Warning: Excessive swearing and overlooooong reviewing ahead…..
This is not a perfect drama by any means, in fact it could even be described as being a little bit experimental in style, with odd camerawork and scene shifts, strange music choices and an over the top martial arts style that is usually reserved for Chinese Wuxia films and shows. Yet even so, one thing this drama does have is a warmth to its story and characters that drew me in despite its oddness and shortcomings.
Interestingly, from what I understand, this was one of the very first frontrunners that spawned the now very popular Korean Saguek Fantasy Fusion genre a few years ago and I must say it definitely shows that this drama was one of the first forays into a new styling of story and production in its shaky start and almost random mixing of the more traditional and serious Saguek norms with its decidedly less realistic overall feel.
Because of this, the story itself also hasn’t quite been streamlined into a cohesive style, leaving us with a very jerky and odd venture into a genre that has not yet perhaps been fully established, plot points and flashbacks popping up in a rather random fashion.
The story is actually quite universal, a girl fights for her rights in not only a male dominated world but also a very class centric society, portrayed by the struggle of Ha Ji Won’s ‘Damo’ (female Tea Servant), who is both likable and interesting, a character with hidden depths.
It takes at least two episodes before the drama unlocks this main character, exposing Chae Ok’s past, a pacing decision I found to be decidedly odd as it was only after I understood her past that I felt I could fully understand her character in the present and therefore also her attitude towards her place in society and mentor at the Police Station.
Up until this point, many of the shows more emotional character exchanges sort of went over my head as I was unable to understand the importance and relevance of their relationships and past experiences, and because the drama hadn’t taken the time to slowly build up any relationships, these very sudden shows of loyalty and emotional connection just seemed a little out of the blue.
By the end of the second episode however, it all makes sense, and I will go into a little more detail regarding this down below.
The drama begins with a scene so epic and reminiscent of such Chinese greats as ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ that you can’t help but be a little excited for the story despite all the oddness on display. But oh the tragedy!!
Beginning with a beautifully realised and desperate swordfight through pale green swaying bamboo, an areal ballet of slow sweeping leaps and twirls, the opening sequence quickly boils down to a desperate man’s flight on horseback away from our heroine and her advancing policemen colleagues.
In voice-over we hear the following conversation:
‘Turn around Criminal. Give up. What you see before you is only a cliff. You ran down a road that isn’t a road.”
‘How can you say that? If one person takes a path, if two people take a path, if many people take it, then it becomes a road. In this harsh world, all I did was create and run down a new road.’
‘Don’t be foolish. The road you created is only a cliff leading to death.’
‘You are wrong. Though my bones may be buried here today, after I die many people will walk my path to make a road. Even though I die now, I will not completely die.’
How totally epic is that? The only problem is that the very next second this total hero of a dude is fighting our heroine to death (to his death to be exact) and on top of this depressing fact, SPOILER ALERT: I was pretty sure by the end of the second episode that this totally epic (and might I mention rather attractive ) mysterious hero guy is actually Chae Ok’s long lost older brother, making my thoughts at that time:
‘Boo….why does the attractive one have to be her brother?’
‘Please let there be no incest in this drama’.
The actual start:
Now, back to that main issue I had through the first two episodes which I already touched on above, which was of course the rather odd choice to hold back in revealing the childhood portions of the main characters until after the plot had fully gotten underway. I am not a huge advocator of the 10 episode childhood portion beginning to traditional Sagueks or anything, but in saying that they do clearly serve a purpose in defining the relationships between our main characters and revealing their personalities and past encounters.
Because this history was not revealed in this particular drama until the very end of the second episode I found myself getting quite confused as to the relationship between the main character of Chae Ok and her police commander, Hwangbo Yoon. There was obviously something going on there, evident from the sidelong glances he was constantly giving her but then her very servantile attitude towards him really threw me, on top of the fact hat he was often dressing her down in front of her colleagues, none of which particularly rendered him into a likable person for me.
Until that is, we are finally given an insight into their shared past where we see how far and how deep their relationship actually goes.
Her rather unappreciative attitude regarding herself and her devoted servant act towards him is revealed to have in fact a very solid and understandable root core, as in she has actually been his slave since she was seven years old after losing her noblewoman status and being marked a traitor’s daughter.
Yoon however, himself an illegitimate son who does not feel a part of noble society anyway, has been very kind to her, meaning they have developed a very odd and yet deeply co-dependent relationship which has lasted into their adulthood.
And so suddenly it makes complete sense what that strange inexplicable dynamic was between these two characters that had me confused and guessing as to their feelings and relationship.
He is clearly completely in love with her and she possibly also with him, though for Chae Ok who has spent the last 15 years of her life as a slave, I feel like she has a better understanding of the class difference between them and also her role in life as stated by society then he evidently does.
As in, it is never going to happen, and therefore she doesn’t even dare to hope for it.
This undeniable fact of their class difference seems to be something that Chae Ok understands and readily accepts but Yoon, who has constantly struggled in overcoming his own restrictions placed on him due to his status as an illegitimate son, maybe does not place so much stock by the restraints that their world is trying to hold them to.
It seems he has spent his life trying to reach for something more than what is expected for him or that he could ever hope to be, an ideal for his character that interests me greatly. Yoon is a man who has one foot in the Yangban noble class and the other still outside, meaning he is more insightful than those around him when it comes to the alleged differences between slaves and nobles, and even woman and men.
It seems so strange that the writers decided to keep these interesting character traits of Yoon’s to themselves for so long, as at first i found him to be a truly inscrutable and unlikable character because of this.
