Stealing the Show: Unintentional Leads in Queen Seondeok and Warrior Baek Dong Soo

When a Kdrama starts, I’m sure the writers have a clear idea of who the lead character is. Sometimes, that plan goes awry, as other characters become so compelling that they come in and steal the show…..

Read more here at KPK: Kpop Kollective (originally published on September 3, 2011)

CONFERENCE ABSTRACT: Challenging Gender Roles in Korean Dramas @ Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities

She Is Straight Gangster: Challenging Gender Roles in Korean Dramas

Dr. Crystal S. Anderson

Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities

January 8-13, 2012

ABSTRACT

Korean television dramas (Kdramas), particularly those that are historically based, represent sprawling stories that blend history with culture.  Often consisting of high production values and unfolding over 50+ episodes, these Kdramas reconstruct historical narratives and legendary stories.  They also infuse a contemporary sensibility by drawing on nontraditional notions of gender, heroism, cunning and valor.  While such Kdramas are broadcast to Korean audiences, non-Korean, English-speaking audiences from around the world also view these dramas via Internet sites such as Drama Fever and Crunchyroll.com.  These global audiences construct alternative femininities related to the female characters that challenge traditional notions of gender.  Using qualitative methods and discourse analysis, I argue that global audiences construct female characters in ways that challenge traditional notions of gender. In the 2009 critically-acclaimed and popular Kdrama, Queen Seondeok, Korean women are represented as aggressive major power brokers in national politics, rather than passive bystanders, even as they occupy more traditional historical roles for women.  They also exert power over men who are characterized as more powerful both politically and martially, using cunning rather than their feminine wiles. Finally, women also engage each other in ways that showcase their intellectual talents. Such constructions by global audiences allow for more diverse notions of gender in popular culture.

Stealing the Show: Unintentional Leads in Queen Seondeok and Warrior Baek Dong Soo

Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on September 3, 2011 by CeeFu

When a Kdrama starts, I’m sure the writers have a clear idea of who the lead character is. Sometimes, that plan goes awry, as other characters become so compelling that they come in and steal the show.

In watching Warrior Baek Dong Soo, you expect the title character to be compelling enough to hold your attention.  You see how he has such a hard time coming into the world.  His father is executed as a traitor, and his mother dies soon after birth.  To add to his problems, he is born with birth defects that require that he wear bamboo braces.  Kinda hard to be cool in those. Nevertheless, he comes off as a plucky, determined hero.

However, Yeo Woon has an equally sad backstory.  The son of a righteous hero-turned-alcoholic who kills Woon’s mother,  he grows up to be a sullen young man, mostly due to his father’s assumptions about his “killer” nature.  When he finds out the truth about his other, he becomes an angry young man, and is mentored by the WRONG person, Chun.  As the final test of his training as a ninja (um, were there Chinese ninjas?), he is supposed to kill the closest person to him. Despite his father’s opinions, Woon is reluctant to kill his father (patricide is a no-no), and it is unclear whether he actually does the deed, or Chun does, or Woon’s father saves from having to do the deed.  As a result, Woon becomes a melancholy spy for the ninjas.

So, while I know I’m supposed to be intent on Dong Soo, I find myself more drawn to Yeo Woon.  Even though he doesn’t say much, he is more compelling than Dong Soo, who, after episode 10, has yet to make that turn from goofy to great hero.  He also at this stage is not much of a fighter.  He can hold his own, but he has yet to win in a fight against Woon, who is the better fighter. Woon’s character is deeper: not only may he be working for the man who killed his father, he is also friends with the guy he’s sent to spy on and, one would expect, will be ordered to assassinate at the right moment.  His ambivalence is palpable, and while he starts off as arrogant, he comes around to be a sympathetic character.  Oddly enough, I was not all that thrilled with Yoo Seung Ho, who plays Yeo Woon, as Chunchu in Queen Seondeok. Dude is a great actor!

I’ve seen this kind of thing before in Queen Seondeok.  It’s called Queen Seondeok, so you do find yourself drawn to Deokman, her sad backstory of being hustled out of the palace, raised in the desert, only to return to the capital and join the elite young warriors, the Hwarang.  One thing that is great about her is that she’s clever, uses her mind to get out of situations, although most people don’t know it because she’s passing as a man.  She undergoes all of this, only to discover that she is not only royalty but daughter to a king.  Of course, by this time, everyone knows she’s a girl, and, apparently, is the one who will be able to regain the throne.  And yes, it does matter that she’s a girl, because she has to fight that fight to be the first female ruler of Silla.

