Asian historical dramas are replete with queens, empresses and court ladies duking it out behind the scenes while kings rule the country. Some might think they are something akin to Disney princesses with no agency and little power, but the Korean drama Empress Ki and the Chinese drama Virtuous Queen of Han both show that women are running things.
If you have been watching the KBS2 show The Return of Superman, you have been hit with the overwhelming cuteness of the toddlers. However, the show also shows another side of Korean masculinity through the interaction between the kids and their dads.
The melodrama genre of K-drama has its share of improbable plots, shocking twists and selfish characters. These things take on even greater significance when the person involved are siblings. Sibling rivalry takes on new meaning in Baker King Kim Tak Goo and Five Fingers. Both of these Kdramas explore loyalty and love and question what it means to be “true” brothers.
The tantalizing goodness of Korean dramas don’t just come from romantic angst, historical intrigue and heart-stopping action. The emotional highs and lows would not mean as much without an Original Sound Track, also known as the Official Sound Track, or OST.
OSTs can come from any genre, and often features artists performing in styles that differ from their usual ones. OSTs can feature collaborations as well as solo performances by individuals in groups. They may feature vocals or exist solely as instrumentals.Everyone has their favorites, but here are a few examples to show how K-dramas make effective use of music in different ways.
If you are a frequent viewer of Kdramas, you may have heard a character accuse another of “trying to cover the sky with your hand.” The idea is that the person thinks s/he merely placing the hand in front of their face makes the sun go away. It may…from that person’s point of view, but the reality is that the sun remains. In the K-dramas Golden Cross and A New Leaf, such delusion is linked with corruption, and everybody suffers.
Many historical K-dramas (sageuk) revolve around royal figures involved in romantic quadrangles involving male and female leads. However, political realities complicate amorous entanglements, family relationships and general camaraderie in Empress Ki.
I know. Watchers of this K-drama were divided early on into Team Wang Yu (Wang Yoo, King of Goryeo, played by Joo Jin Mo) and Team Emperor (Emperor of Yuan, played by Ji Chang Wook). Wang Yu is in a tough position: king of a country under the thumb of an empire. He doesn’t have much power, and he can’t ally with another country. Most of all, he can’t stop the Yuan empire from taking the resources from Goryeo, including its women.Bbecause he’s frustrated, he has an unhappy smiley face though much of this K-drama.
Emperor-to-Be of Yuan doesn’t have it much better: pawn of the much more powerful and violent El Temur, the regent. He’s also the puppet of his overprotective mother/guardian Empress Dowager (played by Kim Seo Hyeong). In order to survive, he has to appear as naive as possible, lest he end up like every other powerful male in his family: dead!
These political realities complicate their romantic interest in the female lead, Empress Ki/Sungnyang (played by Ha Ji Won), who has to choose between the two. She’s not just some cute subject of the realm. Wang Yoo has to overcome the side-eye of liking one of his subjects and the fact that he has very little power to protect her when he sends her on missions impossible. The Emperor has to overcome criticisms by those who look down on his fraternization with the enemy aka “that Goryeo wench.” I found myself cheering Sungnyang on for her bravery (and the random decisions to have her shoot arrows in her royal finery!) and work on behalf of the Goryeo people. I admit, I was Team Wang Yoo all the way, so I like the few opportunities they had to have relationship. I was less impressed so when she looks like she is out for self, gets sucked into Yuan politics and looks like she has real feelings for that punk the Emperor, who never seems to grasp that he can’t have a love relationship when his world is collapsing around him.
Sungnyang isn’t the only one grappling with politics and relationships. One of my favorite characters is Tal Tal (played by Jin Lee Han), the ever-practical second-in-command to Baek An (played by Kim Young Ho). He is nothing if not consistent! Scarily good at strategy, he’s the one character who seems to always know all angles to a situation. Tal Tal is the moral pillar of the Yuan court. He’s cool with the Yuan empire, but he and his clan has suffered under the yoke of El Temur too, so they are keen to take him out. In the meantime, he’s working to get his clan some power by playing the political game, but he also has a love for the Yuan people, which Baek An and the Emperor do not. Tal Tal draws the line when Baek An goes supercray. When Baek An’s unscrupulous activities threaten the people, Tal Tal steps in and does the unthinkable.
