Friday, January 03, 2020

[Review Part 1] Tale of Nokdu

"Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend." (Albert Camus)

The review is divided into 3 parts:
Review Part 1: Tale of Nokdu

It has been a while since a tv series engaged me this much on every level. And I mean worldwide made series, not specifically Korean. It came at the right moment when everything felt as too overwhelming and too pressuring, so a space for breathing was all that was needed and nothing more. And I admit, reading the synopsis made me feel as if this could be a disaster – after all, we had projects in which women pretended to be men, but the reversal of it is almost always cringe-worthy (and I stand by this opinion, maybe Some Like It Hot was the best incarnation of the motif and that’s it, not Tootsie, not horrendous for me Mrs. Doubtifre). I also was hesitant seeing Kim Sohyeon’s haircut, thinking about fusion sageuk and the bizarre entourage it usually brings along, but a kind soul (Issy) explained it made sense in the story. Therefore, I gave up my suspicions and fears and reservations about the slapstick. Thankfully, it was not the case here and I’m glad I gave in and tried. The fan dance also helped. Up until that I only finished The Crowned Clown and Kingdom earlier in the course of the year. I’m seeing now a pattern emerging – both were sageuks.

Eons have passed since I wrote a review of something that I enjoyed this much, that is why I’m anxiously but finally turning all those random thoughts only a month after the series aired its finale. Writing anything in the heat of the moment is fun, but after few weeks I can say with certainty that my objectivity and calm researcher nature has finally settled in. I hope this part can be comprehensible and I am sure some of my thoughts will be forgotten while composing it. Also, I may not mention some things others may feel they should be mentioned but – it is my review, or rather a flow of thoughts, more or less organized. And with this lengthy introduction about the personal background I am done with my exhibitionist’s needs for the moment.

The series spans few months in its main course and the last episode jumps nine years into the future with two different endings for two different men whose clash unspun the web of lies, deceits and suffering. In the second part of this review I will focus more on the construction of the narrative that mirrors the mythos of a hero, but it is worth noticing now that the series ends exactly where it started – on an island[1]. Many heroic tales end that way – the hero comes back to the place where it all started, but most often than not the hero is either not understood, remembered or shunned. Sometimes he is revered – therefore a cultural hero is born, although some of them fell victim or suffer for their transgression like Prometheus. Sometimes the hero falls apart into ash and bone or turns into an old person the moment he touches the familiar land (a taboo regarding the coming back to the wrong time from the forbidden land that does not mix with human world). Just like in the story of Oisín who came back to Ireland against Niamh’s warning. The moment he touched the ground he became the withered old man never to return to Tír na nÓg, as three centuries has passed since his departure and all of his loved ones have now been long dead. Here the story twists the ending – it’s not the main hero of the tale who falls apart or becomes misunderstood or lonely – but his foe. A man who, like a patient spider, weaved his web and waited for a perfect moment for years. Not every attack of an animal ends up with success, and here we had its great example. The first coup attempt ended with failure and Yulmu (Prince Neungyang) had to wait nine years before a new chance presented itself. He snatched the throne he coveted so much that he sacrificed his conscience and everyone to reach for it. And this is where his final ruin started. He wanted power, and as the famous saying goes: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”[2]; he regarded other people only as tools – the moment they stopped being useful, he discarded them with no second thought. I still want to believe, though, that the affection he had for Dongju was genuine, at least at the beginning of the story – that means for years leading to the events in the series. But at the same time there is this prickly thought at the back of my head hissing that it could all be an act. A long play to get what he wanted, what he thought was his to reach for since he saw the vacuum around Gwanghaegun. He employed her in a way, after all, so affection be damned – she was a tool. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing Dongju because he thought of her as his property. And he perceived her relationship with Nokdu not as a real relationship but as the latter stealing her from him. Which actually beautifully mirrors that trial during which Widow Kim was tasked to steal the elephant. Both the elephant and Dongju were treated as precious possessions. And yet, despite both men holding what they thought as their property as close as they could – both were lost to them. The history of Yi dynasty has also taught Yulmu this – if a person has had enough power and people to back them up – they could achieve their goal. This is how Prince Suyang came to power. Hell, this is how Prince Bangwon got the throne at the very beginning – by drowning the world in blood. Yulmu might have succeeded with his desire to sit on the throne of gold and lacquer, but it was Nokdu who was sitting on a throne made of golden beach sand and grass with someone to share his life with. I found both scenes wonderfully contrasting especially that at one point both of them shared the common goal – to remove Gwanghaegun from the throne. But here, with the throne as the omphalos of the whole story, the same goal bifurcated – Yulmu wanted it for himself and Nokdu did not want it at all.

