Episode 1 of Joseun Gunman (also known as Gunman in Joseon or The Joseon Shooter) is as good as I hoped it would be. It’s not perfect but hits all the right buttons for me. A fast-paced burst out of the gate sets up the story nicely and delivers plenty of visual thrills. The drama doesn’t allow any one element to dominate whether in excessive visuals or slow acting pauses, letting the characters glide through scenes with nothing bogging down the energy. Sageuks always need a big conspiracy to set things in motion and this drama has one that is as easy to digest and understand as any. King Gojong of Joseon is planning to modernize the country by following in the footsteps of other Asian neighbors and open up the borders to the West. The nobles benefiting from the status quo will do anything to stop the inevitable march towards modernity and will even borrow something from the future to keep Joseon in the past.
A gunman is assassinating forward thinking nobles and in this dangerous conspiracy comes the meet cute of two youngsters who keep butting heads each time they cross paths. Park Yoon Kang is the profligate son of military officer Commander Park while Jung Soo In is the scholarly daughter of reform-minded Minister Jung. He’s trying to stop the gunman and keep his dad safe, she’s trying to keep the reform scholars alive and continue the work of the reformers. Lee Jun Ki and Nam Sang Mi are everything I want in two leads and destined romantic OTP, slipping seamlessly into their roles and displaying even more chemistry than they did in Time Between Dog and Wolf. Both are a little bit older and with it comes a grounded sense of acting comfort and confidence. The two lead characters are also presented with lots of room for maturation and growth both together and individually. The supporting cast is across-the-board outstanding and all the character motivations are easy to grasp. Great music and a fluid directing tie this baby together and leaves me wanting more the second episode 1 ended.
Episode 1 recap:
A man carries a rifle and walks through a tall grassy field clearly up to no good. At the police bureau, Commander Park growls to his subordinates that the shooter is bound to show up so they must be ready. He reminds them that this person is a gunman using a new weapon from the West so everyone must be careful.
The officers depart and arrive at a town square where a scholar is holding a public oration to criticize the yangban nobles who are only interested in protecting their deep pockets and do not care for the future of the people. For Joseon to survive, it must look to the thriving Japan and the weak Qing to see that the right choice is to open up Joseon to the West and welcome the new world.
Commander Park scans the rooftops looking for the gunman waiting to assassinate the scholar. It starts to lightly sprinkle as the gunman readies his rifle and aims it at the scholar who is talking about the difficult road ahead if Joseon opens its borders but it will be worth it to create a modern Joseon. Commander Park spies the gunman and rushes to stop him but the gunman fires off one shot which strikes the scholar dead. His students hurry to help him but he’s gone.
The gunman tries to make a quick escape but Commander Park manages to shoot a dagger into him before the chase moves into the forest and the fields. The gunman tries to outrun Commander Park who runs and pulls his bow and shoots an arrow that narrowly misses the gunman. The second arrow grazes the gunman who hides in the tall grass and cocks his rifle. Commander Park hears the sound of a gun chamber cocking and directs his bow and arrow in that direction.
The gunman stands up and points his rifle at Commander Park and the two of them fire off their respective weapons. The bullet shoots the hat off Commander Park while his arrow grazes the gunman’s shoulder. The fight is about to heat up when Commander Park’s subordinates arrive and the gunman makes a getaway. Commander Park is fine but looks very concerned at the firepower he just faced.
King Gojong has summoned his ministers to court and rages about the death of three court scholars in the span of one month. All are scholars who believed it was time for Joseon to open its borders and was working towards that goal. He calls out Right Minister Kim who looks sinister as all out and immediately responds that the officials are working on solving the crisis. King Gojong hates that answer and warns all the officials that if he discovers anyone is behind the rash of killings then he will mete down a severe punishment.
