Ah! What a relief – an historical saga that feels like an historical saga! After the foamy travesty that was Kim Soo Ro and the less-than-solid despite its beauty Ja Myung Go, it is refreshing to once again happen upon a Goguryeo-era sageuk drama that has some of the appealing traits of Jumong.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me as I watch this that among the elements that makes Jumong so engaging is the spot on mix of political intrigue, military strategy and execution, humor, pathos and drama. While the principal actors are attractive and acquit themselves admirably (although there is the occasional ham) in Jumong, it is not entirely a showcase of thespian brilliance. Yet it works very well because the story is told very well: its internal rhythms flow naturally, sometimes languidly so (without grinding to a halt as Kim Soo Ro often and, yes even Ja Myung Go occasionally did), and sometimes hurtling through crisis without ever feeling rushed. So far, the political maneuvering in King Geunchogo is quite engaging, the battles and skirmishes rather brilliantly brutal and the prime female characters quite well drawn — all which gives me much to look forward to.
Since King Geunchogo wants to tell a story born of the Jumong-Seosuno alliance dramatized in Jumong, the historical context can feel a bit cryptic at first since knowledge of the founders of Goguryeo and Baekje is taken for granted. But since they also want to lay the foundation for the conflict between these two realms some four centuries after their respective founders went their separate ways, King Geunchogo makes Jumong and Seosuno’s parting rather acrimoniuos — in stark contrast to the bittersweet parting of soul mates we saw in Jumong.
And as this is the story of a Baekje monarch’s travails and triumphs, Goguryeo is the primary antagonist – just as it was in Ja Myung Go. I remember thinking when I first started watching Ja Myung Go how strangely dissonant it was for the beloved Jumong’s kingdom to be the home of the big bad. I am not so averse to the idea anymore, mostly because Ja Myung Go weaned me well on the idea.
What I find fascinating now in this South Korean television drama is the idea that the antagonistic role of Goguryeo (in the northern part of the peninsula) vis-à-vis Beakje (in the southern part of the peninsula) may reflect modern geopolitical dynamics between North and South Korea. As it so happens, both Pyeonyang and Hanseong (Seoul) figure prominently in both ancient realms…
Things that make you go hmm…
Anyway, King Geunchogo is an ambitious 60 episodes long and I found myself really liking it halfway through the first chapter so it looks like I won’t have to do very much work to see this one through. I will, however, only be able to see a chapter or two at a time since I have other work that requires my attention. But it’s all good; those viewings will be like small rewards after a hard day’s labor… Looking forward to it.
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Notes on King Geunchogo (근초고왕): 2-9
Gosh, I hate to do this, but since watching this is like trying to walk waist deep in a pool of molasses, I am compelled to openly declare King Geunchogo boring.
Ugh! I have tried and tried and tried but I cannot keep my attention on it and in the past two months I have only managed to wade my way through 8 episodes (out of 60!)
I had such high hopes for this particular story but it is flat on all the storytelling counts that matter: the story is pedantic, the actors are devoid of charisma (like, completely!) — so much so that the lead does not seem to even bother to phone it in. No spark, no charm, no discernible intelligence in the character… And his pretty leading lady is no better – utterly insipid: a bit weepy and given to bouts of impulsive transport but otherwise possessed of a dead stare that offers nothing in return for the attention watching demands.
The question now is whether to abandon ship or to just hang on to the bitter end… [is this what people in a loveless marriage experience?]
I know that this is a complete about-turn on my part, but I cannot help it if watching this feels like a whole lot of work (and therefore a waste of time since I have other work that I have to do).
Hit-o-meter: Who delivers on engaging drama?