The throne was probably one of the main characters here in the series, because it was one thing that Gwanghaegun first wanted more than anything, then he wanted to keep it at all costs, and Yulmu wanted it for himself more than life itself. Ironically, both of them were not entirely eligible for the throne but the only person who was – did not want it. This reminds me of the stories of people who refused to take up power, most of them were persuaded, but some were not. I think it was easier for Nokdu to gave up because he never even had a taste of it. You can’t actually miss what you don’t know.
And Macbethian Yulmu achieved what he wanted but what we, the viewers, know is that the Broceliande forest will be moving soon a’ knocking, and his rule will bring ruin. While analyzing his whole journey to power, one thing started to be more and more glaringly obvious – he never once mentioned himself as the just and honorable king in spe. He wanted to depose Gwanghaegun because the King was becoming more and more unstable, erratic and violent, but he did not declare he would be his opposite, that he would become a benevolent father to all of his subjects. Maybe he did not want to contradict himself, after all he started his movement by ordering the slaying of Prince Yeongchang, a latter King’s 8-yo kid[3], then he personally killed one of Heo Yun’s supporters when he crashed their secret meeting (the “secret” is treated here loosely because Nokdu managed to sneak in and witness Yulmu’s shedding of his chrysalis) and to close it with a fiery, bloody coda – he ordered the Widow’s Village to be destroyed and all of Muwoldan ladies to be killed. He probably knew that other women, widows and refugees, would be killed as well because he sent some scum to do it, murderers and thieves with no sense of honor. He must have sensed that after such a bloody beginning, no declaration would be taken seriously. Well, at least his judgement was right. Max Weber said that the person “who seeks salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics, for the quite different tasks of politics can only be solved by violence” [4]. It is particularly true for Yulmu, especially that latter part. Violence solves a lot of problems. One may argue that a good nature is not necessarily what a good king makes and there is a truth in it. Sometimes a bad ruler has good advisers and vice versa. And sometimes not even good advisers can change the outcome of having an unstable King falling into madness. It is easy to see him as the Machiavellian prince who stops at nothing to get what he wants, and Korean history knows quite a few such figures that would make the Florentine guy reconsider taking Cesare as his model.

He was consistent throughout the course of the series, which is admirable. His every move and every lie were calculated to get him closer to his goal, and what is even more worth mentioning, is that he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Granted, he had blindly faithful Danho as his henchman and employed many seedy elements to do his bidding, but he didn’t refrain from killing. He wasn’t very much against lying either, but it is probably something that is nearly a pillar of every stratagem leading to a successful coup d’état. His first attempt wasn’t successful, but it wasn’t a complete failure either – he managed to enrage Gwanghaegun to the point of him passing a death sentence onto Nokdu, which led the latter to flee the palace and Han-yang.
Worth noticing is also the lack of any squeamishness in all of the main characters regarding the killing. Nokdu was a great swordsman, without much practice that is true, but he did not feel the hesitation over killing those who wanted to kill either him or his family. He wasn’t even that surprised the assassins who attacked them on the island were women. They were just that – assassins – and he had no problem picking up a sword against them later on. He nearly killed Yulmu in the serene bamboo grove and if it wasn’t for Danho, who knows how the history could have been. That little stab with a dagger was a cherry on top of this nicely choreographed fight scene. And an honorable mention goes to that one scene when he threw a spear just to shut the officer who was about to finish an order when all hell broke loose at the palace. Yulmu could wield a knife, he was a gifted dessert making, and he could kill with impunity and without any remorse, just for show, just to make a point. And Dongju… oh, what a marvel! Dongju wasn’t a frightened little girl but she could shoot, and she proved how well she could do that. To escape she managed to trick her guard and shot him almost point blank the moment he stepped into the room; the guy’s brain probably didn’t even have the time to register what killed him. During the bloody fight at the palace she saved Nokdu with her arrows. And she didn’t even flinch at the sight of blood or a dead body. I guess spending long hours at the common grave does that to a person. I can also appreciate the blades having blood on them. And I guess sageuk has a different set of rules because all of the blades here, be it knives, daggers, swords, spears or arrows were not blurred. If it looks like I’m stabbing (nomen omen) at OCN – it’s because I am.

