Mercifully, we’re now into the final lap to end the race to the bottom. In a crisis, Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun) fails completely to reconcile his feelings for Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) as a man with her reality as an attractive woman. He therefore does the only thing confused young men in this situation do. First he saves the “man” he loves through a nice piece of argument before the student council called by Ha In-Soo (Jeon Tae-Soo). He then goes round to break off the engagement with Ha Hyo-Eun (Seo Hyo-Lim), the naive woman he thought he would marry to cure himself of his homosexual tendencies, and then runs away into the hills. At this point, I need to refer to a change of law in California. For decades, therapists have been claiming success in the treatment of homosexuality as a medical disorder and asserting a “cure” is possible. This always has been a nonsense and the new law reflects this by banning gay conversion therapy. When signing the law, Governor Brown said this should consign the therapy “to the dustbin of quackery”. Obviously this news has arrived too late in South Korea to save this series.
In his mountain retreat, Lee Sun Jeon decides he loves Kim Toon Hee as a man. This is not an easy decision and, once made, it confirms the essential gayness of the character. When he sees Kim Toon Hee by the river, he runs up to “him” and gives him a hug — a public demonstration of affection, not caring whether it’s observed. With respect to the scriptwriters, this is not a psychological problem that can be cured by showing him the object of his affection is actually a woman. Indeed, having gone through the existential debate, Lee Sun Joon should be disgusted by Kim Toon Hee. She’s the wrong sex and not sexually attractive to Lee. Yet, of course, we now have to go through the equally embarrassing courtship as a heterosexual couple, endure Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In) acting jealous, and despair of everyone else’s general lack of awareness. Even Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) is growing a little tiresome.
In the midst of all this, we discover King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha) has a plan to move the capital and thereby break the power of the nobility. It turns out he’s high on opium a lot of the time which explains his slightly erratic behaviour in choosing a cross-dressing woman, a gay man, a terrorist and a dilettante fashion guru of ambiguous sexuality to save his country. To give himself political cover, the king wants to recover a letter that was lost some ten years ago — a transparent McGuffin to dig a weak king out of a losing position. All the four “heroes” have to do is find the letter, discredit the nobility and prepare to run the new utopian capital city when it’s built. Not a bad day’s work for university students.
As a plot, I think the routine noble-born boy meets girl from the wrong side of the Joseon tracks would have been a better bet. When he defends the girl’s right to learn and advance herself that would have more force because everyone can see he’s going against convention. In this version, his progressiveness is masked by the gender confusion. Similarly, the political decision to relocate to what’s now Seoul could have been the basis of an interesting plot, but it’s left superficial and simply tacked on at the end to give emotional cover for the resolution of the four’s rite of passage. More importantly, an opportunity was missed in not expanding on the situation in which Cho Sun (Kim Min Seo) finds herself. She’s another of these very talented woman who’s kept in a cage.
As we have it, the whole thing comes to a head as a family squabble with the virtuous can-do young showing their fathers they will be good leaders in the future. That’s except for Ha In-Soo, son of Ha Woo-kyu (Lee Jae-Yong), the Minister of War and lackey-in-chief. They have both been portrayed as trading on their status without actually having many brains, so suffer the usual ignominious defeat. Magically, the son does finally show a little gumption. But it’s too late to earn him a reprieve.
I suppose I must forgive the scriptwriters. They are bound by the culture of South Korea and cannot yet run an honest prime-time series about gay love. So I’m completely at a loss as to why they should put themselves in difficulties by adopting the cross-dressing theme. As the series Dae Jang Geum and Dong Yi both amply demonstrate, South Korea can run a traditionally gendered story to highlight the need to reform women’s rights. Indeed, after the archery and hockey, this woman is increasingly shown as dependent on the men around her. What little spark she had seems to dim until it flickers slightly more brightly as she solves the problem of where the missing letter has been hidden. It’s somewhat ironic. She’s a lot more positive when no-one knows she’s a woman. When she has three men in on the secret, she’s a lot more needy. Frankly, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a disaster.
For the first episodes, see Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on the first eight episodes and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes nine to fourteen.
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012) proves the old adage that, if you travel with hope in your heart, you are doomed to arrive disappointed. The first half of this saga distributed as Tai Chi Zero was great fun, mixing different styles and playing the part of the joyful iconoclast. Unfortunately, since this is the steampunk half, it runs out of steam. I would not go quite so far as to say it’s boring, but there are certainly patches where the people around me were yarning extravagantly. This is a shame because at its heart, Tai Chi Hero is one of these rather pleasing message films that deserves a better delivery. So what’s it about?
