Oh, HELL yeah.
Gaksital (aka Bridal Mask) hinted at action, intrigue, excitement, and thrills. Right off the bat, the drama delivers—but even more than the slick fight scenes or the gorgeous cinematography, the show manages to imbue the story with heart right away. Not an easy feat to get you invested and caring, heart pinching in sympathy, almost immediately; usually we need some time to fall in love with the characters, but I’m all-in right from the get-go.
It’s also got an intriguing setup in that our hero isn’t the drama’s hero—at least, not yet. What a great conflict.
SONG OF THE DAY
No Reply – “늘 그렇게” (Always like that) [ Download ]
You certainly can enjoy this drama (and all dramas) without detailed understandings of the history upon which it’s based, since it’s still the show’s job to pull together a compelling dramatic narrative. I firmly believe that a drama ought to be enhanced by a knowledge of history, but not be incomprehensible without it. However, since we’re dealing with an era that isn’t often explored in dramas (though it’s hugely important in the development of modern-day Korea), a cursory understanding of the period is helpful.
Without getting bogged down in too many dates and names (there’s the internet for that!): The first phase of Japan’s aggression began around the turn of the 20th century; it established Korea as a protectorate and then annexed it in 1910, after which other nations ceased to see Korea as a sovereign state. This decade became called “the dark period” because of Japan’s oppressive rule; the education system was overhauled to teach Koreans Japanese language and history in schools, Koreans were forced to take on Japanese names, and so on.
Resistance developed and a nationalistic movement grew, culminating in the March First Movement in 1919. The movement mobilized 1 million people in marches throughout the country, but also led to a high number of casualties and brutal conflicts between Japanese police and rebelling citizens.
Japan continued its imperialistic expansion in the following years, clashing with other nations to claim Pacific dominance. The invasion of Manchuria in 1931 can be seen as the start of the lead-up to the Pacific War and World War II, until Japan surrendered in 1945, at which point Korea was freed from Japanese rule. (Independence day is August 15, 1945.)
Gaksital is set in the 1930s, the independence movement in full swing. We can see how rich the tableau is, with our main character being born into the occupation and having a different perspective on it than, say, his father’s generation, who lived through the early movement and gave it life.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open on a funeral procession, with the chyron identifying this time as the Japanese occupation. It’s a somber occasion, because the body being carried in tribute is that of Lee Gong, a patriot who was an important figure in the events leading to the annexation.
Then, all hell breaks loose. Policemen overturn market stalls and round up citizens for arrest, beating anyone who resists. They call themselves patriots, but that leads to sneers by the citizens. “Patriots” to which state? The people call the officers turncoats who sold their own country out. Not only do they beat old men and arrest innocents, one officer goes so far as to whip a boy who’s sobbing over his grandfather’s arrest.
And into this fray rides our… hero? This is officer LEE KANG-TO (Joo-won), and his arrival commands immediate attention; officers obey his commands instantly, drawing their swords on cue.
Kang-to addresses the crowd forcefully, almost dictatorially, saying that a beloved patriot has passed away. Ah, so not a patriot as we’d understand it; he’s a pro-Japanese official (a number of Koreans did join in with the new regime; why fight the inevitable?). Then Kang-to actually orders the people to cry in mourning.
With the populace sufficiently traumatized into bowing their heads, the funeral procession continues. If you can’t make the people grieve, you can at least make them go through the motions.
But then, a hand hurls a rock. It’s a young woman who aims for Kang-to’s face, but he jerks back so that it goes crashing into the framed photograph of the dead patriot instead. Gasp. Who dares?
Kang-to scans the crowd and spots the lone person standing tall instead of bowing in respect. She—our heroine MOK DAN (Jin Sae-yeon)—shoots daggers at him, then runs.
Kang-to yells for his men to capture her, leading to a chase through the town. Mok Dan litters their paths with obstacles and isn’t above fighting dirty, like poking Kang-to’s eyes when he grabs her. She’s nimble as well, ducking under and over things with ease.
