Posts Tagged ‘Han Suk Kyu’

White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)


White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009) is a Korean film based on Keigo Higashino‘s novel Byakuyako. It’s one of these stories where events fourteen years ago have a direct bearing on current events with the same detective being on both cases. The original case involves the death of a moderately successful pawnbroker. His body is found locked inside the compartment of the rusting hulk of a ship. The only way into or out of this compartment is by climbing up a hatchway used to deliver food to the different levels. The body was found by young boys who play in this derelict place. It also appears the victim was paying money to a woman on the other side of town, but it’s not clear what form the relationship took. Before this can be clarified, the woman appears to commit suicide leaving evidence she might have killed the man. The senior police are quick to wrap up the case, taking the suicide as an admission of guilt. Detective Han Dong-Su (Han Suk Kyu) is not convinced that it was a suicide. This is one of these delightful moments in a film where you can watch the detective thinking and having one of those Eureka moments when the fact that doesn’t fit becomes obvious. Each of the departed leaves a teenager behind. The pawnbroker had a son called Yo-han. The suicide had a daughter called Jia. They were in the same class together at school. They both loved Gone With the Wind and the music of Tchaikovsky, particularly Swan Lake. After the deaths, they never seemed to speak to each other. A little while later, Jia moved to Seoul to live with her aunt who taught her how to make beautiful clothes.


In our time, Mi-Ho (Son Ye-Jin) is set to marry Seung-Jo (Lee Jong-Won) the chief executive of a large corporation. He asks her why she wants to marry him and is not offended when she says he’s rich. She wants his money to ensure she’s protected from all future hardship and pain. In much the same way the executive might headhunt an employee, he’s asked Si-Young (Lee Min-Jung), his executive assistant, to do a background check on Mi-Ho. She notices a man apparently following Mi-Ho. When she tackles him, she’s frustrated when it turns out to be Han Dong-Su who bullies her into telling the whole story of the engagement. When he sees her investigative report, he realises Mi-Ho is Jia, the daughter from the earlier case now grown up. This prompts him to wonder what’s happened to Yo-Han (Ko Soo).

Detective Han Dong-Su (Han Suk Kyu)

Detective Han Dong-Su (Han Suk Kyu)


Leaving his offices for the drive to their home in the outskirts of the city, the top-of–the range Mercedes carrying Seung-Jo and Mi-Ho crashes. Despite her own injuries, she rescues him just before the car catches fire. Now convinced she’s a special person, he asks her for the truth about her background. After a pause, she tells him that, fourteen years ago, she discovered she was the daughter of a murderer when her mother committed suicide. With this “last barrier” falling, Seung-Jo tells her they should get married immediately. This deeply offends his daughter who says she’ll never accept Mi-Ho as her mother. Si-Young is also deeply unhappy and goes back to Han Dong-Su to ask for help. He shows her the files he’s kept. They agree to work together. It’s when she finds evidence Seung-Jo’s car was tampered with that her life is in danger.


Although there’s a lapse into melodrama at the end, this is an almost pure tragedy. It’s easy to say that nothing can ever justify a murder. Most societies have moral and legal codes designed to protect human life. Of course governments hold up punishments of varying shades and degrees as a deterrent. The theory being that individuals planning a murder will see the punishments and decide the benefit they will derive from the death will not outweigh the costs of the punishment. Except this assumes either that murders do not occur spontaneously but are always planned by rational people, or that rational murderers believe they will be caught and so feel threatened by the punishment. Neither is terribly convincing. In this dark story, we’re looking at something close to justifiable homicide. It’s in the spirit of self-defence but tainted by complicated emotions of revenge. The second death is pure premeditated revenge but, once you understand the circumstances, you can understand why the killer should be driven to it. It’s unlikely there will ever be a catharsis or redemption for the killer. As viewers, we can feel pity and understand the fear that underlies the need to kill. Every human knows such feelings. But forgiveness is a different matter. As a society, we can’t exculpate those who kill others. There must always be a price to be paid so that society’s values can be seen to be upheld. As to whether a killer can ever forgive him or herself. . . I suppose some people have a conscience and no matter what happens, they will always feel the guilt. Others may be emotionally damaged and so be unable to understand society’s values. They survive by ignoring the judgement of others and doing only what’s needful to protect themselves. Such people would be incapable of giving love. As to accepting the love of others. . . that would be seen as a weakness to be exploited when needed.


