As I briefly mentioned, when I saw the premiere of Strongest Chil Woo, I thought it was pretty bad. Not mediocre or a little uneven, but god-awful. Episode 1 was a mess of bad direction, bad pacing, weird transitions, sloppy storytelling, and laughably similar plotlines to some recent other dramas. (The first twenty minutes, wherein we establish the Requisite Childhood Trauma, is like a Frankenstein-ing of the beginning and end of Hong Gil Dong and Iljimae. Thankfully, those comparisons die pretty early on.)
There are two upsides, however, the first being that Episode 2 is much better. It’s still not good, but it’s more sure of its tone. (Episode 1 is unintentionally funny; at least the humor in Episode 2 is intentional.) But the second is the more important point: that Chil Woo may be bad — but it’s awesomely bad.
Competitor Gourmet is the better show, for sure, but I found Chil Woo more fun. Caveats, though, for enjoying Chil Woo: you’ll have to be able to forgo your need for historical authenticity; be willing to allow that a drama’s entertainment factor is as valuable as its artistic and literary merit; let your expectations go; and enjoy laughing at the ridiculous.
Plus, Chil Woo is almost-sorta-interestingly-possibly feminist. And that’s kinda awesome.
[Watch the series at DramaFever]
SONG OF THE DAY
Napoleon Dynamite – “웃어” (Laugh). This song is unabashedly cheerful, and I particularly love how it starts out, “Go on and laugh, ha ha ha” (followed with, “Go on and cry, sob sob sob,” LOL). I find myself needing to chime in “Ha ha ha” every time the lyric comes up. [ Download ]
“It is said that rather than being a person in turbulent times, it is better being born a dog in peaceful times. However… There are some who are born as dogs in turbulent times. This is their story.”
—Choi Chil Woo
BACKGROUND & CHARACTERS
This is CHOI CHIL WOO (Eric), living circa 1630, a lower-tier government official working in the department where accused criminals are interrogated. He’s not particularly good or bad at his job, just an average Joe.
He’s got a rascally charm masking his more earnest desires, which have been long-buried due to a turbulent early life. Speaking of which, let’s see how it started:
In his childhood, Chil Woo was upper-class until his father (cameo by Oh Man Seok) attempted to upset the social order by agitating for reform. He created a village where all were proclaimed equal — no master versus servant, “illegitimate” versus legitimate. To punctuate that point, he offers refuge for his former servant and his son HEUK SAN (adult version to be played by Yoo Ah In) and calls him his peer.
Alas, his father is considered a menace to society, and the king orders the destruction of their idyllic slice of Utopia. His father survives the initial attack and hides the children (Chil Woo, younger sis WOO YOUNG, and Heuk San) before facing the king’s officers. Heuk San notices with shock that the man’s betrayer is his own father — but Chil Woo and Woo Young are too traumatized at seeing their father mortally wounded to notice.
Chil Woo’s father tells him to take care of his sister — and that he must survive and change the world. And dies.
Now Chil Woo’s an adult, living a nondescript life. His adoptive father is a fellow officer; granny and Mom are on the right. His sister Woo Young has been adopted into another family, and her father is a newly appointed civil servant — something of an anomaly given his age. Chil Woo’s relationship with Woo Young is a little strained: she’s inherited their father’s idealism and accuses her brother for going a different way. What she doesn’t see — and what we only begin to see — is that Chil Woo has felt the burden of keeping his father’s first promise (to survive, and raise Woo Young) so keenly that he’s lost faith in the possibility of the second (to change the world). His early trauma has made him a cynic; he repeatedly tosses out the words of his father’s betrayer, “The world doesn’t change, people change.”
I suspect Chil Woo’s laid-back, laissez-faire attitude isn’t laziness (as those around him may presume) but rooted in self-preservation. It’s not that he’s incapable of greatness, but that his method of survival entails blending in to the background, unexceptional and unnoticed.
And then for his love life. He pines after SO YOON (Gu Hye Sun), his first love from childhood. Eight years ago, she was to be sent to China as a sort of offering to the emperor. (This is a recurring topic in the first two episodes, and I’m not familiar with the practice so correct me if I’m wrong. Apparently women were dragged off — married, single, didn’t matter — and forced to be concubines. Some would return home, but having been “shamed” with their loss of “honor,” they were shunned. The Joseon king attempted to remedy this by issuing a decree that bathing in the river would restore their honor, but societal norms were so deeply ingrained that the people didn’t accept it.)