But there are tons of them and one of her, and she’s soon surrounded. Whip Man smirks and readies his weapon.
So she thinks fast, and jumps onto a peddler’s table, and then his head, catapulting herself onto a second-story balcony. She’s almost free, but then the officer whips her arm, sending her crashing to the ground.
Kang-to bends down to smirk in Mok Dan’s face, and it seems they’re well-acquainted, since he asks, “Do you know how hard I’ve been looking to track you down?” Then he demands, “Where is he? Where is Damsari?!” She says defiantly, “Who’s Damsari?”
He slaps her for her impudence, just as a cry sounds: “It’s Gaksital!”
Sure enough, in comes a man wearing that gaksital mask, dressed in white and on horseback (the horse has a mask, too!). He is charged by imperial officers who swing their swords at him, but he’s nimble and swings off the saddle easily, touching down on the ground and popping himself back up like an expert acrobat.
The mere appearance of Gaksital has the crowd cheering for their hero, who hurls daggers at the funeral procession. He purposely sticks them just inches from the faces of the officials, and they come with handwritten tags attached. The characters spell out a warning: Your villainy will pass disaster upon your descendants.
Gaksital springs off his horse and leaps right into the fray with the officers, seemingly unconcerned that some of them have guns. Not when he’s literally faster than a speeding bullet. Or at least, twistier. Damn, this guy is cool.
Gaksital slices through the funeral banner—an escape route and a defiant gesture, now there’s efficiency for you—and gets back on his horse to make his getaway. This time Kang-to readies his pistol to shoot him head-on, but that leaves Mok Dan free to kick his ass, literally. Okay, maybe balls is more accurate. One swift foot to the crotchal region brings him down, spares Gaksital a bullet (though he could’ve dodged it, I’m sure), and earns Mok Dan her getaway. Gotta love heroes(-ines) who can multitask.
Kang-to goes for a second attempt, but Gaksital just knocks him down with the flat of his sword, then outstretches his hand to Mok Dan as he gallops toward her. She swings behind him, and off they ride.
Kang-to gets up and fires after them furiously. Ha, his hotheadedness is so satisfying because it’s so easily thwarted. He’s left to rage impotently, and screams what I’ll bet a million bucks will become this drama’s signature refrain: “Gaksitaaaaaaaaaaal!”
Then, we jump back one month. At the Government General of Korea, Kang-to is honored for service, receiving a medal. Interesting that Whip Boy looks jealous at the honor Kang-to receives.
Kang-to has earned this distinction by capturing an elusive menace to society who slipped through the fingers of many more experienced officers. It’s a man in black—Mok Damsari—who was responsible for numerous acts of terror against the state, like blowing up a government building. Ah, so this is Mok Dan’s father (played by Jeon No-min), whose face, it must be noted, looks an awful lot like the face we barely got to see under that Gaksital mask…
Rubbing salt into the wound is the fact that it’s actually Kang-to’s rival who cornered Damsari first, but lost him.
The officer awarding him declares that there will be no distinction made between Japanese or Korean heritage, and that men will be judged on merit. A closeup lingers on the stone face of KIMURA TARO, the tough, ambitious chief of police. With that, Kang-to is given the go-ahead to lead the officers in a salute, which he does in Japanese, calling first for attention, then shouting, “Banzai!”
On to a nightclub for swing dancing and drinking, where Kang-to’s friends crow, “I wish I’d seen the look on Kimura Kenji’s face.” Ah, so is he the sour-faced Whip Boy? Kang-to has been nipping at Kenji’s heels, career-wise, so it must rankle to have the upstart moving up the chain faster. Especially when Chief is Dad.
Kang-to’s feeling confident and tosses out, “Who says only the Japanese can become chief of police? In this world, if you’ve got the skills, even a slave can become the prime minister.” They go around jokingly taking bets on how far Kang-to can rise, then they move to the dance floor.