White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 is a dark and disturbing story with some sex scenes so it’s not for everyone. I found it completely absorbing despite the failure to explain one plot element and the slightly unsatisfactory melodrama at the end. I forgive Park Shin-Woo, the director and joint screenwriter. In police procedurals, there must aways be a climax with people running around in desperate chases. Without a doubt, it’s worth seeing as yet another impressive piece of fiction from the pen of Keigo Higashino.


For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Salvation of a Saint
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)


Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes twenty-one to end

November 26, 2012 Leave a comment

We now come into the endgame in Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011). With So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung) and the other court ladies sent out of the palace to spread the word about reading, King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu) and Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong) set out to split Milbon. This has become possible as many of its members in senior political positions are disturbed by the murder of the Crown Prince. However Mr Big Root (Yoon Je Moon) has worked out the point of hiding the release of the women into the countryside and sends out all his men to find them. Meanwhile Lee Shin-Juck (Ahn Seok-Hwan) as Right Minister finds his Milbon allegiance wavering. He’s looking to establish a new faction to protect the original aims of their secret society but marginalise Mr Big Root for killing the Prince. He makes a deal with the Chinese secret service to help him while, on the ground, Milbon begins to split into two. These leaves the King’s men running round the mountains looking for So-Yi.

So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung) and Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) distributing the letters

Within Milbon, a power struggle emerges for the soul of the organisation. The opposition to Mr Big Root is led by Sim Jong-Soo (Han Sang-Jin) who believes the leader has sacrificed the primary aim of the organisation through his obsession with preventing the release of the letters. It’s put to the leader he should step down. Meanwhile the King takes Lee Shin-Juck to one side and offers him amnesty if he will give up Mr Big Root, take over Milbon and enter into a debate about the structure of government. This will potentially give Milbon what it wants but, of course, Lee Shin-Juck is reluctant to trust the King. On the mountain, Mr Big Root now has So-Yi and two other ladies in his hands while Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) runs around looking for clues. He thinks Gae Pa-Yi (Kim Sung-Hyun) may lead him to Milbon’s secret base but his attempts to contact him fail. Things grow tense.

In the last two episodes, all the immediate plot lines are resolved. There’s some fighting. Not as much as you might expect and the fights we have are not showy but functional to get the job done. And this leads me to an interesting issue to discuss in these final paragraphs. Korean drama in general and sageuks in particular have unresolved issues. Straight history is boring. Indeed, when Korean television first got into historical dramas and did literal versions of the records preserved from past eras, the initial popular interest and excitement quickly evaporated. No matter how fascinating such images may be to scholars, television cannot sustain a purely academic ethos. It’s primarily there for entertainment (although this does not deny the possibility of educational themes in the subtext). It’s the modern bread and circuses to distract the masses.

King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu) steeling himself for the endgame

So here we have a drama about the King’s desire to lift the people from ignorance by giving them a phonetic rather than ideographic system of writing. So for those of us interested in semiotics and postmodernist debates about the function and power of the discourse, this is a classic period of history to examine. Here we have a feudal hierarchy with the King at the top, a corps of noble families, scholars to run the administration, a very small middle class of merchants, a massive class of peasants, and an underpinning of slaves. At this point, I need to mention a “new” suggestion from Gerald Crabtree, a geneticist at Stanford University in California, in two articles published in Trends in Genetics. He offers the opinion that early humans had to be intelligent to survive. Or if they were stupid and made mistakes, they would likely end up dead and not spread their genes. So if we apply this to early Korea, we have a potentially very intelligent group of survivors and the only thing holding them back is the inability to write down their thoughts. By giving them an easy-to-learn notation system, people can suddenly record their thoughts, pass on their experience, and preserve their innovations for future generations. Oral histories can only go so far, depending on the willingness of people to talk to each other. But once ideas are written down, they become more durable. Technology and knowledge can develop and consolidate their hold in society. Of course the written form of discourse is just as open to manipulation as the oral communication route. Those with power have always had control over the official publication process and have been able to use words to deceive the people. But, over time, the people learn to distinguish the real from the unreal. More importantly, they can develop their countercultural information printing facilities to parallel the official discourse. In the West, pamphleteering and broadsides distributed or posted on walls became a thorn in the side of many governments. Anyone can write on a wall in Korea.

