Another new drama launches! KBS kicked off its action-fusion-comedy-sageuk series Jeon Woo-chi today, which had a brisk start with a ratings of 14.9%, doing quite nicely in the post-Nice Guy timeslot. (I Miss You brought in a 10.2%, and The Great Seer dropped, eek, to 6.9%.)
The premiere’s numbers owe a lot to Cha Tae-hyun, who keeps things moving with his funny, natural screen presence. The episode itself, I found a mixed bag. The first half was kind of all over the place and was in serious danger of losing steam, but then the latter half kicked in, told us what this drama is actually about—that actually matters, who knew?—and set us up nicely for the conflict.
I find this to be a rich world with lots of interesting characters, rivalries, conflicts, and fresh elements—like the whole sorcery/magic angle, which is fun. The execution isn’t a hundred percent, admittedly, and that’s a disappointment since there’s so much visual interest that it would have been so awesome if the CG and effects were able to keep up. But I find myself entertained and intrigued, so I’ll be back for more.
SONG OF THE DAY
Lucia – “보통” (Normal) [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open in the middle of the Joseon era (so likely sometime in the 17th century), in the northwestern province of Hwanghae. A frightened peasant comes running up to an officer crying of a tiger that attacked him and his mother, and begs for help.
A team of officers follows the man to the forest, where they’re joined by a famed tiger hunter. The four cowardly officers hang back, saying it’s out of their jurisdiction, and leave the hunter to the task of saving the mother.
The peasant is dubious that they’ll be able to take the tiger on, especially when the hunter says confidently that all he needs is one arrow. To prove it, the hunter fires one arrow into the sky, shouting a type of incantation warding off bad mojo, and the arrow literally splits into many more. They come shooting down back to earth with thundering speed, missing hitting them by mere feet.
The hunter says that no, it’s no illusion but sorcery. He offers to explain after Mom has been rescued, but the peasant man guesses, “You must have learned from Hong Gil-dong.” For whatever reason, the name of the famed founder of Yuldo wipes the smile from the hunter’s face.
Suddenly suspicious, the hunter looks back… and the peasant transforms in another bit of sorcery, suddenly dressed in fine clothing and looking mighty smug. This is his true face, and the hunter grabs his bow and growls, “Who are you?”
We may as well identify him now: It’s MA KANG-RIM (Lee Hee-joon), our villain, and he must come from the same land of magic and wizardry. Kang-rim roars a supernatural bellow at the hunter, which hits him like a wave of sound and force. He easily catches the hunter’s arrow in one hand and snaps it.
The hunter uses his sorcery on his next arrow, splitting it into a dozen… which Kang-rim stops in midair. He turns one around and shoots it into the hunter’s shoulder, then utters his own incantation to claim the hunter’s powers for his own. The heavens open up to obey his orders, and Kang-rim shoots balls of lightning at the hunter. The effects are in some shots pretty cool, and in other shots terrible, but mostly extraneous.
After a brief battle of arrows versus lightning balls, the wizards leap into the treetops. Crouching Tiger this is not, but I can kind of pretend it’s Mortal Kombat. Here the fight turns to fists and feet, and ends with the hunter being sent back to earth, badly injured. Kang-rim then draws his power into himself.
Now to Hanyang, Joseon’s capital city. A bespectacled man (Cha Tae-hyun) works his way through the crowded village, referred to as reporter Lee Chi (pronounced Ichi). He bursts into a shop to ask the proprietor whether the rumor is true: Has a “skilled” man shown up? Is it the man he’s been looking for?
The proprietor doesn’t think so, but shows our hero a peek at the man in question. Lifting a window, we see that there’s a gambling den hidden below, and they look to one of the gamers—he works for the government as a stablehand and is named Bong-gu (Sung Dong-il).
They sit down for a one-on-one round, and Lee Chi asks the guy if he’s seen the man in the Wanted drawing on the wall. Ah, it’s Kang-rim, our magic-stealing villain. Lee Chi offers up a large reward for information, but Bong-gu retorts that he can’t be bought like that and tells him to play for it.
They do, and make their final bets before the last reveal. Lee Chi notes the signs of bluffing and goes all in, and beats his opponent by one.
Just then, the gambling den is raided by a team of government officials. Gamblers scatter and hide, as do Lee Chi and Bong-gu, while the officers corner as many as they can.
Lee Chi manages to dash out into the street and ducks for cover in a shed. But when his pursuers barge in, the only thing inside is a chicken. Huh? Where’d he go, they wonder. (Ha! He’s the chicken, isn’t he?) They curse Lee Chi and his unfavorable articles about their police work.
