Rating:
Average user rating 3.3
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Gu Family Book: Episode 1

Gorgeous. A thoroughly gripping, well-told, and moving first episode.

We haven’t yet met the main characters of our present-day storyline (as in, Lee Seung-gi, Suzy, and company) but the show has such a deft hand in drawing out the backstory that I didn’t mind having to wait. The introduction of the parents’ meeting is both stirring and romantic, and sets us up for the mystery of this so-called Gu Family Book.

Ratings-wise: The numbers for Gu Family Book were pretty good at 11.2%, but it’s a tight race all around. God of the Workplace, which had a head start in premiering last week, pulled in first place with 12.3%, while fellow sageuk newbie Jang Ok-jung premiered to a 11.3%. Too early to say who’ll be the winner here.

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EPISODE 1 RECAP

A narrator situates us deep in the darkened nighttime forest, far from civilization, as we come upon a secluded pool; this inner sanctum is identified as the Moonlight Garden. For a thousand years a protector spirit has lived here, watching over the forest, and today a monk arrives in search of him. “Wol-ryung!” he calls out, a name meaning moon spirit.

But nope, GU WOL-RYUNG (played by Choi Jin-hyuk) isn’t at his Moonlight Garden tonight (“Again!” cries the monk), and is instead eager to catch a glimpse of human life in the valley below. From his vantage point at the edge of the forest, he breaks into a wide grin to watch the festivities in the distance, where an elegant gisaeng commands the attention of the fete with a drum performance.

The scene takes a darker turn at the arrival of a prisoner’s wagon housing a brother and sister pair (and their slave girl); they’re dressed in the fine clothes of nobility but spattered in blood. Children of traitors, they are also condemned for their father’s crimes.

They’ve been sold to the gisaeng house by the government and demoted to the lowest of the low-class. The sister, YOON SEO-HWA (Lee Yeon-hee) is stricken to realize she’s doomed to gisaeng-hood, a fairly hard fall from grace.

The madam of the gibang (gisaeng house), CHUN SOO-RYUN (Jung Hye-young), finishes her performance and is told of a complication. She heads to the front gate, where Seo-hwa refuses to step foot inside. She’d rather die than become a gisaeng, she vows.

Seo-hwa’s refusal insults Soo-ryun with her denigration of the gisaeng class. So Soo-ryun orders her servant to strip Seo-hwa; nothing like some good-old-fashioned shame to knock that chip off her shoulder.

The man rips the top right off Seo-hwa’s body, with such force that Wol-ryung gapes from his mountaintop viewpoint. Her skirt is torn off next and all Seo-hwa can do is shake in shame. With only her underclothes left, the men tie her to a tree, to remain bared to the world until madam Soo-ryun orders otherwise.

The others are locked in a storeroom and Seo-hwa is left all alone in the courtyard. She begs to be let free, and from afar Wol-ryung watches her sob, feeling moved to help. He’s surrounded by magical floating lights, indicating the engaging of his mystical powers, but he stops at the last moment—he reminds himself that he’s not supposed to interfere with human lives; he’d promised his monk friend.

In a flashback, we see the events leading Seo-hwa to her current fate:

Lord Yoon, her father, is ambushed with an accusation of treason. It’s a setup, but his former friend (Lee Sung-jae) has no qualms leading the charge and condemning him to death. He even smirks that after Lord Yoon’s daughter is sold off, he’ll be sure to “embrace” her.

It’s this backstabbing friend, JO GWAN-WOONG, who strikes down Lord Yoon, then leers at Seo-hwa even as she’s spattered in her father’s blood.

Jo Gwan-woong is here at the gibang tonight, celebrating his recent promotion—thanks to his good work nabbing that traitor. What, conflict of interest? Never! When madam Soo-ryun stops by to congratulate her VIP client, he informs her that he’d promised his old friend that if his daughter were turned into a gisaeng, he’d be her first, um, patron. Ew, and shudder.

