This is a recap of the first episode of Road Number One (“R#1”) in that I shall be doing my best to describe the episode as it unfolds. Do be warned, however, that it will be much in the nature of a review in that I’m not going to be holding back my opinion. Just so you know. If you think you may be offended by opinion, read no further. In point of fact, any re-telling of a story must come from a subjective viewpoint, and for me the whole point of a recap is to see a show through someone else’s lens. If I wanted a pure and unadulterated version of the show I’d just watch it!
All set? Here we go!
The show opens with a slide-show of war scenes accompanied by stirring music. We are informed that the context of this drama is the 1950-1953 Korean War. “At a time when nobody had ever seen a tank, peaceful villages were invaded”. We are exhorted never to re-enact the pain of this tragic war, and told that the show is dedicated “to those who sacrificed their lives selflessly and without hesitation for our motherland, and to the countless souls.” And we are reminded that the war has not officially ended.
I feel this is a bit heavy-handed. But then, war is heavy-handed, and the best war movies have a heavy message. So I’m just about ok with this portentous and slightly maudlin start. I also feel that to describe the fighting as being “for our motherland” is sentimentalising and simplifying somewhat what must be one of the most complicated, bedevilled, politicised and pointless military conflicts of the twentieth-century. But anyhoo, this is a drama not a history lesson, so let us push on.
Live action begins. We start at the Korean War memorial, in present day, complete with tasselled and pressed honour guard drilling. An old man (looking startlingly like an aged Yoon Kye Sang) slides up to a memorial plague in his wheelchair and leans over to caress an engraved name – Lee Jang Woo. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs tearily, “I’m sorry I took so long. The truth is that I was afraid, I was afraid I would cry like a baby if I came. I want to believe that you’re still alive.”
Fade out to the past. A handful of troops splash through a muddy field with dramatic mountains in the background (great location, nice execution). We are told that this is the 1948 Jiri Mountain Munsu-gol Battle waged between “hidden North Korean guerrillas and the South Korean Army”, i.e., this is a (border?) skirmish before the official outbreak of war in 1950. Rain is falling from an overcast sky. The colours are grey and bleak. The soundtrack is spare and ominous. Men are running through the tall reeds. We hear heavy breathing and we see So Ji Sub (as Lee Jang Woo) running (and wearing rain-proof guy-liner).
Jang Woo stops his troops with a dramatic hand-signal and they hide while North Korean guerillas run past them. Jang Woo and his band gather together and explain excitedly to each other what is happening (i.e., give the viewers the Exposition):- “Communications have been cut off!” “It’s been 30 minutes, reinforcements are not coming!”. Then Jang Woo pronounces, wild-eyed, to the shock of his band, “We are going to have a ‘wild boar hunt’! I’ll be the wild boar!”
Uh oh, I thinks to myself. Jang Woo is going to be the decoy. He’s going to break cover, attract fire, and die heroically to save his men, oh crap. But, no. Clearly I have not grasped the awesomeness of Jang Woo, because he’s not talking about any old simple decoy trick. He speaks of a revolutionary military manoeuvre, a trick so simple and yet so effective… Jang Woo runs right through the middle of the group of enemy soldiers. And they are so startled by his audacity, so dazzled by his speed and so terrified of his bulging eyes, they aim their rifles at him but miss and wind up shooting their comrades instead. Wow. Astonishing.
This display of breathtaking deflection of bullets (and logic) so inspires Jang Woo’s band, they attack the enemy soldiers, at first picking them off easily. But they are out-numbered, and Jang Woo’s comrades start falling. They flee, and huddle again for Another Exposition:– “We are running out of ammunition!” Jang Woo: “It has to be a large-scale bombing! Since we are going to die anyway, we all die together!” He radios their coordinates to their field artillery units (so what about the previous exposition about communications being cut?) which are apparently close enough for instant pin-point accuracy bombardment, but not close enough for reinforcement troops to be sent. And why must they all die? Why not retreat strategically and let the enemy be shelled to smithereens? It’s really not clear to me. What is clear to me, though, is that the message I’m supposed to take away from this whole scenario is that Jang Woo is awesome and brave.
Jang Woo’s men are horrified, but Jang Woo declaims, “Who dies or lives is not up to me!” (which must be a handy credo when you’re arranging the bombardment of your own troops) and orders his out-numbered men into hand-to-hand combat. Flames fly in the ensuing melee, in which Jang Woo gives as good as he gets. But his men keep falling. Howling with rage, with Herculean strength Jang Woo flings his rifle like a spear, which pierces an enemy soldier through. Then the shells start to fall. Everyone falls. Fire burns. Rain falls relentlessly. Wounded, Jang Woo staggers through the smoke and the exploding shells, and finally falls to the sodden ground, bloodied, eyes no longer bulging but flickering on the verge of life and death. (OK, this very last scene? Not bad, not bad at all. Finally feeling the SJS.)
At this critical dramatic juncture, of course the ubiquitous flashback to happy days, the contrast highlighting the horror of war, and giving us the moving back-story of our hero Lee Jang Woo.
Cue gentle piano-tinkling music designed to invoke childhood idyll. Sunshine and green fields. Clean smiley faces of cute young children. But wait a minute, it’s not quite so idyllic. Something is going on which is Making Us Feel Sad. Two little girls and a boy are going to school, clean-dressed and fresh-faced, but they are followed by a poor grubby servant boy who is carrying their school bags. They cross a stream on stepping stones and when they reach a gap in the stones, the poor boy puts down the bags, runs ahead and kneels in the gap for them to step on. Really? The gap isn’t even all that big, and the water only ankle-deep. Clearly, the boy is Much Abused and we are to feel Very Sad for him. The elder girl doesn’t like to step on Abused Boy, but she does it anyway with heavy heart, while Abused Boy smiles indulgently. Clearly, Abused Boy loves Compassionate Girl. And Sad Things are to come. I can’t wait.
Night falls. Compassionate Girl is bathing. Abused Boy is peeking through a crack and sketching her naked body. Er, is this supposed to be touching? Because it’s creeping me out a bit.
Apparently, I’m not the only one getting bad vibes, because Compassionate Girl senses someone at the door, by superhuman force wraps herself in a cloth in a nano-second, and opens the door on Abashed Boy. She grabs his book, wild-eyed. He watched expressionless as she flips through the book, gasping – surprise surprise (not) the sketch-book is full of sketches of her, ohnos. Pre-pubescent bosom heaving, she rips up the sketch-book, and slaps him across the face. (OK, if I weren’t already creeped out, I’m now even more creeped out by the children enacting what is a very adult reaction to invasion of personal privacy). She looks furious, he looks blank.
He is hauled away by Privileged Boy who starts to beat him up in the courtyard, “I told you not to do that ever again!” Compassionate Girl now looks on in horror. Abused Boy declaims, “I’m going to continue drawing, because I like the Young Mistress.” Now Compassionate Girl looks sorry and Abused Boy smiles at her serenely. Thanks, Show, for spelling it all out so clearly for us. Wow, I would never have guessed that he liked her if you didn’t hit me over the head with it (ouch).
