THE SHORT VERDICT:
A show that’s really good right away, and – gasp! – actually stays that way throughout its 28 episodes. That’s a rare, rare feat in dramaland, as we know all too well.
Gaksital is a show that manages to take a political context and ground it in the personal experience and emotion of our characters, and then by extension, help us to care about that political context in a way more visceral that I expected.
I found Gaksital intense, gripping, and gut-wrenching in some of the best ways. And I don’t even usually like shows with political contexts.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Sometimes it really pays to follow the buzz of a show even when that show isn’t your usual cup of tea. Coz you might discover an awesome show that you wouldn’t have otherwise given the time of day.
That’s what happened for me with Vampire Prosecutor (awesome show!), and that’s what happened with Gaksital as well.
To backtrack a little, I’ll say upfront that I’m not generally a fan of political settings for my dramas. I have little interest in politics in real life, and when the promotional material and stills for Gaksital first came out, I wasn’t at all interested.
The political context aside, the time period in which the show is set also didn’t feel terribly appealing to me.
I generally like my modern dramas fully modern, or my period dramas fully sageuk. This 1930s stuff felt unfamiliar and strange with its period bits side by side with more modern stuff.
But the buzz for this drama was so very positive that I felt like I’d be missing out if I didn’t at least check it out. And I’m so glad I did, because this show pretty much blew me away.
Gaksital OST – Goodbye Day
A LITTLE CONTEXT
Before I get into the review proper, I thought it’d make sense to provide a little personal context.
Although I’m not Korean, I am familiar with the whole concept of a Japanese Occupation because I live in Singapore, and Singapore has its own Japanese Occupation in its history.
I didn’t live through the Japanese Occupation myself, but my grandmothers both did, as did other elders in the family, and I’d heard many stories of suffering, death and cruelty stemming from it.
Not only that, our local broadcaster had, over the years, made quite a few local dramas set in the period of the Japanese Occupation as well, so I’d watched similar scenes of suffering, death and cruelty set in that context.
This doesn’t mean that I hate Japan or anything. In fact, one of my sisters currently lives in Tokyo.
What it does mean, though, is that I went into Gaksital already expecting senseless, extreme violence from the Japanese characters. It didn’t feel like extreme script-writing to me, because back in the day, that’s really how it was. There was lots of senseless, extreme violence, and I’d expect nothing less from a show set during a Japanese Occupation.
I can imagine how someone coming from a different background might have difficulty accepting the senseless violence portrayed in Gaksital, but I posit to you that these portrayals are in line with actual history and not the products of a depraved script-writer’s mind.
Ok, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s get into the review proper, shall we?
CREATING A BELIEVABLE WORLD
Because Gaksital is based on a comic, it would have been pretty easy for the show to have taken a cartoonish turn, in terms of characterization, setting and atmosphere. But it didn’t.
Even though I can plausibly imagine pretty much every frame of this show as part of a manhwa because of the stylish and sometimes stylized cinematography, the show manages to make everything feel very real at the same time, which I love.
Sets, Props & Costuming
The sets, props and costuming are clearly prepared with a great deal of thought and attention to detail, making the world pop and come alive.
Despite the fact that I knew these were props and sets, I could actually believe that they were somehow real, and these helped transport me into the world that they created.
Take a look at these:
We often get treated to shots of beautiful landscapes as the scenery provides the backdrop for our story.
I sometimes had to pause just to admire the beauty of the lush, gorgeous setting of a scene before turning my attention to the scene itself.
There were times that I found the beauty of the nature quite startling in contrast to the ugliness of war and the dark twisted-ness of some of the characters’ psyches.
Sometimes, that incongruity actually felt very much like a statement, something along the lines of: the world is actually a very beautiful place, and it is humans that taint it with their ugly greed and thirst for power.
Here’s a little sampling of that beauty:
I also thought the requisite fight scenes were excellently shot, with lots of great editing and a dash of stylized slo-mo to bring out the fast and furious nature of the fight at hand.
The show managed to find the perfect balance between stylized and matter-of-fact to make the action very up-close-and-personal and real, yet aesthetically pleasing and stylish at the same time.
Some wire work is used, but fairly sparingly, which helps to keep things grounded in spite of the flair that wire work tends to give.
As an aside, I have to give props to our actors for taking on such demanding action scenes and delivering admirably. I don’t know whether stunt doubles were used at all, but I’ve seen some BTS footage, and I know that our actors did at least quite a lot (if not all) of the action themselves. That’s no easy task, considering they often had to emote while fighting as well. Bravo to them all, I say.
Here’s a taste of that action:
There were sometimes little sequences in the show that were beautifully filmed and edited to create a poetic sort of sensibility that I couldn’t help but admire.
These little pockets of unexpected quiet poetry-in-motion helped to balance out the adrenaline-pumping nature of other scenes, and these were often inserted after a particularly intense scene.
In this little example, we have a gorgeously shot scene of Gaksital falling into the water, and then his mask coming off and floating in the water.
So, so pretty:
Gaksital OST – I Couldn’t
These poetic interludes were often accompanied by beautifully scored music from the OST.
The OST as a whole was truly excellent. The tracks really grew on me more and more as the show wore on, which is truly a best-case scenario, since with some shows, the OST tracks start to become tiresome with overuse.
Not so in Gaksital.
I found the tracks evocative and often quite poetic, and I loved how each one was applied. I felt like the music enhanced my viewing experience, and it never felt obtrusive.
Kudos to the music director for hitting it perfectly on every point.
Impressively, the cinematography and astute use of the OST remain strong throughout the show.
Often, as shows enter the final stretch, the cinematography and editing become victims of the live shoot system and we tend to get choppier editing and compromised cinematography as a result of the production team being caught in a time crunch.
I was impressed that we got nicely choreographed fight scenes and accompanying camera-work even in the last few episodes of Gaksital.
I salute you, Show, for managing to keep the pace.
One of the things I really appreciate about the writing in this show is that all the characters are painted in ways that make them believable.
No one is portrayed as being evil simply for the sake of being evil. We can understand their reasons and motivations even though we may not agree with the characters’ actions.
Additionally, we are brought on individual characters’ journeys and watch them evolve as their circumstances change.
Ultimately, no one is painted in pure black or white, and what we get is a fascinating, textured fabric made up of multiple shades of gray.
I enjoyed the dashes of humor that the writers peppered throughout the show.
Some were funnier than others, but one of my favorites has to be Ueno’s words to Rie over the phone in episode 8, “We must find the reason that the Imperial Police cannot catch one man with an iron stick.”
Ha. And that he said it in all seriousness? Double ha!
The pacing of the story was also very good.
I never felt like the story was rushing through anything, and the writers took their time to build us a context that is rich enough for us to appreciate the characters and their stories more keenly.
At the same time, there were definitely stretches in the show where the hook that makes me want to watch back-to-back episodes bit me, and I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch “just one more episode” – y’all know how that works.
I was impressed with almost every actor in this show, particularly Joo Won as Lee Kang To and Park Ki Woong as Kimura Shunji, who both dug really deep and provided their respective characters with multiple facets and layers.
There was no vanity at all with these two. They were both fully committed to their roles and turned in impressive, excellent performances.
Due to the twist-and-turn nature of the storyline of this show, to discuss the characters and their relationships in further detail would mean delving into spoiler-heavy territory.
