile, Jin-woo, who is sure the game will be highly profitable, decides to invest 10 billion won ($8.9 million) into a Korean hostel in Granada, owned by Se-ju’s sister Hui-ju (Park), believing that thousands of visitors will head there once the game is released.

However, the magical game becomes Jin-woo’s nightmare after he kills his rival Cha Hyeong-seok (Jang Hoon) - the co-founder of Jin-woo’s company - in the game. Jin-woo discovers that, due to a coding error in the game, Hyeong-seok has died in reality as well, and Hyeong-seok’s ghost begins to follow him like a zombie in real life. This leads Jin-woo to try to solve the coding error and search for Se-ju.

The series has been praised for its creative plot and its unexpected twists, with its highest viewership rate reaching 10 percent, according to Nielsen Korea.

The idea of blending an AR game with fantasy and romance began with the hit mobile game Pokemon Go. Song Jae-jung, the scriptwriter of the series, was agonizing over ideas for a new TV series when, one day, she downloaded Pokemon Go to her phone.

“When I played the game, I thought, ‘This is pretty awesome,’” Song said during an interview with local press on Jan. 15 in Yeouido, western Seoul.

The idea of AR game in the series, however, is mostly based on Song’s previous experience playing games. She has been a video game fan since she was young.

“These days, I’m too busy writing scripts, but I loved playing games in the past,” she said. “I enjoyed strategic games like Civilization, Uncharted Waters and Sim City, and I also enjoyed Clash of Clans. I’ve always wanted to write a game-themed drama, but thought that it was impossible to make a [high-quality] one like ‘Avatar’ or ‘Ready Player One’ without a huge budget. But Pokemon Go is about using the space around you. You just need to create the game items. That’s why I brought Jin-woo into an augmented reality world.”

Song hasn’t stopped surprising viewers with her fun mix of a variety of genres. She started off her career as a scriptwriter for SBS comedy sitcoms like “Soonpoong Clinic” (1998-2000) and “High Kick!” (2006-7). She was among the first ones to include elements of mystery into a sitcom in “High Kick!” and “The Secret of KK Island” (2008). She then added romance to mystery and comedy with “Coffee House” (2010). In 2012, she decided to try a fantasy romance with tvN’s “Queen and I” (2012) and MBC’s time traveling series, “W” (2016).

“A lot of people think that [‘Memories of Alhambra’] is a sci-fi series, but it’s actually a fantasy that takes motifs from a scientific subject,” said Song. “I think [most of the] criticism from viewers [was regarding] the coding error in the game. Many believed that the error should be solved technically, but I tried to solve it through fantastical elements.”

Although the story is fiction, Song believes that a fully AR world may become a reality in the future.

“I’ve talked a lot with engineering professors,” she said. “I thought it would actually be very scary to see an upgraded version of Pokemon Go with better computer graphics. You might not even need real friends or relationships. In the game, Jin-woo kills Hyeong-seok [because of a coding error]. Although this is fake, I feel like this could actually happen when a player fights another player who turns out to be his actual foe. I had the feeling that something terrible will happen when people start to express hatred and intent to murder someone through AR games.”

According to Song, the story is divided into three parts.

“First, this is a game-based story. [The main characters] go on quests and level up, etc. Second, it’s a story about the love-hate relationship between Jin-woo and Hyeong-seok. Third, it’s a love story between Jin-woo and Hui-ju.”

The romantic relationship between the two, however, was not easy to depict. Jin-woo is a cynical man who has gone through two divorces.

“In the beginning, I imagined a Mathilda and Leon [from the 1994 film ‘Leon’] kind of relationship - one that stands somewhere between love and friendship, with Hui-ju being the savior of Jin-woo,” Song said. “But after the cast was finally decided, I [decided to change it into a romantic relationship] because of the actors’ great looks. But it was extremely hard. Those who were expecting more romance in the series are probably dissatisfied.”

However, Hui-ju and Jin-woo’s relationship only becomes possible after Jin-woo solves all of his past troubles - the consequences of his wrong decisions, his anger toward other characters, his revenge plans and his agony over the loss of his loved ones.

“Jin-woo is like Odysseus from Greek mythology,” said Song. “Although Odysseus was a great king, he suffered serious repercussions from war and also experienced inexplicable situations. Jin-woo also faces troubles and strange incidents. What mattered to me was how Jin-woo becomes a hero in the end, after bearing all the consequences of his previous decisions. Only then can he get together with Hui-ju.”

Hui-ju, on the other hand, is a more trouble-free character.

“Hui-ju has a minor role compared to Jin-woo. But Park also plays the role of Emma, [a character in the game who protects characters from being attacked when they are close to her.] Her role is pivotal in the end. I was very surprised with Park’s acting in the series. She was really good at expressing feelings.”

Song’s creativity is a result of her passion for reading.

“I love books, but I don’t read fiction,” she said. “I read non-fiction or books about the humanities. Jin-woo was actually inspired by [Elon Musk] the CEO of Tesla. I read his autobiography and was amazed with his life. I get stressed when I read fiction because I naturally tend to think about the [different possibilities of the story’s ending.] It’s like job stress. All my characters are inspired by real people.”

BY YEO YE-RIM [yeo.yerim@joongang.co.kr]