THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE FANCY GUN-TWIRLING
Park Yoon Kang (Lee Jun Ki) is the son of a great Joseon swordsman serving King Gojong. Due to King Gojong’s lack of power, his reign was filled with great conflict over factions fighting about the rapid modernization and encroaching influence of foreign forces. Jung Soo In (Nam Sang Mi) is a modern, forward-thinking woman who marvels at new inventions. Through various conflicts, Yoon Kang’s father is murdered and is deemed a traitor posthumously. Yoon Kang makes the decision to trade his sword for a rifle and returns to Joseon to avenge his father’s death.
I have to admit that I didn’t quite fall in love with the drama from the get-go. Sure, the story had all the right ingredients and the characters were compelling but it didn’t have a unique feel. There have been many sageuks where the hero’s father dies and they go on a mission to avenge their death combined with a meet-cute of the heroine. This one was no different except it was packaged with Lee Jun Ki wrapping paper.
Bubble Sisters – 달픈 (Aching (or Longing as in a Loved One))
However, the drama does have something up its sleeve working for it: the sudden “death” of Park Yoon Kang and the birth of Hasegawa Hanjo. It was at that point I became invested in Park Yoon Kang’s journey.
Certainly, it’s not a new narrative device but the drama does a really great job at leaving us with bated breath between these two scenes. Both Lee Jun Ki and Nam Sang Mi are great at playing shocked and the editing slows down the scene so that the idea that our hero is in grave danger really sinks in. The drama executes it beautifully.
However, viewers are subject to watching everyone recognize Hanjo as Park Yoon Kang but he continues to deny it. The Groundhog’s Day issue itself isn’t a problem for me as long as there was a different result. However, it was a constant cycle of the suspicions arising, they being allayed, people being assumed dead, people coming back to life and the fact that it spread over more than half the episodes which slowed the pacing of the drama. I can’t express how thrilled I was for Yoon Kang to finally acknowledge who he was to Soo In. Or maybe I already did.
Ivy – 내 맘을 아나요 (Do You Know How I Feel?)
And then in between all of that, there was some fancy gun-wielding, which I have to admit loving. I found myself being like the dog Dug from Up. Ugh, why are we doing this tiring cycle of I’m not who you think I am but I am. Only to go oooh, fancy gun-twirling.
I initially felt that I would have been more emotionally invested in the drama if it played up the politics more in the foreground. It does towards the end but I can now see why the drama wanted to be removed from the politics so let me explain with a very brief history lesson.
The conflict between the political factions extended mainly from the conservative and pro-Chinese Sugupas and the enlightened and pro-Japanese Gaehwapas. At the end of the drama, we see that the tension between the two factions lead to the Gapsin Coup which were lead by the Gaehwapas and lasted three days. Their plan was to eliminate the social class system but they did so by kidnapping King Gojong (Lee Min Woo) and Queen Min (Ha Ji Eun) and forcing their hand.
King Gojong was incredibly weak as he first ascended to the throne when he was only a child. Queen Min used her influence to enlist help from the Chinese and drive out the Gaehwapas. The leaders of the group eventually escaped to Japan. As a result of all the outside influences, treaties were established, foreigners were sanction and Queen Min eventually gets assassinated by the Japanese. Long story short, the Joseon Dynasty ends and the Empire of Korea begins and King Gojong (now known as Emperor Gojong) and his son are officially forced to abolish the empire by Japan at the start of the 20th Century.
We don’t get to see the latter happening in this drama but I suspect that that’s why the drama ended with Park Yoon Kang establishing his own refugee army. Ultimately, the drama isn’t about the Sugupas vs. Gaehwapas but rather how these characters got swept up by the political turmoil and how it influenced the decisions they made.
They basically sided with the faction that would further their own purpose and that’s especially seen in the choices made by Choi Won Shin (Yoo Oh Sung) who is an opportunist. The last few episodes really amped up the tension for me but honestly, I wish that the run of the drama was shorter so that the storytelling could be tighter.
Despite the dragging plot, the thing that filled most of those episodes were the backstories of some of the secondary characters. Choi Hye Won (Jun Hye Bin) and Kim Ho Kyung (Han Joo Wan) captured most of my attention in the middle but those stories weren’t without problems of their own.
I liked that Hye Won comes from a poor upbringing. You understand what drives her to rise (and ultimately fall) the ranks because she’s had those experiences as a child. However, I don’t feel like the drama used her as much as they could have since we don’t get much more information and her story wraps up very quickly at the end.
On the other hand, Kim Ho Kyung spends most of the drama as a background player and only brought forward as needed to manipulate the direction of the plot. Hints about his family life gets sprinkled around and it is an interesting history but unlike Hye Won, it comes full circle in the scene with Kim Byung Je (Ahn Suk Hwan) during the Gapsin Coup. Everything that comes afterwards seems extraneous.
The other important character of the drama is the score, which is often overlooked. I honestly thought that KBS reused an old score from The Princess’ Man but I was wrong. Same composer from the drama, different score. Every film/tv composer has a signature melody that they use and reuse (ex. John Williams, Thomas Newman) and Composer Lee Ji Yong is no different. His music has an international feel with Korean instrumental structure but played with what sounds like instruments from all over the globe. He’s incredible at playing up the action sequences and tension with a distinctive mix of classical sounds.
Lee Ji Yong, Choi Jae Woo – 命 – Croce (The Chinese character pronounced as Myung meaning “Life”; while Croce appears to be the Italian word for “Cross”)
The drama’s strength is certainly Lee Jun Ki. He always comes off passionate no matter what role he takes on. He great at playing characters who face insurmountable odds that you want to keep watching him to see how he tweaks the role of the conflicted hero. Overall, the drama does do its job by being able to tell the story from Point A to Point B. It’s just that the journey to Point B is filled with reoccurring turns and twists that is exciting at first but becomes tiring by the 3rd rendition. Joseon Gunman is a decent drama but its writing and structure keep it from being a great one.