Dongju was passive most of her life after burying that horrible event so deep down that it numbed her to anything that was around her. Her life revolved around one thing and one thing only – revenge. I would venture and say that even the prospect of becoming a gisaeng did not worry her. First, this way she could be closer to men with power, she could listen and plan her future moves. Second, she was so dissociated from anything life could bring, that I could already see her cutting out emotionally in intimate scenes. I think this is what that first kiss showed and how she behaved during it, she wanted it but she could not break her own walls she has put up through so many years, so she was just sitting, counting on the situation to pass. She closed off all other emotions except for anger that fueled her need for revenge. This is why she agreed to carry her plans along Yulmu’s, completely indifferent about the feelings he had for her. Or rather – she was aware of them, but they made her uncomfortable enough, so she blocked them and did not pay much attention to them. She wanted to avenge her parents, and especially Mother whose dead body protected Dongju in the roadside “grave”, never counting on surviving the assassination of the King. She lived only for that purpose and had absolutely no idea how her life could look like after that – in case she survived. I don’t think she even cared whether she would survive or not. And here comes the reason why I think the series did its absolute best at reversing the usual stereotypes used in stories. Usually, be it a movie, series, book or any other narrative it’s the woman who is the “safe heaven”, it is the woman who triggers the change in a male character prompting him to be more considerate and overall – a good person. Here the situation was turned. Nokdu did not change profoundly during the course of his adventure, but it was him who changed everyone around – especially Dongju. Him and the steadiness of his feelings were her haven. It took her a while to get there but in this slow and excruciating process, during which she pushed Nokdu away few times, she came to see and understand her feelings rationally, no matter how absurd that may seem. When, after that final bloody confrontation, wounded Nokdu was slipping through her fingers, she admitted since when she started to have feelings for him, and she regretted she kept herself from fully embracing those feelings. Her need to avenge her family nearly destroyed her. She realized that during this talk with Gwanghaegun on the cliff – that he was not worth it, and she pushed Nokdu away for nothing. She realized that the best revenge on those who wish you harm – is to be happy. Simple, but it took her years to understand that.

She was a shell, an empty amphora once filled with anger and need for revenge that thickly coated her inner walls. She lived but wasn’t entirely alive, she was in some kind of a stupor, a state I sometimes refer to as a “glass cage” – she could see and hear everything but did not feel anything. And Nokdu, as fearless as he was, broke it. Dongju got hurt in the process, true, but it was the first time she felt anything – it was that moment she broke down in tears apologizing to her Mother’s memory that she did not want to leave him and that egoistical need was what changed her. For the first time she wanted to live – something that also appeared in Nokdu’s declaration that he had no intention of dying and wanted to live. This is yet another reversal of the trope, seen in a historical fiction – of a noble sacrifice for a greater cause or for another person. That does not mean they did not take a risk for each other – ever since Dongju discovered that Nokdu is not necessary of the same gender as her (quite a painful discovery for him) she covered it up and protected his disguise even though that could mean she’d be expelled from the Village. And Nokdu rescued her from harm few times but he never crossed the line between bravery and bravado, and with his risk assessment always done, he never put himself in a mortal danger while doing so. Even with the frantic search for her and the rescue when the Village was massacred – he never took the unnecessary risk. Also, that scene proved something that was mentioned few times throughout the series – that Nokdu was a good swordsman, something he even bragged about but, honestly, he had the reason to. Even that swoon-inducing fan dance lesson was actually a proof of how dangerous Nokdu could be[5] – because he learned quickly and could copy movements he saw only once. There was also one moment quite chilling during that bloodbath scene when Nokdu threw the axe. He did it in such a way as if he was throwing an apple and the axe got buried in the man’s chest. It looked like he barely registered what he had done not even giving it one look back. It was just like brushing aside any speck of dirt that landed on your shoulder. This whole ax scene was quite terrifying, to be honest. My first thought went to berserkers because his behavior in that precise moment was barely human. Even his scowl was nearly animalistic. Plus, he cut off the arm choking Dongju and to cut through flesh and bone one needs to have speed, skill and a nice blade[6].

