Goong S: Status Report
Although GOONG S hasn’t yet wrapped (they’ve aired 16 of 20 episodes), I figured I could weigh in now, since it’s nearly completed.
Goong S (aka Palace S) was possibly one of the most anticipated kdramas early this year, coming off the tremendous popularity of the original Goong. Unfortunately, it’s failed to live up to its hype, and is getting soundly thrashed in the ratings, although that isn’t necessarily a sole indicator of the show’s quality.
There’s the fact that the fan base of the show largely skews young, and in an extremely wired society, many of the fans are watching the show online rather than on television (MBC reports indicate that Goong S is their highest-watched show online, despite performing poorly in the regular ratings). There’s also the fact that its direct ratings competitors are doing extremely well, Surgeon Bong Dalhee, which is purported to be vaguely Grey’s Anatomy-like in nature, and Dal Ja’s Spring. I haven’t seen Surgeon Bong Dalhee because frankly, one Grey’s Anatomy is more than enough for me, but it’s supposedly a strong show, and I’m a huge fan of Dal Ja’s Spring, so there you go.
In any case, Goong S isn’t doing terribly well, which is a shame because it has all the elements for success: an appealing if inexperienced cast, a talented director (Hwang In Roi did Goong), beautiful sets and costumes, lovely music and scoring, and high production values.
And yet, it doesn’t manage to gel.
It has gotten better in the latter half, if you’ve bothered to stick around, though it’s understandable if you’ve bailed.
ACTING AND CASTING:
It seems the acting is the main area of criticism, given the very inexperienced young cast. Ironically, the biggest target of critique is also the most improved — SE7EN (aka Choi Dong-wook) started out over-the-top and exaggerated. To be fair to his acting choices, that was built into the character, given that Kang Hoo starts out happy-go-lucky and gradually becomes more solemn once he feels the weight of his royal obligations.
As he settled into his role, and as Hoo transitions from a trendy, energetic guy to solemn prince, Se7en’s performance has become more thoughtful. He still has a long (long, long) way to go as an actor, but given the tremendous expectations, the high profile of the project, and the fact that this is his debut acting role, he’s scraped through. (And I say this as someone who is neither a huge fan of the Goong franchise nor Se7en as a singer-performer.)
Having arrived at Episode 16, looking back on the earlier episodes, it’s surprising to see how his character has changed so much. And Se7en should get some credit for that; not so much in acting ability, but in screen presence.
HEO YI JAE is another newcomer, and although her inexperience is pretty obvious (she overdoes her reactions and gasps excessively), there’s something about her that can be charming. If you can get past the overacting.
She plays YANG SOON-YI, a palace attendant serving both princes, who becomes the object of affection for both. Somehow, the cliched setup doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of her relationship with Hoo, who happens to be her childhood classmate. However, I can’t bring myself to buy into Soon-yi’s attraction to Joon.
PARK SHIN HYE is a lovely girl whose age, I find, to be a detriment because there is no way to hide that a 16-year-old is trying to play the mature, conniving adult SHIN SAE-RYUNG. It’s like a little girl playing in mommy’s dress and heels. She’s improved a bit as the character warms, going from coldly ambitious to slightly vulnerable, and she does tend to do better playing the latter than the former.
KANG DOO, I find terribly miscast as the second prince, LEE JOON. It’s not that he’s interpreting the character wrong; it’s just that he holds no appeal as the cold, thoughtful second male lead. They’ve given him plenty of backstory to make him sympathetic (his father is overbearing; his mother is overbearing; he plays the guitar, ergo he is sensitive!). So I must conclude that the only mistake was that he was entirely miscast. Unfortunately, that one aspect nearly killed my interest in the series altogether, because a love triangle never works when you find one of the legs to be utterly preposterous.
But the biggest travesty comes with the casting of MARK JORDAN, a half-Korean German model who barely speaks English, and no Korean, in the series. If we are supposed to believe that his Professor Alex character is the Queen’s bygone boyfriend from their years together at Oxford, it’s ridiculous to have her speaking only in Korean, and him replying only in very bad English.
This is the Kim Samsoon curse, whereby apparently Koreans are so enamored of good-looking half-Korean men that all of a sudden they give them acting roles when they are clearly sadly undertrained and undertalented. It may have worked for Daniel Henney in My Name Is Kim Samsoon, but not here. I can’t bear to listen to the Queen-Alex conversations. If he’s not going to speak Korean anyway, they should have had him speaking his native German instead. Eek.
