I welcome the warm Spring air of April along with its new K-dramas with open arms, the disappointments of the Winter drama season all but swept aside like the cold malaise and grey skies of the last few months. One can’t get too hung up on the past, the ability to move on makes for a generally happier outlook on life, so even if the two new Wed-Thurs offerings that premiered last week were also blah, I wanted to give the Mon-Tues crop a fair shot at winning my heart. Up first is fantasy sageuk Gu Family Book, perhaps the most highly anticipated K-drama in recent memory all thanks to the cheerful and large fanbase of the two leads Lee Seung Gi and Suzy. Two idol-turned-actors paired in their first sageuks? This is either a recipe for newfounded acting acclaim, or one or both of them are going to fall flat on their faces.
I was actually more worried about the script, coming from a very shaky screenwriter with two major duds recently, because a good sageuk lives and dies by its narrative. There is no rom-com cuteness to sustain episodes of nothing happening other than people going on dates, a sageuk is all about the pathos and the heightened drama that can only happen in a time long long ago when Kings and villainous plots and a country’s future is on the hook. Which actually is a great reminder for why Seung Gi’s last drama The King 2 Hearts was that magnificent, because really it was a sageuk in material but set in the modern world. So will the fantasy world of GFB come alive and win my heart? Episode 1 answered that question with a resounding YES! This was a win right off the bat, a beautiful and devastating story that captured drama magic from the first frame to the last. The story is written in broad strokes but it succeeds in creating a compelling world to enter into as a viewer.
Episode 1 recap:
The opening immediately sets up a world filled with magic and fantasy. The narration tells us this is a mountain forest called the Moonlight Garden where only the spirit that guards this domain can enter. A Taoist priest named So Jung goes in search of the Gu Wol Ryung (Nine Moon Spirit) who guards this place but he appears to be a curious sort and is off gallivanting around checking out the human world.
Wol Ryung’s attention is captured by the sound of drums in the nearby village. Head gisaeng Soo Ryun is performing for her guests at the gisaeng house and she’s pretty fierce with the drumming.
Wol Ryung stands on a tree and spots something strange happening outside the gisaeng house. He stares in curiosity as an official pulls a cart filled with three people up to the gisaeng house. Inside sits the daughter of a disgraced official Seo Hwa and her younger brother and maid.
The guard pushes Seo Hwa out and her brother and maid are angry at such poor treatment of them. A servant comes out to get them and reveals that they are at the gisaeng house.
Soo Ryun finishes her performance and comes out to get the new recruits. Seo Hwa refuses to degrade herself and claims her father was framed and she is not the daughter of a trailor.
Soo Ryun could care less and orders Seo Hwa stripped to her under clothes and tied to the tree in the street. Wow, she means business and doesn’t appear to have any sympathy for Seo Hwa’s plight. Her maid and brother scream at this horrific violation of her decency and Wol Ryung stands on the tree staring in distress at this scene. Soo Ryun orders Seo Hwa tied to that tree until she agrees to become a gisaeng.
Seo Hwa cries out for help, wondering how another person could do this to someone else? She begs to be untied but no one helps her. Wol Ryung remembers his Taoist priest buddy’s admonition for him to not interfere in human affairs though he is clearly really upset at this.
Turns out Seo Hwa was right – her father was framed by a lesser official Jo Kwan Woong who claims it was because her father looked down on him. He vows to make Seo Hwa into a gisaeng to further degrade the family. Seo Hwa’s father is killed right there and his blood splashes over Seo Hwa.
Kwan Woong is at the gisaeng house carousing and celebrating his promotion for capturing a traitor. He lies that Seo Hwa’s dad wanted him to be his daughter’s first client when she is made a gisaeng, a lie that Soo Ryun can see through. He insists Seo Hwa be prepped within 5 days and he will have her. Ugh, what a horrid bastard.
Day becomes night and Seo Hwa remains tied to that tree. Villagers come to point and snicker and even kids throw rocks to further hurt her. She grits her teeth and endures the shame, clinging to her yanban code of honor and vows never to become a gisaeng. Sad Wol Ryung remains on that tree watching her, restraining himself from helping her.
When Seo Hwa finally passes out, Wol Ryung can’t help but move to help her, which is when his Taoist buddy arrives and stop shim, reminding him of the vow not to interfere in human affairs. He used a magic bracelet to restrain Wol Ryung and says Seo Hwa’s fate is her burden to bear.
Wol Ryung appears to get angry and throws the priest’s staff towards him, not to attack him but to save him from a snake about to bite him. He suggests that he can interfere in human affairs like he just helped him. When Wol Ryung turns back to Seo Hwa, she’s already been take down and is gone.
When Seo Hwa awakens, she sticks with her conviction not to become a gisaeng, which is when Soo Ryung has her brother tied up and viciously beaten to make her capitulate.
Seo Hwa finally breaks down and agrees to do anything to save her brother. Poor brother screams for his sister not to do this.
Seo Hwa is prepped to become a gisaeng, getting a tattoo to mark her new lowly dirty status and gets fitted for pretty clothes.
Seo Hwa’s brother is resigned to his sister’s father until he hears from another servant that Kwan Woong will be Seol Hwa’s first client. He is outraged and horrified and begs the maid to help him save her.