But immediately with the revealing of his past I found myself warming to him, the moment in flashback that we see him returning to his fathers side upon his deathbed a particularly affecting one.
Yoon has tears rolling down his face as his father implores his son to call him ‘father‘ just once before he dies (it is against the law for an illegitimate child to address their fathers in this way apparently) and it is such a sad scene as he whispers the word out, something so simple and yet denied to him because of his birth.
On a side note, however effective the whole flashback scenes were in drawing me into the story, I must also add that they were extraordinarily oddly placed right in the middle of a passionate and emotionally desperate confrontation between the adult Yoon and Chae Ok.
Mid-leap to be exact….
Because the majority of this charged and emotional fight scene has already taken place between Yoon and Chae Ok before we witness the childhood portions in flashback, obviously I had no idea what to make of the strange desperation Yoon is feeling, only because we are not at all privy to any special relationship between the two main characters at this point, rendering the whole scene to be kind of useless.
I think halfway through this epic and emotional fight scene the directer suddenly also realised this fact and so chooses what I can only describe as the oddest mid-leap freeze frame ever as a segue-way into the characters backstories. A weird moment to choose to say the least. And once the flashback is finished we actually cut right back to that same freeze frame … right where we left off with our two main characters poised frozen in the air…..
Let me describe the scene I am referring to:
Yoon has taken Chae Ok out into the pouring rain for a sword training session, venting his anger over the fact that she recently risked her life, trying desperately to get across to her how he feels by screaming out the question:
‘What do i mean to you? What did I ever mean you?’
This is a question that Chae Ok is unable to answer and to be honest I really have no idea why Yoon thinks that she could ever reveal herself in such a way, considering that her status of unworthy slave has been hammered into her since she was 7 years old.
Even if she does love him it is very firmly ingrained in Chae Ok that her place is as his devoted servant only and although they have a deep relationship and history she is also no fool. She understands where she stands and knows not to expect more. If he truly wants something to happen between them it is only obvious to me that he is the one that would need to initiate it and being furious with her for not expressing to him how she feels seems a little hypocritical.
On a slightly unrelated topic, another weird thing I noticed about this drama was the experimental freeze frames that pop up wherever and whenever all throughout the narrative, as well as a very strange penchant for overly dramatic music to just suddenly cut off mid note when a scene finishes with evidently no thought whatsoever for winding it down or creating a seamless transition to silence or the next song.
All this stuff is just so weird but yet i would never say that it overwhelms the viewer in a completely bad way. It is certainly interesting and strange but it is the story that makes you want to watch this drama, not the weird camera techniques.
And as i said before, the story has enough depth and warm fascinating characters (as well as some run of the mill douchebags too, of course) to keep me thoroughly invested.
Chae Ok and her sidekick (technically her boss in actual fact but he is happy to defer to her expertise which makes him pretty cool in my eyes) head to a small village town on a bit of an undercover mission, which is when things start getting interesting.
This whole drama plot basically revolves around a counterfeiting gang (now I am really getting Duelist pangs…what a cool movie that was!!) and Chae Ok and Officer Sidekick are pretending to be traveling merchants with ginseng for sale in order to catch the gangs eye.
It works and, after another encounter with attractive second lead male who is so totally aware she is a Damo, Chae Ok gets kidnapped by a bunch of thugs, who give Officer Sidekick until dawn the next morning to bring the gang all the ginseng they have demanded. Its a pretty shit night for Chae Ok and she gets fully bashed and almost raped, only her total gravity-defying awesomeness allowing her to kill the thugs abusing her right at the moment that Officer Sidekick returns with Yoon and the other policemen to rescue her.
Yoon is beside himself with worry but unfortunately he expresses this with anger like usual, driving a wedge between them when some honest conversation would have been so much better.
It is strange that Yoon has lived with Chae Ok beside him his whole life yet he really doesn’t seem to understand her at all, their miscommunication this time leading her to declare that she will leave the office.
Yoon just wants so much from Chae Ok, asking if she understands that leaving the office is also leaving him too, dropping hints about his feelings and then becoming incredibly hurt when she says she feels like a burden and so must leave so as not to be in his way. He can’t seem to grasp the significance of her words and just takes it as her no longer wanting to be near him. Furious, he tells her harshly to leave if she wants before walking away and leaving her dissolving into tears.
The other officers, Officer Sidekick and Officer Scarface, (who are really quite refreshing as characters as a side note, in that they love, care and most importantly respect Chae Ok as a valuable part of their detective team) are horrified at the prospect of her leaving. As Officer Scarface points out to Yoon, where does he even think Chae Ok, who is a slave, can go? To become a servant in another office? Or maybe a Gisaeng so she can take her clothes off for other men? Is that what he wants?
Well that’s not what Yoon wants at all, but he is also unable to fix the problem.
But luckily the other crafty officers have a plan up their sleeves to keep Chae Ok around, their absolute deftness at manipulating both Yoon and Chae Ok making me think they have done this many times before.
Meanwhile the daughter of the Chief District Officer has set her sights on Yoon for her husband, even though I am pretty sure she has sensed that something lies between him and Chae Ok.
When Chae Ok overhears the daughter discussing Yoon with her father, and basically asking permission to marry him, tears stream down her cheeks and it finally occurs to me that it is not only blind devotion that attaches her to Yoon as I had originally thought, she seems to be in love with him too.
But as her below words make clear, she believes herself completely unworthy to the extent that she can never be honest about her feelings, even to herself. Because admitting to herself that she is in love with him is like setting herself up for a miserable life of coveting a man she can never possibly have, and that is a heartbreak that she is not willing to bear.
These are her words describing herself to another character, clearly showing her deep lack of self worth, something that Yoon just seems completely unaware of;
‘How could a slave girl be compared to a person?
