Tale of Nokdu: Episodes 1-2
A young man and woman cross paths, and clash, under unusual circumstances. Maybe it’s fate bringing them together as our protagonists only meet after a team of assassins seeks out the young man in question. In order to uncover some answers and to learn his true identity, our hero enters a widows’ village where no men are allowed by masquerading as a woman.
EPISODE 1: “First Encounter”
A young man spears a fish in the ocean, cheered on by a young girl who calls him her husband. As the young man returns to shore, the camera zooms out to show that they’re on an island.
While cooking the fish, the sight of an incoming boat reminds JEON NOKDU (Jang Dong-yoon) that he needs to leave the island. Nokdu explains to Aeng-du that he can’t marry her after all and asks her to tell her father, his martial arts teacher, but she refuses. When Aeng-du’s drunk father stumbles towards them, Aeng-du whines that Nokdu won’t marry her but he quickly explains that it’s only because she’s too young.
A woman comes running to inform Nokdu that his family is in trouble. At home, his father faces a team of assassins who have wounded Nokdu’s brother. Nokdu flies over a shed to protect his family but he and his father are outnumbered. Just as an assassin is about to strike Nokdu with a sword, Aeng-du’s father knocks it away.
Nokdu uses the sword to slash the assassin’s leg and demands to know, “Who are you?” The assassin pulls out a knife and turns it on himself but Nokdu disarms him. Before Nokdu can ask more questions, his father restrains him and yells at the assailant, “Go now!”
As the assassin limps away, Nokdu’s father claims that he was the target and suggests leaving the island. Nokdu knows better, “It’s all because of me,” and a tear escapes as he recalls that his mother was killed even though they lived in hiding.
Nokdu runs to his brother’s side and his teacher informs him that the wound isn’t serious. Nokdu’s teacher wonders who sent such highly trained assassins and urges Nokdu to follow the survivor to find out.
After his master promises to take care of Nokdu’s father and brother, Nokdu goes after the assassin. Nokdu’s brother pulls the mask from one of the dead assassins and gasps when he sees that it’s a woman.
Palace soldiers on horseback clear the city streets as the king’s procession nears. A young woman dressed as a man, DONG DONG-JOO (Kim So-hyun), follows the procession along side streets just as a man limps by with Nokdu close behind.
Dong-joo finds a spot with a clear shot at the king and assembles a hidden bow. After launching an arrow that embeds itself into the king’s side, the king’s guards find Dong-joo and point their swords at her neck. It turns out that Dong-joo only imagined the assassination and before she can finish assembling her bow, Nokdu bumps into her and knocks it to the ground.
Dong-joo pushes Nokdu away before he gets a good look at the bow and he loses sight of his assassin. By the time Nokdu runs off, the king has passed and Dong-joo has to find another vantage point but the procession comes to a stop when a grief-stricken man, whose son and grandson were killed during construction on the palace, hits the king with a stone.
As the man is taken away, the real king, disguised as a guard on horseback, orders the minister next to him to find the attacker’s accomplices. Dong-joo rids herself of her bow and arrow but they’re soon discovered and Nokdu catches sight of his assassin just as he’s arrested.
Nokdu frees himself and sees the assassin disappear into a shed. When the guards find him, Nokdu points to the shed but the noblewoman who emerges is allowed to continue on her way. Nokdu gets away long enough to snatch the cloak covering the woman’s head and is surprised to discover that his assassin is a woman.
Dong-joo ends up in the same prison cell as Nokdu and yells, “I lost him because of you.” Nokdu is just as angry since he lost track of his attacker after bumping into Dong-joo. They argue until they’re warned to be quiet and when Nokdu sits down, Dong-joo notices that one of the bars has been sawed loose.
That night, once the prisoners and the guard are asleep, Dong-joo kicks away the loose bar to slide through the opening. When her shoulders get stuck, an awake Nokdu reminds Dong-joo that escaping from prison is a guaranteed death sentence and suggests waiting to be set free.
Dong-joo insults Nokdu when she calls him stupid and is forced to say, “Master, please,” before he’ll rescue her. Dong-joo hits her head when Nokdu pulls her back into the cell and she snaps at him. All Nokdu cares about is that he’s finally in the city of Hanyang to find out who he really is.