Dongju confronted her own trauma first at the swing and later, when she was about to shoot Gwanghaegun – and vanquished it. She came to the realization she wasted all of her years and she was about to ruin the future not only hers, but someone else’s as well and in that profound moment of a sudden epiphany – she was healed. The moment she let go of her hatred and her self-destructive ride to the revenge, was probably one of the most pivotal moments of the story. That self-realization she had when she saw that Gwanghaegun is not worth all of her effort, was – for me – a chilling experience. I realized this is what is keeping me myself in a glass cage as well because I am so fixated on things I can’t let go and it’s not healthy. I know it’s bad, but suddenly seeing a girl lifting up all of her trauma and all of her suffering – and then letting it fall down the cliff to crash into the waves – spoke volumes to me. For Dongju, meeting Nokdu was something that saved her life and made her whole – she started to feel, to care, to forgive and let go. Not executing the revenge proved how incredibly strong she was. She didn’t let her anger consume her and turn her into a charred, cracked vase. And after such a powerful moment of a katharsis, she could see the world as it was, for the first time, not blinded by her need for revenge. She could finally start fulfilling her Mother’s wish so that she could live, and she welcomed that sunshine of a feeling that thawed her inner walls. And it was high time because soon the world around her would be crumbling following that one lie the Queen had to say to save her son.

The parallels.
Creating parallel scenes was something that quickly became a trademark of the narrative here. They were twofold – either a scene was repeated but in different circumstances or an action of one person was mirrored by another. And one scene that I can’t exactly classify as the parallel appeared – twice Nokdu was positioned higher than Gwanghaegun. The reason why I can’t do that is simple – while it works wonderfully from the cinematic point of view, I am not convinced if it was deliberately done. And parallels are always done on purpose.
They start as early as the first episode – some scenes from it have their image transported to later episodes. Here comes the visual part of the review. I chose only those I found the most representative.

The jail vs. the island

He cared for a then stranger who was having a hard time sleeping the same way he cared for Dongju later.

The cliff 

Two very important moments. First, it was when Nokdu’s life was spared and a decision was made that ended in blood and death. The other – katharsis for Dongju and her life-long quest to kill the King. What saved the baby in the first scene was his cry. Who knows, maybe if Heo Yun didn't hear him, he would have slain both of them, and the voice suddenly made him realized that inside the bundle there is a tiny human. In the second scene Dongju was saved in two ways - she saved herself, her conscience and her soul when she realized how pointless her quest to kill a worthless man was, and she was literally saved by Nokdu when she slipped after a futile attempt to help Ghwanghaegun from falling. I think this is why I am so fond of this scene. 

Widow Kim fight vs. Nokdu fight

A seemingly effortless fight, and there was one fun scene when he “accidentally” parried that hit from behind, yes, yes, just a pure luck for a clumsy lil’ Widow Kim… The other one - I find it very fitting that it was Ssuk who dealt a fatal blow to Danho.

The care

Both scenes below took place after Dongju was in danger, with clear difference in executing the care – emotional Nokdu and composed, self-restrained Dongju.

The comforting

Dongju, as rational and distant as she sometimes was, could offer some comfort even though she knew by then who he really was. 

The light

Given the taboo regarding having a light when the shaman procession was going through the village, Nokdu did not disregard it as some kind of a silly superstition but dealt with it in a slightly subversive way and let the light be still on. Because he knew Dongju was afraid of the dark.

The hand kiss

One of the most potent and beautiful scenes, as for me. The respect, care and love all in one small gesture.