Kang-to takes the stage with his favorite club girl Meri. They boogie.
In the marketplace, a woman quietly sets up shop, only to have the other merchants kick over her wares, yelling that this market is for Korean vendors only. They curse her for raising a turncoat son, but they can’t mean the dimwitted man who runs through the marketplace yelling “Mother!” and tripping over his own feet, who barely seems able to dress himself, much less shrewdly angle for power by ingratiating himself with the Japanese.
This man is LEE KANG-SAN (Shin Hyun-joon), the village idiot and Kang-to’s older brother. He doesn’t fully understand the brewing confrontation but he does understand that a man has insulted Kang-to, and he launches himself at him, only to get knocked down and kicked. Aw.
In the street, a group of kids mill around a fancy car. Kang-to lowers the window and offers them sweets, and they ooh over the treats until one boy recognizes him: “It’s Lee Kang-to!” Immediately they scatter, knowing enough to steer clear of that traitor.
Kang-to’s mood sours, and then he hears his mother crying out, “Kang-san-ah!” He races toward the marketplace to see his brother being beaten, and knocks down the attacker. The young man bounds back up and calls him a dirty mongrel, then runs before Kang-to can catch him.
Kang-to turns his ire on the people, for standing around doing nothing while his brother was beaten, fuming, “I ought to…!” It’s his mother who says condemningly, “And do what? Round them all up and kill them?!” She says she raised no son like him, and tells him to butt out and go his way.
Kang-to can’t bear to see all of his mother’s rice cakes littering the ground, and he tosses wads of cash at her. He means well, but it’s incredibly condescending as he tells her to take it and stop selling rice cakes.
Mom orders Kang-san not to pick up the money, having vowed not to take a cent from Kang-to: “How could I face your dead father if I took it?” Kang-to yells that he may be uneducated, but he’s made his own living, better than anybody here. Mom bristles even further: “You can brag about making money under the men who made your brother this way?”
Kang-to yells right back, “What am I supposed to do? Father died, and hyung is like this—what am I supposed to do?!” Mom slaps him just as he’s about to say that at least playing the role of dirty mongrel earned him a living, and Kang-san steps in to hug his little bro, crying for Mom not to hurt him. Urg, everything about this scene breaks my heart.
Kang-to storms off to go home and throws his award at his family photo, breaking the glass. He’s hurt that his family couldn’t congratulate him on his big day, growling his frustration aloud as his mother and brother arrive outside. They hear him asking if he has to devote everything to the independence movement and die like his father, or become an idiot like his brother, for everyone to be satisfied: “What the hell is Joseon anyway?! Has it ever bought me a bowl of rice?”
Kang-to throws clothes into a suitcase and grabs his award, then heads out. He tells Mom that he’ll do as she wishes and leave her to her filial son, and leaves.
As Mom watches him go, she thinks back to another flashback (so we’re in a flashback in a flashback, for those keeping track), to when Kang-to was fresh-faced and idealistic. He’d proudly hugged hyung’s cap and insisted on buying big bro new shoes when he collected the money. Kang-san was the brain, and Kang-to the brawn, and they’d been one happy family.
Now Mom cries over the broken photo while Kang-san runs after Kang-to’s departing car, yelling his name and crying for him not to leave. Kang-to sees his brother falling in his rearview mirror, and forces himself to keep driving. Oof.
We move on to a primary school, where a gentle-faced teacher leads his students in a song. He’s KIMURA SHUNJI (Park Ki-woong), and after dismissing class he looks with pleasant surprise on a visitor: Kang-to.
They’re old friends, greeting each other with familiarity and banmal, even though Kang-to gives his reason for the visit as: “Let’s fight one round.”
He means wooden swords, and the men go at each other full-out in the courtyard, though the kendo battle soon travels over the fence into the neighboring yard. They’re evenly matched in skill and after an intense round, things end in a stalemate, and they collapse onto the grass together.
