MBC’s just-aired two-episode drama STORY OF HYANG DAN, which translates to The Story of Hyang Dan, isn’t really a sageuk drama, even if it takes place in the time of the Joseon Dynasty, which was founded in the late 14th century. This drama (really a minidrama, if even that) is much more like a fusion of period and modern elements (as well as comedy with drama) — to produce a cross between a Monty Python and a Shrek-ification of the famous folktale of Chun Hyang.
I say this as someone who doesn’t watch a lot of Korean historical dramas — The Story of Hyang Dan is A. DOR. A. BLE.
SONG OF THE DAY
Wanted – “Moonlight” [ zShare download ]
FOLKLORE AND BACKGROUND
This is where I wish I had a better background in classical Korean folk tales and literature, because my knowledge is in bits and pieces, so take it all with a huge grain of salt:
The tale of Chun Hyang is one of the most popular classical stories in Korea, and has spawned numerous adaptations over the years — the most recent of which was 2005’s modern reimagining of Chun Hyang as a resilient, independent, contemporary woman who refused to be pushed around by controlling men, in the thoroughly enjoyable KBS drama Delightful Girl Chun Hyang.
The love story between Chun Hyang and Lee Mong Ryong is one of those well-known narratives that exists in many interpretations, and the telling of the story over the years has elevated it to pseudo-mythical standards. Sometimes the love story is likened to Romeo and Juliet, and sometimes the side characters are emphasized more.
Chun Hyang’s mother, Weol Mae, is a gisaeng, the Korean equivalent of the geisha. I’ve read about some versions where Weol Mae is more of a malicious character, and some where she’s just misguided. And then there are the faithful servants — Hyang Dan as Chun Hyang’s devoted maid, and Bang Ja as Mong Ryong’s loyal attendant.
This version takes the characters off into a different direction with the simple hypothetical question: What if Lee Mong Ryong fell in love with Hyang Dan the servant girl, rather than Chun Hyang?
The plot is not only light-hearted and cute, but weaves together various different folk tales and legends — it’s rife with cultural references and satirical bits. I only wish I could get them all — I know I must be missing some. It’s definitely a drama that is made much more funny when the references come through. But the ones I do recognize are enough to convince me that The Story of Hyang Dan is layered, clever, and hi-la-ri-ous. It also mixes modern and antiquated speech to create an anachronistic, fusion feel — it’s not completely parody, and it’s not completely conventional sageuk.
I was also surprised at how much I liked the directing style, because I didn’t think much of PD Kim Sang Ho‘s prior directing in Fantasy Couple (aka Couple or Trouble). (At one point here, he even inserts the jokey theme music from Fantasy Couple.) I liked that drama well enough (the Hong sisters screenwriting team is as close to a sure thing as you can get, for lovers of fun romantic comedies), but the directing often felt slapdash and weird. I’d actually wished he directed more in the style of Delightful Girl Chun Hyang, which the Hong sisters also wrote.
Ironically, the directing in Story of Hyang Dan actually feels a lot like that of Delightful Girl Chun Hyang, particularly because that drama also incorporated brief Joseon-era parodies in each episode. I wondered initially if that comparison would be a detriment to Story of Hyang Dan — because there really are similarities between the two — but in the end, I think it enhances the fun.
Also interesting is that around the time that Fantasy Couple ended, I read that the Hong sisters were interested in a retelling of Hyang Dan’s story… But it was their director who has taken on Hyang Dan, and the Hong sisters are slated to pen the upcoming drama Hong Gil Dong, another famous Joseon-era story that’ll be a fusion sageuk as well, starring Kang Ji Hwan (yay!), Jang Geun Seok, and Sung Yuri.
EPISODE 1 (of 2) SUMMARY
In this version the character of Hyang Dan, played by Seo Ji Hye, is a clever, plucky young woman with a wonderfully upbeat personality in spite of living a hard life in the slave class. She diligently serves her mistress, the young lady Chun Hyang, who’s really kind of a pill. Chun Hyang’s mother, retired gisaeng Weol Mae, is controlling and ridiculous, while Chun Hyang herself is materialistic, frivolous, and exceedingly vain. It’s hilarious. Chun Hyang, the pillar of virtue, reimagined as an airhead?
Hyang Dan first meets Lee Mong Ryong, the magistrate’s son, when he sneaks onto Chun Hyang’s estate while she’s trying on her mistress’s fancy hanbok. Hence the initial confusion about her status, because she’s dressed as a noblewoman.
Partly acting out of idealism and partly out of youthful rebellion, Mong Ryong is a member of a secret group of Robin Hood-like rogues who raid the idle rich and distribute the spoils to the poor. His band of merry thieves scatters, and Mong Ryong dashes onto her property to evade capture by the authorities.
Mong Ryong immediately hushes her as the men outside sound an intruder alert. While he’s tucked away in the room, Hyang Dan covers up for Mong Ryong and directs the other men in the opposite direction. He’s not quite sure why she helped him, but she tells him with admiration that she’s heard of how he gives to the poor. He’s impressed with his supposedly noble aims, although here he is just doing it for kicks.
