Gaksital: Episode 5
Woo, I think Gaksital is settling into its pacing. I didn’t necessarily think the first four episodes were rushed, but they WERE crammed full of information and names and setups that made it a challenge to keep everything straight. But with setup established, now we can back off a bit with the expository flashbacks and get right to the heart of the action, with plenty of secret identities, conflicted (anti-)heroes, thwarted romances, and jealousies running rampant to keep the energy level pumping throughout.
SONG OF THE DAY
Gaksital OST – “Goodbye Day” by Ulala Session [ Download ]
EPISODE 5 RECAP
Kang-to is attacked in broad daylight by masked members of the Far East Circus, and fights them off amidst the cacophony of the performance.
Kenji watches from a nearby building and smirks. In a flashback, we see that circus traitor Kye-soon had gone to the police to report the planned assassination of Kang-to. But her efforts to play rat go wasted on Kenji, who could not care less about Kang-to in danger. No, scratch that—he cares very much, and would do his best to facilitate it.
So Kenji roots for the circus troupe to do their worst, and curses when Kang-to’s self-defense skills come into good use. He has catlike reflexes and dodges daggers, rolling midair to avoid punches and land solid kicks of his own.
Then that woman in hanbok leaps at him with knife in hand, and Kang-to shoots. The gunshot frightens everyone into running away, abandoning their murder attempt. Kenji grimaces and pulls out his own pistol: If you want something done right, gotta do it yerself…
Kang-to recognizes the dagger dropped by his assailant, and with horror reveals her face under the mask: Mok Dan, aka Boon-yi, aka first love and current nemesis.
He barely has time to register this before Kenji shoots for his head. Thankfully, Kenji is as inept at seeing this through as he is being a decent human being, and his bullet goes long. Moments later, windowpanes shatter right next to Kenji’s head.
Kenji peers out the shattered window and sees… a third figure joining the fray: Gaksital. His cane doubles as a projectile device, like a slingshot-slash-rifle, and Kenji starts shooting at Gaksital instead.
Kang-to rushes Mok Dan to the hospital in a panic, thinking back to his childhood promise to find her. “Just stay alive,” he’d begged her then. Although obviously she can’t die at this stage of the drama, I get a perverse sense of satisfaction in his fear that he might be the very reason that promise goes unfulfilled. He deserves to stew a little.
Kang-to calls her Boon-yi and pleads with her not to die, and what does it say that I both feel for his pain and enjoy it a little? This drama has turned me into a sadist.
At the hospital, the doctor takes one look at Mok Dan’s bloody chest and turns away: They don’t treat common Korean folk here.
Kang-to pulls his gun on the doc, identifying himself and demanding treatment. It’s not funny, but I swear, we should make it a drinking game every time someone pulls a gun on someone in this show. The doctor concedes that they can make exceptions, but only if the hospital director allows it.
The director is, however, currently attending to the very fussy Count Lee Shi-yong at home. Countess Hwa-kyung rolls her eyes at her husband’s infantile complaining, which until last episode had me rolling my eyes as well. But since the flashback showed us a very serious, no-nonsense baritone version of the Count, I’m assuming this whiny manchild is his cover—his own little Gaksital trick. Since nobody in this drama is allowed to have fewer than two identities, apparently.
Dr. Oh humors the count, who has stressed himself sick. Count Lee fumes at being locked up in his own home; with Judge Choi and Dr. Oh both falling victim to the bridal-masked freedom fighter, he’s also at risk. Dr. Oh reminds the count that an agent from Tokyo is being sent to take care of Gaksital, but that’s not good enough for the count. (They must refer to Kishokai’s Rie, newly arrived with orders to dispatch the Joseon hero.)
Into this scene bursts Kang-to, desperate for the director’s greenlight to treat the girl. He’s smart enough to frame his request with a credible reason: “This girl must be saved in order to catch Gaksital.”
Mok Dan is admitted to surgery, and while waiting Kang-to puts in a call to his sidekick Abe: Find which of the city’s circus troupes was at the scene of his attack today.
When Dr. Oh emerges from surgery, Kang-to rushes to ask about the girl’s condition. The doctor, still chafing at being taken hostage, orders him to catch Gaksital no matter what. Kang-to fervently promises.
Dr. Oh finds his reaction too desperate, however, and puts in a call to Kenji just in case, saying that Kang-to’s a little too interested in the health of his “bait.” Gaksital’s interference in today’s murder attempt further cements Kenji’s suspicions that Kang-to is on his side.