So Yoon had gone to Chil Woo and begged him to run away with her. But while he waited for her, she never came. Now she’s a disgraced woman AND a slave to the state, performing servants’ tasks at the palace while Chil Woo stares at her longingly all day.
He tries to convince himself that he’s over her, while So Yoon seems resigned to her fate. She doesn’t explain herself or try to win Chil Woo’s favor back, but instead actively encourages his disdain — obviously she’s harboring some really, really good reason for betraying him, or at least she had better be. Still, it’s clear they’re both totally in love with each other. Chil Woo + So Yoon 4eva!
EPISODES 1 & 2
Once our premise is in place, we commence with our story. (The setup is laid out super-quickly, I might add. It’s like this drama has no pretensions of seriousness, and therefore zips through to bring us to Eric asap. It’s hard to connect with anything when it’s told so quickly and perfunctorily.)
Woo Young’s adoptive father falls into debt because of his new government post. Well, not the job itself but the initiation cruelties that come attached therewith (hazing! Not just for drunken frat boys). He is much older than the others, who are led by a particularly nasty Heo Won Do. Everyone wonders why the respected nobleman would put up with this, but he merely explains that he has his reasons. He seems like a good, decent man whose attachment to his idealistic beliefs causes his demise — not unlike Chil Woo’s biological father. With two such paternal authorities in her life, it’s no wonder Woo Young thinks Chil Woo has sold out for being realistic.
Chil Woo tries to think of ways to earn money to help Woo Young’s father, but before he can, the man’s body is found in the river and ruled a drunk drowning.
Woo Young (special appearance by Park Bo Young) finds a buried box at home and brings it to Chil Woo — inside are papers, written in complicated characters that neither can read. Woo Young is positive that her father took his position because of the documents — and was murdered because of it. Chil Woo promises to check it out, and Woo Young shows the first sign of approval in her brother.
But when Chil Woo takes the documents to a friend for deciphering, the friend freaks out. He barely stammers out that the documents confirm that the prince, the eldest son of the king, was murdered.
Chil Woo realizes how dangerous this information is, and worries over what to do. When Woo Young issues a grievance against Heo (the head hazer), she cites the papers as motive for murder, which Chil Woo hands over — but they’re dummy documents.
Accused of issuing false allegations, Woo Young is punished, and while Chil Woo is wrought with guilt, he believes it was the safe decision. Woo Young feels this as a betrayal and rails against her brother.
Chil Woo says that the documents have nothing to do with them. They have no obligation to die for the truth. She invokes their father, who would have done the right thing, but Chil Woo says their father was naive for thinking he could make a difference when he was just a political pawn: “Do the right thing? That’s nothing! The world doesn’t change, and even if it did, our lives wouldn’t!” The “right thing” for them is to survive.
Woo Young’s anger fizzles, and she thanks him for protecting her all her life. Chil Woo senses something ominous in her words, realizing she’s probably going to commit suicide.
Chil Woo grabs his sister and tries to formulate a plan, while So Yoon witnesses Chil Woo’s panic with compassion. But So Yoon loses Woo Young (worst babysitter ever), spurring a mad chase to find her.
Unfortunately, he’s too late. Heo finds her first, demanding the documents. Trembling in fear, Woo Young says nothing, and she’s dealt a mortal blow as he slashes her with his sword.
Chil Woo finds Woo Young in her last moments, desperate to save her. She knows she’s fading fast, and thanks him for everything.
Woo Young: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being so disagreeable. And I’m sorry… for dying.”
(FYI, this was the only scene in Episode 1 that I think worked, and not because of particularly good plotting or acting — rather, this is the first scene that feels like we earned the emotional response.)
Filled with wrath, Chil Woo is spurred into action.
He storms into Heo’s home (who’s about to assault a servant, just in case you weren’t sure he was evil) and kills the man to avenge his sister. And just then, he hears a sound behind the screen and pulls a Hamlet, stabbing at the hidden figure.
The assassin was lying in wait to kill Heo, and now both are confused as to the other’s presence. Chil Woo makes his getaway, and what ensues is a truly hilarious, absurd chase-fight-action sequence on horseback as White-Veiled Assassin chases Chil Woo.
After a short confrontation, Chil Woo dashes off on horseback and comes upon a household that leads us into our Episode 2 Plot.