Privileged Boy picks up a scythe, yells dramatically, and plunges it into some part of the body of Abused Boy. Abused Boy shrieks as blood splatters on his face. Yikes. All right, we get it we get it, Privileged Boy is horrid and Abused Boy is pitiful. Okay, I’m sorry I laughed at you, Show, for hitting me over the head, you don’t have to hit me over the head now with a sharp farming instrument do you? Er, I guess you do. Ouch.
Cut to a tree by a field, and boy cowering under the tree with his face and hand covered in blood. Eeks, that’s a lot of blood, has he lost a limb? No, he’s only got a gash in his hand (whew!) – I never knew there were large arteries in the back of one’s hand that would spew blood in that manner when cut. The things I learn from television.
Anyway, Compassionate Girl runs to boy and rips off the hem of her skirt (always, it is the hem of the skirt) to bind boy’s trembling hand. Sad music plays.
Cut away to day-time again. Abused Boy dashes to stream, drops parcels on water’s edge, runs to take his position in the stepping-stone gap, and smiles invitingly up at Compassionate Girl. But today, she steps deliberately into the water, walks round him, and lifts him up by his wounded hand. Then places his hand on her left chest. (Eurgh. Again, a very adult, sexual gesture enacted by young children, I be not touched, I be eeked.) He looks wonderingly at her. She pulls out from her bosom (well, her pinafore top) pages from his sketch-book (miraculously neat and whole) and tells him not to sneak around anymore but to continue sketching. He nods adoringly. She tells him to call her familiarly by her name – Su Yeon – instead of “Young Mistress”.
Wow. What a change in a young lady’s heart getting injured brings. It seems we can recommend to all lovelorn young men a spot of dramatic bloodshed.
Except that, wait a minute, we’re not talking about lovelorn adults here, or even teenagers. These are pre-pubescent kids. Ew. Moving sharply along…
Or not. So I’m thinking, ok ok I get that you need to establish the Epic Love and I get that you want to utilise adorable child actors. I get it, I assume we’re done, let’s move on. But instead, Su Yeon shuts her eyes. Boy looks puzzled (and I am too, genuinely). Then he gasps in shock (and I’m still puzzled). And he closes his eyes (and I’m still puzzled – is this soaking-in-the-sun-with-eyes-shut some kind of special Korean children’s game?) And he draws closer to her and suddenly the light dawns on Stupid Me – she was angling for a kiss and he was shocked because he realized it!! By golly, I’m so stupid. When a little girl closes her eyes and looks serene, I totally do not get that she is asking to be snogged.
Predictably, at the last minute she opens her eyes, smiles coyly, pushes Abused Boy (and his poor wounded hand!) into the water, and runs away. Ha ha! So funny, sweet and romantic! (Not) He picks up his sodden pieces of paper and gazes adoringly after her. Yeah, boy, soak in the water and soak in the humiliation. I have a feeling she might be the death of you (quite literally), and most certainly the source of a great deal more pain, suffering and humiliation.
To the continuing strains of sweet music, we return to that tree by the field, years later, to a scene set in a sunny drizzle. Poor Abused Boy is busying himself with his precious sketch-book and we are not surprised to find that Abused Boy is Lee Jang Woo, So Ji Sub in a lamentable bowl-cut (Poor SJS!). We meet Kim Ha Neul playing the adult Kim Su Yeon as she is poised artistically (and, it looks to me, uncomfortably) up the tree, munching an apple (Symbolism? Forbidden Fruit? Exile? Doom?) and craning to look over his shoulder.
“Let me see! Let me see!” she says as they wrestle (fakely) over the book. He wrests her apple and cheekily takes a bite. She looks into the book and realises it’s a drawing of herself eating the apple in the tree naked (more symbolism?). She is enraged. He laughs and dances off triumphantly, capering through the padi field (Oy, don’t trample the padi! It’s hard work to plant, you know). She stamps her feet and flings her hair girly-ly and yells, “Get back here immediately!” I suppose she’s supposed to look cute here, but to me she just looks like a woman on a bad hair day trying to act like a girly girl. Also, KHN is looking rather wan and washed out. I think she should be demanding more of that make-up her male co-stars seem to have so much access to.
She suddenly switches gear and shouts to him, “I love you!” Wow, that was pretty swift romantic development. But I guess they have had an early start since they have been going at it since they were children, eh? Jang Woo yells cheekily, feigning deafness, “what did you say?” and she shouts again, “I love you!”.
Ok. Superficially? This very part right here I kind of get. If So Ji Sub had just stolen my apple and were laughing at me impishly, I’d also shout, “I love you!”. But overall, the Tree of Love tableau doesn’t work for me. Too cute and too self-conscious. And on a more serious note, the whole theme of naked sketches between two people growing up in the same household and stretching over the years from childhood to young adulthood is a bit too creepy for me.
He runs back to her, falls in the mud, and drags her into the field (No no! Not the precious padi!). She repeats her declaration of love at close quarters and they gaze delightedly into each others’ eyes.
Night-time. They sit chummily together and consider his sketch book and his drawings of them kissing (Real scenes? Fantasies? Dunno). “Is this all you think about? What is your dream?” she asks. I guess this scene is supposed to cement the endurance and the imperative of their Epic Love. But I don’t know whether I am more bothered by their duel bad hair or by the incongruity of them chatting about his borderline-stalker obsession in such a casual manner. “My dream is to draw one person, forever,” he says. “Even if that person is not next to you?” she asks. “Yes,” he replies, “even then, I will draw only you.” I don’t understand this conversation – why would she be talking about leaving him? It makes no sense, except as a set-up for their later inevitable tragic separation when they will likely have sad flashbacks to this conversation, sigh.
They pinky-swear eternal love. And dissolve into giggles and playfully jostle one another.
And I’m pretty confused. Is this a serious love confession, or not? Don’t they mean what they say? And if so, what’s so funny? Or is the giggling and joshing supposed to indicate that they are so adorably comfortable with each other they even laugh at their own love declarations? I just can’t understand or connect with this scene.
And, really, I just can’t understand or connect with this romantic couple. I don’t feel I know them, I don’t know why they love each other, nor even how they relate to each other.
In any event, no time to ponder, because we move swiftly on…
Jang Woo is walking across a bridge in army gear, and Su Yeon runs towards him holding a shoe in her hand (I guess this indicates extreme haste), screaming, “Jang Woo! Jang Woo!”. Evidently too distraught to think straight, just before she reaches him she sinks to the ground and continues shrieking from there “Don’t go! Don’t go!”, eyes shut and head tossing, like nothing so much as a little girl throwing a tantrum because she isn’t given an ice cream.
Jang Woo turns round and looks back with furrowed brow — Is he in anguish? Is he feeling put upon? Is he worried she’ll burst a blood vessel? Is he wondering what kind of crazed hysterical woman Compassionate Girl has grown up to become? (Because, the child actress who played young Su Yeon had far more gravitas and indignity than Kim Ha Neul at this point, sitting legs splayed on the ground.)
It’s hard to tell, especially when I’m distracted with wondering how it is that before he leaves home and presumably before he actually joins the army Jang Woo is already fully kitted out and sporting what must be the standard army-issue look of fake-tan, guy-liner, and baleful stare – see poster of present-day army musical starring Joo Ji Hoon and Lee Jun Ki…
Clearly he’s off to join the army, and since it appears that he has had no time to have a calm conversation with Su Yeon and since she had to ran after him in such haste that her shoe fell off, presumably this was an extremely sudden decision. But, why? This scene is so abrupt we need some explication. Fortunately Jang Woo explains, “You wanted to become a doctor? I’ll earn your tuition. Don’t worry about anything and just study.” She doesn’t seem impressed by this and continues sobbing bitterly.