He wants to know how quickly Seo-hwa can be “prepared” as a gisaeng. Unwilling to wait weeks, he insists upon five days, overriding protests that it’s not enough time. Somebody’s in a creepy ol’ hurry.

In the morning, Seo-hwa is still tied to her tree and has amassed a crowd of looky-loos, held up as an example of a disgraced woman. The villagers hurl stones at her and laugh at her shame, but Seo-hwa refuses to let this break her.

Wol-ryung has been watching all night, debating back and forth whether he should help her. She grows more and more exhausted, and he grows increasingly upset by her plight.

Even by the third day, Soo-ryun remains impassive about Seo-hwa’s health. On the other hand, the reminder of her due date—one freshly made gisaeng, in five days—has her concerned.

Seo-hwa falls unconscious telling herself not to break, and finally Wol-ryung can’t stand by. He starts after her, only to be stopped by his monk friend, who reminds him of the No Human Interference rule.

Wol-ryung flies off anyway, only to have the monk bind him with a beaded bracelet. Things come to physical force, with the monk struggling to hold him back saying that one exception leads to two, and three, and more.

In a flash, Wol-ryung’s eyes gleam red and he throws the monk’s own staff at him. Or rather, at the snake now pinned to the tree. Wol-ryung asks (a bit cheekily) whether killing that snake was also interfering with the monk’s fate. Should he have just let him fall victim to it? Ha, touché.

Having made his point, Wol-ryung turns back to save Seo-hwa… only to find her gone. All that’s left is the rope.

Seo-hwa awakens from a fever in the gibang, and the moment she hears where she is, she’s determined to leave. Soo-ryun stomps in to tell her that she’s not free to do as she pleases; it’s now her fate to sell liquor and smiles and her body.

Seo-hwa bites out, “Tie me back to the tree instead. I’d rather die there.”

But Soo-ryun has one more bargaining chip, and reveals Seo-hwa’s younger brother, tied up and about to be beaten with sticks. He shouts at his sister not to give in, and the punishment begins.

Seo-hwa watches with difficulty, but the torture is too much to bear and finally she orders a stop to it. She caves, agreeing to anything if they’ll save her brother, who screams in protest.

So she’s bathed and branded and dressed as a prize to be sold. It isn’t until the fifth day that her brother hears that noona’s going to their father’s killer, which is offensive in every way possible. He pleads with maid girl Dam to help save Seo-hwa, although his only idea is a highly dangerous one.

Seo-hwa doesn’t find out about the identity of her buyer until late that day, which sends her into a panic. Desperate, she grabs a sharp hairpin and readies to stab herself with it.

Dam interrupts, though, and hurriedly instructs her to swap clothing so Seo-hwa can escape. Dam will be punished, of course, but she says it’s better for her to be hit a few times than for Seo-hwa to endure this fate. Aw, I suspect Dam’s punishment may be a lot worse than that, which explains why they’re both sobbing. But Dam urges her mistress to live and clear her father’s name—she can’t die, no matter what.

The ruse is up quicker than anticipated because Soo-ryun discovers the switch before Jo Gwan-woong shows up. But at least Seo-hwa has already escaped into the woods with her brother.

Soo-ryun orders a search party immediately, while the others are to keep the escape hushed up. In the meantime she orders Dam to “serve” Jo Gwan-woong tonight. Ugh, somehow the euphemisms sound so much worse, don’t they? And if he catches on that she’s not really Seo-hwa, then Dam is dead.

Then she asks a favor of Jo Gwan-woong, saying that she hadn’t informed the girl of her bed partner’s identity. Fearing her violent reaction, Soo-ryun suggests that they blow out all the candles so that the girl doesn’t recognize him, and he agrees.

Dam is ushered in as the decoy offering, warned that her and Seo-hwa’s lives depend on the ruse.

In his Moonlight Garden, Wol-ryung sits forlornly with the rope he took from Seo-hwa’s tree. Aw, it’s so sadly sweet that he kept the only link to her. He senses a disturbance in the forest energy, wondering at the source.