My advice, if you haven’t seen the show yet, is to skip to the end of the review for The Final Verdict as well as the excellent MVs (I picked some non-spoilery ones as well) and just know that pretty much everyone was awesome. Then come back later after you’ve watched the show, of course, so that we can discuss what you think 😉
[SPOILER ALERT – MAJOR SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD]
Shin Hyun Joon as Lee Kang San
Shin Hyun Joon did an excellent job portraying the different facets of Kang San’s character.
From being the smart hot-shot hyung to becoming the village idiot to taking on the mask of Gaksital, Shin Hyun Joon had to draw on a very wide range of emotion, and he made Kang San an intriguing, interesting character for the relatively short amount of time that we spent with him.
I found Kang San a heartbreaking and tragic character in many ways.
Not being able to withstand the torture in prison, he pretended to be crazy so that he could be spared. Ironically, he then went about as Gaksital, saving so many people that he became the people’s hero.
I found it fascinating that he was a hero that was born out of cowardice. There’s something just so dissonant about that.
Even though he was Gaksital the people’s hero, we often saw him afraid. He was always terrified of being discovered, and hid his identity as Gaksital with his extreme village idiot act.
Despite his many heroic acts, there was always a distinct sense of self-loathing about him because he recognized and hated his own cowardice. On top of that, there was an overwhelming sense of guilt in him, for succumbing to that cowardice.
When faced with the choice between blowing his cover and saving his mother, or keeping his cover and sacrificing his mother, he hesitated and ultimately allowed his mother to take the fall. I felt that his tears afterward were as much in grief for his mother’s death as they were in guilt and despair at his own cowardice.
More than a character in and of himself, Kang San was much more interesting as a foil for our protagonist Kang To, because Kang San and the way he deals with donning the Gaksital mask is our basis of comparison for when Kang To eventually does the same.
Their relationship is also interesting in terms of how it affects Kang To.
We’ll talk more about all that later.
Gaksital OST – I’m Right Beside You
Joo Won as Lee Kang To
Joo Won was flat-out fantastic as Kang To, a man who starts the show as the much-hated “Japanese dog” who is violent and cruel to his fellow Koreans while swearing vehemently on his life to capture Gaksital with his own hands, to becoming the man who dons the Gaksital mask himself and becomes a true hero for the people.
It is a trajectory that spans a seriously vast range of emotion and Joo Won approaches it all with full commitment and lack of vanity.
As we know, in many kdramas, the hero starts out as a jerk and then over the course of the drama grows and matures and becomes a better person.
We get that too in Gaksital, except it’s maybe jerk x1,000, and then that becomes hero x10,000.
Even though that sounds extreme, that’s exactly the extreme journey that Kang To takes, and the best part is, every part of his growth feels real and organic. It never feels rushed or fake, and I love that the show takes its time to give us that.
From episode 1, we see that Kang To is a braver man than his brother. He makes his choices and owns them. He chooses to work for the Japanese government even though it is a hugely unpopular choice even with his mother, and he throws himself into it.
He doesn’t make any apologies for his choices, and shoulders the general hatred from his fellow man without flinching.
We also learn pretty much right away, that he’s not such a bad person at heart, that he’s doing all this in the hope of giving his family a better quality of life.
As the show progresses and as certain key events take place in Kang To’s life that change the course of his destiny forever, Joo Won rises to the occasion and delivers some seriously amazing performances.
One of the scenes which I found unforgettable is the scene where Kang To discovers that his mother is dead. His horror at his discovery is completely palpable.
His shock turns into a silent scream that eventually becomes a bloodcurdling wail that sounds like it’s coming from the very depths of his belly.
Kang To then wails and cries over his mother’s body, and then, his grief morphs into anger at his hyung for not protecting their mother.
It’s an arresting scene and Joo Won’s delivery is awe-inspiring. I think the hairs on the back of my neck took some time to calm down.
Kang To’s anguish at losing his mother and brother is so strong that you can almost touch it. He goes through so much torment, confusion and pain, and Joo Won portrays it all in an utterly believable manner.
The first time Kang To dons the mask, it is in rage and vengeance and he kills Kenji (Park Joo Hyung) in blind fury. But beyond that fury, we also feel Kang To’s intense loneliness now that he has no family left.
For a good long stretch in the drama, Kang To struggles with his identity and purpose, and that feels organic and believable.
It’s not a quick 180 degree turnaround from antihero to hero, and Joo Won portrays that oftentimes lonely journey with pathos and realism.
On top of that, in straddling his dual identities, Joo Won as Kang To often has to shift his persona and facial expressions within the blink of an eye. Yes, there’s still room for growth acting-wise, but overall, I’d say that Joo Won manages the many demands of the role quite excellently.
Joo Won as Kang To is by turn badass, fierce, cruel, kind, lonely, grieved, conflicted, uncertain, playful, flirtatious, devious, loving, confused, and completely heroic. And he rocks it all.
Park Ki Woong as Kimura Shunji
Park Ki Woong’s performance as Kimura Shunji is hands-down the best that I have seen from him, ever. He delivers a truly excellent performance as Shunji, whose character charts as extreme a journey as Kang To, except in the opposite direction.
Park Ki Woong is equally convincing as a gentle, innocent, idealistic school-teacher and as the tortured, cruel, angry captain of the Imperial Police who’s thirsty for revenge.
It’s quite mind-boggling how that sweet friendly face in that screencap above turns into this seething one:
Or this carelessly bored one while inflicting torture on another human being:
Or these completely ballistic ones where he’s pretty much losing it because of his rage:
It almost feels like two completely different characters. But it isn’t, thankfully.
Because of careful, thoughtful writing and Park Ki Woong’s nuanced delivery, we do continue to see traces of the old Shunji even in the later episodes.
Almost in complete diametric opposition to Kang To’s slow journey from antihero to hero, Shunji doesn’t turn immediately to the dark side either.
When his father Taro (Chun Ho Jin) assumes that Shunji will put on the Imperial Police uniform and avenge Kenji’s death, Shunji stops short and says that he is only a schoolteacher and that he will do his best to assist Kang To in arresting the killer.
We get to witness Shunji’s slow descent into the dark side as he appears to take a “just one more step” approach to the pressures that steer his path, and loses his soul one piece at a time.
There are various points in the show where we get to see how far he’s come from the old, gentle, sweet Shunji, and the one that stands out most to me is his conversation with his old friend Tamao (Choi Dae Hoon).
Shunji is interrupted from his solo brooding at Club Angel when Tamao sits down with him, uninvited, and starts to reminisce about their good ol’ times with Kang To. When Tamao ignores Shunji’s order to leave and carries on with his story, Shunji delivers a resounding slap to Tamao’s face and draws his gun.
He spits out at Tamao: “This son of a bitch laughs? Friend? Me, with a damn Korean?”
Tamao’s shocked expression, juxtaposed with a story of friendship between the 3 men which hadn’t happened all that long ago, shows us starkly how far Shunji has descended into the dark side.
I do like that the show doesn’t let us forget that Shunji isn’t just the bad guy, but reminds us that he’s also the guy who used to be gentle and sweet, not that long ago.
It makes Shunji’s characterization so much more complex and faceted.
Yes, we are repelled by his cruelty and rage, but we also see the circumstances and pressures that presented themselves to him as choices; (bad, bad) choices that led him down a dark, slippery slope from which he struggles and fails to recover.
Ultimately, I was satisfied with how the show resolved his character.
In losing his one (completely misdirected) hope of going back to his old self, he sees no other way out but to take his own life and end it all.
In that final choice, I see that at a very basic level, he did think of his eventual self as a monster and desired to go back to more innocent times.
Park Ki Woong as Shunji turned in a nuanced, faceted performance that was at once repulsive yet fascinating; dark yet sympathetic; villainous yet tragic.