Shunji knows something’s bothering Kang-to, and he points out that this is one of many times Kang-to has come over with packed bags. Kang-to tells him he was promoted and given a raise—just one more year of this hard work, and he’ll be able to buy Mom a new place, and send hyung to the best doctors in Tokyo: “If I could just fix hyung, then who cares if people call me names?”
Shunji’s a good friend who understands Kang-to, and looks at him with sympathy. He lightens the mood to say that Kang-to’s making him feel bad for rebelling against his own father, and then they tickle-hug? So cute.
An elderly woman calls out for “young master,” and Shunji perks up. He’s so happy to see his nanny, in fact, that Kang-to teases him to go ahead and breastfeed already. You know he’s a good friend when you can kick his ass with a wooden sword, call him a nanny’s boy, and then crash at his place unannounced.
Far East Circus. A show proceeds on the stage, and behind the curtain stands a familiar face: Mok Dan. She’s dressed in her costume and looks into the crowd so intently that her circus-mate Sun-hwa pesters her to say who she’s looking for yet again. She says earnestly, “He will come someday. He will.”
Mok Dan wears a sheathed knife around her neck which bears an engraved hanja character, which makes Sun-hwa speculate that it belongs to the man she loves. She smiles as she goes into flashback:
Two grizzled men cut through thick reeds with swords. Nearby, two children huddle in fear, hiding from them. The boy gives her his knife—the one she treasures now—and tells Mok Dan, “No matter what, you have to survive.”
Mok Dan addresses him as young master and speaks jondae, hinting at his elevated status, and cries. He tells her they’ll meet again and starts to leave. She’s scared at what he means to do, but he promises that if she just stays alive, he’ll find her. (Interestingly, he calls her by a different name, Boon, which should make reunion doubly tricky, I’m thinking.)
Then he heads off alone, drawing their pursuers away and leaving her behind.
The performance continues, and ah, now we recognize the ringmaster as one of the bystanders in the first scene, who was so derisive of Kang-to and thrilled at Gaksital’s appearance. Essentially the bottom line is: The circus is anti-imperialist, pro-independence, pro-Gaksital.
The ringmaster—whose name is Shin Nan-da, HA! (meaning excitable or giddy)—announces the next performer, a type of magician who swaps faces.
This is Mok Dan’s craft, and she comes onstage wearing an elaborate mask and headdress. The quick-changing masks impress the crowd, and the show ends with her real face revealed.
At Shunji’s house, the two friends have a sleepover where Shunji shares about a girl named Esther he once knew, and Kang-to tsk-tsks him for carrying a torch for a girl he met at 13, whose Korean name he doesn’t know. Kang-to’s particularly interested in the part where Shunji says she punished him a lot: “You could say that thanks to her, I became a person.”
It’s clear that Shunji’s feelings run deep, and he keeps the details of the story to himself, which Kang-to teases him for. He settles back and wonders, “Will they have met by now?”
A flashback takes us to a church, where young Dan/Boon now wears a (novice?) nun’s habit and prays, “Lord, please let me meet my father quickly, and keep the young master who gave me this knife safe. And I pray that we meet again, as we promised.” Around the corner watches a boy, dressed in kimono—Shunji.
Lying in bed now, Shunji wonders who that other guy was, and whether they’ve met yet. Kang-to just snores.
The next day, Mok Dan picks up a newssheet with breaking news and trembles at the headline: The vicious criminal Mok Damasri has been caught.
Nearby, Kang-to gets a snazzy new suit, saying that he’s gotta look good; he’ll be in the papers soon. And as we know, he was the one to catch Damsari.
Damsari is one of a group of men who now sit in High Court in front of a panel of judges. He is cut off from addressing the court, but he raises his voice anyway, declaring that he is a soldier in the independence army fighting for his country, and his comrades break into their army song.
Kang-to sits in the audience and smiles, finding them amusing, or maybe just pathetic, while Mok Dan races to the courthouse and pleads to be allowed to watch.
