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As expected, Jang Geun Suk is kind of creeping me out right now in Love Rain, and it’s not just his hair.  But there was a time when he was supposed to be creepy on purpose, when it actually worked in his favor, and that was when he played the sort of villain in one of my favorite dramas of all time, Hong Gil Dong.  This was the 2008 fusion sageuk from the wonderful Hong Sisters about the legendary hero Hong Gil Dong, and the havoc he wreaks in a dirty, corrupt world.  Even if you don’t know the legend, this drama is a crazy fun superhero-esque story, with a semi-mystical hero and his band of merry, king overthrowing thieves.

Hong Gil Dong (Kang Ji Hwan, Lie to Me) is the illegitimate son of a high-ranking official who spends all of his days loafing about and eating/stuffing his cheeks until they bulge.  He’s kind of the joke of the town, but like so many of the best heroes, this is all just an act – this boorish alter ego is a front for the best fighter in all the land.

He would have been content to waste away his life in this way, but heroes can never do that.  When a mysterious new merchant clan comes to town, headed by the even more mysterious Lee Chang Hwi (Jang Geun Suk), Hong Gil Dong gets swept up in a plot to overthrow the current crazy king and install a new world order.

But having become the people’s hero, what place does someone like Hong Gil Dong have in this brave new world, which can’t help but seem an awful lot like the last one?  Come on, Gil Dong, don’t you know what happens when people like you get involved in coups?

His love interest is the scamp Heo Yi Nok (Sung Yu Ri, Romance Town), who has just returned from China with her rascally grandfather, Heo No Im (Jung Kyu Soo, Dream High 2), with plans to rake in the gold by cheating people with fake medicine.  What is outside of her calculations is meeting the rude Hong Gil Dong and falling in love.

She also gets involved with our hero and the cause, mostly because Chang Hwi falls for her too.  And as with everyone in the drama, there’s more to her than meets the eye, and her discovery of her past affects not just her love life, but the rebel cause as well.

Her non-rival for Hong Gil Dong’s affection is Seo Eun Hye (Kim Ri Na), a chilling but interesting noblewoman whose intelligence and talent are wasted because of the time period and her station – she has that in common with Gil Dong since, as an illegitimate son, he couldn’t do anything either.  The limitations of her life make her very bored with this world until she meets the strange and charismatic Hong Gil Dong.

But the love of a woman like Eun Hye, who I have to admit was kind of psycho, can have very dangerous consequences for everyone.  I thought the actress was fine, so I don’t know why the director gave her a hard time.  Maybe she played her semi-unlikable character too well.

Hong Gil Dong wouldn’t be much of a Robin Hood/folk hero without a cohort of some sort, so the drama supplies him with a ready-made set of playmates with which to perform his acts of derring-do.  What’s the point of being a hero and having super powers if you don’t have a Scooby Gang?

His band of merry men (and one woman) was pretty fun, and it seemed like there was a real camaraderie on set which is always nice.  They had a lot of fun missions together that didn’t really make sense, but at least they got to dress up, go undercover, fight, and make their enemies look foolish.

It would have been nice to have Yi Nok more involved, but such is the fate of the hero’s leading lady – getting benched a lot.  It was all really campy and comic book-y, so of course it was wonderful.  Towards the end, the drama became vaguely hippie-esque, with the talk of revolution and communes, but why not?  He’s Hong Gil Dong, so he and his friends can do whatever they want.

At 24 episodes, there was more than enough time to devote to romance, even with all of the political intrigue and stealing from the rich.  Much attention was paid to a pretty good love triangle between Hong Gil Dong, Yi Nok, and Chang Hwi.

It was one of those dramas where the main girl spends more time with the second guy, but I guess it’s a testament to the actors and the script that no matter how many cute moments Yi Nok and Chang Hwi spent together, I couldn’t imagine her with anyone but Gil Dong.  It helped that Chang Hwi looked like a child compared to our hero and Yi Nok, so even at his most sinister or jealous, he just came across as a spoiled little kid with an outsized crush on his nuna.

Of course there were wrenches thrown into this romance, and I think the drama set up a nice Romeo and Juliet type story with an honest resolution.  For a Hong Sisters drama, the angst was kept in check.  I guess there’s not much room for angst when there’s a revolution going on.

The legendary Hong Gil Dong is known to us from a book written in the Joseon Dynasty, The Tale of Hong Gil Dong (Hong Gildong-jeon), which recounts his mystical origins and exploits, up until he eventually settles down as the king of Yul Do after he has driven out the demons (I can’t really say how historically accurate this book is).

Now Hong Gil Dong is a kind of placeholder name in Korea which I think is a way cooler one than John Doe.  This probably stems from a plot point in the book which involved the government trying to catch him and ending up with 300 different people – we are all Hong Gil Dong.  He is still a popular figure in pop culture, too, with movies, manhwa, musicals, and video games devoted to his life.  I like to think of this drama as the definitive statement on Hong Gil Dong.

The drama included some fun winks to the book and some revisionist history – just what you would expect from the Hong Sisters.  I particularly liked how they had one of their characters write the book The Tale of Hong Gil Dong and publish it in the drama’s timeline – how meta!  I think it was one of the dramas where they tried to say more about “serious” topics like justice and stuff, and I appreciated that, but don’t worry – there was no danger of it getting too heavy since they always threw in some gross bathroom jokes to balance things out.  We saw the Hong Sisters flirting with this over the top fusion in Sassy Girl Chun Hyang, so it was nice to see that they could do something that was more earnest like this, too.  The drama stopped being a total fusion one early on, and I kind of welcomed that since as much as I like fusion elements, I do not need to see people breakdancing in the Joseon.

