For the first two weeks of it’s airing I was finding Gaksital to be something of a mixed bag. It was very pretty to look at, but the direction was scattered, more focused on flashy angles than actually constructing a story. Mok Dan was a fabulous character, but Jin Se Yeon was a weak actress. The action sequences were fun, but the music distracting. Our villains, Koreans who have betrayed their country in favor of working for the imperialist Japanese regime, were laughably incompetent. They were (and are) drawn with such broad strokes that they approached caricature. In fact, I think Kang To is more of a threat to the Joseons than they are, with the exception of Rie. Isn’t it interesting that the biggest menaces the resistance faces…are Joseons themselves? So far it seems that the real threat is Joseon disunion, which would be a great theme because it’s one that we find in Kang To himself, and in his interactions with both sides–neither trusts him and he trusts neither. Joo Won is a strong actor and the material is there for him to work with in the character of Kang To, but the only other character who seems to have as much thought put into her is Rie.
And finally, the romance, which is what I am most invested in because I love romance, is hackneyed–we’re dealing with first loves and somehow everyone just happens to have known each other from the past–and disjointed. Why is in episode 4, when Kang To suddenly remembers Mok Dan as a child, this the first time we’re hearing of it, especially since it’s going to figure as such a large part of the story? It is so sudden, and is made even more so by how apparent it has been all along that it was he who had given her the knife. It’s like a bunch of pieces from different jigsaw puzzles thrown in together. They are first loves–but wait, Mok Dan is Shunji’s first love, too! And they’re best friends! It’s just…too much. Even worse, Kang To is shaping up to be the stereotypical manpain-full, misogynistic romantic lead that I became disused to while watching Queen In Hyun’s Man: he learns “to be human” through his recognizing the physical pain he inflicts on our heroine, he’s possessively jealous, and he monopolizes our heroine’s space and touches her when she explicitly tells him not to. Oh, and he tortures and shoots her.
Add to all this how uncomfortable I felt watching someone pretend to be mentally disabled (and how I’d just finished watching the perfection that is Queen In Hyun’s Man, not to mention how much I love Joo Won’s previous project, Ojakgyo Brothers) and I had a show I was unsure about. But I recognize that there are a lot of politics and history that I don’t know, and that could be coloring my experience. I’m glad I’ve continued watching, because this week Gaksital has become…engaging. While before it was it was more focused on exposition and setting up the story, which kind of held the viewer at arms length, now the story is unfolding, and it invites us in to experience it. It’s the difference between reading a summary and the novel itself. (Of course, Joo Won’s face certainly helped to keep me watching.)
On Kang To and Rage
If there’s one thing that characterizes Kang To, it’s uncontrollable rage. It’s not an anger, but an intense, wholly consuming fury. It takes over his whole being and comes out in how he speaks, always barking and growling and urgent, how he carries himself, always on edge and ready to dodge a knife that may come flying at his face (because very few people like him and very many people want him dead), how he sneers his way around people who annoy him but have more institutional power than him, and how he fights, with pounding punches and hits that break a person’s neck. It’s his motivation, a fuel that keeps his wounds fresh and the taste of possible victory (in the form of catching Gaksital and moving up the bureaucratic ladder) in his mouth. It even colors his other emotions–behind his sadness, his confusion, his pride, behind anything else he may feel, is rage. He just cannot keep it n check.
One telling example is in episode 6, right after he’s discovered that he has just killed Gaksital, and that Gaksital is his brother. He’s shocked and repulsed, and when is brother takes his last breath in his arms he recoils as if he’s scared. He can’t really believe or even grasp what’s happening, and he’s in a state of doubt and denial. He’s crying and shaking and hyperventilating, and he calls to his mother, saying, “Mother, Mother come out. Hyung seems to be dead.” He needs someone else to come and see this, he needs a witness to confirm what seems to be happening. But when his mother doesn’t answer, his cries turn from calling to commanding. It’s that fury, leaping out again, even in the midst of all his confusion and this sudden loss and the despair that comes with it. He shouts, “Come and see.” And when she doesn’t he glares at the house and marches over to her, screaming “Can’t you hear me? Get up!” I don’t know what’s more heartbreaking, him grappling with the fresh knowledge that he just killed his brother, or the cruel irony of watching him yelling pointlessly at his dead mother.
