Long before Joseon Gunman actually aired, I was already chomping at the bit for the show to hurry up and air already, mostly coz of its stylish, gorgeous posters that just reverberated with promises of epic-ness and badassery.
I mean, just look at ’em. The posters are So. Freaking. Gorgeous. I seriously want the folks responsible for those posters to make all the posters for all the dramas in all of dramaland.
On top of the very effective posters, the other thing adding to my interest in the show, is the fact that I also have a big soft spot for Lee Jun Ki, and couldn’t wait to see him be all edgy and kickass as a rebel gunman.
I was so, so ready for Show to blow me away with its greatness, and for a while, it actually seemed to be doing an awfully promising job of it, too. It’s just too bad that Show ultimately fell short of my (admittedly very high) expectations.
In Show’s defense, it remained a solid watch throughout, even though it didn’t quite attain crack status for me.
For the record, here are the things that I really appreciated about it – before I get into the things that I didn’t like so much.
SHOW HAD SO MUCH GOING FOR IT
1. Lee Jun Ki in a sageuk
Lee Jun Ki tends to rock in period shows, particularly sageuks. And he rocks when he gets to be badass too. Plus, he’s an actual marksman, having won a sharpshooter award while in the military. Joseon Gunman pretty much took all of those awesome elements and put them together in one show. Awesome.
Also, how useful, that Lee Jun Ki really does speak Japanese, since his character Yoon Kang really does have occasion to speak Japanese more than a few times in the show. More awesome.
In that sense, Show does not disappoint, because sageuk Lee Jun Ki wielding a gun really is nicely badass. And he gets to be freaking cool, too, when single-handedly taking down whole groups of armed men.
2. Gorgeous cinematography + solid soundtrack
The cinematography is thoughtful, excellent and quite a feast for the eyes. Just a few minutes into episode 1, I found myself quite impressed.
The face-off between gun and sword is glorious yet gritty, with so much attention to detail. The entire scene is very artistically conceived. The slightly muted color palette, the deliberate slow motion, the shaky-camera effect when characters are running, the interesting camera angles and close-ups, all come together really well to create an immersive and masterful scene.
Shots regularly intercut one another in a sweeping manner, while sound effects, complete with a bit of echo built in, heighten the excitement. I particularly liked the touches of light refracting in the rain.
So much intricate detail in the entire scene, and yet, through it all, it doesn’t feel at all indulgent. So. Good.
The thoughtful, beautiful cinematography shows up often throughout the show, almost always in a different form, like these underwater shots from episode 3. Really lovely.
The OST is also solid and appropriately immersive. I especially liked how, in the tension-filled moments, the music’s grand enough to make it feel like a big world, and also, pumping enough to get the adrenalin levels up.
On the downside, though, there were moments when the OST distinctly reminded me of the OST in The Princess’ Man (2011). Not that that’s inherently a bad thing, since I really liked TPM’s OST. It’s just that with the association, Joseon Gunman felt a little less like its own show, and it is its own show.
3. Solid OTP that’s well set-up
Character establishment for the OTP is efficient, but doesn’t feel forced.
Very quickly, we get a sense of what our leads are about; that Yoon Kang’s a bit of a laggard, but who’s extremely nimble and skilled in swordsmanship, and who’s hiding a righteous heart underneath it all; that Soo In (Nam Sang Mi) is kinda feisty, has strong ideals and political views, and puts her money where her mouth is, facing danger for what she believes in, even when she’s really scared.
Their bickering in the early episodes is cute rather than grating, and Lee Jun Ki and Nam Sang Mi share a nicely sparky chemistry that made them very fun to watch together.
4. Interesting supporting cast
Aside from the OTP, I was also suitably intrigued by Jun Hye Bin, who plays Hye Won, and Yoo Oh Sung, who plays her father Won Shin. Both of them bring a good helping of depth and dimension to their characters, which made them a treat to watch.
As a character, Hye Won is strong, bold, and doesn’t hesitate to make things happen to get what she wants. Jun Hye Bin makes Hye Won elegant, articulate and quite regal, and I couldn’t help but sit up whenever she appeared on my screen.
