Review: Chuno [Slave Hunter]

THE SHORT VERDICT:

Grand. Sweeping. Lush. And jaw-droppingly magnificent.

In every way, from every aspect, Chuno is a literal feast for the senses, and a sumptuous one at that.

From the glorious cinematography, to the pulsing, evocative OST, to the (mostly) well-drawn, (mostly) well-acted characters and their stories, Chuno is a complete experience; one that engulfs you and takes over your very faculties.

Yes, it’s not perfect by any means. But boy, does it have a lot to offer.

Best consumed in large, generous, HD servings. Sink in and let this sexy beast blow you away. I mean the show, of course. Mostly. *cough*

Chuno OST – 추노

THE LONG VERDICT:

This is sorta the part where I wish I could just flail my arms about and say, “Chuno is just flat-out ah-ma-zing. See it to believe it. Just.. watch it! You’ll see.”

But, I realize that won’t do.

To be honest, it took a whole lot of convincing before I first set foot on the Chuno train, 2 years ago.

When Chuno first came out in 2010, it aired here on KBS World, and my mum watched it on our not-very-good TV. When I walked by, I caught glimpses of dusty surroundings populated by straggly-looking people and I was not at all tempted to join her. That just did not look like my kind of drama.

Sometime in 2012, I chanced on Dnoella’s wonderful, glowing (mostly non-spoilery) review, and I was intrigued. Plus, I’d seen Jang Hyuk in Tree With Deep Roots by this time, and had been duly impressed. I wanted to see more of his work, and Chuno sounded like just the ticket.

Diving in for my first watch of Chuno (in HD! There is simply No. Other. Way. to watch Chuno but in HD. Trust me, ok?), I was completely blown away. But I hated – like, really, really hated – the ending.

Fast forward to 2013, when I wrote my Jang Hyuk k-love confession, and did my best to persuade, wheedle and coerce everyone into checking out Jang Hyuk in Chuno. Ha. In the end, all that Jang Hyuk-Chuno talk made me crave an actual re-watch. So I did it. I joined my friend Michele on her first watch. And lo and behold, I fell for Chuno all over again. Maybe even more this time, coz this time, I even appreciate the ending. (Woah, is that even possible, you might ask? Stay tuned to find out!)

CINEMATOGRAPHY

The cinematography in Chuno is nothing short of spectacular.

Thanks to that amazing Red One camera, thoughtful framing, excellent editing, and a PD with a lovingly detailed eye for beauty, everything and everyone looks stunningly gorgeous.

The color palette is intense, and combined with every frame’s crisp, clean, cinematic quality, we are immediately and completely immersed in a world that is so beautiful that it feels surreal.

The effect is utterly and thoroughly spell-binding.

Just take a look at these:

The panoramic splendor is pretty breathtaking, isn’t it?

Add to that the very deliberate use of slow-motion, and the grandeur just gets magnified.

Here, we see how slow-motion is used to bring out the beauty in movement; in this case, of water:

Slow-motion is also artfully combined with the use of fast-motion, particularly in fight scenes.

The slow-motion allows us to revel in the fluidity of the movement and the impressiveness of the form, and then towards the end of the motion, the frames speed up to magnify the moment of impact. It’s quite stunning to behold.

Here’s a peek:

It’s mesmerizing. Honestly, it gives new meaning to the phrase “poetry in motion.”

Sure, the cinematography does lean a little indulgent – ok, sometimes maybe a lot indulgent – with it seeming to sometimes revel in its own beauty to an excess. It’s all so captivatingly, painfully beautiful, though, that I am more than happy to simply indulge together with the show’s makers.

One thing to keep in mind, is that the cinematography is stylized, and quite majorly so. And sometimes, this translates into aesthetic choices which don’t make complete sense. For example, our female lead character Eonnyeon (Lee Da Hae) remains completely clean throughout the show, despite spending much of the time in dusty, dirty surroundings.

Certainly, I’m sure PD Kwak was well aware that no human being could possibly keep that clean while traversing such dusty locales without opportunities to change or wash. But I saw it as a stylistic choice, to bring out the ethereal nature of the character’s beauty. Once you accept these aesthetic choices as simply a stylistic statement, they become much easier to accept.

[SPOILER ALERT]

In episode 6, Eonnyeon’s garments get splattered with blood from being in close proximity to a fight, and her companion, Song Tae Ha (Oh Ji Ho) uses charcoal to draw branches between the blood splatters, turning her garment into a stylish, pretty dress.

Logically, this is a huge stretch, coz really, blood doesn’t look that pretty, and neither is it that color on fabric. Plus, the blood splatters are distributed oh-so-conveniently such that they form pretty blossoms, not only at the base of her hanbok, but down her right sleeve too. 

Ridiculous? Well, put that way, it’s kinda hard to say it isn’t. I’d venture to say, though, that if one chooses to nitpick at these little details, that it just mars the enjoyment of the artistry employed in the design of this world.

I’d say the easier, more comforting choice, is to accept it as part of the fantasy built into the creative blueprint of the show.

[END SPOILER]

ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK

The music in Chuno is beautifully scored and masterfully employed.

In the intense stretches of the show, pulsing, rhythmic themes swell to dizzying crescendos to magnify the potency of the moment. And in the quieter scenes, evocative instrumentals give poignant voice to the unspoken pathos of our characters.

It is gorgeously absorbing and completely immersive. And the music never feels muted, nor does it ever feel intrusive. It is a bona fide presence in the show, on equal footing with the outstanding cinematography.

The music and the cinematography fuse together as one powerful force, to entirely engulf you and take over your senses.

I’ll be sharing a number of the OST tracks in this review, but I will say that there is nothing quite like experiencing the OST while watching the show.

CHARACTERS

Over and above the excellent music and cinematography, it is the characters that make Chuno an absorbing watch. There are so many characters, though, that it is impossible to touch on them all in this review.

Besides our major characters, I will highlight several secondary characters that left a deep impression on me.

Jang Hyuk as Lee Dae Gil

Hands-down, Jang Hyuk’s Dae Gil is the heart of the show. And boy, does that heart throb well, hur hur. Pun totally and unabashedly intended.

Those of you who have read my Jang Hyuk k-love confession post know that I was completely mesmerized by this man onscreen during my Chuno watch.

Jang Hyuk makes Dae Gil completely believable as the Badass With Heart. In fact, Jang Hyuk becomes Dae Gil, so much so that I am never tempted to think that this is Jang Hyuk in character. Instead, I am always fully on board that this is Dae Gil. And what a wonderfully layered and textured character he is.

Dae Gil is macho, swaggery, smirky, and possesses a piercing, unrelenting panther-gaze that seems to completely see through people. Not only that, he’s a fabulously skilled fighter (thanks to Jang Hyuk’s super authentic Amazing Fight Skillz) and he fights with ease and flourish, taking down his opponents with laid-back, effortless, streetwise finesse.

One of the things I really enjoy about Dae Gil is how unhurried he is, even when chasing someone. Even the way he stands is languid. Or just the way he breathes. Dae Gil often doesn’t say much, so his eyes, expression and body language say it for him. And when he does speak, it’s in a slow, often sardonic drawl.

To add to the sexy, Dae Gil’s also smart. Not only extremely street-smart, but highly educated too, since he is of noble birth.

Put it all together, and Dae Gil is one potently sexy package that Jang Hyuk brings to life with an impressive amount of nuance.

Over the course of the show, Dae Gil encounters all manner of challenges, obstacles and heartache, charting a journey of realization and – dare I say it? – growth as well.

Before we move into spoilers, let me just share a couple of screenshots with ya.

Exhibit A: Dae Gil’s Piercing Panther Gaze

Exhibits B through F: Dae Gil’s Fantastic Fighting Form:

Pretty darn awesome. Especially when you realize that being this shirtless, it’s quite impossible to use a body double. Super Authentic Amazing Fight Skillz FTW! 😉

And as a fangirl aside: Swooonn~~ All that muscle and sinew, shown off to such glorious, delicious perfection. Thank you, wardrobe people. I owe you. We all owe you.

[SPOILER ALERT]

There is a scene in Episode 10 where I am completely blown away by Jang Hyuk’s nuanced delivery.

Dae Gil is walking with Seolhwa (Kim Ha Eun) and he is too lost in his own thoughts to pay any attention to her prattling. As he walks, he sees a vision of Eonnyeon before him.

What amazes me about this scene is how Dae Gil’s eyes change throughout those few short moments. His irises literally change in size as his gaze goes from empty, to focused, and then to empty again.

It’s going to take quite a few screenshots to walk us through it, but it’s worth seeing the transformation.

This is where we start, where Dae Gil’s gaze is completely dazed and stoned:

And then, as he spies the vision of Eonnyeon before him, his eyes shift into focus in degrees:

He stares at her, stunned with amazed wonder. And then as the vision begins to turn away from him, tears well up in his eyes:

As the vision begins to walk away from him, Dae Gil reaches for her, tears falling, his eyes straining to see her, fearful that she will disappear:

The vision gone, Dae Gil’s gaze goes vacant once again, this time defeated and deflated:

Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Respect.