And I’m not so impressed either. What, a family so rich that it can have a boy-servant carry its children’s school-bags can’t afford the tuition fees for Su Yeon’s medical school, so much so that the poor little boy-servant has to earn it for her? What, this trantrummy woman on the ground is in medical school? Is there no other way to earn money than to join the South Korean army? And did the South Korean army of the time really pay so handsomely? (Times sure have changed – I’m pretty sure no one could be put through medical school on a army recruit’s pay nowadays.)
He continues walking away, resolutely, and she picks herself off the ground and runs to him, shoe in hand. She grabs his scarred hand and says, “How can this hand hold a gun? I’m going to quit school. So don’t go to Jiri Mountain. Am I supposed to use the money you earn killing people to study how to save them? I don’t want to!” (Oho! So the hand wound was more than minor, it has affected his hand-mobility.) He replies, “How is it that the smart young mistress of the house is more short-sighted than the servant boy?” (and I would add, less resourceful and more impecunious?). “You’re the smart one,” she yells at him, “and I’m no longer the owner’s daughter.” (Why? Is the owner dead? Has Jang Woo left the service of the household? Or does Su Yeon just mean that she no longer regards herself as his employer? Dunno.) “So, do what you want to do with your life. You wanted to study art and become an artist,” she continues pleadingly (Thanks for the exposition, Show!), “don’t be stupid and give that up because of me!”
Tears in his eyes, Jang Woo says quietly, “Su Yeon, what I want to do is exactly this: Living for you.” “If it’s for me, stay by my side,” she cries. You know, dude, she kind of has a point here. I’m not really understanding how risking your life in war is related to living for your love for her. And I’m still not buying the thing with the tuition fees.
He holds her comfortingly, as sad music swells, but then looks away, twitches, and walks away resolutely. She collapses to the ground again in inconsolable tears. He stops in his tracks and strides back to her, takes her by the shoulders and plucks a dandelion seed out of her hair. “About the time this blooms into a flower, I’ll be back. After that, I’ll stay by your side forever.”
Presumably he is saying that he’ll be back within the year when the same season rolls round again. Though, when I look into this a little more, I learn that dandelion seeds (taraxacum officinale) can germinate after many years, and that dandelions in Korea bloom from March to October. Hmm, sometimes research just confuses me more.
She’s not mollified and continues to sob. And I can’t say I blame her, I too would be upset if my man displayed such stunning lack of logical thinking and lack of self-preservation. Though I could wish that she showed more dignity and concern for his well-being.
He kisses her forehead, then gets up and runs away. (Why run? Dunno.) But stops ten yards away, turns back again, casts off his duffel bag, sprints back to her and kisses her passionately while she still sobs, to swelling strings.
The camera pulls back, and we see dandelions seeds floating over the Bridge of Tragedy. Unsubtle, much? The strings swell more, the camera pulls back more, and we see dandelion seeds float over the entire sun-kissed countryside.
The aesthetics of this sequence are very pretty, it has to be admitted. But story-wise? Clearly, the Epic Love is being Tested. Which is fine. I’ve nothing against the Testing of Epic Loves, which is the foundation of some of the best art in the world (television, movies, books, plays). But I still know little of how and why they love each other. Only that they indubitably do. Character development? Story development? Epic Fail. Not helped by Logic Fail:– I’ve not even weighed into the ridiculousness of all that carrying on and running back and forth along the Bridge of Tragedy. I can forgive logic lapses where a show has heart and authenticity, but so far I’m not seeing R#1’s heart.
And it is roundabout this point in the show that I realise that I have stumbled upon an epic case of Aspirational Gap (See my Prosecutor Princess Review for an explanation of my theory, though you may be able to guess what it means just from the term). Gap like a glacial chasm. I mean, Prosecutor Princess can’t touch this for sheer gaping Aspirational Gap. This show totally aspires to have me care about a touching young love, it’s very existence depends on it. And I so do not care about Fake-Tan Boy and Hysterical Girl.
Flash forward to Jang Woo lying half-dead in that muddy battlefield in Jiri Mountain. “Su Yeon, Su Yeon,” he murmurs intensely as he struggles to his feet, presumably gravely wounded, but evidently not dead. He screams for his communications officer (Why him particularly? Dunno.) An enemy soldier grabs his ankle and points his revolver at him, Jang Woo aims his rifle, and the two men glare at each other. They fire at the same time. Jang Woo falls to the ground, blank-eyed. Ohnos, shot by a revolver at close range, how can our hero survive?
Anyway, onward. Sappy music plays, the sort with a soprano humming a haunting melody. We are at the clinic in Su Yeon’s hometown, Yeongchon. An officer walks in. It is 1st Platoon Leader Second Lieutenant Shin Tae Ho, played by Yoon Kye Sang. His jovial face sobers as he registers what he sees in the doctor’s room – a beautiful woman in a white-coat with a baby at her breast, framed by sunlight. The woman is Su Yeon. What, she’s had a baby? While Jang Woo was at war? Before she met Tae Ho? My head spins.
She smiles beatifically as the baby suckles contently. He is embarrassed, she is serene. He explains he’s come to pick up medicine and introduces himself. She explains that she is watching the baby for its mother and that it must be because she delivered the baby that it falls asleep the moment it latches onto her. Whew, the baby isn’t hers. On the other hand…, really? A baby can be pacified with a milk-less breast? I find that hard to believe (and I’m not going to try it out next time a friend’s baby gets fretful), a lot harder to believe than that the show just wanted to kill several birds with one stone: Show a bit of gratuitous breast, indicate that Su Yeong is now a qualified doctor, demonstrate that she is an angel and show Tae Ho falling hopelessly in love at first sight (to the accompaniment of tinkling piano). Because, you know, no man’s heart can resist such an impressive display of gentle maternity.
Now for our next gratuitous scene, this time showcasing the manliness of Tae Ho. We are back at the Tree of Love and two platoons are having a rice-planting competition. Very nice, I approve of military exercises which benefit civilians.
Tae Ho’s platoon wins this contest, and to show what a jolly good fellow he is he procures a round of drinks for the villagers.
Round Two of the Inter-Platoon Games is “horseback battle”, in which men are hoisted onto the shoulders of their comrades and they charge at each other… through the padi field! Oh no! Not the padi field you’ve just laboriously planted! Oddly, instead of cursing the men who are destroying their livelihood, the villagers cheer and clap. Perhaps they are dazzled by the sight of so many fit, bare-chested men.
Su Yeong rides by on a bicycle, distracting Tae Ho. But she seems preoccupied and oblivious to the effect her flapping skirt has on the on-looking men and to the fact that Tae Ho’s eyes are following her intently.
Night-time. Su Yeong is riding her bike across the Bridge of Tragedy in the rain. (Is this the same day? Is this the same bike-ride? She’s wearing the same clothes, but is the village bridge so far from the village tree that it is night-fall before she can get to it? Dunno.) She stops her bike in the middle of the bridge, and we see that she is clutching a piece of paper. Su Yeong voices over, “Jang Woo, are you really dead?” She stands on the parapet of the bridge, her intention obvious. “I’ll go to you if you can’t come to me.”
