This is the First Impression Review that very nearly didn’t get written.
I feel so overwhelmingly unqualified to say anything knowledgeable about King Geunchogo, I quite squirm. And I don’t know my Korean history. I haven’t watched many sageuks so I’m not even a well-versed amateur.
But I’ve decided to stick my neck out and do this piece anyway. After all, what is blogging, but expressing yourself regardless? Besides, the fact that I am just about the unlikeliest person to be recommending a Sprawling Sageuk may in itself say something.
Firstly, I don’t like long dramas. Before the irresistible force of public opinion compelled me to watch Giant I hadn’t watched any k-drama longer than 24 episodes, commitment-phobe that I am. In fact, a couple of years ago I was considering switching to doramas entirely, because I thought the 11-episode format might suit my goldfish-attention span better.
King Geunchogo is slated for 70 episodes. 70 episodes, folks! Gulp. Even now when I think of how long this is I get a mild panic attack.
I calm myself by figuring that watching one quality 70-episode drama must surely be better than watching four risible 16-episode romcoms (and I’ve surely topped more than four of those time-wasters in my indiscriminate life-time). And I remind myself that I’ve not regretted jumping onto the Giant bandwagon, even if I fast-forwarded my way through some of the mid-series episodes which suffered from extension-induced sag (and if I never watch another construction-project-bid-as-dramatic-device, it would not be a moment too soon). There will always be a place in my heart for Giant; there is something enduring about going on a long journey with familiar company (even if the journey meanders at some points).
Secondly, I don’t like portentous and self-important dramas. Take a look at this promotional pic. Does it not scream “Portentous and Self-Important!”?
I am immediately put in mind of royal personages striding across audience halls declaiming loudly at cowering minions and flicking the sleeves of their robes in large grand gestures. I see intricately-made up palace women weeping piteously in gardens or scheming in palace bedrooms. I brace myself for endless rounds of plots and counter-plots, and revenge and counter-revenge, each supposedly more earth-shattering than the last. And for the implacable stance, the maniacal fake belly-laugh, and the unwavering glare at the camera. I am put in mind of over-long period dramas whose plots wore so thin I suspect the actors were intoning slowly and deliberately because they were told to fill up air-time, and of cheap sets and closed-in camera angles. A lamentable legacy of over-exposure to creaky Chinese period dramas in my misspent youth.
So why, with all my allergies and prejudices, did I board this ship with the most unprepossessing name? Because word on the street was that this is The Stuff – “Kimchi Shakespeare” was one appellation. Also, thanks to a Certain Someone I was assured of decent English sub-titles. Three episodes in, and I think that it’s fair to say that I’m ready to commit to another long-term relationship and to broaden my horizons.
Go on, Hit me with the EPIC
Yes, right from the stirring opening credits, we know that we are going for the EPIC here. And there is nothing wrong with epic; true epic, that is, and not mere wannabe epic (which is laughable). King Geunchogo is working with a large canvass. And I don’t just mean big battle scenes, lush soundtrack, huge sets and breathtakingly broad cinematography (though these we have, in spades). I also mean the sweep of history and timeless human drama; the rise and fall of nations, the rise and fall of men.
At the same time, this is not soulless epic. It is grounded in humanity. In the love of a mother for her son. And of a son for his father. It maps out loyalties, and integrity, and courage. It fleshes out daily endurance and strategic survival. It explores the depths to which man can sink.
Talk the Talk
However gripping a story it may boast, I’m not going to read a 1,000-page novel if it is badly written. Reading a translation of a historical work is even more perilous – so much period language can be clunky if translated insensitively.
Sadly, due to my lack of fluency I am unable to tell you much about the quality of the language employed in King Geunchogo. But I can tell you that the Anarchist’s English subtitles (available on withs2.com) are as poetic as they are functional (and believe me, with a historical background as dense as this, you want informative subtitles). He will say that all he is doing is being true to the genius of the screenwriters. In any event, between brilliant screenwriters and a translator committed to original cadence and intent, I’m luxuriating in a banquet of eloquence.