We left our village enjoying the wedding of our potentially happy couple Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) and rejoin as the knot is tied and Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng), the long-lost brother, and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) return. This sets the basic theme. The first episode is very much about China’s under attack from the foreign devils. In playing the race card, the director Stephen Fung and scriptwriter Kuo-fu Chen are looking for nationalist fervour, uniting the largely expected Chinese audience against the cultural invaders. As a foreigner, I was rooting for the Chinese village, preferring the underdog to prevail when it has right on its side. This episode shifts the focus to the Chinese and although there is a contribution made by the British (and Germans through their artillery pieces), this is more about China coming to terms with itself and deciding what kind of future it wants. Put another way, the use of tai chi as a soft fighting style becomes a metaphor for the approach the Chinese leadership must take to minimise damage to its people and their culture. If we wanted to stretch the metaphor, we would be thinking about casting Hong Kong as the returning son having learned different ways while under foreign control. The two can rebuild the family relationship but only through mutual respect, not by main force.
So, albeit in a heavy-handed way, the central story is about family and the shift in emphasis as the old settle into traditional ways while the young look for novelty. In this, Tony Leung Ka Fai is pivotal as the Master of the Chen village. His role is to maintain balance between the old and the new ways. Except he’s shown as having failed in his relationship with his oldest son. Naturally, as a proud new father, supremely confident in his own kung fu skills, he wanted to pass on the fighting style to his children. Sadly, the oldest boy had no real interest in fighting. He was a dreamer, destined to become an inventor, translating the visions of childhood into adult reality. This is where the “real” steampunk comes into play. He has two major innovations to offer us. The first falls into the class of augmentation. He was never motivated to actually learn how to fight, so he’s developed a clockwork-driven set of clothes and boots to wear which enable him to perform some of the standard moves. It’s an early version of The Tuxedo which enabled Jackie Chan to become an expert. However, Chen Zai-Yang outdoes himself with the magnificent flying machine. Not only does it make the efforts of the Wright brothers look primitive, it matches some of the modern fighter-bombers in being about to drop bombs and strafe troops on the ground with rockets. As Qing Dynasty hang-gliders go, this is in a class of its own. Add in the wonderfully baroque German cannons and we have quite a visual feast during the set-piece battle between the Chinese army sent by corrupt officials encouraged by Duke Fleming (Peter Stormare) and the Chen village.
In narrative terms, there are three acts. In the first, the returning son attempts to displace his father and turn the village over for demolition to allow the railway free passage. This is reasonably effective, using local superstitions to frame the newcomer Yang Lu Chan as a jinx likely to destroy the traditions of the village. Fortunately, Master Chen sees through his son’s deception and we move into the second act which is the arrival of the Chinese army outside the village led by Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and the fight led by Master Chen. The final third is set in the capital city as Yang Lu Chan proves his kung fu skills in an escalating series of fights until we get to the rather elaborately staged duel with Master Lin (Yuan Biao) above the kitchen where the Prince’s meal is being prepared. Sammo Hung deserves a lot of credit for seamlessly referencing the different preparation and cooking activities below in the fighting moves above. The sequence leading up to this fight is somewhat perfunctory and the resolution of the railway issue is, I suppose, an amusing go-with-the-flow tai chi solution. Indeed coming back to the message of the film, the family is reconciled, the married couple seem to have achieved some degree of happiness, and the East India company still lurks in the background with plans to make something new out of the failure named Zijing — a third episode is apparently planned.
I suppose I should not be surprised that a modern Hong Kong film should proclaim tai chi as a political philosophy in which the soft integration of all significant elements in the environment becomes the way in which to overcome obstacles. It’s the gentle way of winning by finding the route of least resistance, of using the enemy’s strength against itself. It’s a good way of showing that errors from the past can be corrected and new ways of forging the future can be discovered. I just wish the fun of the first episode had been retained. This is worthy and, in parts, dull. Some of the fighting is quite good but a lot of it is surreal and cut in a way that prevents you from seeing how the effects are supposed to be achieved. It has moments that are spectacular, but much of it is routine kung fu fare. Perhaps if I had not so enjoyed the first, this would have seemed better. If the team do get around to making a third, let’s hope they can recreate the innovative approach of the first.
For the review of the first part, see Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012).
Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)
I’d like to start by thanking you for agreeing to answer a few questions about your latest work. It’s been interesting and stimulating to exchange ideas with you. First, a personal question. Like me, you’ve left your home turf for greener pastures elsewhere. Why have you made your home abroad?