Together with Jang Hyuk’s full-on delivery, I really appreciated Dae Gil as a character.

On the surface, he’s steely and unflinching, hunting down slaves in a precise, analytical manner, paying no heed to their cries for mercy. Yet, when the transaction has been completed and he’s been paid, Dae Gil stealthily frees the same slaves he’d captured, and gives them money, directing them to Mt Worak to start a new life.

Dae Gil’s compassion also shows in episode 7, where he demonstrates tolerance and empathy for Seolhwa, who’s squandered all their money, thinking that Dae Gil and the boys had abandoned her. Instead of reprimanding her, Dae Gil carries the drunk Seolhwa on his back, without a word.

And despite all his posturing with Cheon Ji Ho (Song Dong Il), Dae Gil’s fondness for him totally shows in episode 18, when Dae Gil cries over Cheon Ji Ho’s body.

That’s why he’s a Badass With Heart.

On a deeper level, I really appreciated Dae Gil’s journey of growth and realization through the course of the drama.

As a young nobleman, we learn that Dae Gil had dreamed of changing the world, so that he could live with Eonnyeon, the woman he loved. When circumstances separated him from Eonnyeon, he put that dream aside, replacing it with the hope of finding her. Through most of the first half of the show, Dae Gil operates on the hope of finding Eonnyeon again, and approaches every slave hunt fueled with that dogged, determined hope.

Once he realizes that Eonnyeon has married Tae Ha, though, Dae Gil is like a dead man walking through most of the second half. Gone is the hope from his eyes. Only a deadness colors the cynicism where before at least there had been shades of hope. To add to it all, Dae Gil has to also contend with the “loss” of the only family that he has left: General Choi (Han Jung Soo) and Wang Son (Kim Ji Suk).

Dae Gil deflates for a time, spouting cynical words at every turn, but eventually, he returns full circle to his original dream of changing the world. Except this time, he goes one level higher and wages his very life on it. (More on that later)

Superficial Asides

As a superficial aside, I was rather impressed to realize that the flashback scenes of Dae Gil show him fuller in the face, without the goatee, and much fairer in complexion than present-day Dae Gil. I thought that attention to detail was really admirable.

I know makeup and styling does a lot, but that can’t be all simulated, right? It made me wonder whether they deliberately shot these flashback scenes earlier, so that Jang Hyuk had time to go lean and grow the goatee for current-day scenes. Mad props indeed.

I was also rather tickled to realize that in the later episodes, the way Dae Gil is styled reminds me of Jack Sparrow, ha.

[END SPOILER]

Oh Ji Ho as Song Tae Ha

Most viewers of Chuno get firmly on board either the Dae Gil ship or the Tae Ha one, and when you’re on one ship, you care a lot less about the other one. Um. No prizes for guessing that I’m firmly on the Dae Gil ship. What can I say? The heart wants what it wants. Heh.

Oh Ji Ho as an actor has never left a very deep impression on me. I’ve seen him in Get Karl, Oh Soo Jung and Queen of Housewives, and in both shows, I thought he was nice to look at, but his delivery wasn’t anything to shout about.

I will say, though, that Oh Ji Ho as Song Tae Ha is literally the best that I’ve seen from him, to date. Granted, his sageuk speech is reportedly really poor in Chuno, but it didn’t bother me too much because to my unschooled ears, he only sounded somewhat off, instead of majorly off.

To his credit, Oh Ji Ho delivers some great scenes in Chuno, and he clearly had to dig pretty deep to do it. Yes, he does appear rather wooden at times, but the woodenness is in line with his character’s straight-laced personality, so it works.

As a character, Tae Ha stays pretty square to the very end. But there is definitely a measure of growth, in that his deeply ingrained traditionalist views do get challenged and shaped along the way.

[SPOILER ALERT]

One of the scenes where I thought Oh Ji Ho did admirably well is in episode 4, where we see Tae Ha in flashback.

It’s during the Manchu war, and he returns to his home to find that his wife’s been killed by Qing attackers. He discovers that his infant son is still alive, and cradling the baby, he fights off invader after invader.

After he’s finally taken down the last attacker, he peels away the baby’s swaddling clothes, only to find that the child is dead.

In a matter of moments, Tae Ha’s expression morphs from relief,

to shock,

to disbelief,

to realization,

to grief,

to remorse,

to deep, utter anguish.

It’s an arresting scene, and Oh Ji Ho’s deep-reaching delivery brought tears to my eyes.  Well-done indeed.

Another scene where I also sat up and took notice of Oh Ji Ho’s acting chops is when Tae Ha is in the torture chamber in episode 17.

Before the torture commences, he speaks with an air of fierce resolve:

And then, he valiantly bears with the searing pain as the red-hot iron meets his flesh:

And finally, he roars and gasps in pain:

Chills. And, shudder. He made the torture feel all too real.

This torture chamber scene also shows Tae Ha’s by-the-book, straight-laced character. While nearby, streetsmart Dae Gil feigns unconsciousness in order to bide his time, Tae Ha practically goads Commander Hwang (Lee Jong Hyuk) to put the hot iron on him.

Tae Ha’s growth as a character is relatively slow over the course of the show, but it rings true, because that is how deeply ingrained Tae Ha’s traditionalist views are.

Tellingly, Tae Ha struggles for a long time, over many episodes, when he realizes that his wife Hye Won was born as Eonnyeon the slave. His denial is so strong that he literally only seems to realize the truth of that fact when Dae Gil spells it out for him in episode 16. And even then, Tae Ha refuses to accept it.

In fact, so strong are those traditionalist beliefs, that Tae Ha gets tripped up by them more than once. In episode 17, when Dae Gil is concerned about Eonnyeon’s safety and therefore wishes to talk, all Tae Ha can do is nitpick the fact that her name is Hye Won, not Eonnyeon. At this point, I was like, Seriously? Don’t you care about the fact that the woman you profess to love is in imminent danger because she is carrying the Royal Successor? Stupid man.

But that is how principled and stiff Tae Ha is, and when he finally comes around, even the small shifts feel authentic and organic, because he’s taken time to grapple with his beliefs.

As stiff as Tae Ha is, his loyalty is equally deep-seated. I find it revealing, that it is only in the later episodes, upon the realization that his men were slain by Commander Hwang, that he finally is incited enough to denounce Commander Hwang as his compeer. This, despite the multiple personal betrayals that he had suffered at Commander Hwang’s hands, even to the extent of being stripped of his military title and being (literally) branded a slave.

That says a lot, about the kind of upright and loyal character Tae Ha is.

[END SPOILER]

Chuno OST – 달에 지다

Lee Da Hae as Eonnyeon

Lee Da Hae as Eonnyeon is beautiful, there’s no doubt about it. Eonnyeon’s beauty is of the ethereal, luminescent, incandescent variety, and Lee Da Hae fulfilled the quota for gentle radiance very well.

While Lee Da Hae’s delivery is decent overall, I have to say that it does lean on the bland side.

Eonnyeon is graceful and elegant, and I suppose that is why Lee Da Hae imbues all of Eonnyeon’s expressions and gestures with a restrained, muted kind of demureness. While that’s all well and good, it really did get boring, after a while.

I guess what I would have preferred, is for Lee Da Hae to have dug deeper to give Eonnyeon more facets, textures and depth. Given the extreme range of circumstances and related emotions that Eonnyeon faces over the course of the show, there were ample opportunities for Lee Da Hae to show us more substance in her delivery. It’s disappointing that Eonnyeon remains rather two-dimensional despite the potential inherent in the role.

Before we get into spoilers, I thought I’d share a couple of Eonnyeon screenshots with ya. If the screenshot above is of Eonnyeon gently contemplative, then here is:

Eonnyeon, gently happy:

Eonnyeon, gently sad:

And Eonnyeon, gently shocked:

Sorry, couldn’t resist, heh. But see what I mean about muted and restrained?

[SPOILER ALERT]

In some ways, I found Eonnyeon unusually progressive for someone of her background. Like daring to love her young master, and having the audacity to feel disappointed that Dae Gil doesn’t tell his father about her when his father questions him about marriage (above).

Having been born into slavery, Eonnyeon would have grown up with the deeply ingrained notion that a slave has no hope of marrying her young master.

She would have also grown up with the notion that a slave does not refuse his/her master. So I found it interesting, and to some extent, a little jarring, when she refuses Dae Gil’s advances in episode 8.

As Dae Gil leans in to kiss her, Eonnyeon pulls away, saying, “In my childhood, when I knew nothing of this world, I thought of you as just a compeer of mine. It was only when I grew into adulthood… that I found out what coming from different classes truly meant. If you see me as someone to frivol with… I would never dare to refute that, however… I would prefer if you didn’t.”

Gracious words, to be sure. But coming from Eonnyeon, an uneducated slave-girl, it feels sufficiently discordant and odd to be distracting.

To the show’s credit, it does hang a lantern on this very thing. In episode 20, Seolhwa, on seeing Eonnyeon for the first time, remarks, “How can a slave be so elegant?!” Ha. Exactly.

