Drama Review: Hong Gil Dong (KBS, 2008)
Jazzing Up Ye Olde Sageuk
by Ender’s Girl
Kang Ji-hwan, Sung Yu-ri, Jang Geun-seuk, Choi Ran, Jo Hee-bong, Kim Ri-na
In a Nutshell:
This is a re-imagining of the life of Hong Gil Dong, Korean folk hero: a man who rises from obscurity to liberate his homeland from an evil monarch and help restore the rightful king to the throne — and in so doing, becomes the very stuff of legend.
(SpoilLert: Shockingly benign!!! No spoilers AT ALL!!! Because I am wise and compassionate!!! But mainly because I do not wish to deal with the PAIN by revisiting *certain* parts of the drama! In fact, I’d much rather pretend they never happened at all!!! Yes, yes, that’s it! That must be it! There are NO spoilers, because the “events” in question never happened at all!!!! *maniacal laughter*)
At first glance, the bare bones of the story are elements of a more traditional period drama: a low-born Hero with a Hidden Destiny! an Evil King! corruption and treachery at the highest echelons of power! secret cabals and shady netherworld dealings! high adventure and derring-do!… But don’t be fooled!!! You realize early on that this ain’t your garden-variety sageuk… How in the world can it be–with the pop-tart dance routines! the snazzy camera shots! the trendy tinted glasses! the blaring house music and heavy metal riffs! the anime-like sound effects and MTV-inspired editing! the hip (???) costumes! and let’s not forget… the FOG MACHINES!!! The opening sequence alone is straight out of some noontime variety show, replete with break-dancing extras, pounding club beats, and, well… uninspired shimmying from Sung Yu-ri, if I may say so (wow, hard to tell she used to be part of a girl band, with her stiff, Vogue-strike-a-pose “dance” moves).
The first act of Hong Gil Dong feels like a light and breezy romp in the park. I immediately took to the rollicking, madcap humor, the witty dialogue, the outrageous, tongue-in-cheek situations, and the assortment of truly nutty characters. In short, I was enjoying myself TREMENDOUSLY. Act One lays the groundwork for the whole story, and primes the viewer for the character-molding domino sequence of events to come in later episodes — by starting out with the kind of man Hong Gil Dong was before his journey from, er, Zero to Hero.
Gil Dong: The Last Action Hero
Hong Gil Dong (played to the hilt by the wonderful Kang Ji-hwan) is the quintessential Everyman — think Kang Ho (Eric Mun) of the 2005 MBC drama Super Rookie to the nth degree. It’s impossible NOT to be drawn to the kind of person Gil Dong is at the onset of the story: while by no means perfect (he’s pretty much this aimless and self-centered bum, with a penchant for brawling and gambling and wenching at the village tavern and mooching off stallholders like Merchant Wang), there’s a lot about him that grabs you. I loved his ironic outlook in life; the jaunty, self-assured air with which he’d carry himself; his quirky mannerisms and pithy cussing; the curl of his lip and sardonic gleam in his eye; his quick wit and ready laugh. And yet beneath that devil-may-care, “lovable cad” façade are deep personal wounds brought about by abandonment, loss, and rejection from the very people he loves. Gil Dong is some sort of social (and even genetic) aberration, one who inhabits the interstices between the world of the nobles and the world of the commoners, and really belonging to neither. Considered at home as an embarrassing reminder of Minister Hong’s act of infidelity with a slave woman, he is shut out of the one thing he so desires: his father’s love and acceptance. But sadly, the strictures of society and the rigid caste system have made this impossible. He has no real friends his own age; even the townsfolk, though ambivalent towards him at best, generally shun him for being a nuisance and troublemaker. The monk who takes Gil Dong under his wing would be the closest thing to a friend, yet he himself (being a hermit) is a social outsider as well.
My heart went out to Gil Dong during the Hong household’s memorial ceremony, which he watches from his perch in a tree, then later proffers his own respects in the only way he can — as a disruptive, unwanted presence in the Hong family’s lives. We see juxtaposed flashbacks (love those flashbacks! with their muted, pulsating hues) of him as a child, who is told in the bluntest of terms by his own father that he can never become what he aspires to be. Even his father is shackled by a society so steeped in tradition, though he tries to reach out in his own way, as demonstrated in the pipe-lighting scene, for one. What a touching moment that was, underscoring the near-intimacy shared by both father and son that almost, but not quite, bridges the chasm between them.
