I wasn’t disappointed! And given how ridiculously excited I was for Joseon Gunman, surely that says a lot, doesn’t it? I had expectations, they were unreasonably high, and they were met.

The show is similar to The Princess’s Man (the obvious comparison, given the PD connection), but I mean that only in the best of ways. The stories stand separate and complete on their own merits, and are set in different periods of history, driven by different political climates and character motivations. But if you finished The Princess’s Man and were looking for a show to give the same blend of action, cinematography, intrigue, romance, and cute relationship interactions, Joseon Gunman pretty much delivers. Ahhhh this is gonna be a fun ride.

SONG OF THE DAY

Jung Joon-il – “언제까지나 지금처럼” [ Download ]

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EPISODE 1 RECAP

Opening titles inform us of the current state of Joseon, which is in the third year of Gojong’s reign, placing us in 1876. (Gojong became king in the previous decade, but his father acted as his regent until Gojong reached adulthood.)

It’s a turbulent period, with conflict brewing between the two leading political factions, the Sugu faction (conservative) and the Kaehwa (enlightenment). Those on the Kaehwa side support Gojong’s enlightenment policies during this time of change; Joseon was known as a hermit kingdom through the nineteenth century, keen to isolate itself from foreign influence. In the years leading up to this point in history, Joseon had rejected Western overtures to open trade lines, which had led to military clashes with American and French forces. While newer ideology advocated a more open policy, it had yet to take root.

Adding to the mounting tensions between Sugu and Kaehwa, recently Gojong’s Kaehwa supporters have begun, one by one, to fall victim to a mysterious figure toting a brand-new style of gun.

The head of the royal guard, PARK JIN-HAN (Choi Jae-sung), deploys his officers to nab the gunman, and they head toward a rally in session. A Kaehwa leader delivers an impassioned speech to a crowd of attentive scholars about the future of Joseon and the need for advancement. Guards station themselves with bows and arrows at the ready, awaiting any sign of trouble from the mysterious sniper.

Off in the distance, the gunman positions himself at a good vantage point and loads his gun, sliding the bullet into the chamber. Clack! Park Jin-han hears it and takes off in that direction. The gunman raises his rifle and takes aim. Bang!

The bullet finds its mark—the Kaehwa leader goes down. The crowd scatters in panic, and he dies.

His mission complete, the sniper turns to leave, only to get sliced in the arm by a flying arrow. Park Jin-han pursues as the gunman darts through the woods, and then through a field of reeds. Park is a skilled archer, but the chase moves fast and his arrows just barely miss their mark.

The chase pauses as the gunman crouches to load his rifle and Park Jin-han scans the field. Then when the sniper bolts up, the men face off, gun versus bow. They fire simultaneously.

The bullet lands first, barely missing Park’s head. A second later the arrow grazes the gunman’s bamboo hat.

Park Jin-han switches to his sword and races toward the gunman, who pauses to reload. Before he can get to him, the arrival of the rest of the royal guard interrupts and sends the sniper scampering away.

At the palace, KING GOJONG (Lee Min-woo) addresses his court, outraged at the string of assassinations: He has lost three scholars in the past month, all of them handpicked to see through his enlightenment policies. He holds one of his ministers accountable for this, KIM BYUNG-JE (Ahn Seok-hwan), who was in charge of the investigation.

If you couldn’t tell from the shifty look about Minister Kim, the fact that he’s part of the Sugu faction tells us that he’s on the antagonist’s side. He pays the king lip service, saying that they’ll work their hardest to solve the matter. Trembling in rage at the lack of respect directed his way, Gojong warns of dire consequences once the assassin is found and their backer unearthed.

Gojong’s supporters are dwindling, and only one Kaehwa scholar remains. Worse yet, he has gone missing (or into hiding). Gojong instructs his faithful guard Park Jin-han to find him and ensure his safety.

Park Jin-han promises and sends his men into the city investigate the gunman. He pauses at the gates of a gisaeng establishment, watching a drinking party whose attention is fixed on a young nobleman in their midst.