On a more positive note, I appreciated that Eonnyeon shows flashes of strength, in spite of her generally bland and weak disposition. Like in episode 13, when she’s told to leave Tae Ha by the leading scholar of the conspiracy Jo Seonbi (Choi Duk Moon), she outright refuses, despite the pressure that he exerts on her.

I also liked that Eonnyeon shows some street smarts, evidenced in episode 17 in how she manages to get food and lodging for herself and the Royal Successor (Kim Jin Woo) by hinting that her husband is an officer of the court. And then later, she finds a way past the guards by pretending that she and the child are sick with something dangerously contagious.

On the romantic front, Eonnyeon spends much of the show being stuck between the promises she’s made to 2 men. On the one hand, there is Tae Ha, whom she has married. And on the other, there is Dae Gil, her One True Love come back to life.

I’ll spend more time looking at each of those relationships in a bit, but let me just say that by the end of the show, I think she does genuinely love both men, just in different ways.

[END SPOILER]

Han Jung Soo as General Choi

Han Jung Soo is ABSolutely pitch perfect as the ABtastic, stoic General Choi. Giggle. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

General Choi is a strong, silent, gentle giant who’s plenty badass in his own right, and I love how he’s the voice of reason in our favorite slave-hunting trio.

I am particularly tickled by the running gag through the show, that he draws all the women’s attentions and affections. Can’t quite blame the ladies, though, can we?

[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]

I found it amusing that the Jumos both lust and pine after General Choi, each squirreling treats of extra food to him on the sly, while beside him, Wang Son grins and Dae Gil smirks.

At the same time, on the other side of the fence, the painter and horse doctor lust and pine after the Jumos. Oh what a tangled web we weave!

This side arc definitely brought a delightful side of comic relief. And General Choi, squirming uncomfortably from all the attention? It never gets old.

To give credit where credit’s due, here’s some badass General Choi for ya:

In episode 3 I love that he kicks ass using a handful of bush, when he’s separated from his spear:

And more general badassery:

[END MINOR SPOILER]

Kim Ji Suk as Wang Son

Kim Ji Suk is completely adorkable as Wang Son, the flighty, grumbly, lusty maknae of our slave hunter trio.

[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]

As the maknae, Wang Son keeps having to do all the cooking and laundry, and it’s a running gag that he complains and nags about it like there’s no tomorrow:

It’s doubly funny that it is the boy who cooks and cleans and who has the least swag among them, that is the one who gets up to the most flirtatious mischief, always bedding the ladies:

And therefore often gets soundly disciplined by Dae Gil and General Choi:

While Wang Son definitely brings the laughs, like he does here:

I found it genuinely sweet that whenever he’s worried that Dae Gil is hurt, he’ll bawl like a baby:

Aw. He’s a loud handful, but he’s caring at heart.

[END MINOR SPOILER]

Kim Ha Eun as Seolhwa

Kim Ha Eun is wonderful as Seolhwa. Literally a breath of fresh mountain air, Seolhwa is sassy, impulsive and genuinely likable.

Seolhwa feels honest and unaffected as a character, and Kim Ha Eun imparts sufficient layers to Seolhwa, that underneath her bravado and sass, we can see Seolhwa’s borne many emotional wounds and scars in her young life.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Sassy and wise to men’s lusty hearts, Seolhwa doesn’t hesitate to use her wiles to get her way.

I love the running gag where she basically wraps Wang Son around her little finger, artfully getting her way while coquettishly hinting at (non-existent) rewards of the bedroom variety.

At heart, though, all Seolhwa wants is to feel like she belongs, and her saddest moments are always when she feels that she’s been abandoned:

I love, though, that no matter how hard it is, Seolhwa chooses to smile in the face of it all, even if it’s with tears in her eyes:

Gotta love such a gutsy girl.

[END SPOILER]

Lee Jong Hyuk as Commander Hwang

Considering that Commander Hwang is a fairly significant, albeit secondary, character, I felt that he was written a little flat.

Or perhaps, it was that Lee Jong Hyuk delivered him as too much of a cipher?

Lee Jong Hyuk made Commander Hwang badass by the boatload, which I appreciated and thought very apt for the character. At the same time, there were key points in the story where I found a lack of expression (for lack of a better word), with regard to his thought processes and decision-making. I can’t decide if this was a directorial or acting issue, but there were certainly moments in the show when I wondered exactly what he was thinking.

[SPOILER ALERT]

For most of the show, we see and experience Commander Hwang as a lean, mean, evil killing machine. He doesn’t hesitate to snuff out lives with a brandish of his sword, even if it’s of his past compatriots. Plus, for most of the show, he’s hunting down an adorable 4-year-old child. To kill him.

His doggedness and tenacity are almost machine-like, and his impassiveness make him inscrutable. It was easy to dislike him, since he was, y’know, trying to kill everyone.

Among Commander Hwang’s scenes, the moments that I appreciated the most, are the scenes that Commander Hwang shares with his mother (Kim Young Ok). It is only with his mother that we get to see flashes of gentleness from him, and hints that deep down, he’s not as evil as he appears to be.

I’ll talk more later, about Commander Hwang’s sudden turnaround at the end of our story.

[END SPOILER]

Min Ji Ah as Chobok

I really enjoyed Min Ji Ah as Chobok. She made Chobok refreshingly spunky, spirited and earthy.

I loved that Chobok is faster and smarter than the men, and has a disarmingly natural and unaffected smile. Sure, it’s unrealistic that a slave has such beautiful teeth, but well, it’s a drama. Heck, if Eonnyeon gets to stay clean throughout the show, Chobok gets to have pretty teeth.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Chobok listens in on the men as they plan their rebellion, and worms her way into the faction, insisting that she wants to be involved, while offering to act as their look-out and decoy.

It’s to her credit that she saves the men several times over the course of the show. And they hadn’t even wanted her around to begin with. Pfft.

I love that Chobok even teaches herself how to shoot a gun by cheerily eavesdropping on the men’s shooting lessons. That the men all fail miserably, while she manages to hit the target on her first try? Gold.

I enjoyed her the most, out of the entire rebel slave faction arc.

[END SPOILER]

Gong Hyung Jin as Eopbok

Eopbok is one of the major players in the rebel slave faction, and it is through his eyes that we see the brutality of slavery. It is also often through his thoughts and his voice that we grapple with the foundational morals – or lack thereof – in slavery.

While he isn’t one of my favorite characters, he does have several particularly memorable scenes, and Gong Hyung Jin delivered excellently. (More on that later)

[SPOILER ALERT]

It’s interesting to me, that among all the characters, Eopbok is the only one who shares Dae Gil’s dream. Or rather, I should say, Eopbok is the only one whose dream aligns with Dae Gil’s. Since through most of the show, Eopbok is intent on killing Dae Gil and all.

In episode 23, Eopbok muses, “If we [the slaves] triumph, and then force yangban into slavery, then nothing would really change.” … “Can we gain that power but still leave the yangban alone? By… What was it… Changing the system?”

Such irony, that the one man who echoes Dae Gil’s dream, is trying to blow Dae Gil’s brains out.

[END SPOILER]

Ha Si Eun as Lee Sun Young (Commander Hwang’s wife)

Mad props to Ha Si Eun, who played such a minor character so well that she not only brought Commander Hwang’s wife to life, but also brought tears to my eyes.

It must be no easy task, playing a character with palsy, but Ha Si Eun manages to imbue the incessant twitching of her body and distortion of her face with genuine emotion. We see clearly, her worry and fear for her husband, her frustration with her condition, as well as her despair at her one-sided love for her husband.

Wonderfully, tragically played.

Park Ki Woong as Geu Boon

Um. I don’t know how to talk about Park Ki Woong’s turn as Geu Boon without going into spoiler territory.

Without going into specifics, let me just say that his character felt a little random when he showed up, and his character arc also felt rather forced. I have seen Park Ki Woong do much better.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Ok, so the insertion of Geu Boon’s character felt a little random and forced, but I can believe Left State Councilor (Kim Eung Soo) would go that far, to plant someone to mislead the slaves and use them. It’s Geu Boon’s complete turnaround at the last stretch, with the manic evil eyes and sinister laughter that feels discordant, sudden and bemusing. It just makes Geu Boon the character feel more like a caricature than a real person. Maybe we should have been given hints earlier?

Also, Park Ki Woong’s delivery is sometimes majorly OTT, especially the villainous expressions. It’s like, “This Is My Evil Face. Bwahahaha.” It takes me out of the moment and makes me almost want to laugh. Except it’s so bad that it’s not funny.

Not one of Park Ki Woong’s finest moments, unfortunately. Guess he did get better at the Evil Face, though, since he did WAY better in Gaksital.

[END SPOILER]

Chuno OST – 낙인

RELATIONSHIPS

Forget plot machinations, it’s the relationships that form the core of the show. Over and above romance – although there is some of that – it’s bromance and brotherhood that trumps the day in Chuno.

Dae Gil, General Choi & Wang Son

The bromance between our slave hunting trio is Pure. Gold. I LUFF THESE BOYS TOGETHER. ♥

On the surface, Dae Gil, General Choi and Wang Son are completely different personalities. Dae Gil’s all swaggering, streetwise and smirky, while General Choi is strong, silent and stoic. And Wang Son’s all monkey and mischief.