No one escapes the impact of politics in Empress Ki, making it more than your standard historical Kdrama complicated by romance.
“Empress Ki/기황후 (2014), Main Poster,” Kdrama Kommentary, accessed July 12, 2014, http://kdrama.omeka.net/items/show/51.
“Empress Ki/기황후 (2014), Wang Yoo,” Kdrama Kommentary, accessed July 12, 2014, http://kdrama.omeka.net/items/show/52.
“Empress Ki/기황후 (2014), Emperor,” Kdrama Kommentary, accessed July 12, 2014, http://kdrama.omeka.net/items/show/53.
“Empress Ki/기황후 (2014), Empress Ki/Sungnyang,” Kdrama Kommentary, accessed July 12, 2014, http://kdrama.omeka.net/items/show/54.
“Empress Ki/기황후 (2014), Tal Tal,” Kdrama Kommentary, accessed July 12, 2014, http://kdrama.omeka.net/items/show/55.
Divided Loyalties in Empress Ki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
One of the most common plots in sageuk (historical Kdrama) pits those with power against those without power. These tensions become even more complicated with friendships and romantic relationships. Nothing makes the elite more nervous than when the “riff raff” start to question “the natural order of things.” Historical Kdramas like The Duo and Hong Gil Dong begin with the possibility of social change, but end up reinforcing the status quo. However, Tree with Deep Roots sustains the promise of social change to the end. Continue reading “The World Turned Upside Down: Social Change in Historical Kdrama”
Heirs is a worthy successor to Boys Over Flowers as the ultimate “rich kid” Kdrama. It takes the theme of romance across class lines from Boys Over Flowers to whole new levels.
It’s (Still) a Chaebol World!
Heirs shares the context of the chaebol world with Boys Over Flowers. Both are stories about romance that crosses class lines within Korean society. It’s not just that Jun Pyo and Kim Tan‘s families are wealthy; they are wealthy Koreans. Korean business and family dynamics drives so much of these Kdramas. It’s the reason why Jun Pyo can only defy his mother so much, and why Kim Tan can only give his father so much sass.
It’s even more so the case in Heirs because it affects so many of the relationships. The tension between Kim Tan and Kim Won coms from the way their father introduced Kim Tan into their household. The loathing that Jung Ji Sook has for Han Ki Ae, Kim Tan’s mom, is directly related to their position within the chaebol family. Ji Sook knows that Ki Ae’s position is precarious because she is not an official member of the family. For most of the Kdrama, people don’t even know she is Kim Tan’s mom.
Like Boys Over Flowers, Heirs does a good job of flaunting the wealth of the chaebol family and showing class disparities. There’s no school bus for these kids! Kim Tan goes to school in a car driven by a chauffeur. He lives is a house so big that you could not see other people who also live in the house for days. Despite the size of the house, Eun Sang and her mom are reduced to living in a room that charitably could be called a closet. Their circumstances are even more dire because of Park Hee Nam‘s disability. Wardrobe also plays a large role. Kim Tan’s “fabulous” sweaters aside, we know the upper class are the upper class because of what they wear. Heirs is even more global with the “exotic locations.” While the guys in Boys Over Flowers play in Venetian Macau, Kim Tan stays in the Hollywood hills in huge house with a pool overlooking Los Angeles
Heirs extends the upper-class snarkiness we find in Boys Over Flowers. While Boys Over Flowers focuses on the antics of Jan Di and F4 in a school setting, Heirs gives us a tour of class arrogance. Because the characters are aware of their class position all the time, we get to see its impact. The kids each have their own issues and insecurities. As a viewer, you despise their behavior but also see the pressures that cause that behavior. Rachel’s obsession with Kim Tan is probably related to how her mother treated her father (and herself as an object to be used in business negotiations). Young Do‘s bad treatment of others comes from the loss of his mother. Being the heir to a hotel conglomerate and having everything does nothing for that sense of loss. Ye Sol can be one of the mean girls, but worries (rightly so) about her reputation, as she is the daughter of a hostess. Lee Hyo Shin cannot convince his parents, even with a suicide attempt, to let him opt out of being a lawyer.