She begs, saying that she wasn’t informed of his arrest and hasn’t seen him since she was seven, just as a crowd of officials emerges into the stairwell. The soldiers stop and salute, giving her the chance to slip by them and to the courtroom.
She arrives in time to hear judgment read to her father for his crimes against the empire and society: sentenced to death.
Kang-to actually poses with her father for a commemorative photo, smiling next to the dead man walking. And Mok Dan can’t take that; she bursts out from her hiding place, “You son of a bitch!”
She leaps onto the balcony’s banister and down to the courtroom floor below, grappling with officers and putting her acrobatic skills to good use. She beats down each officer who comes at her, then takes out her dagger and charges Kang-to. But he barely even moves, easily disarming her, and she’s apprehended.
He glares down at her, and she spits in his face. He calls her a bitch and gets ready to strike, just as a knife goes hurtling past, lodging in the justice seal. And there stands Gaksital, up in the balcony.
(He looks awfully familiar, and I don’t mean from the first fight scene… There must be a reason why we get so many slo-mo close-ups of his face, no? And now I wonder if there are more than one Gaksital, since clearly this can’t be Damsari.)
Gaksital launches himself into the fray and displays impressive prowess, fighting the officers easily. Kang-to enters the battle with his sword and charges, screaming furiously. He follows Gaksital up to the balcony, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. In the commotion, Mok Dan grabs her dagger and cuts her father free and tells him, “Father, it’s me! Boon-yi!”
She urges her father to escape, and by now his comrades are also fighting back. Kang-to loses Gaksital, while father and daughter duck into a judge’s chambers to escape the officers now on the lookout for him.
Kang-to runs up to the judge in the hallway and requests to search his chambers for the escaped criminal. But Judge Choi is chatting with the sexy wife of a royal, who does not approve, and so he denies the request. But Kang-to presses the judge to cooperate, and in he goes with pistol drawn. Nothing.
Looking out the window reveals two figures scrambling away in the courtyard below, though, and Kang-to sounds the alert. He rushes down and draws his gun… while right next to him, Damsari emerges in disguise and walks away, calmly as you please.
He shoots down the fugitive, who collapses. But it’s not Damsari.
It looks like the glamorous wife is having a secret affair with the corrupt judge, and she adds a bribe to the deal, asking him to let off her husband for that simple vehicular manslaughter charge he’s facing. She leaves him with a box of cookies that turns out to be stacks of cash, and Judge Choi gets on the phone right away to release the husband, saying the victim was at fault.
As soon as he ends the call, he has a surprise visitor: Gaksital. He calls the judge by his name, then amends, using a different name—a name that must be a secret, since the judge is alarmed. Gaksital says he’s here to make the judge face his wickedness.
Kang-to is angry that he hasn’t caught Damsari, but he tells his men that all the criminals have been condemned to death anyway, so shoot on sight. And then, behind him, a window breaks and a body falls screaming from the second story. It’s Judge Choi, pushed to his death, a telltale crisscrossed pattern slashed through his breast.
Kang-to runs back inside and spots Gaksital in the hallway. He follows him outside but loses sight of him, the only people in sight a troop of soldiers marching together… and his dullard brother, bopping along in all his blissful ignorance. (AHA! I knew it couldn’t just be a passing resemblance.)
This just frustrates Kang-to, who asks his brother, for the love of god, to just stay home quietly. Kang-san babbles, “But I gotsta play with you. I’m bored.”
Later that night, Mok Dan thinks back to her escape with Dad, and how she’d pleaded to be taken along with him. She doesn’t want to live in separation any longer, but he’d told her he’d come for her later, telling her that she’s the daughter of the independence army general as a reminder to stay strong.
She had told him she’s with the Far East Circus, which had been a relief to Damsari, who knows circus boss Jo. He told her to stay with them, so he can come for her.
Kang-to and Kimura Kenji report news of Gaksital’s actions to police chief Kimura Taro, who slaps his son for failing to report it right away. They had assumed they could catch him quickly, not suspecting what a problem Gaksital would turn out to be. Kenji apologizes to his father, then glares at Kang-to, who doesn’t get a slap.
