A man gives up the sword for the gun in the name of revenge and the betterment of society, but did anything really change in the end?
Genre: Sageuk, action, romance, politics
Synopsis: Set in the late Joseon era, Park Yoon Kang (Lee Jun Ki) was just an ordinary son of a palace guard who had no particular goal in life, but his father gets killed by gunmen one day, the family is branded as criminals overnight and he almost loses his life. Park Yoon Kang then decides to master the gun to take revenge for his father and clear his family’s name. He then slowly becomes the hero of the people in Joseon.
I’ve always looked forward to Lee Jun Ki’s dramas and I always make sure to watch them, because I tend to find his shows interesting. Likewise for Joseon Gunman, I had high hopes for it since the story sounded really good on paper. After all, you don’t find many kdramas set in this time period. But alas, what looks good on paper does not necessarily translate into a polished final product. This drama was a mix of good and bad, but I’ll start with the good stuff first.
Lee Jun Ki has lots of experience in action and heroic roles, so you can’t go too wrong by casting him in a show with lots of action scenes, and you can rest assured that he will be able to pull off those stunts required of him. The production team rightfully made use of his talent for action by including ample fighting scenes throughout the series, including close-up shots of him doing the stunts. Seeing the actor deliver the stunts himself instead of stuntmen certainly helps in wowing the audience. The fight scenes were also nicely choreographed and filmed with use of slow-motion and nice music, thanks to having an accomplished director at the helm. There were at least two action scenes which I found particularly memorable — the scene where Park Yoon Kang protected Hye Won (Jeon Hye Bin) from a group of men in the forest, and the scene where he rode a horse and went head-on with a gunman on a field.
I really liked the style of this director, who is famed for his excellent work in “The Princess’s Man”. I haven’t seen that drama, but I have listened to the OST, and I can tell the similarities in the feel and choice of music between these two shows. Instead of changing camera angles rapidly to convey the sense of speed, the director occasionally opts for slow-motion camera takes and prolonged moments of silence at certain exciting scenes, such that you can feel the tension in the air and even hold your breath till the music comes back on again. I think that is a really unique style of the director which I like a lot. He is also capable of making some rather ordinary parts of the story look extraordinarily beautiful on screen through the use of beautiful visuals and music. I really love the instrumental music too, though the same can’t really be said for the vocal tracks.
Story wise, I like the unique setting of the story in the late Joseon period, such that you have an interesting blend of characters dressed in traditional costumes and western suits, plus the usage of modern objects from the West such as the compass and camera, which you shouldn’t be seeing in a sageuk otherwise. The unique time period also allowed the writers to touch on this interesting topic about conservative people trying to protect their traditions, versus people who are open to new ideas and see that as the key to the country’s progress. I don’t remember seeing any other kdrama that involved such a conflict, so this made the show very interesting and refreshing to watch. Park Yoon Kang can be considered to be quite a conservative person initially, but he slowly began to see the value in learning more about the world beyond his small home, and he also realised that he needed to embrace the values and technology of the modern world beyond Joseon in order to defeat his enemies. I found this contrast between tradition and modernity to be more interesting than the revenge part of the story.
Thus, it was a great disappointment that the writers were not able to better flesh out this aspect, but chose to dwell on the romance between Park Yoon Kang and Jung Soo In (Nam Sang Mi) instead. I have seen every Lee Jun Ki drama, and I honestly think romance is not his expertise as he always seems to have difficulty establishing chemistry with his female co-stars. There can be intense kissing scenes, but I hardly ever feel the sizzle in his romantic scenes. I personally think he had the best chemistry with Shin Min Ah in “Arang and the Magistrate”. Although this is his second time acting with Nam Sang Mi, I still don’t find them convincing as an on-screen couple. Their characters are suppose to be passionately in love with each other in this drama, but I couldn’t care less since I couldn’t sense any strong chemistry, and this greatly reduced my enjoyment of this drama since romance played quite a big part in the story.
Another issue I had with the story is the integration of Park Yoon Kang’s revenge story with all the palace politics. Both seemed like part of two separate shows some times, and it doesn’t help that the scenes of all the elderly politicians talking can get quite boring. I can’t quite pin-point the problem though. Maybe it’s a case of the writers not being able to properly tie in the stories of characters who exist in very different spectrums of society. On one hand, you have the useless emperor trying to manage his court full of scheming officials, then you have the merchants who are running their own business and unlawful dealings, then you have Soo In trying to do something useful by working for the merchants one moment and then working in the palace the next moment, and then there’s also Park Yoon Kang being a businessman by day and sleuthing around at night. They are all connected, but somehow they also feel disjointed to me. *shrugs* The story also became rather repetitive after a while, with Yoon Kang trying to kill his nemesis several times but fails to do so.
I was also quite peeved with the ending, which made me question the purpose of producing this drama in the first place. All along, I thought the story was about change — about how Yoon Kang gave up the sword for the gun to seek revenge and change society at the same time, about how the people put up a struggle against the traditional class system and fought for equality. [Spoiler!] Even more so when Park Yoon Kang took part in the rebellion against the monarchy, and the rebels even looked like they were going to succeed in setting up a new democratic government. So I was greatly disappointed (“greatly disappointed” is actually an understatement of how I felt) when everything went back to square one! [SPOILER] Seeing Park Yoon Kang enjoy marital bliss with Soo In as some bandit in hiding wasn’t the kind of ending I had expected! Urgh. Seems like I was expecting something entirely different from what the writers had in mind, and I felt cheated.
The drama was beautifully filmed, but I was never fully emotionally invested in the story. The drama had lots of potential to be something better. I wanted a meaningful drama that said something about history and society, but all I got was a romance story in the end.