A slave girl is no different from a tree. Once its place has been decided it cannot move until someone chooses to move it. Even if there is a place it wishes to go or a place it would like to stay it cannot move a single step from its place though it may dry up and die.
I am like such a tree.’
Meanwhile the police have realised that the only way to possibly bring down the counterfeiting gang is to plant someone on the inside and so Chae Ok visits Yoon to ask him to send her.
They sit in his room, lit only by candlelight, and she tries to explain why she wants to go. At first he just immediately shuts her down, saying he won’t allow it, but Chae Ok gives the most beautiful speech explaining, probably for the very first time in her life, exactly what she is feeling deep within.
Yoon just watches in silence, his eyes wide and tear-filled as he hears her innermost thoughts expressed to him in the way he has always wanted but never received;
Chae Ok: ‘My lord. Did you ask me before if I have looked into my soul?
Why would I not have done so?
I looked tens of thousands of times. However everytime, the only answer I got was that I have no hope. Though I was not born an orphan I do not have any family. My mother and my brother, I do not know if they are dead or alive. They are only alive in my memories from when I was seven years old.
I want to see them. The pain runs through to my bones.’
Yoon:‘Do you not have the hope that you will find them?’
Chae Ok: ‘Hope is only given to a person, a slave girl like me is unworthy of such a thing.
My lord, do you know why I am alive?
So that I can help you. You cared for me like a sister so even f I could help you just a little, only then can I feel that I am really breathing.
If you must treat me like a tree in the garden, if I must live within your confinement….
then though I am living, I am not truly alive. Even though I have no purpose, no hope or meaning, if I cannot live without feeling my breath I would rather die.
My lord, if you truly care for me please let me breathe.’
This speech gives away more of Chae Ok then Yoon could have ever hoped, and he grants her request and lets her go on the mission, but not before pulling her close into his arms and whispering that she must return to him alive.
I feel like because Chae Ok has no hope at all for her future, she has in a way asked Yoon to let her go. She would rather expend herself doing something worthwhile on his behalf than just waste away by his side, always present but never allowed to fully engage in her life. Afterall, why would she really want to stay without her family and watch as he marries, has children and grows and changes, as all the while she stays stagnant and frozen and exactly the same.
Its a truly sad prospect so I can understand her plea to be allowed to go.
On the other hand however, I am not fully sure why Yoon lets her go. He has finally understood what is in her heart, and maybe it was not an outright confession of love, but her words should have also clued him in to the fact that he cannot expect her to easily express her feelings for him.
Meaning he probably now understands her enough to be able to make the first move and express himself to her, if he wanted to that is.
Which maybe he doesn’t?
The only reason I can think of for him letting her go is that he understands that she is right and that the bleak future she has painted is a very real possibility. Maybe for all his gesturing and words about feelings, he does actually know in his heart that he can never marry her. Not if he wants to retain his position in the police anyway. Maybe he lets her go because he also doesn’t want to watch her waste away beside him forever, and he cannot see any other future for her either.
Which is just really fucking sad.
So Chae Ok goes off and infiltrates the gang and is reunited with a man named Boss Jang (aka attractive second male lead) whom she had come across a few times previously.
The only problem with this is that Boss Jang has seen right through her and knows exactly who she is. (Except for the fact that she is also his sister which he still hasn’t figured out yet.) For some reason he shows her the gangs hideout anyway, and I am guessing that he is feeling some sort of unexplainable connection to her and is trusting his heart rather than his head. Not a smart move, but I also get the impression that he is a bit of an idealist.
When Chae Ok arrives to the gang’s mountain, Boss Jang tells her very seriously to forget her past and just stay with him there for a long time. I am not sure that Chae Ok understands from this that he is fully aware of her real identity as a Damo and is asking her to leave it all behind and start fresh, but either way she takes his words very seriously.
Here on the mountain there is a real place for her. She is treated with respect and would easily become an invaluable part of the team given time.
And so her resolve does begin to waver, especially when she sees an emotionally overwhelmed Boss Jang receiving a sword from his mentor that looks suspiciously like her dead fathers, and a parchment with words written on it that also resemble her fathers teachings. But she also hears Jang say that his father still lives and she buries the hope of him being her brother deep inside, freshly determined to complete her task and return home to Yoon.
One interesting thing about this drama is that it is never clear who is good and who is bad.
I guess it is a clever approach really as not many characters are painted as outright evil and are more created in shades of grey that leave you thinking and wondering who is right and who is wrong. The government and their systems are so corrupt, preying on the poor commoners and slaves and committing atrocities in the name of justice.
On the other hand, Jang and his gang fight for freedom, living in an idyllic paradise of brotherhood and community, executing those officials they deem unworthy of their positions (think rapists and slave traders).
But this also doesn’t make them right, because in their haste to kill corrupt officials or spring friends from prison they are also senselessly murdering hired soldiers and anyone who gets in their way, essentially just innocents who also have families and children to feed and protect.
It is a vicious cycle that essentially doesn’t work, whether as a policeman searching for a ‘Just’ world in the government, or as an outlaw treating all employees of the government as expendable even if they are just simple family men.
There is no right or wrong answer here and it is hard to watch Chae Ok get sucked deeper into this conundrum herself, because really all she can do is stay loyal to Yoon and his position in the police, even though at times it may not necessarily even be the right thing to do.
When Chae Ok is shot by a bullet during the gangs flight from the scene of a raid on a local magistrate, Jang sees her in the exact same position he left his sister in all those years ago and a light comes on.
