“Chess” may be the word best suited to conveying the drama of open-faced intrigue and gamesmanship that is 선덕여왕 (The Great Queen Seon Deok). The war between Princess Deokman (the future Queen Seon Deok) and the formidable Mi Shil for control of Silla is the stuff of epic. And perhaps because our contenders are both women, heroic prowess is here not framed in terms of brute force and naked aggression, but rather through strategic craft and intellectual subtlety of more cunning complexity than even Odysseus could have dreamed possible.
The storytellers here made the wise choice of drawing out a virtuous protagonist with a quick and ready intellect who can match her nemesis in both drive and acumen; a heroine capable of adapting to sudden unexpected shifts on the political playing field with the improvisational alacrity of a virtuoso acrobat and the strategic discernment of a grandmaster. The fundamental element contrasting the two women is each one’s driving principle: while Princess Deokman’s purpose — to develop Silla for the wellbeing and betterment of her subjects — is ethical at its core. Mi Shil’s single purpose in life is to attain and command the highest position of power and authority in the land for herself, an end for which she spares no sacrifice (always at the expense of others, friend and foe alike). Brought to life on screen through Go Hyun Jun’s universally celebrated portrayal, Mi Shil is ruthless and daunting, chilling, thrilling and utterly magnetic in her enticingly enigmatic translucence.
A mere two and a half chapters in, I knew I wanted to add 선덕여왕 (The Great Queen Seon Deok) to my personal DVD library. By chapter 10, I had already ordered a copy from Hanbooks — a copy whose arrival I hope will not be delayed by holiday traffic. So why such zeal? Suffice it to say for the moment that when compared to my favorite Three Kingdoms-era saguek, 주몽 (Jumong), The Great Queen Seon Deok raises the bar on narrative, cinematic aesthetics, and inquiry into the human experience. The storytelling is impeccable, the acting simply fabulous, the cinematography beautiful and the soundtrack breathtakingly inspired. It will take me a while to articulate the virtues of this sageuk but I think I can start with the Yonghwahyangdo group’s first military excursion.
The attack on Ah Mak Fotress — coupled with the feigned advance on Sok Ham Fotress that causes the Baekje generals to send their troops to Ah Mak, thus leaving Sok Ham undefended and open to a real and definitive assault — is a spectacular exemplar of Ancient and Medieval warfare at its most ingenious, brilliant, brutal and traumatizing. The military strategy is subtle and beautifully executed, resulting in a decisive victory for Silla’s troops on both fronts.
However, the reality of the execution of this clever strategy is anything but beautiful or elegant. Since our foray into the battle is alongside the naïve young men of the beleaguered Yonghwahyangdo (용화향도) Hwarang group, the terror of combat is presented center stage and in broad daylight. The young men of Yonghwahyangdo — who have never seen battle, let alone killed in them and watched their comrades die — experience and express unvarnished fright as they fight their way through the melée, each barely holding it together, torn, on the one hand, between finding shelter and safety in a hidden corner, and, on the other hand, obeying their commanding officer as he compels them forward into the thick of things.
Watching Deokman’s nervous shock when she spears a man to his death while defending a comrade rings ever so true to the craziness of unmitigated hand-to-hand, face-to-face combat; seeing her speechless and somewhat nauseated disbelief and horror paints what looks like a true-to-life representation of the soldier’s experience on the battle field. The aftermath of the battle at Ah Mak is no less unflinching in its representation of the traumatized soldier’s experience even in victory. While the rest of the troops join their General’s “hurrah!” with full throated exuberance, the boys of the Yonghwahyangdo stand by dazed and shivering, still sick from the adrenaline and the horror that was their price for victory. One, in particular, looks deliriously close to succumbing to a psychotic episode as he absently and nervously mimics the gestures of the rejoicing troops, rocking back and forth voicelessly mouthing the “hurrah!” along with the rest, a deranged look of elation washing over his face in involuntary waves.
The attack on Ah Mak, starting in chapter 10, is just the first phase of Yonghwahyangdo’s brutal initiation into the realities of battle and combat. Chapter 11 brings with it more harrowing instances of terror and loss for a group of young men who ultimately intentionally stumble their way through the furnace that ejects them a more tempered, hardened and unified band of brothers. All this to exemplify the depth and brilliance of storytelling in 선덕여왕 (The Great Queen Seon Deok), the sageuk that famously dominated the ratings charts throughout its run, got extended, and subsequently swept the awards in 2009. Whatever else went into the making of this drama, the result is a brilliantly engaging tale.
In the poster image below, from left to right:
김남길 (Kim Nam Gil), 고현정 (Go Hyun Jung), 이요원 (Lee Yo Won),
엄태웅 (Uhm Tae Woong), 박예진 (Park Yeh Jin), 유승호 (Yoo Seung Ho)