Then they decide they may as well eat up now so they can have fun tonight, and start chasing around the chicken. It’s a futile effort, and finally the bumbling officers decide to call it quits, leaving the chicken to poof back into his rightful form. Lee Chi. Who has just gotten the tipoff that they’re headed to the gisaeng house tonight.
That night, a henchman reports to his boss, a tattooed man whose face remains hidden out of sight. The henchman informs him that the royal army is headed out in one direction, leaving their base empty.
In a darkened room, a woman sleeps under a misty haze that must be full of magic. This is HONG MU-YEON (UEE) and her sleep is disturbed; she dreams of happier times, when she was carefree and in love with her sweetheart, our hero (Jeon Woo-chi).
But something went awry, and the scene fades into another one, where she attacked Woo-chi with sorcery. He defended himself, but asked incredulously, “Why are you doing this?”
A group of men arrive to have a consultation with a dosa (a Taoist guru/fortuneteller), only this one’s a quack. The men complain that the dosa gave them fake passes and almost got them caught by night watchmen. In walks the man’s daughter, who retorts that Duh, of course they were fakes. She’s straight-talking LEE HYE-RYUNG (Baek Jin-hee), and though we aren’t told so quite yet, she is Lee Chi’s younger sister.
The men are simpletons and Hye-ryung a no-nonsense type of girl who has no trouble managing them. She points out that they used the pass beyond its expiration, idiots that they are, and extracts more payment to make a new one.
Hye-ryung appears to be the brains behind this whole dosa operation, and she’s got her forgery shop set up in the back. She asks the leader MAK-GAE (Kim Roi-ha) how the search for her brother is going. Mak-gae assures her he’s looking, but her hopes aren’t high—he’s supposedly been looking for ages. He’s obviously sweet on her and asks her to clarify—is this guy her blood oraboni, or just an oraboni she knows? Haha.
In a gisaeng house that night, a lecherous man leers at the pretty young gisaeng sent to entertain him. She’s uncomfortable and reluctant, while he steals closer and undoes her top, practically licking his chops all the while.
Then suddenly, the young gisaeng transforms into a loud-mouthed older woman who glares at him and slaps him across the face. From our perspective we see that nothing has changed and the young gisaeng looks at him in confusion, but somehow the nobleman is all apologies—it’s his wife he’s seeing, cutting him down to size for his debauchery. Haha. The man begs for forgiveness and runs out in fear.
From behind the screen, Lee Chi emerges cackling, his plan having worked perfectly. Ah, that must’ve been the officer he’d overheard earlier. Lee Chi had assured the gisaeng he’d rid her of the guy, and tells her he worked a little magic. Which she scoffs as impossible, since magic isn’t known to the Joseon people. (All our sorcerers are from a vaguely referenced distant land.)
The gisaeng finds Lee Chi’s attentions much more to her liking, and starts to come on to him… which has him nervously beating a hasty retreat.
Hye-ryung and her ragtag team head out, and come upon a strange sight of a crew of men—led by the mysterious henchman to our tattooed man—busily moving a large number of chests. In the dark, out of sight, and on their turf, no less. This has Suspicious written all over it.
But our team is vastly outnumbered, so they can’t exactly assert themselves. The crew hears something and starts chasing the men, sending them running, while Hye-ryung remains out of sight. She takes this chance to slip closer to the scene to peek into the chests. She removes one small bundle and slips away… just as the guards return.
Hye-ryung makes a break for it, just barely missing a collision with Lee Chi. She makes it back home and takes a look inside the pouch—it looks like some kind of bean or nut, but not one they recognize.
The soldiers return to their base and realize they’d been sent on a wild goose chase. Lee Chi’s on the job with his reporter’s notepad at the ready, eavesdropping nearby as the dogged, strait-laced officer SEO CHAN-HWI (Hong Jong-hyun) tells his superior that this must have been a diversion. They’d better check in with the police station and work together.
But his superior would rather cover this up and let it blow over. Chan-hwi’s suggestion is the more thorough thing to do, but it could also make them look bad. He orders him to keep his mouth shut about tonight.
Both men are displeased to be approached by Lee Chi—they know better than to give the reporter any leads—and they dismiss him without comment. He lets them go, but he’s already got his tip-off and continues on his way.
Lee Chi’s workplace can be likened to a modern newspaper, which publishes newssheets reporting on court and government matters. He runs across a couple of co-workers who berate him for missing the deadline, warning that the editor is mightily peeved at Lee Chi’s tardiness. He’s unworried, though, and heads over to smooth things over with some flattery.
He recoils, though, to see someone else in his editor’s place. It’s Kenji! Er, make that OH KYU (Park Joo-hyung), who’s the son of a high-ranking minister and an old rival. Lee Chi rudely tries to shove Oh Kyu out of the office, only to get a nasty shock: Oh Kyu is his new editor. Heh. Suddenly Lee Chi has to elevate his language and defer to this punk.