Their dynamic works wonderfully, though, and beneath all the machismo and aggravated affection, these boys are family.

Waitaminute. I just had a stroke of brilliance. Taking the family analogy one step further, can you see that Dae Gil’s the father, all leader and decision-maker of the family? And then, General Choi is the mother, all voice of reason and quiet nagging. Wang Son? He’s their bratty son, ha. He whines all the time about chores, and gets into all kinds of mischief, which gets him soundly disciplined by both “parents” – HA! HAHAHA!! Can you tell that I’m extremely tickled by this?

Bottom line is, I LUFF THESE BOYS TOGETHER (oh, have I said that already?), and I would watch them scuffle and swagger and banter together, for a hundred episodes. And then some.

[SPOILER ALERT]

There are so many moments where this rag-tag family tugged at my heartstrings.

In episode 12, during a quiet moment, General Choi senses that Dae Gil is troubled and asks, “I shouldn’t really say this, but aren’t we family? If anything is troubling you, just lean onto us.” Dae Gil scoffs, “Family?! Who, familiar scoundrels like us? We’re just tagging along the same path.”

But a touch of a wry smile plays about Dae Gil’s lips, hinting at the truth, that he does love them as family, even if he won’t say so.

A telling moment is in episode 14, in the way General Choi and Dae Gil desperately and relentlessly go after a missing Wang Son. It says so much about how much these men really care for each other, underneath the tough words and gruff exterior.

Among the three, Dae Gil is the one who is most gruff in his affections, refusing to admit that he loves General Choi and Wang Son. But in episode 16, we see how deeply he loves them, in how heartbroken he is, thinking them dead.

Dae Gil gets Jumo to set a table for three, and sitting at it all alone, he puts Wang Son’s arm band and General Choi’s headpiece on the other 2 bowls of rice, ie, acting as offerings to the “deceased” Wang Son and General Choi, as well as to represent their presence.

Dae Gil begins to eat, in what is quite possibly the most anguished egg-eating scene in the history of kdrama:

As he eats, he imagines General Choi and Wang Son eating with him, with their usual cheerful banter. Dae Gil speaks to them and offers them food, while tears stream down his face. So. Heartbreaking.

Tears. T.T

Poor Dae Gil.

To balance out this terribly heartbreaking moment, let’s revisit the most heartwarming moment between the three.

In episode 20, the three are finally reunited when Dae Gil arrives at Mt Worak. Hearing that Dae Gil has arrived, General Choi and Wang Son come racing.

Upon seeing them, Dae Gil is stunned, and touches General Choi on the cheek to test if he’s not a vision, while Wang Son sidles up to Dae Gil with a happy grin:

Dae Gil starts to yell at Wang Son for being such a dumbass and nearly getting himself killed, and amid the teary yelling, General Choi quietly grabs Dae Gil for a hug, saying simply, “I missed you.” AWWW.

Dae Gil’s tears finally overflow, and then, group hug! AWWW.

How cute. And how very, very sweet. Melt.

Although Dae Gil doesn’t say it, he loves these boys even more than he loves himself. We see this in episode 24 when General Choi and Wang Son realize that Dae Gil’s paid for land and houses for them. And it is only Dae Gil’s house that remains unpaid. His brothers came first, for him. That is so sweet.

I JUST LUFF THESE BOYS TOGETHER. ♥

[END SPOILER]

Dae Gil & Tae Ha

Song Tae Ha is the flint to Dae Gil’s steel, and the two spark off each other all drama long.

It’s a reluctant bromance, alright, seeing as how they’re not only as different as night and day, but that they’re mostly standing on opposite sides, and exchange blows almost every time they cross paths.

Much as they resent each other, though, these two shape each other, and in pretty powerful ways. Yes, we sometimes have to get through a whole lotta male posturing with these two, particularly since they love the same woman. But when all the blows have been delivered, these two reluctantly have deep, philosophical conversations. Conversations that end up shaping both men, pretty much against their will.

I love that these two head-strong characters, each so set in their thinking and their ways, affect each other in such a profound manner.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Dae Gil’s and Tae Ha’s interactions show us a lot about each of the men, in terms of their philosophies and outlooks on life and the world they live in, and I actually found that more interesting than the question of who would end up with Eonnyeon.

A revealing conversation between Dae Gil and Tae Ha takes place in episode 16, after they’ve finally stopped fighting and Dae Gil has gained the upper hand.

Tae Ha asks, “When you said she was one of your clan’s varlets, what did you mean?” and Dae Gil shoots back, “Why, is my having a past as a yangban all that vexatious?”

Disbelievingly, Tae Ha asks again, “Was my spouse… truly a slave?” Sardonically, Dae Gil replies, “And so what? Slave or yangban, what difference would it make? If you have feelings for each other, that is all it matters.”

Tae Ha counters, “Be that as it may… People’s roots are unalterable.”

But it is Dae Gil who has the last word, stating simply, “It’s because people like you are in power that we live in such a wretched world. If people like you didn’t exist, then there would be no need for people like me, either.”

I found this moment of honesty fascinating because it shows us so much about these two men.

Usually, Dae Gil is the one spouting hard-nosed stuff like “I had no feelings for a mere slave” etc, and Tae Ha is the one who’s portrayed as nice and noble. But when it comes down to a moment of honesty, we see that they actually feel quite differently.

Tae Ha’s the one who’s got caste ingrained in him, and who struggles – deeply – with the fact that Eonnyeon used to be a slave. Although Tae Ha himself experienced slavery, he doesn’t see himself as a real slave, because he didn’t come from a slave background. And he struggles with the fact that Eonnyeon came from a slave background, not seeing her as true nobility. Quite fascinating, considering how nice he’s been portrayed up till this point.

On the other hand, Dae Gil’s the one who is truly able to put his actions where his mouth is. He believes it so strongly, that he would act on it, and without hesitation.

What a contrast, these 2 men. And on multiple levels too. Notably, they are both educated as well, so it’s not a difference in education that accounts for their very different outlooks.

Another moment of honesty between the two men occurs in episode 22, as they rest in the darkness.

Tae Ha muses, “While spending my lifetime on the battlefield, I only had one thing in mind. That, should the battle be too much to handle, I would just die. That I would have given my everything, so there would be no regrets. But now, no matter how hard it is,  I must survive, so that path is much more arduous than accepting demise.”

Dae Gil answers with a touch of wistfulness, “You know, no matter how noble your intents are, people struggle by the same rules. Once misery engulfs you, your life can only get worse. So just take it as it comes. Abandon all greed and let it go. How nice it would be? Having a spouse and children, a land to farm… That’s all you need. A life of simplicity is a wise man’s greatest virtue. Warm and simple…”

Tae Ha then asks, “Back in the day, did you not wish to change the world yourself? To make a world without yangban or commoners? Did you not dream of making a world where… you could spend your entire life in peace with the woman you love?”

Dae Gil’s eyes deaden again as he answers, “Before I experienced reality… Back then, I did.”

Many of their conversations don’t have the sort of closure where one party agrees with the other, but watching them speak, you can just tell that each is giving the other substantial food for thought. And it is in the wake of these conversations that each grapples with his own philosophy and outlook on life and the meaning of it.

Another thought-provoking moment in conversation is in episode 23, when Dae Gil and Tae Ha bide their time at the inn.

At one point, Tae Ha says to Dae Gil, “Are you not of yangban ancestry yourself?”

Dae Gil replies, “There was such a time in the past. But, you know? Once you start wearing the same things and eating like they do, you become just like them. What makes a yangban is not his genealogy, but these [points at his clothes] and nothing else. I have never seen someone with fancy garments endure adversities, nor have I seen anyone in rags leading a happy life. That is the truth behind our lives.”

It’s clear that Dae Gil is a much more practical man than Tae Ha, in that he forms his thoughts and philosophies based on what he experiences, while Tae Ha clings to a fixed set of philosophies.

And I’m positive that these words from Dae Gil give Tae Ha much pause for thought, in terms of shifting his mindset to become finally fully able to accept and embrace his wife for who she is.

I particularly like the final conversation that Dae Gil and Tae Ha share in episode 24, after having been on the road for some time.

At one point, Tae Ha says to Dae Gil, “I feel sorry towards you. But is not chance part of our destiny as well?”

On the surface, it looks like Tae Ha is apologizing for taking Dae Gil on the run with him, but on a deeper level, I feel like it’s also a gentleman’s apology, for having unwittingly taken Eonnyeon away from him.

In another nice moment, Tae Ha finally acknowledges the value of Dae Gil’s street smarts, as Dae Gil rattles off all the details and factors relating to their journey.

Looking thoughtfully at Dae Gil, Tae Ha remarks, “I see you discount no detail whatsoever. I’ve learned a lot from you.”

I love that Dae Gil playfully smirks in reply, “Of course. You should get on your knees and be grateful. For all the things I taught you…” Hee.