Against the wishes of his gang members he returns to save her, patching up her bullet wound and making no mention of the obvious fact that she is a woman or that he has realised they are blood related.
The next few scenes are so sad as he tentatively shows her his world, a picnic with the villagers by the river, everyone equal with no class status or restrictions, and I was overwhelmed by the horror of Chae Ok’s position where she hereby must betray one of these two men that she loves, Yoon or her brother, both so kind to her in their own ways, both so yearned for and needed by her.
It is such a cruel fate.
Boss Jang is buoyed by a new hope for his future, finally having been reunited with his lost sibling, but meanwhile Chae Ok hears that Yoon has been fired from his government job and her world begins to crumble.
After all what is she doing risking her life on this undercover mission if not for Yoon and his career? This may seem a little silly, but from her perspective she lives for him, all she wants is to help him and better him in any way she can, and his dismissal from his job leaves her floundering and unsure of what she is doing herself in her life and mission.
She resolves that she must leave the mountain and visit him, all thoughts centered only on seeing him and ensuring he is okay.
Yoon meanwhile has also had a letter, this one detailing Chae Ok’s injury by gunshot and expressing the possibility of her dying due to extreme blood loss, which Freaks Him Out.
He is shaking and gasping by the time he finishes reading and he immediately heads to the mountain where the gang is situated, intent on seeing her.
And he turns up just in time because Chae Ok is fighting (still badly injured) with Boss Jang’s sidekick, a woman who doesn’t believe for a second that the Damo who has infiltrated their camp means them no harm or could ever integrate into the gang as Boss Jang clearly hopes.
When Yoon arrives, this woman is just about to kill Chae Ok and so he saves her by plunging his sword into the woman’s stomach, a moment that distressed me greatly, because although it was clearly one or the other who would have to die, Boss Jang’s sidekick is not a bad person either and she attacked Chae Ok only because Chae Ok had stolen damning evidence to betray Jang and the gang. All she was doing was protecting those people she loved so again, such a vicious cycle of pointless death and destruction.
The reunion between Yoon and Chae Ok is sweet and open, each talking at the same time about their intense fears for the other, their thoughts only full of the one they love with not a second to spare for themselves.
Yoon pulls Chae Ok into his arms and says he should never have let her leave him (well duh!), and that he wants from now on to always be at her side. I think by almost losing her, he has realised that she may be worth defying tradition and expectations for.
But this is when everything starts to go wrong. And I mean hardcore wrong!
The letter that Chae Ok stole from Boss Jang is a fake, and because of it Yoon and the Chief District Officer arrest one of the King’s favourite subjects (who also happens to be the Chief District Officer’s best friend) and accuse him of heading the counterfeiting operation due to evidence found stashed away in his room.
Everyone is in an uproar because this accused Minister, Hong-doo, is so well liked and when he is brought in for interrogation the King himself turns up to oversee it, declaring that the allegations must be false.
Yoon and the others are ordered to investigate again as the King is sure there must be a mistake and the Chief District Officer agrees with him. But as they make preparations to raid the gang’s mountain hideaway they hear the news that the accused Minister has killed himself out of shame (and written the King a hugely guilt-inducing letter in his own blood) making everyone realise he was indeed falsely accused.
I think it was sooooo terrible of the accused Minister to kill himself like that and leave everyone picking up the pieces, if he had only waited another day he would have been exonerated so I feel the whole thing was overly dramatic and a bit of a ‘So There!’ kind of moment. You know how when you are a kid and your mum gets pissed off at you, so you think to yourself, ‘well if I died right now that would serve her right!’ ?
In other words the accused Minister acted like a petulant child in a pretty severe way, which has far reaching consequences for everybody else.
Furious, the King orders the Chief District Officer and Yoon’s arrest, much to Chae Ok’s horror. The Chief District Officer’s son is promoted to lead the raid, not a very enviable position when you take into account the fact that he is told not to bother returning if he fails….
Now this is the thing this drama does so well, creating characters that seem bad but then showing you another side of them so that, within the space of one conversation, you are suddenly crying along with them instead of yelling at the TV and calling them big douche heads.
What I am referring to in this instance, is the Chief District Officer’s Son (who I shall henceforth refer to as Bad Magistrate) who seemed initially totally evil, even attempting to chop off Chae Ok’s arm at one point and just being generally really arsey the whole length of the drama.
Now Bad Magistrate bribes his way into the prison to say goodbye to his father, a man who is kind and just to everyone else but incredibly harsh on his own son. On top of Bad Magistrate being completely aware that if he fails in the upcoming raid he will most likely die, either by the outlaw’s hands or the King’s, he is also aware that if he fails, his father will most definitely be executed and he is doing the only thing he knows by volunteering for the dangerous mission in an attempt to barter for his fathers life.
This scene actually killed me, as Bad Magistrate kneels down in front of his father and begs him for at least one word of encouragement or love from this man who has always treated him like a useless child.
Sure the Bad Magistrate often acts like a useless child its true, but I can only imagine growing up he has been constantly reaching for his father’s affections, never being good enough or strong enough, and his need to prove himself to his father is the reason he has sunk to the levels he has, all done in the name of bettering his career, which can be traced back to that same root of just wanting his father to be proud of him.
But Chief Magistrate just tells his son he shouldn’t bother trying to lead the raid because he will surely fail, unable to even provide his son with one kind word during their last conversation on this earth. Bad Magistrate leaves in tears and my heart just bleeds for him, because there is nothing like having daddy issues to totally fuck a man right up.