Nutshell: Grandpa finds out his daughter-in-law is pregnant, calls her a depraved slutbag, and has her murdered. The woman’s young son witnesses his mother being strung up in a tree and hanged.
Chil Woo buries his sister by his father’s gravesite, overcome with emotion, asking, “What about me? How am I supposed to live now?”
So Yoon watches with tears in her eyes, remembering their halcyon childhood days. Chil Woo stares back with tears in his eyes. C’mon you two, just get it over with already.
Chil Woo and his officer pals receive their assignments for the day, which includes the case of the murdered Heo. Only, they’ve already found the culprit — the man’s wife turned herself in.
When it’s his turn for guard duty, Chil Woo tells the woman she’s free to go because he knows she didn’t kill the man. She’s skeptical, and he assures her he knows she’s innocent because he knows the real killer. The wife asks, surprised, “You know my son?” (She turned herself in thinking her son was guilty.) Just then, the prison is besieged by intruders.
Chil Woo and the woman come face to face with the bandits, led by her son, there to break her out of prison. Both mother and son watch bewilderedly as Chil Woo puts on a show for the benefit of the other officers.
It’s actually hysterical. He grabs the spear and fakes a struggle, while the son’s all, “Dude, that guy is CRAZY.”
They escape to safety, and the mother asks Chil Woo to convey her gratitude to the real killer for freeing them from Evil Heo. She gives her hairpin as a token of her thanks.
Chil Woo must cover his tracks, so he hobbles back to his division as his colleagues are all being punished for letting the criminals escape. Chil Woo fakes indignation, saying he did his best, but his officer buddies didn’t come through for him.
He’s dismissed for the day — and as he walks away, he pulls a Keyser Soze and straightens, ditching his props to reveal that he’s uninjured. I know this is such a ripoff of The Usual Suspects, but that’s why it’s so ridiculously funny. It’s like the producers know this isn’t an original show, so why bother trying to insist it is? Instead, they’re embracing the outlandishness, and that’s why I find it so damn funny.
Anyway. Chil Woo is again stalked by White Veiled Assassin, who is intrigued by Chil Woo’s fighting prowess and curious as to his identity. (I’m betting he wants to recruit him.)
Once again, they meet, and once again, they clash. This time it’s Crouching Tiger as they leap into the treetops — just as Chil Woo’s father wanders to the wishing pond below with the now-motherless little boy.
The little boy is morose, and although he’s probably too young to understand the finer points of vengeance and justice, he knows the situation with his momma’s not right and that something must be done to fix it. Chil Woo’s father tells the impressionable boy that if he makes a wish, the wishing god will grant it.
Just then, White Veiled Assassin ditches Chil Woo, who tries to chase him — and falls into the pool. Instant wishing well god!
(Seriously? It’s so silly, but again, stupidly hysterical.)
The boy assumes he’s the wish-granter, and unloads his complaint about his mother’s death. Chil Woo asks questions to glean details about the situation: The little boy is scared of his grandfather and recalls his mother’s hanging. His grandfather seemed to really like his mother, so he doesn’t understand why he would let her be killed.
But since the story is told in typical little-child fashion and comes out in a jumbled mess, Chil Woo dismisses it as fiction. Until he overhears the grandfather at a festival (celebrating a woman’s “virtue”) being consoled for his lovely daughter-in-law’s recent passing. Grandpa receives a tax exemption from the king because money makes grief go away. Chil Woo puts the details together, realizes the boy’s in danger, and takes off to save the day.
Chil Woo arrives just in time to save the boy from being strangled. He puts the final puzzle piece together, asking, “When you said your grandfather treated your mother very well, did you mean…?” And we see that yes, he did mean, because Grandpa raped the mother, then killed her upon learning she was pregnant.
He comforts the boy, but it’s almost like Chil Woo, shaking in anger at the injustice, needs the comforting just as much, as he comes to a Very Important Decision.
And this is how the legend is born, because Chil Woo decides that he will be average lowly officer Chil Woo by day, and midnight masked avenger by night. He shakes out his Jesus hair, dons an all-black outfit from the Zorro costume vault, and rides off on his trusty steed in the moonlight, brandishing a whip.
Seriously, it’s like every time you think they’ve gone and out-gayed themselves, they gay it up a little more. Actually, that’s probably unfair — all my gays have a ton more style sense than Chil Woo.