Impressive. And quite brilliant, I might add.
Jin Sae Yeon as Oh Mok Dan
As the shared love interest of Kang To and Shunji, Mok Dan is, narratively-speaking, more interesting in terms of what she shows us about the two men than in and of herself as a character.
As the female lead character, Mok Dan does come across characterized in more idealistic colors than most of our other main characters, who are painted in shades of gray.
Perhaps that is what makes her stand out as somewhat more two-dimensional compared to the other characters.
Among the four lead characters, she remains the most static and constant throughout the drama.
She begins the drama fiercely idealistic, and supports the resistance at the risk of her life. By the end of the drama, she is still as loyal to the resistance and even gives up her life to protect Kang To, who is not only the man she loves, but the hero of the people that she loves.
Jin Sae Yeon did a decent job portraying Mok Dan, and it’s unfortunate that she came off as the most flat and uninteresting of our four main characters.
Still, she’s interesting in terms of what she means to both Kang To and Shunji (more on that in a bit), and for that alone, her presence in the drama is worthwhile.
Han Chae Ah as Ueno Rie
Although Rie’s character is what we would traditionally classify as the second female lead, she was a lot more interesting and complex compared to Mok Dan’s character.
When we first meet Rie, she’s strong, powerful and badass.
She is treated poorly by Kenji, who, assuming that she’s some random lowly singer, empties her suitcase to search it while leering at her in the process. When Taro steps in to stop (and punch) his son and inform him of just who he’s dealing with, Rie calmly steps up to first slap Kenji soundly, then grind her heel into his hand as she walks away.
Underneath that veneer of power and confidence, though, we soon find that Rie is actually an insecure woman trying desperately to gain the favor and approval of her adoptive father Ueno Hideki (Jun Gook Hwan).
Having renounced her Korean heritage, she continually strives to cement her Japanese identity. One of her refrains through the show is her emphatic statement of her Japanese name: “I am Ueno Rie.”
Aw. It’s as if she believes that if she says it confidently enough, or repeats it enough times, that it will eventually become true. So sad.
Whenever she’s interacting with Ueno, she’s always a bundle of nerves and she strikes me as a vulnerable, lost little girl. Rie is always falling short of Ueno’s expectations, and that causes her to become increasingly frustrated and fearful.
At one point, Ueno tellingly says of Rie, “Rie’s weakness is that she’s Korean.”
Clearly, Ueno never actually treated her as a daughter, and was just manipulating her as he deemed fit. He even gives Rie to Shunji as an offering after Taro’s death, so that Shunji might relieve his anger by killing her.
Given the dangerous position that she was in, and Ueno’s cruel, murder-happy streak, I honestly did not expect Rie to survive the show.
But she did. And I’m so glad the writers allowed her a new lease of life, this time while casting her Japanese identity aside and finally re-embracing her Korean name: Choi Hong Joo.
Rie’s struggle with herself was fascinating to watch and Han Chae Ah did an excellent job bringing her to life.
Her interactions with Kang To and Shunji also provided lots of interest and dimension to the show, which we’ll talk about later.
This show has a particularly large pool of secondary characters, and I found it interesting that these secondary characters would be introduced throughout the length of the show.
Some characters could be introduced early in the show, playing pretty key roles and yet killed off partway. At the same time, other characters could be introduced very late in the game and yet play an important part in the overall story.
I found that different and refreshing, because in most dramas, the important characters are introduced early in the show and stay the course pretty much to the end.
I liked that this show dared to do it differently, and trusted us as the audience to flow along with that.
There are so many secondary characters in Gaksital that I really don’t think I can talk about them all in this review. They all did very well, though, and most of the secondary characters had some measure of dimension.
Here’s a shout-out to just some of them.
Song Ok Sook as Kang San’s & Kang To’s Mother
Song Ok Sook did heartbreakingly well as the mother torn between her two sons. Her love for them both was evident, albeit expressed in different ways.
She upheld her fierce protection of Kang San to the end, when she died protecting him.
But she didn’t love Kang To any less.
Even though she railed at Kang To for choosing to work for the Japanese, she still prayed for him, that he might become a good person: “Please help Kang To grow up. So that he won’t commit any more sins. Please let him fulfill his duty as a Lee. Please let me suffer all the punishment that he deserves.”
And that is exactly what she did, in dying.
So tragic, this mother’s love. *sob*
Jun Noh Min as Damsari
Jun Noh Min made Damsari an extremely benevolent character, for lack of a better word.
He represented and stood for ideals that were often expressed in inspiring metaphors as he spoke. I loved that these moving sound bites were actually mostly in small one-to-one moments instead of in a big speech. It just showed how much these beliefs were a part of his DNA.
A case in point is in this conversation between him and Kang To, in episode 14, as Kang To continues to grapple with his identity and sense of purpose:
Kang To says, “There’s something I wanted to ask my hyung, but he died before I could ask it. If my hyung… and you… [thinks to himself: “and I…”] live this way, will the world change? They say that the Japanese empire won’t stop at Joseon, and that it’ll swallow Manchu, and China. Isn’t it throwing an egg against a stone?”
Serenely, Damsari replies, “It may appear reckless. One layer of an egg’s shell, cast against a stone will surely break. But no matter how strong a stone, it is dead. And no matter how weak an egg, it is alive. When time passes a stone will crumble into dirt. But someday there is a chick who will hatch from that egg and walk upon that dirt. The day will come when the Japanese empire’s murderous tyranny and oppression cannot defeat that egg.”
Those inspiring words become a recurring motif in the show, representing the spirit of the people as they fight to reclaim their country from their oppressors.
On top of this, I loved that Damsari was the one who first believed in Kang To, even before Kang To revealed his identity as Gaksital.
Damsari’s effect on both Kang To and Shunji is interesting, and we’ll also talk about that in a bit.
Yoon Bong Kil as Abe
Yoon Bong Kil as Abe provides a lot of comic relief in the show.
He’s often the butt of jokes and provides a lot of gag relief with his facial expressions along with the physical comedy.
Here’s Abe all stripped down and tied up after Mok Dan escapes from under his watch:
And here’s Abe with his adorably funny faces as he arm-wrestles with the circus folk that he’s supposed to be guarding:
More than the comedy, though, Abe is endearing for his heart.
Despite the fact that he’s Japanese, he shows a lot of loyalty to Kang To and often shows genuine care and concern for Kang To, and even continues to address him as “Lieutenant” after Kang To has been demoted to Sergeant.
Even if Abe was written in as the token Japanese character who’s all heart, I don’t care.
He was adorable and funny and endearing, and I enjoyed having him in the show.
Choi Dae Hoon as Tamao
Tamao as a character really surprised me.
I’d started out dismissing him as an unimportant secondary character, but the thoughtful writing and Choi Dae Hoon’s delivery made him eventually come alive as quite a fascinating character.
Tamao starts the show being a rich playboy whose three-fold occupation is to wine, dine and flirt, but as the people around him get more and more affected and involved in the cross-fire of the independence movement, he begins to question himself and his position.
I thought Choi Dae Hoon did a great job bringing out Tamao’s struggle with his own sense of identity even in the face of his cowardly nature.
On the one hand, his father’s allegiance to the Japanese government makes him a traitor, but it affords him luxury and safety. Yet, as he witnesses his fellow Koreans putting their lives on the line to fight for their country, his patriotic inclinations begin to bother him, and he struggles to find a place in the world that will satisfy his conscience.