The fugitives’ dash through the forest is intercut with scenes of Dam’s rape, which makes it even more chilling and unnerving, if that’s possible. Jo even growls that her resistance makes this more “fun,” just in case we weren’t absolutely sure he was the bad guy in the rape scenario.

The gisaengs cringe to hear Dam screaming from inside the room, but at last we see a bit of humanity from madam Soo-ryun. She sighs heavily and says, “You must endure in order for Seo-hwa to live, and for all of us too.” Poor sacrificial lamb.

With the search party hot on their heels, Seo-hwa struggles to keep up with her brother, already weakened from her ordeal. Her brother picks her up each time she falls, but finally she urges him to go on without her. He refuses to leave her to die alone, but she insists that they have to separate in order to both survive. She’ll hide herself, and he’ll run.

She begs him to go—if they both die, all their misfortunes will be too unjust. So with great reluctance, Little Brother vows to find her eventually, then runs on.

But Seo-hwa has no intention of surviving, because she takes out that hairpin. With the search party in plain sight, she’d rather take her own life, and she whispers, “Dam, I’m sorry.”

She asks for forgiveness and raises the hairpin… just as a bead of light floats in front of her.

Suddenly Seo-hwa is surrounded by enchanted lights. Transfixed, she looks up, then falls unconscious. And standing there to catch her is Wol-ryung.

Seo-hwa stirs long enough to look up at his face and whispers, “Help… me…” And that’s it—if he hadn’t been completely hook-line-sinkered before, he is now.

The henchmen in the search party also see the floating lights, and their superstitious natures make their imaginations run wild. Is this an evil sign? Are they goblin lights?

They see Wol-young’s shadowy outline in the distance and cower. The leader advances slowly with sword drawn, only to get blown back by that mystical force. He lands on his back… and his sword lands between his legs, inches away from cutting off future generations.

Now Wol-ryung speaks, his voice enhanced with scary-deep basso tones as he orders them to leave this place. With his powers he gathers together twigs, leaves, and other bits of nature and sends them shooting at the invaders in a mighty whirl of wind and sound.

At the gibang, Jo Gwan-woong stomps out of his room in a fury, yelling for Soo-ryun, whom he slaps across the face. How dare she pass off a slave girl as his bed partner and try to trick him? The jig is up, or it should be, but Soo-ryun chooses to keep the escape quiet.

She states that a woman cannot be offered up until she has properly been inducted as a gisaeng. He’s welcome to come back once Seo-hwa has undergone the appropriate procedures.

He rages some more, at which point Soo-ryun’s assistant interjects. She begs him to have mercy on her mistress, because it’s Seo-hwa who ran away.

However, Soo-ryun asks him to pretend he didn’t hear that, because revealing that Seo-hwa ran away condemns her to death. Ah, so there is some sympathy mixed in there. She asks for one chance to bring her back quietly, at which point she’ll offer her up again.

Jo Gwan-woong orders his men to send out the search party anyway. Looks like it’s a worst-case scenario for all involved.

In the morning, Little Bro wakes up in the forest, safe and sound. That is, until he’s cornered by bounty hunters, who deliver him to the town square where he’s strung up for public hanging.

Dam races to the execution, presided over by—who else?—the dastardly Jo Gwan-woong. As Little Bro is unwilling to reveal his sister’s whereabouts, he hangs. His dying thoughts: “Dam, thank you. I will never forget what you’ve done, not even in death.”

Dam watches him tearily, thinking back to brighter times, and returns to the gibang feeling broken. She casts an entirely too longing look up at the ceiling beam.

Soo-ryun receives the report from her head henchman, who’s shaking in his boots and sputtering about the chase last night and how they were thwarted—by a real, live, frightful gumiho.

By now their scared imaginations have twisted the encounter and Wol-ryung has gained nine tails in the recounting. And there are enough witnesses corroborating the story to have Soo-ryun and Jo Gwan-woong confused—this can’t be true… could it?

Asked what happened to Seo-hwa, the henchman says that she must’ve fallen prey to the gumiho, who feasts on human livers.

