[TV REVIEWS] 전설의 고향 (Hometown of Legends) - Ep. 4 귀서 (Ghost Letter)
It would be much easier if that mantra, "people are scarier than ghosts," was just a cliché you could attach to the most conventional, childishly idealist of works. But a quick look at the history books, from any country, and you'll start believing those words a lot more. It's possibly for that reason, my falling in love with East Asian history, that I've never really felt anything viscerally entertaining, or even remotely scary, about a bunch of dead girls in white robes, glam rock hairdos and with chronic back spasms, wandering the globe in search for a decent chiropractor. Because, in a way, they're just empty puppets; slaves of our imagination, thrown at the screen to make you forget for a moment that it's those who don't need a violin riff or nails against a chalkboard to do scary things who really deserve our attention. You could draw that equation then, where most stripped-to-the-bones visceral horror is to psychological thrillers what toilet humor is to pungent, deadly sarcastic black comedy. But that would erase decades of historical legacy from one of the most ancient genres in all of filmmaking. Not that I'd care. Did I just say that aloud?
So why, you may ask yourself, is someone who could happily live without all the summer horror flicks which once invaded Korean theaters, and would rather have those human monsters you see in things like 알포인트 (R-Point) and 남극일기 (Antarctic Journal), paying attention to something like 전설의 고향 (Hometown of Legends)? Exactly because it puts that old mantra to increasingly good use, using ghosts as a mere salad dressing, enveloping the real protagonists, living and breathing human beings, and becoming a mirror to their inner demons. If the first installment 구미호 (Fox with Nine Tails) was a sort of mea culpa about powerful clans and their abusive ways, trampling over people to continue their blood line, the fourth (and so far best) part 귀서 (Ghost Letter) focuses its attention on something even bloodier, nastier. In some ways, sadder. The people who sit on top of the mountain, that flashy throne.
A look at the river of volumes making up the 조선왕조실록 (Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), and you'll certainly find a lot of food for thought when it comes to those 27 reigns. You'll certainly think Taejo, the founder, was a megaton bomb of charisma and machismo; that Sejong was the be all and end all, and that Prince Yeonsan was so inept, he didn't even deserve "king" as part of his posthumous title. Those are certainly records any country could envy, with very precious, almost maniacal attention to detail. But then again, that's merely what was shown on the big stage. All the scheming, the behind the scenes plotting, the tangential stories narrated in court officials' diaries and eunuchs' memoirs; all the subliminal messages you could read between the lines, blanks you could fill with a more macroscopic approach to historical debate aren't there. It all makes the reality of the period a whole different (hi)story, actually. It's for that reason that someone like Prince Yeonsan and his legacy were completely rediscovered in the last few decades, so much it even reached the very conservative sphere (when it comes to history) of mass media. Without scholars refining their view on Yeonsan, there would be no 장녹수 (Jang Nok-Su) nor 왕의 남자 (The King and The Clown), for instance.
The advent of the Internet brought so many changes to historical studies in Korea, it opened the era of direct participation. Back in the days, and we're talking until the early 90s here, all the history buff could find was a collection of 야사 (chronicles), like the good old 연려실기술 (Chronicles of Yeollyeoshil), essentially unofficial history mixed with folk tales and legends. The Annals were only sold in Hanja (Chinese characters), which is one of the main reasons TV sageuk stuck to chronicles for most of the 60s up until the early 80s. When Shin Bong-Seung prepared his legendary 조선왕조 500년 (500 Years of Joseon Dynasty) in the early 80s, he had to navigate through over 1,800 volumes of that massive historical record, character by character. If it weren't for him, revolutionizing sageuk and bringing a significantly truth-oriented slant to the genre, we could still be forced to see the same old three-four subjects (Yeonsan, Lady Jang, Crown Prince Sado, Hwang Jin-Yi etc. etc.). Why "participation" is important, especially for what it concerns TV dramas, you can find out with a simple click.