In Boys Over Flowers, we rarely venture beyond the world of Jan Di and F4. Kim Bum‘s errant father makes rare appearances, Ji Hoo is an effective orphan (despite his grandfather) and who knows what’s going on with Woo Bin‘s family. In Heirs, the adults are key to the class dysfunction experienced by their children. The relationships in Kim Tan’s house, the dynamic between Rachel and her mother and the dynamics between Secretary Yoon and Rachel’s mother, shows that the snotty apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. With more characters and more characters whose stories intersect, we get a deeper view of the upper class. It’s not one we want to join.
The relationships between guys is central to both Boys Over Flowers and Heirs. The tension between Jun Pyo and Ji Hoo drives the plot of Boys Over Flowers. They may compete with each other and get angry at each other, but in the end, they rely on their friendship. You also care about the dynamic between the other members of F4, like Yi Jung and Woo Bin, which deserved more attention. Remember who got Woo Bin to stop walking on the edge of that bridge!
Heirs complicates this male camaraderie. On one hand, the blood-related brothers, Kim Tan and Kim Won, have a cold relationship. Kim Tan constantly expresses his affection for his brother, while Kim Won gives him the cold shoulder. Kim Tan is the emotional brother who takes courage to defy their father, while Kim Won gives up on his happiness. As the Kdrama goes on, you want them to reconcile. You want Kim Won to give Kim Tan just a little bit of recognition, and he routinely just keeps you hanging.
On the other hand, the hyungs, Kim Tan and Young Do, have a complex, love-hate relationship. They do real harm to each other, but they also help each other out when the chips are down. It’s really interesting the way that they do not reconcile either. Kim Tan notes in the final episode that they were not strangers, but they also were not man enough to reconcile.
At the center of both Boys Over Flowers and Heirs is the relationship between the “rich guy” and the “poor girl.” Jun Pyo has a long way to go to learn how to treat Jan Di properly, but he eventually gets there. However, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, Jan Di becomes less likeable as part of that couple. She loses all of her spunkiness and becomes a shadow of her former self. She doesn’t participate in the relationship, and doesn’t grow as a character. This is in contrast to her side kick Ga Eul, who becomes more interesting because she is willing to pursue her dreams and take chances.
The relationship between Kim Tan and Eun Sang has a different dynamic. It’s Kim Tan who has to overcome his background and a grouchy and vindictive father to have a relationship with Eun Sang. When he leaves the United States, his mind is set. We don’t have to endure a process where he has to decide to like Eun Sang. For her part, Eun Sang has more important things to worry about than Kim Tan, and she is understandably wary of his attention. But I like how she navigates Kim Tan’s attention, Young Do’s “attention,” the mean girl dynamics at school and the dysfunctional Kim family antics at home. She doesn’t always win. She endures some nasty behavior. She sometimes takes too long to appreciate what Kim Tan is doing for her, but she does an impressive job of standing up to the mean kids at school. Her relationship with her mother is a great addition to her backstory. When both Kim Tan and Eun Sang end up on the apartment floor crying, you feel for both of them. You are rooting for both of them.
In many ways, Heirs is Boys Over Flowers 2.0, taking the themes of class-defying romance and building on them.
Generals may serve kings, but the hero in Gyebaek is doing it for the people. Given the shoddy leadership in the last days of Baekje in this Kdrama, somebody has to.