There are definite sparks there but no time to do anything about it, as Mong Ryong has to make his getaway. Hyang Dan assists him, giving him peasants’ clothing and showing him a safe escape route.
With a dashing backward glance, Mong Ryong disappears over the wall, and runs home in excitement over his meeting with Hyang Dan. (Brief Bruce Lee reference? Check.)
Mong Ryong is played by Choi Siwon, a singer belonging to some pop idol boy band called… Su… per… Ju… something? You may have heard of them? He’s pretty darned charming.
Along the way, he runs into the vapid Chun Hyang and her mother Weol Mae, and to prove that they are gold-digging idiots, Chun Hyang immediately turns up her nose at Mong Ryong’s dirtied peasant disguise. Hmph. Her good looks are soooo wasted on the poor.
Of course, as soon as she gets home, she’s all a-flutter, primping in hopes of meeting Lee Mong Ryong The Magistrate’s Handsome Son, not knowing she’s already met him.
Mong Ryong goes home and sighs over the lovely Hyang Dan and her doe-like eyes, neglecting his studies (he sneaks recreational texts — martial arts manuals — underneath his scholarly texts, hehe). He asks his manservant Bang Ja about the young lady living on that particular estate. Bang Ja assumes he must be speaking of Chun Hyang (“But her eyes aren’t doe-like”) and rushes over to tell Chun Hyang and Weol Mae the great news that the Young Master has fallen for the young mistress.
They’re ecstatic — the magistrate’s son! — ignoring the small detail that they haven’t met him yet. He must’ve seen her from afar or something. And Hyang Dan is happy for her mistress for having a promising marriage prospect on the horizon.
That night, swept up in youthful ardor, Mong Ryong sneaks onto Chun Hyang’s property hoping to see Hyang Dan. He’s taken for an intruder until Hyang Dan recognizes him….
…and both realize the true identities of the other. Hyang Dan is actually the servant girl, and Mong Ryong is the wealthy young master who’s supposedly infatuated with Chun Hyang.
I’m glad that the discovery doesn’t do anything to change anyone’s feelings; rather, it helps crystallize them more decisively. Hyang Dan realizes she likes Mong Ryong but knows he’s beyond her aspirations; Mong Ryong, on the other hand, doesn’t care one bit and attempts to court her. At one point, he looks on at the filial Hyang Dan, tending to her poor, blind father — which effectively makes Hyang Dan the folk tale heroine Shim Chung, ha!
(The story of Shim Chung is another famous folktale about a devoted daughter who sold herself to regain her father’s sight. Sailors were in need of a beautiful young woman to sacrifice to the angry sea god, much like young Mayan virgins were supposedly sacrificed to appease volcano gods or whatever. But rather than coerce a girl to her death — because that would just be crude! — they bribed her to go willingly with lots of rice as payment. After she dove into the water, Shim Chung was saved by the sea god, and maybe she married him, and maybe they all lived happily ever after or something. I’m a little hazy on the ending.)
Anyway, the point is, Mong Ryong sees Hyang Dan caring for her father and sighs with love in his eyes. Hilariously, a singing trio actually enters the scene to narrate the events in full musical detail like some kind of Greek chorus.
That would be awesome enough as it is, but the group is the triplet trio I.S. (which stands for Infinite of Sound — yes, the erroneous English kills me), a group that makes a fusion kind of pop music blending traditional Korean instruments with modern(ish) sensibilities. They were featured in an episode of Goong S with the song “Spring.” Song samples below.
Mong Ryong approaches Hyang Dan, and because she maintains a proper sense of decorum, he resorts to trickery to induce a date. Since she voiced such support for his Robin Hood-ing activities, he takes that angle and enlists her assistance. His band is planning a raid for more items to distribute to the poor, and he needs her help.
He runs through an entire fake scenario of the big plan, even invoking a Damo parody along the way —
— saying he needs her to prepare rice balls (to hide gunpowder) and half-full casks of liquor (to act as molotov cocktails). Hyang Dan agrees to make them and the next day he whisks her away to “meet” the “others.”
To her surprise, Mong Ryong takes a leisurely seat in the bamboo forest and eats the rice balls and drinks the liquor. He drops the act and tells her today was all in fun. He tells her to close her eyes and listen to the wind; it’ll make her feel better. As Hyang Dan does, the singing trio’s song plays (although they themselves don’t make an appearance):
I.S. (Infinite of Sound) – “자연스러워” (It’s natural) :: [ Download ]
Mong Ryong wants to finish their impromptu picnic, and although she probably does too, her sense of propriety makes her leave right away. Not deterred, he calls after her to meet him again in two days, saying he’ll wait for her.
Although her departure is abrupt, Hyang Dan has enjoyed spending time with Mong Ryong, having fallen for him as well.
