Set in the Joseon Dynasty during King Jeongjo's reign, this martial-arts fusion sageuk is centered around the events involving Crown Prince Sado's conspiracy. Warrior Baek Dong Soo was a real-life legend who created a martial arts guide in Joseon. His group who defends King Jeongjo is pitted against a mysterious organization of assassins who plot to kill the King.
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Cast & Credits
The plot is a hot mess. Very hot on the eyes and the heart and very much a mess for the intellect. But, frankly, I was more than willing to overlook every plot-hole, every unrealistic twist, every narrative ingenuity while watching, because the emotions portrayed were so strong, so moving and beautiful, it was like swimming in self-inflicted, desired pain. This is a story of friendship, and this aspect is wonderful. I rejoiced in every scene which would bring the friends/rivals together on screen and not surprisingly those scenes are the best shot ones too, with some stunning choreography and mesmerizing music. I could have watched 29 hours of sword fights or friends silently sitting next to each other without complain. This is what the story is about and as I said it's incredibly beautiful.
On the other hand, the plot, or, if you prefer, the writing, goes everywhere and nowhere. Aliens could have landed in Joseon and killed them all with laser beams and it would have gone almost unnoticed in the circus. I'm not saying the politics didn't count, but I simply didn't care. What I cared about were the characters and their bond.
First, the kids: they enchanted me. Because this drama is totally devoid of mother figures – the only living one having refused to be such for 20 years – I suppose my very latent mother instinct came to the surface with a vengeance. The acting by both Yeo Jin Goo and Park Gun Tae was amazing and I'm kind of indignant they are listed as "guest roles" here. In less than 4 episodes they managed to make me love the characters and die to see how they'd connect to one another. The young Wun in particular must be the most harrowing character I've come across in a long while. My desire to kill that father of his with my own hands reached unexpected and disquieting heights.
Then, there's the older generation of friends/foes, mainly Chun the Sky Lord and Gwan Taek, who share a weird bond based on rivalry and grumpy respect shown with swords. I won't spend too many words on the two actors, they are simply brilliant and the director seemed to share my opinion since the best camera works are dedicated to them. I mostly appreciated Choi Min Soo's rendition of his character, which could have easily come out of a Sergio Leone's film.
This drama is based on a manwha and this is particularly obvious in all the main characters who are clear cut and distinctive like drawings.
Not so the adult Dong Soo And Yeo Wun, who mature and change, making this into a coming-of-age drama. As single individuals they are very different, one light the other dark, one goofy the other somber, one stubborn the other easy to manipulate, but together they shine. I loved the acting of both Ji Chang Wook and Yo Seung Ho; the first because he enters the character in a way that makes you instantly forget whatever role you may have seen him in before: here, he's Dong Soo. There's a lot of physicality in his acting, which makes his performance totally believable. Seung Ho has such expressive eyes he steals the screen by a single, all-telling glance. His character is all played on subtlety, which makes it extremely powerful. As I said, separately they do great, but together they are unforgettable. It helps that they are both so smouldering handsome; in a drama based so much upon visuals, this isn't a secondary aspect at all.
Also, I must be the only living creature who liked Shin Hyun Bin here. What everybody described as a wooden performance I found to be delicate and very fitting to her role. What that role was, is another story entirely: the romance is so secondary it's almost non-existent here. This in the most common sense of the word, since the drama is profoundly romantic in the classical definition of sentimental and tumultuous.
I invested a lot of feeling in this drama, this is why the very last minutes infuriated me. I can condone many faults of this script, but I will never, ever forgive the writer for not honouring a particular character the way he deserved, for cutting short on a farewell I had been kind of expecting (and dreading) since the beginning. Many tears welled in my eyes but never had the time to come out, leaving me frustrated and empty. I suppose I should thank the production for hastening my healing process this way, for reminding me life goes on, or I'd be still suffering now. I'm not sure it's fair to lower the overall score of a drama due to the last 10 minutes, but for a show that expects you to leave the brain aside and only watch with the heart it feels like cheating.
The music is a different story. To put it short, this is the best drama Ost I've heard so far. It contributes so much to the feeling I believe it is mainly responsible for my loving the drama and overlooking its faults. Honorable mention to BMK's powerful "Yanoy", to its harrowing acoustic version by Eun Tae Park and to the haunting "Stagnant" by Shin Sung Woo. If you have the chance, give a look at the lyrics too, as they are beautifully poetic.
I don't think I'll watch the entire drama again. I will definitely re-watch single scenes though, just for the wonderful aesthetic of them. On the other hand though, I've watched a disgustingly high number of MVs and fan videos only for the sake of Dong Soo and Yeo Wun. Given how many are to be found, it seems I'm not the only one.