Kenji’s second-in-command, Koiso (seriously, another K-name?), reports that their informant girl isn’t giving up any information. Sadly for circus girl Kye-soon, her attempt to warn the police has just gotten her a day of torture; the coincidental appearance of Gaksital makes Kenji think she drew him to the scene so Gaksital could kill him.
Kye-soon sobs, saying she only thought to earn herself reward money for saving Kang-to from assassination. Kenji gently pushes her hair out of her face and softens his voice, which is frankly a lot more creepy than him yelling, and asks, “Want to be my secret spy? Want me to set you up in riches?” Ah, she’s revealed her motivation, so he’ll take advantage of that mercenary nature.
Kenji drops money at her feet, and that’s enough to convince her; she grabs the bills. He orders her to report on the movements of the circus, and Mok Dan in particular.
The mood is tense at the Far East Circus, where Boss Jo decides he’s shutting the circus down. In light of their botched assassination attempt, he realizes that he can’t guarantee the safety of his members, and Kang-to is bound to find them sooner or later. Boss Jo promises to take responsibility for Mok Dan’s safety, and tells his members that he’ll put an advertisement into the newspaper once he deems it safe enough to reconvene.
This doesn’t work for Kye-soon’s new spy job, and she protests—if they shut down, they’ll look more guilty and attract Kang-to’s suspicions. The other members are swayed by her logic.
Kang-to keeps vigil at Mok Dan’s hospital bedside, and begs her to wake up: “How you’ve lived all this while, how you got involved with Gaksital—there are so many things I have to hear from you.”
We know that Kang-to hadn’t really meant it when he vowed to use and kill his first love in order to get Gaksital—when push came to shove, he proved he wasn’t capable of it—but Shunji doesn’t know that. He mulls over Kang-to’s declaration, trying not to believe that his friend would tear the girl to pieces to achieve his goal.
He shakes the thought aside, but in runs Sun-hwa with bad news: Mok Dan was shot by Kang-to. Damn.
Shunji tears out of the school, unseen by Kye-soon playing spy.
Mok Dan finally opens her eyes, and finds herself handcuffed to her bed. Still a criminal. Recalling why she’s here, she struggles to escape the cuffs, just as Kang-to steps inside… and smiles at her?
Suddenly all kindness and light, Kang-to asks if she knows him, and almost introduces himself with his other name before stopping. She can’t understand why he’d call it a relief that she’s alive, and curtly asks about the fate of the other members.
Kang-to takes that as admission of the circus’ involvement, and asks which one it is. He urges her to speak up—Gaksital’s one of them, isn’t he? If she confesses, he’ll spare her and her circus-mates.
She glares and tells him he’s wrong: “Even if you spared me, do you think I’d tell YOU?” He entreats her to take a good look at him: “Don’t you know who I am?”
She fires back that she sure does—he’s the bastard feeding off his own people, working for their damned oppressors. Hopes dashed, Kang-to yells in frustration. He grabs her shirtfront, and this is the scene Shunji stumbles into. Shunji punches Kang-to in the face and sends him sprawling.
Afterward, the boys sit outside as Shunji says he’d told himself Kang-to wasn’t serious about his threats, and that he’d had faith in him. Kang-to’s totally surprised at Shunji’s accusation, “You knew she was Esther and you shot her anyway!”
Shunji concedes that he knows how badly Kang-to wants to catch Gaksital, but this is Esther! “How could you know how I felt and still shoot her?” Shunji doesn’t reailze that Kang-to hadn’t until this very moment realized the love triangle connection.
In shock, Kang-to recalls the half-naked girl in the closet, and Shunji confirms that it was Esther. Shunji adds that he’s still Kang-to’s friend, and will continue to be: “But I can’t watch you trying to kill Esther. Do me this favor.”
Rie is informed by her bodyguard Jun that Kang-to is in charge of the Gaksital investigation, under the orders of Director Kono. She plans to get rid of Kono—he’s an obstacle—and orders Jun to find out everything about Kang-to.
Flashback to five years ago, before Rie was Rie. Let’s use her original name here—Chae Hong-joo—back when she was a gisaeng here in Kyungsung. On this day, she wears mourning white and tells the Japanese clients that she cannot serve them today.
Chairman Ueno is one of the guests, and his bodyguard disregards her refusal, insisting she work even though she explains that this is the day her dear father was ruthlessly killed when men robbed the family under the pretext of raising funds for the independence army.
The bodyguard draws his sword, but the gisaeng proprietress begs his understanding: Hong-joo was born a yangban (nobility) and doesn’t know her place, having come here as a nine-year-old after her father’s murder.
Chairman Ueno holds out his cup to Hong-joo, telling her to have a drink. Hong-joo’s eyes fill with furious tears and she tells him to slit her throat instead. So the bodyguard complies, raising his sword to strike—and in flies a policeman to deflect the blow. Kang-to.