It’s our hero PARK YOON-KANG (Lee Jun-ki), who wields a sword and assures a gisaeng that he’ll cut the petals off the flower she’s holding in her teeth without harming her. He’s confident and playful; she is decidedly not.

Yoon-kang whirls to the beat of a drum, slashes with his sword, then sheathes the blade confidently. The gisaeng looks around, making sure she’s still alive, confused because the flowers are still intact. Then the ribbon on her top falls off in front, and the back slices open. Everyone erupts into laughter, appreciating Yoon-kang’s showmanship.

Yoon-kang basks in the attention, but catches sight of the royal guard at the edge of the premises, looking at him sternly. Whoops. Hi, Dad.

Park Jin-han pulls Yoon-kang aside to rebuke him for using his sword skills thusly. Yoon-kang dismisses his father with glib words, but there’s tension beneath the surface.Yoon-kang’s words have a bite as he tells his father not to worry about him and focus on catching the sniper who’s had him in a tizzy all month.

In a merchant’s shop, we meet JUNG SOO-IN (Nam Sang-mi), currently dressed in the getup of a male scholar, as she is given a small pistol by the shopkeeper, CHOI HYE-WON (Jeon Hye-bin). They’re obviously close friends, and while Hye-won doesn’t know what Soo-in has been up to with her disguise, she senses that it’s dangerous and urges her to be safe.

Soo-in hurries out, nervously holding her bundle close, and bam! She bumps right into Yoon-kang, dropping the pistol at their feet. She doesn’t notice, and heads off after shooting him a glare for his rudeness.

Yoon-kang spots the gun just as Soo-in realizes it’s gone, and his smile turns to a suspicious stare. Soo-in darts forward and throws herself over the gun, but curiously Yoon-kang just saunters away. The moment she heads off, he turns back to watch her.

Soo-in heads to a bookshop, having heard this is a place frequented by the king’s last remaining scholar, Oh Kyung. Soo-in leaves a note to be passed along to him.

She leaves nervously and almost rams into Yoon-kang again, though this time he puts himself in her path purposely. She just wants to get rid of him, but he’s too curious to let her go and keeps asking questions, to her annoyance. He readily discloses that he followed her, wondering what she’s up to with that gun.

Yoon-kang deduces that she’s too slight to be the assassin on the loose but assumes Soo-in is working with him. She protests, and when he tries to stop her from leaving, she slaps him in the face.

He tries to pursue but gets tangled up in a brawl, which gets him dragged to the police station. The misunderstanding is cleared and he’s let go, aided by his friendship with the officer in charge, HAN JUNG-HOON (Lee Dong-hwi). Officer Jung-hoon advises Yoon-kang to drop his idea of finding that gun-toting scholar, because he doesn’t want to get dragged into the gunman business.

Soo-in arrives home still bristling at the rude punk she had the misfortune to run into. She transforms back into the genteel young lady she is most of the time, while her maid grumbles at her to stop sneaking out because it’s making her a nervous wreck.

The maid finds the gun and chides Soo-in for accepting the gift, even if it was from her friend. Soo-in replies that it could be handy because she’s so on edge every time she goes in search of scholar Oh Kyung—it feels like the assassin is following her around.

The maid pleads with her to give up, wondering, “What’s so wonderful about that book?” Soo-in who takes issue with that, saying that the book was left to her by her teacher, and she must pass it on as promised.

Time for villains. Politicians and aristocrats of the Sugu faction gather for a tense meeting. Minister Kim is in attendance, while the proceedings are led by Sugu leader Kim Jwa-young. He is also the head of the powerful Andong Kim clan, and pretty much our king’s most powerful opposition.

Kim Jwa-young tells his bickering followers not to act rashly—they’re best off biding their time and allowing Gojong to come to the conclusion on his own. Once he sees Oh Kyung being taken out next, the wind should get knocked out of the king’s sails.

