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Review: Hwarang

Netflix, 2016

(20 episodes. 58 min each.)

It’s been a particularly busy month lately, with various things drawing upon my time and attention. I feel like I’ve been composing this review in my head for about a month, but it’s only been 18 days since I last blogged. (Bless me, Father.)

Anyway, the focus of this post is a review of yet another K-Drama, but this time we get out of the Joseon era and instead spend some time in a much earlier period of Korea’s history in the kingdom of Silla (which existed from 57 BC to 935 AD). At the time, Silla was the smallest of the three kingdoms (the other two being Baekje and Goguryeo/Goryeo; the name “Korea” comes from the latter). Furthermore, the influence of China is more pronounced during this period than in the Joseon era: you can see it in the clothes and the hair.

This gives Hwarang quite a distinct look: unlike the Joseon period when men wore their hair tied up and fastened in place with a manggeon/circular headband, the men of Hwarang mostly wear their hair long and out. Unlike the Joseon period when aristocratic men and women wore hanbok (blouse shirt/jacket with full skirt for women; shirt/jacket with loose-fitting trousers for men), the clothing in Hwarang was more influenced by hanfu (the traditional clothing of ancient China).

But I’m getting ahead of myself (and a word of warning: minor spoilers follow). Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth is a TV series about the formation of the Hwarang or flower knights, an elite group of male warriors who fought on behalf of the kingdom, during the reign of King Jinheung of Silla. (Some historians say they had a key role in the formation of a unified Korea, but others say that’s debatable.) But while the premise of the show is rooted in history, the execution is most decidedly modern in flavour.

Although Hwarang has quite an ensemble cast, much of the storyline focuses on a young man named Dog Bird. He’s called that because he’s a bit like a dog (i.e. scrappy mongrel-ish) and a bit like a bird (i.e. able to leap massive distances in a single bound; let’s not think too hard about that one). He also has no family and therefore no name. But he does have a best friend—another young man named Mak Moon, who he grew up with in a little village in Silla.

Unlike Dog Bird, Mak Moon remembers his family and knows that he was separated from them. He thinks they’re in the capital, so Dog Bird accompanies him on a trip to go look for them. The problem is, it’s dangerous: if you’re in the capital, you need to have the credentials to be there, and if you’re a peasant and you’re found to be without credentials, you will be executed.

This is all part of the bone-rank system that undergirds Sillan society. (I have no idea if “Sillan” is the right adjective, but I’m using it anyway.) At the top are the so-called “sacred” bones: the royal family, and at this time, Queen Jiso is regent in place of her son, King Jinheung, who has lived most of his life in exile and is almost of age. Jinheung, who returns to the capital in the dead of night, is keen to take the throne, but his mother doesn’t feel that he’s ready and wants him to wait. Unfortunately the relationship between mother and son is strained so it’s not clear whether the queen is just trying to hold onto whatever power she already has or whether she is trying to stabilise the kingdom for when he ascends.

Certainly Queen Jiso has plans: she wants to form the Hwarang/the flower knights—an elite fighting force of beautiful young men (though it is never explained why they need to be beautiful) drawn from the children of the court officials (who are the “true” bones and head ranks) who will serve the king, and fight on behalf of him and the kingdom. She elevates Lord Kim We Hwa (who was a real person) from his lowly status and enlists him to train the Hwarang. But he, having no love for the queen, bears his own agenda.

Dog Bird and Mak Moon, wandering around the city, conducting their investigation into Mak Moon’s family, run into trouble at Okta House, the local “nightclub” where they run afoul of the aristocratic youth—the sons of the court officials. There’s two gangs—one led by Kim Su Ho, whose family supports the queen, and one led by Park Ban Ryu, whose family is dominated by the Prime Minister Park Young Shil, who secretly wants to overthrow the queen. Mak Moon gets into trouble when he thinks he has spotted a girl who might be his sister, and Dog Bird fishes him out of it.

Unfortunately Mak Moon’s bad fortune doesn’t end there: he happens to glimpse King Jinheung’s face, and because the Queen has made a decree that anyone who sees the King’s face must be executed, Mak Moon is hunted down and killed, despite Dog Bird’s efforts to protect him. And of course, this happens right at the point when their search finally unearths Mak Moon’s family, and Mak Moon’s father, Kim Ahn Ji, finds both his dead son and an injured Dog Bird, and takes Dog Bird in.

Kim Ahn Ji used to be an aristocrat/true bone, but was driven into poverty and now spends his days treating peasants with his formidable medical skills. He has a daughter named A Ro—Mak Moon’s sister—but because his children are the offspring of a servant woman (i.e. they don’t even rank in the bone-rank system), they are regarded as being “half-breeds”. (I find it interesting that this designation is not about race, but about caste.)

Kim Ahn Ji asks Dog Bird to stay with him and live as his son, taking his son’s name (Seon U) and being a brother to A Ro. Dog Bird accepts out of guilt, but also because he is consumed with thoughts of avenging Mak Moon and wants to track down the king who got his friend killed. But his actions land his adopted family in hot water with the Queen, who basically blackmails him into joining the Hwarang.

This is also basically how the sons of the officials also end up in Hwarang—through some behind-the-scenes machinations by Lord Kim We Hwa that I thought were rather clever and amusing. Furthermore, King Jinheung, sick of waiting around, decides he’s going to do something and cajoles Lord Kim We Hwa (who doesn’t know that he’s king) into letting him join too, much to his mother’s displeasure. This brings all the key players together in Hwarang House, where they must live, learn and train together to become the fighting force the Queen desires. (It should be noted that it’s at this point—when most of the cast are dressed in uniform—that figuring out who is who becomes a little more difficult.)