Zorro Chil Woo exacts some revenge and strings up the grandpa with his whip (I don’t think he kills him, just leaves him there).
The next day, Chil Woo trains with his father in the palace courtyard, until one man’s face catches his eye. He looks at him (a scholar, I believe), recognizing his White-Veiled foe, just as Mr. White Veil returns the look and comes to the same conclusion.
ACTING: It isn’t terrible — or at least, any more terrible than others of its kind. Que Sera Sera had changed my mind about Eric merely being a pretty face with mediocre skills, because he had some really great intense moments in that drama. I’d originally worried that he wouldn’t look the part of a historical hero, but I needn’t have worried; instead, I should have worried that he wouldn’t sound the part. As a sageuk (fusion or no), Eric seems starkly out of place — he speaks with a contemporary cadence while everyone else affects that familiar historical gravitas, but Eric barrels along at a modern clip like he’s in the trendiest of trendy dramas. To give you an idea of what I mean, it’s like everyone else is doing King Lear and he’s doing Our Town. This bothered me in Episode 1, but once Episode 2 rolled around and the intentionally farcical tone of the drama came out, I thought it was oddly apropos, since the entire drama is a big ol’ joke.
DIRECTING: To be fair, there are a few cringingly bad actor moments, but I blame those on director Park Man Young (also of Vineyard Man). I was thinking in one such painfully acted scene that the actual performance wasn’t so bad, if only the scene were edited differently. Which means that the director bears the brunt of the blame for putting together the pieces poorly. Thinking in terms of food, it’s like having perfectly adequate ingredients (though nothing luxurious) and misusing them all — bad combinations, unskilled seasoning — to come out with a botched soup. It’s the cook’s fault more than the ingredients’.
(I will say that the music director needs to be fired. Again, it’s not the music selections themselves that are bad — it’s that they’re used so willy-nilly, in odd arrangements at wrong moments.)
ORIGINALITY: As for the Hong Gil Dong and Iljimae comparisons… The first twenty minutes were a bad hodgepodge of things we’d seen before. But I was pleasantly surprised to see the story diverge from those models right away. While those other two focus on inherently good guys who become Robin Hood, Chil Woo deliberately wants to be unspecial, and then transforms into an avenger. At first glance the distinction may seem minor, but it’s actually really huge. Gil Dong and Iljimae stole from the corrupt to help the poor in general, over-arching terms. Gil Dong’s battle had no end, but he’d fight for a faceless crowd of people who represented his dream of equality.
Chil Woo wants equality too, but his modus operandi is completely different — he’s fighting for specific people. And I find the conflict interesting, because he’s a vigilante, which always comes with a host of moral gray areas. Once Gil Dong decided to become Robin Hood, his conflict was all external — fight the government, fight oppression, fight injustice. But Chil Woo’s conflict has the potential to be just as internal as it is external — vengeance always invites opportunity to destroy the avenger just as much as the villain; he has to be careful not to let his anger overwhelm him.
FEMINISM? Okay, I don’t know that the series is necessarily a feminist show. But I did appreciate the digs in the first two episodes at the hypocrisy in judging women by their supposed sexual virtue when it’s the men who are robbing them of it. The mother was raped, then killed — what an immoral slut! Women are routinely abducted to act as sexual objects, then stamped with disgrace by the men who perpetrated their shame. How dare they think they’re fit for decent company after surviving our inhuman atrocities!
The show didn’t take out the horn and trumpet, “This is my message today! Abusing women is bad!” But it let its story speak its opinion, and I liked that. Chil Woo doesn’t seem like someone who’s overtly progressive or feminist, but he knows what’s right, and he feels damn strongly about the mistreatment of women, thanks to his sister, his childhood sweetheart, and now this stranger whose life he stumbled into avenging. So he’s the best kind of feminist — the kind who doesn’t care about what the word implies or the politics involved but just believes in human dignity.
Sorry, was that too deep for this show? Apologies. I’ll make sure my next string of comments are all fart jokes.
- Posing pretty for When Night Comes
- Thumbs (and trunks) up for Chil Woo
- Promoting his drama with a come-hither stare
- From uljjang to actress to writer-director
- KBS’s second honorable thief of the year ties on his mask, readies for (ratings) battle
- A few more points for Chil Woo…
- Eric’s last pre-military project