Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People: Episode 1
An epic iteration of our classic hero begins! The tale of Hong Gil-dong never gets old, and Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People is the most recent proof that this story endures the test of time and multiple adaptations. It seems that this timeless story was timed perfectly in our current context of unrest, and maybe this story may provide some hope for life to imitate art. Our hero isn’t the spotlight of our origin story yet, though we’re promised a great, strong, and (hopefully a little) odd person to be the rebel for our people. It’s the tale of the devoted father today, and he’s the one who makes me anticipate our hero even more.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A bloody hand reaches for a handful of grass as we listen to the father asking his young son, “Have you heard of a Mighty Child?” The son hasn’t, so the father explains in a voiceover: “Strong as a bear, swift as a snake, able to recover with one night’s rest no matter the injury — that child was fated to become the greatest general of the land.”
The bloody hand belongs to the son, HONG GIL-DONG (Yoon Kyun-sang), except he’s older in this introduction. He single-handedly fights off his opponents with superhuman strength and blows them away with his breath. He effectively fights off swords with stalks of wheat, as the father continues in voiceover: A Mighty Child cannot hold in his own strength, and when he cannot suppress his own power, everyone dies. The Mighty Child, his mother, father, and brother all die.
We see a fast montage of all the players in this story as the young son asks who kills them all. The father answers, “The king.”
Winter, 1505, eleven years under King Yeonsangun’s rule. A woman hums a tune with her eyes closed as she gets pampered by a bath. This is JANG NOK-SOO (Honey Lee), a concubine to the king. Unaware to Nok-soo, King Yeonsangun (Kim Ji-suk) enters the room and dries her hair. When he makes his presence known, Nok-soo smiles slyly but then opens her eyes in alarm at the mention of Hong Gil-dong. Supposedly, she knew Gil-dong before she entered the palace, he says.
We skip to a standoff in a battle, where Gil-dong’s opponents threaten to kill their captive if he doesn’t open the doors. The captive is SONG GA-RYUNG (Chae Soo-bin), and she’s tied to a pole and blindfolded. She yells that if he turns back because of her, she’ll never see him again. Tears in his eyes, Gil-dong pulls his bow back and aims in her direction. He shoots his arrow, and an arrow (we don’t know if it’s Gil-dong’s arrow) pierces Ga-ryung’s chest, slowly staining her hanbok with blood.
King Yeonsangun meets Gil-dong on horseback and demands answers. Is he the descendant of a Goryeo king? A resentful child of a concubine? What on earth is he? Smirking, Gil-dong denies the king’s theories and responds, “I am simply the son of my father. My father, Amogae.”
Yeonsangun refuses to believe that Gil-dong was born from such an unworthy person, so Gil-dong asks in response, “How did a ruler, who was born from the heavens, become so ignoble?” Yeonsangun takes offense, and it seems that Gil-dong has won this battle.
We begin at the origin, and we hear Gil-dong’s voiceover as we follow footsteps at a house: “Father. Born the son of a chamberlain and grown to be a chamberlain. He lived and died as Amogae doing all the lowly work. How can I forget his cries for me? ‘Gil-dong! Gil-dong!'”
As a woman cleans dishes, a man surprises her in the reflection of the plate. She claims that she was so surprised her baby could have dropped (a common phrase to express surprise), and he jokes that she must be suggesting that they make another child. This is HONG AMOGAE (Kim Sang-joong) and his wife, GEUM-OK (Shin Eun-jung).
She tells him about a baby who died recently and the rumors that the baby was a Mighty Child because it had already developed shoulder blade bones. Amogae doesn’t believe her and jokes that he would abandon a Mighty Child if it were his.
They’re interrupted by their older son, who brings his crying baby brother to his mother. As she feeds him, she asks Amogae to name the child, and he seems to be stubbornly insistent on a name that she doesn’t approve of. She can only breastfeed him for a moment while her older son keeps watch before she’s summoned to breastfeed the noble family’s child.