That’s an easy one. I met a girl at college and I followed her to New York. It was a crazy, romantic notion because I had no job or any prospects and for my first three years in America I worked as an illegal in bars and various bookshops and at the odd construction site. It was a really happy time though. Leah and I were living on 50 dollars a week in a frightening apartment in ungentrified Harlem, but I was soaking up amazing material every minute of every day: crackheads and car thieves and cops and robbers. . . When I went to write Dead I Well May Be, it was very much a Speak Memory situation: I just let that stuff pour out of me.
In Falling Glass, your hero is one of the Pavee — a man with membership of a moving family. It’s a cultural allegiance and not tied to a single place. Does this also reflect your own view of the world?
I think so yes. Was it Auden who said that specious thing about betraying his country before his friends? Well I wouldn’t betray either. And I have a lot of countries now that I feel attached to: Ireland, England, Israel, America, Australia. I’ve got roots and friendships and deep memories in all those places. I’ve lived in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Coventry, Leamington Spa, London, Oxford, New York, Boston, Jerusalem, Denver, Melbourne and now Seattle. My allegiances are all mixed up. Of course I still go for Ireland in the rugby and Liverpool FC in the EPL. That will never change.
In Falling Glass, the hero becomes a defender of the weak and oppressed, prepared to use violence to ensure the safety of others. This would not be necessary if society had a law enforcement process that did not implicitly protect people of status — ironically a higher-profile issue today because of the furore over the apparently untouchable status of Jimmy Savile.
I can’t say I was surprised by either the Jimmy Savile or Lance Armstrong scandals. I think the rich and powerful get away with much much more than we will ever know. Truth is always stranger and more perverse than fiction. If a writer were to make up the Savile story it would be labelled ‘ridiculous’ by every editor in the business and not get published. Fiction writers need to work harder to catch up with reality it seems to me.
In the traditional British crime novel, the appearance of the body is always a shock to the small community on display, i.e. there’s an immediate identification of this as a crime scene where there’s been a breakdown in law and order. But Northern Ireland was a permanent crime scene for decades with an inevitable overlap between policing, politics and the terrorists. In such a society, what makes a good policeman?
In England, certainly in rural England, there are very few murders so it should be a shock. I remember the three years I was at Oxford there wasn’t a single murder anywhere in Oxfordshire, but on Inspector Morse (which was filming and playing at the same time) there was usually one, or quite often two or three, in a week. There was a large disconnect between reality and TV reality. In Northern Ireland in the late seventies and early eighties there was too much reality. Certainly too much for impressionable kids. I remember being stuck with my mother in central Belfast the night the Co-op was firebombed. I remember taking my American girlfriend (now wife) to the cinema and coming out to find the city on fire and under the control of masked paramilitaries who had set up burning tyre checkpoints everywhere. I remember the week the SAS assassinated an IRA hit team in Gibraltar and we watched live on TV as a mad man killed three mourners with hand grenades at the funeral; and just two days after that, two off-duty Signals corporals were lynched live in front of our eyes. Stuff like that went on all the time. You never get immune to it, but you do get numb, and I have to say that, in Belfast, the response was often black, very black, humour, some of which I’ve tried to capture in my books. I should emphasise that because I remember as a kid being surrounded by very dour sarcastic grown-ups with a very dry sense of humour. There was also a very strong sense of community in our housing estate that I miss now that I live in middle class suburbia. As kids we could walk into any house we wanted and have dinner there or borrow a book or just sit down with the family and play Monopoly or watch TV. And it was also paradoxically a time of great innocence too. We were always outside playing football or running up into the fields. Yes there was a civil war going on five miles away in Belfast, but we felt safe and loved and happy.
If the police officer is on the side of right, he or she will be pressured to ignore the real perpetrator, or to pin the crime on a false suspect.
So often those attempts at pinning evidence on a person the cops knew was the guilty party backfired because they weren’t guilty at all. In Northern Ireland this happened all the time as did jury tampering. In fact the latter got so bad that juries were abolished for all paramilitary cases and, instead, Continental-style, three judge courts were introduced.
In both Falling Glass and The Cold Cold Ground, the hero becomes a vigilante. Do you see the search for justice as personal redemption?
It may be an attempt at personal redemption but. . . The temptation to take justice into your hands is so strong that you have to be incredibly strong to resist it. It’s interesting that until very recently in human history murder was always taken care of by the victim’s relatives. Police forces have only been around for a century and a bit, but murder has been around for as long as humans have been walking the plains of Africa. In Ulster and places where Ulster people emigrated to (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, etc.) this tradition still lingers. The police are distrusted and kin are the ones who mete out natural justice.