And that’s the thing about Kang To’s rage. It’s impotent, futile, useless to him. In fact, it’s worse than useless. It’s counterproductive. The most blatant manifestation of his fury is in episode 1, when Gaksital escapes him and he screams out his name. It’s a moment of failure. Every time Kang To uses his gun it leads to disaster–most of the time he misses (everyone seems to be a terrible shot on this show) and when he doesn’t he shoots the love of his life and kills his brother. His rage works against him.
There’s a scene that illustrates it perfectly. In episode 5, after he’s shot Mok Dan, Kang to rushes her to the hospital, the same hospital where we were previously shown a poor Joseon man being denied care because he wasn’t Japanese. Kang To encounters the same problem. Mok Dan isn’t Japanese and so the doctor takes one look at her and simply ignores Kang To. Paralleling when he asks his mother if she can’t hear him (it’s like he screams so much because he’s afraid no one is actully paying attention to what he’s saying), he demands, “Aren’t you listening to what I say?” When the doctor tells him he can’t treat her because she’s Korean, Kang To whips out his gun (rage)–the one he just used to shoot Mok Dan–points it at the doctors head, and screams at him to treat her. He tries to pull rank, saying that he’s “Officer Lee Kang To of the Jong Ro Station.” (Note that in episode 2 when Kenji arrests him and hauls him into the police station and starts beating him up he does the same and screams, “Are you crazy?! I am an officer of the Japanese Imperial Police! A lieutenant of Jung Ro Police Station, appointed by Director Konno!” He thinks his position can protect him, but it doesn’t, and it never will. No matter how hard he tries he will always be Korean.) But all this does is get the doctor to admit that if the director of the hospital agrees, then they can treat her. And when Kang to meets the director, he doesn’t pull out his gun, doesn’t yell at him. He shows deference. He lies about his true motivations. And it works. That’s what saves Mok Dan, his ability to control his rage and act accordingly. It’s a much more significant gesture than holding the gun to the other doctor’s head because it’s obvious that Kang To is trigger happy. It’s easy for him to yell and pull out a gun, easy for him to command others, but it takes much more for him in that moment of extreme anxiety to exert control over his emotions. He lies and is able to trick the director into treating ok Dan, and as I’ll address below, it’s a strategy that Mok Dan uses. It’s his inability to hide just how much he cares that tips the director that something is off. It’s the people who are able to hide the most–Kang San-Gaksital and Rie, who are the most effective in this world. If Kang To is going to live the double life of Japanese police officer/Gaksital, he’s going to have to learn how to control his emotions (not necessarily repress them) and switch faces as quickly as Mok Dan does.
On Kang To, Gaksital, and Family
Kang To is very goal oriented. He enjoys having orders, which is why the police/state power framework works so well for him. He gets an assignment and works on it until he has finished it. When he succeeds he is promoted. He sees the results of his work and he’s rewarded for them. I think it’s one of the reasons why he is able to have such distain for the resistance: it isn’t organized. There is no one clear leader, and the way to get to the goal of liberation isn’t well defined. Even that goal itself isn’t something concrete and wholly understandable, but this vague idea that exists because of the occupation. That’s one reason why he’ll now be able to function on the side of the resistance as Gaksital when he wasn’t able to support them before. Gaksital is a freedom fighter, but his existence isn’t really dependent on the resistance. Gaksital’s main objective, as created by Kang San, is to avenge their father’s death. That is a concrete, achievable goal. And there is an understandable plan as to how to go about it: take out each of the members of Koshokai who betrayed their father. It makes sense that Kang San-Gaksital’s last act–killing Kenji–is the first thing we see Kang To-Gaksital finishing. It serves an immediate purpose, revenge for their dead mother, and it makes use of Kang To’s rage. (Of course, his rage bites him in the ass again, because Shunji sees him and his best friend immediately becomes an enemy.)
