Doing It For the People in Gyebaek/계백 (2011)


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.

Moo Jin

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.

Sa Taek Bi

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.

Eun Go

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.

Sung Choong

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.

Images: Gyebaek

[SERIES REVIEW] Way Back In The Day: Faith/The Great Doctor/신의

SBS Official Poster, Faith/The Great Doctor
SBS Official Poster, Faith/The Great Doctor

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.

Continue reading “[SERIES REVIEW] Way Back In The Day: Faith/The Great Doctor/신의”

Put Your Own Hair Up!: Female Agency in the Historical Kdrama

Kim Man Deok, Merchant Kim Man Deok

For some, Kdramas may be the last place to look for empowered female characters, but I think they contain quite a lot of female agency.

Modern Kdramas sometimes draw feminist-inspired critiques for their representations of women.   On Outside Seoul, Amanda sets up a tension between feminist ideals and Kdrama:  “I’ve always considered myself to be a feminist, which can be a difficult thing to reconcile with a love of Korean drama. As much as fun as I have watching these shows, I often find myself cringing when it comes to their depictions of relationships between men and women.”

Theresa Celebran Jones tentatively approaches her critique of Kdramas because of her unfamiliarity with the cultural context, but defines herself as a “feminist since my early teens,” which causes her to give the genre of romantic comedies the side-eye:  “Even then I knew that romantic comedies had a tendency to reinforce traditional gender roles and set unrealistic expectations for relationships. Too often, I felt romcoms cosigned behavior that would come off creepy or be otherwise unacceptable in real life.”  Her assessment of A Gentleman’s Dignity was not without critique:  “A lot of wrist-grabbing, possessive boyfriends, and stalker-like behavior, and this was a show that completely favored the male perspective.”

While Amanda admits that “feminism is a weirdly fraught topic in America,” she does not elaborate. One of the reasons why feminism is complicated is because there are actually several brands of feminism, including black, postcolonial and third-world feminisms.  These brands of feminism recognize that race and nationality can impact what agency and equality mean to different women. One of the critiques these feminists express is the notion that early brands of feminism were defined by what white women wanted, which may be different from what women of color want.  For feminists of color, the issue may be more about choice rather than a predetermined equality.

With that said, one may be able to see feminist tendencies in Kdrama that are overlooked if we only view feminism through a white feminist lens.  Women have different opinions of what agency looks like. Kdramas may in fact promote agency by Korean women that may not look like agency to women measuring their behavior by Western mainstream feminist standards.  I’m an American woman looking at Kdrama, so like Amanda, I don’t have a full understanding of the cultural context either. But what I do see are women, even under patriarchy, making decisions for themselves.

Both Amanda and Jones focus on contemporary Kdramas, but I find a lot of female agency in a place one might least expect it: the historical Kdrama, or sageuk. I’m currently watching Merchant Kim Man Deok, and Kim Man Deok (also known as Hong as a young girl) may be subject to certain expectations of women in Joseon-era Korea, but there are significant instances where she exerts her agency.

Generally plucky,  Man Deok finds herself as a government gisaeng on Jeju Island. The time comes for her to have a man “put her hair up.”  The gisaeng headmistress explains that the man who “puts a woman’s hair up” becomes like a husband to her. Man Deok does everything she can to avoid the ceremony.  Even though she knows Kang Yoo Ji, the foreman of a local merchant company who is attracted to her, she does not want to have that kind of relationship with him. During the elaborate processional to the ceremony, Man Deok looks like she’s going to the gallows.

As is typical of a melodramatic Kdrama, circumstances occur that postpone the ceremony, and Yoo Ji never “puts her hair up.”  But what is interesting is that a few episodes later, Man Deok makes a point of telling her father that she “put her own hair up,” which seems to suggest that she does not belong to a man. This act seems to signify  not only a certain maturity, that she is a young woman rather than a teenager, but also that she is not dependent on a man.

Kim Man Deok, Merchant Kim Man Deok

Man Deok continues to show independence when she rejects the aggressive courtship tactics of Yoo Ji. After failing to be the man to “put her hair up,” he continues to pursue her. Following the faulty advice of his scheming stepmother, he initially withholds evidence of Man Deok’s commoner status, which can allow her to be dropped from the government gisaeng rolls. At first, he intends to exchange it for her “being his woman.”

When that fails, he works with his stepmother to try to destroy East Gate, the merchant company for which that Man Deok works.  When they succeed in falsely accusing the East Gate head foreman of smuggling illegal goods and economically crippling the company, Yoo Ji offer to “save” Man Deok. When she refuses, he tells her that he will destroy any company she works for until she relents. Not only does she tell him she would rather jump in the ocean than be his woman, she asserts that she will not join another company but build East Gate back up with her own hands.

It’s easy to root for a character like Man Deok; she’s so likeable and plucky. It’s harder to root for a female who goes against societal expectations in a way that hurts others but exerts the same degree of independence.  I have to admit, Choi Song Yi is relentless in God of War.  She falls in love with Kim Jun, a slave, and after helping him advance through the military, she drops the bomb on her father that she wants to marry him. Because her father, Choi Woo, the supreme military commander, wants an heir to succeed him, he’s not going to let that happen.

You would think she would just let it drop. But no!  She engineers a plan to run away with Kim Jun, but he’s not having it.    When forced to marry another man to satisfy her father’s wishes, she continues to hold a torch for Kim Jun, right up to when she meets her demise.  While she doesn’t murder anyone with her own hands, her inaction contributes to the death of at least four people.  I have to admit, when she was alive, she was not my favorite character. In fact, I thought she was not right in the head.

Song Yi, God of War

But during her last episodes, I realized that she defies her father and societal convention, up to the end. Her impassioned pleas to her father and mother about her love for Kim Jun suggests an unwavering desire to flout societal expectations.  She explains that she is willing to give up her wealth and position to be with him. While one could argue that she’s a stereotypical woman who does anything for love, Song Yi actually is little more savvy than that. Kim Jun is her man, so while he spurns her affections (every time!), she also looks out for his political future.  She even chastises her father for failing to free Kim Jun earlier and give him more responsibility.   She routinely tells her father than Kim Jun is the man he can depend on, unlike the flunkies that surround him. Finally,  she is so confident in her actions,  she never shows remorse, even when she knows it’s wrong, even at the end.

I may not like her choices, but Song Yi boldly makes them and she accepts the consequences of her actions.  In doing so, she consciously challenges societal convention, and while she does not make it to the end of the series, even the soldiers marvel at her will.

To me, agency is about women making their own choices, even in situations where they are limited, even when we don’t agree with them. They are still their choices, and isn’t that what feminism is about?


Merchant Kim Man Deok,1, 2,  Han Cinema.

God of War, Han Cinema.


Amanda.  “The Other F Word: Feminism versus Korean Drama.”  August 21, 2012.  Outside Seoul. Accessed September 30, 2012. <>.

Jones, Theresa Celebran.  “A Primer on K-Drama Feminism.” September 12, 2012.  Hyphen.  Accessed September 30, 2012. <>.

Things I’ve Learned From Watching Sageuk (Historical Kdramas)

I am an avid watcher of Korean sageuk (historical Korean television series). They have something for everyone: romance, adventure, political intrigue, mystery.  Little did I know that I was learning things along the way. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from watching sageuk!

Continue reading “Things I’ve Learned From Watching Sageuk (Historical Kdramas)”