Two episodes in and I know I don’t want to marathon this drama in a hurry. I want to savor it slowly, like one drinking in the view from a mountain peak.
The cinematography blows me away. From the arid plains in Episode 1 to the verdant hills in Episode 2, I lose count of the number of times I’ve paused in mid-watch to sigh, “Show, you are breathtakingly beautiful.” Yet at no time do I feel that the beauty is there merely for display and for me to gawk at. The camera never lingers longer than necessary; the backdrops never distract.
And the soundtrack. I am so in love with the soundtrack. I listen to Kim Bum-soo as he sings You Left Me…
…and suddenly I feel overcome by an inexplicable sadness. Only two episodes and already my heart aches for the characters. Each one feels alone somehow.
Perhaps the one who seems most alone is Yeom Moon. Thus, you don’t mind if I talk about him first, do you? Even if he’s not the central character, he’s the one that I’m paying the keenest attention to. So Yeom Moon first, and the two actors playing him.
Emperor of the Sea is Hong Hyun-ki’s first and only drama—a fact I learned just yesterday. For this reason I’m willing to wait a little longer for Song Il-guk to take over the Yeom Moon role. That the two do not look anything like each other is beside the point. Hours spent out at sea can alter a person’s appearance beyond recognition, no?
This episode sets up the three relationships that I believe will be the most important in Yeom Moon’s life. The first is with the pirate chief who took him in (under circumstances which are still unclear at this point) and who presumably is the one who trained him in reconnaissance and survival skills.
Away from everyone’s eyes (and away from the camera, too), Yeom Moon finds out the location of the Chunghae navy ships as well as other pertinent details to aid the pirates in their planned assault. Well done, Moon! But then he sullies the chief’s plausive mood when he kills a thief who has the audacity to snatch Moon’s bag in broad daylight.
“Idiot! Your impetuous act draws unnecessary attention to us and can jeopardize our mission!”
So the pirate chief commands his youngest underling to pay for his indiscretion with his life. The other underlings gasp as Moon leaps off the cliff; no one dares to jump after him in heroic rescue.
What the chief knows, and which the others don’t, is that Moon will survive. He will claw his way up from the watery abyss and treacherous drops and he will once again be found by the side of the man who decides whether he lives or dies.
The second relationship is with Goong-bok. We saw the beginnings of that in Episode 1, remember? (How could we forget your
deranged delish description of that first meeting, thundie? *bonk*)
After being beaten to a pulp by the governor’s son, a desperate Goong-bok sees Moon performing at the marketplace and trails him to the forest. There he begs the latter to teach him the art of pole (aka stick or staff) fighting.
In their only scene together in Episode 2, Moon teaches Goong-bok as much as he can. “So that at least you won’t get killed,” he says with a smile. He then tells Goong-bok that he’s leaving for China. “Can’t I join you?” asks the eager beaver. “The master is not going to accept you,” says Moon. “If we are fated to meet again, we will.”
Unaware that his newfound friend is no merchant apprentice but a pirate with nefarious intents, Goong-bok looks on wistfully as Moon walks away.
The third is Moon’s relationship with Jung-hwa, not that it qualifies as a relationship at this stage since what we have is merely a chance meeting in a crowded marketplace. But what searing impressions this brief encounter!
One glance in her direction and he’s felled. She doesn’t know it, but yonder is a boy who’s staring at her like one transfixed. Behold the fairest and loveliest thing that Yeom Moon has ever seen!
Of course he has to ruin the spell by swiftly killing the thief who chooses that ill-timed moment to strike. So now Jung-hwa’s first impression of Moon is abject horror.
We leave Moon and move on to Goong-bok… and a confession. In contrast to how eagerly I await Song Il-guk’s appearance in the drama, I don’t mind waiting many more episodes for Choi Soo-jong to show up as Jang Bogo, the adult Goong-bok.
Maybe it’s because a sixth sense (hopefully faulty) tells me that my Yeom Moon will spend the entire 51-episode drama suffering from an unrequited love no thanks to Jang Bogo. Maybe it’s because as much as I am trying to avoid spoilers, a simple Google search of the drama turns up image after unflattering image of Jang Bogo’s hair.
It either looks unwashed or over-washed, too wild or too tamed. Where is that happy middle ground?
But enough of my silliness. Goong-bok’s too good a character to be made fun of, even in hair styling gone awry. In fact, I will cry more than once in this episode because of events related to him.
If you recall in Episode 1, as punishment for killing Chang Kyeom’s prized hawk, Goong-bok is forced to come to Chang Kyeom’s house every day for sparring practice. It is the older man’s excuse to pummel the boy every chance he gets.
Worried about his son’s sudden and frequent trips to the governor’s residence, Goong-bok’s father presses Soon-jong, one of Goong-bok’s close friends, for the reason. After learning that Goong-bok could die at the hands of Chang Kyeom, Goong-bok’s father decides that they must try and run away from Chunghae. However, to go to China they will need money to procure false passports. Goong-bok’s father thus accedes to his boss’s request to illegally repair a merchant ship.