Amogae is left alone with the baby, and he checks the child’s back for any sign of early should blade bone growth. He’s relieved when he finds nothing, and he tells the baby that his name is Gil-dong. He assures the baby and himself that he won’t settle for the simpler names. He lifts the baby up and calls his name twice: “Gil-dong! Gil-dong!”
The male servants are gathered in front of their nobleman for the announcement of which servant will be freed, and Amogae looks disappointed when he isn’t chosen. After all the servants leave, he stays to ask the nobleman about their promise. Year after year, the nobleman promised Amogae’s release, but he simply argues that it’s not his time yet.
Later that night, Amogae expresses his wishes to live independently outside this noble’s household, but Geum-ok is wary of the expensive tributary payments necessary to live outside. She seems content with their humble life, since their children can be well fed. Baby Gil-dong nudges a metal tool, and we transition later into his childhood.
Young Gil-dong holds the same tool and fiddles with it until his older brother summons him outside. He throws the tool on the ground, and we see that he’s been able to fold the metal over. The brothers and the other servant children are ordered to find flat rocks to make a wall, and they run to the mountains for their search. In the family’s room, Amogae finds the bent-over tool and looks at it strangely.
As the boys hike up the hill, Gil-dong’s brother, GIL-HYUN, complains about the weight of the rocks. He rests against a tree, wishing that someone would carry the rocks home for him. Gil-dong looks at the satchel curiously with a finger up his nose (before eating the booger), and when Gil-hyun wakes up, neither the satchel nor Gil-dong are there.
Gil-hyun runs through the town shouting Gil-dong’s name and finally finds him in front of their master’s house. He finds the rock and asks who carried this home. Before Gil-dong can claim responsibility, Gil-hyun assumes that an older friend carried it home for him and thanks the confused friend.
Gil-dong finds his mother cleaning clay pots and asks her to make scorched rice, since the other kids are having it. She placatingly tells Gil-dong that she’ll make the rice and tells him to go play with other kids. But Gil-dong just stays there and sticks his finger up his nose again, while his mother leaves to ask for help in moving the heavy fermenting pot.
When she returns with Amogae, she’s alarmed to find that the pot is no longer there. They hear Gil-dong chanting nearby and follow his voice to find him as well as the pot. He smiles innocently at his mother and asks for the scorched rice.
As the family eats, Gil-hyun mentions how his older friend helped carry the rocks home today. Gil-dong claims that it could have been him, but no one takes him seriously. Gil-dong doesn’t seem to mind and happily shoves spoonfuls of rice into his mouth. Amogae sees this and adds more rice to his younger son’s bowl.
The servant children and the young master venture out to town to watch a traveling theater troupe, where a trio boasts of their strength by breaking pieces of wood with their bodies. Watching this, Gil-dong claims that he could do the same, and challenges the entertainers.
Back at the house, the boys’ mother tells Amogae that the boys went to the show and cute Gil-dong claimed that he could challenge the rumored superhuman strength of the troupe. Amogae laughs at the idea, but his worry and suspicion motivates him to check on Gil-dong.
At the show, the young master announces Gil-dong’s challenge to the crowd, and though Gil-hyun tries to hold his brother back, Gil-dong takes the stage. He insults the trio on their weak act and bad breath, provoking the leader to give the child the impossible deed of breaking real wood (as opposed to the trick wood they’ve been using). Gil-dong takes on the challenge, his face tightening as he pushes all this strength into breaking the wood. The wood begins to crack and splinter, shocking the crowd.
Amogae arrives and rushes to the stage to stop his son. He grabs the piece of wood as the crowd begins to murmur about the Mighty Child. To cover up his son’s impossible act, Amogae picks up the other pieces of trick wood and reveals that the wood had already been broken. He proves to the crowd that anyone could break compromised pieces of wood, and the crowd immediately vacates the space. The leader of the troupe knows the truth, but she flees the scene without a fight.