Our hero, Gyebaek (Lee Seo Jin), is first exposed to loyalty by his father, Moo Jin (Cha In Pyo). Not only does he fend off the unwanted advances of Sa Taek Bi (Oh Yun Soo), the future queen, he also stays loyal to King Moo (Choi Jung Hwan), even to the point of death. However, this unquestioning loyalty to the crown is often undeserved. King Moo keeps putting Moo Jin in impossible situations, situations that he creates due to a combination of his fear of the nobles and desperation to keep the throne. It is for these reasons that he sends Moo Jin to help his Silla-born queen and their son escape (yeah, THAT ends well) at the risk of Moo Jin’s own pregnant wife’s life. When Moo Jin returns years later, he is once again subject to the bad decisions of King Mu and sacrifices himself right in front on Gyebaek.
These events have a profound effect on Gyebaek, as he nurses the grudge of the ages for years. What helps him to break out of it is having to take care of people in his care, first as a Baekje slave in a Silla fortress and later with some peasants in a mountain hideout. Unlike his father, he gets to know the people who are weak, defenseless and often put in peril by the powers-that-be. When his own loyalty to Prince (and later King) Uija (Jo Jae Hyun) becomes almost unbearable to keep, he reimagines himself as a guardian, not of a king, but of a people.
However, Gyebaek comes off as such a good leader and sacrificing servant of the people because selfishness resides at the highest levels in the Kdrama. It wouldn’t be a Kdrama without some backstabbing and conniving by people who want to stop Gyebaek’s selfless acts. We have Sa Taek Bi who seeks to amass and keep power for herself. Not quite as bad as the ultimate royal villain, Mishil (Queen Seondeok), but she does her share. She’s got the requisite hidden, secret, highly trained force that will whack people on her whims, access to nobles with money and power, and the will to wield both at anybody she deems an enemy. We’ve seen this before: she grew up in a political family, so you’re not surprised when she goes to great lengths to keep power.
Like Sa Taek Bi, other people who feel the backhand of power just turn around and become worse than the people who oppressed them. Eun Go (Song Ji Hyo), the love interest of Gyebaek since childhood who also catches Uija’s eye, starts out doing it for the people. A merchant, she acts as a go-between, able to access the palace without being part of the political drama (at least at first). She and Uija plot to kick out the bad guys because they are good guys who want to improve life for everyone in all classes. However, something goes terribly wrong, and once she gets a taste of power she becomes just anotther Sa Taek Bi (just like she said she would!). She’s willing to beat anyone down to make her son Crown Prince (just like Sa Taek Bi!), eliminate those threaten her plans (just like Sa Taek Bi!) and cut all ties in an effort to keep her position (just like, well, you know).
But that’s ok, she’s just the almost/eventual queen. Uija is a whiny king whose crazy jealously and bad decisions bring down Baekje, despite Gyebaek’s best efforts. You might feel sorry for Uija. Seeing his mother murdered and having to grow up with the woman who ordered her death, having to pretend that he’s an idiot to save his skin and dealing with a father who would gladly sacrifice his own son to keep the throne would make anyone a little….not right in the head. Yeah, he has issues, but he makes a pact with Gyebaek, Heung Soo and Sung Choong (two very unorthodox yet very clever advisors) to create a new world where no one suffers. Of course this happens when Uija is down on his luck. What does he have to lose? These guys do all the heavy lifting to get Uija back in the palace and eventually on the throne.
However, there are two problems. One is Uija’s unrequited love for Eun Go. She’s trying to get revenge, and he’s trying to get her. So he does the unthinkable: lies and puts her in a position to be executed and “saves” her by marrying her. All so that he can have her, and presumably, Gyebaek can’t.
The other problem is Uija’s jealousy. Maybe if he did something on his own, he wouldn’t be jealous. But Gyebaek succeeds in protecting Baekje, even when put in harms way by Uija. It makes Uija crazy. Literally. I knew Uija had lost his mind when during a battle with Silla, he kills the daughter of Silla’s eventual king, Chunchu (that’s the wrong guy to mess with. I learned that from watching Queen Seondeok). With his own hands. Just to say he did something. This not only is against the rules of righteous soldiers, it also unnecessarily brings the ire of Chunchu on Baekje. We all know Chunchu isn’t going to rest until he grinds Uija’s bones into dust and burns Baekje down to the ground.