Yoo Oh Sung makes Won Shin a fascinating antagonist, with his impressive depth and range. He plays Won Shin with subtlety, texture and intricacy, and remains completely convincing through it all. When Won Shin is menacing, he’s downright scary; when he’s scheming, his shrewdness is conveyed by a single blink. Yet, when he shows shades of vulnerability, I feel like we are looking into the depths of his very soul. Amazing.
5. Good initial pacing
The early episodes are engaging and satisfying, managing to balance tones and threads in a way that feels organic. The action with the romance; the tension with the cute. The different pieces are very disparate in tone, and yet, the story manages to weave in and out of these tones deftly, making it all flow in a textured, interesting, organic sort of way.
The dramatic tension is also great in the early stretch, and Show manages to make the blossoming romance between our OTP feel right at home within the more intense life-and-death stakes. In fact, those stakes heighten the emotional connection between Yoon Kang and Soo In, and that’s pretty great indeed.
Tonally, I was pleasantly surprised that Show managed to keep its light and almost fluffy touch amid the angst.
STUFF THAT GOT IN THE WAY OF AWESOME
Given such early promise, it felt like Joseon Gunman was poised for greatness. Which means I was extra disappointed with the things that eventually got in the way of true awesome.
1. Show stops short of being truly badass
While I was kept suitably on my toes by Show’s cliffhanger rhythm, and dutifully wondered how Show would get Yoon Kang out of each Dangerous Cliffhanger Situation in its next episode, the pattern eventually got a touch predictable.
I mean, thrusting our titular character into apparent life-or-death situations when there are still multiple episodes left is exciting and all, but really, I already know that he’s not going to die. Coz, otherwise, how will the story continue, right?
Also, while it was great to see Yoon Kang wielding a gun, it eventually started to feel ineffectual when he kept pointing his gun at people and then not killing them. I mean, I know Show is working to keep Yoon Kang as the Good Guy, but how is a gunman badass unless he gets to actually do some shooting?
2. Pacing slump
As early as episode 7, I felt the pacing slump a little, as the balance shifted more in favor of revenge and political machinations, rather than the central romance and other relationships.
In and of themselves, political machinations don’t have to be boring, but the ones in Joseon Gunman did eventually feel repetitive, and therefore uninteresting. By episode 11, I felt like we were running in place in a merry-go-round of sorts, and not going anywhere significant despite the hours of screentime.
As a result, Show felt a touch slow, and the narrative fabric, rather loose. On the whole, I was still interested in the story, but I honestly didn’t feel very invested. Which, when you think about it, makes a world of difference to the viewing experience.
3. Anticlimaxes [SPOILERS]
Yoon Kang not actually getting to shoot people, was already pretty anti-climactic, but the final confrontation between Yoon Kang and Won Shin was even more underwhelming.
Yoon Kang’s face-off with Won Shin feels oddly short, given that this has been something that either of them have been gunning towards at any one time, almost all series long. If Won Shin wasn’t after Yoon Kang, Yoon Kang was after him.
When the face-off happened, it was over so quickly, like there never was a fight to begin with. When you spend hours of screentime circling around the narrative’s One Big Confrontation, it’s extremely disappointing to have that face-off not live up to all the build-up.
Additionally, I felt that Yoon Kang forgiving Won Shin and therefore not killing him is appropriate for his character, but found Won Shin taking out his pistol and raising it to his own temple instead of aiming it at Yoon Kang with any last shred of strength, questionable. I just didn’t know if I believed that decision to be true to his character, and therefore felt rather underwhelmed by how that arc was resolved.
For a show that started off with so much promise, it’s painful to admit that by episode 16, I was just hanging on to see how it all ended.
I came into the show for the promise of badass Lee Jun Ki, but came away more interested in Yoo Oh Sung’s villain instead. That’s really weird, for me. Show really managed to mess with my head, right there.
On a more positive note, it struck me that in much the same way that Tree With Deep Roots (2011) helped me to see that people fought hard for the establishment of Hangul, Joseon Gunman helped me to see that people fought hard for the establishment of freedom and equal rights.
The things that we take for granted nowadays – like education, modernization, freedom – were all part of the enlightenment that people sacrificed their lives for, and that’s not a bad lesson to take away, from any show.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A solid watch, even though it hurts to think that Show came close to – yet fell short of – greatness.
FINAL GRADE: B