Wow, that was brutal. I thought I've seen sageuk go all-out gritty, brutal and dark with Chuno but that was nothing. The characters in Chuno, even those who were on the lowest rungs, like Oh Ji Ho's character, were on the up-swing, their worst horrors behind them (even if plenty of bad things were to come) and they were at least punished for something they did do (even if our view of whether whether what they did wrong was different from the punishers'). Not so here - we see villagers cut down, of less importance than a pig, just because they happen to be in the wrong place. Our protagonist, Kim Joo Hyuk's character, is a potential monk-in-training involved in no rebellion, his sin being in a monk village when the government is hunting monks. He is a small cog in a giant machine that neither knows nor cares he is an innocent.
I was literally shaking by the end, dreading the next episode and yet needing it. This drama wastes no time with childhood portions or leisurely introductions - it thrusts us in the middle of the story, in the middle of the world in chaos. It is a smart, fierce sageuk, the way sageuks should be, that takes no prisoners, no holds barred. I especially love that this is set in a period of Mongol invasions, something sageuks do rarely, if at all. I also love that this doesn't feel like modern people playing dress-up, but a vastly different, almost-alien society which still somehow makes me relate to its protagonists - I've surprised myself by finding myself fiercely attached to both Mu Rong and Wol A - so attached after only one episode. But not just them - even cameo monks made me feel - the torture scenes were brutal in their pointlessness - no one interested in the truth, just in framing a particular official. This drama shoves the human costs of anarchic violent politics into our faces and doesn't let us look away.
KJH is wonderful. I've never seen him in anything before and he is certainly no movie-star handsome but he is the soul of this drama. You can feel how happy and well-adjusted and even sheltered he is at the beginning, existing as he is in a state of innocence from the cruel world outside the village (yet it is never overdone). You can feel his rage as his world falls apart and he sees his monk 'family' torn apart and villagers tortured, you feel his care (and then desperate fear) for Wol A, you feel his umcomprehending terror when about to be tortured for something not in his control, nothing he knows about.
( Some caps from the eps )
Anyway, I should stop and watch some more. I have never seen something this uncompromisingly bleak in a kdrama before, and yet I cannot wait to see more even if I know it will eviscerate me.
I am so frustrated that I didn't manage to convey the amazing, not-like-anything-else feel of this drama, but don't rely on my inadequate writing, check it out for yourself.