The moment Mr Big Root (Yoon Je Moon) realises he’s lost

So for the King to be developing this system is playing with social dynamite. As Milbon puts it, the letters could open the door to Hell, bringing anarchy and destruction. Or it can just begin the slow process of reversing the direction of flow in their society. When the King plans this, the lives of the peasants and slaves are essentially worthless. Centuries after the release, the lives of the Korean people have more equal value and there’s less exploitation. If the development of the language was revolutionary, it has taken a long time for the social wheel to turn. Which leads me to this final thought. Many characters in this drama sacrifice themselves for a cause for and against the language, but the King sails serenely on. Essentially people are disposable tools for getting things done. He can be fond of individuals (including his son), but everything has to be subordinated to achieving what he perceives as the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He’s a walking embodiment of utilitarianism.

Finally, I think the way the series concludes is slightly too obviously didactic. This takes noting away from the central performances by Han Suk Kyu, Jang Hyuk and Shin Se Kyung. They are magnificent throughout albeit Shin Se Kyung doesn’t quite get the role I think she deserves given her importance to the language development program. But the script becomes a little preachy. Yes, the ideas are powerful but, for all the weepiness surrounding the heroic sacrifices made, things could have been neatly tied up without all the moralising. This does not change my view that this sageuk is outstanding and should be seen by as many as possible. But the slow shift in tone as we reached the ending did slightly take me down a notch at the end. Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) is somewhat sad.

For other reviews of this series, see:
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — the first four episodes
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes five to eight
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes nine to twelve
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes thirteen to sixteen
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes seventeen to twenty

Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes seventeen to twenty

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Well, as we come into episodes seventeen to twenty of Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011), the “big secret” is out as King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu), Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) and Moo Hyool (Jo Jin Woong) end up in a Mexican stand-off with Mr Big Root (Yoon Je Moon) himself plus Yoon Pyung (Lee Soo-Hyuk) and Gae Pa-Yi (Kim Sung-Hyun) — that’s Mr Invincible to everyone since so far no-one has been able to compete with him in the martial arts stakes. Were it not for the presence of So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung), the epitome of common sense, there would have been major bloodshed and the series would probably have juddered to a halt. As it is, everyone took a step back to consider the situation.

Han Suk Kyu, Shin Se Kyung and Jang Hyuk take a quiet moment before the storm

So how did we get into this mess? It all started off so well with Ddol-Bok doing his undercover infiltration of Milbon while the King moved forward with his plan to get the letters released. Except it all came unstuck (as you would expect in this type of Korean drama). A Milbon agent finally found out where the Prince was hiding and this exposed Ddol-Bok’s lie. However, this spooks our terrorists and expecting a raid, they begin preparations to move their HQ. Into this situation comes Lee Bang-Ji (Woo Hyeon) with a major new piece of the backstory trailing behind him. I won’t go into the detail of it but, suffice it to say, he was originally a bodyguard for the last Big Root but, because of his divided loyalties, he was not where he should have been courtesy of Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong). That meant all but the current Mr Big Root were wiped out in King Taejong’s raid. On a massive guilt trip, he picked up Ddol-Bok as his disciple and, between them, they reached new heights in martial arts. He also trained Yoon Pyung but he’s nowhere near as good. However, he’s now old and has been beaten but not killed by Gae Pa-Yi who’s lining up to be the final big match contender for world champion when he gets to fight Ddol-Bok. While we wait for this fight, there’s a major political debate about the King’s motives for pushing these letters on to the people and whether it would be a bad thing.

Yoon Je Moon nicely balancing rationality with fanaticism

Mr Big Root puts his finger on a fundamental piece of dishonesty from the King who had grown really fed up and annoyed because the people were so unwilling to help themselves. They just stood around acting helpless all the time and were not assertive, even when their lives depended on it. If the King was being honest, he would admit he lost his love for them and decided he would shove the responsibility for self-help down their throats by teaching them to read. That way they’d never be able to use their inability to read as a defence for their inaction. More importantly, if they wanted to complain about a corrupt official, they could just write the King a letter and he would deal with it. As it is, the bureaucrats are filtering all the news to ensure his majesty never gets to hear the bad stuff. But Milbon’s problem is that if everyone did learn to read, they could all learn basic principles of civilised life from the Confucian works. Literacy could be the way to lift Koreans into a new level of sophistication. Unfortunately, when Milbon tracks down the missing Prince, they discover the first book to come of the printing presses will be Buddhist — a large chunk of the population used to be Buddhist before the nobility and scholars got all fired up about Confucianism. Outraged by what they see as a direct attack on their beliefs, they kill the Prince and send his body back to the King. Not surprisingly, the King is upset and it’s up to Ddol-Bok to tell him a few home truths.

Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong) finally declaring for the King

Does a farmer love the animals? No he herds them and, when they are needed for food, he kills them. This is the unsentimental way of farmers. Is the way of the King any different? He calls the King a hypocrite for saying he wanted to transfer “his” responsibilities to them. Does he not know the slaves and peasants were already weighed down with the responsibilities of getting through life having enough to eat and without being arbitrarily killed? How can giving them any more responsibilities make their lives better? Yet if the King disliked or even hated his people, he would not care what happened to them. He would not fight to give them an education. So he must actually love them enough to democratise them through the opportunity to learn. So, after some thought, the King decides the rationale for his new writing is that it will be the “righteous voice of the people” and through a complicated plot involving Jo Mal-Saeng, So-Yi and her three female helpers are sent out into the countryside to do their thing under the watchful eye of Ddol-Bok. As we leave this quartet of episodes, Mr Big Root has just twigged that he’s been outmanoeuvred and sends out all his men to find these plague carriers before they can infect too many people.

It was sad to see Lee Bang-Ji die in the arms of Ddol-Bok but at least he had the satisfaction of a warrior’s death. Lee Jae-Yong as Jo Mal-Saeng has finally declared himself on the side of the angels, while Jang Hyuk and Han Suk Kyu continue to shine. Their relationship has lifted Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) out of the ordinary as a former slave now gets to tell the King hard truths when they are needed. Yoon Je Moon is also developing into a good antagonist as Mr Big Root. Without his thoughtful opposition, this series would have ground to a halt.

For other reviews of this series, see:
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — the first four episodes
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes five to eight
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes nine to twelve
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes thirteen to sixteen
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes twenty-one to end

Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes thirteen to sixteen

November 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Well, we’ve finally come to the existential crisis at the heart of Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) and Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) and King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu) take centre stage, albeit So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung) makes a vital contribution on the way. Our childhood couple have now been reunited and, for a mad moment, they throw away all their adult concerns and simply run away together. It doesn’t matter where they are going nor what they will do when they get there. They just take off into the wild blue yonder. In a moment of magical magnanimity, it’s the King’s decision to allow them to go. Yes, it will set his writing project back years if not make it impossible to realise. But this is something he has to do as a man. He cannot force people to work whole-heartedly for him. They have to be willing. This leads to everyone agonising. The King is suddenly taken with the notion he may never see So-Yi again. While it is not physical love, it’s certainly more than mere respect and affection. On her part, So-Yi finds regret building. It’s as much her project as the King’s and now she finds herself walking away. Kang Chae Yoon is still the twelve-year-old Ddol-Bok and thinks of nothing more than taking care of his lost love. It therefore comes as something of a shock to him when So-Yi announces she’s going back to help the King. It’s her way of dealing with the guilt she feels for not being able to read as a child.

Jang Hyuk showing he can also wear white with style

Ah, yes, I forgot to mention that she got her voice back when she confirmed Ddol-Bok was still alive. It was a traumatically-induced problem. Fortunately, this saved Ddol-Bok’s life — it’s silly but fun when you watch it on screen. Her departure leaves Ddol-Bok devastated. After taking a little time to get over the idea of simple suicide, he decides to die trying to kill the King. Anticipating this, the King withdraws all his guards apart from Moo Hyool (Jo Jin Woong). When Ddol-Bok suspiciously walks into the palace, the King blames the boy for making him into the man, reminding Ddol-Bok how he ranted as a boy that the King was all crap and should cut out the bullshit. Well, now Ddol-Bok faces the result. The young man who saved Ddol-Bok has become the King who cuts the crap, never bullshits (except when it suits him), and lives in Hell because of it. If only Ddol-Bok had kept his mouth shut, he would have become a King like his father and just killed everyone who disagreed with him. So the King walks up to Ddol-Bok and tells his would-be assassin to put an end to his worthless life. This is not at all what Ddol-Bok was expecting and he’s not a little upset that things are not turning out the way he wanted. He’s on a suicide mission but no-one’s going to kill him. So he tells the King in no uncertain terms that his plan to give the people a way to learn to read is bullshit, that he’s deceiving himself if he thinks this is going to help the people in any way. How can being able to read improve their lot if the nobles enslave them and kill them with the same disinterest as a butcher kills a cow? Lives only improve if the people can not only read but have a say in what happens to them. With this parthian shot delivered he stalks off into the night.