Ah, but you’ve changed your mind. The heroes in Falling Glass and The Cold Cold Ground are not family. In Fifty Grand, your heroine is both a cop and family. Which view do you prefer: the blood feud or the dispassionate enforcer?
Oh I prefer to let the police do the solving and the bringing of justice. I wish everyone did but they don’t, at least not in places where there the idea of blood feud is still engrained in the culture. The book to read about this is Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer: the section on the folkways of Ulster immigrants to America is eye opening.
The PSNI wants access to interviews given to the Boston College/Belfast Project by former IRA Old Bailey bomber Dolours Price. They claim Price gives a detailed account of how McConville was targeted, abducted from her 10 children, driven across the border, murdered and buried in secret late in 1972. What do you think of such work in an academic context?
It’s a very interesting case. It’s common knowledge in Belfast who gave the order to abduct Mrs McConville. Everyone knows who Delours Price is talking about but, setting aside a suit for libel, naming the man might jeopardize the entire Northern Ireland Peace Process because he is such an important and prominent figure in Republican circles. Once again I feel that Northern Ireland missed a trick by not having a South African style Truth Commission. That would have given a blanket amnesty to everyone involved in a Troubles offence who came forward and told the truth about what happened in the dark days of the seventies and eighties.
I’m not sure South Africa is a better country because it went through a “truth” process. More to the point, I don’t think anyone actively involved in the Troubles on any of the “sides” would have wanted to be honest about what they did.
Perhaps you’re right but at least South Africa drew a line under the whole process. In Northern Ireland these old cases are still lingering, are still a wound that hurts.
Well as we tread heavily into episode nine of Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010), we’re into revenge as Ha In-Soo (Jeon Tae-Soo), our Student President, has been humiliated. So he frames Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) for theft. King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha) involves himself and gives the identification of the true criminal(s) as the next exam question. This pits the Gang of Four against the rest of the students. So we now get a tedious investigation that’s enlivened by one absurdity and another touching moment. As a team, they realise the record of who passed on the stolen goods to the merchants to fence would be held by the head merchant. They plan to break in. The way it works out, Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun) is the one who enters the storeroom. He’s spotted and the local law enforcement is summoned. Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In) intercepts them in the street and while he’s fighting, Kim Toon Hee disguises herself as a courtesan and enters the storeroom to rescue him. When the guards finally arrive, they find Kim on top of Lee. Embarrassed by what they think is a routine tryst, the guards leave. Seizing the moment, our dynamic duo get over their own embarrassment in their new sex roles and find a stack of highly embarrassing records. When the guards are about to return, Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) persuades Cho Sun (Kim Min Seo) to parade by with her team of courtesans as a distraction. Our duo escape with keys records. This is absurd because, in the space of the fight with the guards and with no prior warning, Kim has to find a dress and make-up, and then find a place to transform herself into a courtesan, classy hair style and all. She then has to get from her changing room, past the guards and to the storeroom. Only in a Korean drama would such a thing be thought possible. The second more affecting moment comes when Moon Jae-Sin talks with the young man who physically removed the goods from the University. He says some pleasing things about the relationship between brothers. So now Lee Sun Joon has seen Kim in the “wrong” dress, he’s even more confused. Poor boy. Anyway, while he’s agonising what to do about his feelings, he must also decide what to do with the evidence they have collected which may incidentally implicate his father.
We’re back into the tedious moralising rut again. The fantasy reformist version of this King has given our foursome a crash course on just how awful life is for the poor, presumably so they’ll become righteous civil servants and protect the people in the future. As Kim puts it to Jung Yak-Yong (Ahn Nae-Sang), the country has been in the hands of men and look what a mess they have made of it. All the bribes have been flowing upwards into the hands of the corrupt nobility and, starved of funds, neither the King nor the people can do anything about it. So now all eyes focus on Lee Sun Joon. What will be do with the sliver of evidence against the nobility? They are the true criminals but how does that help Kim. Indeed, if she cannot save herself, does she deserve to be an “official”?