But Tae Ho runs up to her and grabs her by the wrist before she can fall into the river. (Where on earth has he leapt from in the nick of time? Dunno.) She faints to the ground.
We leap two years. Su Yeong is wearing a wedding dress (just a fitting, presumably) and her younger sister is telling a photograph of her (deceased) parents that Su Yeon is getting married this Sunday to an amazing, handsome Second Lieutenant. Little sis is quite excited, but Su Yeon just looks blankly resigned. Su Yeon’s elder brother listens in. He doesn’t look too happy. This is all happening so head-spinningly fast for me. It was clear from Tae Ho’s puppy-dog eyes that he had a crush on Su Yeon. But does Su Yeon love Tae Ho? Even a bit? Or is she entirely on the rebound from news of Jang Woo’s death?
The best we get by way of explanation is the subsequent scene of Su Yeon cycling to the Bridge of Tragedy. There, as music swells, she watches wistfully as dandelion seeds float through the air, and I imagine we are to surmise that her heart still belongs to Jang Woo…
Ominously, we cut immediately to Jang Woo’s hands. He is alive! And sitting in the back of an army truck, looking happily and expectantly around him. As his truck drives past the Tree of Love (ohnos, he is not only alive, he is here!), cheering children run after the truck and he tosses packets from his kit (army meal supplies?) into their grateful hands. Why? Are army rations so desirable? Are the children starving? Did the harvest fail? But more likely I’m reading too much into this scene which is merely meant to show us that the village children are cute and that Jang Woo is kind-hearted.
A sign tells us that this road running by the Tree of Love is actually the eponymous Road Number One, the road from Pyongyang to Seoul. And the show tells us that this is June 24th,1950. The day before the start of the Korean War. Uh oh.
At this point, I rush off to do some mental time-lining. So, Jang Woo was gravely wounded at Jiri Mountain in1948. He can’t have left Su Yeon very long before that, because he knew that he was going to Jiri Mountain. It is now mid 1950 and two years since Tae Ho met Su Yeon round about the time that she got news of Jang Woo’s death. So, in the short time between Jang Woo leaving her and him being presumed dead in Jiri Mountains, Su Yeon has completed medical school and qualified as a doctor for long enough to have set up a practice and delivered a baby which is now several months old. Hmm.
Also, this means that Jang Woo has been hanging about for two years since his presumed death. Hmm. Evidently, because Su Yeon believes him dead, without once getting in touch with her. Bastard. And presumably he’s also reneged on his promise to send her money, as otherwise she would have known he was still alive.
And today he drives past the Tree of Love. Surely this must be close to where Jang Woo used to live, if he could have crawled here as a young boy when he nearly had his hand chopped off. Why couldn’t he have at least popped in to say, “Hi Honey, I’m alive”?
Instead, Jang Woo heads off to an army office where meets with Captain Yoon Sam Soo (Choi Min Soo). There we learn that he is the sole survivor of the Mount Jiri Munsu-gol battle. (Just how did he survive that point-blank gunshot? Not explained.) He’s told that he was officially recorded dead and even a notification sent. Jang Woo receives this piece of information extraordinarily placidly. I guess this means that this is not the first time he’s heard of this administrative blunder, because he’s not shocked at all. But if he knew about this mistake all along, why did he not do something about it rather than let his family and Su Yeon think him dead? Bastard.
Captain Yoon remarks that Jang Woo has an excellent record and asks why he wants to resign from the army. Smirking (well, it looks like a smirk to me), he announces that he is going to get married (to a woman you’ve let believe you dead? Ok, buddy, whatever you say), and that he intends to start a business with the money he has saved (yeah, I bet you saved a lot, buster). But when pressed, Jang Woo confesses that he is resigning because of the pain in his hand. He’s not sure he can hold a gun anymore. Captain Yoon perspicuously (and doubtless for the viewers’ benefit) remarks that he reckons Jang Woo’s heart has suffered more than his hand.
As Jang Woo leaves the office, Tae Ho walks in. Jang Woo looks inimical (Why? Does he psychically recognise a love-rival? Dunno). Tae Ho is only mildly curious, being more concerned with his wedding tomorrow and a critical mission he is on tonight.
Jang Woo hitches a ride from an army truck back to Yeongchon village. Tae Ho is in the back. This must be dandelion season because there’s tons of the stuff flying about. The two men recognise each other from their recent encounter in the army office and their heckles inexplicably rise. This clearly indicates that their paths are fated and that there is Trouble to come.
And just in case we are not getting this message of Impending Trouble, we are thrown a close-up shot of dandelion, reminding us of the Dandelion Covenant between Jang Woo and Su Yeon. Jang Woo tries to make conversation, but Tae Ho is more interested in the contents of a ring box he holds in his hand, uh oh. And just in case we still haven’t gotten the message, we get another close-up shot of dandelion as the Truckload of Trouble speeds off. Yeah, hit us over the head with that one, ouch.
Jang Woo saunters insouciantly into the Kim Compound and announces that he is home. His father greets him with cries of joy and surprise. “We thought you were dead!” (Evidently Father is also a servant in the Kim household. But where was he when his son was being maimed for life all those years ago? Dunno.) By this time, I don’t even feel surprised that Jang Woo’s father isn’t asking why he never tried to let them know that he was alive, because I’m coming to realise that R#1 exists in a universe parallel to mine.
Su Yeon’s brother looks up from a book he holds conspicuously in his hand, signifying that he is a Man of Ideas. He remarks casually, “Well, it’s good you’ve come back alive.” Su Yeon’s younger sister arrives and exclaims amazed, “But, you’re alive! A letter even came saying you’re dead.” Jang Woo explains he’s only just found out about the mistaken death notification. Aha! Ok, absolve from wilful disinformation. But nonetheless, why no letter or contact for two years? Especially when Yeongchon the border village is so near the theatre of action. It’s not as if you were shipped off from Australia to Gallipoli, you know.
“Where is Su Yeon?” Jang Woo enquires. Before anyone can answer, their attention is caught by a horrible coughing fit by Su Yeon’s brother. Jang Woo’s father asks if he should run to the clinic. Su Yeon’s brother yells at him, “Listen to me! You are no longer a servant!” (Why so agitated and angry at a well-meaning old man? And in what way is the old man is no longer your servant? If he is no longer in your employ, why is he carrying water in your compound while you looked on untroubled?) Jang Woo’s father says gently, “But this is nothing, taking care of you and the young misses is my purpose.” Su Yeon’s brother is livid and shouts, “The world has changed! Why are you so foolish?” (It has? You mean, people are no longer helpful? And anyway, why take it out on the poor old man? Get a grip.)
Su Yeon’s brother says to Jang Woo, “I’ve told your father many times not to come to this house anymore.” (What, you’ve fired the old man? Meanie.) “And you, don’t come near Su Yeon either. I don’t like it.” (Though why he need bother to warn Jang Woo off when Su Yeong is on the verge of getting married to someone else, I dunno.)
Jang Woo refuses to stay away from Su Yeon. Su Yeon’s brother’s eyes bulge, but before he can respond with the full force of his displeasure, his face is convulsed hideously, he coughs up lurid blood into his handkerchief (tuberculosis?) and retreats indoors.