What a long, long way these two have come. It’s taken quite a journey, but they’ve effectively moved from mutual disdain, to mutual respect. With a little bit of ribbing on the side.

Full Circle in the Open Fields

There’s a recurring motif that I really love, because it shows us how far Dae Gil and Tae Ha have come, in their relationship with one another, and that’s the motif of them fighting in open fields.

When the two men first meet, they are on opposite sides; the hunter and the hunted. Dae Gil sees Tae Ha simply as another job, while Tae He sees Dae Gil as an attacker he must fight off.

They face off, leaping headlong into each other, weapons raised:

By episode 22, the two men have arrived at a reluctant place of partnership and alliance.

There’s a great throwback moment, after they’ve fought off Commander Hwang’s men together, and Dae Gil and Tae Ha run towards each other with fists raised, as if to each other, and in slo-mo too, to show us the determination in their eyes.

Except their fists are really aimed at the other’s pursuer, whom we don’t see until each of their fists makes contact with the other’s pursuer. After they take down the other’s pursuer, Dae Gil and Tae Ha stand facing each other, smiling.

I loved how this moment is so reminiscent of their first face-off in the open field, yet so very different.

Finally, to bring us full circle, there’s a great moment in episode 24, where Dae Gil and Tae Ha run in the open fields, but this time, instead of facing off with each other as they did when they first met, they are running together, on the same side.

I love the little detail, that as they run, they each have a look of exhilaration on their faces.

Sure, Dae Gil mutters insults at Tae Ha all series long, even to the very end, but it’s clear that they work well together and they know it.

It’s completely gratifying to see the change in their relationship over the course of the show; from being a thorn in each other’s sides, to becoming reluctant partners.

Romance was never the main event in this show. Bromance was.

[END SPOILER]

Chuno OST – 비익련리(比翼連里)

Dae Gil & Eonnyeon

Truth be told, Dae Gil’s romance with Eonnyeon was never the focus of the show.

Because of our familiarity with kdrama romance tropes, we might tend to think of Dae Gil and Eonnyeon as our OTP. After all, we meet him first, before we meet anyone else, really, and we quickly see that beyond his badassery lies a heart that still beats for and yearns for Eonnyeon, his First Love. All classic symptoms of a couple that is Meant To Be.

But really, that’s just not how Chuno rolls.

Instead of being the central event, Dae Gil’s romance with Eonnyeon plays more of a expository role, because it is through this relationship and how it affects Dae Gil, that we get to see the inner workings of Dae Gil’s heart and mind.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Perhaps one of the most important things that Dae Gil’s relationship with Eonnyeon shows us, is Dae Gil’s outlook on slavery and equality.

In episode 8, Dae Gil, carrying Eonnyeon on his back, smiles as he shares his plan with her, “…I’ll have to pass the national examination.” Eonnyeon, smiling playfully, asks, “And after that?”

Dae Gil answers, “I’ll gain an important position in the court.” And Eonnyun presses, “And when you do?”

Dreamily, Dae Gil adds, “I’ll change this country.” Puzzled, Eonnyun asks, “How?”

Dae Gil concludes smilingly, “By making a world which doesn’t discriminate between yangban and commoners. So… you and I can live together. Forever.”

Precisely because Dae Gil is shown having an actual relationship with Eonnyeon, and seriously planning to actually do these things that he talks of, shows us plainly that this is something that he truly believes. That he’s willing to take action to support those beliefs. That it’s not just talk.

I find this point really important, in terms of distinguishing the differences between Tae Ha and Dae Gil like we talked about earlier, ie, at which point can each of these men love and accept Eonnyeon and her slave girl origins. For Dae Gil, this was never a question. He loved her from the very beginning, slave girl origins and all.

All series long, Dae Gil is doggedly focused on finding Eonnyeon again. I feel like after Dae Gil’s yangban stature disintegrates in the fire, together with his family, and all that was familiar to him, that he focuses his entire existence on the hope of finding Eonnyeon again. It’s likely that this is why he chose to be a slave hunter in the first place.

So when Dae Gil discovers that she is marrying Tae Ha, his whole world comes crumbling down, all over again. Once again, he’s forced to re-examine his driving purpose in life.

As Dae Gil breaks down wailing in the streets, and his tortured sobs shudder through his body, we can practically taste his agony. Thoroughly heartbreaking.

So great is Dae Gil’s love for Eonnyeon, though, that he does not stop loving her even though she is married to another man.

He continues to care for and ensure her safety, going out of his way to save her, like he does here when she’s dragged before a magistrate and questioned:

To be fair, Eonnyeon still feels a deep connection to Dae Gil too, and we see this in episode 15 when she feels Dae Gil’s presence before she even turns around to face him.

When Tae Ha and Dae Gil go at each other with their weapons, Eonnyeon shields Dae Gil with her own body, just before Tae Ha’s sword strikes him, willing to take the fall for him if necessary.

We see that Eonnyeon is terrified in the moment, and that the danger is very real. Yet, she does not hesitate to put her life on the line for Dae Gil.

Granted, Eonnyeon then does the same for Tae Ha, but I think it’s noteworthy that she shields Dae Gil first.

While it’s true that she is partly motivated by a deep sense of guilt over what happened to Dae Gil because of her and her brother, I believe that Eonnyeon’s actions here are motivated more by her love for Dae Gil.

After the two men leave to duel it out, Eonnyeon weeps, and I feel that her tears are more for Dae Gil than for Tae Ha. In her tears, I feel she is expressing a multitude of pent-up regret and sorrow over the twist of fate that has forever separated her from Dae Gil.

Subsequent to this, we see that even though Dae Gil continues to care deeply for Eonnyeon, that he repeatedly stands aside, respecting the relationship that Eonnyeon now has with Tae Ha.

I love that Dae Gil is not only made of such honorable stuff, but that his love for Eonnyeon is not dependent on whether or not he gets to be with her. I love the selfless nature of his love.

In episode 18, we finally see a measure of closure to Dae Gil’s and Eonnyeon’s relationship.

As Eonnyeon goes about her chores at Mt Worak, Dae Gil watches her from afar and it’s clear that he still loves her.

When Seolhwa shows up and pulls Dae Gil into a hug, Dae Gil hesitates for a moment before we see a look of resolution cloud his eyes. He then looks right at Eonnyeon and returns Seolhwa’s embrace.

Clearly, Dae Gil is sending Eonnyeon a message of closure in this moment, and Eonnyeon looks at him with sorrowful, teary eyes, understanding his message.

On one hand, one might argue that this makes Eonnyeon seem really greedy in that she has affection for Tae Ha but appears to not want to let Dae Gil go.

At the same time, I feel like she has a different sort of love for each man, and that she basically has a very special place in her heart for Dae Gil, the man who loved her for herself, not caring about her slave girl origins. And she mourns the moment of putting this love away, for good.

Of course, I do have issues with the way the moment of closure is treated, almost with hard defiance on Dae Gil’s part, and him using Seolhwa in the process. It doesn’t feel right, but it is what it is. Dae Gil’s not perfect by any means, and the show doesn’t hesitate to remind us of that.

In episode 21, Dae Gil muses to General Choi, “Not being able to see her was driving me crazy, but now that I can see her every day, it’s just killing me.”

The road that Dae Gil walks in terms of this love is never an easy one, and we see it all the more in his final words to Eonnyeon in episode 24.

As Dae Gil runs with his very last dredges of strength to face the troops who have arrived, he speaks in a final voiceover to Eonnyeon. In gentle, tender tones completely dissonant with his outer bloody surroundings, Dae Gil says, “Eonnyeon-ah… Eonnyeon-ah… Live in happiness. Spend endless moons with that man of yours, and that child, until the day we shall once again meet, and you will tell me how your life was. My Eonnyeon… My… beloved.”

Tears. And chills.

He loves her so, so very much that for him, it transcends life and even death.

[END SPOILER]

Tae Ha & Eonnyeon

If Dae Gil’s love for Eonnyeon is like a raging furnace that can’t be put out, then the love between Tae Ha and Eonnyeon would be like a pile of winking embers that, given a long time, finally grows into a muted but steady flame.

I confess that I was not very invested in this relationship during both of my watches of the show. But I do appreciate how their relationship moves from being shrouded in layers of half-truths, to a place where Tae Ha and Eonnyeon can be truly honest with each other.

In addition, it is Tae Ha’s relationship with Eonnyeon that serves as a barometer for his gradually shifting views on nobility and slavery.

[SPOILER ALERT]

To be honest, I found the beginning of this couple’s relationship a pretty shaky and superficial one.

Simply put, Tae Ha finds her beautiful and graceful, and is intrigued. Eonnyeon, on the other hand, is indebted to him for saving her from being raped by thugs. Plus, he’s good protection for a girl traveling alone.

To top it off, both lie about not being pursued. And both also lie, about not being slaves.

It is only when the layers of lies get slowly peeled away, that they are forced to confront and grapple with the truth.

In episode 9, part of the truth gets unraveled as Tae Ha’s headband gets sliced off during a fight:

Tae Ha looks at Eonnyeon in shock, like a deer caught in headlights, as he realizes that his secret has just been exposed. Eonnyeon, in turn, looks at him in stunned realization. Before this, Tae Ha had strenuously denied that he was a slave. But now, the evidence is staring at her from his forehead: 奴. Slave.