Most of the old school sageuk writers had either majored in history, had a previous background in historical novels, or something to that extent. Now all you need is to study and read a lot, form your own historical viewpoint even on the net, as the entire Annals have been carefully translated into Hangeul, and there's hundreds of chronicles and documents at places like Minchu. With a bit of acumen, a keen interest in the subject and the guts to do it, you can do something as subversive as 8일 (Eight Days) or 한성별곡-正 (Conspiracy in the Court) without the need to be one of the top voices in historical studies. This is why this new and improved Hometown of Legends is important: the old series from the 70s and late 90s were mostly focusing on folk legends and chronicles (hence the title), but here we're a step up in the ladder of historical consciousness. They're not simple ghost stories wearing hanbok. They're actually telling something about the period they're covering.
You could say it's something which was brewing in the industry ever since the late 90s. Slowly forming from the ashes of the old sageuk skeleton were Lee Byung-Hoon's fusion sageuk, roughly exporting the trendy drama format to the old ages, to find a wider audience; the old school epic dramas a la 태조왕건 (Emperor Wang Gun), more or less loyal to the records, and the perfect arena for baritones screaming out their differences while wearing fake mustaches and 20kg of armor. Still, there was a third choice, neither one or the other, mixing elements from the two, but particularly saying something new about history. Not just the genre, history itself. Think of things like 천둥소리 (Roll of Thunder), 명성황후 (The Last Empress), 불멸의 이순신 (The Immortal Lee Soon-Shin) and particularly the new wave, 신돈 (Shin Don), Conspiracy in the Court et al. Those hybrids carried the vestiges of the old sageuk yes, but weren't just content with taking the book and sticking it on the screen. They commented about what they were portraying, sometimes even in quite controversial manners.
There's a great scene, for instance, in Eight Days, which completely burns to ashes the legacy of 한중록 (The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong). While the clan-politics-driven, all-too-convenient hoopla written in the Memoirs is shown, the drama juxtaposes it with what could have been the reality at the time (that is, Lady Hyegyeong being as much of a political player as you could think of, not just a tragic victim), doing in 10 minutes what historical circles took twenty years to explain. Think of Conspiracy in the Court, whose portrayal of King Jeongjo was so brilliantly modern, producers were "recommended" to erase a line from the show, all too similar to what former-president Roh Moo-Hyun said, lest the manner in which the two "failed" rulers met their downfall could make viewers think a little more explicitly about that dialogue between past and present. Such is the power of well made sageuk.
This, of course, is like a double-edged sword. Way too many people in Korea still see TV dramas as escapist entertainment and nothing more; not culture or visual literature, just the bastard sister of variety shows, prostituting themselves in search of that elusive, all too vague definition of "fun." That is the reason why the most controversial and best works in the genre never, ever succeeded. Conspiracy in the Court is loved and cherished by just about everyone who had the luck and good taste to see it, but it scored barely around 5%. Eight Days was shown once on a cable channel, recorded a decent 3-4% (still not enough to beat flying boobs, mind you) and disappeared without even a DVD release; Shin Don is the best thing Korea has produced in the last 10 years along with 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder), but it closed with ratings in the lower 10%, and all the kiddos remember it for are the maniacal laughing patterns of its protagonist. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, meaning producers aren't really too encouraged to experiment with history, when soap operas with armors like 대조영 (Dae Jo-Young) or 주몽 (Jumong) can get you a monster success with very little creative effort.
In that sense, Hometown of Legends was a pretty gutsy move. The cast doesn't suggest an experimental show, and the legacy of the past series would inevitably hamper the show's run (teenagers keep whining it's not scary enough. Maybe because sageuk have dumbed down so much everyone and their dog is supposed to watch them and understand instantly, with no background knowledge whatsoever), but so far we're dealing with a pretty impressive success. With the Olympics dominating the ratings, this thing still keeps recording steady ratings between the 15 and 20%, which is almost incredible if you consider how badly KBS dramas have fared in the ratings this year. But that's not the issue: while the second and third part of the show reminded a lot more of the old Hometown of Legends and didn't bring much to the table, Fox with Nine Tails and particularly the brilliant Ghost Letter bring the genre to a new dimension.