And yet deep inside Gil Dong is this burning desire to rise above his circumstances and become someone of worth — someone who MATTERS. Without being really aware of it, his years of training under the monk were to prepare him for his life’s mission. As Gil Dong nears the cusp of his calling, he receives a stern admonition from the monk to take heed of their nation’s ills: “The cries of the people have reached the heavens. These are turbulent times, and turbulent times call for a hero.” He responds with the apathy characteristic of his (and our) generation. His solution for his nation’s ills is to get out, fast. So the Gil Dong we get to meet is a person whose loftiest ambition to date is a one-way ticket to China. For any character to be successful, you’ll need a well-fleshed-out role, as well as an able actor who can bring the role to life. Hong Gil Dong has both: engaging writing from the Hong Sisters, and a damn fine actor in Kang Ji-hwan. (Mmmmm, Kang Ji-hwan… rraurrghgh *Homer Simpson drool*) I cannot stress enough how much I love this actor. KJH’s comedic timing is GOLD!!! He’s such a bloody riot to watch, and he never makes “funny” look contrived or put-on. Yet he displays such keen insight into the inner workings of his character, navigating the terrain of Gil Dong’s psyche with remarkable clarity, sensitivity, and empathy.
Regarding Yi Nok (Sung Yu-ri)
I admit that I was THIIIIIS close to getting irrevocably ticked off with the character of Yi Nok, a girl so incurably thickheaded and sloooow on the uptake. But I managed to hold my irritation in check solely because I liked the GilDongxYiNok chemistry, with Yi Nok’s ditziness serving as a foil to Gil Dong’s more grounded personality. I like how they start out as friends (no cosmic epiphany at their first meeting, no spectacular “Exhibition of Fireworks,” tee-hee). I really appreciate the Hong Sisters for creating moments for these two that were both delightful and moving, such as the run-in with the bees, the scene involving the chamber pot, their encounters at the little brook, even the montage where they hunt for foxes, bears and tigers (oh my!) using Yi Nok as bait, LOL!!! And I loved the scene where Gil Dong throws his own confetti as they haul the trussed-up carcasses through the city streets! Who knew that a scene with simulated animal growls and stuffed critters could be so freaking hilarious?!?! And then there are the more serious and toe-curling moments between the two, which… to be frank, I’d rather not revisit because… well, remembering the love stuff only reminds me of… well, the other stuff in the story I’d rather NOT dredge up, so there. (Okayyy… Nothing to see here…. Move along, people, move along now…)
Next up: Chang-hui! (Jang Geun-seuk)
(Sidebar: Well stuff me with succotash, I sez to mesself, if it ain’t that laddie boy from Hwang Jini!!! I got to watch one scene of Hwang Jini some time back and I HONESTLY thought, now wots dat ten-year-old girl doin’ in boy’s clothing, and why is SHE makin’ goo-goo eyes at Ha Ji-won?!?!?!?! Hahahahahahahha. Damn, so those were XY chromosomes after all, eh Jang Geun-seuk? Gaaahhh, who bloody KNEW. Well, in fairness to the actor, he did look infinitely more, er, manly on Hong Gil Dong — was it the black-and-purple costumes? the deadly weaponry at his disposal? the rich baritone of his VOICE?!?? => Yes, yes, that must be it, that MUST BE IT! Egad, had no idea that laddie boy could sound so GOOD!!! Heh heh heh)
Back to our regular programming: In every possible way, Chang-hui is… *gasp of realization* THE BOY WHO LIVED!!! (But instead of the telltale lightning-shaped scar, he’s wearing… the telltale sooty black guyliner you can spot a mile away! Hahahaha.) But our dispossessed princeling (whom I have taken to calling “Prinny”) is one angsty hombre by the time we meet him on the boat from China, brooding in the darkness and being wary of practically everyone within a 500-meter radius (including pea-brained girls with insatiable appetites). You can’t blame the guy, though, after everything that he’s gone through. He returns from exile with a singular purpose, one which he has prepared for all his life: to regain his rightful place on the Joseon throne. Yet there he must remain hidden in smoke and shadows before revealing his hand to his brotha’ dearest, the Mad King (Jo Hee-bong). (And I swear, Jo Hee-bong could pass for Lee Byung-hun’s hyung — the one who got all the recessive genes in the family, that is.) I mean, really, nothing stokes the imagination more than a Rightful Ruler who must return from exile to reclaim his kingship from the Wicked Usurper. It’s an entire freaking literary and film genre, for cryin’ out loud.