In his quarters, KING GWANGHAE, (Jung Joon-ho) wakes up with a jolt. He dreamed that his open hand inched towards the face of an infant in his arms and the king stares at his shaking hand in horror.
While Dong-joo sleeps, a bad dream causes her to whimper and a tear falls from her eye. Nokdu finds himself patting her on the shoulder comfortingly and when she looks cold, he covers her with his coat. In the morning, Dong-joo wakes up to find Nokdu curled up next to her, her leg thrown over his, and they jump apart in alarm.
The prisoners are taken for questioning and when Dong-joo sees other prisoners being tortured, it triggers a memory of a nighttime massacre at the hands of palace soldiers.
As she kneels before the minister in charge, Dong-joo can’t explain why she was in the city and is warned that she won’t survive if she lies. Dong-joo recalls her bloodied mother gasping, “Stay alive, my baby…You must stay alive.”
When a soldier points a sword at Dong-joo’s throat, Nokdu sighs in exasperation. Nokdu stands up and demands, “Let me meet His Majesty,” just as King Gwanghae is passing by. Nokdu explains that instead of arresting hundreds of innocent people, the king should place grass on the graves of the old man’s son and grandson to show how magnanimous he can be. Such a gesture might inspire the people to work harder at building the palace.
King Gwanghae scoffs at the idea but orders MINISTER HEO (Kim Tae-woo) to follow Nokdu’s suggestion. Of course the man who threw the stone isn’t to escape with his life.
The newly freed prisoners exit the palace and Nokdu suggests that Dong-joo can buy him some soup as a thank-you. When a noblewoman walking towards them reaches into her pocket, Nokdu pushes Dong-joo out of the way but the woman was only reaching for a handkerchief.
Nokdu distracts from his blunder by criticizing Dong-joo and the two bicker. When Nokdu reminds Dong-joo that if it wasn’t for him, she’d be dead, she suddenly remembers that she left behind her will. Dong-joo runs off, warning Nokdu that they’d better not meet again.
Nokdu pulls the assassin’s cloak from his pack and it’s marked with a crescent symbol. The assassin watches Nokdu as he secures a room at an inn for the night.
In his room, Nokdu stays awake with a knife in hand and waits for the assassin. Anxious to return to his father and brother, Nokdu recalls that as boys, his brother was punished for failing to keep Nokdu away from the boats. A defiant Nokdu demanded to know why he couldn’t learn to read or handle a boat and his mother had to tend to the welts on his legs after he was punished.
Someone approaches Nokdu’s door but it’s just the innkeeper with a tray of food that a customer didn’t eat. She offers it to Nokdu and closes his door as he pours himself a drink.
It’s not long before Nokdu throws open his door and staggers into the street. The assassin follows Nokdu with her knife drawn but hides when he collapses in front of some guards. When the guards announce that Nokdu is dead, the assassin returns to the inn and kills the inn keeper.
The guards bring their superior to Nokdu’s body but they find an unconscious drunk in his place. As the assassin limps away through the forest, Nokdu isn’t far behind.
EPISODE 2: “Widows’ Village”
In the morning, the assassin changes into a simple hanbok before entering a village where Nokdu’s presence causes a stir. A trio of women attack him, explaining that Nokdu just entered a widows’ village. A beaten Nokdu finds himself outside of the village’s entrance where a sign reads, “Women Only, Village for Widows.”
Realizing that the village offers the perfect protection for the assassin and her leader, Nokdu puzzles over what to do just as a party of men nears. Nokdu overhears their plan to catch a runaway widow before she can escape into the village.
That night, the escaped widow runs away through the forest. When she falls, Nokdu is there to offer his help and he carries her away to safety. Once they’re safe, Nokdu is attacked by a peasant who is the young widow’s sweetheart.
The peasant apologizes to Nokdu once he realizes that he was trying to help the widow. Nokdu warns that her father-in-law is waiting for the widow outside of the widows’ village and the peasant understands her plan. Knowing that they’ll never see each other again, he begs the widow to reconsider but she’s determined to protect him until Nokdu shares an idea.
