May we sit down for a chat? I really want to tell you what I think (and feel) about you.
I have so much that I want to say, things that I’ve bottled up over five weeks, and I know I’ll burst soon if I don’t find an outlet for the turmoil that I’m experiencing because of you. I’ve never felt so ambivalent about a drama before.
It took ten episodes, but I’ve finally found a character in you that I can relate to. No, it isn’t Lee Jong-hyuk’s character. That one I love, but I don’t see myself in him. (He’s a cold-hearted killing machine after all, even if he makes me melt in a puddle.) No, it’s the little prince, the late Crown Prince’s only surviving son. Tears and blood may flow in spades around him in Episode 10, but he remains impassive and unruffled through it all. Watching you, I have the same blank expression that he’s wearing.
Oh, why can’t I feel more for you? Anything but this detachment!
When I first saw you ten episodes ago, in that poster-perfect desert scene, I was so awestruck my jaw dropped to the floor and rolled out the door. That was the last I saw of said jaw. Like the foot of a T-Rex, a mysterious force appeared minutes later and proceeded to stomp on my sense of wonderment, squashing it until there was nothing left.
With the exception of Episode 4 (and I have no immediate recall of anything in the episode except that it made me go “Wow!” repeatedly), I have not felt particularly moved by you. I do not feel a lump in my throat or chills down my spine. There isn’t a character that I care intensely about. (High-pitched fangirly squealing whenever Lee Jong-hyuk appears doesn’t count; he could be a prop and I would still embarrass myself.) There isn’t a character I despise.
I need to feel emotionally vested in at least one of your characters. Hero or villain, it doesn’t matter. The thought of anything untoward happening to this character must tie my heart into knots; this is how I determine if a drama is special. But it’s been ten episodes and still your characters do not linger after the ending credits have rolled. They fade away, far from my mind, like the last vestiges of a mirage.
Sometimes I wonder if the problem is me. Did I place you on a pedestal before I had even seen you because of your pedigree? Because I love your predecessor so much I expect to love you the same way and perhaps even more? It’s true that I rue the stills and trailers that I saw of you because I normally don’t bother with pre-airing promotional hype but I couldn’t resist the ones of you and thus lapped them up with uncharacteristic zeal. I’m not doing that with any drama (or movie) again.
But if I am honest with myself (for what other option do I have?), I really did not approach you with too-high expectations. I was terribly excited, yes, but that was mostly because the last sageuk I watched was so torturous an experience I couldn’t wait for you to appear, so that you could restore my faith in a genre I love. I didn’t have pre-conceived ideas of what you might be like. I just wanted to see you. I was so sure I would love you.
Am I disappointed in you? I wish the answer is yes. Better disappointment than this numbness. You are more beautiful than anything I’ve watched in the last two years, but your beauty is like an unmoving parade of paintings in a gallery. Works of art that I admire but can neither afford to bring home nor wish to bring home. I do not feel immersed in you, swept away by the vistas that flash before my eyes, each one carefully framed to elicit gasps of awe.
I want to gasp, I really do.
Instead I find myself wondering, almost disparagingly, why it is necessary for so many scenes to be shot against a backdrop of breathtaking splendor. I can’t concentrate on the fleeing couple when my mind is distracted by thoughts of “Ah, the scenery is so beautiful I really must take a screencap of it.” Do you know, I attended a presentation this month that used really impressive slides. Many of the slides combined key points with comics. Unfortunately, by the time I was done reading (and giggling at) the comics I had missed the gist of what the speaker wanted to say. If I focused on the points, I missed the humor in the illustrations because I could not read fast enough. I wished the speaker had kept things simpler and not crammed so much into a limited space.
I’m not saying that you should stop giving me gorgeous backdrops. Your exceptional cinematography is what sets you apart; you are good-looking, no quibbles about that at all. But when you ladle out the postcard shots with such predictable regularity, pretty soon there’s nothing special about them. It’s like how an incensed or overwrought Dae-gil (Jang Hyuk) charging toward the camera, whether he’s running or galloping, has become the de rigueur way of ending an episode. Instead of being wowed (like I was the first time I saw it), I roll my eyes now.
Speaking of Jang Hyuk, I’m parking him away as a contender for best actor of the year. He still makes me laugh in the requisite flashback scenes of yore, back when his hairdo made him look like he had stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. But his acting in Episode 10 blew everyone else’s out of the water (even if I hated how callously he murdered, his obsession with a certain slave girl obscuring everything else including basic decency). He acts like his life depends on it and it is just a treat to see.
But that is just the acting. I don’t actually feel much for Dae-gil the character. I’m not holding my breath for the moment he and Un-nyun finally see each other, the world coming to a standstill around them. I’m tired of their respective yearning for each other, to be honest. I totally get why General Choi and Wang-son are both sick of seeing Un-nyun’s likeness on the drawing that Dae-gil carries everywhere with him. I am, too.