I liked both the parallelisms and contrasts between Gil Dong and Prinny’s respective life trajectories: One comes from humble beginnings, while the other is born into power and prestige. One stumbles upon his calling, seemingly by mistake or mere chance, while the other has been conditioned for it his whole life. Both are dispossessed of their inheritance (Gil Dong the legitimacy of his birth, and Prinny the throne). One must overcome his inner struggle over indifference and cowardice, while the other must overcome his inner struggle over Machiavellian compromise. Both men slowly but steadily awaken to the oppression and injustice around them, and find a cause they can truly believe in — a cause that rouses them to fight for something greater than themselves, and sets them on their own path to destiny. Both men have a common aspiration to heart: To uplift the downtrodden, to empower the powerless, and to restore the balance of power in their blighted land. Whether or not they DO accomplish their dream, and HOW they attempt this, are a different thing altogether.
I was also fascinated by the role of Fate or Destiny in the paths of our Hero and Anti-Hero. Are destinies predetermined by a higher order, hewn in stone or strewn among the stars, immutable and eternal? Or are they forged in the hearts of men, where true grit and strength of character clash and converge with secret fears and inner weaknesses? To quote one of my favorite authors, Lloyd Alexander, “For the deeds of a man, not the words of a prophecy, are what shape his destiny.” (Sorreh, sorreh, this fantasy geek gets carried away sometimes, lol…)
So, then… what else do I have to say about this drama, apart from that rather protracted character study of our three protagonists? Hmmm…? Nothing! I have nothing more to say! Because I’m obviously still in denial! (Nothing to see here…. Move along, people, move along now…) So shall I talk about — the production design instead? Oh yes! Yes indeed! The production design…
1) Man, the costumes were just WHACK!!! I know the show never pretended to have any modicum of historical accuracy, but still… the aesthetics should have been intact, IMHO. Instead we get “treated” to such garish, gaudy duds that scream CHEAP!!!CHEAP!!!CHEAP!!! And the hairstyles run the whole gamut from pricey-looking, layered feather-cuts (i.e. the Yongmun Hunks, with nary a hair strand out of place) to artfully disheveled updos (i.e. Prinny) to elaborately braided coiffures (i.e. Madam Noh and Prissy Missy, aka the Bird in the Gilded Cage if you still didn’t get the metaphor) to strange bun-‘n-bangs hybrids (i.e. Yi Nok) to plain horrible, frizzy wigs that resemble dead skunks (i.e. Gil Dong). Welcome to the alternate Joseon dynasty, when tacky neon satin outfits and bizarro hairstyles ruled the land. The story may have been set in the 17th century, but doggone it, this was retrograde fashion at its stone-age worst.
2) The set of the drama looked… well, like a SET. I know, I know, it costs a fortune to recreate a Joseon-era village/town/whatever, but still. I mean, (heeeere we go again) the Damo (MBC, 2003) production design never FELT the least bit fake, whereas with Hong Gil Dong, it was hard to imagine this WAS the capital city, these WERE actual streets and avenues, this WAS a real mountain village. After a few episodes the scenery (especially the shots of the Capital) had become too dang familiar to remain interesting. Seemed a bit too phony and made up for me. Rather resembled… a “traditional” Korean village that has “tourist trap!!!” written all over it.
But despite my quibble with the production values, I really, truly, madly, deeply did love this drama. And I think what attracted me most was what the story represented: Hong Gil Dong’s themes resonate so powerfully within each of us, cutting across cultural divides… That we need a hero in ANY day and age; that “every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone.” (Lloyd Alexander, “The High King”). That the rich and potent magic of Myth runs deep through our collective consciousness. It wells up to the surface, this primal urge to give voice to the human experience through Story, in all its incarnations: be they folk tales, legends, parables, sagas, or songs.
So I thank you, my three regular readers, for sticking till the end of my half-a$$ed sorry excuse for a review. I’m not even going near discussing the final act of the drama, oh no no. Not going there again, once was enough. Bloody Apocalypse Now (“oh, the horror… the horror…”) and all that doomsday flapdoodle. Phooey. (Damn you, Hong Sisters!!! Damn you!!! *shakes fist at a certain mussy-haired, guyliner-wearing, sword-brandishing, velvety-voiced young man* Damn you, Prinny! Damn you!!! May your cheapo guyliner give you lead poisoning and eye cankers!)
So. To sum it up: Hong Gil Dong is a jazzed-up sageuk for the attention-deficit/hyperactive generation. The drama throws historicity (and oftentimes, logic) out the window, but makes up for these lapses with engaging storytelling, memorable characters, and tongue-in-cheek humor. The heart and soul of Hong Gil Dong is the eponymous hero himself, who takes the viewer along on his own personal journey of self-discovery and fulfillment, imparting what he himself learns the painful way: what it really means to be a Hero.
Artistic & technical merit: B-
Entertainment value: A
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