SETS AND LOCATIONS:
The artistic design of the show continues to be among its strongest attributes. The lighting and angles are always meticulously prepared, and the shots always saturated in vivid colors. Bravo.
(Chamber of the Executive Council of Parliament)
Another strong plus. One of the more interesting scenarios raised by Goong and Goong S is the juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern — both in philosophy and in aesthetic. The costuming raises this point marvelously.
(Princes’ royal uniforms)
(They’ve done a pretty good job designing around the constraints of the traditional male hanbok, which I’ve always thought were bland and unexciting. I don’t know much about fashion, but I find the lines and silhouettes very modern and flattering. It’s nice that the men have as interesting wardrobe choices as women usually do, rather than simply being outfitted in suits all the time.)
(The Palace maid costumes are smart and attractive; I covet their shoes, which I now realize aren’t visible in this pic.)
(Palace maid lineup)
(Because neither of the female leads are royalty, there is less female hanbok-based designing than there was in the original Goong, which is disappointing. Still, they manage to sneak in one or two designs here and there, such as this getup worn by a guest musical performing group.)
STORY and PLOT:
Here’s where we start running into problems. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, because it’s in fact a great one. But somehow, it feels as though the writing and plotting had all the essential ingredients and were in the midst of cooking, but were taken out of the oven too early. So we can see the shape of what those ingredients were, and get an idea for what the intended final product was — and yet, what we have is a mushy, not-quite-cooked dish that falls somewhere in between.
The setup still works, as we introduce a young man raised as a commoner to the royal life that is his natural birthright. This immediately creates conflict, because if there’s something that tradition does not question, it’s bloodline and birthright. Thus Hoo’s entree into royalty is unquestioned; and yet, his initial incompatibility with royal life raises the issue of meritocracy: What constitutes a ruler, and what gives someone the right to lead an entire nation? Prince Joon has been groomed to succeed the Queen; should that fall by the wayside because someone appears with a closer blood tie to the throne, no matter if his qualifications are less than adequate?
Furthermore, the political intrigues provide an interesting philosophical backdrop, with royal elders, parliament representatives, the royal family, and the citizenry all vocal and divided in ideology as to how to handle this sudden discovery of Prince Hoo’s existence.
Throw in some romance, family dynamics, secret cover-ups and assassination attempts, and what we should have is a recipe for success.
But… not so much.
There are some nice moments. They are, unfortunately, too few and far between. It seems as if the writers got bogged down in the cliches of the genre, rather than just flying free with all the things that made this idea fresh and different. For instance —
I think Goong S essentially suffers from a simplicity of conflict. There are two main threads of conflict — the political and the romantic — but both are terribly straightforward. On one hand, a man wants his son to succeed politically and will do everything to ensure that. On the other, two guys fight over a girl, as a second girl switches her mind back and forth between the two guys (probably ending up with neither).
HYO-JANG DAE-GONG, the Grand Prince who is Joon’s father, is entirely too one-dimensionally eeeeevil. While there are benefits to having an obvious bad guy, our hero’s challenges need not be limited to that one person. It would have been so much more interesting if the fight for the crown was layered in struggle — outward struggle between the Princes, inward struggle with themselves — but with the Hyo-jang puppeteering everything to his evil machinations, the conflict becomes predictable, tedious.
Plus, how is he doing everything to undermine the royal family without the Queen knowing? In Goong, the exiled Queen’s maneuverings were believable because there was an old loyalty to her among those who believe she was wrongly cast out of the Palace. They are willing to serve her to right an old wrong. In Goong S, however, Hyo-jang is the one attempting to corrupt the order of things; how is he so powerful?
Naturally, I’m rooting for the two leads (Hoo and Soon-yi) to end up together, as they inevitably will, but the best kdramas know how to make full use of their relationship geometry, using their second leads well. In order for the central relationship to successfully pay off in the end, we have to believe their struggle to get to their end point was real and earned. Otherwise, all of the conflict keeping them apart seems cheap and easy.
So I’m of two minds of the relationship pairings: I’m onboard with the main couple, but find the side relationships so lacking it’s ridiculous. In the beginning, Sae-ryung and Joon are together in a political arrangement devoid of emotion, so we don’t care when that relationship gets broken up.