I found his delivery nuanced and sensitive, and he managed to make Tamao a sympathetic character even in the limited amount of screen time that he had.
Son Byung Ho as Jo Dong Joo
I found Manager Jo an interesting character for the reason that he was written as so human. Not that everyone else wasn’t human. Let me explain.
I was taken by surprise when he was tortured by Shunji, that Manager Jo succumbed and gave away important information about the meeting time and place between Gaksital and key members of the resistance.
Given that the various members of the resistance were mostly written as fiercely loyal to the cause at the risk of their lives, I found it interesting that a pretty key member of the resistance would be written as giving information as a result of torture.
I found that this writing decision made the story more realistic and believable, because it’s true that torture is an excruciating experience and it’s realistic that a person might be coerced into giving out information in order to save himself.
I also liked how the show handled his arc thereafter.
His determination to continue helping the cause, and his willingness to accept any punishment his comrades might mete out to him to the point of death, and his comrades’ eventual continued acceptance of him in the resistance movement in spite of his previous failure, spoke volumes about the faith and loyalty among the resistance members.
Manager Jo’s eventual, instinctive choice to sacrifice his life in order to buy Kang To more time to escape with Mok Dan, also showed us the extent of his character growth. From a man who caved under torture, he became a man who would die for his cause without hesitation.
Ahn Suk Hwan as Count Lee Shi Young
Count Lee was one of the most cartoonish among the characters in this show, and it was easy to dismiss him early on as just part of the intended comic relief.
His one note cartoonish-ness was not even funny; he was so over-the-top that it was hard to like him or even take him seriously.
BUT. There was a point where I found him truly sympathetic, and that was when he grieved over his son’s death.
His stricken reflection upon his son’s death is that all that he’d done – swearing allegiance to the Japanese government, currying favor with those in power, amassing money and power – was actually all to guarantee his son a comfortable and safe life. And all that came to naught the moment that his son took his own life.
I thought that was a nice treatment by the writers, to give us some insight into the character’s motivations and to give Count Lee as a character the chance to verbalize his regret at his misdirected focus in life.
At the same time, the question hangs over the show for a while: Why do we do what we do? Are we doing what we do for the right reasons?
Seo Yoon Ah as Ham Gye Soon
It was easy to hate Gye Soon’s character during most of the show, since she was always the one selling out Mok Dan to Shunji for money and being haughty and condescending to the rest of the circus folk to boot.
But the eventual treatment of her character after she finally realizes the danger that she’s in, increased the depth of her character.
Not only does she fear for her life, she fears for her family’s well-being. The subsequent scenes of her crying over her brother’s forced enlistment into the Japanese military also helped to bring home the real struggles of the common folk at the time. The struggle for money to feed their families, and the fear surrounding that struggle for survival.
This didn’t make her a likable character by any means, but it did make her a character that was easier to understand, and I thought that Seo Yoon Ah did a very decent job with the role.
Kim Bang Won as Kim Deuk Soo
Kim Deuk Soo, aka Village Hothead, seemed like such a typical, dispensable side character at first. That is, until he joined the resistance and then got to meet his hero Gaksital.
The moment that he realizes that Kang To, whom he thinks is a “Japanese dog,” is actually his hero Gaksital, is absolutely priceless:
Thereafter, I really enjoyed the new dynamic between him and Kang To.
I half feel like the writers decided to beef up his character at the last minute, because for the longest time, he didn’t even have a name, and was christened Village Hothead in the blogosphere by Javabeans and Girlfriday at Dramabeans. His sole purpose in the drama in the earlier episodes seemed to be to give Kang To a hard time.
But. For that priceless reveal, and for the satisfaction of seeing him work with Kang To as comrades in arms, and for the affectionate, bromantic banter that we got to see between him and Kang To in the final episodes, I forgive the writers.
Ahn Hyung Joon as Katsuyama
Ok, so Katsuyama is not an extremely critical secondary character, considering the huge pool that we’re working with. But, the guy’s broody and hot, with a bit of a Kim Nam Gil quality about him, so I think that deserves at least a bit of a shout-out? 😉
On a shallow level, I just liked having him hang around Rie and be the strong silent bodyguard with the badass moves.
The smoldering stares that he sent her way were also very nice. And there was a whole lotta tension between the two. Not sexual tension per se, though I do think there was some of that too.
Here’s an example of said sexual tension, when Katsuyama looks in on Rie when she’s soaking in a rose petal bath:
Uh-huh. That is a smoldering stare if I ever saw one.
More often, there was tension between them in adrenaline-pumping moments, and Rie had to either deploy him or stop him. Like so:
That kind of charged tension when in the midst of adrenaline-pumping scenes was quite appealing and sexy, I thought.
I also liked that so much of their communication was unspoken; it felt like these two had a chemistry and rhythm born out of many hours spent together.
The relationships are a serious force in this show.
In this drama, where character development takes center stage, the relationships between characters play a critical role in supplying context to our characters. The characters also affect one another in major ways, and as they continue to spark off one another, their characters evolve along with their relationships.
Let’s take a look at some of the major relationships in the show.
Gaksital OST – Holy
Kang To & Kang San
Aw. Kang To and Kang San. Theirs was a relationship that gave rise to some of the most heartbreaking scenes in the show.
I loved the multiple layers that this relationship had.
From Innocent Kid Brother looking up to Smart Hyung, to Jaded Kid Brother trying to shake off Idiot Hyung, to Imperial Policeman Kid Brother trying to capture and kill Gaksital Hyung, to Devastated Kid Brother stepping into Dead Hyung’s vacated hero shoes. Ow. My heart.
It was heartbreaking to watch Kang To take out his frustration on Idiot Hyung, especially during the scenes where Kang San spoke to Kang To in voiceover, words that he couldn’t say out loud.
In episode 3, when Kang To unleashed his blind fury on the townsfolk in his search for Gaksital, Hyung stopped him by grabbing onto his leg. It was horrifying to see Kang To beat up and kick Hyung in a fury, screaming, “Just die! Who needs someone like you?!”
It was so sad to see Hyung just lie there and take it, while Kang To screamed and cursed at him to just die already.
It was even sadder to see in the next episode, that deep down, underneath all his anger and toughness, Kang To missed his Hyung and wanted things to be different.
Thinking that Kang San is asleep, Kang To lies down next to him and confides in his Hyung that he doesn’t want to live this way, that he wants to work at a job that would make Mum happy, but he barely made anything slaving away at jobs that paid nothing, that he couldn’t even make enough money to feed three mouths.
As he sobs into Hyung’s shoulder, Kang To asks, “Why does a bastard with no money, no backing, and no learning have to pledge loyalty to those bastards to eat and live in this world? I don’t know. I don’t know a better way than this one. Hyung. Hyung! Say something, Hyung!”
So, so sad, to see both brothers weeping because they both felt so stuck. And so interesting at the same time, to consider their different choices in life, in the face of feeling stuck.
To add to the heartbreak, Hyung responds not in words, but in simple acts of love while in the guise of being Idiot Hyung.
The next morning, Hyung brings home Kang To’s favorite fish and takes pleasure in serving him over breakfast and offering his own bowl of soup to Kang To when Kang To finishes his.
Aw. All that brotherly love from Hyung, bursting to come out in waves, but scaled down to a bowl of soup because of his cover. So sadly bittersweet.
From the weeping incident of the night before, we begin to understand that Kang To really looks up to Hyung and desires Hyung’s companionship, guidance and approval.
In fact, so much of what Kang To does is centered around Hyung.