Su Yeon’s sister tosses out “Su Yeon is getting married tomorrow, so just have a drink and cool down!” Shock! All worked up, Jang Woo sprints off. (But he doesn’t know where Su Yeon is, so, where to? Dunno.)
Cut to Tae Ho presenting a jade ring, a family heirloom, to Su Yeon as a wedding gift. Su Yeon apologises for not having prepared anything to give him. Tae Ho, old chap, doesn’t her lack of enthusiasm bother you at all? Apparently not, because he magnanimously pronounces her smile the greatest gift he can receive, and requests that she smile just once for him. (What? In the two years of your courtship, she hasn’t smiled?) “The day is finally here, June 25th, the day we become a couple” he says. Yup, thanks for the reminder that we are on the brink of war.
They stroll along The Bridge. And of all the things they could have talked about on the eve of their wedding, and of all things we would have liked to hear about their relationship and about their journey to this significant point in their lives, what does Tae Ho talk about? A long cheerful exposition on his secret mission tonight (complete with stage whisper behind cupped hand), which is to attach explosives to this very bridge so that it can be blown up should the North Koreans advance. “You see,” out-of-town boy explains painstakingly to the woman who has lived here all her life, “this is near the 38th parallel and if the North Koreans invade, the first thing we will need to do will be to blow up this bridge to buy time. If they penetrate this area, Seoul becomes vulnerable.” Su Yeon is so numbed by her impending (unwelcome?) nuptials, instead of rolling her eyes at him for patronising her like an idiot child, she listens and nods. “But I’m sure that will never happen,” he says cheerfully, and we know at once that for sure this is precisely what is going to happen. “So just stay at home and don’t come here tonight.” Oh boy. Well, we pretty much know where most of the action for the rest of this episode will take place, don’t we.
Sappy music plays. The pair gaze at each other, without much passion, but at least companionably. But, wait. A figure is running towards them, out of focus. (What? Is Su Yeon short-sighted? Or Tae Ho? Or both?) As the running figure comes into focus, Su Yeon looks arrested but strangely blank. And I feel puzzled – how on earth did Jang Woo know to find them here?
Well, no time for petty quibbling. Because Jang Woo marches over and interposes himself between the soon-to-be-marrieds. Su Yeon gazes blankly at him and murmurs, “Jang Woo… you…”
“I told you I’d return when the dandelions bloomed,” Jang Woo heaves. All right all right, you complied with the letter of the promise. Or did you? Was it a two-year plus seed germination period you were referring to all along, then? But didn’t you violate the spirit of it by not getting in touch with her for two years?
“As you can see,” breathes Jang Woo feelingly, “I am not dead”. Tae Ho listens to all this impassively. “I’ve returned safe and sound to you!” Jang Woo shouts. And grabs her wrist, “Let’s go!” and starts marching off. Er, is this supposed to be romantic? Not even a “How are you, my love?”. You reappear after two years’ silence, you know she is getting married tomorrow, and this is the best you can do by way of apology, re-connecting and love-making?
But, wait, Tae Ho grabs her elbow and demands an explanation from Su Yeon (As well he might.) And here I present to you, the Screen-Capper’s Delight – a Frozen Tableau, making it abundantly clear in case you’ve missed the point that we have here a Love Triangle, and that Su Yeon is Torn between Two Lovers…
As Jang Woo and Su Yeon stay frozen in their positions (conveniently, for the screen-capper), Tae Ho strolls over to Jang Woo and formally introduces himself pompously with all his titles and positions. (What an ass!)
“I have nothing to say to you,” Jang Woo grimaces, not meeting Tae Ho’s eye. And, you know, all heaving, shouty, petulant and wild-eyed, right now he seems the lesser man of the two. Though, in terms of assery, Tae Ho gives him a good run for the money when he says, “As long as we are in uniform, I am your superior.” Er, really? Superiority in military rank translates to liberty to be overbearing and dictatorial in civilian matters?
Jang Woo is not impressed either and hisses, “Move aside!”. He tries to march off, but is brought up short by Su Yeon not moving (haha!). Su Yeon gazes balefully at him. The point, of course, is not that Tae Ho out-ranks Jang Woo, but that Su Yeon has promised herself to Tae Ho. And in this universe, apparently, it is not possible to break an engagement on the basis that a prior previously-presumed dead betrothed turns up. (Why not? Dunno.) Tae Ho on the other hand knows the rules of his universe and knows he has the upper hand, so he walks away complacently, saying, “I will leave now since this is making Su Yeon feel uncomfortable. Sleep well, my bride.”
“I’m sorry, it’s my fault,” Jang Woo says tearfully when they are left to themselves. “Sorry for what?” replies Su Yeon, “For deciding on your own to leave? Or, are you sorry for dying and then coming back alive? You could have written at least one letter.” Wow, that’s a bit harsh, aren’t you just glad he’s still alive? But no matter, let’s not dwell on this, because you have a great point about the non-letter writing and I am DYING to hear his explanation…
“I thought death was my fate. I barely made it alive. But I was afraid I was physically damaged. I couldn’t come back crippled and become your burden!”
They gaze into each others’ eyes for quite a while. And I gaze at the meaning of these words for quite a while. I don’t understand them. Anyone here can help me? Is Jang Woo saying it took him two years to find out whether he was crippled or not? Or is he saying that he took two years to recover from his injuries? In either case, does it make any sense not to write one letter? If he didn’t want to be a burden, couldn’t he have written, “I’m alive but injured. I’ll keep you posted on my recovery. I don’t want to be a burden to you, so if it turns out I’m crippled I’ll release you from our promise”? Well, I’m not going to flagellate my brain over this, because to be honest I’ve given up trying to figure things out by this point.
Jang Woo and Su Yeon fall into each others’ arms and embrace tearfully. Music swells. Dandelion seeds float through the air. They sob. The camera pulls back for yet another dandelion-filled evening-sun touched shot of the Bridge of Sorrows. And then the camera pulls back yet again for yet another dandelion-filled, sun-drenched shot of the countryside. But this time I’m tired of the trick and I’m like “Whatever. Do I really have to screen-cap this?”
Back to the Kim Household. Su Yeon is preparing the evening meal, younger sis nags, “Did you explain to Jang Woo? Do you think he’ll make trouble tomorrow? He’s such a hot-head.” Su Yeon’s face is blank, but the clang as she lays down a bowl with too much force suggests that she is not unmoved.
Bored with Su Yeon’s non-reaction, sis says, “I’m going to Hyun Ja’s to study for a test.” Su Yeon is suddenly alert, “Isn’t her house across the bridge? Don’t go. Tonight the soldiers are doing something to the bridge, I don’t know what, but something about explosives and something about the 38th parallel being unstable.” Gosh, for a doctor she sure is slow on the uptake and for a woman who has lived near the border all her life she sure is clueless about the bridge’s strategic significance.
Wait, they are overheard by their brother, uh oh, who gets on his bike and races to the (still empty) bridge, where with furrowed brow he ponders her words and his next actions. (What, he needs to be at the bridge in order to plan an attack on the bridge? Shouldn’t he have been rounding up his men rather than stopping to think on the bridge, possibly drawing attention to himself? Whatever.) Ominous drum beats sound in the soundtrack.