In the morning, the widow’s father-in-law intercepts a woman on her way to the village. He reminds the young woman that it’s an honor to sacrifice her life for her family’s honor and warns, “You will not be able to meet a peaceful death anymore.”
When the father-in-law grabs the cloak covering the woman’s head, he’s slapped away. Angry, he pulls the cloak away and then apologizes to Nokdu, who’s disguised as a woman. Nokdu walks away as the father-in-law’s servant marvels, “She is lovely.”
Near the village’s entrance, Nokdu recalls that he was ready to abandon his plan the night before once he’d changed into the widow’s hanbok. Dressed as a peasant man, the widow insisted that there was no other way for Nokdu to infiltrate the village. Before they parted, she gave Nokdu a valuable figurine in appreciation of his help.
One of the women who threw Nokdu out of the village finds him and escorts him inside when he explains that he’s a widow who needs protection. Nokdu learns that the village sprang up after the Japanese invasion when widows were expected to commit suicide. With time, the village gained the approval of the king.
Nokdu’s escort explains that the only two ways into the village are the main entrance and the gibang. The other two women who beat up Nokdu join them, an unconscious man tossed over the shoulder of the tallest one. They introduce themselves as the “Virtuous Women Corps” who remove any man who enters the village.
Nokdu’s escort calls out to LADY CHEON (Yoon Yoo-sun), the woman in charge of the gibang. When Nokdu asks why a gibang is next to the village, his escort explains that the widows produce the alcohol and sew the gisaeng’s clothing in exchange for Lady Cheon’s protection.
There’s a discussion about where Nokdu should stay and it’s decided that he can stay with the tallest woman, Soon-nyeo. Alarmed, Nokdu suggests staying at the gibang instead.
On their way to the gibang, Lady Cheon explains that Nokdu will share Dong-joo’s room. They’re distracted by the sound of a crying girl as she’s dragged to the gibang by a wealthy aristocrat.
Dong-joo confronts the man and protectively moves the young girl to her side. When he threatens Dong-joo, Lady Cheon yells out in alarm but composes herself to ask about the reason for his visit. The lord angrily explains that he offered the girl the chance to become a gisaeng but she refused.
Dong-joo tries to explain that twelve is too young to become a gisaeng but the lord doesn’t care. Lady Cheon argues that someone of the aristocrat’s standing must observe well established customs and urges him to wait until the girl is three or four years older.
The aristocrat grabs the young girl and threatens to cut off her long braid to prevent other men from stealing her away in the interim. When the lord points his knife at Lady Cheon and asks if she’ll sacrifice her hair instead, Dong-joo grabs the knife and dramatically slices off her braid.
As Nokdu gazes at Dong-joo, a breeze blows through her newly shorn hair and their eyes meet. Enraged, the lord instructs his assistant to teach her a lesson but before he can lay a hand on Dong-joo, a handsome young chef, CHA YUL-MOO (Kang Tae-oh) arrives carrying a live chicken. Yul-moo tosses the chicken at the lord and then steps protectively in front of Dong-joo.
Yul-moo pretends to sympathize with the thwarted aristocrat and shoves a remedy into his mouth to soothe his anger. When the lord complains about its bitterness, Yul-moo produces a bottle to wash away the taste but it turns out to be vinegar.
Yul-moo regrets his mistake because vinegar makes his remedy poisonous and the stricken aristocrat is carried away by his companion. As things get back to normal, Nokdu doesn’t notice the smitten nobleman by his side.
Lady Cheon points Nokdu in the direction of Dong-joo’s room and then summons Dong-joo. Nokdu wonders where he’s seen Dong-joo as the smitten nobleman makes his presence known, only to be ignored.
Nokdu finds Dong-joo’s room and sighs when he sees his reflection in a mirror. A sack hidden under a dresser catches Nokdu’s interest.
When Lady Cheon confronts Dong-joo about her actions, she’s reminded that the last young girl that the aristocrat took was returned dead only a month earlier. Lady Cheon lectures about the importance of a gisaeng’s hair but Dong-joo points out that she’s still just a trainee.
Dong-joo gets angry again just thinking about the awful aristocrat and Lady Cheon can’t help but laugh. She dismisses Dong-joo but not before she mentions the trainee’s recent outing and cautions her to stay out of trouble.