Ah well, all this is academic because, when it comes to the hearing in front of the King, Lee Sun Joon hands over the book showing the nobles are the real criminals and the young thief comes forward to confess. Isn’t life wonderful when everything comes out right! I now propose to pass over the island episode as terminally embarrassing. It seems Lee Sun Joon is brain dead because despite seeing Kim as a woman, he still seems fixated by the restoration of male attire. Cho Sun is quicker off the mark and takes the heartbreak like a woman of experience should. Similarly the hockey match is painful in all its aspects. The best approach is to see all this as cultural ambivalence in modern Korea about the struggle of a young man to come out as gay. By his own admission, this man has had no friends to date and certainly no sexual experience of any kind. If he now finds himself attracted to a person he has labelled as male, this fills him with guilt and, with nods and winks from Ku Yong-Ha, he has a big decision to make. Should he reject the increasingly tragic Ha Hyo-Eun (Seo Hyo-Lim) who’s throwing herself at him, or live as a friend with Kim?
The only feature which is even vaguely of interest is the plan of Ha Woo-kyu (Lee Jae-Yong), the Minister of War, to capture our Iljimae figure. He’s been paying a skilled swordsman to go round town in the same black outfit, killing merchants and lots of the royal guards. The hope is this will lure out Moon Jae-Sin to defend his reputation of an all-round nice Robin Hood figure. We then get the predictable confusion as the stupid Moon Jae-Sin goes out to confront the imposter only to pick up a wound. When he gets back to the University, our tender flower helps bind the wound. The self-righteous Lee Sun Joon sees what he thinks is an embrace and is naturally jealous. So now we finally get to the scandal in the series title. Based on Lee Sun Joon’s shocked reaction, Kim Toon Hee and Moon Jae-Sin are accused of having a homosexual relationship. Ha In-Soo convenes a special council to try them based on what he believes will be conclusive evidence from Lee Sun Joon. The only way they will beat this charge is by admitting Moon Jae-Sin is the masked Robin Hood — not a bad trap. Incidentally, the identity of the imposter going around doing the killing is fascinating. Otherwise, Sungkyunkwan Scandal continues in a downward spiral of embarrassing awfulness as the screenwriters fail to decide how to deal with the issue of homosexuality.
For the remaining episodes, see Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on the first eight episodes and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes fifteen to end.
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010) is based on the sixth book by Henning Mankell published as Den Femte Kvinnan, which perhaps makes it appropriate that it’s the sixth adapted for this television series by Yellow Bird. What makes this a fascinating series is the way in which the adaptation messes with the original structure of the series. In the novel, Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) is actually not quite as unhappy as usual. He’s just back from a holiday in Rome. In this version, his normally sunny disposition is blighted when Povel Wallander (David Warner), his father, insists on leaving the nursing home where he’s attempted to retreat from the world. With the unerring foresight of those who’ve read the whole script, Povel knows he’s not long for this series and, if he’s going to go, he prefers to die in his studio. So despite the muted protests from Gertrude (Polly Hemingway), Wallander loads them both in his car and drives them back to their home. Needless to say, all this achieves is to dump the nursing problem back into Gertrude’s hands. Never let it be said Wallander is anything other than a thoughtful and caring man. As soon as he has his father sitting in his favourite seat looking out at the sea, he gets a phone call and is off to view a body. Not for him the quiet weeks away from work looking after his father. That’s what second wives are for. Anyway, as a parting gesture, Povel advises his son to find someone to stand beside him. He offers the assessment his son is a weak drip who will dry up under the merciless Swedish sun unless there’s someone around to keep him moisturised. Actually, Wallander later talks about getting a dog. Never let it be said this man ever drops his mask.
Of course, the next time we see Povel, the old guy has died peacefully while sleeping his favourite chair in the studio. He, at least, has the sense not to overstay his welcome with one of these long-drawn-out death scenes. We then have to go through the embarrassment of Wallander failing to come to terms with his father’s death. Not surprisingly, Gertrude has absolutely no patience with him and, when they show up for the burial, both daughter and ex-wife give him short shrift. In the midst of all this, a vigilante is killing off old men who’ve been guilty of abusing their wives and mistresses. As is required in the structure of these shows, all the victims deserved to die so the moment the grieving Wallander shows up, the victims all say they are profoundly glad to be rid of these men. This is supposed to make Wallander feel better because, no matter how hard he tried, he never really liked his father and is also not a little relieved the old guy can no longer bug him about being a lousy human being.