Cut to the 2nd Company. Captain Yoon is issuing orders and adjures, “There must not be any mistakes made in installing the explosives.” (Really? You don’t say.) He notices Tae Ho is abstracted and warns him to be alert.
Su Yeon runs to a hillside cabin shouting for Oppa, but it is empty. (I love the bit where she looks for her brother under a crate, haha! No, I’m being silly of course. She’s not looking for Oppa, she’s just spelling out to us viewers that she’s realising that the hide-out has been abandoned.)
On the bridge, Jang Woo strides towards guards (I guess those guards hadn’t arrived when Su Yeon’s brother swung by, how lucky) and nearly gets shot because he is too grumpy to respond to their friend-or-foe hail. What on earth is he up to? Ignoring his friends who call out to him, he sprints off and fetches up at the army office where Tae Ho is monitoring communications. He grabs Tae Ho by the shirt. Tae Ho calmly needles him by reminding him to come to his wedding the day after. Jang Woo spits, “You won’t have the wedding, now I’ve returned!” Er, so Jang Woo has been stewing all day and storing up this confrontation for when a delicate military operation is in progress? Sigh.
“I’m glad this has happened,” Tae Ho, “since a live opponent is better than a dead one.” Yup, he’s right, it’s hard to win against an idealised ghost. But with Jang Woo being alive and well and kicking and grumpy and irrational and shouty, why…
“Su Yeon is my woman,” breathes Jang Woo threateningly, “from the beginning and until the end.” Tae Ho is not impressed and flings off Jang Woo’s hold. “You’re even worse than your first impression. I don’t think you suit Su Yeon at all.” High octane male posturing, this, and inevitably the contest gets physical.
But even as Jang Woo and Tae Ho are poised to exchange blows, gun-shots ring out. The bridge is under attack! Soldiers are being picked off. Su Yeon’s brother is leading a band of riflemen. Tae Ho arrives at the bridge with a truck-full of reinforcements and we are treated to yet another mid-battle exposition: “What is going on?” “It was a surprise attack! They came out of nowhere!” (you don’t say!) “How many?” “I don’t know!” Tae Ho orders a man, “Find out who and why!” And I think the show is weakening me and making me feel slightly hysterical, because that just cracks me up. Is it so easy to just order someone to just “find out who and why”? And you mean, if Tae Ho hadn’t ordered it, it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to try to find out who and why?
The armoured vehicle drives towards the attackers and the soldiers take the offensive. “Take at least one prisoner alive!” orders Tae Ho. The ambushers are now on the run. They hobble into the village and bring their wounded to the clinic, where Su Yeon faces off her brother. (Nice Job. Yeah, the soldiers will never think of looking for injured men in your sister’s clinic.) “Su Yeon-ah,” he pleads.
Back to the bridge. The soldiers realise the attackers were South Korean farmers. The explosives can’t be laid tonight (Why? Dunno) and the operation will have to be put off to the following night (Uh oh – remember the date?). Damn the attackers! How did they know to attack? (Er, you all city boys or something? This is a village. You can’t move troops and vehicles to a busy spot like an arterial bridge which even village schoolgirls use regularly at night, without the entire village knowing, you chumps!) Could there be a spy, they wonder? Ohnos. Tae Ho remembers telling Su Yeon all about the top secret operation. Seemingly untroubled for the moment by the thought of his fiancée being an informant, Tae Ho sharply orders his troops to the village clinic pronto. (It seems to be Su Yeon’s involvement rather than the fact that the clinic is a clinic that precipitates this. How does Tae Ho know that Su Yeon is at the clinic and not at home? Dunno.)
At the said clinic, Su Yeon is digging stuff out of a bloody and convulsing man when her brother, who has a minor flesh wound, tells her to stop as the soldiers will be there soon. (Shouldn’t you have thought of that earlier?) “You go,” Su Yeon says as she empties a whole canister of powder onto the man’s open wound, “I’ve done nothing wrong.” “Get it into your head,” yells Oppa wild-eyed, “if we are caught here it is all over!”
Sure enough, the troops are shooting their way into the village clinic. (Very nice, shooting dead your own civilians, very nice.) Charging into the clinic, Tae Ho comes face-to-face with Su Yeon, which gives him pause. Su Yeon’s loathsome brother drawls, “It looks like you two need to clear up a misunderstanding. I’ll leave you two.” And he slithers out. Cheek. But not before saying to Su Yeon, “If anything happens, come to the mountain warehouse.” Right in front of Tae Ho, hence giving away the getaway. Nice. Besides, does it not occur to you, Oppa, that if anything happens to poor Su Yeon she might be dead? Whatever, the effect of this parting shot is to suggest to Tae Ho that Su Yeon is complicit to his nefarious deeds, which perhaps was horrid brother’s intention all along. (That, and a rather handy distraction for his get-away.)
Tae Ho tosses down his rifle and rushes to Su Yeon’s side, “Has your brother threatened you?” Su Yeon says numbly, not meeting his eye, “I went to some reading group meetings with my brother. At first I thought they were just regular reading group meetings.” “You couldn’t possibly have…,” Tae Ho breathes, “the bridge plan… did you…”
And here’s where the penny dropped for me. Aha, Su Yeon’s brother is a communist. I guess this is supposed to explain why he yelled at Jang Woo’s father for behaving like a helpful servant, why he wasn’t pleased that his sister was marrying a South Korean army officer, and why he is always sitting around scowling with a book in his hand; he’s clearly a revolutionary who isn’t happy with the current state of society. I’m glad all that’s explained now. But I’m still not understanding why he has to be evil-tempered and shouting all the time.
At first I also thought that his objection to Jang Woo was inconsistent – From an ideological point of view, shouldn’t he be embracing his proletariat brother? Shouldn’t a raving commie prefer as a brother-in-law a humble servant to a South Korean army officer? But thinking about it a little more, nah, he just doesn’t like Jang Woo. You know, personal prejudice always trumps ideology.
Anyways, back to our nearly-weds.
Tae Ho is devastated. “Was everything a lie? To use me? Tell me!!” “Whatever I say, would you believe me?” Su Yeon replies. “Here I am ministering to my brother’s comrade. Would you believe me?” (Er, why not? Like, you’re a doctor and you’re morally obliged to tend to anyone? Haven’t either of you heard of the Hippocratic Oath? Or watched M*A*S*H?) Tae Ho looks like he’s going to burst into tears. He pulls out his revolver, releases the safety catch and points it at her head. Woah! Escalation! Cool it, dude, cool it.
Back at the army office. Jang Woo is sitting clutching his head (presumably stewing over Tae Ho’s refusal to call off the wedding). The soldiers manning the radio announce to each other that they have received a list of the people captured at the clinic, and (helpfully for us) read the list out to each other. The last name is, of course, Kim Su Yeon. At which Jang Woo grabs the list from the soldier to read Su Yeon’s name for himself (because he needs to see it in writing before he can believe that Su Yeon has been found in her own clinic?)