He’d slaved at odd jobs in the past, to pay for Hyung’s tuition and he’d sold out to the Japanese in the hope of building a better life for his family and of getting treatment for Hyung. Eventually, it is also for Hyung that Kang To dons the Gaksital mask.
While speaking to Dead Hyung, Kang To asks, “Was this so important? More important than our family? Who was going to give you credit anyway?”
Clearly, at this point, Kang To does not have larger nationalistic ideals. All he ever cared about was their family.
After killing Kenji to avenge the death of his mother, Kang To’s decision to carry on wearing the Gaksital mask is purely for Hyung’s sake, to carry on the work that Hyung had chosen.
It takes Kang To many more episodes of soul searching before he begins to see what Gaksital means to the people, and begins to care about his country for real.
Until that point, it is out of loyalty to Hyung that Kang To continues to risk his life as Gaksital, which speaks volumes in terms of Kang San’s effect on Kang To.
In comparison to Kang San, I found Kang To a braver and stronger Gaksital.
It’s true that both brothers began their journeys as Gaksital as broken men. But while Kang San was broken by guilt over his own cowardice, Kang To was broken by the complete and sudden loss of his family, the only people in the world that he truly cared about. Somehow, I feel like it took more strength and fortitude for Kang To to overcome that loss and still step into Gaksital’s hero shoes.
Additionally, Kang San’s view of his duty as Gaksital was mainly in terms of vengeance for their father. That’s why he’d said to Kang To in voiceover, that he had hoped that he could have taken care of it all for Kang To.
On the other hand, when Kang To eventually comes to terms with his role as Gaksital, he tells Mok Dan that he can’t ever stop, because everywhere, people are suffering and in pain, and there is work to be done.
In that sense, I feel like Kang To was the truer Gaksital, because ultimately, his mission extended beyond vengeance for his family; his mission was for his people. And despite knowing that that work could never be finished, he pledged his life to it anyway.
That, to me, is what set Kang To’s Gaksital apart from Kang San’s.
Kang To & Shunji
The relationship between Kang To and Shunji is a huge central focus in the show.
They start the show best of friends, but, placed on opposite sides of a great divide, the early innocent era of their of friendship gives way to their individual allegiances to their respective families and related greater causes. This tears them further and further apart, until their relationship evolves to become that between mortal enemies, never fated to stand on the same side.
The real star-crossed lovers in this show are really Kang To and Shunji.
A perfect example of their star-crossed positions happens in episode 7, after the death of Shunji’s brother Kenji and the deaths of Kang To’s mother & hyung.
Kang To, haunted by the hurt that he keeps bringing on the ones that he loves, gets pelted by the townsfolk with all manner of stuff, from vegetables to stones. Shunji rescues him, and quickly bikes him out of the town center.
In the middle of a field, Shunji stops, and they both cry together on the bicycle. Shunji mourns the if onlys – if only Gaksital had been caught earlier, both their brothers would be ok, if Kang To hadn’t been out running after Gaksital, he could have saved his mother & brother from the fire – while Kang To weeps silently.
So touching and and yet so ironic in one.
In episode 9, Shunji begins by assuming that he and Kang To are on the same side, though he is sternly corrected by his father that they can never be on the same side.
Yet, despite Shunji’s best intentions, this very same episode marks the first time that Shunji is fierce to Kang To in private, for following orders to put cuffs on his father.
By episode 10, the two men are firmly enough in place in their opposite camps to have it start showing in their interactions.
Shunji makes it clear to Kang To that they no longer have a personal friendship, and reminds Kang To that he is his superior. Ouch.
And Kang To, when confronted later by Shunji, says, “Perhaps you and I were always, from the beginning, unable to be friends. If that moment comes when I put a knife to your father’s throat… don’t hesitate.” Double ouch.
In this episode, both Kang To and Shunji say separately to themselves, “I’ve started this, now I have to see it to the end.”
Definitely, a big turning point for their friendship.
To be sure, their friendship never does sour completely, and they both show flashes of nostalgia for their early friendship as the show progresses.
In episode 12, when Shunji and Kang To lie side by side (Talk about sleeping with the enemy. Ha), Shunji confides in Kang To that he thinks he’s going crazy because of Gaksital and asks Kang To what to do. But what can Kang To say? He is the very reason that Shunji is going crazy, but he can’t stop what he’s doing for the sake of his friend. They both weep heartbreakingly.
Such irony and pathos.
Both Kang To and Shunji have solid reasons to be where they each are, and yet, simply by being where they are, they are bringing hurt and destruction to each other.
I found it interesting to note that Kang To is in the unique position of knowing what it feels like from both sides’ perspectives. On the one hand, he used to be just like Shunji, going crazy trying to catch Gaksital. And he now knows how Kang San used to feel, watching his beloved brother go crazy hunting Gaksital in front of him.
Perhaps it’s this dual perspective that makes Kang To appear to have more empathy for Shunji as the show progresses than vice versa.
In episode 25, after many episodes of cat-and-mouse and dancing around the truth, we get the most mind-bending heart-to-heart ever, I think, between Kang To and Shunji, when Kang To’s identity as Gaksital is officially unveiled.
It’s the first time they’ve spoken straightforwardly in so long, and the truth comes tumbling out: who killed whom and why.
But it’s Kang To’s closing words that really get to Shunji (and to me), “I swore to catch Gaksital. My hyung… I shot and killed him. Not knowing that hyung was out to avenge our mother’s death, I fought alongside Kenji… and shot my brother dead. So it was for my brother, for Kang San hyung, that I put on that mask. Kimura Shunji, thank you for capturing me. Now that I’ve been caught, at least I won’t have to kill you by my hand.”
At this point, I wasn’t sure how much of Kang To’s words were sincere and how much was a smokescreen, but his actions back up these words when he later spares Shunji’s life.
In contrast to Kang To’s words of friendship, Shunji seems momentarily shaken and cries a little, but he soon steels himself, probably choosing to ignore the shadow of the truth of where their friendship used to stand (Creepy but well played, Park Ki Woong).
This scene again gives us a clear indication of the two men’s different positions regarding their friendship.
A perfect example of Kang To’s greater measure of empathy towards Shunji is in episode 27, when he spares Shunji even when he has the chance to kill him. This, despite the fact that Kang To knows he should kill Shunji, for his own safety, the safety of his loved ones, and for his cause.
His memories of their friendship back when it used to be pure and untainted by political context cause him to be unable to deliver the fatal blow. Kang To literally cannot bring himself to kill Shunji, when faced with the original context of their friendship.
Shunji cries after the fact, but you have to wonder if the roles were reversed, whether Shunji would have hesitated to kill Kang To. This is reinforced when in the very next scene, Shunji promises his father that he will kill Kang To himself and bring his head to his father’s tombstone.
Certainly, in the end, Shunji did not duel with Kang To and instead took his own life. But I tend to think that his suicide was more about his own hopelessness rather than not being able to bring himself to kill Kang To, or sparing Kang To the agony of killing him himself.
Additionally, the differences between Kang To and Shunji were magnified by their respective relationships with other characters, which we’ll talk about as we look at each relationship in turn.
Kang To & Mok Dan
Much as I found Mok Dan somewhat two-dimensional, and the lost-childhood-loves concept rather tropey, I did enjoy the way that the writers developed the relationship between Kang To and Mok Dan.
From outright hating each other’s guts, things begin to shift once Kang To realizes that Mok Dan is Boon Yi, and he begins to show care for her while still maintaining the nasty mean facade that she’s grown accustomed to from him.
In episode 8, Kang To warns Mok Dan not to appear at the police station again, saying, “Don’t come here again, or you’ll die by my hands.”
