Advice from the tired and extremely footsore: if most of your campus goes straight up and down, wear comfy shoes. Also, do not fall behind on your readings. Ever.
Well, here we are at the end of the road. I expected it to be more Saw and Grudge-like (I admit, all the eye-related CGI scare the living daylights out of me), but I’m fine with the poignant, human side of tragedy too. It’s nice to have a series like this where every episode is its own story because then you choose the one that sounds good to you, and you can pick up the series in the middle of airing because there are no spoilers. 😀
SONG OF THE DAY
Pe2ny – “Alive” feat. Tablo, Yankie [ Download ]
Episode 8: The Returning Lady (series finale)
*The title, 환향녀, is actually a word that specifically refers to women who were able to come back home after being kidnapped and made to serve as concubines (by the ubiquitously evil China). It doesn’t have a positive connotation, as such women were often looked down upon as shameful, even when they were sent off by their husbands/fathers en masse – about which the country often did next to nothing. (Thanks Javabeans!)
A woman walks numbly through the night forest, trailing a sash behind her. We don’t see what happens, but she does hang herself. What a macabre tree – it’s surrounded by mist, and sashes hanging from the branches reveal that each has a dead woman at the other end.
In broad daylight, a group of noblemen travel to Seoul. The road is treacherous and very difficult to follow, even for their guide. They hear a distant roar (sounding oddly like an insert from Jurassic Park) and hasten their steps. As they step through a very heavy fog, they hear the sound of many women bathing. In the mountain crook below, indeed, there are quite a few pretty ladies having a communal bath.
The men go to take a closer look, only to fall down a ravine into the hot spring. Awkwardness ensues. (In passing, there are 7 girls in total, which reminds me of the rather common motif in folktales – when 7 fetching young women bath in public and are discovered, the men had better beware.)
The leader of the nobles, Mr. Sky Blue, asks if they can point him to the nearest path, but they tell him that it will be dark soon, and the roads nearly impossible to navigate. Fortuitously (insert eyeroll if you will) the girls live nearby and are glad to offer lodging to these errant travelers. Erm. As expected, their house is really, really weird. One girl is seen to drag a body outside, while another girl, also wearing white, plays a sad melody with a strange expression on her face.
Hmm. Another garishly dressed woman comes in and demands that the girl in white drink something and entertain the guests. She doesn’t want to, and is saved by her kind sister-in-law, who volunteers for her. The drink makes people glow red and leer. (I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s probably evil.)
Okay, so basically the sister-in-law substituted White Girl in gisaeng duty. The colours are lurid and the shots are intentionally confusing. Outside, the guide stokes the fire in an oven while a servant tells him to go home. She stops short of actually commanding him to go, which means that obviously something bad is going to happen to all the guys in the place past midnight or something. (Either my ears are off, or the music is significantly more Chinese in flavour.)
Before they got started, Sky Blue mentioned that his wife had been kidnapped by invading armies and had committed suicide when she was returned – she’s mourned as a martyr while he languishes without sex. Actually, it’s super creepy, because the guide was watching the hot action between the sister-in-law and Mr. Sky Blue, except it turned into not-so-hot action of the neck-twisting kind, and then he had to hide under the stairs. The woman came out and dragged her victim behind her – and when his hand got stuck on the staircase, she chopped his arm off. Then she reached for it – narrowly missing the guide – and went on dragging the corpse behind her.
At this point, her eyes were filmed over with dark blood, so she couldn’t see him, or he would be sooooo dead.
The other girls come out, dragging their patron of the night with them – they seem to be exclusively killing the gang of nobles who stumbled in on them bathing earlier. (So, lesson is, if you see a hot guy/girl in the woods taking a bath, run in the other direction.)
The men are hung from the tree and made to look like they committed suicide.
A different noble wanders into the Jima area and inquires after the rumours that any men who wander into the area don’t make it out. The erstwhile guide, who’s become a little unhinged after his night at the ghost brothel, babbles that the women broke their necks, but no one takes him seriously, except the new nobleman.
The noble asks him to lead the way, but the guide refuses, as he still values his own life. The nobleman tries to stop him from leaving with his prosthetic arm, which falls off and scares the hell out of the guide – so he scampers. (Um, I can tell it’s rubber even without my glasses.) The nobleman is frustrated.