It was interesting to see a man exhibit unbridled jealousy over someone who was once a sworn brother, but it didn’t have to be that way. Uija had more than enough people trying to tell him he was headed down the wrong path. My favorites are Heung Soo and Sung Choong, or as I like to think of them, Frick and Frack. Heung Soo is mad genius who flouts authority but also has a strong sense of loyalty and feeling for the people. He even swaggers out of the palace after refusing to give the royal robes to Sa Taek Bi’s whiny son. Sung Choong, his more even-tempered counterpart, meets Gyebaek as a Silla captive and sees his potential. Together, they are the best advisers a king could have. They anticipate the enemy as well as the politics of the court.
While they all work to get Uija on the throne, it’s Sung Choong and Heung Soo who see first hand how Uija gets out of control. They try, but there is nothing they can do to stop him. Sadly for Sung Choong, he grapples with Eun Go and loses. If that isn’t bad enough, what is worse is Heung Soo’s reaction. He is just broken when his best friend is murdered. He goes all-out to show that Eun Go was behind it, but when Uija finds out, he does nothing to her. This woman not only breaks the sworn pact, she is also a traitor. In her desire to get her son on the throne, she spills Baekje troop movements to tells Yushin (yes, Queen Seondeok’s Yushin!) in Silla. Heung Soo mourns Sung Choong’s death, but he never gets over his disillusionment over Uija’s failure to act. He writes a strategy book and withdraws from public life.
Ultimately, Uija becomes the last king of Baekje because of his failure to work out his personal issues, and Gyebaek goes down as a hero of Baekje. Given who he hangs out with, I’m not surprised.
Ambivalence, romance and finance are anything but elements of a fairy tale in Cheongdamdong Alice (2012). The Kdrama makes us think about non-romantic motives for relationships.
Cheongdamdong Alice (2012) follows the development of two characters. On one hand, it tells the story of our “Alice,” Han Se Kyung (Moon Geun Young), a plucky, ever-optimistic fashion student who wants to be a designer. Her economic circumstances prevent her from studying abroad, but she has made the best of her talents by working jobs and winning school awards. Se Kyung is soon hit with the realization that the fashion industry is clique-y, and after breaking up with her embezzling boyfriend, resolves to do whatever she has to in order to raise herself out of her dire straits and make it to Cheongdam.
Cheongdamdong Alice also tells the story of Cha Seung Jo (Park Shi Hoo), a man who responds to heartbreak by enacting a long-term plan for revenge-by-success, which also requires that he hardens his heart. That icy heart begins to thaw when he sees Se Kyung’s selfless acts on behalf of her shiftless boyfriend, and he begins to believe in love again, making Se Kyung the beneficiary of his new outlook life.
Ambivalence clouds the actions of both characters. We certainly don’t want Se Kyung to become like Seo Yoon Joo (So Yi Hyun), who literally wrote the book on golddigging. But the more misfortune she endures, the more likely she is to give in. While she manages to maintain her dignity and our allegiance for the most part, audiences must suffer with her when she opts not to tell Seung Jo about her plan to use him to get into Cheongdam society. She never goes to the extent that Yoon Joo and Tommy Hong (Kim Ji Suk) do, but viewers (and Seung Jo) have to reconcile Se Kyung’s sweet ways with her social-climbing desires. The ambivalence is not over whether or not she wanted to use Seung Jo. We, Se Kyung and Seung Jo constantly wonder where Se Kyung’s using stops and her actual emotions begin.
Se Kyung also redeems herself in other ways. She helps Seung Jo and his father to reconcile. That process also forces Seung Jo to face his own flaws, including his belief in his self-sufficiency and discounting of his father’s help. Se Kyung does her share of heavy crying on the street, but she also delivers some of the best responses to those who try to smack her down. When Yoon Joo and Se Kyung get caught by Shin In Hwa (Kim Yoo Ri), Yoon Joo gets on her knees, acknowledging defeat. Se Kyung, however, looks In Hwa in her eyes and dares her to do something.