Next door, Dam’s body is discovered hanging from the rafters.

Seo-hwa wakes up in a homey-looking cave (as homey as caves go, at least) and steps out to the Moonlight Garden, which is full of enchanted lights. Wol-ryung appears, happy to see her feeling better, and introduces himself. He assures her that he chased away all her pursuers, and that nobody can bother her here.

Enter new character: royal officer DAM PYUNG-JOON (Jo Sung-ha), who is summoned by Jo Gwan-woong. A skilled military leader, Dam Pyung-joon is tasked with catching the gumiho that runs rampant in the forest and keeps the citizens in a fearful panic.

So Dam Pyung-joon takes a contingent of soldiers into the woods, led by the henchmen. Following the trail of clues, he is driven on by Jo’s orders to track down that gumiho at all costs, and bring Seo-hwa’s corpse to him.

Wol-ryung’s monk friend sees the search party and hurries to the cave to warn him. Seeing Seo-hwa there, the monk groans in dismay to hear of the rescue. Blatant human interference!

The monk insists that Wol-ryung must send her back where she came from, asking exasperatedly, “Since when was it your business to meddle in human affairs?” Wol-ryung’s smiling reply makes him double-take: “Since I gave my heart to her.”

Which leads Wol-ryung to his next question: How can he find the legendary Gu Family Book?

The monk gapes. “No… you can’t mean…”

Wol-ryung nods. “I want to become human.”

 
COMMENTS

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this show, but the premiere has totally won me over and I’m firmly on the Gu Family Train. We’ve had so many great premises in dramaland that an interesting fantasy-sageuk twist is no longer enough to promise good things to come, so I’m relieved that this one delivers. A lot of credit has to go to the deft director (and the gorgeous camera), because the show has a beautiful, cohesive look to it that feels thoughtfully produced. Not just effects for effects’ sake, or cameos for cameos’ sake.

Instead, I feel like we’re getting a complete idea and a complete world, which reminds me a bit of Arang and the Magistrate. (Why wasn’t that drama more loved? Sadness.) There’s a nicely rich mythology here, but I appreciate that the central conflict is a universal one: I just wanna be human. It’s a feeling introduced by our dreamy mountain spirit, but it’s one that extends to the second generation since our hero will also feel that pull. Sure he’s halfway there already, but I can see how his half-gumiho(-ish) traits would complicate his life enough that he’d be after the full transformation.

Speaking of mythology, the familiar gumiho lore is twisted just enough to allow this show to do its own thing in playing with the conventions, which I like. The people of this world already know what a gumiho is, so some of the horror-story attributes are established beliefs. Hence the liver-eating, nine-tail-having descriptors. But there’s enough looseness here for the show to create its own rules about gumiho-dom, and how our eventual hero will handle being half-man, half-mystical being.

I do feel our bad guy is in that class of Extreme Villainy that feels a bit flat, and I’m pretty sure you don’t go from backstabbing your BFF, killing him, planning to rape his daughter, and killing his son to redemption arc. Ain’t gonna happen. I’m totally fine hating him and thinking up creatively painful ways for him to meet his demise, so I’m not crying into my tea about it. It’s just nice when villains have more than one shade of black in their hearts.

On the other hand, there seems to be subtle layers in the secondary characters like Soo-hyun—she starts off as this stone-cold bitch who has no problems with shaming and abusing people, but I like the glimpses of inner conflict we see. And gumiho-hunting Dam Pyung-joon ought to be a great secondary character too.

I admit to feeling a wee bit impatient for the story to get going, mostly because I felt like the first episode contained a lot of stuff we already knew from character descriptions. But sitting through a base level of setup is necessary, and given that, I’d say at least this setup was presented in a dramatically gripping, visually beautiful way. Plus, with characters who have such a lovely romantic storyline (and actors as engaging as Choi Jin-hyuk and Lee Yeon-hee—who is so, so much better than she’s ever been), it’s certainly no trial to see a bit more of them. Can’t wait to see where things go from here.

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