WAR NEVER HAS ANY WINNERS
Based on the manhwa of the same name, the drama is set in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Lee Kang To (Joo Won) is a rising star within the Japanese police force due to his efforts to suppress the Korean independence movement. His biggest foe is the masked crusader, Gaksital, who fights for injustice and stands up for the weak.
Later Kang To’s life is turned upside-down and he realizes that he must don the mask to fight for Korea’s future.
As a Korean-American, even though I’m a few generations removed from the horrors of history, I’m still affected by them. Things like communism and Japanese imperialism always hit a soft spot for Koreans. When I was in high school, I had opted to take Japanese instead of the usual Spanish or French. My parents didn’t ban me from speaking it; quite the opposite, they were very supportive of it. In the end, I became proficient in Korean because of it. Learning two languages at the same time isn’t easy but there are a lot of similarities which helped.
But I was surprised to discover that my grandmother was still fluent in the language. You see, Korean children were banned from speaking Korean in schools as they had to acclimate to the Japanese ways. You see glimpses of that in Gaksital. While a lot of Korean elders have tried to move on from those hard times, there are still those who will never forget. I’m reminded of my friend’s parents who refuses to buy anything by a Japanese manufacturer to this day. So there are always two sides to every story.
This drama captures those conflicted sides very well. Considering that the Dokdo dispute is still going on, I know there is no chance of this drama becoming popular in Japan. However, I liked how they addressed the question of allegiance and that it wasn’t simply black or white. To the very end, I liked Abe Shinji despite his nationality. I also found Kang To despicable in the first few episodes of the drama. What a way to start by having me hate the hero. However the drama depicts the natures of people and how it can change or not change when faced by an obstacle. It’s all about survival and to be fair, Kang To felt that in order to survive he had to start by getting on Japan’s good side.
Although Kimura Shunji (Park Ki Woong) is from a prominent Samurai family, his love for Korea prompted him to become a music teacher for Korean children. He’s good friends with Kang To and is on Kang To’s side in the beginning.
That all changes when Taro, his older brother, dies and he discovers that his first love, Esther (aka Oh Mok Dan, Boon Yi) (Jin Se Yeon) is in love with Gaksital. It causes him to spiral into a character of vindictiveness.
On the flip side, there’s Ueno Rie (Han Chae Ah). She felt abandoned by Korea and therefore found a home with Japan and Kishokai.
Upon returning to Korea, she is reunited with Kang To and recalls how he once saved her life. Her affection for him creates a conflict with her alliance with Kishokai. Similar to how Shunji’s hate for Gaksital blinds his affection for the relationships he’s created in Korea.
It’s also interesting to note how Shunji and Rie become one another’s confidante despite their differences in opinion. Both of them are rejected by the people they love.
Rie learns to deal with it. Shunji? Not so much. I love the look on Rie’s face when she realizes that there is no reasoning with him when it concerns Mok Dan and Gaksital. He just can’t let it go.
While Kang To’s love grows from his not knowing Mok Dan’s identity as Boon Yi, I’m not completely sold on Oh Mok Dan falling in love with Kang To. Not that I think that she should fall for Shunji but the Kang To she gets to know in the beginning is extremely cruel. The Gaksital she falls in love with in the beginning isn’t him. Sure, he changes but because Mok Dan immediately accepts Kang To after the realization that I felt that the drama didn’t give enough time for their romance to bloom on screen.
In fact, I was wary when they extended the drama by four episodes. And while watching it, I often grew weary of the repetitiveness of certain plot elements. While the dialogue was intriguing in the latter episodes between Shunji and Kang To, at the same time the spy versus spy feel to the drama got ridiculous. I know you know who I am. I know you know that I know who you are. (Note: Episode 10 on left, Episode 19 on right.)
Shunji has his suspicions about Kang To early on but yet Shunji’s membership in Kishokai isn’t exactly sanctioned when he first assumes position in the police force. So there’s a nice cat and mouse play that goes on but it’s dragged out so much that I think it lessens the tension. Perhaps being an all-knowing observer for this drama wasn’t the way to go. Towards the end, I saved up the episodes to watch them in one sitting and felt that the tension in the story played better that way.
As you can probably expect, the cast for this drama is large but the acting is superb. From the veteran cast members to the main cast down to the child actors, you get a good sense of what the people’s points of views could have been during that time and how the occupation affects one man and then the community as a whole. The first few episodes I was eagerly waiting to see Kang To become Gaksital but the build up to it was so nicely done that it was worth the wait. Their agonizing pain is so palatable throughout the drama.
There seemed to be a definitive style to the drama early on and I enjoyed the action scenes and the cinematography. However, I felt certain aspects of it be jarring as well. For instance, the manhwa-esque tone of the drama. The original story comes from Huh Young Man’s manhwa and I guess they wanted to incorporate some of the manhwa’s humor and action scenes.
However, there were episodes where that combination clashed with the other scenes that reflected more of a historical feel. From characters like Count Lee Shi Yong and his wife to Lee Kang To’s “Bingo” line, those scenes took me out of the momentum I was feeling. It ended up being so irksome.
Also, there’s the special fx makeup which is comprised mostly of blood and scars. Again, I think the drama wanted to express that violence with a more of manhwa emphasis. But it just looked so ridiculously fake. I point this out because here I am growing overwhelmingly emotional over the character’s predicament only to get a glimpse of their absurd appearance. If you are going to go with that tone, then go at it fully like Sin City. You can’t shift back and forth between a manhwa’s heightened view of the world with reality and expect it to be readily permutable.
Gaksital is a good drama to watch and I think Joo Won and Park Ki Woong are exceptionally fabulous in it. I can’t say I feel the same way about Han Chae Ah and Jin Se Yeon. It’s not because of their acting. They’re acting is just fine. It’s just that their characters are a little more subdued than Kang To and Shunji. Usually I don’t really care about this but I feel that the drama plays better back to back than watching it piecemeal.
Ultimately, war is never easy and no one comes out of it unscathed. Even Katsuyama, the hawt bodyguard who is secretly in love with Rie. Aww, I so wanted you to get the girl.