On the surface, it’s a malicious threat, but underneath, it’s born of concern. So full of double meaning. Very clever, I thought.
Mok Dan, of course, receives it as a threat, which makes us feel kind of sorry for Kang To. It’s true, though, that Mok Dan has every reason to receive it as a threat, considering that he’d tortured her in the past and used her as Gaksital bait.
What a twisted, mind-bending space for Kang To to be in, which is precisely what I liked about it.
For a good stretch in the drama, there’s a duality about Kang To’s relationships with Mok Dan; one where he is himself, and the other where he is Gaksital. We get to see the completely different way that Mok Dan interacts with each persona of Kang To, not realizing that they are the same man.
By episode 11, Kang To starts to drop hints to Mok Dan about his identity as the Young Master she’s been waiting for – He says to her more than once, “Take a good look at me. You know me, right?” – only to be treated with revulsion by the woman he loves.
Yet, in the meantime, Mok Dan’s love for Gaksital continues to grow and deepen.
I found it so ironic, and at the same time, so sad, that Kang To could only receive love from the woman he loved when he was wearing a mask to conceal his face.
It was so bittersweet, when they finally embraced, acknowledging their feelings for each other, that not only was he masked, but that it was a good-bye at the same time.
Also, I found Kang To’s silent parting words to Mok Dan sweet. In an echo of his childhood parting words to her, he says in voice-over, “Boon Yi-ya, I’m letting you leave now, but just stay alive. No matter where you are and what you’re doing, I will definitely come find you. I will find you, and I will surely protect you.”
I loved the complete turnaround: from wanting to use her as bait in episode one, he’s now willing to put his life on the line to protect her. Even though she has no idea who he is. Aw.
I have to say that I really liked the gradation in terms of how Kang To’s true identity is revealed to Mok Dan.
Everything took place in stages, allowing us to get a good taste of each stage before moving on to the next stage. I felt that this gave us more dimension in terms of the development of their relationship.
First, Kang To confesses that he loves Mok Dan when he’s questioned by Shunji about why he would go to the restaurant to save her. Which completely shocks her, of course, since she’d always seen him as the bad guy. But it does give her pause, because his actions thereafter suggest that maybe he hadn’t been lying about being in love with her.
Then, as she continues to chew on what his behavior means, Kang To reveals his identity as Young, the Young Master she’s been waiting and searching for.
Only, that big reveal is greeted by horror and not joy. Poor Mok Dan. I can see why this would be devastating from her point of view. And poor Kang To, who had to have been hurt by her revulsion.
And then finally, for the big reveal, Mok Dan connects the dots that she’d always believed, that Young is Gaksital. And then gets to verify it herself when she takes the mask off a severely injured Gaksital.
I loved that the show had been showing us the degrees by which her thoughts and attitude towards Kang To had been shifting, so that it was eventually plausible for her to embrace the truth when it was finally revealed.
Also! SQUEEE!! Sweet hugs and kisses in the forest, never mind that Kang To is so badly injured.
I love how, when Mok Dan is crying with guilt, Kang To simply wipes her tears away silently. Not a word is spoken, but the moment is profound.
The most moving thing about this scene, is that Kang To is finally able to receive love without having to wear a mask. Such sweet release, for him not to have to hide behind Gaksital’s mask, and be able to receive love as himself. I loved that. So much.
On another note, I actually hadn’t expected the reveal to come so soon in the drama. With this kind of masked hero story, I wouldn’t have blamed the writers if they’d decided to leave the reveal to the very last stretch of the drama. I’m SO glad they chose not to do that though, because in revealing Kang To’s identity as Gaksital to Mok Dan early(ish) in the story, it affords so much room to explore what it means for them to love each other in the context of his dual identities and his Gaksital mission.
Once Kang To’s identity as Gaksital – and their relationship – is established, we get to see Kang To and Mok Dan finally working together on the same side, for the same cause.
There’s not a lot of relationship movement, but we do get to see how they rely on and draw strength from each other.
I particularly liked how Kang To would take her hand wherever possible, to communicate what was on his heart, when he could not speak the words aloud.
When we get into the final stretch of the drama, Kang To has a brief brush with noble idiocy when he tells Yang Baek (Kim Myung Gon) that he sometimes wonders if Mok Dan would be better off if he left her.
While I cringed at the brush with noble idiocy, I appreciate Kang To’s motivation, that he’s trying to protect her and is thinking for her benefit, something that Shunji regularly failed to do (more on that shortly).
Thankfully, Yang Baek straightens Kang To out swiftly, saying, “What do you think is the one thing in a grown man’s life so precious that he must protect it with his life? I believe it’s love. I love Joseon, I love my hometown, I love my mother, my wife, my son. Watching those that I love be violated by the Japanese, how could I not feel rage? If you truly love Mok Dan, you put your life on the line to stay by her side and protect her, and fight the ones who would torment her.”
The message hits home nicely, because soon after, we see Kang To encouraging a downcast Mok Dan with the words, “Be strong. You have to be strong. My strength to fight comes from you.”
Aw. I loved that Kang To took this lesson on love very much to heart, and we get his new mindset firmly established thereafter: That love is a more powerful motivating force than anything else. It’s not just for a cause. It’s a love for the people you care about that drives you to be a hero.
Kang To operates on that driving principle of love from there on out, for the rest of the drama, and I love that about his character.
So in the end, I’d guessed that Mok Dan had to die, as did Taro, so that she could be removed from the Kang To-Shunji equation. Everything had to be cleaned out so that once again, it would be just Kang To and Shunji facing each other.
What I appreciated about her death, though, is that even in death, she is thinking for Kang To.
Not only does she instinctively take the bullet for him, her dying words to him are, “You said you fight because of me… but I ended up like this… and I wanted to make you dinner every day… I wanted to wear the flower rings… Be strong. Promise me that you’ll be strong, even without your wife. Promise me.”
Likewise, Kang To, even in his debilitating grief, thinks of Mok Dan’s wishes and tells himself, “Be strong, Lee Kang To. Let’s be strong. You promised you’d be strong.”
All in all, while I wasn’t too enamored of Mok Dan’s character, I enjoyed delving into the nature and nuances of their relationship and what it meant to Kang To, and how it showed us the kind of man Kang To was.
Shunji & Mok Dan
Shunji’s relationship with Mok Dan was basically that of a one-sided love, and the reason I think it’s worth spending a bit of time looking at this one-sided love is because it shows us a lot about Shunji.
Before Kenji’s death, Shunji is pretty much in a happy bubble, teaching Korean kids in school and collecting Korean artifacts and generally crushing on Mok Dan and helping her out.
But you know what they say about people being like tea bags. You only know what they’re made of after they’re put in hot water.
And Shunji does not do well by Mok Dan, to put it mildly. As the temperature of the metaphorical water increases, his treatment of her becomes worse and worse.
Let’s take a short whirl through time to revisit that downhill journey.
After Kenji’s death, the pressure on Shunji sets in and in episode 8, he puts on the uniform of the Imperial Police in order to save Mok Dan. And that’s possibly one of the last times that we see him acting for her good.
By episode 11, Shunji has Mok Dan chained up in the torture room while ordering Kang To to whip her. And then Shunji actually seems upset that Mok Dan is disgusted by him.
Making matters worse, Shunji later says to Mok Dan, “Why won’t you live an easier life? Why do I have to do this to you?”
Clearly, the way his mind works is kinda twisted by this point. Coz he thinks that she MADE him torture her.