OHHH. So she does know him! Innnteresting.
Kang-to fights the bodyguard, doing pretty well until he finds himself back up against a pillar with a sword to his neck. It’s Chairman Ueno who intervenes, sparing Kang-to, who in turn earns Hong-joo’s gratitude.
Now Rie says his name, wondering if this is what we call Fate.
It’s probably the same question torturing Kang-to, as he tries to process that Boon-yi is Esther is Mok Dan. I know, honey, all these names confuse me too.
Kang-to returns to the hospital room, only to find that the bed is empty. Abe joins him there and reports that Shunji took her for a walk, and Kang-to goes running outside.
Thankfully she’s still on the premises, but now he has to watch Shunji and Esther being smiley and comfortable with each other. Their smiles simultaneously fade at the sight of him, and Mok Dan pointedly averts her gaze.
Furiously, Kang-to storms right past them, then slaps (!) the officer who let them outside. Reminding him of Mok Dan’s crimes, he unleashes his temper on him instead, and Shunji steps in to take the blame for making the request.
Kang-to rattles off the exact legal clause Shunji violated and its punishment; he orders him to stay away, because he won’t be permitted to visit anymore. Then he fumes while Shunji gently helps Mok Dan walk back to her room.
At the count’s mansion, the countess chats with her stepson Tamao (Kang-to’s nightclub buddy) about an upcoming formal party. There’s tension between these two (he calls her Countess instead of Mother) though they cover it with brittle laughs.
They are joined by the arrival of Rie, who is presented as the singer recommended by Chief Kimura for the party. She prettily thanks the countess for giving her this opportunity to perform in front of the governor.
Tamao is immediately smitten, but the countess is sour; I’m thinking it’s mostly jealousy at play, but she uses Rie’s wording as her excuse to take offense. Rie quickly takes a contrite attitude and appeases the countess with a gift of jewelry.
Kenji draws a chart with three names—Gaksital, Kang-to, Mok Dan—and tries to puzzle out their connection. He’s sure that Gaksital and Kang-to are working together, and so is Gaksital and Mok Dan. The big question: What about Kang-to and the girl?
By the way, I know his relationship chart is just a visual aid, but I’m still tickled over how stumped Kenji is over the most basic character map. He muses aloud, “His hyung…?” But Kenji dismisses the idea of the village idiot being a hero.
Kye-soon arrives to make her report: Shunji was visited by circus girl Sun-hwa, then beelined for the hospital. Therefore, Shunji and Mok Dan are most certainly acquainted.
Shunji is at the moment being introduced by Sun-hwa to her circus leaders, all three of whom—Boss Jo, Shin Nan-da, and Dong-nyun—eye him suspiciously. Sun-hwa assures them that he’s not like other Japanese people, but they also know he’s friends with Kang-to. Double strike.
Shunji is here to play peacemaker, telling them that he doesn’t want anybody to get hurt—not the circus, not Mok Dan, not Kang-to. He assures them that Kang-to won’t treat Mok Dan as badly as before now that he knows she’s his old friend, but warns that trying to break her out of police custody or continuing attacks on Kang-to will escalate the trouble.
His earnestness wins him Boss Jo’s approval, who says it’s shocking that Kang-to would have such a friend.
Shunji arrives home to a furious brother; Kenji confronts him about his association with Mok Dan. Shunji says that he knew her as a child and happened to run into her recently, that’s it.
But Kenji doesn’t buy such a simple answer. He declares that he finally unraveled the mystery: “That bastard saved that girl. He saved Lee Kang-to. He loves Joseon like it’s himself.” Gasp. No… you’re not accusing…
Kenji barks out more clues, like how the villain is also skilled with the sword. Shunji doesn’t follow, but Kenji accuses him of showing his loyalty to the side that insults their own Father. He pulls his pistol on baby brother, and Shunji asks incredulously, “You can’t be thinking I’m Gaksital?”
Kenji tells him to prove it. That pushes Shunji too far, and he knocks the gun aside and punches Kenji. The brothers duke it out, and despite his gentle appearance, Shunji is satisfyingly tough in hand-to-hand combat. He gets Kenji in a lock, his knee to bro’s throat, and raises his fist to deliver a blow—just as Koiso arrives.
The interruption recalls Shunji to his senses, and he backs off. Kenji’s being called by his father.
Kenji’s misconception is soon to be corrected: Kang-san prepares for another bout of freedom-fighting and darts in front of Kenji’s car. Kenji and Koiso jump out with guns drawn, and Shunji hears the sound of gunfire from inside the house.