We can already see a difference in the two brothers’ manifestations of the masked hero. Kang To-Gaksital kills Kenji with his bare hands. He’s definitely going to be more violent, and Gaksital was already pretty violent to begin with, what with his throwing people out of windows. Kang San-Gaksital tried to keep a distance between his two identities. He didn’t tell his mother or brother, pretended to be mentally disabled, and never showed his face to Mok Dan. It wasn’t until after Damsari’s escape that the conflict between him and Kang To really started. But Kang To-Gaksital is immediately thrust into the thick of things, with Shunji hating him and Kimura even more determined to see him dead. Kang San-Gaksital was an enemy of the state and an unknowing enemy of his brother. Kang To-Gaksital is everyone’s enemy.
It’s such a strange relationship between these two. Why did Kang San pretend to be mentally disabled without telling his family? Why was he willing to put them through that, especially his mother, who had already lost a husband? Why did he continue when he understood that his disability helped to push Kang To over the edge and into the arms of Japanese police bureaucracy and cruelty? It’s kind of disgusting that the straw that broke the camel’s back is a lie. It’s almost…exploitative.
An interesting (and incredibly upsetting) moment between them comes in episode 3 when Kang To starts beating Kang San up. Kang San doesn’t fight back, and the entire time Kang To is just completely enraged. He had been beating up a man who had previously mocked and hit Kang San, and Kang San interrupted and stopped him, and now Kang To redirects his wrath at him: “I don’t need a brother like you. It would have been better if you had died. Die! Die!”all while kicking him His mother intervenes and when he says, “That retarded idiot makes me go crazy,” she slaps him. He asks her, “Do you like hyung so much?” He’s incredulous. He can’t understand how his mother can not be resentful of him for allowing himself to become disabled for the resistance, for giving so much to the resistance. What’s more, he can’t understand how his mother could respect his brother more, how she can find more pride in Kang San, his “idiot brother” than in him. He wants his mother to have the same reaction to his brother that he has, which is a mixture of disgust and betrayal. It’s the same mixture he shows in episode 6 after he discovers his mother is dead. He’s disgusted that Kang San would act as some kind of savior to the Joseon people when he couldn’t even protect his own mother (a feeling Kang san shares) and he feels betrayed that Kang San would lie to him for so long, and lie to him for something he hates as much as the resistance. His reaction to his brother’s disability makes me think that another thing that’s getting at Kang To is shame. Shame that his family has fallen from the position they used to occupy (active revolutionaries) and shame that his brother is (seemingly) disabled. He tells his mother his name isn’t Lee Kang To, but Sato Hiroshi. It’s with the name Sato Hiroshi that he can work his way upward from the poverty and the insignificance of the name Lee–Lee is too common a Joseon name and he can’t do anything with it, it’s shameful to bear that name and be content with it. And now that he’s killed his brother, realizes he’s been hurting the woman he begged to stay alive, and his mother has died without their having a real reconciliation, shame is even more of a factor for him.
That question of how much a person is made to give is one that Kang San faces in the very last hours of his life. But he’d encountered it before, in episode 3 when he overhears the cries of the people his brother is torturing as he searches for him. Holding his dead mother he looks over at the Gaksital mask with resentment, the thing Kang To has been feeling all this while, while before he just seemed resigned. The mask is just lying on the ground, an inanimate object, but something that he’s invested with so much power and which carries so much meaning for so many. And yet it was forged out of loss (the loss of his father) and it continues with it ( Kang To wears it after his entire family has been killed). Is it worth it? The personal sacrifices and the ones others make for you? I have a feeling Gaksital is something finite, that really can’t last.
And finally we come to their mother. She’s a woman who has lost her husband to the resistance, and she’s probably lost many of her friends, too. She’s certainly lost the station she used to hold before one of her sons became disabled and the other a traitor. I see her as just as much of a revolutionary as Gaksital. Her last act in the show was an act of a mother and a freedom fighter. She was defending Kang San her son and Gaksital the symbol for the resistance. It was an incredible moment of agency for her, tragic, but also a firm political statement. Again, another example of how much one is made to give.