Kids go play outside, the Adults can stay here
Little is more jarring than a show that makes adults behave like children. King Geunchogo is adult. Which means that the writing is unsentimental, the politicking hard-headed, and fan-service doesn’t come into it (unless you count the wearing of vests by well-toned actors…). There is something particularly nasty about internecine struggle, which is what rivalry between royal houses basically is (think, the Wars of the Roses). This show doesn’t sugar-coat or romanticise.
For instance, I love how when disgraced Prince Yeogu rides dramatically to his father’s rescue, saving his royal ass, instead of exclaiming “Praise heaven my loyal son has come to rescue me!” the old scoundrel yells “You rascal how dare you defy my (banishment) orders!”. Then, even as he sacrifices his most expendable son for the sake of consolidating his house’s legacy, his backward glance at Yeogu betrays how he really feels about his most prodigious and most dangerous offspring.
And while there is probably enough gore and battle excitement to satisfy the little boys among us, the fighting is not glorified but portrayed as gritty and messy work. And a necessary evil in an age when a king or a courtier was only as good as his sword-arm.
Gimme the Eye Candy, smack me with it
Look at that, just look at that…
The embroidery. The gold thread-work. The hair ornaments.
Too girly for you? How about this?
I wish I knew how to do a gif, ‘cos then I could show you the flapping of the wings of the birds as they soar above the Han River…
I dare anyone not to be charmed by the lovely ships…
and the darling little river craft…
Battle scenes your pleasure today, sir?
Or, perhaps, a spot of courtly palace culture?
Or just sheer gorgeousness?
Pace, Baby, Pace
Re-watching the first three episodes, I could hardly believe how much happened. And I don’t just mean the unpredictable political machinations or the make-or-break battles. We also saw a good fair bit of character development.
We open with a full ten minutes of gripping and powerful historical founding-of-the-nations set up. We meet a banished prince. Then we get a playful romp turning on a pin-head into a nasty military altercation, our hero drawing first blood on the enemy, a scheming step-mother, a clan’s loyalty bought by foul means, a (literal) courtship sword dance, a political marriage sought and brazenly refused, and a prodigal son returning.
And that’s just Episode One. Episode Two ratchets up to a pretty exciting denouement, and Episode Three sweeps us forth.
And with this, I gleefully banish from my jaded mind all those bad-period-drama memories of long-winded speeches and plots going round in never-ending circles. If this fabulous pace will be maintained for another 67 episodes, I will be in drama heaven.
Who are these Intoning Worthies? Make me Care!
A sprawling epic rises or falls on whether it can populate its world with living, breathing characters. I must be interested in people to care to invest time and effort on a long journey with them. Ultimately, however fabulous the sets and however polished the writing, I know I only have any hope of lasting 70 episodes if I care. And at the end of three episodes I ask myself, “Can I be bothered with these people?” and the answer is, “Yes!”. I do want to know how their lives turn out and I do want to find out how they turn out.
Take the titular King Geunchogo. We meet him when he is still the banished Prince Yeogu, living hard and low as a salt trader for ten long years, outwardly stoic but nursing paternally-inflicted hurts. With economy and elegance we come to understand his endurance, such as when he matter-of-factly strips himself of his outer garments and walks in the rain because he has to prioritise protecting his cargo of salt over his own bodily comforts.
Kam Woo Sung has an uncomely face in an industry over-supplied with pretty faces and will never inspire fangirly paroxysms, but he has natural gravitas and assurance as an actor. I feel that he dials it just right – mercifully avoiding the over-acting that so easily afflicts leading men in sageuks. He is convincing whether he is quietly pensive, or laying about in battle, or crying anguish.
Yeogu is banished because his mother had a dream at his conception that he would inherit the crown. This is a handsome device for sending him to the character-building doghouse without besmirching his noble character. And for getting us to know him well quickly, the man who is manly and resolute, but who is also compassionate, and desolated by his father’s rejection.
His father King Biryu of Baekje (or the southern kingdom) (Yoon Seung Won) is first and foremost a strong ruler. And then only secondly, perhaps, a father.
King Biryu’s First Consort Hae Sosul (Choi Myung Gil) is not a woman you want to meet alone in a dark alley. Her every pore exudes delicious ruthlessness and scheming. Is there anything she will not do to establish her son the Crown Prince on the throne?
All Second Consort Saha (and Prince Yeogu’s mother) wants is love her man and their son, but fate has embroiled her in palace politics and she is cursed with separation and sadness. Kim Do Yun does a great job making us feel for her without being tediously piteous.