That night, the madam of the hotel comes to give tea to White Girl again, and she decides to take the eldritch tea because she doesn’t want her sister-in-law to keep doing it for her. The sister-in-law hurries along, intent on taking Soo Yeon’s place again, but she sees that the tea has already been taken – it turns otherwise ordinary ghost girls into super sexy gisaeng who are really strong. Riiiight.
Anyway, Soo Yeon (still a virgin, technically), ravishing in red, goes into the valley gorge to fake drowning. The nobleman, breaking all rules of sensible travel by climbing dangerous paths at night, rescues her. I guess he’s just not that into gisaengs after the day’s revelations, and rejects all her advances (although, you know, grab and cling is a weird seduction technique. Just saying). In the process, his prosthetic arm falls off.
From this, Soo Yeon seems to recognize the man, though it’s dark and he doesn’t have a clue of who she is. He reassures her, telling her not to be afraid, but she flings his hand away (and incidentally flinging him into the water) to run off into the woods.
Flashback to when Soo Yeon was still alive – she is dressed in a bride’s garb, while her husband/fiance runs with her. They’re surrounded by mean-looking soldiers (not Korean either, I would guess Chinese or Japanese) who slice off his arm and take her away.
Soo Yeon runs back to the brothel, to meet the madam’s wrath (why, I never knew random hemorrhaging was a sign of evil ghosts, but now I am enlightened.) She has something against men and really wants to kill everyone. To punish Soo Yeon for her failure to bring back a single person, she sets all the other drugged ghosts after her. The sister-in-law refuses to leave the place, and tries to explain why all these women are here in the first place.
(But I’m pretty sure that when the nobleman mentioned he would only ever love one woman, he meant Soo Yeon. Sorry, but the inner sap speaks loud and clear.)
She breaks it to Soo Yeon that they are all dead, and all from suicide too. All the women’s bodies are hanging off a mystical tree that unites their souls here. The ghosts were all women who had been kidnapped and released at a later date – when they returned, instead of rejoicing, their families looked upon them as a source of humiliation… which is total asshattery.
While others (I recognize one girl from the brothel) became prostitutes to pay for their way back, Soo Yeon and her sister-in-law worked hard in the kitchen… aww. Soo Yeon becomes cynical but her sister-in-law is always gently encouraging.
Then one night a soldier tries to have his way with Soo Yeon. After killing him, they run off and trek home. (I want to be cynical and point out the flaws in this, but they are very strong-willed women.) At home, Soo Yeon’s father is sick, and doesn’t look like he’ll live any longer. He can’t even muster up the energy to talk or move.
Anyway, Soo Yeon’s illegitimate brother is in charge right now, and he pleads preoccupation with their father’s condition that he was unable to rescue them. (That excuse doesn’t hold much water, the scumbag.) He introduces a rather wily-looking girl, the daughter of another local noble, who, after they’re all gone, uses acupuncture to make things worse. The brother, I would guess, is one of those people who speak softly and does cowardly things.
Soo Yeon leaves under protest, as she wants to stay until her father is better, but she leaves as he tells her it’s for the good of the family’s reputation. Her carriage isn’t even out of the door for more than a minute before he drops the act and saunters off with his acupuncturally talented mistress. The sister-in-law can only stagger around in shock.
Soo Yeon’s husband, meanwhile, has gotten first place at the national exams. His father is generous and open-hearted, but his mother is already looking for a new daughter-in-law. (Why is it that the shrewish wife archetype is so popular? Most of the time it’s the husband who shouts and the wife who creeps around, afraid to speak her own mind.)
Anyway, her husband is due back in a day or so, and Soo Yeon awaits him by … clutching… omg. I can’t believe his chopped-off arm survived all that. I mean, Soo Yeon is a master embalmer, whut.
Unfortunately for Soo Yeon, her husband is called back to Seoul, and she is left to her own devices under the picky eye of the mother-in-law. She tries to help out washing laundry, and ends up defending a single mother from a gang of children, which leaves her forehead bleeding. Needless to say, the mother-in-law is not happy.