What she doesn’t count on is having to tangle with Mishil, the royal consort.  That doesn’t even come close to describing how Mishil uses her feminine wiles to manipulate the men around her.  And rather than being a damsel in distress, she’s often the one dishing it out. I think the writers thought Mishil would be a minor character, but she practically takes over the Kdrama. She’s a villain, and she’s good.  Like eerily good. She knows her opponent’s plans because she has spies everywhere (they, on the other hand, seem to try really hard and get lucky with their plans).  She’s not afraid to back down, threatening everyone with that Mishil smile.  At the same time, you find out that she has motives that are kinda honorable? She’s complex, in a way that Seondeok fails to be.  Come for the Seondeok, stay for the Mishil.

I’m not mad at these developments.  I just think that it’s interesting how these things turn out.

Queen Seondeok: 57-The Bitter End

SPOILERS, Y’ALL, SPOILERS!!

Ok, I’m not surprised. It’s not called the Great Prime Minister Bidam, it’s called the Great Queen Seondeok, and knowing it is historically based, I know how this was probably going to end. But I still have ISSUES!!!

First, I come from the wuxia world, where people don’t have problems messing with actual history. If I was Deokman, I would have taken a page out of The Water Margin, way back when she was Princess Deokman after Cheongmyeong gets shot. I would have gathered Bidam, Yushin and Archeon together, any rogue Hwarang hanging out, and anybody else who was tired of the status quo, and taken it to some impregnable mountain fortress, and told the king: “We out! If the cause is just and righteous, we’ll come and help you out.  Good luck with Mishil!”  Then I would have told, TOLD Yushin:  “Look, I need a general, and you are it. No more doe eyes!”   I would have made Bidam my bodyguard, ’cause he’s cute and handy with a sword and good with sneaky stuff, but I don’t really have any romantic interest him, leaving Archeon to be my  BOO!!!!!!

But I digress. Back to the show. I’ve been reading around the ‘net how they describe Bidam. He’s on a mad quest for power. He wants to be king. He leads a coup (ok, he does that last bit).  First, let’s see what all the fuss is about:

 


Bidam http://www.hs.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=114126085268552&id=288913751479&ref=share)

 

 

I like Bidam.  I’m going to defend Bidam (very capably played by Kim Nam Gil). Remember where we first meet him? Dude was sleeping in a cave and throwing chicken at Yushin. That’s your great villain.  Bidam is very conflicted, abandoned as a child then abandoned by Munno. And Deokman doesn’t help once they get in the palace to help assuage his insecurity. Nobody every gives him a chance: from the get go everybody is like, oooh, he’s dangerous and can’t be trusted.  On side you got rat fink Chunchu (more on him later), on the other side you got Misaeng, Yumjong and the rest of the crazy Mishil crew. Whatever Bidam turns out to be, he didn’t get there by himself. If he and Deokman were just left alone, we could have avoided a lot of this. But we do have a coup, and I have to say, at least there was no whining, no pleading, no running away.  Deokman knew she had to whack Bidam; Bidam knew he was going to get whacked, and he took it like a man, going down swinging!

Let’s talk about others who are responsible for where we end up. I’m talking to you, Great Queen Seondeok! What would have happened if she just whacked Mishil’s crew from the get go? Sure, other ambitious people would have come on the scene and caused trouble, but would they have trained under the most cunning mind of the day? I think not. And they rush past it, but the Queen seems pretty satisfied to use Bidam to her dirty work. I like her, but she ain’t blameless.  She also just stands there and lets countless soldiers get whacked trying to kill Bidam, when all she had to do was say stop, let him say his peace, and execute him with those other punks. But no……

Let’s talk about that pimple Chunchu. How is he any different from Bidam, motivated by unresolved issues in his past? Except that dude makes no bones about wanting the throne the way that he wants it. He never gets over Mishil killing his mom, like he’s the only one who lost  a parent.  And remember he punked Mishil!  He’s not an innocent; he’s got a serious agenda: Gee Bidam, I know you are in love with my aunt, but since I want the throne, you gotta go, by any means necessary!  And can we not forget that he was in on the whacking of Munno? Hello? Rat fink! I hate his smug attitude (although, big props to the teenager who  plays him!).

