Hong Gil Dong is (finally) here!
First off: Hong Gil Dong is what they call a fusion sageuk. It’s a historical drama but not a pure sageuk like Jumong or Jewel in the Palace; rather, it’s been updated with a modern twist. Ergo the “fusion.”
A drama like Legend had some modernish elements to it (the language was simple and easy to understand for the contemporary viewer, unlike the stilted ancient Korean that sageuk characters typically speak), but it’s not really a fusion sageuk. If anything, it’s a fantasy series.
Hong Gil Dong has a completely modern vibe while remaining set in the Chosun era (1392-1910) — the language isn’t merely contemporary, it’s positively slangy. The drama frequently jumps out of its period setting to make anachronistic use of modernisms (Gil Dong sports dark sunglasses, the performers breakdance).
The first episode isn’t as immediately hook-y as the writers’ previous dramas (My Girl had me addicted within the hour; Delightful Girl Chun Hyang took a mere ten minutes), but it’s still got the Hong sisters’ trademark comedy flair and winsome characters.
SONG OF THE DAY
Lucite Tokki – “토끼와 자라” (tortoise and the hare) [ zShare download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We start out at some kind of festivity hosted by the town magistrate, where upper-class attendees eat and drink as they enjoy a dance and drum performance. Right away, you’ll know this is a fusion sageuk from the breakdancing and hip-hop dance moves, as well as the camera work, swishing and panning like this is some kind of music video.
Sailing into the revelry is a woman attached to a hang glider; she lands onstage, then leads the dancers in more hip-hop moves as the magistrate enjoys the show.
She’s HEO ENOK, and she’s not so much a dancer as she is a bandit infiltrating the elite gathering. Two additional intruders sail over the walls and take out the guards, and then it’s all-out attack as more bandits storm inside.
The bandits are outnumbered by the magistrates’ guards, but they’ve got the superior fighting skills. The guards’ arrows are neatly intercepted by a boomerang —
— thrown by the ever-so-cool HONG GIL DONG.
Yup, he looks pretty suave, but his accomplices know him well enough to mutter, “He just came late to make a flashy entrance.”
Gil Dong swaggers into the mix; the battle continues; our group of bandits wins. They saunter out, chiding the corrupt magistrate for his abuses of power, and the commoners outside cheer their champion. Because, the historical figure of Hong Gil Dong, elevated to myth-like status by a fictionalized book written in the late Chosun era, was something of a Robin Hood, stealing from corrupt officials and giving back to the oppressed masses.
And then, we jump backward, to some time before……
…back when Gil Dong was just a lazy scoundrel, enjoying women and gambling and trouble. He’s got a devil-may-care attitude, is quick to a fight, and harbors no real motivation to do anything useful with himself. Naturally, he’s charming, but even his boyish appeal isn’t enough to outweigh the trouble he causes everyone. Mothers invoke his name to scare their little girls into behaving (“If you don’t behave, I’ll marry you off to Gil Dong!” — which, by the way, would totally just be incentive for me to keep misbehaving, but I digress) and shopkeepers rush to close business when he’s near, because he invariably fights and breaks everything. He’s an unholy terror.
After a long, hard day’s work of hell-raising, Gil Dong sneaks onto an upper-class estate where the servants react to his presence with a mix of dread and exasperation. This is his father’s home, and the servants wince as he wanders among them and snatches food — specially prepared for the ancestral rites.
Gil Dong watches the rites performed by his dignified father (government official MINISTER HONG) and older half-brother (HONG IN HYUNG) from just outside. Gil Dong isn’t as impervious to emotion as he seems; his cavalier façade crumbles just a little, and we see a hint of how such a capable man turned into such a ne’er-do-well. Because, you see, Gil Dong is illegitimate.
He flashes back to his youth, when he was a smart young boy full of eager dreams of being useful and worthy. But his father countered every hope with severity, telling Gil Dong that he couldn’t achieve those dreams, so he’d better give them up. He’s a nobleman’s son but his illegitimate status makes him of the servant class, so he can’t do those things. “You don’t have to do anything with your life,” his father always told him.
But Gil Dong doesn’t let himself sink into too much self-pity, and we jump over to Enok’s story, who’s on a boat to Korea with her grandfather. They’re on their way back from China, and starving. Or at least Enok is; her grandfather sneaks a sweet bun while her stomach grumbles. She finds that he’s been hiding food from her, and they fight to claim the bun. Enok wins, and runs outside to enjoy it in peace — and spots a mysterious, elegant stranger: LEE CHANG WHE, who’s lost in painful memories about his past.