Chae Ok meanwhile is lamenting over Yoon’s arrest, flashing back to a poignant conversation they shared when he explained just how much she truly means to him. I have written the words out below because it was a very beautiful confession (now if only Yoon didn’t have such disgusting bum fluff attached to his bloody chin I might even find him romantic…sigh. Shave it off Yoon!):
Yoon: ‘Have you looked into your soul before?
I am a different person from my father and brothers. Because I no longer wished to live like a submissive dog … I bit and tore anything that approached me. But in an isolated Buddhist temple in darkness as black as coal the thing that wanted me and raised me was one who threw a broom at me while I was swinging a wooden sword. And one who hid from me when I tried to wipe her tears .
It was one child.. a seven year old girl .
Chae Ok, all I want for you is to live in this world as a human being … as I protect you.’
Later, when the Police arrive to the mountain, Chae Ok is sent in first to survey the scene only to find the outlaw village completely empty. She slowly walks to Boss Jang’s room and enters to find him sitting there alone drinking…. waiting for her.
What follows is another scene to tug the heartstrings. Chae Ok is fully aware that Boss Jang has used her by feeding her false information, but she still tries to give him the chance to leave anyway, the connection they have impossible for her to ignore. She tells him flat out that she is a Damo and that there is a raiding party on its way. Boss Jang isn’t particularly surprised by this news and Chae Ok is shocked to realise he was already fully aware of her identity. He confirms to her that when he asked her to stay here with him and forget the past he really did mean it.
Confused, Chae Ok orders him to surrender, saying that the King might not sentence him harshly which makes him laugh. He has beheaded many local Magistrates and killed officers of the law so that seems unlikely.
Boss Jang: ‘I am a murderer.’
Chae Ok: ‘The raid soldiers are coming. If you do not surrender now….’
Boss Jang: ‘When you first opened your mouth you said ‘thank you’.
That must have been all a lie.’
Chae Ok: ‘Shut your mouth! If you say another word I…. I’ll kill you!’
Boss Jang: ‘When you were about to die… I truly wanted to save you…. Kill me.’
Chae Ok begins to cry because she knows she can’t do it. Boss Jang takes up his own sword and pushes her to the floor, holding the blade against her throat.
Boss Jang: ‘I will ask only one thing. Do you think I am a criminal deserving to be beheaded and thrown in the street in front of thousands of people?
I am not.
You asked me who I was…. I am one of the people. No different than you, I am a citizen of this country.
A new movement is upon us. The answer bursting from the people’s chests will change the world from the roots up.
Ours was a cruel destined meeting. Next time we meet, let us meet in a world where we do not point swords at each other.’
Boss Jang leaves the room and escapes, leaving Chae Ok alone on the floor. She opens her tear-filled eyes wide and whispers aloud, ‘It is a conspiracy.’
And there we have it, the greater meaning behind the counterfeiting plot. Complete structural change to the way Joseon is being governed. And again it is so awful because Boss Jang isn’t wrong. He is acting in the way he believes to be right, pulling away from the corrupt court system which is built off the common peoples backs. But rebellion also means death and destruction for the whole nation. And it is Chae Ok’s job to prevent that from happening at any cost.
The Raiding party fall into a trap due to Bad Magistrate’s utter desperation not to come back empty handed and the soldiers die.
As in, all of them.
They are massacred in one of the most intense and emotional battle scenes I have witnessed before in a Kdrama. And suddenly this man, Bad Magistrate, whom I so disliked and abhorred previously is standing all alone in a shallow green river, his entire army floating dead and bleeding at his feet.
The expression on his face, of disbelief and horror and then finally resignation, it just tears your heart out and is such a horrifying moment.
The army were lured into this trap by a single dead soldier, floating before them face down in the river with three arrows sticking up from his back. But now that the damage is done and the army has been decimated, this single soldier rises up slowly, standing with his piercing gaze locked onto the one remaining man still living. River water pours from his face and hair to reveal Boss Jang.
Can I just say ‘Holy Fuck!’ to this whole epic and horrifying scene, as this drama does again what it undeniably does best, brings a douchey character back from the brink and puts him in a situation where I want him to survive so badly, but then he is fighting against Boss Jang whom I also like and understand so well, in a way that leaves me soooooo unsure whom I want to win. Neither preferably.
But Boss Jang is a better swordsman and so he does win. And Bad Magistrate stands still and alone in the river, watching and accepting as his death comes hurtling towards him, his last thoughts only for the men he has failed and, I am sure, his father who he believes never loved him.
The last shot of him shows blood leaking into his eyes and then he falls face down into the water, leaving Boss Jang to slowly walk away from the clouds of blood billowing through the river towards him. As he moves he suddenly sees a disturbance amongst the trees above on the cliff and there is this long drawn out moment where stares up there, knowing somehow that it is Chae Ok and that she has witnessed everything he has done.
At the funeral we are reminded once again by the many grieving families present that Bad Magistrate was not the only one who has died. And then his dad, the Chief District Officer of Douchiness, turns up and can’t even bring himself to say one single nice word about his son in front of the dead man’s wife and child, making me want to actually punch him in the face. He may not be proud of the way his son acted, but who’s fault was that? If he had been a better father and been less harsh and unforgiving he could have easily encouraged his son to become the man he wanted him to be. Instead he just cut him off and ignored him, leaving him constantly trying to prove himself and thus taking stupid risks just to prove that he could be a good son.
What a Douche of a father.
So Douchey Father (as he shall henceforth be known until he redeems himself) continues his douchey streak when Chae Ok risks her life and almost dies in order to get both him and Yoon released from prison.
It is a mental plan (but it works for some reason) and results in her being injured almost to the point of death. I think they are saying her spirit lines have been cut, so although she kind of looks fine (except her face is still all gross and bloody because no one bothers to clean it) she is actually in a coma, meaning she can still sit unaided and stuff but is basically non-responsive to everything around her.