Han Suk Kyu feeling the darkness closing in around him

Meanwhile, Milbon’s leadership has figured out what the King is planning and they are appalled. This will completely undermine the scholars dominance of learning and, even more importantly, assert Korea’s status as a barbarian state. Because Korea matches China in using their written language and is consequently able to access two thousand years of accumulated wisdom, Koreans are a civilised people. If they have their own writing, they will be no better than their barbarian neighbours. This is not something up with which Confucius would have put. Milbon are against it and so send Yoon Pyung (Lee Soo-Hyuk) into the police to confess and to explain he killed the scholars because they were planning a new alphabet. With his plans threatened by premature revelation, the King must now move the project to a secret location. But Milbon captures all the documentation and kidnaps So-Yo and the young Prince. Now it’s Ddol-Bok to the rescue as he finally comes to terms with who he is as an adult. He has a positive purpose now.

Milbon’s inner circle looks to the future

The series at this point gets rather clever as we see the moral bravery of the King and the deep game he can play in refusing the disclose anything about the new writing system. Further, the King’s rejection of the use of violence puts Milbon on the back foot. Their members are drawn into a debate. They are negotiating with the King and having to scramble to keep up. Ironically, they believe they have the upper hand because it does not occur to them that the people will be able to use the new letters. With Ddol-Bok working for the King, he’s moved into undercover mode, claiming to have killed the Prince and looking for help to kill the King. It’s all boiling up nicely when Milbon suddenly cracks the secrecy surrounding the letters. Everything had been set up for the government to approve the publication of the letters. Milbon must now try to reverse course. They now know the letters are easy to learn and could, at a stroke, produce anarchy by making scholars redundant. Such is the paranoia of those who seek only power without considering the advantages to the people. According to Milbon, the people should never be given access to learning. It will only lead to them asking for reforms and taking power from them as the bureaucracy.

Jang Hyuk has finally come into his own. In these episodes, he goes from despair to joy, to suicidal to a new form of inner contentment (with a slightly ironic sense of humour). Han Suk Kyu continues to be the outstanding actor in his portrayal as the King. The decision on whether to negotiate with Milbon as the “terrorists” is wonderful. Interestingly, Shin Se Kyung remains a cipher. She has recovered her voice but still has little to say for herself. Obviously this reflects some degree of historical reality in that women would be expected to be more passive and not disturb the world of men. But it’s sad to see her marginalised in this script. Pleasingly we’re well passed the halfway stage and neither the pace nor the interest is flagging. I’ve no sense any of this has been padded out. Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo is taut and compulsive watching as we leaven hard-nosed politics with the odd fight or two.

For other reviews of this series, see:
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — the first four episodes
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes five to eight
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes nine to twelve
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes seventeen to twenty
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes twenty-one to end

Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes nine to twelve

November 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Setting up secret organisations is always a challenge given authoritarian states are not averse to using torture to elicit the names of the membership. The answer adopted by many is the cell structure so that each small group has no knowledge of the other cells nor what they are doing. This has been a part of my problem in teasing out which characters in Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) are in secret groups and which side they are on. I now realise this has been made more difficult because, in the mdst of all the action, we’ve been watching different cells of the “terrorist” Milbon. Finally, come episode 10, we get the air cleared by revelations of exactly who’s in Milbon. In this, I was strongly reminded of The Usual Suspects where Kevin Spacey’s walk changed. There’s a similarly charged moment in this episode. So what more general progress are we making?

Han Suk Kyu full of warm humanity

We need to take a minute to understand how an organisation like Milbon has to infiltrate government at all levels if it’s to understand what King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu) is doing and, where appropriate, to take countermeasures. Equally, the King’s problem is to find a hard core of people to trust. So, for example, from the lower classes he relies on Ga Ri-On (Yoon Je Moon), a butcher who also does autopsies and Oktteoly (Jung Jong-Chul — a Korean comedian turning to acting) to explore the different sounds made by humans and animals. It’s looking increasingly likely that, for all he’s a noble and so feels threatened by the King’s plans, Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong) feels more at risk from Milbon and so is inadvertently on the side of the angels. So far, the King has not decided to trust him. Interestingly the Chinese secret service is also growing more interested in what’s going on. But the practical reality is that the King actually trusts only one or two with the inside view of his plan to create a new alphabet. This creates its own uncertainties because this could lead everyone else in positions that could be threatened to expect the worst.

