KOREAN DRAMA REVIEW:
Holy moly this one was a bit hardcore.....
.....except when it wasn't and I sat cringing in embarrassment whilst watching Kang To prance around a stage singing about what sort of Oppa he was.
Those scenes were so ultra awkward for me, especially after seeing Kang To being such a massive terrifying arsehole previously. I felt like a yoyo, being teased into laughing at a guy doing a silly dance only to then start crying again when he quickly shifted back into scary mode and began doing really uncool things to really poor innocent people.
The exact moment this drama (2012) blew my mind was after the whole unfortunate 'Kang To kills his own brother and then heads to the police station to exact revenge on the Japanese officer (Kenji) who was involved whilst dressed as Gaksital' storyline.
That moment when Kang To pulls the trigger and Kenji falls down dead, this all happening right in front of the hapless and naive Shunji, sparked the beginning of such an intense and dramatic storyline that I was barely able to breathe. It was the perfect set up for a story that revolves around two friends traveling in opposite directions, one towards redemption and the other towards hell.
THE START:The beginning of this drama was a little difficult as the main character Kang To is, to put it lightly, kind of really evil.
The reasoning behind his actions though actually stems from a surprisingly legitimate foundation, so although I didn't like what he was doing or how he was doing it, I could still at the same time understand why he believed it needed to be done.
I guess on the surface Kang To seems a bit like a glory hound, just going after riches and higher stasis to fulfill his burning ambition, and although I definitely think those results were not unwelcome to him, I do think there is more behind his choices than that. He has such an intense desperation to not only survive, but also to excel and provide for his family in the cruel world he has been born into. Not that he treats his family particularly well either however.
Kang To is a man who thrives in Japanese colonised 1930's Korea. We see in later flashbacks that he has hit rock bottom in his past (starvation and poverty) and has now decided on a different more morally ambiguous path by working for the Japanese Police catching Korean 'traitors'. He lives as a man hated and looked down upon by his Japanese colleagues and loathed and feared by his Korean countrymen.
While I watched the beginning of this drama I wondered how on earth they would manage to make me change my mind about Kang To, not just unlikeable in the standard male lead Jerk kind of way, but abhorrent on a whole different level.
But Korean dramas are the absolute master of the complete character reversal and so of course they totally did.
THE MIDDLE:Oh my god I absolutely loved the middle of this drama and thought these episodes were by far the best, keeping me on the edge of my seat the entire time.
Kang To's first act as the masked avenger, Gaksital, is an act of vengeance against the murderer of his mother and to some extent his brother (in which he himself was also heavily involved) and it is from that one less than noble act that his redemption stems. But it also involves his Japanese friend, the sweet and naive Shunji (the only really nice person in the drama who then does the wrong sort of character reversal) in a binding way that can't be solved except with blood. Shunji then decends into darkness and almost mad obsession over catching Gaksital as he seeks revenge for his own slain brother, a character arc that was actually quite sad to watch.
But he really does push over the line way too far.
The middle of this drama was so engaging and out of this world tense. Kang To's character was still walking the thin line between being a hero and being a traitor, and it was horrifying watching him being forced into doing things it was no longer in his nature to want to do, such as torturing his love interest Mok Dan (so uncool!!). He still did questionable things but now it was in the name of keeping his Gaksital identity secret, so he had a purpose at least.
I loved the idea of Mok Dan and her band of good guys all detesting Kang To as a traitor when he had actually moved onto their side. I thought the best moments in this drama were all during the time when Kang To was essentially playing a double agent, trying to help Mok Dan and the freedom fighters whilst also struggling with his love for her, a woman who literally wished he was dead (and rightfully so). Their interactions were tense and charged with his longing, and it was riveting to watch as she grows more and more confused (and horrified) by the hints he drops about their childhood spent together, and the fact that he is indeed her long pined for first love.
The other thing this drama does so so well is the building of tension between the two main leads Kang To and Shunji as their relationship slowly but steadily deteriorates. As Kang To begins lying about his identity as Gaksital and Shunji begins to suspect him, we get the best game of cat and mouse ever. I kind of wished it had taken longer for Gaksital's true identity to become known, because it was during that time I enjoyed this drama best.
For me the drama lost some of that charged tension when Kang To was outed and straight away with barely any conflict at all, Mok Dan and her band of goodies all forgave him for his torturous and evil past.
As in, like, immediately.
This is literally what Mok Dan said to him: 'You tortured me and also tried to shoot me a couple times Kang To...(oh wait.. you actually did shoot me).... but what the hell......it is all good! I am totally fine with this!!'
They should have made him work for it a little I say....grumble, grumble.
Anyway.....Mok Dan's character was also a bit of a let down for me as I found her a bit flat and lacking any fire. I loved the idea of her character but somehow, no matter how hard I tried, she seemed a little one dimensional to me and without any real substance. I think I had a similar reaction to her as I had with the character of Su Ah in 'Shut Up flower Boy Band', and again I thought the actress was gorgeous but sadly kind of bland. In this case I didn't really feel she was worthy of being a true counterpart to such a riveting, tortured and raw (anti)hero.
Joo Won on the other hand handled his role with such a rawness and depth in his expressions and eyes that I was impressed enough to start watching 'Level 7 Civil Servant' just for him. (which was a mistake by the way ....don't watch it)
THE END:The ending of this drama was a bit of a dilemma for me. It couldn't possibly end on a happy note as we all know that Korea was never freed from Japanese occupation in the 30's by Freedom Fighters. Sadly this brought on a real downer of a sad ending with no real feeling of closure. I think it was good for what is was however, and I am not sure how they could have possibly made it any better at all given the historical circumstances surrounding that time period. I guess I would have liked some sort of happiness for someone at the end, but again that would have been unrealistic and for the characters to go out still fighting was really the best way it could have gone.
The final conflict with Shunji though was a different story for me and I thought it was handled in a really clever way. I think it addressed the unavoidable fact that his character had sunk to such depths that there really was no return, though I also felt like a tiny shred of hope still existed in his choice to end his own life rather than force Kang To to do it. Don't get me wrong, it was heartbreaking watching him reach that decision, but in a way it was also a choice that was entirely his own and not influenced for once by the people or responsibilities surrounding him.
Shunji was never wrong exactly, or at least the foundation of his reasoning was not wrong, but the actions that stemmed from his need to kill Gaksital were too far gone past morality for him to ever return to the old Shunji and so I can understand his choice to die. I felt like it was the only way he could ever regain even a semblance of his former self after all that had happened.
A very sad ending, but a powerful one.