The more I think about the ending of Hong Gil Dong, the more I like it. I’ve mentioned that the series was starting to feel repetitive in recent episodes, and I’d wondered how this episode would wrap everything up to satisfaction.
Some people aren’t going to be happy, and I admit my initial impression was mixed. Though it’s not sad or tragic, it’s bittersweet, but mixed with an open-endedness and, dare I say, even hopefulness.
I didn’t expect the writers to pull out this kind of finale, but the more I consider it and the knee-jerk reaction fades, I think it achieves a kind of poignancy I didn’t think it would, or could. In fact, the finale actually brings the series up to scratch and vindicates some of the meandering plotlines for me. I like the series better for its ending, when I was actually prepared to go out on anticlimax. Although that may put me in the minority (sigh, once again).
SONG OF THE DAY
Dear Cloud – “꿈” (Dream) [ Download ]
FINAL EPISODE RECAP
The king sends his troops to attack Hwal Bin Dang, and with no opportunity for escape and surrounded on all sides, Hwal Bin Dang prepares for confrontation.
Soon, it’s all-out battle.
Hearing that Chang Whe ordered the attack, Enok rushes to Gil Dong. Chang Whe hears of Enok’s departure with dismay, but believes that Gil Dong will send her back. Although this is exactly the scenario Chang Whe feared, both men love Enok too much to let her stay in harm’s way.
She tries to persuade Gil Dong to run away while he can — he was once on the same side as Chang Whe. Why is he fighting when he knows he’ll die?
Gil Dong tells her that he must continue — and because the king has left his side in the fight for a better world, that puts them at odds.
Chisu and Yong Jin convey a message to Hwal Bin Dang, and it’s clear that they don’t relish the idea of fighting their former allies, either. They will certainly act in loyalty to their king, but they have both seen the world inside of Hwal Bin Dang and felt wistful pangs themselves. They ask how long Hwal Bin Dang can hold out, and the rebels answer that they’ll fight till the end to protect the world they’ve created. Within their stronghold, there are no nobles and no servants — everyone is equal.
Chisu tells Yong Jin, “That place is a dream. A dream everyone wants to enter.”
Chang Whe’s message (a demand to disband Hwal Bin Dang and surrender) does nothing to alter Gil Dong’s course. But he knows he can’t hold on to Enok, and therefore sends her back with a letter, telling her that she’s the only one who can deliver his message safely to the king.
Enok: “I’m thinking carefully about where it is I want to be.”
Gil Dong: “And?”
Enok: “I thought it over, and come this far. This is my place too. This is where I want to be — where you are. So I’ll be right back.”
For him, this is goodbye, but he doesn’t contradict Enok’s belief that it’s just an errand.
Although a fight between the king and Gil Dong was what Eun Hye had intended, the swiftness of reality shocks her, and she realizes this isn’t what she wanted at all.
She tells Gil Dong of a bird she’d had whose mate had died, which she’d sent away to its freedom. She’d thought that if she got rid of Gil Dong, into whom she’d poured so much attention and emotion, she’d be freed too. But now she knows that’s not the case, and begs him to retreat and flee somewhere far — it’s okay if he doesn’t come to her. All she wants is to know he’s safe.
Gil Dong: “I’m already in a faraway land, one that’s completely different from this one. What I’m fighting for now, and my friends here, is not the king’s world. It’s a tiny but decent place we’ve built — that’s what I’m fighting for.”
Eun Hye: “That kind of place is a dream. A dream you’ll die for.”
Gil Dong: “No, the land we stand on now is that place. Because you can’t come over to our side, you can’t see it, and believe it’s merely a dream. But for me it’s reality, something I’d happily die protecting.”
As he turns to leave, Eun Hye calls out, “Then protect it through the very end. Don’t die, and keep protecting it, so that I can know that you’re still alive guarding that place.”
Enok delivers the letter to Chang Whe, who doesn’t intend to let her return to the Hwal Bin Dang he plans to destroy. Chang Whe shows her the letter — it’s blank. Gil Dong was actually sending her away.
Chang Whe: “As a king protecting my country, I may have to kill him. But to kill you along with him? You’re an irreplaceable person to me. I told you that it was because of you that I became a real person. But you want me to kill you and keep on living?”
Enok tells him, “The world I chose is Gil Dong’s, so I will go there. I’ve seen the good person in you. I believe you will be a good king.” She begs for him to let her go — and he does, defeatedly.
Rushing back and launching herself into the fray, Enok comes face to face with Chisu, and tells him the good person she saw in Chang Whe is dying — “Go back and protect him.”
Across the battlefield, Gil Dong sees her arrival, and this time he (finally!) accepts her choice to remain.