To ensure we all think Wallander is an abusive squad leader, we get to see him shouting at the loyal trio of Magnus Martinsson (Tom Hiddleston), Anne-Britt Hoglund (Sarah Smart) and Nyberg (Richard McCabe). The scriptwriters in this series never miss a chance for a little thematic conscious parallelism. All this would be dire were it not for the appearance of Vanja Andersson (Saskia Reeves). She was one of the abused women but she somehow kindles a vague sense of kinship with Wallander and, over the course of the episode, they slowly edge towards each other until, in the final shot, she goes with him to see his father’s grave. We therefore have the usual trajectory into despair as Wallander sleeps in his clothes night after night and must, by the time he gets close to catching the vigilante, be broadcasting his approach to everyone downwind of him. But, despite his BO problems, he may have found a woman who can put up with him. Alternatively, she’s been taking abuse from one man on and off for several years so Wallander must seem a big improvement.
At the end, there’s the now ritualised melodrama as Wallander ends up soaked in blood and in something of an existential crisis. As the latest set of three episodes winds up, we should be grateful he may now have a shoulder on which to lay his weary head. Perhaps even a dog to stand by him with moisturising cream coating its jaws to bite him back to health. Wallander: The Fifth Woman is not the worst of the series but I remain unconvinced this vigilante could have managed the deaths as described. Like how did she dig the pit without the first victim seeing her from his window? I suppose the kidnapping was possible but how did she get the victim from the house to the woods? Similarly, how did she get the chloroformed victim to the side of the lake? This is another of these episodes which requires you not to ask awkward questions.
For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)
Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) is difficult to review without my words sounding contemptuously patronising. So let’s bite the bullet and explain the problem. This is set in Sungkyunkwan University in the late Joseon era during the reign of King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha). As you might expect, despite the past role models like Dae Jang Geum, women continue to be considered nothing more than baby producers. This series plays the now well-established game of the cross-dressing woman of surpassing ability who outshines the men at their own game. This time, we have Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) who’s been trying to pay for her brother’s medical treatment by writing crib sheets for students seeking to enter the University. Unfortunately, her family has also borrowed money from Ha Woo-kyu (Lee Jae-Yong), the Minister of War, and a lascivious and unpleasant man who decides he would rather take our heroine as his mistress than have her pay off the debt. As a result of the usual complications involving a young man, Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun), she finds herself tricked into taking the entrance exam to the university. In an unexpected burst of honesty, she admits to the King, who’s invigilating the exam, that she’s doing so as a result of an agreement to take another’s place. Needless to say, Lee Sun Joon stands up to declare he’s proud of doing so because, wait for it, he wants to test whether the King will uphold the rules. In this case, the King’s punishment for the pair is to commit them to University and arrange for them to share the same room. As The Great Queen Seon Deok quickly learned in a barracks environment, this is not an insurmountable difficulty when all around her expect to see a man.
So now you see my problem. It’s the same old unrealistic plot of a woman who looks feminine at all times, passing herself off as a man to get ahead. To add the usual spice to proceedings, women found inside the University compound will be killed, tortured or generally made to feel ashamed of themselves for breaking the rules. The series therefore claims to walk a tightrope with our heroine always on the verge of being revealed, but somehow scraping by. So let’s cut to the crux of the problem with this as a plot in a romantic comedy. Since this is supposedly light and fluffy entertainment, the King is not going to attach one strong horse to each of our heroine’s four limbs and encourage them to move away. The resulting parting the ways would destroy the mood and make sex difficult for her afterwards. So there’s absolutely no suspense. There will be a marriage at the end of it and everyone will live happily every after. Such is the way of Korean drama and drama elsewhere, for that matter. Period reality is watered down and no-one will be “made an example”.
At some point, men around her will either fall in love with the appearance i.e. the men will be homosexual and so not interested in her as a woman, or the men will realise she’s actually a woman and therefore have to decide what to do about it. Obviously, openly showing affection to her when cross-dressed is going to get funny looks from a relatively intolerant society. But persuading her to admit her sex is going to be a challenge if this admission is going to get her killed. In The Great Queen Seon Deok, this didn’t matter too much because she was either training or fighting alongside the lads, and killing as many of the enemy as possible. Indeed, she died a virgin queen. But this new series is overtly sexualising the woman by having Lee Sun Joon spend time looking at her lips and, presumably, fantasising about kissing “him”. We also get the soft porn version of her undressing in candlelight and having a well-earned bath after becoming top archer, the glow of the flickering flame reflecting off the sheen of moisture on her shoulders. . . Sorry, I have to stop at this point because episodes such as this are gratuitously insulting titillation for the men watching. Correspondingly, the casting of a large number of young hunks is to keep the female viewers happy as we’re allowed to catch sight of bare chests every now and then. Just to reinforce the point, this is a prime-time show and just as there’s not going to be any torture or death, there’s also not going to be any sexual activity shown. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Except this script is actually not completely unrealistic and, in the early episodes, reasonably endearing as stories go. Despite its romantic comedy leanings, it has a slightly hard edge as events inside the University are matched by the political machinations in the Court. As always, there are conspiracies afoot. So there’s real poverty in the capital and the nobility have no real conception of the lives the common people. Into this mix comes one of these dashing masked men (like Iljimae except this time he’s called Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In)) who bounds across rooftops like he’s attached to wires and shoots arrows with remarkable inaccuracy — he misses the Minister of War in one of his early attacks. This adds an element of mystery to proceedings because we’re not supposed to recognise which of the students is playing the role of this agent provocateur — appropriately, he’s the son of the Minister of Justice.