So, given the recent very poor showing of both Kim Soo Ro and King Guenchogo, I started wondering how sageuk series fare by production network. It turns out that MBC has a fairly reliable record of turning out hits (that is, if you exclude Kim Soo Ro and this selection of (mostly) popular titles suggests that they also appear to have more experience with sageuk than the other networks. KBS, home of King Guenchogo comes in second in hit-making while SBS has less of a record to go by. I don’t really have a sufficiently large pool of dramas to reach any meaningful conclusion so this is just a bit of trend spotting. Maybe later, after I have seen more dramas, I can find a more reliable pattern.
So what exactly does a hit mean? Well, broadly speaking, the popular success of a series – whether sageuk or otherwise, indicates more discernible talent for good storytelling. People will gather around the most engaging storytellers and they are not easily induced to pay their precious attention to the less charming. It’s just that simple.
Notes on King Geunchogo (근초고왕): 13-14: Pirates!
Wow! Pirates really do liven things up! I had no idea I was really such a kid, or such a boy, or whoever it is that gets a kick out of suddenly encountering pirates in the story, but here we are.
There is no question that King Geunchogo has been a hopeless snore-fest from about ep 2 to near the end of 13. And then the pirates make their entrance stage left and suddenly the story is waking up from its coma and remembering that it is supposed to be an epic. Intrigue is back, political dreams are back — its no longer just about the greed of incompetent and decidedly unattractive idiots.
Now we have a band of dispossessed citizens of the former Buyeo who want to re-establish the seat of their lost royal house and they are on a collision course with the embattled Prince Yeogu, rightful heir to the throne of Baekje and currently awaiting at-sea execution by his step-brothers: one a cunning cad, the other simply deceived and disillusioned.
And it’s not really just about the action. King Geunchogo has actually been doing a pretty good job with staging battles and skirmishes, it has been faring quite well on the action front. It is the story and the plot that suddenly get a new lease on life with the advent of the pirates. Arrrrgh!
Notes on King Geunchogo (근초고왕): 15: The Strategist
think I just found my new favorite catch phrase:
Spoken by Ajikai (played by Lee In, Shin Yun Bok’s brother in Painter of the Wind), the pirate strategist, as he ducks, spins and strikes heedless foot soldiers in the thick of battles. 🙂
The guy reminds me of Bae Soo Bin’s Sa Yong from Jumong 🙂
Notes on King Geunchogo (근초고왕): 15-19
Things really have gotten more interesting since the pirates came on the scene. Even the principal actors who previously seemed bored to tears now have some pep in their step. What changed? I wonder…
The opening credits for sure (since ep. 13). Maybe the writers? Things don’t seem as slow and redundant as they were before. There’s a little more humor, a little less meaninglessly overwrought teeth-gnashing.
Hope springs eternal…
Notes on King Geunchogo (근초고왕): 19-24
It’s confirmed: ever since Ahn Seok Hwan entered stage left, King Geunchogo finally got good. It only took 20 episodes!
And it’s not as if ASH appears a great deal on screen. His fugitive scholar has a very furtive way about him, gliding up to people and making suggestions before disappearing. No, it’s not just him. Let’s put it this way, the quality of both the writing and production went up several notches to coincide with first the introduction of the pirates and then went into full throttle at around the same time ASH came into the picture.
Special notice has to be given to the excellent staging and execution of the battle to defend the fort. The situation reminds me a little of the kamikaze winds that felled Kublai Khan when he tried to invade Japan in 1274 and 81.
Do I even remember how this miserable story ended? … ummm.. no. I did watch all 60 chapters to the very, very bitter end – I remember (insipid) Guenchogo’s (insipid) soulmate queen souring on him in the bitterest way after the loss of her son to a fire (“loss” kdrama style, of course – meaning ‘not really lost, just spirited away somewhere without her knowledge’).
Things got bad between them and I can’t remember how or if they resolved it. He ends up dying under their tree (of course)…
— O, heavens, why so much snark, Curio? Leave the poor drama alone. So you didn’t enjoy it…
Okay. I’ll leave it alone.
PS – I just noticed that “insipid” and “bitter” keep popping up in this post… hmmm…