So I’ve spent roughly 1,000 words setting up the premise of the series and I’ve recounted about five episodes worth of plot (with a lot that I haven’t mentioned, by the way). It takes that long to establish the different characters—which is fair enough, given its size, but it is completely worth it. The thing the show does well is pit the characters against each other, putting them into situations where you understand the conflict and the stakes in context, and you see the characters grow. There is a love triangle (which I’m not going to talk about because I found it a little frustrating and couldn’t understand what the guys saw in the girl as she cried a lot and pouted like a child, which therefore meant I was never rooting for the main couple and largely didn’t care whether or not they ended up together). There are themes to do with caste and class that I found interesting and that work themselves out around what happens to Dog Bird, as well as a B storyline involving the brothers Seok Han Sung and Seok Dan Se. There’s the politics—not just internally in Silla with the Queen, the scheming Prime Minister and the court officials, but also with the neighbouring kingdom of Baekje. And there’s the camaraderie that develops between these young men from very different backgrounds who end up really banding together and forming the Hwarang of Queen Jiso’s dreams.

Given that this is essentially a show about beautiful young men, the cast is definitely full of eye candy. (There is even a scene in which people flock to the playing fields because beautiful people are playing beautiful soccer, as well as another where the Hwarang perform a dance that could have been lifted straight out of its K-Pop soundtrack.) Park Seo Joon as Dog Bird walks that fine line of dumb-peasant-who-just-happens-to-become-really-good-at-everything-he-puts-his-mind-to quite well. Go A Ra as Ah Ro is competent, although occasionally annoying. (She is fantastic as a storyteller, working hard to hold onto her audience, but her medical skills are a bit odd: I don’t understand how blowing on bleeding wounds helps anyone.) Park Hyung Sik of the KPop group ZE:A Five is charmingly vulnerable as the young King Jinheung. Sea Yea-ji as Princess Suk Myung is essentially playing her character in It’s Okay Not to Be Okay, and Kim Ji Soo as Queen Jiso did a fabulous job at playing a woman who was both sympathetic and also utterly infuriating in the way she manipulates the people around her.

But it was the other Hwarangs who stole the show for me: Do Ji Han as Park Ban Ryu; Choi Min Ho of K-Pop group Shinee as the adorable Kim Su Ho (who wears some very cool earrings as part of his costume, and one of the things I really enjoyed about the series was the bromance between him and Park Ban Ryu); Jo Yoon Woo as Kim Yeo Wool, who seems to enjoy challenging the sexuality of the other guys in his room; and Kim Tae Hyung of BTS as Seok Han Sung who has a half-breed brother in Kim Hyun Jun’s Seok Dan Se. Indeed, I thought, given the ensemble nature of the cast, it could have continued for several more seasons and I would have watched it, happily getting to know the other Hwarang and their complex relationships, familial and otherwise.

The other thing I really loved about the show was its production design—some of which you can view in the videos on the network’s show page. The costumes of the upperclass are gorgeous, of course, but some of the sets—the palace, Hwarang House, Okta House, the Dayiseo department store, even the Sutabaksu tea house—made the capital look like a beautiful, cosmopolitan place where I wouldn’t have minded living if I had been born as an aristocrat then. (Well, aside from the plumbing issues—though there are a couple of shower scenes where hot water is sent through bamboo pipes that had me questioning some of the show’s the historical accuracy).

Also, I found the ending satisfying-ish—as in I was about 80 per cent satisfied with it, and the other 20 per cent just had to do with a few plot threads and character arcs that don’t get resolved completely (which is why the show should have another season!) Things for the main trio—Dog Bird, A Ro and King Jinheung wrap up nicely in a way I wasn’t quite expecting (but was hoping for); it’s just some of the minor characters who are left hanging.

Two final things to finish this review: firstly, one of the reasons I really liked Hwarang is that some of its content and themes dovetail nicely with my novel. I’m writing about a residential magic school in an Asian-influenced fantasy world, and there were certain details that I made up because obviously there is no such thing in real life. But in this show, I got to see what a residential Sillan school might have been like—with combat training conducted in the court yard; bunk beds in the dormitories (did ancient Korea have bunk beds?!! It’s not that farfetched, is it?); students carrying little wooden trays with legs to their table in the dining room; students having to do their own chores—like washing their clothes in the river or mucking out the stables (so funny watching King Jinheung retching at the smell!); and students being given leave to visit their families every ten days (why ten?)

Furthermore, Dog Bird’s journey is similar to my protagonist: because he’s a half-breed, the other upperclass Hwarang don’t want him there. Plus he’s illiterate and bad at everything at first. The scenes were A Ro teaches Dog Bird to write were instructive as I have never been taught how to write with a brush. Also, it’s interesting how they sort of gloss over the fact that he only knows a very limited number of (Chinese) characters and has to master a lot more in order to master basic reading. (He thinks there are only 200 in the world and is quickly disabused of that notion.)

Second and final thing: around the time I was watching the show, I was also reading through 2 Samuel and some of the Psalms of David concurrently as part of the Robert Murray M’Cheyne Bible reading plan. Some of King Jinheung’s experiences—of having to hide his identity from others, and of being King only in name and not in authority—resonated with King David’s experience of having been anointed King of Israel by the prophet Samuel, but instead of ruling, he had to flee from King Saul, and live in hiding and in exile. That in turn led me to thinking of the David—King Jesus, who inherits King David’s throne, who was crowned with glory and honour at the cross (Heb 2:9), but who is not yet recognised and acknowledged by all as the true ruler of the world. Obviously the similarity ends there: King Jesus is very different to King Jinheung in that he experiences no doubts or insecurities about his role and his relationship to his subjects. But it was just interesting to think about the “now and not yet”-ness of the world and how the Son of God might be experiencing that now.