King Gojong asks Commander Park how many scholars are left and hears there are only two more still alive but their whereabouts are unknown. King Gojong requests Commander Park to protect the remaining two and knows that these attacks are aimed at stopping King Gojong’s plans to open up Joseon. After he walks away, Commander Park looks over at the gathered ministers led by the clearly up to no good Minister Kim.
Commander Park sends his team to search the capital for the injured gunman and his attention is caught by the sound of a party at a gibang. Park Yoon Kang is currently doing a sword dance around a sitting gisaeng with a flower in her hair and one in her mouth. He tells her not to worry and he’ll slice the two flowers off cleanly. Yoon Kang waves his sword and to the gisaeng’s shock, Yoon Kang has sliced off her outer cover and not the flowers. The gathered nobles are pleased with his display and shower him with tips.
Yoon Kang bends down to pick up the tips with a smile which disappears when he spots his dad Commander Park glaring at him. Dad is angry that Yoon Kang learned the sword to use it for such frivolous purpose but Yoon Kang thinks he’s earning money at least. Dad warns Yoon Kang to be careful since there is a gunman on the loose. Yoon Kang is well aware of that and tells his dad not to worry about his useless son and go catch that gunman. Dad gives him one final warning not to take this danger lightly as the gunman is more dangerous than Yoon Kang believes.
Noblewoman Jung Soo In is dressed as a man and in the shop of the merchant Choi Hye Won to buy a derringer from her.
Soo In bumps into Yoon Kang as she’s hurrying through town and Yoon Kang is immediately all smiles and asks if she’s alright. Soo In glares at him and walks off only to suddenly realize she’s dropped her gun. Yoon Kang notices the gun on the ground and walks back towards Soo In so she makes a running dive and lands on top of the gun. Yoon Kang walks off and Soo In manages to get her gun back. She leaves but we see Yoon Kang is now keeping an eye on her.
Soo In goes to a bookshop and asks if Scholar Oh Kyung has been by. The shopkeeper whispers that he’s apparently in hiding scared for his life. She hands a letter to the shopkeeper to pass along to the scholar.
Soo In bumps into Yoon Kang again but this time he did it purposely. He followed her as she went to all the places that a scholar would go and also purposely avoided officials. He confronts her as having a gun but figures she can’t be the gunman with her weak arms. He points his sword at her and demands that she take him to the gunman. Soo In slaps him and storms off. Yoon Kang is about to run after her when he’s caught in the middle of a street brawl.
The constables arrive to break up the brawl and poor Yoon Kang gets trampled and then taken back with the constable quarters. His buddy Officer Han heard that Yoon Kang may have run into an accomplice of the gunman and Yoon Kang grumbles that he won’t let the guy get away next time. Officer Han warns Yoon Kang to stay away, the gunman is using a newer model gun with even more firepower and is more dangerous than people know.
Soo In storms home and is secretly let into the residence by her maid. She’s still angry over her confrontation with Yoon Kang and her maid brings her water to wash up while begging Soo In to stop it with her sneaking out. The maid freaks out when she spots the gun and asks how Soo In got it. Soo In explains she got it from Hye Won unni. Hye Won changes back to her girl clothes and has no intention to stop her quest to find the missing scholar. She has a book left by the just killed scholar that she intends to pass along.
The yangbans are all gathered in a meeting with the government officials led by Minister Kim who is the head of the status quo faction. The yangban want the ministers to stage a coup and bring in a new King not interested in reform. Minister Kim says not so fast, a new King doesn’t solve the problem and will also need to be trained to listen to them. He suggests waiting for the King to come around. If his remaining scholars are killed then the King will realize his plans are going nowhere.
Talk goes to the remaining scholars and how King Gojong has Commander Park working on solving the case and keeping the scholars safe. Minister Kim cackles that he’s already given the order to get rid of Commander Park.
Merchant Choi Won Sin is directing the gunman attacks under orders from Minister Kim. His first gunman is injured so he sends another gunman to assassinate Commander Park.