That night, Enok tends to Gil Dong’s wounds. She reminds them that they’re in this together now: “This is where I want to be. So don’t stop me from fighting to save it.”
This time, he grabs her in a hug and thanks her for sticking with him.
The next day, we have a bit of a reprieve from the fighting — Hwal Bin Dang is holding steady despite the siege — and Su Geun begs Mal Nyeo to marry him formally. Just like Gil Dong and Enok, who’ve just married. Enok now wears the wedding hair ornament her grandfather had bought for her.
Mal Nyeo agrees to the wedding, and Su Geun rejoices.
Meanwhile, Enok excitedly shows Gil Dong a bud that’s just sprouted out of the ground. But as she can’t remember what she planted there, she and Gil Dong cheerfully speculate about what it will grow to be.
Chang Whe comes to speak to Gil Dong and explains that he doesn’t consider his stance a betrayal of Gil Dong — he’s (yes we know, for the hundredth time) just a king protecting his people. He also says that he will remember Gil Dong years from now (speaking with an assurance born of knowing the outcome will favor himself) and what he’d fought for.
Gil Dong adds that he shouldn’t forget to fear him, either — because even if he dies and Hwal Bin Dang disappears, there may be a new Hong Gil Dong and a new Hwal Bin Dang that will rise up to change the world.
Gil Dong: “It may not come today, but someday that world will arrive. People will believe in that world and inch toward it. The world will change a hundred, thousand times, gradually progressing toward that place.”
Gearing up for more battle, the rebels send away a protesting Gom. Gil Dong steps in and tells him to get out and survive. He must live on and see to it that their work isn’t forgotten, and keep the fight going: “Do that for everyone, Gom. No, I mean Leader Gom.”
Yeon ushers Gom and Hae Myung out of the area, fighting off the soldiers who patrol the area. But more soldiers keep arriving, poised to shoot the escaping pair. Yeon plants himself in front of them and takes the arrows to the chest, and urges Gom to run away.
Injured but not fallen, he continues to fight the oncoming soldiers, fueled by the determination to protect Gom: “This is for Gom’s world to come.” Despite being shot with numerous arrows, he continues fighting until finally he falls.
Back at Hwal Bin Dang, Su Geun and Mal Nyeo have their wedding ceremony, with Gil Dong presiding. Enok puts freshly plucked flowers into Mal Nyeo’s hair and the couple is married. The others chant for the newlyweds to kiss, and then for Gil Dong and Enok to do likewise.
It’s a brief interlude that’s over all too soon as they gear up for more fighting. Feeling the intensity growing, Gil Dong knows that Chang Whe is anxious to finish the fight quickly, and will be increasing his attacks. Hwal Bin Dang prepares to continue holding ground, while the king’s soldiers prepare to charge in.
And then the sequence that brings everything to a head:
First, the mood takes on an ethereal quality, helped in large part by this hauntingly beautiful traditional Norwegian song “Lær Meg Å Kjenne,” as sung by Sissel Kyrkjebø. (The actual song starts around 40 seconds in.) [ Download ]
Lær meg å kjenne dine veie
og gå dem trøstig skritt for skritt
Jeg vet at hva jeg fikk i eie,
er borget godt gods, og alt er ditt.
Men vil din sterke hånd meg lede,
jeg aldri feil på målet ser,
og for hvert håp som dør her nede,
får jeg et håp i himlen mer
Teach me to know your ways
and to walk them trustingly step by step
I know that what I own,
are borrowed goods, and everything is yours.
But if your strong hand guides me,
I will never see the wrong goal,
and for every hope that dies
I will receive a greater hope in heaven.
As Hwal Bin Dang prepares to move out, soldiers shoot a barrage of fire-tipped arrows in. But rather than scatter or run, everyone stares, calmly transfixed, at the fire flying in the sky. For a prolonged moment, it looks like the arrows are hanging in the air, and they gaze at the sight almost peacefully.
It’s like time pauses as everyone around Gil Dong and Enok fades into black and white, and Enok remarks that the arrows look like shooting stars: “Shall we make a wish?”
Gil Dong: “In this situation?”
Enok: “It looks like they’re bidding us a nice farewell.”
Gil Dong: “We’ll be going together.”
They hold hands as the arrows start descending toward them.
Then the arrows fall, landing everywhere.
Enok: “Gil Dong. [in English] ‘I love you.’”
Gil Dong: “I know.”
Enok: “You know what that means?”
Gil Dong: “Dummy. I love you. I love you… I love you…”
Alone in his palace, Chang Whe hears the report and sheds a tear. His soldiers storm the burning headquarters.
We don’t see any people, dead or otherwise, as the arrows land and set Hwal Bin Dong on fire. But the next morning, everything is charred and eerily empty, but for Mal Nyeo’s fallen flower and the lonely green plant, still alive in the ground.