I keep wanting to like Kang Ji Hwan, though I’m not sure why, and I never really do.  He’s likable enough in dramas, and I don’t even mind his high voice, so I don’t see what the problem is.  I’ve seen a fair few of his dramas, and this one was by far the best.  Exhibition of Fireworks was ok mostly because of Han Chae Young, but Scandal in Old Seoul was a bit of a mess.  I’m curious to see him in Lie to Me, but to be honest that would be more for Yoon Eun Hye and maybe Sung Joon.  I did like him better than Jang Geun Suk, though – I guess that’s something.  And he really reminds me of Eom Ki Joon – is that just me?

Sung Yu Ri, from the pop group FinKL, is kind of a bad actress although she’s trying really, really hard.  I can’t help but think that a better actress could have made Yi Nok at least a little more likable.  There was so much potential to have a really funny scoundrel-type of character, so rare for a female, but instead they just made her a blockhead, but a pretty one with a handful of martial arts moves and an appetite to rival Gil Dong’s.  Of all the things she could have had in common with him, she gets his crazy stomach?

I know this is Hong Gil Dong’s story, but the drama couldn’t have made her a little smarter and a little slicker of a fighter?  Thus started a disturbing Hong Sisters trend where they kept making the heroine a nice, stupid girl.  So maybe it wasn’t her at all, but the script.  I really hate how “naive” has become code for dumb, and I hope this doesn’t become their thing – it makes you wonder whether they have a really low opinion of women and the men who like them.

For some reason, probably because I watched it at around the same time, I kept comparing her to Sujini from Legend – the child actress Shim Eun Kyung did such a good job playing a sketchy girl that even she might have been a better Yi Nok if she had been older.  I think Sung Yu Ri could be good in the right role, but she seems to gravitate towards really wrong ones.

She wasn’t that funny here, but she was pretty good as the angry woman bent on revenge – so maybe makjang?  In Romance Town she was so much better at playing the rich princess type rather than the poor maid – so maybe makjang again?  She’s currently in a weekend drama, Feast of the Gods, and a movie, Runway Cop, which reunites her with Kang Ji Hwan – Hong Gil Dong and Yi Nok forever!

This wasn’t my first encounter with Jang Geun Suk – that was Hwang Ji Ni where he played a kind of child groom and had the most ridiculous romance ever with Ha Ji Won.  She was just too much woman for him, I think.

He was better here (though that might have just been the script), but I liked the behind the scenes features better which showed him roasting squid on a space heater – clever, he is!  I think You’re Beautiful and the movie Baby and I were better showcases for him, but Chang Hwi was still a fun role.  Mostly because I was always wondering whether he could see anything with all of that hair in his face.

There was a sprawling side cast in addition to Hong Gil Dong’s crew, but my favorite was probably his monk mentor/master, Hye Myung (Jung Eun Pyo) – he of the off-putting but hilarious laugh.  He could do everything – blow down trees, fight with deadly skill, win ddeok battles, and read faces.  He was just what you expected from a magical monk who trained heroes.

He also had a nice friendship with Yi Nok’s father, so those two old-timers really added a lot to the drama.  Maybe they didn’t lend gravitas, but who needs that?

It was a little lame seeing Choi Ran, who can be so funny, play a straight up serious role as the cold-hearted Lady Noh – not even one smile?  And not one fun scene with her Hong Sisters’ partner, Ahn Suk Hwan, who played Eun Hye’s corrupt father?  Lame.

It’s weird that casting for this drama was such a problem.  The actors originally cast were Joo Ji Hoon (Princess Hours) as Hong Gil Dong, and Jo Hyun Jae (Nine Tailed Fox) as the exiled prince Chang Hwi.  So in addition to switching the actors, they seemed to switch the ages around – I’m still debating whether that was the right thing to do.  A young rabble rouser and an older prince versus an older rabble rouser and a younger prince – those have two very different feels.  See, the best dramas leave you with so much to think about long after you’ve finished the series.  Maybe I should just be glad that the finished product was so good.

This was one of the few dramas with a good ending – do you know how rare that is?  I can’t believe this is only the first full period piece I’ve reviewed since I’ve loved so many.  They are so fun and sweeping, and you can have lots of fight scenes without thinking it’s weird since that must have been what they did in the olden days.  Dramas like this and Tamra the Island, Iljimae, or Sungkyunkwan Scandal can be some of the best things ever.  In some ways this drama was similar to Iljimae since the latter was also a phantom thief/Robin Hood-esque figure, but the feels of the dramas were so different.  Iljimae was so fun, but more serious, while Hong Gil Dong was more lighthearted and even slice-of-life in tone.

I’m less of a fan of the straight-up period piece, like those endless taeha dramas which are like never-ending biopics, though if I happen to see a really good one, like Dae Jang Geum (is there actually going to be a sequel to that soon?) or Jumong, I’ll get really into it.  But I prefer my sageuks like Hong Gil Dong – suspenseful, fun romps with lots of humor, romance, and action, and only the barest nods to historical accuracy.  It’s been awhile since I’ve seen one as fun as this one – where is Hong Gil Dong?

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Nine Tailed Fox: Series Review