As they all walk home, the young master complains that his feet hurt, so Amogae gives him a piggyback ride. The young master sticks his tongue out and grabs Amogae’s hair, which makes Gil-dong boil with anger. Amogae tells Gil-hyun to discipline his brother, but the warning does little to simmer Gil-dong’s anger down.
That night, Amogae sits deep in thought, and his wife asks what he’s thinking about. He shares that he was a very strong child in his youth, to the point that people felt threatened by his extreme strength. Although he is still known for his strength now, he does not know how he lost his strength. He wonders if it disappeared because he discouraged his own strength, persuading himself that it was wrong. He tells his wife to look after Gil-dong carefully, since he has a tendency to lose his temper. She doesn’t seem as worried, but notes the sense of urgency in Amogae’s request.
The next day, Gil-dong’s mother Geum-ok watches her son sweeping the ground, with the young master throwing twigs at him from behind. She doesn’t think too much of it and gets on her way. The young master accuses Gil-dong of lying and challenges him to break another piece of wood. Gil-dong shakes his head in refusal, so the young master meanly threatens to kick out his whole family.
As she walks away, Geum-ok thinks back to Amogae’s request and hesitantly turns back to check on her son. Gil-dong refuses to follow the young master’s order, so the young master walks away rambling about how his father correctly warned him about how low-borns lie about everything. Gil-dong’s anger reaches its tipping point, and he kicks the large stone mortar. It flies toward the young master — shocking both children — but Geum-ok arrives just in time to push the young master out of harm’s way.
The mistress of the home rushes out to the young master’s cries and slaps Geum-ok across the face for hurting her son. Geum-ok claims that she was saving the young master from the flying mortar, but the mistress doesn’t believe that the mortar could have flown across the yard. Geum-ok looks to Gil-dong, but she can’t articulate an explanation.
The mistress reminds Geum-ok that she would be punished for any harm done to her son, and she orders Geum-ok to get up from her knees to receive punishment. The mistress hits Geum-ok’s calves with branches as Gil-dong watches, tied helplessly to a pole. Amogae tries to appease the young master and requests forgiveness for Gil-dong, but the young master doesn’t budge.
Out of options, Amogae grabs a piece of wood in one hand and Gil-dong in the other. He tells the mistress that he will teach Gil-dong proper manners today, and drags the boy out into the hills. Amogae holds Gil-dong’s wrist on a log and lifts his bat to crush his son’s hand. He tries to swing his bat, but he can’t bring himself to hurt his son. Amogae’s eyes soften and tear up, and Gil-dong hugs in father in tears.
Amogae carries his son down the hill and asks why he didn’t avoid the bat. Gil-dong says he trusted that his father couldn’t hurt him and only cried because he was sad. He saw tears in his father’s eyes, and that made him sad, he says. Amogae looks touched and pauses for a moment before continuing in their way.
Geum-ok gently touches her tender calves, and at the sight of the mortar, she thinks back to Gil-dong’s shocking strength. Amogae goes to the master and makes a deal to be released from his servitude. He promises to take some old dried pollack that’s about to go bad and return with ten times the worth of the goods. If he is unable to fulfill his promise, Amogae agrees to let Gil-dong be traded away.
Amogae takes Gil-dong out for food and lets his curious son try some of the makgulli he so enjoys. Gil-dong makes a face indicative of his disapproval, giving Amogae something to laugh about. Amogae tells his son that he has a story to tell before he leaves for his long trip. He tells the story of a Mighty Child. A couple wanted to have a child, so they prayed to Samshin (the goddess of birth) for three hundred days. They were able to have the child, but that child was a Mighty Child. “Strong as a bear, swift as a snake, able to recover with one night’s rest no matter the injury — that child was fated to become the greatest general of the land.”
Gil-dong assumes that this must have been great for the child, but Amogae shakes his head and explains. Although a Mighty Child is great for powerful people, prodigies are fatal for lowly people because they must suppress their power. If the lowly Mighty Child cannot resist his own power, everyone will die: his father, mother, brother, and himself. Gil-dong asks who kills everyone, and his father says that the king does.