Lee Chi has to explain his tardiness, and says he was out on a really important story. Even Oh Kyu looks interested to hear of the wild goose chase the royal guards were sent on, but Lee Chi does get a little carried away imagining threats to national security and speculating plots to help the recently deposed ex-king, and threats to the new king.
But no matter, because Oh Kyu is here to usher in a new editing philosophy: No more dark, grim, and serious stories. From now on, they will convey “only beautiful news.” He adds that they’ll be raising some standards around here, saying with a pointed look at Lee Chi that those with insufficient skills won’t be sticking around.
Over the following days, Oh Kyu hovers over Lee Chi and gives him extra scrutiny. Their co-workers note that the rivalry dates back a while, since the two sat for the civil service exam in the same year, and Lee Chi claimed top honors, with Oh Kyu in second place. They can hardly believe that this bumbling Lee Chi could have managed such an accomplishment.
Lee Chi pays off a messenger to get the first look at all of the newest Wanted drawings before they’re delivered to the police. He doesn’t find who he’s looking for in today’s stack, and we see that he’s been at this task a while: He’s even got his own serial killer wall of potential culprits, each picture marked through with a red X. There’s also a map of Joseon, with red lines tracking movements, and one Wanted drawing that hasn’t been X’ed out yet. Kang-rim.
Our quack dosa finds himself stuck in his room, unwilling to go out and face the eccentric (and perhaps man-hunting) innkeeper lady. He thinks of those nuts, assuming they must be expensive health foods, and starts eating. And keels over. Hye-ryung rushes to his side, but it may be too late.
Lee Chi is summoned by the chief royal secretary, aka the main boss at his office. Oh Kyu has tattled that Lee Chi frequently misses the editorial meetings and suggests that slackers be cut loose immediately. Before they can respond, though, Lee Chi catches a glimpse of a report and points out that there’s a mistake. Suddenly it’s Oh Kyu in the hot seat for permitting an error in a missive intended for the king.
Lee Chi jumps in to say that there may be more mistakes, and the nervous chief royal secretary orders them to quickly review everything before the messages are delivered to the king. Chop, chop!
Oh Kyu protests that there’s no time, and Lee Chi offers, “Leave it to me.” And just like that, he points out mistake after mistake—they’re tiny discrepancies, so minor that they eluded the others’ eyes.
Oh Kyu is mortified, and in return Lee Chi is given menial clean-up tasks at the office. He grumbles and curses Oh Kyu as he does it, and comes across a newssheet from Hwanghae. It tells of a hunter who was killed by a tiger, but whose corpse found bone-dry. Immediately, this strikes him as odd—that’s the mark of lightning sorcery. He realizes, “Kang-rim—it’s that bastard’s doing!”
Flashback. In the neighboring kingdom of Yuldo, Lee Chi (or should we call him more appropriately by his true name, Jeon Woo-chi) flies into the midst of a battle at court and fights off the masked intruders in hand-to-hand combat, which is enhanced with his own magic powers. Woo-chi’s skills look like he’s harnessing wind, and he blows away his opponents, then rushes to his fallen comrades to ask what happened.
A soldier tells him it’s treason, and then a new figure joins the fray and launches his powers in an attack on Woo-chi. It’s Kang-rim, shooting lightning balls at him, and it looks like they’re old friends. Kang-rim says regretfully, “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to go this far either.”
Both men corral their powers, summoning wind and earth and sky. Woo-chi’s powers are stronger, but not enough to do Kang-rim in. Then at the last minute, a new power joins the battle, freezing Woo-chi’s blast and protecting Kang-rim from being hit.
In floats Mu-yeon, landing next to Kang-rim. She stares coldly, unmoved, as Woo-chi gapes in shock: “Mu-yeon-ah… why are you…?”
But Mu-yeon just gathers her powers for one more attack, this time in sync with Kang-rim. They attack Woo-chi in tandem, and he dodges every blow. The last gets him, though, and freezes his body to the ground. The ice starts to take over, claiming more of him, and Kang-rim even looks dismayed—he’s not yet the cackling villain we saw in the first scene.
With effort, Woo-chi breaks free of the ice and growls, “What the hell have you done to Mu-yeon?!” Woochi falls, weakened.
Kang-rim tells him, “Goodbye, friend. Don’t worry about Mu-yeon. She’ll leave with me. She was mine from the start.”
Kang-rim sucks out Woo-chi’s power and leaves him for dead.
But Woo-chi isn’t gone yet, and in a cave his mentor marshals his own powers to infuse life back into his frozen body. Woo-chi awakens, and his mentor (Jung Jin-young) informs him that the one behind Yuldo’s collapse is MA SOOK.