Let’s talk about Misaeng, Hajong and that wacky crew. I know they eventually get the traitor treatment, but they make it to the end, causing trouble, being nobles. That hardly seems fair.

Which brings me to one thing I learned: you can’t have your love or any kind of a normal life and rule a country. Politics and righteousness and romance don’t mix.  Ask any wuxia swordsman. You don’t see them getting entangled in crazy national issues, and when they do, it NEVER works out:

  • The Legendary Warrior: guys spends most of the series denied his due by royalty, royal woman mostly, and who takes her out? Some royal guard? NO! Swordswoman!
  • Romance of the Red Dust: in addition to the crazy going on in the basements of some official’s homes, when our hero recognizes that the guy he helps get the throne is going to engage in the same type of shenanigans they fought against, he takes his cookies and goes home to live a life of solitude
  • The Young Warriors: we’ve already discussed how the Yangs get dissed by the incompetent emperor, and who has to suffer? our righteous Yang family
  • Shall I go on?
  • The Handsome Siblings: these guys just happen to be born to the wrong parents, and try as they may, they get caught up in some Single Chinese Empress syndrome because she’s obsessed with one of them. This costs both of the siblings EVERYTHING and EVERYONE!
  • Sword Stained with Royal Blood: I know, the title seems self-explanatory, but this is another story where you help new dude get rid of old dude on the throne only to have new dude act even worse and dash your hopes of a better tomorrow.
  • Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain: agent of the government mucking up jiang hu, all for the promise of recognition by the ruler.

If you want to survive and be an upright, fight-for-justice kind of person, and have your love survive, stay away from the palace!  It is not the place for righteous folk who have a cause. As bad as she was, Mishil manages to keep her people alive and safe, even Daenambo, who kills a PRINCESS and lives to tell about it. She worked the palace like Deokman never manages to do. She loses her people to crazy schemes, and it takes its toll.  Mishil don’t look lonely, and Deokman remains so.  It’s not so much that people are bad, it’s the quest for power and more power that drives them to do bad, BAD things. Even Mishil wasn’t going to destroy Shilla to get what she wanted.

Ok, on the up side, my boo Archeon lives!  Once again, let’s see what we’re working with:

 

Archeon http://meylaniaryanti.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/lee-seung-hyo-cute-al-cheon/

 

THAT, is my MAN!!! I love Archeon. I love his character and I love Lee Seung Hyo who plays him.  So, of course, way back in the early episodes, he was just as arrogant as the other Hwarang, but unlike the other Hwarang, he becomes boyz with Yushin after they narrowly escape the battlefield. Anytime things don’t look right, Archeon is like, “This looks shady, I’m not going to be a part of this.” Whenever somebody needs him to something for the cause, he’s there. He doesn’t get much screen time, but he is a righteous man, down to the end, and the only one that Deokman could depend on as Queen because he wasn’t in love with her. And even after Deokman is gone, he’s still on his job!

So that’s it: 62 episodes later.  Is Deokman The Great Queen? Yes she is great! Can’t say the same for some of the flunkies around her. And she’s also great because another woman made her great. MIIIIIIIIISSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!

Queen Seondeok: 52-56

SPOILERS, Y’ALL, SPOILERS!!!

Yes, I continue the slow descent to the end of this kdrama! At first I thought it was because I didn’t want to see the inevitable tragedy that was Bidam. But then the show did the fast forward, you know, where everyone “gets older,” signalled by more “adult” hairstyles for women and goatees for men!  And I realized, just because Mishil is gone doesn’t mean that the palace intrigue stops! But there’s something icky about the series now. Gone are the plucky rebel days when Seondeok and her ragtag crew were battling Mishil.  Now, everybody’s got an agenda, a plan, a motive and is liable to whack somebody if the need arises.

This is what I’m feeling so far: um, Queen Seondeok is nothing like Princess Seondeok! Queen Seondeok has some hard, high-riding attitude going on! Like she took a page out the Mishil playbook! I have to say, I do like the way she’s pimp-slapping the Bokya around–somebody needs to put them in their place. News alert: you Gaya folk need to get with the program; your country is gone and it’s not coming back.  And she actually gets mad at Yushin! You know in the end, he’s her boy, but still.