While the Kdrama tells us to follow “Alice” down the rabbit hole, we get distracted by the silly rabbit that is Seung Jo. Described by his intrepid friend Heo Dong Wook (Park Kwang Hyun) as having some kind of emotional disorder, Seung Jo is not the perfect, confident man he displays to the world. He swings from ridiculously giddy highs to heartbreaking melancholy lows.
Seung Jo provides ridiculous comic relief, but also has a more engaging personal journey. While we cheer him on in his wooing of Se Kyung, we realize that he has his own unresolved issues. Seung Jo harbors unresolved feelings towards his father Cha Il Nam (Han Jin Hee) that impacts his relationships. Because he feels he was not loved by his father, he strives to maintain emotional distance from him. Seung Jo is that emotional male character in a Kdrama who pines after the love interest, but he also has to deal with his own faulty view of himself. He is overly concerned with having his actions validated, needs to hear “thank you” from Se Kyung, needs to be acknowledged. While we may not like Yoon Joo for breaking his heart, she also gives him valuable insight into himself, trying to show him that relationships are not just about him and his feelings.
Here’s where the supporting characters really come into play, namely, Dong Wook. If this was a Greek play, he’d be the chorus, because he says what the audience would say. He comforts and encourages Seung Jo when he’s trying to do the right thing. He also pushes him beyond his comfort zone and tells him when he’s being selfish and untrue. Along with Secretary Moon (Choi Sung Joon) and Choi Ah Jung (Shin So Yool), he also participates in the matchmaking.
When Seung Jo and Se Kyung face and resolve the crisis of their relationship, we are left with the idea that they will be more upfront with their feelings and realistic about their circumstances. They seem to understand that romance is not a fairy tale because of real-world circumstances and the motives and desires of ordinary humans. On the other hand, what do other characters learn?
If ambivalence rules the dynamic between Se Kyung and Seung Jo, finance definitely guides the romance aspirations of Yoon Joo, Tommy Hong and In Hwa. Yoon Joo faces her worst nightmare when her calculated entry into her upper-class family is discovered. Her evil sister-in-law, In Hwa, pounces on this opportunity to shame her and kick her out of the family. But we reserve our disapproval for the members of the family rather than Yoon Joo who fools them. Their entitled behavior and belief that they can use her to salvage a business deal makes Yoon Joo look like a girl scout. Shin Min Hyuk (Park Young Ji), Yoon Joo’s husband, goes from assuring her that he loves her to using her as his last pawn to partner with a rival fashion house.
We may be hating on Yoon Joo for the condescending way she treats Se Kyung, but she is infinitely better than these folks who chastise her for playing the game they created. They revert to the language of exclusion really easily: “How dare you try to enter OUR society,” “Those kind of people are not like US,” etc. Characters like Yoon Joo and Tommy Hong, who may be talented in their own right, are forced to use manipulative measures to gain access to that world, but are barred by those already in that class. Their actions, while questionable, are in response to the exclusion of the upper class. The Shin family and those like them become the ultimate villains in this Kdrama.
In fact, for all the talk of how finance is most important, these characters are ultimately guided by their emotions. Despite acting like a lean, mean, business machine, In Hwa gives in to jealousy, envy and revenge, working harder to bring Yoon Joo and Se Kyung down than on any ad campaign. While it may be a little stereotypical to say that “being a woman” means giving in to emotions to hurt other people, In Hwa shows that it’s not always all about the money.
Images: Cheongdamdong Alice/청담동 앨리스
Cheongdamdong Alice 2012 Trailer Korean Drama. Uploaded by strongkinga1. YouTube. 30 Nov 2012. Web.
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. Continue reading “The Revolution Will Be Televised: God of War/Soldier/무신 (2012)”
While the name of this Kdrama suggests that you follow the exploits of a 21st century woman who gets transported back to the Goryeo era, I found myself distracted by other, more compelling characters and narratives, not the least of which was Lee Min Ho as Choi Young, the love interest.