Jang Hyuk not developing much in the range of his performance

So the series is evolving on to a slightly different track. As viewers, we now know the identities of most of the key members of Milbon. As in all inverted crime stories, we wait to see how Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) will catch them. His plan relies on the fact that, as a boy, he accidentally came into possession of the Milbon Pledge, a document written by the movement’s scholar founder. With appropriate symbology, he keeps this buried under a tree. Believing the organisation will want to recover it, he puts up posters with a drawing of the pouch he lost at that time. This is the pouch made by So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung) as a child. When the posters are seen by Milbon and So-Yi, we’re drawn into a careful dance in which identities are of critical importance. However, there’s another major shift in tone as a philosophical debate begins on both sides of the fence.

King Sejong sets off to defend the creation of his alphabet which, controversially, includes the autopsy of a human to understand more exactly how we make the sounds for speech. His concerns and arguments are largely specious. He’s concerned that the fact he and his team have been secretly creating the alphabet is a flaw. He seems to believe the Chinese system of writing is more natural because it has evolved over generations, whereas his artificial system for representing sounds cannot be easily grasped by the “people”. This is, of course, rubbish. The selection of any written symbol to represent a meaning is always artificial whether the symbol has been designated with that meaning for ten minutes or a thousand years. Today’s digital technology can accurate record a sound and we can all agree what meaning to give it when we hear it. This is as “natural” a system as it’s possible to create. A manual recording system baed on pen and paper is always arbitrary. Milbon’s political posture is equally flawed. It asserts that a nation can only be great so long as scholarship leads thought and so guides action. Thus, instead of advocating a practical democracy in which the “people” are given a say in how the country is run, this organisation’s leadership effectively promotes an oligarchy by the elite scholars, i.e. it’s no better in substance from the status quo except it displaces some of the nobility in favour of those whose claims to scholarship are strong enough.

Shin Se Kyung earning sympathy points as the mute So-Yi

All this should tell you the action has slowed a little but, as we come into episode 12, things hot up. So-Yi sets off on her own to meet the unknown person posting details of the lost purse. She ends up kidnapped but, because of her eidetic memory, she’s able to engineer an escape by jumping into a river. All this is leading up to a meeting between the long-separated children and, in what looks like the start of the romantic element, we’re left with the cliffhanger of them about to meet each other properly (under a tree, of course). I’m tempted to say this is the first set of four episodes showing signs of padding. It’s stretching things out as the different factions maneouvre for position, but with the hook planted that a new martial arts expert is being called into play by Milbon. I expect to see who this is in the next quartet of episodes. The only reason why I’m not complaining is that, for all Jang Hyuk’s performance remains somewhat monotonous, we’re seeing more of Shin Se Kyung as So-Yi which is interesting, and Han Suk Kyu performance as the King remains deeply human and affecting. So, at the halfway point, I remain positive about Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011).

For other reviews of this series, see:
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — the first four episodes
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes five to eight
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes thirteen to sixteen
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes seventeen to twenty
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes twenty-one to end

Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes five to eight

November 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Now that we’ve rolled into the “present” after the flashback, everyone is adult, but I find my expectations slightly defeated. I was expecting Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) to turn into one of these romantic dramas with love blossoming between Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) and So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung) and complications coming from an involved third party. In these Korean dramas, this is usually the King who wants to make the court lady his concubine. He’s the only one with the power to stand in the way of true love. But somewhat unexpectedly, this is turning into a murder mystery wrapped around real world events. For those of you not up on Korean history, King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu) is considered to be one of the country’s greatest rulers. Despite the inevitable problems in trying to control the emerging nation, he not only contrived to survive for thirty-two years, making significant contributions to the development of the military, but is also credited with fostering a general advancement of knowledge. Think of it as a period when knowledge and understanding were encouraged to flower (a word of great significance I shall return to later). Perhaps his longest lasting contribution was the development of Hangul. This is now Korea’s alphabet but, when he took over the reins of power, the script was largely Chinese (the Hanja forms). This made reading difficult to master and so scholarship was limited to the upper class families who had the time to develop the necessary skills. The new script was a dramatic gesture of democratisation. The Hangul form could be mastered quickly by anyone of moderate intelligence and it broke the nobility’s monopoly on learning.