The two features of the first episodes are the discovery of the deception by Jung Yak-Yong (Ahn Nae-Sang). He’s one of the King’s men who’s been sent to work in the University for an unspecified reason. Fortunately, he has no interest in her as a woman — he’s a brains man — and, as soon as she wins the archery competition, he’s a fan. He’s also caught because everyone knows he’s been giving “him” medical treatment and therefore cannot have failed to detect her true sex. This catches him as a conspirator and he will suffer a worse fate than her for allowing the deception to continue. And, as you will have gathered, the boys have to train our girl to be an ace archer. As minor plots, we have Cho Sun (Kim Min Seo), a high-class courtesan who’s interested in our girl as a man. The Secretary of War has two children. The naive Ha Hyo-Eun (Seo Hyo-Lim) who decides she’s in love with Lee Sun Joon at first sight, and Ha In-Soo (Jeon Tae-Soo) who plays the villain as the University’s Student President. Not surprisingly he’s out to do down anyone who does not show him due respect. All in all, it’s a battle for hearts and minds as the dynamic duo preach honesty and a meritocracy rather than entrenched clan and/or class advantages. Ah ha! So this is one of these sageuks with a modern political agenda to argue for social change in contemporary society.
The archery contest itself is endlessly drawn out but, as anyone with a few brain cells would predict, the team of losers beats the odds-on favourites with our plucky girl coming through a sabotage-induced injury to beat Ha In-Soo in the final. That’s the ultimate indignity for the Minister of War’s son to bear. So now we get the romantic complexities building up. The ultimately beautiful courtesan wants our cross-dressed heroine in bed. The Minister of War’s daughter wants our hero in bed. And the circle of people who’ve had the sense to identify our heroine as a woman is growing. The Iljimae figure is now smitten — as evidenced by the continuous hiccups when in her presence. As an aside, he’s also got fantastic healing powers. He digs the arrow out of his waist, plasters on a few herbs Dae Jang Geum style, shoots a few arrows himself in friendly competition, and is completely healed the next day — Wolverine should take lessons. And Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) the manipulative fourth member of our little group, hasn’t made up his mind on what to do about the situation. I’m seriously considering giving up but, having come this far, I suppose I’d better see what dirty secrets the nobles are trying to hide. More to follow as Sungkyunkwan Scandal continues.
For the next episodes, see Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on episodes nine to fourteen and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes fifteen to end.
The subtitle for this 81 episode marathon should be, How to show endless small wars, armed skirmishes and individual fights with only a cast of ten stuntmen of each side (unless it’s just one-on-one when cast members can fight each other to a draw or whittle down the expendables). Apart from the wartime activities of Great Queen Seon Deok which managed extended sequences of cavalry charges around the landscape with only ten horsemen, I cannot recall seeing any television show struggling so hard to make military maneouvres look convincing on such a small budget — no CGI is used. The sheer inventiveness of camera angles and crane shots limiting the view of the armies is wonderful to behold. The standard trick, of course, is to have the two sides shown separately wearing different coloured armour. They march towards each other out of forests and from narrow valleys with flags waving in front. This obscures the actual number behind as they straggle out of the trees or round the corner until we cut to the opposition. When they finally get into the fight, the camera stays very low and carefully shows foregrounded fighting. One of the most exciting tricks devised by our heroic Jumong (Song Il-Gook) is the use of smoke to obscure his tactics (and how many are fighting). With this man as leader, you frequently get nighttime assaults, assaults under cover of smoke, multiple fires and explosions justifying the camera cutting away for different shots. He’s the director’s favourite.