Kang-san knocks out the sidekick and corners Kenji in the yard, approaching menacingly. Shunji interrupts, sending Gaksital running. Kenji’s mostly uninjured, but he has to deal with his oh-so-clever theory crashing down around him in shambles. He screams in frustration, and I can’t help but giggle at his meltdown. Aw, and he worked so hard to connect those dots.
Chief Kimura gives Kenji the order to guard Choil Bank in anticipation of upcoming public disorder, but Kenji’s glance falls on his Gaksital relationship map and realizes something. He sends Koiso in his stead.
What bank trouble? The news is soon out: the bank is freezing everyone’s funds. It was clearly an orchestrated ploy by those in power at the Government General, because just the other day there were announcements of favorable interest rates to get everyone to deposit money.
This situation is explained to us via the Angel Club regulars: hapless Manager Bong is aghast to have fallen for the ploy, while the shrewd club madam Tasha smirks that he’s the fool for trusting the Government General. Manager Bong staggers off in horror, crying, “My money… my money…”
Rie arrives at the club, and there’s a bit of deja vu in her reception: Once again Tamao smiles appreciatively, while the glamorous older lady Tasha slits her eyes. Careful, you’ve got some green showing.
Ah, the Choil Bank president, Jo Young-geun, is one of our Council of Five, and he splits stacks of cash with his conspirators. The bank may be frozen, but there’s no reason they can’t take advantage to line their own wallets.
The scene outside the bank is, predictably, chaos. The gates are locked with only the announcement that payments are being stopped—with no guarantees of ever being made again—and the commoners’ demands for their money fall on deaf ears.
The police arrive, led by Koiso, and subdue the crowd in the only way they know how, by beating them into submission.
Bank President Jo cackles over the phone to Chief Kimura that just because his bank is going bankrupt doesn’t mean he has to be poor. Funny, here I thought that was the very definition, but remember: This Council be evil, yo. They have a “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” conversation where Kimura assures the president that he’ll support him, and they allude to Kono being a thorn in their sides. Darn those men of integrity, always messing with one’s plans to embezzle and oppress.
President Jo sends off an armored car carrying the bank’s cash… which gets intercepted by Gaksital. Yay!
Our white knight easily sends the bank guards running in fear. Later that night, a man in a suit delivers packages—it’s Kang-san, making sure everyone gets what they deserve. That means that Chief Kimura opens his box to find… rotten fruit. Hee.
Kang-to is still at the hospital, plagued by the image of Shunji and Mok Dan looking cozy, wanting to check on her but stopping himself. Inside the room, Mok Dan removes her IV drip and looks for an escape route, managing to unstick a window. Her bullet wound sends her staggering, however, and her IV falls over.
Kang-to hears glass shattering and bursts into the room. He sizes up the mess and steers her clear of the broken glass, but she flings aside his arm, telling him not to touch her: “What do you care if I get hurt or not?”
He answers, “Why wouldn’t I care? If you get hurt…” He stops himself. Why?! Just tell her who you are! Instead, he falls back on his official excuse: “…then I can’t catch Gaksital.”
He picks her up and drops her in bed, reaching for his handcuffs. But he sees her reddened wrists from the last time and instead orders his officer to block the window and post a guard below. Then he sits on the couch in her room, intending to stay a good long while. Ha, are you actually “reading” your newspaper upside-down? That’s cute.
Abe bursts in to alert Kang-to of Gaksital’s latest caper: stealing all the money from Choil Bank’s armored car. Mok Dan can’t help but smile, while Kang-to tears out of there.
In the city, Gaksital literally runs from house to house, throwing a bundle of bills into each home. Aw, I almost wish I hadn’t seen City Hunter’s tuition episode to dull the effect, since it’s such a feel-good moment to see the citizens being buoyed by their hero.
Kang-san startles his mother upon his return home, and his belongings tumble to the ground. He puts his dummy persona on, but Mom spots the bridal mask at his feet, and Kang-san holds his breath nervously as he awaits her reaction.
Mom seems to make the connection, just as they hear the footsteps of Kenji and his officers outside. Mom hurriedly hides his belongings, and then they’re surrounded by officers with guns drawn.
Kenji has finally made the connection, thanks to his chart, and tells Kang-san he put on a great crazy act. Gun pointing at him, Kenji asks, “You’re Gaksital, aren’t you?”
Mom fires back that Kenji’s throwing around accusations willy-nilly, in fierce mama bear mode. Kenji figures okay, we’ll play this game, and shifts his gun sights to her instead.
Kang-san jerks to step in, but Mom turns to him before he can do anything and tells him, “Don’t be afraid. You are the eldest son of this Lee family. Your mother is so proud of you.” Oof, tear.