The night

The night in jail also qualifies, but I chose this.

The throne
At the first glance these two scenes look nothing alike. But they are both rulers. Yulmu achieved what he always wanted – a royal seat made of gold from which he would rule all over the land. Nokdu has his tiny kingdom surrounded by the sea. Yet, only one of them is truly happy.

The water.
The water, and especially rain, came here in pivotal moments. When Dongju thought Nokdu was drowning and she jumped into the river to save him just to be presented with a fresh dinner[7]. Which can be juxtaposed to him jumping into that swelling well to save her. It’s both the parallel and the water motif. The water appears at the very beginning – sea surrounding an island, serving as the border between two worlds that would soon collide.

At first, we had a rainy night when Jeong Yunjeo was supposed to kill and bury the King’s newborn son and Heo Yun decided to let them go and let the boy live – and a decision of these two men changed their lives forever, straining their relationship until it finally broke. The act of kindness shown by Heo Yun led him to under the Gwanghaegun’s sword twenty years later.

Then we had mountain pools and Dano festival[8], during which women washed their hair to gain beauty (originally in the water boiled with changpo, Acorus calamus). The pools were the place where the friendship between Widow Kim and Three Musketeer Widows was cemented (because nothing bonds womenfolk as strongly as the deficit in boobies department[9]), and where Dongju saved Nokdu from being discovered later. 

We had the rain after Dongju rode a swing. It was the first moment when she decided to confront her trauma (after a light, and literal, push from ever active Nokdu on Duracell batteries). For her a swing was one of the last happy memories she had of her whole family, so obviously she did not dare using it. I found the whole wordless scene beautifully made – a smooth transition from her family gathered around the swing and their disappearance to only one person remaining and being happy with her happiness. It was a simple bridge between the past and the present. The wind Dongju felt on her face, was something that dispersed the thick boggy fog she has been slogging through for past few years.

A rainy night was when Gwanghaegun visited the Queen and tried to mend their relationship so thwarted after he ordered to kill their newborn son.

And we had that kiss in the rain that could put to shame some modern couples. A kiss especially important because Dongju stopped being the recipient of Nokdu’s affection and actually she herself went for what she wanted and actively took it.

And after that, we had the cliffs from which Gwanghaegun fell, but sadly not to his cold, watery grave. However, the water enclosing him might feel like a harbinger of things to come. The water, especially the running water, purifies but also serves as a both physical and spiritual barrier, an obstacle. It keeps ghosts from emerging, trapping them inside forever[10] – just like the next historians did with Gwanghaegun; after all his royal name was scrapped from history and we know him only under his prince name. They trapped him in his own rule, never allowing him to be seen outside. It’s as if it wasn’t him who fell into Lethe, but the whole world drowned in it. He did not emerge purified. Au contraire – he came back hell bent on pulverizing his own son. The brush with his own mortality changed him but for worse. Maybe at that moment when he submerged, he died, at least the tiny part of his soul that sparkled with humanity inside that encroaching, turbulent darkness of his own insanity.

And lastly, we had a very serene scene at the end of the last episode (no, not the wedding, that was a hilarious disaster) when nine years passed, with Nokdu and Dongju walking on the beach to the shore to greet the exiled Queen. The series started with these shores and sea – and it ended right there as well.

There is also very distinct way of how Nokdu treated Dongju when he was a) pretending to be Widow Kim and b) out of his womanly disguise. There was a sense of close, if somewhat rough, friendship mixed with attention when he was Widow Kim, which completely disappeared when the chima and jeogori disappeared also. Then we had the attentive tenderness, respect and care, mixed with relaxed bickering. He was also incredibly patient, because Dongju was not gentle at all with the way she handled him. Part of his gentleness became hers, I guess. I also pointed out how in many circumstances both of them were not very shy of physical contact – Nokdu was always seeking Dongju’s hand, as a means of comfort and reassurance. They slept cuddled together with Dongju not throwing a fit about any improper behavior, but just allowing it. I mentioned earlier she was emotionally disconnected, and it took her a long way to fully embrace all of the feelings she was receiving, so for her there was nothing wrong with sharing the same space. This also comforted her, and she needed it. This level of simple and effortless intimacy is also one of the things that make the series (and a sageuk to that) so special.