Commander Park’s subordinate shows him the latest model rifle made in the US that is supposedly the only one in Joseon. It doesn’t need to be lit with a spark and even if it falls in the water will be able to fire after just a short time. Commander Park asks what weapon can defeat this new model gun? His subordinate sadly replies that currently there are no weapons who can defeat it. He suggests Commander Park run away from the gunman if he encounters him again, it’s been luck that Commander Park hasn’t been killed so far.
Yoon Kang sits with his little sister Yeon Ha as they discuss how their dad isn’t home yet. Yeon Ha worries but Yoon Kang points out that their dad often stays out working through the night when he was stationed at the border. Yeon Ha hasn’t seen it happen since he was transferred back to the capital. He must be working on a very dangerous case. Yoon Kang finishes his wood carving and proudly shows it to Yeon Ha who mocks it for looking nothing like an owl. She tells her orabeoni to add wings to make it look more like an owl.
We see the assassin gunman has crawled on the roof of the Park residence and is waiting for Commander Park to come home. Commander Park returns home and Yeon Ha runs out to greet him. The gunman aims his gun but pauses when he sees little Yeon Ha run out. He resumes his attack and fires the rifle which barely misses Commander Park who was bending down to hug his daughter. Yoon Kang runs out with his sword and sends his sister back inside to safety while both he and Commander Park run after the escaping gunman.
The gunman leaps into a courtyard to hide and avoids detection by Commander Park on a horse. But Yoon Kang on foot engages the gunman who fires off successive shots that miss Yoon Kang because of his quick feet in dodging and ducking. Yoon Kang finally matches sword with the gun and actually manages to avoid a shot pointed straight at his head. The gunman makes a run for it while Commander Park on horse takes over the pursuit.
The gunman runs into Merchant Choi’s residence and Commander Park leads his men to demand to search the place. Hye Won agrees to let them search and shows the officers through every room in the residence without finding a gunman. After they leave, Hye Won tells her dad not to let this bother him. Commander Park and his second in command Officer Moon discuss how the gunman intentionally led them astray. Officer Moon suggests Commander Park stay home from now on since the gunman was clearly trying to assassinate Commander Park.
Merchant Choi goes to talk with the hiding gunman and warns him to never enter this house even if he’s captured. If he makes the same mistake again he will not be forgiven. The gunman gets the warning and scurries away.
Commander Park orders his kids to pack up and they are going to stay somewhere else in the meantime. Yoon Kang refuses to run away and hide but Dad reminds him that little sister won’t go if he doesn’t come along.
Yoon Kang reluctantly goes with his family to stay in the residence of Minister Jung. The kids politely greet the Minister and his wife and go inside to chat. Minister Jung explains that he is great friends with Commander Park. On his way to the Qing dynasty he was attacked and it was Commander Park who saved his life so he owes a great debt of gratitude and is happy to do this favor for him back.
The daughter of the house Soo In arrives to politely greet their house guests. She bows to Yoon Kang and then has a mini freak out when she recognizes him as the guy she had the run in with in the market place. She composes herself and explains that Yoon Kang looks like someone she knows. Her mom immediately is dismayed wondering how Soo In could possibly know a guy and her dad laughs that his daughter is clearly overcome with how handsome young Yoon Kang is. Commander Park accepts the compliment and then Soo In’s dad tells her to show Yoon Kang to his residence.
Soo In takes Yoon Kang to his residence and explains that Yeon Ha will stay with her. Yoon Kang also feels like Soo In looks familiar but she claims to have never met him before. He asks about the guy she thinks looks like him and Soo In says Yoon Kang looks like a bastard she met once that makes her temper rise. She assures Yoon Kang that he’s nothing like that bastard.
Soo In giggles her way back to her room and her maid believes Soo In has a crush on the handsome young master Yoon Kang. Soo In chases her maid out to chastise her but finds her angry mother arriving to berate her. Mom reminds Soo In to be polite to the family as the father saved her dad’s life. Soo In claims she doesn’t hate Yoon Kang but her mom attributes her earlier reaction to such.
Soo In angrily storms back to her residence to complain about her mom ordering her to behave better. Is she a gisaeng or what that she needs to aegyo with them? She spots a person behind the bushes and out steps Yoon Kang who reveals he was exploring the residence and arrived here. Soo In explains this place is the side residence that only ladies can enter. Yoon Kang points out the oddities in the yard as catching his interest and Soo In asks if he wants to enter her room to see more?
Yoon Kang wisely takes his leave but stops to apologize for her getting yelled at by her mom. Soo In is upset he eavesdropped as well but Yoon Kang didn’t mean to. He’s just sorry and didn’t want to cause problem for others but his dad insisted they come. Soo In tells him to just leave and Yoon Kang walks out muttering why Soo In has such a bad temper and it’s not like Yoon Kang committed a big crime.
Yoon Kang sits with a worried Yeon Ha over the danger their dad is in. Yoon Kang assures her their dad will be fine since he’s Joseon’s number one swordsman. Even against a gun, a swordsman is trained to win no matter what the danger is. Yoon Kang goes out and we see Soo In also sneaking out dressed like a man.
Soo In spots the elusive Scholar Oh Kyung walking through the marketplace and manages to gain a private audience with him. The scholar demands to know who Soo In is and she explains that she is Scholar Heo Am’s student and the daughter of Minister Jung. She reveals that the deceased Heo Am left an important manuscript with her that she wants to hand to him. Oh Kyung needs to head to a secret scholarly meeting right now so they make arrangements to meet tomorrow at the tree by the bridge.
Yoon Kang hangs out with his buddy Officer Han and talk turns to the daughter of Minister Jung. Yoon Kang says she’s very pretty but has a terrible personality.
Merchant Choi meets with Minister Kim to report that it’s hard to get rid of Commander Park even with the gun advantage. Minister Kim suggests Scholar Oh Kyung be dispatched first and then wants Merchant Choi to find the completed manuscript that Scholar Heo Am was working on before he died.
Soo In sits in her room and remembers Scholar Heon Am handing her the manuscript to read. He asks her to pass the manuscript on to Scholar Oh Kyung who is the future of this country and will lead it to a new Joseon. Soo In worries about Heo Am attending the gathering tomorrow but he’s determined to go. He feels at peace leaving behind the manuscript and a student in Soo In. Heo Am goes and is assassinated as we see in the beginning of the drama.
Officer Han and Yoon Kang leave the gibang before the sun has risen after a night of drinking. Soo In dresses as a man again and sneaks out of the house to go meet Scholar Oh Kyung. Yoon Kang can’t get into the Jung residence when he finds the door locked so he heads to the side door and happens to see boy-dressed Soo In walking down the street. It takes him a few moments before he remembers her as the one with the gun in the marketplace and quickly follows her.
Officer Moon reports to Commander Park that Scholar Oh Kyung has been located. One officer remained to protect him and the other came to report the finding. Commander Park knows it’s not enough to keep him safe and rides off to do the protecting as well. We see the lone officer protecting Scholar Oh Kyung get dispatched and then the gunman climbs on top of the roof.
Yoon Kang confronts Soo In and demands to know where the gunman is. Soo In screams back that she doesn’t know but Yoon Kang pulls his sword on her. Soo In takes out her little derringer and points it at Yoon Kang and demands that he let her go. Yoon Kang wants her to go to the police bureau with him but she tells him to move aside because there is somewhere she needs to go right now.
We see the gunman has his rifle aimed at Scholar Oh Kyung. Soo In calls Yoon Kang an idiot for facing her with the gun since his sword is no match for a gun. Yoon Kang is insulted and raises his sword to attack and a startled Soo In fires off a shot.