Seo Hwa is prepped for her first client and another servant lets slip that it will be Kwan Woong. She remembers him betraying and killing her father and when she is alone she contemplates suicide.
Her maid comes and offers to change clothes and tells Seo Hwa to run away. She tells Seo Hwa to stay alive to get revenge on Kwan Woong and to save her.
Soo Ryun comes to get Seo Hwa to prostitute her out to Kwan Woong and discovers the swap.
Seo Hwa and her brother are running through the forest and Wol Ryung can sense their presence.
Kwan Woong arrives for his debauchery and Soo Ryun tries to resolve the situation by telling Kwan Woong to do it with the lights off since Seo Hwa might kill herself if she knew her first client was him. Kwan Woong agrees.
The maid is brought into the darkened room as Seo Hwa and is viciously raped by Kwan Woong. Argh, I can’t even watch.
Seo Hwa and her brother keep running but the pursuers are fast catching up. Seo Hwa injured her foot and tells her brother to keep running, reminding them to live for their poor maid. Brother promises to find her again and runs off.
Seo Hwa is about to stab herself in the neck and commit suicide with her hairpin when a flickering blue fight distracts her and soon she is surrounded by magical blue lights flittering all around her.
She sees Wol Ryung and weakly asks for help before she faints. Wol Ryung catches her in his arms.
The pursuing men arrive in the forest and are stopped when they see Wol Ryung’s silhouette in the moonlight. Wol Ryung uses his mystical powers to send the men flying backward and he uses swirling leaves to form the shape of an angry gumiho as weapons to attack the men who run away in fear.
After the rape Kwan Woong is furious he didn’t get Seo Hwa but instead a slave girl. He slaps Soo Ryun for her deception and sends his own men after the runaways.
Seo Hwa’s brother doesn’t get very far and is captured by the slave hunters sent by Kwan Woong. He is brought back to the town and publicly hanged.
The maid goes to see him one last time and they both remember happier times together. The brother takes his last breath and wow this drama does not mince around.
The maid goes back to the gisaeng house and cries. She looks up at the beam on the ceiling. Oh noes.
The gisaeng house servants and the soldiers chasing after Seo Hwa all report back seeing a mystical being in the forest, who they think might be the legendary gumiho. They suggest Seo Hwa has been eaten by the gumiho and is dead. Soo Ryun goes to the maid’s room and finds her dead and hanging from the ceiling beam.
Seo Hwa awakens in a cave and walks out into the mystical Moonlight Garden. She sees Wol Ryung and he asks if she’s okay. She wonders who he is but he just says that he chased away her attackers and she is safe here now.
Kwan Woong hires an official named Dam Pyung Joong to track down and kill the gumiho in the forest. The Taoist priest sees Pyung Joon leading a group of men to track down Wol Ryung.
The Taoist priest goes to warn Wol Ryung and is dismayed to see Seo Hwa there and knowing he interfered. Wol Ryung refuses to not help Seo Hwa because he’s already fallen in love with her. He asks the Taoist priest for the location of the Gu Family Book because he wants to become human.
The Taoist priest is shocked but Wol Ryung just smiles at Seo Hwa and confirms again he wants to become human. Became human, future daddy gumiho! Go chase your burgeoning love! I approve.
Thoughts of Mine:
Lee Yeon Hee. She owns episode 1. I’m going to start my discussion of GFB by pointing out the most startling discovery and that is her newfounded ability to act. No, she’s not suddenly a master thespian, but holy did she rise to the occasion and deliver a truly connective performance. I feel her emotions as Seo Hwa – her pain, her rage, her fear, or shred of pride and hope. She’s also ridiculously luminous and beautiful here, even more so than she normally is onscreen. For once she comes off as in character rather than Lee Yeon hee acting onscreen. God of the Mountains and future Kang Chi daddy Wol Ryung is also perfectly played by Choi Jin Hyuk. Very rarely does a drama have a compelling parental section that can stand on its own merits rather than as narrative filler so for this alone GFB already deserves a pat on the back.
The drama is absolutely gorgeous to watch, the colors and mood so beautiful and dreamy, but alternating between a happy dream and a nightmare with fluidity. The good versus bad dichotomy is heavy-handed with evil rapey official Kwan Woong being the epitome (and more) of a villainous villain, but for the purpose of this fantasy story he works well to raise the stakes all around. In episode 1 we already have an innocent father slain, an honorable woman humiliated, a poor brother beaten and hanged, and a sad servant girl raped and put out of her misery. It’s a lot of swallow but in the context of this drama doesn’t weigh down the pathos because the fantasy elements make it more acceptable. Because this isn’t a traditional sageuk so we’re not left wondering how such a beyond evil human being can get away with his nefarious acts.
I’m pretty amped up about the journey that Kang Chi will undertake based on his life story. Not only will he be a half-man/half-beast trying to become a human, he also needs to avenge the pain and suffering inflicted on his parents and extended family by Kwan Woong. That’s a double dose of pathos to put on the shoulders of Kang Chi, but this drama needs more than just a hero’s quest to flesh out the storyline. Because the parents portion is already so emotionally compelling and wonderfully presented, I’m hoping the drama proper continues to build on the great start and take this story to the heights I know it’s capable of reaching. I’m pretty certain I’ll be reading the Gu Family Book all the way through.All in all, a fast sprint out of the gate to what is looking like a new drama addiction.