Outside, Yul-moo is waiting for Dong-joo and is scolded for getting involved in her business. He pulls out the will that Dong-joo left behind as the reason for his worry but she reminds him that he promised not to meddle in her life. After she threatens to run away, Yul-moo agrees to mind his own business and Dong-joo runs to her room.
Dong-joo finds Nokdu with the sack that holds her disguise and pushes him away. They wrestle over a small pouch until Dong-joo brushes against Nokdu’s chest. Indignant, Nokdu assures Dong-joo that he didn’t see what was in the sack and then explains that Lady Cheon granted him permission to stay in Dong-joo’s room.
After agreeing not to touch Dong-joo’s things, Nokdu storms out. As he walks away, Nokdu recalls that he recognized the robes in the sack, solving the mystery of how he knows Dong-joo.
Dong-joo happens to be on the same path as Nokdu when they encounter Nokdu’s admirer. The man declares that he’s seen the “beauty of Korea” and Dong-joo assumes that he’s talking about her. She’s shocked when he hands Nokdu some flowers and explains, “I knew at first sight that you were the woman I have been looking for.”
Dong-joo stalks off, leaving Nokdu alone with the man who introduces himself as Yeon-geun, the village’s supervisor. Nokdu is about to walk away until he gets an idea and soon he has a map of the village, thanks to Yeon-geun.
Nokdu consults the map as he walks through the village and notices a limping woman. Nokdu mumbles, “I found her,” and jumps when Soon-nyeo announces, “I found you.” The trio of women invite Nokdu to join them for a bath and they won’t take no for an answer.
The women carry Nokdu to the bathing pool and run into Dong-joo. Nokdu appeals to her, “You and I were supposed to go to that place together,” but Dong-joo is on her way to bathe after cutting her hair and joins the women.
At the bathing pool, Nokdu can’t escape because he’s busy diverting his eyes as the women remove their outer garments. Desperate, Nokdu announces that he has a skin disease but is told that the water is medicinal.
Dong-joo walks towards Nokdu as she reminds him, “All of us are women here,” and he backs away until he falls into the water. Nokdu is alarmed when the women look up in surprise. Dong-joo turns around modestly as Soon-nyeo hoists a rock and aims it in Nokdu’s direction.
Jang Dong-yoon as Jeon Nokdu is first introduced to us as a very manly fisherman who manages to survive an assassination attempt by a team of female assassins. That makes his transformation into a delicate young widow even more jarring, especially when his female alter ego turns out to be such a prude. Nokdu is more unsettled by the female bonding that the village widows expect than by any of the very real dangers that he’s faced. Tale of Nokdu promises to be lots of fun while solving the secret of Nokdu’s birth. Is it too soon to predict that Nokdu is the baby that King Gwanghae was about to smother?
Trying to keep straight the gender swapping disguises that the characters have employed has been a challenge but now that the story is centered on the widows’ village, Nokdu should be the one who isn’t what he appears to be. Interestingly, the women in this drama are exceptionally strong, including Nokdu’s young fiancé. Even though Nokdu has trained with a martial arts master, he gets tossed around like a doll by the Virtuous Women Corps. I love it.
I can’t wait to learn more about Dong-joo’s story. How did she end up at the gibang and why does she want to assassinate the king? Dong-joo is obviously a bust as a gisaeng trainee but Lady Cheon keeps her around for a reason. Dong-joo doesn’t appreciate Yul-moo’s concern and clearly doesn’t return his affection, which is difficult to understand. The other gisaeng can’t stay away from Yul-moo but Dong-joo makes it clear that he’s to leave her alone. Does she want to protect him since she plans to kill the king?
I was impressed by Nokdu’s transformation into a woman. I found it hilarious that in only a matter of hours, Nokdu had a bonafide suitor and that Dong-joo was actually upset that Yeon-geun preferred Nokdu over her. Will Nokdu’s presence make Dong-joo care more about becoming a gisaeng? Nokdu is sure to shake things up as he gets to the bottom of why an assassin is living in the widows’ village, which means that the person who arranged his assassination attempt must be a woman as well.
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