The setup is quite easy: mixing a ghost's grief with filial piety (the core of Confucian ideals), and throwing it inside the labyrinth of Joseon politics. But if you know even the basics about this particular period, you'll see instantly how daring and creative that setup is. Ever since Lee Deok-Il and his works catapulted the subject into the mainstream, the idea that many of Joseon's rulers might have been poisoned started cutting into mainstream historical consciousness (although Kim Tak-Hwan's brilliant period crime novels could be the more significant culprit). It wasn't just simple blood lust inside the Royal palace, fathers or mothers fighting with sons for that ruthless seat called throne. It was a jungle made of powerful clans - the 사대부 (sadaebu) - fighting each other for supremacy, making quite a few kings only rulers on paper. Just as Eight Days highlighted first-hand, Joseon might have been the Lee's dynasty, but it was those sadaebu's country, from beginning to end. If you consider that point, then all those who tried to bring change and were considered a failure in doing so (Yeonsan, Gwanghae, Jeongjo) had something in common: they tried to strengthen the authority of the king. And, strange enough, those who gained a "the great" title right next to their posthumous name were generally in good terms with those clans, accepting their influence. Sounds fishy? There you go.
If last year's Conspiracy in the Court dealt with Jeongjo's death by poisoning (in a quite lyrical, philosophical way), Ghost Letter focuses on what perhaps might just be the most obvious case of death from poisoning in Joseon history. Along with Danjong and Gwanghae, King Injong's reign was the saddest of all Joseon kings, sitting on the throne for a mere nine months. He was the son of King Junjong, whom he succeeded in 1544 after his death. A mere seven days after he was born, Injong lost his mother (Queen Janggyeong) and grew under the wings of Queen Munjeong, from the powerful Papyeong Yoon clan. Predictably, the moment Injong was crowned king he tried to fix all the problems which hit the country in the post-Yeonsan chaos, particularly the political strife between two clans (or, actually, two sects of the same Papyeong Yoon clan): the "Great Yoon" led by Yoon Im, supporting the deceased Queen Janggyeong; and, on the other side, Yoon Won-Hyeong and his acolytes, firmly behind Queen Munjeong. Now, why would the queen plot to assassinate the king? Simple: she had a son, not just an acquired offspring like Injong, but a son of her own (Hwan), whose rise to power was blocked by Injong being the king. The fact Injong had no sons meant that, in case he died, not only Queen Munjeong's son Hwan would become the next king. She would have to act as regent in his place, because of his young age.
It wasn't a simple matter of a mother wanting her son on the throne: Hwan on the throne and Queen Munjeong leading things behind the scenes would have meant the "Small Yoon" of Yoon Won-Hyeong (Queen Munjeong's younger brother) would completely dominate Joseon politics. Can you connect the dots now? A look at the official historical records, specifically the 인종실록 (The Annals of King Injong), and you'll read how Injong, deeply saddened by the death of his father, fell into a long illness and eventually died. But the chronicles tell a different story. Particularly interesting is the tale of Queen Munjeong finally showing love for her "adoptive" son, after years, decades of polite indifference (which really was behind-the-scenes hatred). As King Injong went to pay his morning respects, Queen Munjeong's face started radiating with the smile only a true mother could show in front of her son. Injong probably took that as the sign the Queen Mother was finally acknowledging him as the king, but particularly her own son. He ate the 떡 (Korean rice cake) her mother gave him, not knowing that would be the beginning of the end. He fell ill, slowly enough not to create any suspicion at the moment, but fast enough historians would pick it up later. Three days passed, and Injong had mysteriously died. Queen Munjong's son Hwan succeeded Injong as King Myeongjong, while the queen mother played regent. It was a perfect crime, the kind of Joseon history is filled with. But is a perfect crime even possible? Chronicles tell Queen Munjeong was frequently visited by spirits at night after Injong's death, so much she decided to move her residence from Changdeok Palce to Gyeongbuk Palace. Those same texts say it might have been Injong's ghost, screaming his grief at a woman who never could be a mother to him, even in death.
