Jumong Prince of Legend or Samhanji-Jumong Pyeon (2006)
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.