Just having a nice, quiet family Sunday morning and listening to the soundtrack from the Korean drama that made attempts at wuxia, Hong Gil Dong, the Hero (which I’ll refer to as HGD to differentiate the character from the series).
HGD starts out as a fun and promising series. Check out the opening on Youtube. That first 8 minutes totally sold me on the series, and the first few episodes repaid that buy-in. They were amusing with some fun fight scenes and nothing too serious. That’s not to say it was all laughs and silliness. Hong Gil Dong is the bastard son of a noble who both loves his son but knows that as a bastard, his horizons are limited. Gil Dong doesn’t accept those limitations, but he still loves his father. Their relationship was both poignant and sad.
This poignancy did not overshadow the fun of the series, but gave it a dramatic anchor. Unfortunately, the series crept more and more into melodrama. Melodrama is pretty ubiquitous on Korean TV, so this shouldn’t have surprised me. And it wasn’t bad, per se. I liked the characters, and there was still homour and the occasional fun fight scene, but the tears overwhelmed the laughs. I hung in there to the end because what they promised me in the first episode.
See, at the end of that awesome first fight scene, the tag line tells us that the story starts a few years earlier. Given this, I had expected the series to move forward until it reached the opening scene, and then continue on. Without giving spoilers, it does not do this. To me, that’s a total cheat. I loved that opening scene. I loved the mixture of modern with historical. I loved the fight scenes. Perhaps not up to movie standards, but for a TV series, the wire-work was more than acceptable.
But even before I realized that I wasn’t going to get to the payoff I had imagined, two of the characters in the series annoyed me. First, the exiled prince, Lee Chang Hwui, was just way too emo for me. I had no sympathy for him. I think it was a mixture of the character’s visual style and the writing. I don’t blame the actor, because I know that characters such as this are added to cater to Korean teenage girls. These are the kinds of characters they swoon over.
Second, the female protagonist, Heo Yi Nok, is referred to as an idiot and a fool all through the series. She may be naive, but she isn’t stupid. However, both Gil Dong and Chang Hwui, both of whom develop feelings for her, regularly comment on how stupid she is. She does so as well. It really annoyed me. I know this is still part of Korean culture. No matter what gains women have made, Korea remains strongly Confucianism and patriarchal.
The thing is, Yi Nok starts out as a pretty fair hand at martial arts. Not up to Gil Dong’s level (he is pretty much a one-man army at the beginning, being depicted as a human tornado in one great scene), but she handily kicks everyone’s @$$ until Gil Dong shows up. I think she could have been a great foil for both Gil Dong and Chang Hwui were she their equal in all things–martial arts and smarts. Let’s not go the other direction and make her the only intelligent one (because, as we know, all men are idiots), but make all three equals. She does act as Gil Dong’s compassion and revives his long buried empathy for the common people, but she remains a pathetic fool.
I would definitely recommend HGD to lovers of Korean TV. If you dig the regular dramas available in Korea, HGD is going to offer you something both comfortably familiar yet with enough difference to make it novel. If you don’t dig on melodrama, and lots of heat break and tears, check out the first few episodes. But trust me, once things start getting heavy, it doesn’t turn back.
I’d give Hong Gil Dong 4 quarterstaffs out of 5. For the first six or so episodes, I’d make it 4.5 out of 5.