Jang Hyuk being the action hero

When King Taejong (Baek Yun-Shik) is shown dying, we get one of these wonderful moments of anachronism as his last breath carries the hope that, for all his faults, he will be remembered for making his son the king. Fortunately, King Sejong rejects the corruption of absolute power and embraces a non-violent approach to rulership. These deaths we now see represent a direct attack on the King’s attempt to undermine the power of the scholars. It’s led by a secret organisation called MilBon. It sees itself as the roots of a great tree, sunk into the rich soil of Korean culture and learning. Through scholarship, each new generation of officials is educated and trained to rise through the administration. The highest flowering “official” is the King and, if the King does not stay true to the needs and wants of the roots, support will be cut off and the flower will wither. The secret organisation therefore burrows deep so that it will always survive.

Han Suk Kyu playing King Sejong with great sensitivity

So here we have Kang Chae Yoon arriving in the Palace just as MilBon is launching an attack on the King. Because of her eidetic memory, So-Yi is an integral part of the language development team. For her, nothing has to be written down. She is a walking compendium. What makes the series so fascinating is that, early on, Moo Hyool (Jo Jin Woong) realises who Kang Chae Yoon is and vividly remembers the threat he made as a child to kill the King. His immediate instinct is to quietly kill him but the King takes a contrarian approach, putting his nemesis in charge of the investigation of the murders. This is fascinating. Because the King has taken a solemn oath not to kill, he would rather involve his enemy in his grand design to update the alphabet. Yet, for now, he’s taken the decision not to tell either Kang Chae Yoon or So-Yi of their childhood identities. This leads to Kang Chae Yoon suspecting So-Yi but, slowly, he’s coming to see she’s working for the king on a secret project. Indeed, he’s making good progress in uncovering the plot and has already had two brushes with the assassin, Yoon Pyung (Lee Soo-Hyuk). The wire work for their chases and fights is of a good standard for television.

Shin Se Kyung slowly emerging into the light

If I have a criticism, it’s of myself. This is a large cast and it’s taking me a while to sort out exactly who everyone is. There are a range of different clans and factions, and I’ve been finding it a bit challenging to decide which side everyone is on. It’s good to see Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong — the go-to guy for senior government officials of equivocal loyalty) gradually inching into sight in opposition to Lee Shin-Juck (Ahn Seok-Hwan). Two young scholars, Sung Sam-Moon (Hyun Woo) and Park Peng-Neyon (Kim Ki-Bum) are also actively involving themselves. While we have a loyal military comrade Cho-Tak (Kim Ki-Bang) providing extra muscle and timely advice when our hero needs it.

I’m hooked on this series. Both the King and Kang Chae Yoon are independently moving closer to their objectives. At this intermediate point in the series, Han Suk Kyu has had the better role with some very nicely constructed emotional scenes as he tries to master his frustrations and not give into violence when his plans are threatened. He sees the temptation to use his power in violent suppression of this treason as a kind of poison building up in his body. But Jang Hyuk is slowly coming out of his shell and you can see the wheels in his brain starting to turn. Now I have the characters more clearly established in my mind, Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) is shaping up really well.

For other reviews of this series, see:
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — the first four episodes
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes nine to twelve
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes thirteen to sixteen
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes seventeen to twenty
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes twenty-one to end.

Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — the first four episodes

November 7, 2012 Leave a comment

I suppose the reason why I find the opening four episodes of Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo so appealing is that even though I suspect the series will turn into a love story between the two children featured here, there’s enough realism on display to give me hope the series will stick to the basics of a good story, based on some real events, and “rooted” in something approximating the life and times supposedly portrayed. Series like Sungkyunkwan Scandal paint too rosy a picture of the past and promote the idea it would not have been too bad to live back them. The reality as shown in this series is that life as a slave had its moments of song and simple enjoyment but, for the most part, it was brutish and short. We get to see the machinations of the Great King in whittling down potential rivals translated into a device to frame the Young King’s father-in-law as a traitor. The consequence is that everyone directly and indirectly associated with the traitor must be executed. This includes all the slaves even though, by virtue of their position in society, they would have no practical ability to form a traitorous cabal to threaten the King.