Back to the clinic. Su Yeon looks resignedly down the barrel of the gun pointed at her by her fiancé. “Why??!!” he shouts at her. But she does not reply and stares tearily back. And, you know, I am so disconnected from the show and so disconnected from Kim Ha Neul’s acting, I honestly can not tell whether she is not explaining herself because she is being her usual mopey fatalistic self and is resigned to being misunderstood by Tae Ho, or whether she is not explaining herself because she really is guilty of entrapping Tae Ho into a marriage to spy on him. I had assumed the former, since the Big Secret was accidentally overheard by her brother rather than carried to him intentionally. But on re-watching, I’m now not so sure whether she didn’t entrap him. By golly, it’s not often that a show can confuse me more the more I watch it!
“Did you ever love me?” Tae Ho asks. Oh ho. Tricky, this. She still doesn’t answer. But is this because she intended to spy on him all along? Or is this because her Epic and only Love is Jang Woo? Their hearts hurt as they gaze at each other. And my head hurts.
Loud explosions distract them. Jang Woo, running toward the clinic, also hears bombs go off and sees them light up the sky. The show informs us that it is 4.00 a.m., June 25th, 1950 – the time and date of the start of the Korean War.
Tae Ho barrels out of the clinic to look at the flickering sky along with the other soldiers. A call from Captain Yoon is received. All troops are to return to the army operational base and prepare for battle. What about the situation in the clinic with the insurgents, Tae Ho asks? “Forget about them. This is war!” Quite. As Tae Ho stands there holding the radio handset, stunned (Why stunned exactly? Dunno), they are knocked to the ground by a huge explosion in the clinic behind them. What on earth? Ah, Army Exposition to the rescue. “A bomb,” a soldier informs Tae Ho. The soldiers debate, “Should we go in and get them?” “No, the Captain has ordered us away!”
Tae Ho looks into the clinic window and sees that Su Yeon is still tending to the injured insurgent. (So, she can ignore the injured man when Tae Ho is yelling at her, but she can’t ignore the dying man when flames are licking about her? Oooh kaaay.)
“Second Lieutenant!” Tae Ho’s soldiers call to the stunned man. He takes only a few seconds to decide. “Get in the truck!” Wow. You gave up your infatuation of two years real quick. Asshole.
Sad music plays while Tae Ho looks sad. Wait, have I got the wrong end of the stick completely? Am I supposed to feel sorry for Tae Ho the Asshole? Oh well, this would not the first time R#1 and I have not had a meeting of minds.
As bits of building fall round Su Yeon, she desperately administers CPR and cries “wake up!”, looking to me rather more like a panicky bystander than a professional doctor. Once again, she is framed by the Window of Flames as Tae Ho looks back at her. She looks out and sees him, shocked. Or sad. Or something. He looks conflicted, but he fortifies himself and shouts, “Move out!” Su Yeon starts to asphyxiate.
In the village, the citizenry is out on the streets, wondering what is going on. Jang Woo is running in one direction (clinic-wards) while an army truck is charging in the other, and as they pass Jang Woo and Tae Ho see each other, Tae Ho in expressionless numbness, Jang Woo wild-eyed.
But Jang Woo has no time to lose. He sprints to the burning clinic (not hard to locate as it appears to be the only building in the whole village which has been bombed, such evil luck). “Su Yeon-ah!!” Jang Woo hollers as he leaps into the flames. As sad music plays and we watch through the Window Frames of Flames as Jang Woo heroically hoists Su Yeon onto his back and dashes out.
They stagger through the village, coughing, as the sky continues to light with bomb-fire. An army-truck is driving through the village, loud-hailer insisting, “every soldier must report to duty immediately!” Soldiers pile into the truck.
Jang Woo’s father is wandering the village with a load of firewood on his back. (Hauling wood in the middle of the night, grandpa? Gosh, that “all men are equal” employer of yours sure is a hard taskmaster.) He runs into Jang Woo. “You must go home,” Jang Woo pants. An army truck screeches to a stop right in front of him and shines its headlights into his eyes. It’s Tae Ho! Sitting impassively and looking at Su Yeon being carried on Jang Woo’s back. Is he jealous? Is he remorseful that he didn’t save Su Yeon himself? Is he angry that Jang Woo has gotten his fiancée? Dunno.
“Let’s go,” he says to Jang Woo quietly and firmly. “It’s war. So long as you wear your uniform, you’re still a soldier.” How Jang Woo can hear him from outside the vehicle and in all the din is puzzling, but I guess the two have a psychic connection. And, perhaps, a common bond of soldierly fellow-feeling or patriotism or something? Because Jang Woo obediently gets into the back of the truck, while Su Yeon is left dangling awkwardly from Jang Woo’s father’s back (Poor grandpa! Is there not a less back-breaking way to convey the woman?)
Back to war business. Tae Ho shouts at his communications man to get the engineering corp to fix the explosives onto Yeongchon Bridge immediately. He spares what appears to be a contemptuous glance for Jang Woo who is looking sad and hang-dog.
We get an aerial view of said Bridge in the night, truck going one direction and villagers another (to safety, it must be, hence south). But wait a minute, if the truck is heading north, are they not going to cut themselves off when they blow up the bridge? I know, I know, sometimes my obsessions with geography just kills my own drama-watching enjoyment.
Daytime. The trucks go by the Yeongchon Village Tree (In the same direction that Jang Woo took when he was returning to the village but wait a minute aren’t the trucks heading away from the village now? OK ok, I’ll stop obsessing about geography.)
Suddenly there is an almighty explosion and a jeep is overturned in flames. Tae Ho falls out of his truck, shaken and bloodied.
“It’s an attack!” a soldier shouts. (Once again, thanks, soldier, I’d never have guessed.) “An enemy attack! Take cover!” Pandemonium, as they run about confusedly. Soldiers stagger about in flames, and Jang Woo and Tae Ho look horrified. (But why so shocked, hasn’t Jang Woo at least seen much worse action?) Their eyes meet for a moment. Tae Ho tries to get the men together, but they are pounded by heavy shelling. They take cover in the padi fields. (And, yes, I’m beyond lamenting for the poor trampled padi fields. After all, as Captain Yoon said, this is War.)
“It appears they have crossed the 38th parallel”, Captain Yoon radios. Yup, it sure does. “Yes sir, we’ll do our best to hold them off.” He orders his first and second lieutenants to lead their respective platoons into battle position. Worryingly, Jang Woo is cradling his bad hand. (And can I just say, shallowly, I think it is genius to give Jang Woo a trick hand because it gives us leave to admire again and again So Ji Sub’s beautiful hands.)
Tae Ho and Jang Woo find themselves right next to each other again. But before they can have any meaningful exchange, Tae Ho has to call a private to order. Chaos reigns as shells fall and men are killed. The Captain and his Lieutenants can’t tell where this devastating shelling is coming from.
Suddenly, Jang Woo notices the soil slipping and the ground shaking. An ominous, rumbling sound approaches. Tae Ho looks at Jang Woo wild-eyed, then turns to see what Jang Woo is staring at, and gapes in disbelief. The men are terrified. The Captain is stunned. “What is that?!” the First Lieutenant cries.
It’s… a terrifying fire-breathing monster!! Shock, horror, despair. The machine from hell symbolically rolls over and crushes a South Korean helmet with a sinister crunch.
“It’s a tank,” says Jang Woo in tones of shock and awe. “It’s a cannon on wheels.” In case we didn’t know. “Tank,” repeats Tae Ho dumbly, united with Jang Woo in terror. “A tank is coming!!” shouts Jang Woo, wild-eyed, “A cannon on wheels!!!”