During an afternoon nap, she dreams of being visited by her sister-in-law, who is dead and dripping blood. Her mother-in-law comes in because of her screaming, and discovers Soo Yeon’s bloody blankets and skirts. It’s assumed that she miscarried.
She’s severely beaten (during which the mother-in-law smiles, whut) and sent home, where her brother basically forces her to drink poison – it’s an herb called the Grass of Despair, and whoever drinks it cannot go on to the underworld, and if they don’t find a replacement in 49 days, their spirits will be scattered across the four corners of the world. (They couldn’t have just used poison? But then, not enough angst factor, I guess.)
Soo Yeon’s sister-in-law tells her that the kindhearted are the ones with the most to lose, and that people almost always harbour a darker side.
In either a flashback or a linear sequence, we are shown the sister-in-law avenging herself on the acupuncture lady and then possessing her to get close to her ex-hubby. She leaves the body in time to have her husband kill his second wife. In the morning, his second wife’s body is discovered by none other than Soo Yeon’s husband, and Soo Yeon’s brother is arrested.
However, the sister-in-law’s ghost has been at work again, and she fools her ex-hubby into drinking grass of despair. He runs out to the nearest cliff and jumps off (his eyes are completely black). Soo Yeon’s hubby is confuzzled.
As a high-ranking minister who has imperial permission, Soo Yeon’s husband brings in the guide for questioning, so he can get to the bottom of this mystery.
Soo Yeon’s sister-in-law leaves the place, but she says goodbye to her beloved little sister first. She ruminates rather bitterly on human nature (role reversal ftw): “They all have the hearts of demons, but they are so busy being afraid of us that they cannot see their own evil.”
Soo Yeon is told to go and kill all her in-laws, but even now, their brothel is being overrun by soldiers – but the supernatural women can all fight, and it looks like Soo Yeon’s hubby is in serious danger. At least he realizes that the gisaeng are all ghosts now. He’s not the leader for nothing, however, and slices down the ghosts.
The madam decides to wait and see – he can’t do anything to them before dawn, and there’s many more ghosts than soldiers. Soo Yeon surprises everyone by volunteering to personally handle this. Hmm. She confronts him, and he stops fighting immediately. As he realizes that she is also one of the dead, other gisaeng line up behind him, prepared to attack.
He asks Soo Yeon why she didn’t wait for him, but she answers that her waiting had no result, that all her suffering led her straight to this place. He pleads ignorance, but she replies that ignorances is sometimes a sin too, and holds up a dagger to his throat. Surprisingly (to her), he drops his own weapon and lets her do what she will.
Hm. We have kind person #2 (in which case they would have never survived in the real world) in Soo Yeon’s husband, who’s perfectly willing to die if it will help his wife out with her hate and anger issues. Soo Yeon thinks back to when she was alive, the love that they shared before their marriage, and even in the gorge, he’d refused her advances because he was already married.
Aww, we knew Soo Yeon was a big softie. She lets him go, and runs off by herself. (Leaving him in a volatile situation and weaponless? Dude.)
The sister-in-law, kind till the end, tells her to hurry up and kill him before dawn comes, or else she really will get scattered to the four winds. Her husband also arrives, and tells her that he will be with her shortly. He kills himself.
Soo Yeon cradles his body and cries, because of all the results, this was the one she didn’t want the most. She laments that they were never fated to be together. Ai.
His spirit gets up, but he can’t see her. Darn it.
When dawn comes, both her sister-in-law and husband disappear into the morning mist. In a little while, Soo Yeon does too.
The soldiers gather the corpses and do their tallies. A particularly thoughtful underling has placed Soo Yeon and her husband together. They are carted off for burial, and even if their spirits can’t be together, their bodies will, for a short while.
However, things go on, and new women come to the brothel to prey on men.
– I like to think that they made an exception for Soo Yeon. Hopefully.
– Many, many thanks to the wonderful Luv, who allowed me to filch her screencaps and was so nice about the recaps. Also, to Javabeans, dude, where to start?
– I’ve wondered throughout the series – what does the lore say about the victims of vengeance ghosts? Is it possible for them to become vengeance ghosts too, thus creating an endless chain of hate and bad karma? Because that sounds much too depressing for words.
– What was your favourite episode? Do tell!