Starting in the second half of the series, Sae-ryung and Joon seem to genuinely develop feelings for Hoo and Soon-yi, respectively, which is a nice turn of events because it humanizes all four characters and crystallizes their dilemmas: Duty or affection? Ambition or emotion?
But almost immediately, when Hoo and Soon-yi’s relationship blossoms in Episode 16, Sae-ryung and Joon revert right back to how they were before, and their brief vulnerability hardens. Well, they were interesting for a second.
(Spurned second leads: Like they even had a shot.)
Unlike with the failed characterizations of Sae-ryung and Joon, it’s much easier to buy the development between Hoo and Soon-yi because their relationship is much more grounded.
In the early episodes, it seemed that Soon-yi and Hoo were both channeling the same personality, which created a dynamic that was interesting and weird at the same time. (They were both the klutzy, energetic, lively characters like Chae-kyung of the original Goong.) Furthermore, they grew up together, and despite their disparity in rank now, they have a familiarity and a shared history. It’s hinted that Hoo had boyhood feelings for the younger Soon-yi, since he went out of his way to torment her, and is still unable to tell her that he’s the one who gave her a secret gift back in the sixth grade gift exchange.
They talk to each other using familiar speech (banmal), and they come from the same world. Perhaps most significantly, Soon-yi is the only person who knew Hoo’s mother as he knew her: kind, gentle, caring. Hoo’s mission to become Crown Prince is driven by his love and loyalty to his mother, and it’s fitting that only Soon-yi can understand his need to clear her name, at the cost of anything else.
Hoo’s filial loyalty is a nice motivator for him, and has really turned him into a focused, serious adult over the course of the series. It’s a welcome facet of his character to have someone motivated by much more than material success or romantic desire.
As the series has progressed, Soon-yi and Hoo both become more serious and mature, again developing on a parallel track. It’s a different approach from the norm; kdramas tend to throw opposites together. But instead, these two are of the same kind in a Palace that, while being home to them both, regards them as outsiders.
Thus their relationship is rooted in something deeper than others suspect on the surface, but it remains believable. I found it particularly significant when Hoo sacrifices his mother’s ring to save Soon-yi’s job, although it puts his own position in jeopardy.
When Joon tells Soon-yi about Hoo giving up his ring for her, you can sense Joon’s shock at the magnitude of Hoo’s self-sacrifice, and his disappointment in himself because he knows that he would not have been able to do the same. So there’s an underlying admiration for his rival, even as his own ambition for the girl is brimming over. That was a nicely handled moment.
In return, in Episode 12, Soon-yi sacrifices her own future at the Palace to return Hoo’s ring to him.
I wish the series had managed to explore more of their perceived rank differences, because there seems to be a whole area of unmined conflict there. Instead, we got a bunch of lame love triangle manipulation, which, because I don’t buy either of the second leads, feels empty and cliched.
With two weeks left, I know now that Goong S isn’t going to be the show I’d hoped it would be, not close. Still, it became a more enjoyable show once I dropped my initial expectation over what the show woulda-coulda-shoulda been, although that line of thinking still drives me up a wall because this drama should have been better! But part of that effort is distancing oneself from the automatic comparison to its predecessor, Goong, even though I know I made mention of it several times. The comparison is natural; but I think the show is much better when viewed on its own terms.
I’m pretty confident the romantic resolution will be wrapped up adequately; I just hope the payoff with the royal succession is, too. And while I’m drawing up a wish list, I’d like to request more time with Hoo’s buddies, because they’re funny, and Hoo seems relaxed and comfortable around them in a way that he hasn’t been in a while.
And, as soon as the fansubbing group I’m working with can finish up translating the series, perhaps the series will get more recognition overseas. Despite all the flaws and weaknesses of Goong S (and there are many), I appreciate it for what it is, and enjoy the work that went into making it.
I’m normally pretty critical of my kdrama-watching, but for some reason, despite all the reasons I shouldn’t like Goong S, I can’t help but keep watching. Perhaps it has something to do with its strange distinction of having gone swiftly from surefire blockbuster hit to underdog. Or perhaps its biggest detractor (the acting) is also its charm. I guess something doesn’t have to be perfect to be apealing.