Weol Mae has her eyes set on Mong Ryong as her future son-in-law, and orders Hyang Dan to help marry Chun Hyang off to him. She reminds Hyang Dan that she raised her from birth after her mother died, and basically emotionally blackmails her into a life of servitude as Chun Hyang’s attendant. Now the relationship takes on shades of Kongji/Patji, the Korean Cinderella story, right down to the mean ol’ stepmother with withholding issues.
Thus reminded of her place, Hyang Dan sadly complies, denying herself any hope of romance with Mong Ryong. It’s sad, but she knows her place in the world, and some dreams are just too impossible to bear dreaming.
And so, she shows up at their rendezvous spot with Chun Hyang in tow, and avoids all of Mong Ryong’s attempts to stay by her side. He keeps trying to maneuver close to her, she keeps stepping aside to give Chun Hyang her chance to cling. It’s cute and hilarious.
Even Jang Hwa and Hong Ryun make an appearance — their macabre folktale deals with an evil stepmother who mistreated them, leading to the death of the younger sister. The elder sister also died and they both went on to haunt the stepmother and the evil magistrate, bringing them to their own deaths. (Or something.) It’s the story that the horror film A Tale of Two Sisters is based on (which is really very good, even if you hate horror, like I do).
The ghost sisters look on at the lovesick Mong Ryong (“How can you tell he’s lovesick?” “Any minute, he’ll look up and sigh the name of his beloved”). Sure enough, seconds later Mong Ryong sighs, “Oh, Hyang Dan…”
In a funny bit, the two sisters appear before the magistrate in the middle of the night to appeal to him to address their wrongful death, but they only get halfway through their introductions before he collapses in fear. The sister ghosts complain that they hadn’t even gotten to their point yet.
Weol Mae concocts a complicated plan to ensnare Mong Ryong for Chun Hyang, and Hyang Dan is forced to obey.
So when Mong Ryong hears that Hyang Dan wants to see him, he runs off to the village to meet her. Both don masks as part of the festivities, and Hyang Dan draws Mong Ryong into a traditional circular dance. Then she switches places with Chun Hyang, who’s wearing the same mask and clothing.
Heartbroken over her own actions, Hyang Dan steps back as Chun Hyang leads Mong Ryong away. He eagerly follows her into an empty barn, which is promptly locked from the outside by Weol Mae.
Only now does he realize that this girl isn’t Hyang Dan, and yells for someone to get them out. Chun Hyang clings to him, causing him to reflexively shove her away, which knocks a lantern to the hay and sets the place ablaze.
The village is alerted to the flames, and everyone watches as Mong Ryong bursts out, carrying Chun Hyang. The magistrate arrives, demanding to know why Mong Ryong is there, and Weol Mae takes advantage of the situation to suggest that Mong Ryong and Chun Hyang have been romantically entangled. She wails over her daughter’s foolishness in being thus compromised.
Mong Ryong’s father angrily punishes him by locking him up at home and telling him he’s to be sent away to focus on his studies. Meanwhile, Weol Mae counts her chickens before she’s even got the eggs, rejoicing in Chun Hyang’s upcoming marriage.
The Greek-chorus trio arrives to disabuse her of that notion, pointing out that the young master is being sent away. They sing their song “고무줄놀이” (Playing with rubber bands) (the lyrics have been altered from this version to fit the scene in the drama). [ Download ]
Weol Mae rushes to the magistrate and puts on the full teary act to appeal to his sympathies and guilts him about Chun Hyang’s future.
It works: She comes back with a jade ring, which they interpret as proof of an engagement. With a sickened heart, Hyang Dan sits by and offers weak congratulations.
Weol Mae tells Hyang Dan to hurry and marry too — with Bang Ja, who’s been in love with her for years. Hyang Dan has no intention of marrying him — wasn’t she told her life’s duty was to serve Chun Hyang? — but Weol Mae tells her she won’t be needed once Chun Hyang. Probably for the best anyway, not to be forced to serve the man you love and his new bride.
Mong Ryong manages to sneak out of his house long enough to confront Hyang Dan about her role in the plan that led him to Chun Hyang. He demands to know why she keeps pushing him toward Chun Hyang, and she bursts out:
Hyang Dan: “Because that’s my duty! Because it is my duty to care after Lady Chun Hyang.”
Mong Ryong: “Then… what about your heart?”
Hyang Dan: “Why is my heart important?”
Mong Ryong: “It’s important to me!”
Hyang Dan grieves over her lost claim on Mong Ryong, and is reminded from all quarters that Bang Ja is much more suitable for her. She tries to convince herself, “That’s right. Marriage is for people on the same level. That’s how it is.”
As Mong Ryong prepares to leave the village of Namwon, he looks around and wonders where Bang Ja is, only to be told that he’s in town for his wedding — to servant girl Hyang Dan.
What?! In alarm, Mong Ryong immediately rides off in a hurry toward town…
I.S. – “Juliet” :: [ Download ]
…where Hyang Dan awaits her fate.