God of War (also known as Soldier) may put itself out there as a military drama, but like many a sageuk, it’s really about unbridled ambition, obsession and uncontrolled fear and the impact they have on personal and national relationships.
This K-drama tells the story of Kim Joon (Kim Joo Hyuk), who is dragged from his idyllic life as a monk into slavery, only to rise to in the military ranks to become a top military official. Kim Joon’s personal rise occurs against the backdrop of one of Korea’s most volatile historical periods. Besieged by multiple Mongolian invasions from without, and plagued by contentious power struggles from within, the Goryeo dynasty also endures a capital move to an island everybody complains that is in the middle of everywhere.
Everybody is out for something in this Kdrama. Perhaps because of his monk training, Kim Joon is initially selfless, and later sacrifices much for the country. While he repeatedly refuses to be a part of the race to the top, others do not follow his lead. It doesn’t help that he’s placed in the Choe family, headed by the Elder Choe, Choe Chung Heon (Joo Hyun) who also violently got and kept a hold of the real power. This is where the real influence in Goryeo stays, allowing King Kojong (Lee Seung Hyo) to be the figurehead. You get the sense that the royal family does not like not having any power, but has resigned itself to the fact that it’s like that, and that’s the way it is.
Clearly, power corrupts and takes its toll on everyone. When Choe Chung Heon passes away, the simmering tensions between his two sons, Choe Woo (Jung Bo Suk), the strategist, and Choe Hyang (Jung Sung Mo), the bratty, more violent younger brother, get completely out of control. After Choe Woo exiles his brother, he is free to do what he wants, a freedom that gets a little out of control when his vision for the nation trumps every personal relationship he has.
God of War has its share of shady political intrigue, individuals vying for power and doing whatever it takes to get it. However, ambition gets even more dangerous when mixed with emotion, as is the case with Choe Song Yi (Kim Kyu Ri) and her obsession for Kim Joon. I’ve railed about this chick here and here, but looking back, she is just like the other characters: willing to sacrifice everything to get what she wants. You sit in amazement when she defies her father and social convention by engineering a plan to run away with Kim Joon (he’s not having it). You marvel as she uses her influence to aid Kim Joon’s rise to power. Even after she’s married, she’s still doing things for him, like securing prime digs upon his return from the front. (Also, having those couple statues carved really didn’t help to keep your crush on the downlow, Song Yi).
It’s an open secret that she has a thing for Kim Joon, and her obsession to see him succeed always makes things difficult for him, and ultimately leads to disastrous results for her. She is sassy and defiant to the end. When it’s clear that she’s overstepped her bounds in a way her father can’t allow (plotting to kill your husband has that effect), she insists on going out on her own terms. You got to admire her in the end, as everyone, even Kim Joon, does.
About the only one that does not get drunk with power is Kim Joon, but he has other pressing issues.While everyone acknowledges his talent, his rise is always conditioned by his class, the fact that he was a slave. He’s had his challenges also: scrapping with other slaves for the opportunity to serve in the military, avoiding the shenanigans of Choe Woo’s daughter, and side-stepping general political intrigue. But he maintains his moral sense, which becomes more difficult the higher he rises in the Choe family.
Part of what makes his tenure in the Choe family difficult is fear that rises to levels of paranoia. Once you get power, you have to keep it, apparently, by any means necessary. Nothing shows this than the crazy reign of Choe Woo’s lesser-of-the-two-evils son, Man Jun/Choe Hang (Baek Do Bin). You might cut him some slack: he and his brother are the never-officially recognized offspring of a concubine. They both have serious father issues, but they don’t help themselves by being womanizers and gamblers. Man Jun’s brother’s rape of Kim Jun’s fiancée (which causes her to take her own life) not only reveals a very interesting treatment of a crime against a woman (Choe Woo is ready to deliver the ultimate punishment to his son), but also shows the kind of depravity these brothers share. So it should be no surprise when Man Jun becomes the Overlord (there is literally no one else for the job), he proceeds to “pay back” everyone who “did him wrong”: his step-mother, her son, various rival court officials. Once he has power, he thinks everyone, including Kim Joon, is out to take it away from him. Dude is out of control and literally has to be put down like a mad dog.
These power struggles replicate themselves among the slaves as well. Once sworn brothers with Kim Joon, Choe Yang Baek (Park Sang Min), also once a slave, loses his mind once he gets some prestige and position. However, his clash with Kim Joon is a bit different, as they both come from the same social class. Kim Joon shares all his good fortune with Yang Baek, despite his mistakes. Once they both “make it,” Kim Joon tries to convince Yang Baek that with great power comes great responsiblity, and that he cannot go along with the corruption that surrounds him. However, Yang Baek opts to be blindly loyal to Choe Hang as he wreaks havoc on the lives of everyone. He never embraces the fact that he is truly free. Even though he does not alter his tragic course, he loves Kim Joon like brothers to the end.
Images: God of War/Soldier
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