Minister Kim offers up another concern, regarding the king’s close official Park Jin-han, who is doggedly tracking down the gunman they hired. Kim Jwa-young gives the go-ahead to take care of any interferences that arise.

The sniper returns to his assassins’ headquarters in a deep cave and reports to his boss, CHOI WON-SHIN (Yoo Oh-sung). Choi Won-shin assigns a different sniper to handle the next assassination, which will target Park Jin-han. Oh Kyung’s assassination will follow.

At headquarters, Park Jin-han receives a special delivery of a state-of-the-art gun, similar to the one the sniper used. It originates from America and is more powerful, faster, and less complicated to use than the firearms of the past—there’s no weapon in this nation that can defeat it. Sobering news. Park is advised to actively avoid crossing paths with the gunman for his own safety’s sake, but something tells me Park isn’t the type to back off.

At home, Yoon-kang sits with his younger sister YEON-HA, who worries about their father being away from home for ten days straight. Yoon-kang says half-bitterly that this is nothing, and that their father once didn’t come home for ten months and missed both their births—he was too busy with his work.

Yoon-kang finishes whittling a little wooden owl, which Yeon-ha laughs at for looking more like a big pot. She asks him to make one with its wings stretched out, a prospect he finds daunting. Aw, they’re cute.

Up on a nearby rooftop, our second assassin lies in wait as Park Jin-han arrives home. Yeon-ha jumps up to greet him and Dad bends to hug her, so when the sniper fires at Park Jin-han’s head, the bullet misses. Suddenly alert, Park orders his children inside and jumps on his horse to pursue the shadowy figure retreating in the distance.

But Yoon-kang isn’t about to just sit at home and takes off at a run with sword in hand. The sniper hides in the marketplace, managing to evade Park Jin-han’s notice as he continues past him. But it’s Yoon-kang who confronts him from the other direction, looking ripe for the challenge.

The sniper takes aim, but Yoon-kang executes a bunch of fancy, fast-twisting maneuvers. By the time the bullet is dispatched, he’s already elsewhere. His sword clashes several times with the gun in close quarters, in between running and whirling. Man, he’s fast. Not faster than a speeding bullet, but definitely faster than the brain firing it.

In the end, Yoon-kang sends the gunman crashing to the ground. Somehow despite being vastly overpowered, sword beat gun. That’s when his father comes charging along on his horse, and the sniper darts away. Yoon-kang can only stand back as his father rides off after him.

The rest of the guard joins the hunt, but they lose the trail in a residential neighborhood. Park’s sharp eyes note the roof tile that’s askew and demands entry to the home.

This house belongs to assassin leader Choi Won-shin—whose daughter is our young merchant friend Hye-won. Choi Won-shin is not about to let these guards barge into his home, but Hye-won steps in and allows it, saying that they are not interested in harboring a criminal. She commands her servants to open up the home and allow the search. Her father doesn’t seem happy, but doesn’t stop it.

The search turns up nothing, and Park Jin-han has to lead his men out empty-handed. Hye-won urges her father not to get too upset, and he agrees for her sake; he seems a doting father at least.

Choi Won-shin did in fact harbor the assassin, who has hidden himself beneath a trapdoor. Choi is displeased to have landed on Park’s radar and warns his man not to come to his home again. Seems like the two snipers are on thin ice with the boss.

Deeming his house unsafe, Park Jin-han packs up his children to deliver them to the household of a friend. The man is an official state interpreter, JUNG HEE-RYUNG (Eom Hyo-sub), who credits Park Jin-han for saving his life during one of his travels and is therefore happy to welcome the children into his home.

They are joined belatedly by the daughter of the house… who is, of course, none other than Soo-in. Yoon-kang doesn’t seem to recognize her (though he gets a bit googly-eyed), but Soo-in has a knee-jerk reaction of horror that has to be smoothed over by her parents.

She mumbles that he reminded her of a young man she knew. (Mother: “How would you be knowing any young men?!”) Her father just says that Yoon-kang was so handsome she must have been startled.