End of episode.
Now, it’s true that the South Korean army of the time (before it was reinforced by the US and the UN) did not have tanks, whereas the North Koreans were well-supplied by the Soviet Union. But this was 1950, years after the Second World War. Surely these army men have at least heard of tanks and seen photographs of them? Cannons had been around for many years, even in mobile form. A hundred-and-fifty years earlier, an ordinary sailor in Lord Nelson’s fleet would have been familiar with a ship that packed one hundred cannons. Would a slow-moving armoured vehicle which carries one cannon really terrify mid-twentieth century battle-hardened men as much as the Eye of Sauron terrified hobbits or Godzilla terrified citizenry?
However, military history quibbling aside, at a superficial level I kind of liked the ending (once I got over laughing at how petrified they were by a wee tank). It was dramatic, it was loud. And I liked that the two men were literally thrown together against a greater evil than their petty quarrel. But, what will Episode Two hold for us? And how is this farrago of nonsense or fantastic feast (depending on your point of view) going to keep up for twenty episodes?
Onward to Episode Two! Or… not?
You may be wondering whether I’m going to continue with recapping R#1. I am certainly wondering myself. As I said to Thundie, I don’t think snark is a good foundation for a long-term recapping relationship. After five episodes, let alone twenty, my smart-alecky comments are going wear very thin. Besides which, there are so many good and interesting dramas out there for me to check out and maybe write about. One thing for sure – if I continue I must find a way to make these recaps shorter and less labour intensive. Like: “Episode 2: More shouting, more shooting, more anger, more angst. The end.” I kid. Actually, I haven’t watched Episode Two (I’m so uninterested).
The Powerpoint school of drama-making?
I found it fairly easy to take screen-caps for this recap, and very easy to file my picture files neatly into discrete folders with episodic titles (e.g., “Tree of Love”, “Bridge of Meltdown”). Nice lighting. Set-piece composition. Facial expressions writ large. And I think this may be precisely the problem. It’s as if someone thought of a series of random Touching Tableaux then sat down and bashed out a screenplay to string all the Touching Tableaux together. Everything seems so exaggerated. There is little depth, authenticity or real story-telling. It’s as if the show were constructed backwards – starting from “What is going to look dramatic and moving on screen?” rather than starting from “What do I have to say to my audience? What human story do I have to tell?”. There is little external logic (why things happen), let alone internal logic (why do people do what they do). It’s no wonder that the actors are not at their best. It can’t be easy to bring depth and profundity to acting if you are just handed an arbitrary string of “scenes” – “Now act upset, no need to figure out precisely why you’re upset, just make sure you look very very upset.” This saddens me because I know that So Ji Sub can do subtle simmering (see What Happened in Bali) and anguish (see I’m Sorry I Love You), and I also know from Who Are You? that Yoon Kye Sang is capable of sympathetic acting. What has happened to these two promising actors? It seems as if their bodies have been taken over by aliens and infected with the Over-Acting Pathogen. *sob*
War is Bad, We Feels Sad, Oh the Tragedy
In the end, I felt that this episode took two great life themes (Love and War), and turned them into trite and facile sentiment.
In an attempt to make sense of the logic and chronology of this episode, I did a little reading up on the Korean War (to my shame, this is a gap in my amateur history knowledge). I was struck by the scale of human tragedy, all-round moral-reprehensibility of those in power, the political farce and the ideological posturing in this maddeningly senseless and costly proxy-war. My research on the Korean War helped me make better sense of some scenes in R#1, but it also highlighted to me some logic lapses, and it didn’t help me connect with the show with history or real human drama. By failing to engage beyond a sentimental or sensational level, I feel that the show wastes fascinating source material and falls short of its grandiloquent opening dedication.
I’ve heard it said that the problem with R#1 was that it tried to cram too much into the first episode. The breakneck pace is certainly a problem, but I think that that is a charitable diagnosis because I think the issue actually goes deeper than mere pace. I think the show suffers from a poverty of ideas and poverty of heart. If you have something to say and if you have the skill to say it well, I believe it is possible to say it with pace and economy. Take, for instance, the first few minutes of the animated movie Up, into which an entire life-span of a couple is crammed, but which I found deeply moving and real. Because it had something authentic to say about real people and growing up and dreams and even bereavement. And it had the skill to say it well. If R#1 just had the restraint to scale back on the shouting, the posturing, the lingering pretty camera shots and the drama, and the courage to focus on real heartbeats and acts of humanity, I think it should have been possible to stuff into one episode all of a young love, a growing up, an adult complication and a snippet of war horror. Besides which, I think R#1 ep. 1 could have saved quite a bit of time if it didn’t indulge in so many repetitions – Jang Woo the Soldier falls to the ground as good as dead not once but twice, Jang Woo leaves Su Yeon on the bridge but then turns back round again not once but twice, and we get the dandelion fluff floating over Jang Woo and Su Yeon embracing on the Bridge of Sorrows not once but twice. Perhaps if the show were not quite so much enamoured with itself it could have been more disciplined with the editing.
And a good story must make sense. It’s ok if it stretches credulity (like, much of Shakespeare) but it has to pass a certain minimum level of sense-making. It makes no sense to me whatsoever why Jang Woo had to join the army all of a sudden, and then why he never wrote home for two years. I can’t believe that there is no way to make a credible story of a separation, a given-up-for-lost and an unexpected reappearance. As it is, we have here instead lazy, superficial script-writing.
There was a lot of anticipation for this drama because of its popular actors, the big budget, the gorgeous promotional stills, the big themes of war and love, and the fact that it finished shooting before it started airing. And indeed the production values are impressive. Visually, every scene is lovingly composed and lit (I didn’t crop a single screen-cap I took). The sets and props are great, the continuity solid, and the special effects way above average. But an impoverished story presented beautifully is still, in the end, impoverished.
A Final Frivolous Word
Towards the end of this mammoth recapping undertaking, as I glared resentfully at my burgeoning screen-cap album and felt the amusement index (for both myself and potential readers) fall in inverse proportion to the rising word count, I started to lose the will to live. In my delirium I got silly. Thundie says I must include my silly output, and we all know that she Must Be Obeyed. So here, to lighten the mood, I offer my (silly) shorter recap in limerick, haiku, song and haiku again:
There was a young Sergeant named Jang Woo
Who loved his agasshi since two
Empassioned, they kiss’d
Their knickers got twist’d
Whoever said love’s path ran smooth
He left in sunshine
He came back drowned in my tears
Oh the tragedy
His promise was like the wind
To the tune of Over the Rainbow:
Tai Ho, do get a grip
She loves you not.
Move on. Try to be nice,
And try not to be so fraught.
The premise of your wedding plan
It sinks if she loves Other Man
Of that we’re clear!
When dandelions fill the screens
You ought to know just what that means:
You’re Second Lead, dear!
Tai Ho, try not to cry
Though love be snuffed
Now, go off to the war
And come back redeemed and buffed.
Oh my God a TANK!
We gasp we faint we fall down…
Pox on the Soviets!
I’d like to acknowledge the excellent subtitles produced by the WITHS2 Team. Thanks for the fine, hard work. Couldn’t have understood R#1 without them, let alone recapped.