There are a number of other savings. First, there are only two room sets for routine indoor meetings. All they do is have a different table, stools or chairs, and the entrance from different sides. When desperate, they move out the table and put in a bed. Then there are the costumes. The lead characters wear the same costumes week after week. This becomes particularly trying when Jumong’s team develops light-weight armour. The magic circle of officers wear this round the clock to ensure it’s properly broken-in and ready for use in battles. Finally, we’re forced to watch decades of time passing with only the same cast of characters. This means, for example, that none of Jumong’s key fighters can be killed (although one does die heroically at the end). Obviously this all comes as a result of the lucky armour although, for several battles, two of the fighters who have been undercover, spying on the enemy and protecting the migrants, are forced to fight on in their spying costumes while waiting for their armour to be customised. Hilariously, Boo Deuk-Bool (Lee Jae-Yong) the geriatric Prime Minister to the first King and then King Geum Wa (Jeon Kwang-Leol) and then King Dae-So (Kim Seung Soo) merely gets a little bit of white powder combed into his beard to show the passing of the decades. The scriptwriters do at least have the common decency to kill off Yeo Mi-Eul (Jin Hee-Kyung) when she reaches about 80 — although still looking no more than 28. The most unchanging are the three reformed crooks Ma-Ri (Ahn Jeong-Hun) the brainy one, Oh-I (Yeo Ho-Min) the fighter, and Hyop-Bo (Lim Dae-Ho) the hairy one with the gay love interest in Sa-Yong (Bae Soo-Bin) (amazing to later see him so butch in Dong Yi). Jumong manages to grow a beard to show he’s reached puberty. So Seo No (Han Hye Jin) is also untouched by time, eventually wandering south with her grown-up sons to found new kingdoms and get rich all over again. Similarly, Ye So Ya (Song Ji Hyo) works herself to the bone, living in self-imposed exile until rebounding in perfect health to see her son follow as Jumong’s heir. Most impressive is Queen Wan Hoo (Kyun Mi Ri) who obviously learned well how to avoid ageing in Dae Jang-Geum (2003).
We also cannot avoid a mention of Prince Yeong-Po (Won Ki-Jun), a complete dimwit who contrives to survive and, ultimately, prosper without anything to show how he could possibly succeed at anything. At least brother Dae-So shows initial intelligence and later maturity (although he’s never completely rational on the subject of Jumong). The ultimate prize for coming out of the series smelling of roses goes to Hae Mo-Su (Heo Jun-Ho) who fights bravely at first despite having a difficult hairstyle that prevents him from seeing too clearly, avoids chronic rheumatism while being locked in a cold and damp cave for twenty years, and then is a father to Jumong despite not knowing who the kid is until the last few days of his life. He was closely followed by Yeon Ta-Bal (Kim Byeong-Ki) who’s wisdom personified in dealing with the childish bunch of tribes and delicately trusting in handing over power to his daughter So Seo-No. Which just leaves me a few words of praise for Yeo Mi-Eul. In this series, magic actually works and this seer learns great widom as she charts the path into the future. She’s also responsible for the great irony of keeping Hae Mo-Su alive in the cave. Had he been wandering around the world, blinded and defenceless, he would not have survived to teach his son the basics of how to be a great leader. Even when apologising to Jumong, she manages to maintain her dignity. Once you accept the supernatural as real but fallible, she’s the most credible of all the characters.
The result is an often silly and rather tiresome series where many people contrive to do immensely stupid things, but survive until the chance comes around to do yet more immensely stupid things. I did manage to get through it but, for most of the time, I was on the verge of giving up. The only thing that kept me going was a nagging feeling the resolution with Dae-So would prove interesting. Sadly, even in this I was denied. It wasn’t resolved but left to the great sweep of history after the cameras stopped rolling. As to the principal members of the cast, I understand Song Il-Gook is a model, presumably for still life studies. He’s a wooden actor but still manages to swing a sword with some enthusiasm and, as the legendary bowman, fires a bow with twenty-nine arrows in his hand at any one time. As the paranoid prince, Kim Seung-Su is given the chance to chew the furniture and does it with considerable eye-rolling style, while Jeon Kwang-Leol goes through his lost love puppy routine, then his guilt-ridden routine, but does manage to go out swinging a sword just as well as when he was a lad. Oh Yeon-Su manages to stay dignified and loyal to the end by the King’s side and, as is always required in Korean drama, we have our salt-of-the earth character: the endlessly loyal Mo Pal-Mo (Lee Kye-In) carries Jumong’s army on his back once he cracks the technology problem of making steel. I was sad no member of the cast could be designated to love him. So Jumong Prince of Legend or Samhanji-Jumong Pyeon is only for those with great patience and forbearance.