Not having the best opinion of him, Soo-in sees Yoon-kang to his quarters brusquely. He’s polite (and potentially interested in her), so her coldness is a little baffling; he asks if they’ve met before, wondering if there’s a reason she seems familiar. She gets in a dig when she says the man Yoon-kang reminds her of is really rude, violent, and infuriating, which gives her a nice feeling of satisfaction. He’s just confused, poor guy.

Her maid, on the other hand, oohs over the beautiful young man, which sours Soo-in’s expression. Particularly at the part where the maid says he probably gets a lot of female attention. The maid clocks her grumpiness and asks slyly, “Or is it that he wasn’t very interested in you?” Heh.

Soo-in’s mother pulls her aside to scold her for her discourtesy. She meekly agrees, but leaves the room complaining indignantly to herself, “Am I some gisaeng? Do you want me to flirt too?!”

Which, of course, Yoon-kang overhears from the yard, saying he’s just taking a look around. Soo-in snaps that he’s not allowed in this area (the ladies’ quarters), and he fishes for excuses to explain his presence, when it’s obvious that he’s curious about the pretty lady. Aw. I do love how thrown he is by her obviously hostile behavior.

Yoon-kang apologizes for overhearing her conversation with her mother, which only makes her huffier, adding eavesdropping to his list of offenses. He just apologizes a few times and walks off with bruised feelings.

Yeon-ha worries for her father’s safety, though Yoon-kang reminds her of Dad’s status as the best swordsman of their time. Even if the enemy has a gun, it’s not just the weapon that gives you an advantage; you have to use your skills in sizing up a situation and find the way to win. We’ve already seen that he’s quite proficient at that.

Yoon-kang heads out to meet his officer friend Jung-hoon, and almost crosses paths with Soo-in on her way out in her scholar garb. She sees him first, thankfully, and ducks out of sight without being spotted.

Soo-in returns to the bookshop, where the owner confirms that Oh Kyung hasn’t been by. He does offer her the rumor that Oh Kyung was spotted in Banchon, and she darts off straightaway toward that district.

Once there, Soo-in catches a glimpse of someone who could be Oh Kyung and follows him through the streets. She loses the trail, but that’s when he yanks her aside threateningly and asks who she is. He doesn’t believe she’s friendly until she gasps out the name of their teacher Hyun Am and identifies herself as Lord Jung’s daughter.

Soo-in explains about the book left to her and invites him to pick it up. Oh Kyung asks her to meet him tomorrow instead, giving a location and time. She promises to be there when the curfew bell rings.

That night, Yoon-kang dines with his friend Jung-hoon, telling him of his new living arrangement. Jung-hoon asks if there are any pretty young daughters around, and Yoon-kang sighs that there is a daughter, but she’s got a foul temper. Jung-hoon: “But is she pretty?”

Yoon-kang concedes that she’s rather pretty, but reiterates the point about her bad character. Jung-hoon: “People always change their minds about how they feel about a person’s character.” Yoon-kang: “And the face?” Jung-hoon: “That doesn’t change.” Pwa. They’re adorable.

Merchant-assassin Choi Won-shin reports to his superior, who, to nobody’s surprise, is none other than Sugu faction’s leader, Kim Jwa-young. Choi Won-shin apologizes for failing to kill Park Jin-han and vows to do it right the next time, but Kim Jwa-young switches up the order. Kill Oh Kyung next. Park seems to be too much for them to handle.

He also mentions that Teacher Hyun Am reportedly left a book behind. Find that too.

This is the book Soo-in guards so preciously, and a flashback informs of how she came to have it. Now we see that Hyun Am, Kaehwa faction’s leader, was the speaker who was shot at the top of the episode. He asks Soo-in to pass the book to Oh Kyung after she reads it, as Oh Kyung will serve the king. He speaks in the tones of a man who suspects his time is nearing its end and Soo-in urges him not to go out to that rally. But he tells her that it’s okay, now that he has the book and followers to continue his work.

