I think part of why Hong Gil Dong feels different from the average drama (apart from aesthetic, i.e. the fusion aspect) is because it’s a different type of story: a hero’s quest. Kdramas usually fall into one of several categories: romantic comedy, melodrama, family drama, action/thriller, historical. But a hero’s journey is structured differently; early forms include ancient Greek myths (The Odyssey) or the knights errant of medieval times. Something about the drama even reminds me of the bawdy Tom Jones (a low-born, rascally hero lives in a corrupt society, goes on a journey, comes into his own), especially since it’s got a (mildly) burlesque sense of humor. Hong Gil Dong fuses comic-book exaggeration with the hero’s tale, and seems to fit neatly into the definition of a monomyth (see also: picaresque). Sorry for going all highbrow on you for a moment.
Will the particular style be successful? I don’t know. The over-the-top quality isn’t my favorite — I like my humor sharp and edgy, not broad and loopy — but I’m willing to give the series a chance to work with its bold choice. Since a hero’s tale is (duh) more about the hero’s development than anything else, at least on that score I have faith in Kang Ji Hwan.
Now, this all sounds like some kind of extravagant defense, but I don’t mean it that way. I’m not blind to its flaws, but I’m letting them slide for now. Apparently the folks at soompi hated the first episode; I haven’t read the comments so I don’t really know what the complaints are. If you don’t like the series, that’s your right. As for me, I think Hong Gil Dong is going to be great fun — either as a decent series or awesome snark-bait. Either way, I’m entertained.
SONG OF THE DAY
Romantic Couch – “Have U Found” [ zShare download ]
EPISODE 2 SUMMARY
Episode 1 ended with Enok being rescued by Gil Dong from In Hyung (Gil Dong’s older half-brother). Episode 2 starts by showing us why Gil Dong was at the club — enthusiastically ogling the techno-dancing babes, of course.
Seeing Enok in trouble, he jumps in and grabs her, and the two run away. In Hyung chases with his men, and Chang Whe and Chisu (bodyguard) follow stealthily behind, looking for a chance to reclaim the queen’s hairpin that Enok found.
They escape successfully, and Gil Dong leads them to a nearby temple, whose graveyard for thieves (which Gil Dong had been digging previously) creeps Enok out.
At home, In Hyung is fussed over by his mother while whimpering like a sissy. He’s petulant over being thwarted by Gil Dong, which is seemingly a common occurrence. (Though I’d bet it’s not that difficult to thwart In Hyung. Boy’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.) His mother frets over In Hyung’s upcoming civil service exam — he whines that he wishes he’d broken his hand so he wouldn’t have to take it. He begs her not to tell his father about this, but his father overhears, and turns away in bitter disappointment. In case we couldn’t connect the dots ourselves, the father thinks of his capable other son, and sighs that if it weren’t for Gil Dong, his legitimate son wouldn’t look so hopeless in comparison.
(And I say, poor little rich nobleman. Like it’s Gil Dong’s fault you couldn’t keep it in your pants and had to father a bastard child who’s unable to show the world how capable he is precisely because you couldn’t keep it in your pants.)
Meanwhile, a beggar draws the notice of the elegantly dressed Court Lady Noh (I’ll call her Lady Noh to keep it short), the servant who obeyed the queen’s orders and saved Chang Whe’s life when he was a child. I’m curious to see what they do with her, because she seems evil and calculating, but she’s also fiercely loyal to Chang Whe, which means she can’t be ALL bad. Or can she? In any case, she sees through his façade as a beggar and identifies him as the leader of a band of thieves.
Lady Noh has been tracking him, and heard he’s planning a large raid. She tells him to cancel it and work for her instead. He’s heard she’s amassing skilled fighters — is she building some kind of army? — and guesses that she’s working for a hidden boss. She maintains her cool when he rejects her proposal — but the bandit leader finds himself suddenly locked away and gassed. He breaks out, only to be confronted with her swordsmen, who chase him into the forest.
At the temple, Enok confesses she’s not so great at Chinese, to which Gil Dong answers that she’d better know enough to teach him. After all, that’s why he saved her.
Enok: “You only saved me because of Chinese lessons?”