Chief Kimura puts his son to the task of capturing Gaksital. Kang-to pleads to be put on the case, but he’s told to focus on catching Damsari.
And now, we come back to our opening scene, on the day of the funeral, one month after all these events transpired. Kang-to loses Gaksital again, which sends him into a fury. The sight of the funeral banner—bearing that crisscross slash—remind him of the dead judge, so he heads to his chambers to search for clues that may have been missed.
Nothing turns up, and Kang-to sits with a heavy sigh. And then, his gaze lands on the Japanese flag mounted on the wall… and the white patch in the corner that blends in with the rest of the flag. Something has been hidden there, and it turns out to be a photograph. In it, the judge poses alongside Chief Kimura Taro.
The friendship is news even to Kang-to’s boss, police affairs director Kono Koji. Even more surprising is the symbol embroidered into their respective kimonos: Gaksital’s slash, which I suppose could now be read as the Japanese letter for “ki.” Kang-to deduces that this means Lee Gong (the dead “patriot” from the funeral), Judge Choi, and Chief Kimura are all connected.
Kono Koji nods; it makes sense now why Kimura left the case to his son—Taro wants to keep this relationship secret. Kono hides the photo when the Kimuras arrive for a meeting, and then he berates Taro for failing to capture Gaksital for a whole month. He uses this as an excuse to take Kenji off the case, to be handed over to Kang-to instead.
Kimura père starts to protest, but Kono asks Kang-to, “Can you capture Gaksital within a week?” Kang-to answers in the affirmative.
At the police station, Kenji tells his father they have to kill Kang-to before “our organization is discovered.” Ooh, plot, meet thickener. Taro orders his son to do it perfectly, so that Kono doesn’t suspect anything. Too late for that, but Kenji vows that he has just the method for the job.
Kang-to receives all the files on the Judge Choi case and gets to work. Kenji watches with his evil bug eyes and gets on the phone: “It’s tonight.”
And so, when Kang-to heads out to his car to go home that evening, he is met with a pistol to the head. But standing behind him… is Gaksital???
I freaking love this story. It’s rife with so much rich conflict and potential, and every thread of it is beating with pathos and life.
I find Kang-to a fascinating character, who has willingly sided with his father’s enemy in a coldly practical choice to be a part of this new regime. I can’t blame him for that, even as that makes him, for now, the bad guy. He thinks nothing of a little violence and views his own countrymen as traitors and rebels needing to be quashed, but I see his political alignment not just a character trait but also a matter of a generational gap. Dad was willing to die for the independence movement to reclaim the country he saw being stolen away in his own lifetime; Kang-to may remember much of the early days, but he has a different perspective. It’s a new world, and who’s to say you shouldn’t try to live in it?
Kang-to also embodies the dilemma of choosing integrity versus pragmatism. Everyone else (on the side of the independence movement) has no problem giving everything to the fight, but as he points out, what did that old regime ever do to put food on his table? At least the new one enables him self-sufficiency, upward mobility, some dignity, a career. People call him a sellout, but we see that he’s motivated by the desire to provide. Dad and Hyung failed in that respect, even as they were fixated on nobler goals. But is it noble to let your family starve, or leave them weak and vulnerable? Is it any less responsible to try to adapt, to bend and not break?
And as Kang-to said, the new rulers don’t hold you down based on social caste, in the way of Joseon’s yangban system. His father might argue, on the other hand, that the old country wasn’t perfect, but at least it was theirs. It didn’t force them to renounce their independence as a condition of participating.
Okay, so maybe I could do without the fateful first loves (times two!) and the best-friends-into-rivals conflict, but in the context of a show that’s looking this exciting, I’m willing to go with it. For now. When you’ve got such a fast-paced, pumping, beautifully shot drama that hits all the right buttons, I can let first love cliches slide a little.
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