Historical Kdramas are known for the palace intrigue, political drama and tensions between the ruler and the ruled. But if you are a frequent viewer, you also wait with anticipation for the other hallmark of the period Kdrama: warrior hair!
What is warrior hair? Warrior hair is an aesthetic common to the historical Kdrama, when heroes (and villains) tie their hair up on their heads or back in a ponytail, presumably to keep it out of their eyes and they embark on the multiple episodes that make up these kdramas, all the while allowing it to cascade down in all kinds of ways. Headbands are optional.
You know what I’m talking about. Exhibit A: Ji Chang Wook as Baek Dong Soo in Warrior Baek Dong Soo:
Before he decides to stop being a boob and devote himself to martial arts, that hair is just, well, there. You know he’s serious when he ties it back.
Exhibit B: Lee Min Ho as Choi Young in Faith:
Do I even have to say anything about this? This is great because from episode one, he’s a warrior, so the warrior hair is always on display.
Exhibit C: Jang Hyuk as Lee Dae Gil and Oh Ji Ho as Song Tae Ha in Chuno:
Here we have two for the price of one! While Tae Ha is technically the only warrior, you get the picture.
Most viewers of Kdrama I know agree: everyone looks good in warrior hair. But it also serves a couple of important purposes. First, warrior hair marks the transition in the development of a character. Sometimes, it appears after the requisite “child phase” with the first appearance of the adult versions of characters.
Second, warrior hair denotes class distinctions. Most of the time, if you are sporting warrior hair, you are not inclined to follow the rules. You aren’t part of the royal family, and you are definitely not part of the noble class. You are drifting on the outskirts of society, like one of my favorites, Kim Nam Gil as Bidam in Queen Seondeok:
But even military officials and members of the court may fall out of favor with respectable society. How do you know? LOOK AT THAT HAIR! That’s precisely what happens with Lee Seung Hyo as Alcheon in Queen Seondeok. For much of the Kdrama, Alcheon is prim and proper with his hair tied up in a respectable way, nary a strand of out place and a key member of the Hwarang. However, once stuff goes down in the palace, and Seondeok and her loyal followers are hiding out in the forest, no one has time for that. It’s warrior hair time!
Finally, facial hair is the sidekick to warrior hair. And like warrior hair, it means something. Sometimes, it’s used to tell the viewer that a character has gotten older (you know how much time a Kdrama can cover). However, it can also be used to suggest a change in character and nowhere is this more apparent than with Ju Jin Mo as Jin Ha in Bichunmoo. He starts out as a nice, considerate guy, but once a whole bunch of tragedy befalls him, not the least of which is when someone tries to kill him, he becomes a lot less nice and forgiving. And in case you missed the personality change, warrior hair is there to help!
So the next time you watch a sageuk, take some time to appreciate the warrior hair!
It took me a minute to get around to Chuno. I thought, “How are we going to make slave catchers sympathetic?” Kdrama does it again! Chuno manages to blend action, zaniness and social commentary.
Merchant Kim Man Deok is an interesting blend of finance and romance. In both, it’s best to be on the up and up. The Kdrama gives a peek into Joseon-era business practices: the buying, the selling and the deals under the table. Corruption is rampant, and the most successful merchants are those who pay government officials to keep the competition down. On top of that, women are not viewed as savvy businesspeople, so they have an even harder time.
Man Deok isn’t a queen or an outlaw, but she is awesome in her own way. At first, you just think she’s a bratty urchin willing to pimp her fellow orphan-siblings just to make a buck, but gladly, she quickly realizes that being a merchant isn’t about the money: it’s about the people. Man Deok’s way of being a merchant is really different from the ways that other men make money in the series. One could say that it’s because Man Deok is a woman, who learns her craft from a woman, that makes this story unique. Man Deok’s adoptive grandmother, a successful merchant herself, teaches Man Deok to value people over money, to build relationships with her customers to ensure not just return business, but a sense of loyalty.