In the middle of repairs, a sharp-eyed Goong-bok begins to suspect that the berthed vessel is no merchant ship but a pirate ship instead. When he and his father confirm their suspicions (they find bloodstained swords and treasure chests hidden in a storage room), they quickly finish their repairs and make their getaway.
In one of the episode’s many nail-biting moments, Goong-bok is called aside during a routine search as they come onshore. Just when it seems the soldiers will discover the money inside his basket—money earned from repairing the merchant-ship-that-isn’t, one soldier comes running and yells that a man has washed up on the beach. That gets all the soldiers scrambling as fast as they can.
Their lives saved in the nick of time, Goong-bok’s father decides that they can’t wait any longer; they must leave that very night. But what does leaving entail? Is the father aware that the son has begun to develop feelings for a girl who tended to the son’s wounds, this same girl the sister of the man who inflicted those wounds?
“You’re completely smitten, aren’t you? Don’t deny it; I can read you like an open book. But don’t dream of desiring the young lady. If they find out, you’re as good as dead.”
So even Jung-hwa’s maidservant knows. While Goong-bok is watching Jung-hwa as she prays at the temple, the maidservant is watching him. And issuing a friendly piece of advice just in case he is too foolish to realize the implications of a wayward heart.
The maidservant is right, of course. And events have escalated so quickly there’s really no time to think about a forbidden love anyway. If the penalty for repairing a merchant ship is severe, the penalty for repairing a pirate ship is surely an expedited trip to the netherworld.
As father and son prepare to leave, there is no question that Goong-bok’s shadow, Yon, is coming along. In two episodes there is no sign of parents for Yon so it’s safe to assume he’s an orphan. In fact, there is a marked paucity of mothers (and females) in the drama so far.
In the darkness they creep, the three of them, as they head for the beach and a waiting boat. Suddenly the sound of many footsteps. Soldiers coming their way. Get down, quick!
Do you see what is coming? Tears are welling up in my eyes even before it happens. This kind and gentle man. This man who’s respected by many, the shipyard owner included, in spite of his lowly social standing. This man now telling his son words that the latter does not want to hear.
“Go ahead without me, Goong-bok. We’ll all get caught if you don’t. Go and do not look back. You must live. Go now.”
And then the father takes off, like a rabbit in full view of hunting dogs, as his son watches with tears pouring down his face. A single voice rings out in the darkness.
Years ago, the father had shielded his son’s eyes as pirates dragged the child’s mother away. Now the father has left, to go to the wife that he has never stopped missing, and to give his son a shot at the dream that the son has harbored for so long. Freedom for Goong-bok. At last.
But there is no waiting boat.
Let’s pause Goong-bok’s story and talk about the girl that he and Yeom Moon have fallen for at first sight.
As she stands in the rain and watches her brother hit the young stranger so cruelly, she must wonder what has become of this brother who has always been so indulgent with her. Is this a new ritual in their house, that Chang Kyeom daily beats a slave (who isn’t even their slave) like he would beat a mongrel that has wandered into their garden and defecated everywhere?
“Please stop,” she begs her brother. “It’s not noble to discriminate (against one who is lowly).”
When Chang Kyeom walks away, a visibly weary Jung-hwa turns to Goong-bok and asks if he can take her to Sahyang Island. This will be the second time that he’s accompanying her on a trip; the first was to the temple with her maidservant at the behest of Soon-jong’s father (an overseer of sorts at the governor’s residence). On this second trip, however, it will just be the two of them.
And so they set sail.
Away from her house and brother, away from the societal strictures dividing her and Goong-bok, Jung-hwa seems content and carefree. He, on the other hand, is acutely aware of her, and of the fact that he, a slave, is alone with her.
They walk to the top of a hill and sit awhile, the breeze caressing their faces. She asks if he has ever left Chunghae; he replies that he has always wanted to leave but has never succeeded. She is surprised.
Why would you want to leave such a beautiful place?
This may be a place of beauty to you, but to a lowly slave, it is a place of pain and sorrow. The people work on the rough seas all their lives but still they go hungry. They are conscripted as slaves; they have lost family members to pirates. My mother was killed by pirates.
I too… have no mother.
And so the two motherless teens forge an unlikely bond, unaware that evil forces are conspiring to destroy the Chunghae that they know. In just a matter of days they will both lose their fathers, Goong-bok’s to the governor’s soldiers, and Jung-hwa’s to the pirates who have come ashore using the intelligence gathered by Yeom Moon.
The pirates’ assault stuns me with the ferocity with which it is carried out. Chunghae is ablaze. Its citizens die by the hundreds. This isn’t just an invasion. It is massacre on a mass scale.
And now I don’t know what to think anymore. Because my two most favorite characters in the drama are vicious murderers, waah!!