He has found oceans of empathy inside him and was reaching to it freely. He even tried to make up excuses for Gwanghaegun – right up until he heard about how the King hated, feared and wanted to kill him. Then something broke. Here the emotionally wounded boy made a mistake – he went for the violence as the healing method. He wanted to kill the King. And during that marvelous archery scene he was the closest to give in to temptation – a pivotal moment for him to test his mettle. He refrained and instead joined hands with Yulmu, not fully realizing what kind of weathered politician and ruthless man he actually was. He played him, that’s a fact conspiring with the remaining Muwoldan ladies and some officers, but Yulmu managed to shift the blame for the coup onto him. And Nokdu did not explain himself. Because nothing he could say would change the outcome. Gwanghaegun was blinded by hatred, by the fear of losing his throne, and the treason he did not expect from a person he so favored. Oh, in nine years he would understand who the real mastermind behind the coup was.

Another important point needs to be discussed – Nokdu pretending to be Widow Kim. He was a resourceful young man so what a resourceful young man does when he’s faced with NO MAN ALLOWED sign at the verdant entrance to the Widow’s Village? That’s right, he uses the clothes of a woman he just rescued from pursuit and disguises himself as a woman to enter and find the answers he came for. Little our island boy knew that behind every answer is another question and behind an answer to that lies another one and so on and so on. And he went deeper and deeper right up to the question he didn’t know he had – about his own origin. Then the behavior of the dying woman he always though as his mother became obvious – she blamed him for everything that went wrong with her life, the fact they had to leave the capital and live on a tiny island, which also propelled the anger of his brother, who in turn sided with Yulmu, oblivious to the fact he was just a loose end to him. And yet nothing could dim his optimism and gentleness. I joked once about Nokdu being the world’s first anthropologist because his life as Widow Kim and among other women in the Village has reminded me of the approach widely accepted while collecting the fieldwork material – of the participant observation. Nokdu fulfilled all of Boas’[11] commandments to the letter – he never judged, he was using the language of the group he was inside of, he observed and tried to understand without any interference, he didn’t compare to preexisting bias, and wasn’t prejudiced. He didn’t feel any uneasy guilt towards himself, he didn’t feel that pretending to be a woman was denigrating to him. The scene in the last episode proves that after a while, he realized that Widow Kim would always be a part of him, and he could apply the disguise to do what he did best – to catch the predatory men. And thankfully, all that was played with just the right amount of charm and fun so that it never went into over the top or slapstick territory. He learned about the lives of the women who lived in the Village, about their memories of war, about their fears and hopes. He didn’t have to be all cheerful and gossip-ready, he could be playing a brooding widow for all we know. Instead he mingled with the ladies, not only to gather the information he needed to pursue the assassins, but also because he simply liked it. Because he wanted the company of other people after spending 20 years on a godforsaken island. And he became the company other people sought after as well – Yeon Geun, after overcoming the initial shock that the woman of his dreams is not, in fact, a woman, did everything he could for Nokdu and followed him to the island at the end. We should all be in a bit like him, I think.

Like a Cosmic Dancer he danced swiftly and gracefully between extremities, between destruction and creation, life and death, male and female, love and hate, past and future. It’s tempting to classify him as the liminal person[12], embracing both sides but belonging to someplace in the middle, but after a moment of examination it was obvious it’s not the case here. He moves between those but is not them. Instead, he rather could be classified as the traversing person (from trānsversere[13]) – a traversing person who moves freely between the worlds. In a traditional sense of this word a shaman is such a person, or a hierophant leading from one reality to another. And in a literal sense, Nokdu has led people from one world to another: Dongju – from an ashen and emotionally barren world to a sunshine-drowned one full of emotions, Muwoldan ladies from the world of blood and political servitude to the world of freedom and simplicity, Widows – from the world of fear and stigma to the world of acceptance, Yeon Geun – from philandering man to a hero, his brother – from the world of resentment and treason to peace of mind. With this it becomes easier to see that he could be in such worlds but could move between them freely. Which, upon further consideration can be seen as frightening. Because one question remains – which person is true: the one that behaves naturally in the middle of a bloody mayhem throwing axes, or the one making a flower ring for a girl? Thing is, with traversing character, the answer to both is the same – such a person is true in every such situation.