This way of doing business is very different from Kang Kye Man, a former protegé of Man Deok’s mentor and current troublemaker in the market. Kye Man is not above using extortion and violence to get his way. He doesn’t care about loyalty; he wants his benjamins now. While Man Deok learns her business acumen from a principled woman, Moon Seon, Deok Man’s childhood friend, learns her business sense from Kye Man. And enter the villaness! She’s mean, from a young age. Although she and Man Deok are both orphans, Moon Seon is driven by a sense of jealousy and uses survival as an excuse to get rid of anyone who gets in her way. She intends to get as much money as possible in order to be secure, but her pursuit of wealthy only makes her position more precarious.
The romantic entanglements revolve around the merchant world as well. Kang Yoo Ji, Kye Man’s son, is the spoiled merchant that’s been banished to Jeju Island to look after his family’s interests there, and because of his connections, is the Big Man on the Island. He is an instant mismatch for Man Deok’s righteous ways: the more he tries to force her to “be his woman,” the more she resists. It takes a traumatic event to make Yoo Ji change his ways. Adding spice to the pot is the conflict between shady Yoo Ji and upstanding Hong Soo, Man Deok’s love interest and son of one of the biggest and most corrupt government officials. Hong Soo is a law man whose pursuit of justice puts him at odds with his father.
The drama has some interesting twists and turns, along with the familiar “I can’t believe that happened” melodrama. It shows how life on Jeju island is different from life on the mainland. It pays a lot of attention to the local people who make their living off of selling things on Jeju. Everything from pearls to hats gets sold in this Kdrama.
The most compelling conflict is between Man Deok and Moon Seon. Moon Seon is gangster, let’s just be frank. She condones murder, extortion, and torture. She lies, cheats and steals. And while her shenanigans don’t rise to the level of Queen Seondeok’s Mishil (she is my gold standard for female villainy), she does make a strong showing. If she can’t have Hong Soo (and that ship sails WAY early, because what upstanding yangban would want Moon Seon after she’s manipulated Kye Man into making her his wife AND having his child), no one can. If she can’t sell the tribute to the court, no one will. If she can’t have a ship, no one can. Even when she’s a mother, she’s a nasty piece of work.
Man Deok, on the other hand, is a saint. When she’s down, she always finds a way to pick herself up. Although it gets a little annoying when she refuses to accept help from others, she always helps others, even when she ends up with nothing. And when she strikes it rich, she shares it with everyone. For instance, when she takes advantage of a tip about the king’s health, she pays her craft workers before doing the work AND after getting the work done.
It’s great to see Man Deok, though, get a little spunky when she realizes that Moon Seon is not her friend. Moon Seon’s comes off as pathetic when she insists on making decisions just to get back at Man Deok. Man Deok wins because she never gives into the desire to retaliate (although sometimes the viewer would want her to). Everyone who ever does Man Deok wrong, reaps what they sow.
Another great aspect of this Kdrama is the relationship between Man Deok and Hong Soo. Separated by class, their relationship ends up the way so many do in the historical Kdrama, but before that, they do actually agree to have a relationship, and nothing that anyone does damages their feelings for each other. It’s sweet! As children, Man Deok is the more outgoing one, while Hong Soo is the reserved, sheltered noble who becomes enchanted by her courage and outspokenness. Of course, Hong Soo’s father will not be having any of this, and constantly calls Man Deok names and accuses her of seducing his son. What surprises me is that Hong Soo’s parents do not take the drastic step of forcing him to marry into some well-placed family, although Moon Seon has a little bit to do with that.
There are also several other narratives that go on: Japanese merchants and their illegal trade, government gisaengs, famine, loan sharks, quarantine, and lots of contract hits for hire. I mean, you expect this type of thing in historical Kdramas that involve palace intrigue. But we are talking merchants, people!
Also, I have to say that there are some people who don’t get their due, and chief among them is MOON SEON! Why does she get to have self-reflection time? Not so much as a cut or scratch on her! While her uncle gets his comeuppance, what about her other henchman?
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