Gil Dong: “I sold all that medicine for you too. If you die now, it’s such a waste of my time.”
Enok: “No way, you would’ve saved me even without the Chinese lessons. Why? Because you’re a good guy.”
Gil Dong (oh so cheerfully): “Nope. If it weren’t for the Chinese, I wouldn’t have saved you. Why? Because I’m a jerk.”
Their conversation takes a weird left turn when they debate whether Chinese ghosts are scarier than homegrown Korean ones. Enok describes a zombie-like Chinese ghost; Gil Dong dismisses her, saying the Korean ghost is scarier. Who’d win in a fight?
I have to admit this sequence made me laugh out loud. At first it’s silly, but as they draw it out it becomes stupider and stupider until at one point it actually circles back round to become funny. Especially when the zombie bounces around on land while the ghost flies in the air above it — neither able to attack the other. HAHA.
Meanwhile, the thief is mortally wounded by Lady Noh’s guards. Gil Dong senses something strange and heads out to the woods, where he finds the injured man, left for dead. (The drama seems to be hinting at the “destined to be a hero” theme, with the priest’s belief that Gil Dong is a hero, and Gil Dong’s ability to sense the thief’s trouble.)
The dying man (who mentions the priest Hae Myung’s name) manages to gargle out a final, insistent message: his band of thieves is planning to meet in two days in the woods. Gil Dong MUST warn them to run away, or they’ll die. And then he dies. (Not very convincingly, might I add.)
Gil Dong buries the man in the thieves’ graveyard, and Enok surprises Gil Dong by crying over the man’s death. Gil Dong turns to another grave, identifying it as his mother’s. Knowing that she couldn’t bring up her illegitimate child in Seoul, she attempted to run away, but died shortly after he was born. He muses that if she hadn’t had him, she’d still be alive now.
Gil Dong pats his mother’s grave softly, and Enok, now crying over how sad HIS life was, pats him in consolation. It’s cute.
She tells him she’ll give him a moment alone, and leaves him to his privacy… and then promptly ruins the moment by tripping as he watches.
Hae Myung and Grandpa come across each other in the forest, both on the way to the temple. Grandpa recognizes Hae Myung as Gil Dong’s priest, and they engage in a sort of battle for superiority as they head to the temple. They speed their walks to outpace the other until both arrive out of breath. Ah, silly old men. I guess testosterone never dies down.
There, Enok greets them, and has a chat with Hae Myung about the thief who died last night. He’s delighted to hear that the thief passed along his leader’s scepter to Gil Dong, and says, “I guess it found its way to its rightful owner!”
However, Gil Dong has no intention of fulfilling the dead thief leader’s request: “Sorry, I’m about to run away anyway. You picked the wrong guy.”
Now we meet SEO YOON SEOB, a high-ranking government official (who’s exceedingly proud of himself for being so important and powerful), who shows off his new Chinese-style rickshaw to In Hyung’s mother, Lady Kim (Korean women keep their maiden names upon marriage). Seo’s daughter EUN HYE and In Hyung are to be married once In Hyung passes his civil service exam. Nervous at the mention of the exam, Lady Kim tests Seo, asking if the kids could be married even if In Hyung were to fail; Seo doesn’t like that.
Outside the Seo residence, In Hyung steals a glimpse of his beloved future wife, Eun Hye. Outwardly composed, Eun Hye has a macabre streak that frightens her elderly nanny. Seeing one of a pair of lovebirds dead in its cage, she wonders, will the living bird die without its soulmate? “Let’s see what happens. Does it want to live, or die? If it eats because it wants to live, I’ll kill this one too.”
She sprinkles food in the cage, and when the bird eats, Eun Hye smiles maliciously: “So this guy has no loyalty.” She grabs the bird and squeezes it tightly in her fist, ready to crush it — and then flings it out the window to fly away. Laughing, Eun Hye tells her shocked nanny, “Of course it wants to live. … It’s all so obvious. It would’ve been better if it died. How boring.”
Eun Hye’s quite an interesting character, especially paired with a weak nobleman like In Hyung. I see shades of Lady Macbeth… and maybe crazy Ophelia too.