The Young King Sekong (Song Joong Ki) deciding whether to grow up

So how does this set-up work? As in all good Korean drama series, there have to be two children who “love” each other. They are separated in dramatic circumstances. They each believe the other is dead and so grow up bitter and depressed until that happy moment when they are reunited and can resume their “love” as adults. However, this series goes above and beyond the call of duty. It has invested considerable effort in ensuring the circumstances of their separation are as traumatic as possible. Indeed, it’s some years since something with this emotional punch was brought to the screen in any language on any television channel. The first three episodes of this series should be required viewing for any aspiring screenwriter who hopes to produce the very best in drama. We start with our “hero” as an adult. He now calls himself Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk). He has managed to be promoted through the ranks of the army and arrives in the palace as a royal guard on merit. Unfortunately, he plans to carry out his deep-rooted plan to kill the King. In fact, this desire for revenge is based on a complete misunderstanding of what happened when he was a child. The point of the first four episodes is therefore to show him beginning to plan how he will carry out the killing and then we go through the three-episode flashback to see what actually happened.

Chae Sang-Woo outsanding as the young Ddol-Bok

In a village, the young version of our hero then called Ddol-Bok (Chae Sang Woo) defends his father, Seok-Sam (Jung Suk Yong) who is now intellectually disabled following a head injury. He’s very friendly with So-Yi (Kim Hyun-Soo) despite the fact her father bullies his father. Unknown to them, the formidable Great King Taejong (Baek Yun-Shik) targets Sim-On (Han In-Su), who owns all the villagers as his slaves. When the troops come to arrest everyone, Ddol-Bok rescues his father and So-Yi, but they are caught up in the plot and, in a moment of lucidity, his father is persuaded to take a message to Sim-On. This leads to the disabled father receiving what will prove a fatal wound. He dies in prison in his son’s arms. It’s a singularly powerful and moving performance from all involved and I sincerely congratulate director Jang Tae Yoo and screenwriter Kim Young Hyun (who also worked on The Great Queen Seon Duk and Dae Jang Geum) for taking the trouble to get this right. Frankly this is a trauma that would have left everyone present with deep scars.

Baek Yun-Shik not exactly fishing for compliments

We then go through the process of separating the children during a jail break where the young King Sekong (Song Joong Ki) stands up to King Taejong for the first time and saves Ddol-Bok, while Queen Sohum (Jang Ji-Eun) saves So-Yi. The children suffer very different fates as Ddol-Bok is dumped unconscious in Banchon by Moo Hyool (Jo Jin Woong). He has no idea the young King saved him but knows the “King” was responsible for the death of everyone in the village. He has the wrong king, of course, but it’s mistakes like this that make these dramas so exciting. So-Yi is protected as a court lady and, despite becoming a mute through the shock of that night, she ends up advising the king.

Kim Hyun-Soo doing well in the thankless role of the young girl

In the final two-thirds of the fourth episode we come up to date with Han Suk Kyu now playing the adult King Sejong. He’s finally outlived his father and has assumed the task of governing through a consensus-building version of Confucianism. Since he has take an oath that no-one will die because of him while he sits on the throne, this makes life very trying for everyone. The nobles in particular see their power eroded by the scholars and people rising through the ranks on ability. They are seething with resentment. The arrival of our hero Kang Chae Yoon in this powder keg is the result of his investigation into the murder of a scholar in his region. As he arrives, there’s a second murder and, appropriately, he’s set the task of finding the killer. He agrees to this because success will get him close to the king and give him the chance for the revenge he so fervently desires.

Frankly this is one of the best openings in a Korean drama for years and I’m not surprised to see it picked up a slew of awards. So far, there’s a wonderful script and terrific performances from everyone. It’s particularly impressive to see the relationship shift between the Great King, a role played with suppressed malevolence by Baek Yun-Shik, and the initially timorous Young King played by Song Joong Ki. Once the inexperienced boy is able to translate the symbolism of the mathematical game he plays into a political strategy, he begins to move with increasing confidence. The scene where he abjectly confronts his father during a military practice session is particularly impressive. However, the real performance to watch is from Chae Sang Woo. This is a genuinely mature performance from a young man. He manages to go through the trauma of watching his father die, fights in Banchon, fights in the forest and, later in the army. Yet with So-Yi he’s quiet and innocently bashful. Such passion is rare. Overall, I’m quietly optimistic Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo will prove to be the best sageuk I watch this year.

For other reviews of this series, see:
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes five to eight
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes nine to twelve
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes thirteen to sixteen
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes seventeen to twenty
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes twenty-one to end

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