In the same episode, Shunji confides in Kang To that he thinks he’s losing it because of Gaksital. When Kang To asks if Shunji really loves Mok Dan, Shunji answers, “I don’t know. What I do know is that I want to catch that bastard and kill him in front of Mok Dan.”
That Shunji says this knowing full well how much Mok Dan admires Gaksital? So. Not. Love. Seriously.
Another telling scene is when Shunji and his men chase Mok Dan through the woods in episode 12, so that he can capture her as Gaksital bait.
During the chase, Shunji doesn’t hesitate to shoot at Mok Dan. Repeatedly.
Yet, when she gets hold of the gun and points it at him in self defence, he has the gall to look shocked and hurt.
That gives us another peek into Shunji’s now twisted psyche. Double standards, denial, delusion – they’re all there. In spades.
Another revealing scene happens in episode 17, when Shunji is trying to persuade Mok Dan not to escape from the hotel room that he’s transferred her to, and stay there.
While saying all his persuasive words, Shunji wears a facade of care, addressing Mok Dan as Esther, a name that harks back to their childhood.
However, things do not go as Shunji would like. Mok Dan spits in his face and continues to throw his words back at him. In a flash, Shunji turns on a dime and slaps her across the face for refusing to cooperate with him, his caring expression instantly morphing into one of fury.
Clearly, by this point, Shunji is losing his grasp on his old self more and more as his new, darker personality comes to the fore.
Perhaps one of the most telling scenes, in showing us the difference between Shunji’s and Kang To’s love for Mok Dan, is when she died.
Despite being the one who shot her, when Shunji realizes that Mok Dan is dead, he immediately flies into a rage, screaming that this is all Kang To’s fault and draws his gun to shoot Kang To.
This response shows us keenly, the kind of denial and self-preservation through blame culture mindset that fuels Shunji, that he can blame Kang To when HE was the one who shot her, and appear to actually believe that he’s right.
In contrast, reeling from Mok Dan’s death, Kang To is so grief-stricken that he doesn’t have the presence of mind to even care for his own safety.
Therein we see the difference in how the two men love Mok Dan.
Shunji’s “love” is all about himself and self-preservation, while Kang To’s love is, in comparison, more about Mok Dan than himself.
Also in the spirit of self-preservation, Shunji had harbored thoughts of returning to his old self and his old life, and had believed it possible, as long as Mok Dan stayed by his side.
I found it telling, that this was the desperate, illogical thought in which he sought a way to carry on.
While it showed that he did struggle with how he’d changed, again, this desperate desire to hold onto Mok Dan was about himself. It was about salvaging himself, finding a way to go back to his old self, finding a way to live with himself.
When that hope in the shape of Mok Dan ceased to exist in the world, Shunji chose to kill himself. With his last shred of hope gone by his own hand, he didn’t see any more hope for returning to his old self.
In contrast, in spite of Mok Dan’s death, Kang To continues to draw strength from their love in order to carry on.
Night and day, the way these two men loved. So very telling indeed.
Damsari & Kang To + Damsari & Shunji
One thing I admire about Damsari is that he never spoke venomously to anyone, even if the person in front of him was an enemy.
In episode 14, when Damsari answers Kang To’s question with the egg and rock metaphor, it is when he’s been soundly tortured, and Kang To is due to put him through more torture.
Despite that, Damsari’s tone is thoughtful and serene, and he looks upon Kang To as a misguided fellow countryman, instead of the Japanese dog that everyone else saw him as.
I feel that Damsari’s choice to respond in that manner to Kang To is one of the influencing factors to Kang To becoming the kind of passionate hero that he became.
At that point in time, Kang To was still trying to figure out the whole hero thing, even as he wore the mask out of duty &/or guilt &/or a desire to honor his hyung. That he would even ask Damsari this question while Damsari was in chains in the torture room says a lot about how Kang To pretty much had no one to pose these questions to.
Damsari was also the first to trust Kang To, and eventually became an almost fatherly presence in Kang To’s life. He puts his trust in Kang To into action, placing his safety and Mok Dan’s safety in Kang To’s hands, entrusting him with key roles in critical independence missions. The effect it must have had on Kang To, to have a past mortal enemy trust him like that, must have been profound.
On the other side of the pond, Damsari had a profound effect on Shunji as well.
In episode 26, after Shunji has cornered him, the parting words that Damsari says to Shunji before he takes his own life, are again wise, though spoken with defiance: “Do you think this hide-and-seek will end if you capture Yang Baek and Dong-jin, and Gaksital? In Joseon, there are countless Yang Baeks, and Dong-jins… and as many grains of sand as there are on a beach, there are Gaksitals.”
These words continue to haunt Shunji even after Damsari’s death, and eventually, they eat into Shunji so much that his inability to process and come to terms with these words, coupled with Mok Dan’s death, culminate in his decision to take his own life.
It’s fascinating to me how Damsari’s conviction and words of wisdom can have such opposite effects on Kang To and Shunji.
With Kang To, Damsari’s words become, and continue to be, a mantra and a source of strength for him to complete the turnaround from antihero to hero, and then keep walking that heroic path in the face of all odds.
With Shunji, however, Damsari’s words prove to be, well, pretty much fatal.
Again, it demonstrates how different the two men are.
Truth be told, the kind of atrocities that Shunji had engaged in, in his descent to the dark side, weren’t too much worse than the atrocities that Kang To had engaged in, in his pre-Gaksital days.
I don’t know if it could have been possible for Shunji to chart a similar journey of redemption for himself as Kang To had done, but I guess the point that we can’t argue with, is that he chose not to try.
Kang To & Rie
Rie’s relationship with Kang To is essentially a one-sided love. But more than Rie’s one-sided love for Kang To, I found their relationship interesting for the fact that they continually saved each other despite being on opposite sides of the divide.
Kang To had saved Rie when she’d been a gisaeng, and then, because of her love for Kang To, she saves him by keeping his identity as Gaksital a secret, even though she is supposed to kill him now that she has discovered the truth.
Rie also saves Kang To when she hesitates to shoot Gaksital during the rescue of the comfort women, and Kang To saves her too, by knocking her out, but not killing her.
Eventually, Kang To saves her with his empathy for her and his words that he believes she will make the right choice.
And Rie saves Kang To yet again, by defending him before Ueno and keeping his secret.
Somehow, this aspect of their relationship struck me as more meaningful, interesting and profound than the one-sided love.
I loved the candid conversation that Rie and Kang To had in episode 21, when Rie questions Kang To on why he chooses to live as Gaksital. Because Kang To has spared her in spite of everything she’s done to Mok Dan, Rie insists that Kang To must have her in his heart.
Kang To, eyes full of compassion for her, says, “You get to me.”
In essence, he sees in her his old self, when he was greedy for power and success.
Kang To continues, “Because it seemed like you saw me, who’d chased so desperately after success and power, you always weigh on my mind. Whether you’re doing this because it’s what you truly want, or perhaps it’s what your adoptive father wants, and you’re living as his puppet on a string – think it over carefully. I believe you’ll choose the right path someday.”
It almost feels like Kang To is paying forward the trust and belief that Damsari had given him even before he’d made the right choices.
Certainly, the context within which Kang To’s relationship with Rie exists is a complicated one, making their relationship and interactions equally multi-layered and complex.
At the heart of it all, though, these two manage to save each other while each finding their own path, and I found that pretty powerful.
As an aside, Kang To’s chemistry with Rie was definitely more sparky than his chemistry with Mok Dan.
I mean, take a look at this:
Such sizzling tension.