On Mok Dan and Rie
Mok Dan has three names: Boon Yo, Esther, and Mok Dan. She’s lived three different kinds of lives: when she was a kid, alone and apparently abandoned, as a novice nun, and as part of the circus. She’s traveled the country with the circus, and her specialty there is switching masks on and off really quickly. She’s an entertainer, a woman of many faces. When she’s trying to escape from the hospital in episode 6, she switches costumes, first wearing a Japanese police uniform and then a nurses uniform. When she wanted to retrieve her knife she dressed up as aman. She uses the environment around her as a tool. In her first fight with Kang To she hurls fruits from a nearby stand at him and scales the walls of the surrounding buildings to try and escape. Her fighting style is a kind of push and pull, where she’ll throw a rock at Kang To’s head and charge at him screaming with a knife and try to kill him, but slip in and out of places through windows and by using trickery instead of force. While Kang To puts faith in rank and where he stands with his, Mok Dan flouts it, wearing a police officer’s uniform and using it escape the police.
Ueno Rie is also and entertainer, a singer, and she was also saved by Kang To. She’s cold, calculating, and powerful. Just like Kang To, she revels in that power. She’s full of rage, too, but unlike Kang To she keeps it locked down and lets it out in controlled violence. She commands Kimura and the rest of the Kishokai are afraid of her. None of her energy is wasted. While Kang To’s rage is impotent, Rie’s isn’t. She’s is effective, while Kang To is still flapping around trying to catch Gaksital. Look at that look she gives Kang To after first seeing him: it says “I want that, and I’m going to have it.” Mok Dan, unlike them, is full of anger, not rage. She’s passionate. Her anger helps to fuel her actions, but it doesn’t make up the whole of who she is. She has no power and has to walk around in a variety of disguises. Meanwhile Rie’s fighting (what we’ve seen of it so far) is direct—slaps, stomps, and strategic planning. Mok Dan just kind of jumps into the middle of situations and reacts. And there’s a difference in how they act when they’re arrested (which is also a function of the differences in their class and power): Rie knows what the outcome is going to be and remains absolutely silent while Mok Dan is willing to speak but reveals nothing.
I know these two women are destined to be enemies, but I have to confess that I want something different for them. Mok Dan is already going to have to reconcile so much, forgive so much, for her romance with Kang To to even be a possibility, and the idea of these women being romantic as well as political rivals somehow makes it worse for me. The drama makes such a point of telling us how hard it is for Kang To to have to deal with the fact that he “has” to kill his first love, but what of Mok Dan? How crushing is it going to be for her when she realizes what her first love became? When she realizes she’s been longing for such a broken, traitorous, remorseless man? A man who tortured her, a man she wants dead, not for something removed like catching Gaksital to get a promotion, but because he almost got her father executed? All I can say is, Kang To better give her one hell of an apology. I want Rie and Mok Dan to meet and find similarities in their situations. I think Mok Dan’s father is going to be killed, and wouldn’t it be great if we could see how one woman whose family was killed by the resistance and another whose father died for the resistance interact? More than anything I want at least one of them to fight Kang To and kick his ass instead of them fighting each other.
Actually, I would be more invested in a romantic conflict between Kang To and Rie than Kang To and Mok Dan because there is already just so much there. They both are Joseon people who feel betrayed by the resistance and have made the decision to work for the Japanese, and now they are going to be enemies.
Quick Notes: Names and Weapons
- Lee Young/Lee Kang To/Sato Hiroshi: German police issued gun, his bare hands, the might of the Japanese police behind him (Kang To has always been aware of the kind of weapon Gaksital uses, which is why he could immediately tell the attempt on his life was by a fraud; he shoots Mok Dan and kills his brother with the government issued gun, the same kind that was supposed to kill him; when he finally wears the mask he uses no outside weapon at all and kills Kenji with his hands.)
- Boon Yi/Mok Dan/Esther: knife given to her by Lee Young, whatever she finds in her immediate environment
- Kang San-Gaksital: the bridal mask, iron flute, knowledge of Kishokai’s dealings
- Chae Hong Joo/Rie: her Japanese henchman, Kimura at her disposal, her strategizing, poisons and explosives