You could see this as more or less the plot of Ghost Letter, although the way the drama paints Injong's decision to eat that rice cake is much more touching and ingrained with the filial piety motive, in some ways reminding of Jeongjo's ultimate decision in Conspiracy in the Court. But that's certainly not all: Ghost Letter mixes mystery crime-novel vibes- think Kim Tak-Hwan, or in the drama context either 별순검 (Byeolsungeom) or China's 大宋提刑官 (Da Song Ti Xing Guan) -- with horror in an impressively cohesive whole. The mystery uses a real novel as its blueprint, the 설공찬전 (Seolgongchanjeon), known as the first ever novel written in Hangeul. Its not so thinly veiled critique of King Jungjong's crowning granted its author punishment and exile from the palace, while the text was burned after being stamped with the "forbidden" label. The idea of mixing those various genres with such a strong historical background alone could grant Ghost Letter enough praise, but it's also the visual flair and impressive narrative flow which make this one of the best works of the year.
It feels a lot more like a film than any drama, in some ways echoing the style of 궁녀 (Shadows in the Palace) and the atmosphere of 혈의 누 (Blood Rain), with the same kind of lighting, cinematography and use of music which made Conspiracy in the Court so great. But it's no surprise, if you look at who's behind the camera. He might be pretty much unknown outside Korea (hell, even most Koreans think he's a newcomer), but Kim Yong-Soo had a solid past in the Dramacity annals, more or less always working with writer Kim Jung-Ae, just like this time. They worked together on another one of 2008's few gems, 징계위원회 (Disciplinary Committee), and already show the kind of chemistry which could create another Kim Ji-Woo and Park Chan-Hong - the duo behind 마왕 (The Devil), 부활 (Resurrection) and more.
Best of all is the cast, led by a top notch performance by Kim Young-Jae as King Injong, and particularly sageuk veteran Lee Deok-Hee as Queen Munjeong. Ahn Jae-Mo, who keeps filling his career with top notch sageuk, brings considerable charisma to a difficult role, and Lee Han-Wi as always explodes on the screen with his impressive ad-lib. Granted, this is not an easy drama to appreciate. Those looking for simple, superficial thrills will be left disappointed, and you need a solid historical background to appreciate the finer points of Ghost Letter. Still, for a series which was just supposed to revive summer thrills on TV, what Hometown of Legends is doing, mixing horror with sageuk tropes, is pretty impressive. With so many long sageuk dropping the ball in recent years, this could actually be the answer. Short and sweet, intelligent and touching, with film-like production values and something to tell, not necessarily grounded by ratings and similar nonsense. Whether this is what the industry needed to move back on the right track, I have no idea. But it sure has been one hell of a ride so far....
전설의 고향 (Hometown of Legends)
제4편 - 鬼書 (Fourth Episode (of 8) - Ghost Letter)
KBS 수목 드라마 - Wed/Thu Drama
Aired on August 14 [KBS2]
PD: 김용수 (Kim Yong-Soo) / WRITER: 김정애 (Kim Jung-Ae)
안재모 (Ahn Jae-Mo) as Sa-Hyeon, 이덕희 (Lee Deok-Hee) as Queen Munjeong
김영재 (Kim Young-Jae) as King Injong, 이한위 (Lee Han-Wi) as Deok-Bae
김진태 (Kim Jin-Tae) as Elder Eunuch, 사현진 (Sa Hyeon-Jin) as Court Lady