She tries to get a closer look at him, but Chang Whe assumes she’s going to attack and lashes out, asking why she was staring. She indignantly says she was merely looking at him because he was good-looking. Chang Whe tells her to scram; Enok sees that he’s crushed her precious sweet bun under his foot, and yells: “Cancel what I said about good-looking!”
Not at all amused, Chang Whe tells her coldly not to play around with him — he’ll kill her. He’s obviously upper-class and important (the silence and entitlement are prime clues); he also travels with a bodyguard/right-hand man, CHISU.
Gil Dong runs into a Buddhist priest, who challenges him to a fight (as Buddhist priests are wont to do) — if Gil Dong loses, he has to do a chore for the priest. (Extortion! Buddha’s new path to nirvana.) Thus Gil Dong is roped into digging shallow graves for the heads of beheaded thieves who’ve been executed by the court. Times are tough and thieves abound, all trying to survive. The people know the situation is their incompetent king’s fault, but nobody dares talk about it for fear of being executed.
Gil Dong asks why the priest is always making him do this kind of work. The priest answers, “Because it’s your job. The king busies himself with tyranny, the officials are corrupt, and the people’s grievances reach toward heaven. …Gil Dong, when you look upon these wrongs, don’t you feel anything?” Gil Dong: “Nope. Why should I feel anything like that for this country? I’m going to leave soon.” He wants to leave his unfulfilling life here and head for China.
The priest curses him for his selfishness, then wonders, “Did I misjudge him?”
Enok’s boat docks, and she (literally) runs into Chang Whe again on the pier. Although it’s an accident, he remembers her and asks if she’s following him before coldly dismissing her.
Enok and her grandfather have brought back what they think will be their ticket to wealth — some special Chinese medicine. But when they try to sell it to Mr. Wang, one of the merchants in the marketplace, he tells them they’ve been scammed and refuses to buy it.
To recoup their losses, they pull off a scam of their own — pretending to be Chinese, Grandpa announces that his demure granddaughter will give her hand in marriage to the man who can beat her in a fight. Because why court a girl until you know how well she’ll take a beating? The eager men line up, only to be soundly defeated. Contrary to her looks, Enok’s a skilled fighter (and her grandfather sneaks his help in when needed).
They reveal their “secret” to Enok’s success — the medicine — and peddle it to their audience. Gil Dong hears that a girl from China is selling lots of medicine, and rushes over to ask Enok to teach him Chinese. She’s busy selling medicine and turns him away, so Gil Dong gets her attention in another way: By taking her up on her challenge.
She’s a good fighter, but he’s better. Soon he’s manhandling her easily in front of everybody, not merely outmaneuvering her but embarrassing her to boot. Grandpa tries to help, but that backfires, and the fight ends with Gil Dong the clear winner.
Which means… now she’s gotta marry him, per the rules of her challenge.
Next thing we know, they’re alone in his room and he rushes to take off his shirt, while Enok pleads to be released from the agreement. Gil Dong tells her with a leer, “Now that we’re married, let’s hurry and get to it! I’m in a rush!” He grabs her while she tries to deflect, and it’s part hilarious, part creepy, until he sits her down at the table and clarifies — he wants to start his Chinese lessons immediately.
But it’s not a complete misunderstanding on our part, because when she asks, “Are Chinese lessons really the only thing you want from me?” he tells her, “Well, if you’re disappointed, I could give it a try—” while fumbling to take his pants off.
Enok stops him, and agrees to give him Chinese lessons if he’ll do one thing for her — which he misinterprets, again fumbling eagerly for his pants. LOL. I love that Hong Gil Dong is horny. But no, Enok wants him to help sell the medicine, since it’s his fault she lost her potential customers.
Meanwhile, we get another glimpse into Chang Whe’s past, flashing back to a great fire in the palace where he was once a young prince and his mother the queen.
Knowing that someone was out to kill him, the queen sends off her son into hiding with Court Lady Noh. His mother sacrifices herself for his sake so he can escape (if it were known that he survived, the assassination attempts would continue). She gives him her hairpin and tells him he must survive, as he’s the true heir to the throne.
As an adult, Chang Whe suspects that the one behind the attempted murder was his very own older brother — the current ruler, a hedonistic and debauched man. As an illegitimate son, his position wasn’t possible when Chang Whe was alive, but now that he’s believed to be dead, he’s king by default.