I’m thankful that they don’t show us any bodies, because for one, it keeps the ending (and implied deaths) on a metaphorical level, which spares me the trauma of seeing the carnage. It also gives us our last image of them as whole, intact, and nobly defending their ideals. Furthermore, we don’t need to be reminded of death — that’s not the point. (More on that later.) On another level, it helps some of the more denial-stricken among us cling to the belief that maybe, just maybe, some people survived.
Chang Whe assures his men, and therefore his citizens, that Hwal Bin Dang has been subdued. He will continue to do what he must to protect his country.
Not unlike the first time Gil Dong “died,” Hwal Bin Dang and Gil Dong may be gone but the legend lives on.
Merchant Wang tells the other villagers that they must read Gil Dong’s story and remember him so that he never dies. Watching from the sidelines, Hae Myung tells Gom:
“He’s alive. Through them, and through you, they all live on.”
And some undisclosed number of years later, when Hae Myung is old(er) and gray(er), he comes upon a young boy crying by himself. The boy is upset that because of his poverty, he’s unable to learn anything. Only the rich are educated. Hae Myung asks, “Do you want to be Hong Gil Dong too?”
That gets the boy’s attention, and he follows the priest, asking about Hong Gil Dong.
Boy: “Do you really know Hong Gil Dong? Is he really not dead, but still alive?”
Hae Myung: “Of course. Hong Gil Dong is someone who’ll live forever.”
And then the scene transitions into modern-day Korea — subways, sidewalks, cafes, city lights.
Hae Myung: “Even in a hundred years, five hundred years, he’ll still be alive.”
Boy: “What will he be doing in such a far-off time?”
Hae Myung: “Even when much time passes and things look different on the surface, the way people live will be similar. Like we have the noble and lower classes in our world, that world will have its own strong and weak people.”
Boy: “What will Hong Gil Dong do there?”
Hae Myung: “What’s more important than what he’ll be doing is the fact that there will be someone watching and guiding the world to live properly. Don’t forget. The sword that looks the world in the face, takes stock of it, and changes it — in any world, there will be a Hong Gil Dong.”
First, the knee-jerk reaction: disappointment that my expectations for a goofy, giddily happy ending were thwarted. I’m guessing that I was not alone in expecting the series to come full circle and give us more of that opening sequence from Episode 1, with the happy rebels cheerfully continuing to wreak their vigilante brand of justice upon a corrupt hegemony. I feel a bit cheated out of it, even though such an ending wouldn’t quite fit in with the way the plot has been developing — because then we’d have to assume Chang Whe turned corrupt and ignored his desire to become a good ruler, which goes against everything his character has been built up to be all series long. (My interpretation of the opening sequence (Gil Dong’s hairstyle notwithstanding) is that it already happened and we just didn’t see exactly when the initial time-jump backward caught up with the “present.”)
But as I think more about the series and get used to the resolution, I love the way they wrapped things up. (And never underestimate the power of a well-chosen score, because that last song? Is pretty killer.) The series actually had a meaning beyond mere entertainment — yes, sometimes it was heavy-handed in its delivery, but at least there was some sort of depth there. Perhaps the Hong sisters’ take on egalitarianism is a little clumsy, therefore more propagandistic than needle-sharp social commentary, but hey, they’re in good company — apparently the original writer of the book Hong Gil Dong Jeon was accused of pushing anti-government propaganda.
I appreciated the surrealistic way the final battle was portrayed because, like I said, death was never the point. Starting from a few episodes back, it became increasingly obvious that Gil Dong was meant to transcend the present, and therefore his present life. His existence held more purpose than his physical lifetime, so it’s only fitting that we don’t see a definitive death scene to give his story a sense of finality it’s not meant to have.
Because it hardly matters in the big picture — and Hong Gil Dong really is about the big picture — when hundreds of years later, what’s important isn’t how long Gil Dong and Enok and everyone lived, but that their legacy continues. And that the world they dreamed of and staked so much to bring about has (more or less) come true, where people are judged equally, are not confined by the status of their births, valued on meritocracy (again, more or less — sometimes less), and are able to choose their leaders.
We might even infer that Gom carried on the legacy — after all, Gil Dong’s last words to him were “Leader Gom,” anointing him his successor. The ending of the series, with the juxtaposition of the fallen flower and the sprouting bud, shows that with their last great stand, they ushered in the beginnings of a new era.
So, happy ending? Not completely. But satisfying? For me, it was.
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 23
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 22
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 21
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 20
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 19
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 18
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 17
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 16
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 15
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 14
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 13
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 12
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 11
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 10
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 9
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 8
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 7
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 6
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 5
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 4
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 3
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 2
- Hong Gil Dong: Episode 1