By the time Yoon-kang and Jung-hoon quit drinking and head home, Soo-in is preparing for her secret rendezvous with Oh Kyung. So as Yoon-kang slips around to the side door, he sees Soo-in walking away from the house. At first he doesn’t think much of it, but recalling the gun incident, he starts running after her, suspecting that more danger may be afoot.

News of Oh Kyung’s sighting reaches the palace guards. Park Jin-han immediately heads off to find him, intent on protecting him.

There’s one royal guard already keeping an eye on Oh Kyung, but he’s easily overpowered from behind. Oh no, it’s the assassin.

Soo-in’s on the road to meeting Oh Kyung when Yoon-kang steps into her path, blocking her way. He asks where the sniper is, and she protests that he’s got it wrong. But that’s hardly convincing, and he brandishes his sword at her, convinced she’s a bad guy.

Soo-in fumbles for her gun, and levels it at him. His eyes widen.

She asks him to step aside, insisting that she’s not in league with the villains. He demands, “Then what about that gun?” He orders her to drop the gun and follow him quietly to the police if she wants to live. If she’s truly innocent, she has nothing to lose.

Feeling time ticking and growing increasingly desperate, Soo-in explains that she has her reasons. She begs him to let her go on.

At the same time, the actual sniper aims his sights on Oh Kyung. Ready… aim…

Yoon-kang refuses to step aside, offering her to the count of three to give up. She obviously doesn’t want to use her gun but may have to, and tries to warn Yoon-kang that he can’t block a gun “with a measly sword,” and that pricks his pride.

Just a sword, eh? “I can,” he vows.

He raises the sword and charges. Cringing, she squeezes the trigger. Bang!

 
COMMENTS

What a relief to have a show be as good as I wanted it to be, and leave me with a warm, satisfied feeling. I love the characters, I love their interactions, and I’m swept up in the current of the show with its solid pacing and skillfully balanced threads that manage to make the drama both suspenseful and funny, action-packed and romance-laden.

The cast has always been an obvious draw for this show, but I’m sure we’ve all seen clunkers that nonetheless featured our favorite stars. The actual plot is the most crucial element and the one thing we had to have the most blind faith in, because I could see from pre-launch promotional materials that the other stuff—directing, cinematography, atmosphere, acting, music—was in good hands. So I’m really happy to find a narrative that feels rich and textured, and is perhaps a little less common among sageuks given that it’s much later in the Joseon dynasty. Not quite modern, but close enough to the brink to feature a different set of emerging values.

We’re at a place where there’s rumblings for a more progressive, forward-thinking foreign policy, eschewing isolationist policies of yore, and that means huge sea changes for the current regime. I suppose you can’t quite blame the conservatives for resisting what they see as dangerous radical thinking, because too often that kind of drastic action could have dire consequences if handled badly.

Not that they’re justified in just killing people who disagree with them, but I think the “people with power want to keep their power” is a universal sort of motivation.

Character-wise, I just love the clash between Soo-in and Yoon-kang, even if it’s rather one-sided at the moment. She totally has reason to snub him given how he misreads her character and manhandles her a bit, but because he has no idea of her thoughts, it’s cute seeing him handle his befuddlement. It’s all, But… I just think you’re pretty. What did I do to you?

Nam Sang-mi is so winning when she’s allowed to be bubbly and spirited, which is why this character really works for me. (It’s such a waste when she’s given flat characters who are sad all the time.) She’s educated and privileged, and her family aligns with the enlightenment movement, so I can see how despite her sheltered upbringing the seeds are sown for her to grow into her character, to make the most of her feelings of justice and idealism.

Yoon-kang is the more conflicted character, with the thorny father-son relationship and the frivolous ways and the lighthearted attitude. How amazing is it going to be when he transforms himself into a serious adult, driven by actual matters of importance? I know that my heart’s gonna break for him because he’ll have some guilt to deal with regarding his relationship with Dad, but that’s such rich stuff to mine that it’ll be a good kind of pain. And if there’s anything I trust Lee Jun-ki with, it’s that.

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