Sayu or King Gogukwon of Goguryeo (or the northern kingdom) (realized with astonishing power by Lee Jong-Won) is the arch enemy at this point. His unscrupulousness unsettles even his own courtiers. When does ruling with a strong hand and protecting your nation cross the line into moral corruption? Does such a line even exist in politics and the fight for survival of nations?
Fu Gantai (Jeong Ee-Kap), chief of the proud Mohe tribe catches one’s attention not only for his outlandish appearance but also for the horns of dilemma he finds himself upon. What will come of the three-way collision between his duty to protect his tribe, a ruthless force he is powerless to resist, and his pride and honour as a man?
Crown Prince Yeochan (Lee Jong Soo) is fascinating. He is not a bad man, and has genuine affection for his half-brother Yeogu. But he is a man nonetheless. And how will any man turn when his very entitlement is threatened? As one character in the show says, “You know, people never realize what cruelties they are truly capable of, until they hit the very bottom.”
Prince Yeosan (Kim Tae Hoon), full younger brother to the Crown Prince is loose-mouthed and shifty-eyed. I’m keeping a close eye on him as I’m sure he is up to no good.
I’m usually allergic to feisty princesses. But our heroine Princess Yeohwa is irresistible. The beautiful Kim Ji Soo plays her with such sensitivity, she comes across as being a force to be reckoned with (and loved), without preciousness.
I have not mentioned half the people who have already appeared. But I dare say that not one actor appears to have been miscast. Quite an achievement for a cast of thousands.
And in a bewildering cast of thousands, it is comforting to see the familiar face of Han Jung Soo playing General Choi, oops I mean Bokgu Geom, Yeogu’s loyal companion.
Are you Paying Attention?
A word of warning: Don’t attempt this if you are feeling dozy or if you can’t be bothered to activate your brain cells. There is quite a lot to track and follow. As someone uninitiated in the history, I often have to pause my player to read and digest the explanatory subs. It’s not beyond understanding, but it does require you to pay a bit of attention. Upon re-watch, I picked up useful bits of plot I hadn’t slotted on my first go-round.
I see it as an investment. If a story is going to last 70 episodes, there has to be detailed set-up. To build a great edifice, you need to be diligent about the foundation. If anything, I was surprised by how watch-able and even gripping these first few set-up episodes were.
In fact, the more I watch (and screen-cap) the first three episodes, the more I’m amazed by the abundance of detail: The intricate plot, the no-words-wasted dialogue, the careful building up of characters, the gold filigree in head-gear and intricate thread-work on costumes, the fine furniture, the weaponry, every plate of interesting-looking food…, leaving a screen-capper much spoilt for choice.
And here’s the interesting thing: When I first watched this show, I hardly noticed how every shot was so carefully composed, how luminous the lighting was, how incredibly detailed the props were (down to table utensils) and how amazing the costumes and jewellery were. I mostly noticed the captivating story and the people come to life. And that’s the right way round, wouldn’t you say? Even if the form is beautiful, we must always put substance before form.
What? No Flaws?
OK, a few of the special effects are clunky. And there is some questionable physics, particularly involving people falling off cliffs. But I think we can forgive these little lapses because this is not big-budget Hollywood, and because they are not so severe that they are distracting. After all, I’ve watched enough glitzy but empty works of late; I’d rather get behind something with substance.
I find the soundtrack occasionally a little too stirringly grandiose for me. However, that’s purely a matter of subjective taste, and I do concede that a sweeping story does need sweeping music. I have to say, though, that most of the time the soundtrack is pitch-perfect, including knowing when to cut out altogether.
And it does have its fair share of shouty declamation, narrowing of royal eyes and thumping of royals fists on tables. But that comes with the genre, and I find I can well put up with these little indulgences if the story carries me along.
Overwhelmingly, the flaws are minor compared to this show’s outstanding merits.
Coming Along for the Ride?
So, we have 70 episodes on this baby. On the one hand, just thinking about the 70-hour stretch makes me feel a little light-headed.
On the other hand, if the next 67 episodes are more of what I’ve already sampled, I’m eagerly anticipating a long and satisfying feast of Shakespearean proportions! Come join me!