Amogae then asks what the Mighty Child should do for everyone to live. Gil-dong stares at his father blankly, so Amogae gives him the answer by putting his finger to his lips. “You cannot tell anyone. No matter how resentful you feel or the suffering you endure, you can never use your strength. Understand?” Gil-dong nods.
Unable to sleep on this last night, Geum-ok asks how Amogae plans to fulfill his part of the deal and wonders how she’ll live if something happens on his journey. He pulls her closer, and she expresses regret for holding onto him. She regrets that she should have let him go, but Amogae says that he’s become a person thanks to her. He tells her to be strong and remember his warning, and he vows to become a different person for the family.
Geum-ok prepares food for the road, and Amogae tries to leave in a light mood. As he walks through the fields, he hears his sons calling out for him. They yell for him at the top of the hill, and Gil-dong asks that he bring back treats on his way back. He turns to get on his way, but Gil-dong longingly yells for his father once more to return home quickly. Amogae promises to bring treats for his sons, and motions them to head home. Gil-hyun bows and Gil-dong waves as their father treks onward.
Amogae reaches the city of Kaesong and marvels at the lively markets. He attempts to sell his old dried pollack to vendors and on the streets, but to no avail. Taking a break, Amogae waits for his food and hears the sounds of a pursuit coming his way. The runaway passes by in slow motion, and Amogae decides to kick a chair to trip the pursuers. Runaway looks back and points at Amogae before quickly running away.
As Amogae tries to sell his pollack on a corner without much success, a group of men surround him. He looks up and meets eyes with Runaway. They go for drinks, and Runaway looks surprised by Amogae’s drinking capacity. He asks why Amogae decided to help him, and Amogae just says that it was his choice. Amogae finishes the pot of makgulli and prepares to continue on his journey, but Runaway tries to return the favor by pointing out that he won’t make money by selling almost-rotting dried pollack.
That night, Runaway, who we will later know to be SOBOORI (Park Joon-kyu), brings Amogae to the front of a gisaeng house and explains that all the high officials are in there, which means that they have… great food (ha). Amogae doesn’t see the point, so Soboori tells his buddy YONGGAE (Lee Joon-hyuk) to list off all the delicacies.
After naming all the fish, meats, sweets, and alcohol, Yonggae has made his point about the expensive food, and Soboori tells Amogae that they need him to sneak into the house the next day with a gisaeng friend and hide in the storage room. Their faces are too familiar now, but Amogae can avoid suspicion. They encourage him with a thumbs up.
The next morning, Amogae enters the gisaeng house carrying goods, and the gisaeng friend motions Amogae to enter the storage room as she distracts the inventory official. The storage room is then locked up for the day, leaving Amogae safely inside. Amogae marvels at the high class food and takes the freedom of trying some of it for himself.
That night, Runaway Soboori and his bandit team roll up with their cart and knock on the window to the storage room. Soboori orders Amogae to pass the food through the window, and once they’ve got everything, he convinces Amogae that the gisaeng friend will come save him the next morning. The bandits abandon Amogae in the storage room and snicker at their dumb fall guy.
Amogae belatedly realizes the scam and tries to open the storage window, but it’s been blocked by the thieves. He laughs at his own stupidity before spotting some tools along the storage room walls. The wheels begin to turn.
The inventory official finds the storage room empty the next morning, and the security guards run inside. They hear the aching voice of a man, and they find Amogae looking beaten up on the ground as he cries out in pain. The doctor checks Amogae’s “injuries” and determines that he’s broken some bones. Amogae describes the thief as a man with a mole on his left side of his nose, and the likeness is then distributed throughout the city.
Buddy Yonggae urgently runs to Soboori and shows him only half of the drawing he meant to show, so he brings Soboori to the source. Soboori finds his face on wanted posters, and unluckily runs into guards looking for him. They take a good look at his face and then the drawing, and ultimately decide to take him in. Soboori doesn’t resist his capture, and Yonggae feigns ignorance.