I like General Choi and Wang-son. The former because of Conspiracy in the Court, the latter because he’s funny. But as key supporting roles, they’ve been drawn with such broad strokes they are practically one-dimensional. Choi is the voice of reason who comes to Dae-gil’s rescue when he’s outnumbered (or too dizzy from yet another Un-nyun flashback). Wang-son is the sum of his genitals. Up on a roof where he’s supposed to be watchman, he is startled and then immediately placated by the sight of a woman in flowing locks. He doesn’t see a potential aggressor; all he sees is a female. No wonder she kicks him where it hurts the most.
(By the way, what’s up with having Choi and Wang-son defecating side by side? I’ve loved your ribald language, but this is toilet humor carried too far, seriously! At least have the two men separated by some bushes, but no, you had to have them close enough to smell each other’s output and exchange wipes. To top it off, Wang-son had to be a complete klutz and fall backwards. And I had to be eating when the scene came on.)
Let’s talk about your female characters, specifically about Un-nyun, whose luminous not-a-smudge-in-sight appearance has caused no small amount of controversy among netizens. So much ado about nothing. No one in a kdrama removes makeup before sleeping and no one wakes up with morning breath, so why can’t Un-nyun look none the worse for wear despite days on the run and sleeping out in the open or on a dirt floor?
But I do mind that Lee Da-hae is alternately overacting and underacting. Take the boat scene where Tae-ha is being fired upon (by Dae-gil) while Un-nyun cowers behind him. I could not help laughing at her delicate gestures, so inappropriate for a moment of great fear. Several episodes later, in Episode 10, Tae-ha asks her to wait while he dashes off to save the little prince. I laughed again to see her sitting so placidly on that hillock, blissful smile on her face, like one without a care in the world.
Time and again her expressions and behavior do not match the gravity of the situation, which is puzzling because I’ve always thought of her as an assured actress who delivers. I loved her in the first two episodes (her ebullience lit up the screen), but her rehearsed frailty in the episodes after (where keeping up the appearance of nobility seems to override other more pressing concerns) is making me like her less and less.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate Un-nyun. I just wish I like her a lot more, enough for me to fret and bite my nails whenever she is in danger.
There is hope, though, even if it burns dimly for now. Episode 10 sees Un-nyun getting an awakening of sorts, thanks to some initiative on Tae-ha’s part. Previously the poor guy had to hold her hand via an intermediary made up of rags, but now he is allowed closer proximity, much closer. Will that see Un-nyun finally emerging from that half-stupor that has dogged her the last ten years? I hope so. She must, for Tae-ha’s sake. The guy needs some happiness, please.
Between your two male leads, I like Tae-ha more. I think it’s because he’s a sadder character, wearing more tattered clothes. Dae-gil has lost his family and so has Tae-ha, but the latter had his infant son die in his arms. What is more heartbreaking than that? Yet he isn’t bent on revenge, unlike Dae-gil who is a walking volcano because some bastard scarred him forever.
Explain Dae-gil’s motivations to me. He wants to restore things to before, meaning to those rose-tinted days where he and Un-hyun exchanged stones (she gets the warm ones, he gets the cold ones back). But first he must kill her brother? I guess falling in love does not make one beholden to the beloved’s family, blood ties be damned.
Oh Ji-ho (who gave catatonic acting a new meaning in Super Rookie and then redeemed himself in a most lovable way in Fantasy Couple) is utterly convincing as Tae-ha… until he speaks. I look at him, handsome ex-general and royal protector, keeper of the faith and a superman of sorts (he wins every battle except the political ones), and then I listen to him, to that monotone that is sometimes so soft I have to increase the volume on my computer. Dang! He’s so close to being a perfect specimen if not for that voice.
Other things, if I must nitpick, also niggle. Like gaps in continuity that make little sense. Commander Hwang (Lee Jong-hyuk) is hunting down the little prince on Jeju Island. He sees the shoe that has slipped off the court lady’s foot, meaning he is on the right track. Then inexplicably he gets lost, because we don’t see him for a long time, thus allowing the court lady and Hanseom to have quite the chat as they flee with the prince. Later, when he finally sees them in the distance, he manages to spear the lady and she falls to the ground, fatally wounded. But instead of pouncing on them, he disappears from sight. Must have gotten lost, again! I love the guy, but will you provide him a compass so that he has a surer sense of direction?
Then there are the gaps in logic, like Tae-ha’s uncanny ability to hear Un-nyun’s whistle from miles away, a forest between them. Or Commander Hwang’s supernatural fighting prowess. Injured by Tae-ha and barely able to stand, Hwang is able to kill two dozen soldiers minutes later. I love the guy, but make him more believable, will you?
But enough of the mudslinging (and I’m using this word only because I suddenly have a vision of the slave girl whose face is so permanently streaked with mud one wonders if she was born that way). There are many things that I do like about you. Instead of telling you what they are, may I show them to you, just some of them?