Which is … weird.
Of course Yoon freaks out and he ditches his other duties as well as Douchey Father (who is ultra angry about it) and he takes off with Chae Ok to their mountain Buddhist retreat where he works with the monks to save her.
This basically involves him putting incense on her body and crying a lot, as well as discovering a letter she wrote to him which he pulls out from behind her knee (!?) and then finally culminates with him sort of blasting her with his elemental powers….. because he has those now.
So it is all pretty strange but whatever, it works and Chae Ok wakes up.
It was hard for me to take all that very seriously and I kind of wish there was a little more realism in this drama with the martial arts and powers, just because the character relationships have been drawn in such an engaging way that I sometimes feel all the oddness pulls you out from what could have otherwise been a very incredible and heartrending story.
Seriously the amount of times I felt like I had been punched in the gut during this drama is crazy due to the epic emotional ‘feels’ it produces, and yet I have also found myself quite bored as well, which is such a strange combination.
And then things get serious again.
Douchey Father reminds Yoon of his duties to the King and the police and tells him to forget Chae Ok and also that it would have been better if she had died (!?). He even goes so far as to say that after the case is solved Yoon can marry his own daughter instead (this dude has no finesse!).
Yoon ends up being pressured into promising to let Chae Ok go, even agreeing to send her away to a different office so he no longer has to see her every day. But I think the main reason it is even possible for him to be pressured this way is because he has heard Chae Ok whispering Boss Jang’s name in her sleep and jumped to the conclusion that the connection she feels to the rebel leader is of a romantic nature, which has hurt him a lot, leaving him believing that Chae Ok doesn’t love him.
Meanwhile Chae Ok is back on her feet and has just been told she is no longer like other women as her body has changed. She can no longer bear a child. This is the end for her really, and all semblance of hope for a life with Yoon as her husband is brushed aside as cold reality sets in. What man would want a woman who cannot bear his child? (well, you know … in Joseon times anyway… sigh).
Chae Ok utters that it is for the best, but her face says it all. She has now lost everything. Already she was robbed of her past the moment she was separated from her family, but now her future is also wiped clean away.
She also hears from the monk that there is a temple in the mountains where her parents gravesides are, and so she travels there and pours her heart out, her weeping so gut wrenchingly awful that it teared me up. Boss Jang is of course the one who brought his parent’s remains to the temple and he happens to pass by, just missing the sister he has been yearning for. He runs into the hills screaming her name and collapses in overwhelming crushing sadness when he realises she has already gone.
My god this drama is fucking murdering me….
Towards the End:
Oh my gosh, I can hardly even deal with this crazy shit anymore!
Chae Ok heads back to the Left Police Bureau in time to learn that her beloved Yoon is going to marry the Douchey Father’s daughter, and then she is sent off to her new post, where straight away some awful sleazebag attempts rape (what a doucheface!) causing her to cut her ties and leave.
She meets up with her old mate, the ex-slave who first helped her infiltrate the rebels base, and then the two of them impersonate officials from the capital to secure some soldiers from a local magistrate guy.
Getting this mini-army to dress up as a rebel group she scours the countryside pretending to be Boss Jang’s sister in order to lure him out of his new hideout and possibly finally catch him.
And this ploy totally works too and Boss Jang comes riding out with all his men (he has guessed its Chae Ok) where he falls into her ambush. And then an absolutely furious Yoon turns up with his own men to take over the situation, pissed off as all hell that Chae Ok has run off to do this dangerous thing and broken the law.
Yoon and Boss Jang have a hardcore sword fight which is just filled to the brim with jealous tension so that you can almost cut the air with a knife, leaving me less sure they are fighting for justice or the law, and maybe more so just for Chae Ok herself.
Loads of people die and Chae Ok ends up chasing Boss Jang off into the forest, determined to be the one to bring him down as I am imagining her own feelings of a connection with him are causing a huge amount of guilt, both because he is an outlaw and she should have killed him, but also because how can she care for any man but Yoon.
But when she catches him she slips into a cavernous hole in the hillside, caught last minute by Boss Jang himself who, despite having the chance to escape from the multitude of soldiers scouring the hillside for him, instead stays and hangs onto Chae Ok, refusing to let go even as he is dragged down into the darkness after her.
Now this next whole sequence is insane.
On one hand, if these two had been love interests lost down in the deep darkness of the earth, all injured and vulnerable, warring with themselves for saving the one person they are supposed to hate and kill, then it would have been freaking romantic as hell.
Like sexy, heart crushing and gut clenchingly romantic as hell.
Yet Boss Jang is totally Chae Ok’s brother so I found myself really ultra confused as to what was happening.
I mean, he knows he is her brother right?
Wrong. He totally does not know that.
Apparently this is not a thing that he knows, and so the two share these intense charged confessions and conversations as they are drawn together through each others injuries, until finally Boss Jang nearly dies and this scares Chae Ok enough that she abandons all semblance of him being her enemy and she falls to her knees crying his name and trying to revive him.
And when he awakens to find her head on his chest, Boss Jang sees the blue ribbon that he always keeps locked away next to his heart in his tunic tied into Chae Ok’s hair, and he cries with happiness and kisses her brow as she sleeps, exhausted and drained.
Aaah, so now he has realised she is his sister.
And Chae Ok realised too and that is why when she found her old ribbon she looked so happy and cried and she tied it into her hair, right?
Wrong. They still don’t know they are related.