He explains that Ma Sook was once a follower of their teacher Hong Gil-Dong and part of their group, Hwalbindang, but has betrayed Yuldo and set his sights to loftier kingdoms: He wants to conquer Joseon. He warns that with Kang-rim and Mu-yeon also heading to Joseon, there are evil plots in the works: “You must stop them.”
His mentor warns that Mu-yeon is being controlled by the others, and once she falls under Ma Sook’s spell it will be impossible to recover her. All they will be able to do then is kill her. He tells Woo-chi to go to Joseon and stop Ma Sook. Woo-chi is horrified at the idea of having to kill his beloved, but his mentor tells him, “That girl is no longer the Hong Mu-yeon you loved.”
His mentor is not well, and struggles to impress upon Woo-chi how important his mission is, and that to save the world he must go and save Joseon. Those are literally his last words.
Back to the present day, Woo-chi/Lee Chi reads that report and realizes he’s found Kang-rim at last. Fuming, he gathers his hands and recites the old incantation, and his spell transforms him back to Woo-chi’s dosa appearance. With his superspeed, he zooms out of the office, so fast that he’s almost imperceptible to the human eye. He leaps tall buildings in a single bound, traversing the countryside to the province of Hwanghae.
He vows, “Kang-rim-ah, just you wait. Jeon Woo-chi is on his way!”
Kang-rim stands on a treetop expectantly, and smiles. “You’re here! I’ve been waiting.”
As I said, I found the first episode—the first half, in particular—a bit underwhelming. I appreciate that the drama starts in media res, without a whole lot of labored setting-up and starting from zero and lingering in past traumas. We start right in the thick of the mission and are given clues backward, showing us how things came to become this way. It makes for brisker storytelling, and gets us right into the heart of the story.
On the other hand, it can also be a huge mess of confusion. I try to watch these premieres as though I know nothing about the story, to enjoy as a viewer would see things for the first time, but with this show that was impossible. Leaving behind what I knew of the characters would have made for a hopeless mess of frustration. Like Woo-chi being Lee Chi, and what his relation to Hong Gil-dong is, and who our bad guys are, etc.
Thankfully the plot starts to come together in due time, and once it does I think we’re set up for a potentially really interesting drama.
I just think that perhaps the producers did the show a disservice by framing the Episode 1 events as they did, because who cares about the gambling den, or the random hunter, or some bumbling police officers? I wanted to see Jeon Woo-chi in action, and instead it took us a good long while to get the whole Clark Kent identity explained. (Again, if you’ve been following the plot synopses you would’ve known that, but it was underexplained in the show proper.) Once we were caught up there was a great shift in tone when Woo-chi sheds the goofy Lee Chi demeanor and gets all fierce and intense about his revenge mission, and Cha Tae-hyun is so good at making those shifts believable. I look forward to his secret-identity playacting and getting to see more of that duality play out.
Plus, if the drama were going to highlight its action in such extensive scenes, it should really do it better. That was the big complaint I saw in the Korean media, of the poor effects (coupled with the sheer amount of them). That kind of thing doesn’t shut off my enjoyment of a show, but you have to admit things were lookin’ an awful lot like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers from some angles. Conversely, if your technical limitations are keeping you from the kind of effects you need to show that sequence, then perhaps the scenes should have been trimmed so as to work around the restrictions.
That aside, the main characters are great. I love the conflict between Woo-chi and his erstwhile friend Kang-rim, and the way their love triangle currently stands—because how can you not pity the guy for having to possibly kill his one true love? The actors are particularly good at playing their dualities, which helps tremendously; when I first saw Kang-rim onscreen I thought he was going to be an absurd villain a la Faith’s Ki Chul, all grand domination schemes and evil cackling. But when he betrays Woo-chi, there’s real emotion there, and it makes me believe that yes, they were once friends.
The side characters, I’m not so sure about yet. (Though I already love the editor-boss-rival Oh Kyu. He’s hilarious.) I really wished the show had held back on introducing them until at least the second episode, after it had anchored the show with the leads’ stories. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
- Character introductions and kisses for Jeon Woo-chi
- Jung Jin-young cameos as Jeon Woo-chi’s teacher
- Jeon Woo-chi’s wizard war
- Fusion action and laughs for Jeon Woo-chi
- Baek Jin-hee’s first shoot for Jeon Woo-chi
- UEE, the action star
- Filming begins on Jeon Woo-chi
- Jeon Woo-chi beefs up its comic lineup
- Jeon Woo-chi casts supporting ladies
- Jeon Woo-chi recruits its antagonists
- Cha Tae-hyun and UEE headline Jeon Woo-chi drama