At the gisaeng house, Soboori stands in line with more suspects, all with moles on their faces. He then makes eye contact with Amogae, who gives him a knowing stare. As each suspect is let free, Yonggae watches with anxiety and motions Soboori to eat his mole. And he does — as he pretends to sneeze, he picks off his mole and pops it right into his mouth.
Amogae stops the investigation and limps towards a now mole-less Soboori. He makes an accusation to the officials, “This man is definitely… definitely not the one.” Soboori looks shocked, and the officials demand another search. Ha, he just played them.
Yonggae celebrates with drinks, but Soboori doesn’t seem to enjoy the celebration. While emptying his bladder on the street, a knife comes at his neck. It’s Amogae, and he’s asking for his share of the deal.
Soboori agrees to let Amogae take the goods, though Yonggae protests this decision. Before Amogae leaves, Soboori asks why he let him free, and Amogae gives the same answer: It was his choice. Amogae limps out and turns around to invite Soboori to where he lives, since he could be of use there. Amogae mockingly gives them a thumbs up and heads home.
Gil-dong waits on the top of the hill, hoping for his father to return home. The reunion seems close enough, as we see Amogae climbing the hill and walking through the fields. He takes out rice cakes from his bags and says happily, “Gil-hyun, Gil-dong — Father is coming.”
I thought this was a great introduction to our hero and his origins, especially in giving us the context of Hong Gil-dong’s upbringing in this story. It was a very simple setup of good versus bad and rich versus poor, and it felt really innocent in a good way. Especially given the intensity of the introduction scene, I like the contrast that the childhood story provided. Hong Gil-dong is going to be a super strong and powerful force for the people, but let’s allow him to be a kid and enjoy the simplicity of childhood first. I do hope this undertone of innocence and oddity survives the childhood phase and continues into adult Hong Gil-dong, because I think Yoon Kyun-sang would carry that well, especially after seeing him in Six Flying Dragons.
Speaking of, this first episode was a little stingy with the Yoon Kyun-sang (I was hopeful but accepting of his absence), but I found myself really enjoying the child actor playing Hong Gil-dong. He was adorable in every way, and honestly, he looks vaguely similar to Yoon Kyun-sang (dimples!), enough to make this upcoming transition believable. Again, the portrayal of Hong Gil-dong was pretty simple, straightforward, and almost comical in the discovery of the super-strength abilities, but the simplicity works to the story’s favor, especially since we’re just beginning.
The explanation for the superhuman physical strength was a bit more complex than my initial translation to “mighty child,” but “young superhuman strength” or “baby super power” or “super-strength prodigy” seemed a little long-winded for the point. “Mighty Child” was the best translation from the literal translation of “Baby Strong One.” This is one of the unfortunate translation deficits in converting an idea held within a word into a phrase in English, because there is no meaningful direct translation. (And note that this translation may change with more context in future episodes.)
Kim Sang-joong is truly the father of all fathers, and it makes me wonder if it’s his ability to choose really good father roles or whether he just turns ordinary father roles into something greater. I think it may be the latter, but it could be the combination of a great character and the great actor in portraying multiple sides of the character in this one episode. He’s simultaneously gentle and tough, with an obvious love for his family. He’s a pushover — which makes sense, given his status as a servant — but he grows out of that with resilience and quick wit. This episode belonged to him, and I think he deserves the central story arc until little Gil-dong matures enough to take over.
Every story of Hong Gil-dong has its own tweaks and emphasis, and I enjoyed how this first impression emphasized family and managed to make it an easy watch. The challenges Gil-dong experienced were not placed solely on his shoulders but shared with his family. In many ways, I can see this dynamic extending into Hong Gil-dong’s future team of bandits and also influencing his rebellion for the people. That short introduction of the battle and rebellion had me really excited, and I hope that we really get to see more of the people than the politics. In a way, this drama seems fitting for a time when politics takes priority over the people — hopefully, we’ll see an epic reversal as a form of catharsis for us all.
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