Next up Chae Ok wakes and runs away like lightening, embarrassed and ashamed to be found touching Boss Jang in such an intimate way. She tries to find a way out, aware that Boss Jang is slowly dying from the terrible wounds he got from falling into this secluded cave. But to her despair there is nothing and she returns to him. But now a creepy centipede bites Chae Ok and she falls to the ground writhing in pain from the poison, leaving Boss Jang screaming her name and dragging himself laboriously across the rocks to where she is lying.
Fuck, this is a … lot.
And right at that exact moment Yoon turns up and screams Chae Ok’s name from above, he is going totally mental with fear as he tries to find her, terrified of what has happened, but possibly even more terrified of what might happen if she is left alone too long with Boss Jang.
Ooooh …. (but also he is her brother).
Chae Ok can’t call him for help though because she is currently convulsing, meaning that to save her, Boss Jang must call out, revealing his helplessness in the cave and leading to him being captured. But he will do it to save Chae Ok’s life, except that she grabs his face and stops him before he can, subsequently also saving his life.
And so they stay on in their cave with all hope lost, and Boss Jang sucks the poison out of Chae Ok’s ankle, which might be kind of weirdly sexy (and kind of gross too) if he wasn’t her brother…. This action saves her life and the two lie down side by side shivering and slowly dying in the darkness.
Finally Chae Ok says she is cold and asks Boss Jang to put his arms around her, and then the screen fades to black….. and there is gasping and sounds of…. lovemaking? Is that what this is? Is that seriously what is happening right now?
I cannot fucking believe this, I just watched a drama about fucking incest!
And you know what the freaking absolute worse thing about all these cave scenes are? That they are so intensely beautiful and romantic, the connection built between Chae Ok and Boss Jang so heart rending and believable and real.
Which just kills me, because he is her brother.
Seriously if a scene like this had happened in another drama between two non-related love interests, I would be calling it perfection and rewinding it over and over again. I would have written out all the conversations between them in the darkness into this blog because it was all so damn touching. In fact, this probably would have been one of my all-time favourite Kdrama romances if all along the relationship being built between these two characters hadn’t taken the whole relation thing in a literal sense.
Because he is her brother.
What. The. Fuck.
The next day after Chae Ok and Boss Jang’s ….ahem, sleep, Boss Jang tells Chae Ok that he loves her and then he dies. Well, at least it certainly seems like he has died, and from some dirt she finds in his hand (?!) a hysterical Chae Ok finds a way out of the cave system. She literally flies out of the cave, landing in the river below right between Yoon and the Rebel Gang, Boss Jang’s limp floating body immediately picked up with a knife to his throat by Yoon’s men.
But obviously Chae Ok isn’t going to stand for this and she orchestrates the situation so that Boss Jang’s gang can take her hostage, instigating a swap that saves Boss Jang’s life. No one really suspects anything except Yoon, who full well knows that Chae Ok is more careful and badass then she was letting on, and he watches with growing manic jealousy the way she stares at Boss Jang’s unconscious body in terror, clearly so ultra distressed that he may die.
Because Yoon is just a little bit petty he orders Chae Ok to be tied up after all this occurs, and later that night he visits her in her tent prison, telling her with passion that he wants to give everything up and run away with her and live a quiet life. His job, his status and her lower class means nothing to him.
It is quite a beautiful confession, and what really kills me is that when Chae Ok tells him through her tears that she cannot bear children, fully expecting that to be a deal-breaker, Yoon just says earnestly that it doesn’t matter, all he wants is her.
Oh my gosh, so swoony and romantic.
But then Chae Ok screws everything up by saying the most hurtful sentence she could have ever uttered to Yoon, the man who I was positive was in fact the absolute love of her life….
‘You can have my body, that is for certain. But you will never have my heart, because I have already given it away.’
And Yoon’s lovely (but very petty) heart is crushed into tiny tiny pieces…..
Oh the horror! This line actually made me feel sick! Was I reading into everything incorrectly all this time? Did Chae Ok really only ever feel brotherly love for Yoon and passionate love for her brother all this time? Why is this happening?
I am so upset.
So Yoon tells Chae Ok to kill him if she doesn’t want him, and she says she is sorry and starts swinging her sword around and I actually think she is about to do it (?!) when he grabs the blade between his hands and stops her (why the hell would she actually try to do that to him?).
But they are interrupted by the rebels who have come out for revenge, getting shot at so they must duck down into the grass. Chae Ok reaches for Yoon, worried he has been injured but he sharply tells her not to touch him, so hurt and raw from her rebuttal that he tells her to leave him.
And she does.
She runs off to join Boss Jang, but he is having a pretty intense time himself, the consequences of his earlier actions catching up with him, namely the dead bodies of 46 of his men, all who died to save him after he made the mistake of chasing after Chae Ok.
He is shamed by this and ends up telling his gang he can no longer lead them, but this is not something the ministers backing the rebellion can let happen. In order to manipulate Jang, the one man who can stir the hearts of the people they wish to rule over, they kill his friends in a village and say it was the police and Chae Ok who did it, renewing his fervour in the cause.
And just to add icing onto this tasty Agony Cake, they bring him a woman with a sack over her face, telling him it is Chae Ok and that she is responsible for the deaths, that he must kill her to redeem himself.
Jang is obviously torn by this, but after checking to make sure it isn’t really Chae Ok (no bullet wound on her shoulder) he murders this helpless woman in cold blood, pressurised by his gang.
Which is just so … nice.
How fucking lovely.
This really threw me as he is saying he stands for justice and a future of equality, yet he just mercilessly kills this woman whom he knows is innocent of the crimes she is being accused of. It is a cruel moment, and to top it off, Chae Ok witnesses it, thinking Jang really does believe he has just killed her. She is so disillusioned by this misunderstanding that she rips the ribbon from her hair and leaves, taking the body of the dead woman with her, who turns out to be her mate the slave guy’s wife, which is just sooooo uncool.