Since Gil Dong is planning to leave for China soon, it’s time for the reluctantly-married couple to part ways. Nice to see that old-fashioned marriages had about as much significance as contemporary ones. Enok teaches him the Chinese words for “father” and “brother,” telling him that when he feels frustrated over not being able to call his family Father and Brother (because of his bastard status), he can use the Chinese words.
Enok decides to gift him with a special performance of her new get-rich-quick scheme, snake-charming. She plays the flute (?), and the snake slowly dances up, in a weirdly jokey sequence. Let’s just say, Bollywood this is NOT.
But the snake has a less-than-cheery effect on Gil Dong, who freaks out and crushes it, throwing it away. And just like that, Enok’s dreams of raking in cash with the performing snake are dashed, and she reacts in a fury. Gil Dong runs away to escape her rage.
Gil Dong feels pangs of guilt over killing the snake, now realizing (since Enok is shouting it all over the countryside) what it was meant for, and asks the merchant Mr. Wang if dancing snakes truly exist. He also finds out that the next boat for China leaves in the morning and remembers the thief leader’s plea — if he takes the boat, he won’t be able to warn the band of thieves.
Enok’s grandfather mentions the handsome man in the bamboo hat who’s been following her around, and Enok automatically assumes that Chang Whe must be interested in her. (Oh, honey no.) Therefore when she runs into him again in the village, she’s embarrassed and coy, alluding to how he must like her.
Just as she’s about to make a total fool of herself, a young boy snatches her coin purse and runs. Enok chases him through the slums, but is struck with pity to see the boy living in a shack with sick and hungry kids. Calmed by sympathy, she carries the boy’s sick younger brother to get treatment, and gives him her hairpin, telling him to sell it and feed his kid brother. All the while, Chang Whe watches from a distance and notes her act of kindness — his usual sneer softening a bit — and instructs Chisu to buy the hairpin from the boy.
In the palace, alone on his throne, Chang Whe’s brother, KWANG WHE, imagines the ghosts of all those he’s trampled over to ascend the throne. He reacts in a mix of exultation and deep-seated grief as all the ghosts fade into one — young Chang Whe. The boy’s ghost calls to Kwang Whe, and he cries, “I didn’t want to kill you.”
The actor, Jo Hee Bong, is wonderfully unhinged and manic — more shades of Macbeth? (Out, out, brief candle!) Hm, I wonder why everything seems so Shakespearean to me today.
Gil Dong drops by home to bid farewell to his father, but keeps his distance by staying outside. He therefore pays tribute to the man’s shadow instead, bowing his respects. Remembering Enok’s instructions, he tries saying the Chinese word for “father” — it’s awkward and he’s uncomfortable, but he says it.
The next morning, on his way to the docks, he notices the king’s men in the village and hears whisperings that there’s going to be trouble. He remembers the thief leader’s dying request uneasily… but shoves it aside as none of his business.
Mr. Wang delivers a bag of money to Enok — payment from Gil Dong for the snake he killed — and Enok feels sorry for him when she realizes Gil Dong is leaving his home country without anyone to send him off. Or so that’s her excuse to rush to the pier to catch Gil Dong before he leaves; she shouts after the departing boat: “Bye, Gil Dong! Go to China and learn lots of Chinese! See the Chinese ghost! And the dancing snake! Gil Dong, thank you!”
At the designated meeting spot in the forest, the group of bandits waits for their leader, not knowing he’s dead. You may recognize the two leaders (the quick-witted woman on the left; the wannabe Casanova on the right) from the opening attack sequence in Episode 1.
Alert and suspicious at Gil Dong’s arrival, they don’t believe Gil Dong’s warning to stay away. All the while, the king’s men are approaching en masse to take out the gang.
But, the moment he shows them the thief leader’s gold-tipped staff, they realize he must be telling the truth as he tells them to listen to him if they don’t want to die.
Despite being able to gloss over most of the show’s flaws, one thing I can’t overlook are the awful costumes — they’re so cheap! I get that this production probably didn’t have as much money thrown at it as, say, Jumong or Legend, but sometimes the low production value is too obvious to ignore. It’s hard to take the characters seriously when they look like employees at an Asian version of Disneyland who decided to film a TV show in between breaks acting in the Main Street Electrical Parade and the Ice Capades.