Thoughts of Mine:
I’m not necessarily impressed with episode 1 of Joseon Gunman inasmuch as I simply really enjoyed it. It washes away some of the disappointing stench of recent weeks and drops a healthy dose of optimism that it’ll remain this good by virtue of it delivering the awareness of confidence. This looks like a story that knows what it’s about and where it’s headed, which makes getting on the ride less a shaky proposition. The exploration of a nation’s call to modernity and the difficult path required of the journey isn’t anything new to Joseon or K-dramas. It remains a gripping conundrum because no matter what the status quo there is always something new coming along that forces us to adapt or be left behind. It’s ironic that the yangban faction that wants to maintain Joseon’s closed off entity uses the weapon of the outside world to enforce the chains of history. It leaves those who are willing to evolve with the times scrambling in the passive state, taking one step forward only to be pushed three steps back. King Gojong is stuck between a rock and a hard place, keeping Joseon closed off means dying a slow death, evolving requires the sacrifice of those who maintain power to risk giving some of it up. The motivations on both sides are understandable and the conflict inevitable. This is what makes for a good sprawling basis to construct a sageuk, real stakes and villains who do myriad evil things prompted by the very human reasoning of self-preservation and advancement. It’s compelling how the drama shows us the swordsman of the present are protecting the faction that wants to modernize and welcome in things like guns, while the gunman use the weapon to maintain the current regime at the cost of a nation’s longer term survival.
Lee Jun Ki as Park Yoon Kang is a fantastic leading man with nary the quirks and trauma built in to make his character pop. He just comes across as a normal rather heedless yangban coasting by in life because he hasn’t faced any adversity up until now. He’s neither too immature nor too far gone to require a radical personality transformation after the familial tragedy to come, he’s more like a sheltered young man to complement Nam Sang Mi’s sheltered young woman counterpart. It would have been nice to glimpse more of their daily lives before the whole scholarly assassination danger arrived at their doorsteps, but I applaud the drama for quickly shoving the OTP into a close quarters living arrangement. Even better is their daddies being best friends and hopefully there won’t be some twist where Soo In’s daddy is actually a bad guy. I’m rather tired from the typical my daddy-killed-your-daddy trope in sageuks, and it’s already going to arrive in this story when the second female lead Hye Won falls for Yoon Kang while dealing with her dad being the trigger man behind all the gun violence. I found Nam Sang Mi a little too perky for a sageuk but nothing jarring, she’s just not as immediately at home in the genre as Jeon Hye Bin is as Hye Won. Luckily that’s smoothed over by the great chemistry Nam Sang Mi shares with Lee Jun Ki, it’s the stuff to be bottled and sold to other onscreen couplings just to show how acting synergy really can cover a myriad of imperfections. The story also doesn’t revolve solely around the romance so as to beat this couple into the ground to keep the drama afloat. Right now all the various story threads are intriguing and together create a dense nugget of building conflict and epic fallout.
I’m so grateful for this drama not to tread in the extremes when it comes to any part of the story. The OTP bickering isn’t excessive and both banter but remain civil to each other. When Soo In is dressed as a man, Yoon Kang does misunderstand her involvement in the gunman assassinations but that clearly won’t last long. Even better is when he realizes her real identity and gets closer to the smart feisty girl who is determined to honor her dead teacher’s last wishes. Soo In’s idealism balances out Yoon Kang’s pragmatism and lack of focus, showing us not just opposites attract but disparate minds can learn from each other. So far I loved Yoon Kang’s daddy Commander Park the most, what a cool stoic character that isn’t cold but more like a workaholic who doesn’t quite know how best to bond with his rakish son. He’s clearly a good dad as seen by how warm he is towards little Yeon Ha and how he tries to talk with Yoon Kang about doing more with his life. There isn’t the smell of dysfunction anywhere to be found in either the Park or the Jung families. Soo In’s parents also indulge her as evidenced by all the Western knick knacks strewn around her residence courtyard. Right now the drama is equal parts danger and lighthearted hijinks balanced precariously just right. I loved every moment of episode 1 and can’t wait to see what’s in store.
Click here to watch Joseon Gunman.