Chae Ok crawls back to Yoon, and although he is at first harsh with her, he offers her the position of Damo again within his force. This action was so selflessly giving and proves just how much he cares for Chae Ok, even when she has hurt him so badly, and it made me begin to realise that in a lot of ways (not just because of the brother thing) Chae Ok made the wrong decision to leave Yoon and go to Jang.
In a lot of ways, Yoon is the better man.
Jang has so much on his plate, and yes he does love Chae Ok, but he also wants to save the world. For Yoon however, there is only Chae Ok. And how on earth is that not the most romantic thing in the whole world? (alsotheyarenotrelatedbyblood!)
The night of the big rebellion draws near, and Jang finally realises that he is just a pawn in a bigger plot run by the double crossing ministers that is more about money and power and less about the freedom and rights of the people. Disillusioned and heartbroken, he calls off his part of the rebellion and retreats into the mountains to make a getaway, disbanding his gang.
But meanwhile, our police officer team have caught whiff of the remaining rebellion, including the Japanese troops and a coup within the city walls. They all risk their lives and force their way into the palace to save the King.
But with the rebellion finally over, Chae Ok still can’t let Jang go, and she follows his trail into the mountains where she is taken hostage by one of the ministers who is still running loose with Jang’s gold.
This minister calls Yoon out to a beach at dawn, and as Chae Ok watches in horror (tied tightly with her mouth bound) Yoon offers his life to save hers, because he is a really awesome man and his love for her is true and strong even if it is not reciprocated.
But just as he is getting ready to die, Jang storms up to the group, shouting at the minister for taking the gold that he was planning to distribute between his gang members. When the minister threatens Chae Ok’s life if Jang comes any closer, the rebel leader just surges forward anyway, saying that he already killed her once and he can do it again(!).
But Yoon jumps in front of him to stop his charge, not wanting to kill the man anymore (because he has heard the truth about his identity as Chae Ok’s long lost brother) but needing to save Chae Ok at any cost.
Jang is manic though, and feels he needs the gold to help the people that have relied on him that he has failed, and he keeps fighting back, until Yoon finally manages to throw his sword at the minister and kill him, leaving the tiny flecks of gold to sink down into the ocean.
At this sight, Jang screams in rage and thrusts his sword right into Yoon’s gut. And then, even as he is dying, Yoon still thinks of Chae Ok and so manages to whisper out to Jang that Chae Ok is in fact his sister, and then he falls down onto the sand below.
At this shocking revelation (is it shocking though … does he not already know?), and because of the terrible deed he has just done, Jang just runs away as fast as he can, leaving Chae Ok to hysterically struggle against her bonds and drag herself across the sands towards Yoon, who lies dying in a pool of blood. As he dies they reconnect, and she says she wishes to leave with him and live quietly, but of course it is much to late.
And so Yoon dies….
Aaaaaand then we arrive back to that very beginning scene of Jang furiously riding across the plains with an army following him, arrows sticking out of his back and a voiceover expressing his belief that the world will still change for the better, whether he is in it or not.
When he is finally cornered, Chae Ok steps out of the ranks and faces him, saying she needs to kill him herself, and I can understand this as she must feel like she has made the worst mistake in history by choosing this man over Yoon who has now died at his hands. She would be so blind to why she feels such a connection to this person who has brought her nothing but heartache and agony.
Jang just smiles at her words, and when they fight he moves the sword to hit his own body, helping her give him that killing blow. And as blood falls from his mouth, he smiles at her and calls her by her true name, proving that he is her brother, which of course absolutely destroys her.
When Jang is shot with arrows and bullets by the army, Chae Ok launches herself at him and they die together in each others arms…..
The ending shot has no music, only silence and the sound of the wind rushing through the grasses as we see Chae Ok and Jang lying side by side together, their bodies touching in death. Words slowly appear across the screen;
‘A Far off mountain…
A mountain with a deep green forest…
A destiny …. that could not foresee that divide…
A love I could not measure…
A love that tore apart my heart…
Not again…never again…
Do not live for me…‘
You know, there are a lot of things this show handles in a totally crazy way (fight scenes, plotting, cheesiness) but what it does so so right is the perfect level of deep emotional connection and rawness it conveys between all its characters (even sisters and brothers… sigh). Turning people you thought were just plain bad into nuanced and layered human beings who have real reasons for their actions or real causes for the way they feel and express themselves.
If I could describe this entire drama in one word it would be ‘Emotional’.
The viewer is able to get a real feeling of understanding for what is going on inside our characters heads, and it is those character relationships, those perfectly revealing and real conversations, that end up actually carrying the entire show, with heartrending consequences. It has you rolling your eyes at a silly fight scene one moment and then fully tearing up because of Chae Ok’s emotional journey the next, utterly immersed and invested in her story as she is torn between these two men that she loves (one of whom is her brother!!!!).
The ending was a bit too much for me I must admit, as I am not someone who enjoys sad endings particularly, and to be honest if I had known that everyone would die I would probably not have watched this through at all.
It is hard for me to be so involved in a drama that evokes such helpless agony and sorrow, which is something this one hardcore excelled at.
So anyway, this review was absurdly long and if there is anyone who seriously read this right to the very end I salute you and thank you for taking the time to do so! Thank you!! 🙂
Thank you for reading, please feel free to leave a comment below!
LEE EVIE is a podcaster, blogger and author of dark historical fiction set in old Korea.
Lee Evie’s historical fiction novels!