From this point onwards, Tae Ha and Eonnyeon have several conversations surrounding this, with Tae Ha still emphatic that he is not a slave, and that he’s got more important things to tend to, than shedding his slave status.

Notably, Tae Ha still speaks in riddles, which confuses Eonnyeon, “You are a slave but not a slave. You are one the being chased but you are not running away. What kind of words are these? Which words that you speak are ones I can believe in and which words should I throw away?”

At the same time, I find it significant that Eonnyeon chooses not to reveal her own slave background, even when Tae Ha’s slave background has been uncovered.

As the pair continue to travel together on Tae Ha’s mission, they gradually exchange tokens of affection, such as here, where she takes his hand, or on the cliff-tops, where they embrace, and she allows him to kiss her:

I feel, though, that the more significant change, on Eonnyeon’s part at least, is in episode 12, where she goes to the temple and prays for Tae Ha.

I find it quite key, that she now prays for Tae Ha instead of Dae Gil. I think that’s a true sign that he’s entered her heart, even though it’s not verbalized yet. I find this more significant than the kiss even, because this is what she used to do for Dae Gil in the past, even praying for him through the night.

As the episodes progress, though, we see that there is one thing that remains a sore point – and a barrier, at that – in their relationship and marriage. That is, that Tae Ha cannot accept the fact that Eonnyeon used to be a slave. We see that surface every time Tae Ha has a conversation that with Dae Gil, and Dae Gil refers to her as Eonnyeon instead of Hye Won.

Another noteworthy thing, is that the relationship between Tae Ha and Eonnyeon is one that is based on loyalty more than romantic feelings.

In episode 19, Eonnyeon decides to leave Tae Ha because of her slave past, and because she does not wish to stand in the way of his mission.

I find it telling, that it takes Tae Ha some time to decide to stop her. And that when he does move to stop her from leaving, this is all he can say,”I pledged to myself I would awaken to the anguish of our people, but I never envisioned a world without slavery, or the same traditional tenets which guided us.” … “Even while experiencing slavery firsthand, I could not think of that. No matter how long it takes, until the day when I walk on the righteous path, will you aid and await me?”

Not at all romantic, and it’s revealing that all he speaks of is a higher purpose. I mean, a higher purpose is all well and good. But surely sometimes, especially at this time, it’s important to approach things in a more personal way?

I also find it significant, that Tae Ha, even having experienced slavery first-hand, had never envisioned a world without slavery. What does this tell us about him? At best, he’s a square who can’t think out of the box. At worst, he’s a snob who doesn’t think that slavery is wrong, even when he experienced the humiliation and suffering first-hand. He only thought that he was NOT a slave and therefore these treatments were not rightly applied to him.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate Tae Ha or anything. I just think that his deeply ingrained traditionalist views, combined with his very straight-laced personality, are what stand in his way of changing his paradigm of the world. He just cannot imagine it.

Again on the topic of loyalty, I found it noteworthy that even though Eonnyeon talks of having loved Dae Gil, that she doesn’t talk of loving Tae Ha.

Between her and Tae Ha, they only talk of loyalty and fealty. And perhaps that may mean more to a military man such as Tae Ha, but to a woman, love means more. And she doesn’t ever say that she loves Tae Ha.

Still. We see that Eonnyeon does look at Tae Ha with affection, as she does in episode 19, when she looks at him sleeping with the boy. I think it’s just a very different sort of love compared to the love that she had for Dae Gil.

It is only in episode 20, after many, many episodes of internal grappling, that Tae Ha seems to finally get over the fact that Eonnyeon used to be a slave.

As Eonnyeon talks to the Royal Successor in her arms and tells the child that her name is Hye Won, but she used to be known as Eonnyeon, Tae Ha looks at her with tears in his eyes and says, “Whatever your name is, it doesn’t matter. Be it Hye Won or Eonnyeon, all you are to me is my spouse.”

FINALLY.

And Eonnyeon, tearing up, responds, “Hearing that makes me feel like I’ve truly become your spouse, at last.”

What a long journey that was, for this couple to finally arrive at a place of truth and mutual understanding. On the upside, though, their love feels quite true to life, in that I find it similar to the muted, gentle affections of a long-married couple.

[END SPOILER]

Dae Gil & Seolhwa

Seolhwa’s crush on Dae Gil is pretty much summed in this screenshot right here.

She’s the one trailing after him, proactively making her feelings known, and he’s the one, well, enduring her attention.

I found the dynamic between Seolhwa and Dae Gil sweetly tragic, because Seolhwa actually knows that Dae Gil only has room in his heart for Eonnyeon. Yet, she continues to set her eyes and her heart on him, and her earnestness is poignantly touching.

And honestly, who can blame the girl for nursing a crush on sexy Orabeoni?

[SPOILER ALERT]

One of the things I found particularly interesting about Dae Gil’s scenes with Seolhwa, is that there are many times the show uses their scenes as parallels to scenes of Tae Ha and Eonnyeon. The scenes , meaningfully and interestingly interwoven, often appear similar on the surface, but have deeper, very different meanings for each pair of characters.

One example is in episode 7, where Dae Gil carries a drunk Seolhwa on his back, while silently thinking back to the days when he used to carry Eonnyeon the same way.

The scene splices away, to show us, in parallel, Tae Ha carrying Eonnyeon on his back, injured and unconscious.

As both men walk on, we see that each woman drops her most prized possession. Seolhwa drops her hae-geum, and Eonnyeon drops the stone that Dae Gil used to heat for her, to keep her hands warm.

We then see Dae Gil bending down to pick up Seolhwa’s hae-geum, while Tae Ha, oblivious, walks on, leaving the stone behind.

It feels like moment filled with poetry and symbolism.

Both women drop something precious, but the implications are completely different. And the scene of Eonnyeon dropping the stone and moving away on Tae Ha’s back seems to imply her leaving Dae Gil behind.

The scenes between these pairs are also often interspliced to magnify the meaning of the moment. For example, Eonnyeon’s happy wedding scenes with Tae Ha are interspliced with Dae Gil’s heartwrenching wailing on the street while Seolhwa cries, looking on. Juxtaposed with the happy wedding scenes, the magnitude of Dae Gil’s grief is amplified.

Continually contrasted like this, it does feel like Dae Gil and Eonnyeon are living in parallel lines but walking in opposite directions, away from each other.

Another thing that stands out to me, about Seolhwa’s relationship with Dae Gil, is that she is often there with him during his lowest moments. It’s the pay-off, of always trailing him around.

When he wails, heartbroken, on the street, she’s there, tearing too.

And when he’s in disbelief and grief over the death of Eonnyeon’s brother, she’s there too, to pat his shoulder, to hold his hand, and to cry with him.

And so I found it fitting that at the very end of his life, Seolhwa is there too, to send him off with tears, a smile and a song.

A bittersweet love indeed.

[END SPOILER]

Eonnyeon & Seolhwa

I found the blossoming friendship between Seolhwa and Eonnyeon rather sweet.

I love the arc, that Seolhwa, from being envious and jealous of Eonnyeon, eventually comes to see Eonnyeon as the friend and older sister she never had.

[SPOILER ALERT]

The relationship between Seolhwa and Eonnyeon begins in episode 21, when Seolhwa gets drunk at the feast that the Mt Worak folks prepared, and pays Eonnyeon a visit in her room.

In her drunken state, Seolhwa drunk-talks to Eonnyeon, “Why did you do it? Why did you show up, and start tearing Daegil Orabeoni’s heart to pieces? I’m sorry. But… I can’t help but resent you. I can’t help but… envy you. If I become just like you, will Orabeoni even glance at me?”

Tearing up with compassion, Eonnyeon gathers Seolhwa in her arms, comforting her, “Cry it all out. Could there be anyone free from sorrow?”

Thereafter, we get several small interludes where the two women spend time together.

I liked that they shared their thoughts with each other as they spent time, Eonnyeon teaching Seolhwa how to read and write, and Seolhwa entertaining Eonnyeon and her “son” with the hae-geum.

I found it particularly sweet that Seolhwa would wait for Eonnyeon to return so that she could entertain her “son.”

I really enjoyed watching the unfolding of this sisterhood, and it’s too bad it got truncated by circumstances.

[END SPOILER]

Chuno OST – 천하(天下)에 고함

Eopbok & Chobok

I rather enjoyed the blossoming love relationship between Eopbok and Chobok.

Their romance added levity to the otherwise heavy-going arc of the rebel slave faction.

Also, I found it amusing that the show kept portraying Eopbok as either too slow or too insecure to realize that Chobok has feelings for him.

[SPOILER ALERT]

A really cute moment between this couple is in episode 20, where they talk indirectly about their feelings for each other.

As they walk home in the night, Eopbok asks Chobok what she would do if they really manage to turn the world upside down and Chobok rattles off a bunch of things, including going to Mt Geumgang in the winter.