From a tempestuous beginning of his life to the clear skies and peaceful waves. From a trauma that nearly robbed her of her life to a flowery crown. That’s how all tales should end. But we know they don’t. 

There were things I could, and I did at the very beginning, nitpick on so much (like Hwaseong Fortress or damn mirrors, but that’s the sin of nearly every historical, not only Korean ones) but I will not because in overall it was a well crafted story with little left that felt out of place. If I wanted to start that now, I would have to go back to my Queen Seondeok review and be meowling about the historical inaccuracies, like that of the real Bidam’s coup. He was, after all, a 60+ old geezer dissatisfied with a woman ruler, and not 28-yo gorgeous man with the face of Kim Namgil. I would like to know what happened to the gisaeng ladies taken from the gibang after the massacre but knowing what I know about how courtesans were treated and their social status, I can probably guess. This is why, even though I could enumerate things that I wish were done differently or more in depth, I will not. Because I enjoyed it enough to disregard them.

And because I apparently cannot stop talking about Nokdu as the character – more in Part 2.

[1] Sometimes it’s called, at least in my country’s literature studies – a buckle construction of the narrative.
[2] Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton), Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887. Transcript of, published in Historical essays and Studies, edited by J. N. Giggis and R.V. Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907).
[3] Who, in all honestly, could probably never cause any trouble, because King Seonjo had the document written stating that his heir is in fact Gwanghaegun (who was born from a concubine, not a wife, hence all the problems). The document was hidden. But in times such as these, any pretender to the throne, no matter how absurd, has to be eliminated.
[4] Weber M., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, tr. and ed. by Gerth H. H., and Wright Mills C., Psychology Press, 1991, p. 126.
[5] And I don’t mean to viewers’ hearts.
[6] I did a little research about this after that scene aired. Turns out, if the edge alignment is perfect, the cut will have barely any friction, provided of course it’s adequately sharp and not too bulky (ideally between 1.3 kg [2.85 pound] and 1.8 kg [4 pounds], and around 0.9 meter [3 foot] long). Also, one should not swing a sword like a baseball bat.
[7]  I also had a different thought at that scene. While fish can represent many things, it is also an indication of someone cold, without passion. Well, there is an argument to be made that Dongju wasn’t the most passionate person here, so Nokdu catching that fish can be interpreted as him catching a well… a slightly less emotional woman. However, if we want to apply here a more serious symbolism, it is worth mentioning that in ancient Syrian culture a fish was the symbol of life and happiness (yey, Nokdu has caught it), a symbol of the goddess Atargatis (source: Atargatis:, also Hooke S.H. Fish Symbolism, Folklore Vol. 72, No. 3 (Sep., 1961), pp. 535-538; Lambert W.G. Trees, Snakes and Gods in Ancient Syria and Anatolia, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London Vol. 48, No. 3 (1985), pp. 435-451) but also it was a very physical offering in the cult of the dead, similar to what was also in Rome in the cult of Dea Tacita. (source: Dumézil, G. Archaic Roman Religion. Vol 1. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1966 also in Ovid’s Fasti).
[8] Also known as Surit-nal
[9] Source: Author’s own fieldwork notes, unpublished. Sample group: 9 people. Needs further research. And some grant money for that. Social relaxants imbibed at social gathering places are not cheap.
[10] That’s why, they say, Manjeok in 12th century was eventually drowned – so that even his spirit would be punished (Manjeok Rebellion in 1198).
[11] Franz Boas – one of the first anthropologists who went out to the world (contrary to all those predecessor “armchair anthropologists” who studied other cultures from the back of their offices). Read his credo of an anthropologist:
[12] In the sense that Turner proposed. Cf.: Turner V.W. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Aldine Transaction 1995 (1969).
[13] French dictionary gives the translation as “passer d'un côté à l'autre” which exactly means what was happening to and through Nokdu (source: