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Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow or Joseon Myungtamjung: Gakshituku Ggotui Biil (2011)

December 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Detective K Secret Of Virtuous Widow 2011

Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow or Joseon Myungtamjung: Gakshituku Ggotui Biil (2011) is based on the mystery novel Yulnyumoonui Bimil (열녀문의 비밀) by Kim Tak-Hwan, and proves to be a highly entertaining Korean version of the newly emergent passion for relocating Sherlock Holmes into different environments and giving him more flaws than deductive reasoning powers. This follows in the faintly comic but adventure-based tradition now established by Guy Ritchie except, for a change, we’ve moved back in time. We’re at the end of the eighteenth century in Korea during the reign of King Jeongjo (Nam Sung-jin). The actual year is 1793 so we overlap the lifetime of Warrior Baek Dong Soo with the King’s succession, and Sungkyunkwan Scandal with the move of the capital at issue. This film focuses on a financial crisis. It seems the collection of taxes has been hijacked and, instead of vital funds flowing into the royal coffers, it’s disappearing into the hands of one or more high-placed nobles. Worse, every time anyone gets close to uncovering one of the links in the chain that diverts the money, the suspect dies from “natural” causes. Alarmed at this obvious conspiracy, King Jeongjo issues a secret order to Detective K (Kim Myung-Min). He’s to identify the mastermind(s) and bring him/them to justice.

Kim Myung-Min looking in command of the situation as as Detective K

Kim Myung-Min looking in command of the situation as as Detective K

 

Our first real sight of the man confirms him as a genuine talent. Unfortunately, it’s for falling flat on his face as he attempts a martial arts entry into an arrest situation. However, when he recovers his composure, i.e. is able to stand up, we’re given a quick flashback to establish his credentials as an investigator as he deconstructs a “suicide” scene to show why it’s actually a murder. Following this chain of reasoning, he identifies the local city governor as the killer and exonerates Seo-Pil (Oh Dal-Su), the dog thief the forces of law and order were chasing. When this governor is later found dead in jail, Detective K demonstrates his talent again by being the first on the scene and finding the long needle used to kill him. The prison guards naturally run into the jail and arrest him — he does have the murder weapon in his hands. This puts him in the same cell as the dog thief who demonstrates the more useful art of escape by digging a tunnel.

Seo-Pil (Oh Dal-Su) showing he's perfectly comfortable with dogs

Seo-Pil (Oh Dal-Su) showing he’s perfectly comfortable with dogs

 

After a madcap chase, our escaping duo take refuge in a barn used to store both grain and milled flour. Seeing the chances for an explosion, Detective K sends his new Watson off in search of fire while he delays all the chasing soldiers inside the barn. As he fights, he creates ever more dust in the air. When Watson returns and throws in the glowing branch from a fire, the barn is demolished and our hero is saved although crisped round the edges. Our newly minted duo are about to follow a clue into the countryside when they are diverted into a meeting with the leader of the Noron party, Minister Lim (Lee Jae-Yong) who seeks to use his influence to ensure his daughter-in-law will be treated as having died as a virtuous widow. Shortly after our duo’s arrival in Jeokseong, an area famous for growing wolfbane, they encounter Han Kaek-Joo (Han Ji-Min) who seems to be responsible for all the trade in this region. Detective K now reveals himself as susceptible to a woman’s charms (which are prominently on display) and so begins the unravelling of the heart of the mystery.

Han Ji-Min as a merchant of considerable talents

Han Ji-Min as a merchant of considerable talents

 

One of the major themes running through the film is the relationship between the newly reintroduced Christianity and the long-established Confucianism, a battleground of faith that reveals the extent to which Confucian ideals were holding the nation’s development back. For all there was increasing prosperity thanks to the relocation of the capital and the introduction of the Sungkyunkwan as a seat of learning, the power of the nobility to hobble innovation remained strong. This is clear in the influence wielded by Minister Lim. It also made the politics of both Detective K and the Christians dangerous because, as a matter of conscience, they are attempting to improve the lot of the slaves out in the countryside. For the record, King Yeongjo outlawed Catholicism as an evil practice in 1758 and, despite it being formally reintroduced in 1785, there was significant persecution and martyrdom. For the local Confucians, one of the main problems was the Christian missionaries use of Hangul for translations of the Bible and religious texts. This helped spread the use of the script and undermined traditional scholarship based on the Chinese script — if you want to see the origins of the struggle over Hangul, watch Tree With Deep Roots. Interestingly, it turns out the now-deceased widow related to Minister Lim was a Christian who wanted to free the slaves on her husband’s estate. This would have given the Minister and his family a motive for murdering her.

 

Although the themes are essentially serious, the tone of the film remains light and, at times, close to farce. The only misstep is the use of CGI to create two giant dogs. This was unnecessary. The same effect could have been achieved with ordinary dogs given the fairly token nature of their roles. I was pleasantly surprised by one twist at the end. The rest is obvious from the outset and resolved by the usual deus ex machina appearance of the King at the critical moment. This is to be expected in a period film which wants to be broadly entertaining. Kim Myung-Min is excellent as Detective K showing a man who’s not quite as clever as he thinks he is, but blessed with a heart of gold on the inside. While Oh Dal-Su as Seo-Pil is more than he seems but equally accident-prone. The Sherlock/Watson chemistry between the leads is excellent, carrying the film. Summing up, Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow or Joseon Myungtamjung: Gakshituku Ggotui Biil can’t be beaten as unpretentious fun.

 

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.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes nine to fourteen

October 28, 2012 1 comment

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.

Micky Yoochun and Park Min Young as the inadvertently straight couple

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”?

Song Jong-Ki and Yoo Ah-In as the other couple

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.

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