Eopbok baulks, “Say what? How could you go there all by yourself?” Without missing a beat, Chobok answers, “Why would I be by myself? You can just tag along.”

Eopbok looks at her disapprovingly, “Think you could win me over so easily, prancing around with you?”

Chobok grins, “Who said I wanted to win you over? If my leg hurts on the way, you can always carry me on your back.”

Eopbok protests, “Do you need to go all the way to Mount Geumgang for that?” Brightly, Chobok shoots back, “Why? Will you do it right now?”

Suddenly all concerned, Eopbok asks, “Does your leg hurt again?” and Chobok beams, “Yes!”

Such an outright lie. Hee. But, piggyback ride it is!

On the other end of the spectrum, I found the scene between Eopbok and Chobok in episode 23 particularly moving.

After rescuing her from her new husband, to whom she’d been unceremoniously sold, Eopbok urges Chobok to go to Mt Worak without him.

Chobok refuses with tears in her eyes, and Eopbok asks, tears burgeoning, “Chobok. Should we just… run away and live together? I will hunt, you will be farming, we will catch tigers and sell their skin at hefty prices… You’ll watch flowers blossom, dabble in the water, and after living together that way, we’ll have children. Should you and I… just live that way? Is that what you wish for? Going to a place where nobody knows us, you and I…”

After a moment’s pause, Chobok gives her answer tearfully,”No. Then, who will change the world? You need to go there and fight.”

Eopbok, tears spilling over, smiles, “Thank you. For saying that.”

They say goodbye tearfully and kiss.

I found this scene moving for showing us the sacrificial spirit behind their higher yearning for a better world. That they would give up their own happiness, in order to fight for a better world – I found that poignant and inspiring.

On a side note, as they kiss, their adjacent cheeks read “奴婢” – I wonder if the writers planned that far ahead for this moment of statement / irony?

[END SPOILER]

Hanseom & the Court Lady

Even though they are minor characters, I was rather taken and very moved by the love story of Hanseom (Jo Jin Woong) and the court lady.

[SPOILER ALERT]

I found their simple love story, cut short too soon, completly heartwrenching and tragic.

In episode 10, while on the run from Commander Hwang and his murderous intent, Hanseom carries the Royal Successor, as he and the court lady walk through a field.

He asks her name, and she demurs repeatedly. Han Seom, mildly exasperated, asks, “Will you tell me your name, or not? Never had such a hard time exchanging names before.” His mock chagrin is adorable, and she’s noticeably swayed.

Just as his court lady is about to finally give him an answer, Commander Hwang’s makeshift spear pierces into her back.

Tears spill onto her cheeks as she starts to lean forward from the pain, and she manages, “M…My… name… Jang… Pilsoon…”

Crying in disbelief, Hanseom can only say, “I said you can survive…”

She gasps, “I’m… from… Pimat-gol… in Hanyang…”

Hanseom’s anguished cries are heartbreaking, “No! I told you I’d make you bask in luxury! Don’t! Listen! Listen to me!”

Trembling, Hanseom lays Pilsoon’s head on the ground. Words desert him and all he can manage are guttural, tortured shaking sobs.

Tears. So very heartbreaking.

And Hanseom’s grief and sorrow, mixed with his resolute loyalty to carry out his duty, even as he fights his tears, makes him so endearing.

In episode 21, tragically, Hanseom dies, betrayed by Jo Seonbi. But his vision of being reunited with the woman he loves and them leaving together is sweet and moving.

I love that she greets him, saying, “Where have you been all this time?”

The idea that she’s been waiting for him, to spend the afterlife together, is sweet.

Hanseom’s still as adorable in the afterlife, telling her, “I’ll make you bask in luxury.”

Aw.

[END SPOILER]

REBEL SLAVE FACTION

I’ll be the first to admit that I found the rebel slave faction arc less interesting than the story surrounding our slave hunters.

During my first watch, I barely tolerated the presence of this arc, and found it too distanced from what I considered the main story.

On my second watch, though, I found myself much more tolerant of this arc, and even rather appreciative of it for the themes that it brings out in the show. I also found the slave characters more interesting this time around.

One of the recurring thoughts in the drama, is that slaves are not people. It comes up repeatedly.

[MINOR SPOILER]

Like when the painter says junior Jumo is his best portrait after the king himself, she pouts about the portrait of Eonnyeon that he keeps drawing for Dae Gil.

The painter assures her smilingly, “I’m talking about portraits of people, not of slaves”

[END MINOR SPOILER]

The show is always treading that line between showing us how slaves are viewed and treated as less than human, and how slaves really ARE people. Throughout the drama, we are shown how slaves are exchanged for livestock between masters, and how they are basically beaten and branded like animals.

And it is because of this existing thinking, that in an equivalent reversal, the slaves don’t think of their masters as people either. Which explains why the slave rebel faction blithely kills off noble yangban without a second thought.

[SPOILER ALERT]

In episode 16, Eopbok asks Chobok, “Wouldn’t it be better to make a world where there are neither slaves nor yangban?”

Chobok’s answer is telling, “A world without yangban or slaves might be wonderful, but what I want to do now is avenge what those yangban did to me.”

[END SPOILER]

And so it is, that the ugliness of human nature propels the slaves to a cyclically flawed goal instead of a truly better world.

Ultimately, the slave faction’s mission is really a quest for recognition and dignity. Because their masters don’t see or treat them as people, their quest is simply to be recognized as people and to have human dignity. The reason they go to extremes is because of how unyielding the prevailing belief system is. Because they believe that they need to go that far, in order to create a dent in an unyielding belief system.

WEAKNESSES

There are many minor weaknesses in Chuno, but I think I’m not alone in saying that the biggest weakness in this show, is the amount of screentime dedicated to political machinations in the later episodes.

I felt the story slump the hardest, from episodes 18 to 22, where we spent way too much time on the politicking in the court than our main characters. As much as I understand how important the politics are, as a context for our characters, I did feel that we could have done with a lot less of it.

Chuno OST – 잃어버린 낙원

THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING 

During my first watch of Chuno, I’ll admit that there were parts of the ending that didn’t make sense to me. Probably because I watched it as a casual viewer.

On my second watch, paying closer attention, and with a more analytical lens on, I finally appreciate the ending for what it was intended to be.

I’m going to touch on the closure of various characters and where we leave them.

[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THIS REVIEW]

Eopbok

Eopbok, upon discovering his dead comrades, cradles Ggeutbong’s body and muses aloud, “Ggeutbong-ah. I don’t think I can live without Chobok. She said she’d be waiting for me… But I’m not going to die like a beast. I’ll show them… Show them that even slaves like us… live in this world. If I can only do that, it’ll be worth dying for. Isn’t that right, Chobok?”

It’s a heartbreaking decision, but he knows that Chobok will choose the higher mission over her own comfort.

Eopbok’s plan to charge the palace is the ultimate dream that he and his comrades had held together. And now that all of them had perished but for him, he charges the palace to fulfill their collective dreams. A statement, for the price of his life.

That he manages to kill – pretty much by accident – Geu Boon, is so satisfying. And that he, representing his fellow slaves, kills the Left State Councilor – the one behind the entire conspiracy, the one who basically manipulated the slaves, the one whom everyone else was powerless against – is pure poetic justice.

Constable Oh

Ha. I love that Constable Oh gets his just deserts.

He gets hauled in for questioning and torture even though he’s not to blame. Just like he used to do to the townsfolk that he used to terrorize.

His replacement constable surmises of his fate: “Guess if he’s lucky, they’ll only force him into slavery.” Yet another instance of poetic justice, since he used to trade in slaves as if they were objects.

But some things just don’t change. The new constable is an even more demanding tyrant than Constable Oh used to be. I guess systemic change doesn’t come easy, is what they’re trying to say.

Dae Gil

Dae Gil’s parting words to Eonnyeon, charging her to leave with Tae Ha, are, “Take him and leave.” … “You must survive and make a better world.. Only then will there be no more people like us. Eonnyeon… You must survive… Only if you do… Will I go on living. Leave now!”

In the end, Dae Gil gives his life towards his original dream to change the world. Only it’s not by the means that he’d originally intended. It’s not by taking the exam and getting into a position of power to effect change in the world.

I feel like Dae Gil has finally come full circle, back to his original dream of making a better world, except this time, he approaches it with an even higher wager – his very life.

I believe that coming back to his dream, his motivation and resolve has strengthened to something much more profound than simply making it possible for him to live with the woman he loves. Now, it’s a higher, greater purpose, and he’s willing to pay the price of his life towards it. And it is only through Eonnyeon’s eyes that he will get to see the new world that he gives his life for.

As I mentioned earlier, I found it fitting too, that Seolhwa was the one with Dae Gil in his final moments.

In a truly heartbreaking moment, Dae Gil, with his last few breaths, finally addresses her by name, “I’m sorry… Seolhwa-ya. Darkness surrounded me, so I could not see your heart was beating for me.”

These words help to shed light on how the show resolves Commander Hwang’s arc as well, and I will talk about that in a little bit.