And as always, there is my beloved Archeon, just hanging out as the Queen’s guard, chillin’ in the cut. I love that man (Lee Seung Hyo)!

I’m going to try to barrel through to the end so I can write the wrap-up entry, because I got some opinions about Bidam as well as about the whole royal thing in general. I think Bidam is getting a bad rap. I don’t think he’s a bad man, I just think he got put in some really BAD circumstances.  Could he have responded to them better? Probably. Is he alone in responding to circumstances in a bad way? Not at ALL!

Queen Seondeok: 47-51

SPOILERS, Y’ALL, SPOILERS!!!!!

I just can’t believe she’s gone.  GONE!!! Mishil has left the building! As the series went on, she just kept getting more and more gangster!  You know you are bad when your ENEMIES cry when you die.  But, we got 12 more episodes to go! How much fun is that going to be?

Let’s explore the departure of The Evil One, shall we? The thing about Mishil is, yes she’s bad, but she’s the kind of villain who thinks she is actually doing something for a cause.  So while she did some bad, BAD things, Mishil had an up side.  How do we know? Because way back in the day that the show doesn’t show us, she was down with people like Munno.  In several of her final speeches, she waxes poetic about her love of Shilla, her lost comrades, how she and the former king basically “built this city.”  She’s got loyal followers that don’t include her pathetic husband Sejong, her puppy-love boyfriend Seolwon, and her in-need-of-serious-help relatives.  She did surround herself with the best, and they remain loyal, perhaps loyal out of fear, but loyal nonetheless.

Like so many good serialized historical dramas with swords and intrigue, no one is saccarhine-ly sweet good, or dark black heart-of-darkness bad. Can we talk about Munno for a minute? You think he’s all loyal, down for the cause, working to get Deokman as queen. Dude’s got his own agenda, and it don’t include the queen! Can we talk about Chunchu for a minute? I know our righteous side is the forgiving sort, but am I wrong in believing that dude had Munno whacked? You can’t act all innocent now, buddy. And I’ve been fighting it, but hey, I know that Bidam is headed for disaster, but he looks very sexy manly doing it!  I can totally see how his behavior is motivated by his failure to work out his abandonment issues coupled with Deokman’s mixed signals when it comes to him and Yushin.  I just wonder as I head into the final episodes, how do we go from “yay, we’re number one” to coup #3.

I know I’ve said it before, but Deokman and Yushin work a nerve.  Just putting it out there, again.  And while I’m at it, Archeon is still my boo. He definitely needs more screen time!!!

Queen Seondeok: Episodes 26-46

Ok, things have been moving fast and furious on the show. When you realize that there are 62 episodes to this thing, you learn to pace yourself. I think I had some Queen Seondeok overload over the break. At any rate, it is still a top quality pursuit. I know I go on and on about Mishil, but when was the last time you saw a smart, conniving woman who was a real villain worthy of your respect AND your disdain? I actually got a little scared when it looked like Mishil was going to give up….but luckily, she comes back even more gangsta than ever.

The royal politics are very intriguing, but I do have some concerns. Like you would think the palace guards who protect the princess would be better fighters. During the coup (oh,I didn’t mention this–there’s a coup, y’all!), they are far too easily dispatched.  Then again, there can’t be too many Yushins, Archeons and Bidams rolling around.  In case you have forgotten, Archeon is my boy! Lee Seung Hyo is fantastic! He should totally get more air time! I especially like it when he gets his righteous indignation on!  I like Bidam (Kim Nam Gil) also, but my spidey sense is telling me that tragedy is waiting for him down the road in this drama, or at least something I won’t be groovy with.

Also in the interim Cheonmyeong’s son shows up, all arrogant and in desperate need of an introduction to a belt.  He eventually reconciles himself to the Princess Deokman plan, but it does point to one of the strengths of the show, and the need for the 62 episodes.  62 episodes allows you to develop characters, let them grow and change, even in ways you may not like. It makes villains for more complex and heroes a little less shiny. People have opportunities to make mistakes, I mean BIG mistakes (dude, Munno?) and move on from them.  Take for instance Yongchun.  I was ready to consign him to the “I wish someone would whack you” category when he opposes Deokman’s quest for the throne, but he totally won me back when he says that he’d slit his own throat before letting Seolwon and his crew arrest him. That was sassy. Forget the fact that he apparently can’t wield a sword to save his life.  I like his attitude!