So here’s the dilemma: Give in to Kenji’s ploy and admit that Kang-san is Gaksital, or refuse to budge and let him kill Mom, to protect son and secret identity? Kang-san shakes his head at her, but Mom shakes hers right back at him. Goddamn, she’s a tough woman.
Kenji asks, “Harsh bastard. Are you really going to kill your mother?” Well, I’d argue that you’re the one doing the killing, buddy.
Kenji gives them to the count of three to cop to his identity. Kang-san and Mom have an intense battle of wills as Mom keeps her hold on his arm, insisting he remain silent. When Kenji calls three, Mom challenges him, “Go ahead! Shoot!” She grabs his hand, and the gun goes off. BANG!
Mom falls, shot in the belly, and even Kenji looks horrified. Kang-san trembles as he cradles Mom, who gasps in pain, and then he starts to have a breakdown. It’s not entirely unclear how much is his idiot act, and how much is pure grief, but he starts slapping himself, screaming and crying on the ground.
Koiso arrives to tell Kenji that they’ve just received word that Gaksital was just seen robbing the bank again. D’er, what?!
Kenji is just as startled, but his father is calling him to the scene of the crime and he runs off with a curse. I wish I could enjoy Kenji’s confusion yet again, but this time it’s just too damn sad.
The officers retreat, and Kang-san cries holding his mother. She gasps out, “K-kang-to, your brother… our Young… look after him…” And she dies. Kang-san wails in grief.
Oh, sadness. I’d been expecting hyung to die sooner or later (frankly, I thought sooner), but I didn’t see Mom’s death coming. I love that she found out her son’s true identity before dying, and rather than leaving him with recriminations or hurt (which she’s justified in feeling), she gave him her blessing. She was willing to die to save her son, both because that’s a mother’s instinct and because it’s something of the family way: the cause is greater than yourself.
This points to one of the drama’s more fascinating dichotomies, because Kang-to is the black sheep of his family not just in attitude but in ideology. I mentioned it in the initial recap, but it’s what makes his road to potential hero-dom so rich and complex, because he’s the pragmatist in the midst of a sea of highly principled idealists—Dad put the cause first, and so did hyung, and now Mom as well. It’s safe to say the same also holds true of Damsari, who valued fatherhood as a distant priority to the fight for freedom, and Mok Dan, who wholeheartedly agrees with her father.
Which isn’t to condemn the independence movement, because the occupation years were some of the ugliest times in Korean history, and certainly a dark period that has been hugely influential in shaping the country it is today. It’s just, well, our hero’s not on that side for this story. He’s the one who tries to keep living on a daily basis, sacrificing the big picture for the smaller one where his family is intact and alive. Kang-to’s a far cry from heroic or admirable, but in his motivations I can’t fault him.
I was pleasantly surprised that the drama revealed not only Mok Dan’s true identity to Kang-to but also her connection to Shunji. I was expecting that to be played out slowly, and thought perhaps the quietly suffering Shunji would find out the first-love story first. So yay for fast developments.
However, I confess I am growing impatient for the big catalyst to come already and turn Kang-to into Gaksital already. We all know it’s happening, and I’ll bet we’ve all got a pretty good idea of what happens to spur the transformation. I find Kang-san an admirable character, and his brotherly conflict with Kang-to does tug the heartstrings, but frankly while he’s still Gaksital, we’re dealing with a pretty familiar story. Aka, City Hunter: The Occupation Years. When girlfriday mentioned City Hunter in the previous recap, I hadn’t actually felt the drama was all that similar—it’s because Gaksital has such an intense historical context that I see it as a separate type of storytelling as City Hunter. But today’s storyline had a lot of familiar beats, down to the Council’s plotting and Gaksital’s solution, and I think as long as Kang-san is our main hero, we won’t be doing anything new—it’s as if Prosecutor were City Hunter’s little brother, maybe.
So I want to get to the next level, and I hope we get there quickly. I love City Hunter, but this drama has so much story that’s unique to itself that it should get there already.
Side note: Please, please, let’s refrain from using the term “Jap,” here or ever. Jap is NOT an acceptable abbreviation for Japanese, and is a pretty offensive racial slur. I’d like to believe that the times it has been used in comments haven’t been meant maliciously but purely out of unawareness of its meaning.
Even in the drama, there’s a word used by the Koreans that’s meant as a derogatory term for their colonial overlords, but I’ve made the conscious decision not to use the word “Jap” because, well, each language carries its own set of baggage, and the baggage attached to the English word is not the same as the Korean word. Something to be mindful of.