Tae Ha

As Tae Ha and Eonnyeon flee, Tae Ha’s strength finally starts to give out, and he asks Eonnyeon to leave without him, for Qing territory.

With tears and gasping breaths, he tells her, “I shall not… leave with you for Qing territory.” … “I am too indebted to this land of mine, so I don’t believe I could ever leave it.” … “I shall recover in no time. Once I have recovered, we must make a better world. Hyewon. Eonnyeon! I shall make sure you will never have to use two names…”

I found it really meaningful, that while it was slow in the coming, that Tae Ha would address Eonnyeon by her original name in his last few breaths. That he genuinely had come to embrace and yearn for the promise of a better world without slavery. That in their final moments, both he and Dae Gil had arrived at a place of complete agreement in terms of their hopes and dreams for the world and its future.

Commander Hwang

Left to battle it out while Eonnyeon flees with a severely injured Tae Ha, Commander Hwang and Dae Gil fight until their strength is almost depleted.

Commander Hwang asks Dae Gil, mid-battle: “What is the reason you’re doing all this?”

Dae Gil answers simply, “That fool rescued me once.” Incredulous, Commander Hwang asks, “Is that all?”

Dae Gil raises his voice, almost in anticipation, “He said he’d change it! This wretched world of ours!”

Frustrated, Commander Hwang says, “Even you… Even you bring me misery.”

Dae Gil smirks, “You may resent this world, but you shouldn’t resent people. Nice, isn’t it? Even if we only rid this world of people like you and me, I’m sure… it will be a better place.”

And with those words, Dae Gil lets out his final battle cry as he runs into the approaching troops, towards certain death.

Dae Gil’s words seem to have a profoundly deep effect on Commander Hwang. He actually stops his men from pursuing Tae Ha, saying “I won.. It’s all over.”

On my first watch, this puzzled me. But now I see that Dae Gil’s words basically turn him around. He’s actually covering for Tae Ha, so that he can change the world.

And knowing that, changes the meaning behind his words. “It’s all over” = the fighting and politicking instigated by his father-in-law to prevent the absolution of the Royal Successor.

Later, we see Commander Hwang finally approach his wife, in the scene immediately following Dae Gil’s parting words to Seolhwa, about not being able to see her heart due to the darkness around him.

In the light of Dae Gil’s words, Commander Hwang finally being able to approach his wife and sob in her arms makes a lot more sense. Because the darkness around him has lifted, he is now finally able to see her pure heart beneath her awkward affliction. And I believe, he sees too, the evil of his actions for those past months.

I also found it significant that it is Commander Hwang’s voice that peacefully narrates in voiceover, the eventual discontinuation of slave hunting and the absolution of Seokgyeon from exile. It was only at the end, that I realized that it is also Commander Hwang’s voice that narrates, in episode 1.

That puts a whole different spin on everything, that this is a story that he’s telling. That he’s the one who survived to see the good that came out of everyone’s sacrifices. The peaceful tone of his voice also suggests that he’s finally come to terms with his own darkness, now able to tell us about the brighter future, hard-won by our other characters.

Chobok with Eunshil

Our closing scene is of Chobok, her arm around Eunshil as they watch the sun rise.

Thoughtfully, Chobok says, “Eunshil. Know to whom that sun belongs to?”

Eunshil asks, “Who?” Chobok answers, “To us.”

This time, Eunshil asks, “Why?”

Chobok, a tear streaming down her cheek, replies peacefully, “Because, never even once… have we been able to possess it.”

I found it fitting, that the show chose to close on the idea that belonging, is completely different from possession. That someone can belong to you, but you cannot possess someone.

And of course, how much do I love that we get to see General Choi and Wang Son farm the land that Dae Gil bought for them, finally able to live the quiet life they’d longed for, still bantering and still abstastic? A whole lot, that’s what.

Edit: So many people have shared with me how they really, really want to see this epilogue clip of the boys, but that it’s impossible to find. I never knew that. I just know that it was in my copy of the show. So.. I’ve extracted that bit for everyone to enjoy and here it is:

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I’m amazed at how much more invested I am on this watch than the last one. I feel like the show is so much better than I remembered it to be.

Honestly, when I thought this show was about the slave hunters, the ending made a lot less sense to me, because it felt like the story was losing its focus on our main characters. If a show is titled Slave Hunter, then shouldn’t we focus on the slave hunters, is what I thought.

Now, though, with a more critical lens on, and a better grasp of the language, I realize that the show is simply Chuno, ie, 추노, or in Hanja, 推奴, which refers to the act of hunting slaves, rather than the person. That puts a completely different spin on things, doesn’t it?

It’s about loyalty, courage, and selflessness for the sake of more than one’s own satisfaction and pleasure. It’s about higher ideals and more important things than a long-lost love. Higher ideals that people are willing to die for, to make the difference.

And they die for those higher ideals with courage and fire in their eyes. They look ahead to a better tomorrow and a better world, even if, for them, it’s in the after-life that they will see it.

THE FINAL VERDICT:

Glorious, despite its flaws. A must-see.

FINAL GRADE: A++

Edit: Loved Chuno? You might like my imaginary dream Chuno sequel, which you can find here!

TRAILER:

Non-spoilery trailer for those who haven’t watched the show:

MVs:

For a gorgeously shot drama like Chuno, which has such a fantastic OST, it’s surprisingly difficult to find MVs in HD. Here’s the best of what I could rustle up. Enjoy!

The badass Dae Gil cut, also found in my Jang Hyuk post, set to the same track:

Here are 2 moderately spoilery MVs featuring 2 lovely ballads from the OST. The second vid is not in HD, so just imagine it many times sharper, more intense and all-around gorgeous, ok?

Finally, a fairly spoilery MV, which runs like a badass cool, extended trailer for the show.

201 thoughts on “Review: Chuno [Slave Hunter]

  1. Hana

    Oh lord, my heart! I was too emotional after finishing Chuno yesterday to write a proper comment so I had to give it a day. When I first started off it struck me as being a little dated, but I was quickly won over by the lush and breathtaking cinematography and the gorgeous soundtrack. When the (almost) shirtless hotties made their appearance, I was definitely a fan 😀

    You’re absolutely right kfangurl, that Jang Hyuk IS Dae Gil in this role. I didn’t notice the Capt Jack Sparrow reference until you pointed it out! I could write an essay on this show so I’ll try and condense it as much as possible. I initially didn’t like Lee Da Hae’s acting because it was so wooden and stilted, but she grew on me. She was so lovely, elegant, gentle and graceful I think she was portrayed that way to show that class has nothing to do with birth or social status. From that perspective, Lee Da Hae did her job well. And you’re right in that she feels love for Dae Gil but duty for Song. I think they would have had a successful marriage like you said, because it seems a more mature connection and they really do make a gorgeous couple!
    I found the initial episodes very frustrating and a bit draggy because Dae Gil was THIS close to finding her and he was always thwarted. Aaaarrrgh! I really wanted him to find her 🙁
    I read your review yesterday and cried my eyes out when I saw his last words to her. (Somehow that wasn’t there on my version). The sheer futility of it all and his absolute pain crushed me.
    I think it also shows fate and destiny ultimately shape our lives no matter how hard we try or desire something. They were just not destined to be. I found myself bawling like a baby to see how you can dedicate your whole life to someone or something only to realize that it was all for a lost cause. I looked up King Injo to see what actually took place in history and when I read that the baby prince never became king, i.e all of this heartache, death and wasted lives were in vain, it made me realize how many people have existed throughout history with stories just like this. Dae Gils and Eonnyons with so much potential and ultimately, nothing.
    I found it so heart-wrenching that Dae Gil repeatedly mentions his current state in life: “I’ve become like this”, “How can she be happy when I’ve ended up like this”. It shows how deeply someone can feel, the impact one person can have on a life, the depth one incident can cut into a person’s soul and permanently mark and change their life and direction.

    I was irritated with Song Tae Ha tbh. I couldn’t get over the fact that he could have avoided all of this, had he just had the brain to kill the son in law when he had the chance on the beach. Towards the end, he struck me an being an unrealistic idealist with no practical smarts, which Dae Gil repeatedly shows him up. He talks about making a better world, but what has he actually done? The son in law guesses all his moves, he has spent his entire life on the battlefield and then decides not to accompany Eonnyon to China. I’m like what?? What on earth is he going to do in Korea with all his soldiers and supporters dead and he himself half dead in the middle of nowhere? I personally think he didn’t survive. He’s all talk and little actual results. He has no empathy for slaves, despite being one and he talks about making a better country, but for whom?

    I found the action scenes a bit ridiculous at times. Like halfway through a battle, you just decide to turn your back to the guy and clutch a corpse? Or the bad guy is running at you at full speed with a sword and you decide to stand there and think about something else? I felt like screaming, RUN, you fool!

    Kfangurl, PLEASE post the scene of Gen Choi and Wangson farming, if you can? The link has expired and I’m dying to see it! Gen Choi was hands down, the hottest guy of the show and I loved him! I was initially rooting for him and the older tavern lady but I hope he at least settled down with the other one. PLEASE post the clip again. Why do these clips keep disappearing off the net??

    Reply
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