What a treat! KBS’s new Goguryeo sageuk is epic, emotional, and gives us a really strong sense of the drama to come. It’s also beautiful to look at, not only being really well-shot, but featuring gorgeous landscapes, sets, and scenery (in other words, it’s super easy to get lost in this world). In our premiere, we meet our warrior princess, learn about her tragic past, and meet all of the players that will become a crucial part of our present day story.
EPISODES 1-2 WEECAP
With tons of drama behind us already, this weecap is going to be a quick pass through all the delicious backstory, followed by a whole lot of praise for the cast and acting, which seems pretty near perfect right now. Just warning you.
We open with our warrior princess YEOM GA-JIN (Kim So-hyun) in an epic battle, fighting like the best of them. If not better. She’s looking for ON DAL (Ji-soo), and they have a tragic reunion on the battlefield. I worry about dramas that start off at their most dramatic point — it’s like a warning shot to our hearts — so we’ll just have to stick this in our pockets for later, because there’s a lot of story to come before we circle back to this point.
Most of Episode 1 features our heroine as a young girl (played wonderfully by Heo Jung-eun of Start-Up fame, most recently). She’s PYEONGGANG, the princess of Goguryeo, and she’s the spitting image of her mother, QUEEN YEON (also played by Kim So-hyun), who is pretty amazing. While the totally feckless king lets the kingdom be manhandled by the evil tribal leaders, the queen is the only one with the wit and bravery to protect Goguryeo.
The king is weak, and because he’s weak, he’s easily manipulated — we see this again and again in our drama, but never so strongly as in the plot that sets up our backstory. Evil ringleader GENERAL GO WON-PYO (Lee Hae-young) crafts some evidence and suggests to the king that his young and lovely queen is betraying him with her lover from the past, now a monk. Rather than believe his queen, he allows General Go to set a terrible plan in motion.
This evil plan catches the queen unawares while she’s busy on a mission, surveying the kingdom, visiting the (good) tribal leaders, and secretly asking for protection from the Sunno tribe. The leader of this tribe is GENERAL ON HYEOB (Kang Haneul).
From the first second we meet him, we realize he’s a strong, principled warrior through and through. His son is the innocent and slightly foolhardy On Dal, and we see Dal’s father guiding him and building his character. An important sword is broken and buried, which feels a bit like a metaphor for Dal’s future legacy…
Alas, we don’t have long to relish the awesomeness of General On and Queen Yeon for long. They’re quickly outplayed by General Go’s nefarious plot, and it all turns to heartbreak, mayhem, and sacrifice too quickly. The queen is shot dead on the spot with an arrow in her chest, General On is also shot while heroically protecting her, and the village is torn apart. The only true survivors of this scene are Pyeonggang and Dal — his father instructed him to take the princess safely to the monastery of the Jello tribe. (Ironically, this is the same place where her true father is said to be.)
When the princess gets there, though, it’s no secret haven, and there’s no secret Jedi training from her monk father (which is where I thought they were heading). Instead, the place is ablaze, the king is murdering everyone in sight, and a mysterious figure soon whisks this traumatized, horrified girl to safety.
This entire section of the story is so damn riveting, I’m almost sorry to leave it in the past. It’s so heroic and epic and sad and wonderful. I need a moment.
In Episode 2, we catch up with everyone in the present. Eight years after the above tragedy, Princess Pyeonggang has no memory of her past. She lives in a rural village with an old man who’s become her father, and works on a team of assassins. She’s known as Yeom Ga-jin, and she’s not only extremely well-trained, but clearly haunted by the past that she can’t remember.
Interestingly, the man who has trained and controls this team of assassins seems to know more about Ga-jin than he lets on. He also has some beef against the king of Goguryeo, and sends Ga-jin to the court on an extravagant assassination mission. Though she’s unsuccessful, the experience is a clear turning point in her story (it’s also soooo beautifully shot).
Though Ga-jin’s cover is good, she doesn’t know she carries around a major Achilles heel wherever she goes: she’s the spitting image of her mother. Ga-jin doesn’t realize it yet, but everyone in the court that sees her does — namely the king (who’s psychologically tormented at this point), and the nanny/handmaid who cared for her as a child.
However, seeing these familiar places and faces also affects Ga-jin, and memories come back to her faster than ever, though she doesn’t know quite what to make of them yet. At the close of our premiere, Ga-jin begins to realize that something is off — her adoptive father has admitted that he only took her in, there’s a secret necklace that proves her identity (given to her by her mother eight years prior), and everything she thought she knew begins to shift under her feet.
Additionally, we have her reunion with Dal — though neither of them realize it’s a reunion at this point. They meet coincidentally in the woods, and then again when Dal saves her when she’s fleeing the palace.
Dal is living in isolation in the woods, under the guise of caring for a blind “mother,” and he’s very much the light-hearted Dal we saw in the past. However, we also understand that his facade hides the tragedy of his father and his tribe. It also carries his father’s last words to him: “There should be no resentment in your life. Live simple, like a fool, and in peace.”
Ga-jin and Dal thrown together are quite cute, and the lightness and hints of romance between them will be important as our story continues. But above all, I love the setup that both of these characters have a tragic, gorgeous, tightly-woven past. The story is loudly hinting that they’ll live to fill the shoes of their parents, and I can’t wait for more episodes!
But before we tie up this weecap, a word (literally) on the cast: golden. Kim So-hyun is awesome in every layer of this multifaceted role, whether it’s the brave and austere Queen Yeon, or her daughter, fierce in battle, or caught in the confusion of her current circumstances. I’ve never met a Kim So-hyun I liked so much as I like her here.
Another great preference that stood out as Kang Haneul — he’s always great, but the gravitas here as General On was so jaw-droppingly good. I hope we get more flashbacks. Or something.
Finally, I really like the casting of Ji-soo. I’m a big fan, but I’m also the first to admit his acting has a bit of cheesiness to it. Sometimes it’s not my favorite (My First First Love), but here, it’s absolutely put to the best use. Ji-soo’s On Dal is a bit of an oaf, from his appearance to his mannerisms, but it’s not at all flat, and there’s enough going on with Dal that I’m already looking forward to his journey from “fool” to general.
We’ll get into the other characters in and around the palace next week (like the promising character played by Lee Ji-hoon), but for now, I’ll just keep saying what a great premiere this was. And how I’m already waiting for Monday.
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