Gil Dong manages to sell Enok’s medicine, although he practically forces it upon the fearful villagers. Already the two have settled into a pattern of familiar bickering — she tries to hit him when he’s being mocking, which causes her to bump into Chang Whe yet again. This time he’s even more annoyed, and tells her that the next time he sees her, he’ll assume she’s stalking him and break her legs. He unknowingly drops his mother’s royal hairpin, which Enok finds and wears.
Gil Dong drops by home, and comes upon his father. When his father asks what he’s been doing, Gil Dong answers, “I’ve been doing nothing at all,” just as his father has always insisted was his lot in life. He’s not bitter, but the words are loaded.
His father asks Gil Dong to light his pipe for him, and we get the sense that this is not a usual occurrence. Even the smallest gesture of concern seems to affect Gil Dong, hinting at a lifetime of feeling unwanted and unloved. His father comments that Gil Dong is like him (which seems to affect Gil Dong profoundly), then gently dismisses him.
Gil Dong’s half-brother In Hyung comes by, and the brothers are not on great terms. In Hyung is a bit shallow and petty, whereas Gil Dong, while reckless on the outside, has hidden depths that his brother lacks. (The relationship reminds me of the one between Lee Seo Jin and Jung Chan in Lovers, with one son vying for the father’s attention and always coming up short, as his father prefers the other.) The father recognizes the disparity, and to his own dismay, his legitimate son is limited in skill, while his son with great potential is restricted by the social system and reduced to wasting his talents.
At a club, we have our second modern-style dance sequence, this time a trance-y dance with flashing lights worthy of an Lee Jung Hyun “live” performance of techno gyrating. Chang Whe and his bodyguard Chisu observe, out to collect info relating to palace matters, while Enok arrives separately looking for her grandpa.
Enok sees Chang Whe, remembers his warning, and sneaks off to avoid him — but that causes her to run into a different table. The patron is the hotheaded In Hyung, and he drunkenly mocks Enok. She pushes him back into a table, which infuriates him so much he insists he’ll have her killed.
Chang Whe sees the hairpin she’s wearing and realizes he has to retrieve it before someone recognizes it as a royal artifact. However, he can’t do so without attracting notice to himself, and starts to follow Enok out, who’s shouting for someone to help her while being dragged away by In Hyung’s men.
And then, someone jumps in to rescue her — Gil Dong.
Gil Dong grabs Enok, and the two run off while In Hyung and his sidekicks chase them outside.
Episode 1 isn’t the best first episode I’ve seen, but it’s a solid start, and the series has definite potential to be a good one.
Sung Yuri is thankfully much better than I’d feared — the bold character works for her. I’m not so sure she’d do well being subtle and moving, but like Han Ye Seul in Fantasy Couple, this exaggerated role suits her. There was a lot of preemptory talk comparing Sung Yuri to Yoon Eun Hye in Coffee Prince, but I see her much more as channeling Ju Yoorin (Lee Da Hae) in My Girl. In fact, I’d say she’s got a great chance at being completely adorable IF she trusts herself enough to move away from the Yoorin character, otherwise she’ll be relegated to Yoorin 2.0 status.
I’m less impressed with Jang Geun Seok, who comes off kinda wooden. Although it’s only the first ep, I wouldn’t automatically assume his lack of emotion is a writing flaw — Kang Ji Hwan conveys much more pathos with one sad look than Jang Geun Seok does with full-on tears. But there’s plenty of time for improvement.
Kang Ji Hwan is reliably wonderful. The fact that he makes me feel pangs of sympathy for his character’s past with so little yet revealed is testament to his charisma as an actor. Plus, I’m a sucker for reluctant heroes. And “outwardly strong, inwardly vulnerable due to lack of love” types. And reformed scoundrels who start out damaged, but then suck it up and choose to live up to their inner greatness. And people with inner greatness. *sigh*
In terms of characters and background tableau, Hong Gil Dong has really fantastic story potential with nicely complex characters. Gil Dong’s eventual transformation from wastrel into the legendary icon has so much room for great stuff there. There’s a tendency in the first two episodes to dip into over-the-top comic-bookishness, which is a risky style choice because while it lends fun energy to the action, it has the potential to lead the drama astray into too much jokiness (which I thought was the main detractor to the enjoyable but sometimes farcical Fantasy Couple). I really, really hope Hong Gil Dong lives up to its potential.