Shunji & Rie
Shunji’s relationship with Rie is quite a fascinating one that evolves throughout the course of the drama.
In the earlier episodes, the tension between them runs high as Rie repeatedly tries to tame Shunji with her Kishokai power, but Shunji seems to take pleasure in repeatedly ignoring her and even threatening her instead.
As more and more of the truth gets exposed, however, the two have surprisingly frank conversations with each other. This, despite them not actually being on the same page or the same side.
In the scene above, Rie approaches a brooding Shunji after Shunji defies Ueno and refuses to acknowledge fault in handling the Gaksital case.
Rie asks him where to get such courage, and continues to tell him how she had offered Mok Dan a way to escape with Kang To and how Mok Dan had turned her down.
Rie says, “I didn’t understand why she turned me down, but then when I saw the woman who knelt before me, I knew. That woman not only loves Lee Kang To, but Gaksital too. I loved only the ambitious Lee Kang To.”
Shunji then suddenly says, “What if in the end I can’t catch the two of them? And Yang Baek, and Dong-jin? What if… my life were to end in wasted effort?”
SO much honesty between these two, despite not even being on the same side. I found that fascinating.
I tend to think that they saw similarities in each other, and therefore gravitated towards each other as kindred spirits of sorts. They both nursed one-sided loves, he for Mok Dan and she for Kang To. And they both needed to navigate their one-sided loves while being in the fold of their said loves’ enemy camp.
It is perhaps this sense of kin that causes Shunji to spare Rie’s life even though Ueno basically serves her up as an offering.
Shunji does not kill Rie, and even tells her to leave, saying that he’ll keep her secret. He basically gives her a way out, a get-out-of-jail-free card, so that she can start her life over.
This late in the game, this is pretty much the kindest, most merciful act that we see from Shunji.
If actions speak louder than words, then Shunji’s measure of care towards Rie is, oddly, greater than his care towards Mok Dan, the woman that he professes to love.
But perhaps it isn’t quite so odd, if we look at it as his response to seeing a shadow of himself in Rie. Perhaps Shunji, in offering such an out to Rie, is hoping that he too, can receive the same.
Rie & Mok Dan
Being on opposite sides all series long, the interactions between Mok Dan and Rie are always tenuous.
Although their relationship doesn’t ever figure very largely into the show, their existence as women loving the same man from opposite sides of the divide makes for some interesting comparisons and textures, especially when layered on top of other plot points like Rie trying to get information out of Mok Dan by pretending to be a nun.
Both women risk their lives for Kang To, albeit to varying degrees, and both women take turns swallowing their pride to approach the other for Kang To’s sake. Rie, when she approaches Mok Dan with money and fake passports to escape with Kang To. And Mok Dan, when she approaches Rie to beg her to save Kang To after he’s been captured by Shunji.
In that sense, both women had a selfless type of love for Kang To even though they loved Kang To differently.
Rie & Katsuyama
Talking about selfless love, the love that Katsuyama had for Rie all series long was also of the selfless variety.
When Rie contemplates her impending death by Ueno’s hand, it is Katsuyama that finally speaks up and tries to reason with her, “Your life is in danger. What good is power?”
And when Rie gets her new lease of life upon Ueno’s death and turns to leave, Katsuyama asks to be allowed to go with her, to be by her side like a shadow.
I found it both moving and heartbreaking that even though Katsuyama knows that Rie doesn’t love him back, that he’d offer to stay by her side anyway, to ensure her safety. For life. *tears*
Rie pauses, then responds gently, “Katsuyama, looking into the eyes of someone who will never love you back is a life of despair.”
I also found Rie’s response to Katsuyama moving and selfless. She could have chosen to keep Katsuyama by her side. After all, he was more than willing, and she had no one else to rely on. For her own comfort, she could have accepted his offer.
Instead, she thinks of it from his perspective, and chooses not to allow him to live in misery while spending his life by her side.
The note on which they say good-bye is moving and so full of meaning.
Rie’s parting words to Katsuyama are, “My name… is Choi Hong Joo.”
With these words, not only is Rie finally reclaiming her Korean identity and casting off her assumed Japanese identity, she is also gifting Katsuyama with something that, while not love per se, is very personal.
Katsuyama’s words in response are just as moving, “I will never forget your name.”
What an awesome scene, and what a satisfying way to resolve the relationship between Rie and Katsuyama while respecting their individual needs and paths in life.
As a whole, this show had a lot of good stuff going for it. There was a lot of good writing, great acting, many great plot points and clever plot twists.
But I’d just like to acknowledge that it wasn’t a perfect show by any means, and some of the weaknesses were a little glaring. Here’s a quick run-down of some of them.
Some of the plot patterns got repetitive and bordered on lazy writing.
Like, the number of times Mok Dan was used as Gaksital bait. I quickly lost count. The writers often had Mok Dan in ridiculously dangerous situations – like walking around in broad daylight when her wanted posters are everywhere – so that she’d be easily captured for the next round of bait and switch. This felt like lazy writing to me. It started to feel like they put her there, so that she could get captured and tortured.
Or the number of times someone from the Independence Movement got put in the torture room. This started to have a merry-go-round sort of flavor, ie, let’s all take turns! Who hasn’t been in the torture chamber lately? And each time, the torture and interrogation methods are the same: “Who. Is. Gaksital?!!!”
Towards the last stretch, there was also a touch of repetition about the whole I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know between Shunji and Kang To. While it was mostly quite well-plotted, it got a leeettle repetitive towards the final stretch.
Suspension of Disbelief
There were also a bunch of things that required us as the audience to exercise some serious suspension of disbelief.
The biggest one being, how fast Kang To changes between his Gaksital costume and his regular togs. Especially the hair. He goes from slicked-back pouf to freshly shampooed shaggy, back to slicked-back pouf in ridiculously short periods of time. And he has convenient costume changes everywhere, all of which we never get to see the workings of. But oh well, it is based on a comic?
Another thing that required suspension of disbelief was the fact that Japanese characters in the show speak Korean to one another, even when in private. I know it’s a practical thing, since it’s a Korean drama, but it does still feel odd when I think about it, coz when several Japanese characters are alone together, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to speak in Japanese?
Overall, though, these weaknesses were small – almost minuscule! – in comparison to the good stuff that the show brought to the table. Minor quibbles in a sea of goodies.
My goodness, I freaking loved – LOVED! – the ending.
It reinforced several themes that had been surfacing throughout the show:
- That anyone can dress as Gaksital, ie, anyone can choose to be a hero, even a Japanese dog, even the Village Hothead, even the ahjumma selling vegetables.
- That you are defined by your choices, as we see primarily in Kang To and Shunji, but also in pretty much every other character in the show.
- That there is strength in solidarity, and power in numbers. With everyone dressed as Gaksital, and choosing to be a hero, their power is exponentially multiplied.
- That with that strength in numbers, the fight goes on, and the spirit of the people carries on.
- That it is worth cracking thousands of eggs against a rock, because there is hope.
I found the ending completely inspiring.
It reminds us that our hero Kang To is really just an ordinary person who rose to the occasion and chose to become a hero. And in that, aside from being the story of one man’s journey and turnaround of character, Gaksital is also the story of the everyman.
Because each of us can choose to be a hero. We are all Gaksital, if we choose to be.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Intense, awesome and inspiring. Bad. Ass.
FINAL GRADE: A+
See it to believe it; Gaksital in under 3 minutes:
Someone made this ridiculously awesome Gangnam Style Gaksital. Not very spoilery at all, so safe for those who haven’t yet watched the drama. Ridiculously good: