Hello everyone, my apologies for the long and unannounced hiatus and thanks for your patience. I’m back from the dead to bring you a recap and some thoughts on Hwarang. When it was first announced I was quite excited, though once the posters were released I was honestly baffled. Seeing as they looked like a live action version of Ouran High School Host Club, let’s just say my expectations plummeted. Were the first two episodes worth the media buildup? Check out the my recap and comments below. [Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].
Well, we begin with some tragic wigs and wannabe gang members. Basically an unexplained skirmish occurs between a group of weenies and our pair of friends, Moo Myung (Park Seo Joon) and Mak Moon (Lee Kwang Soo). I never really figured out the reason for their brawl aside from maybe wanting to determine a town leader or something but it didn’t seem all that important.
We have a Queen Mother Jisoo (Kim Ji Soo) who is apparently greedy for the throne (sounds familiar) and decides to talk her prisoner, Kong Wi Hwa (Sung Dong Il), into gathering a group of pretty boy protectors for the king. He agrees, but pretty reluctantly.
Mak Moon is trying to find his father, whom he was separated from at a young age. He only has a special necklace to go by and Moo Myung vows to help him in his search. The two cross over into capital territory, which is a crime worthy of death during the time of the Silla Dynasty.
Meanwhile we meet A Ro (Go Ara) and Sam Maek Jong/The King (Hyungsik). A Ro tells stories for money and Maek Jong, who secretly listens in, seems to find them ridiculous, falling asleep halfway through.
Our boys walk in as some crooks cheat at the gambling table. They try to interfere for the sake of the poor man being swindled but they only end up getting themselves in trouble since they are easily sniffed out as peasants who have crossed over into the capital. A chase ensues and the pair are separated having decided to meet back later.
Enter Wi Hwa into a dazzling tea shop where he meets the owner Pi Joo Ki (Kim Kwang Kyu). Wi Hwa beckons him over in order to initiate the pretty boy search. He needs Joo Ki’s assistance in scoping out some fine looking men for recruitment.
A Ro gets drunk after one of her bosses cheats her out of her pay. In retaliation she drinks up a huge pot full of liquor which intoxicates her instantaneously. As she stumbles down the road, she meets our main man Moo Myung, who saves her from being trampled over by the quickly approaching man on horseback. She calls him handsome but he’s not really feeling it, besides…he’s on the run and can’t afford to stop and flirt. (This whole scene is honestly an extremely shitty homage to the Scarlet Heart Ryeo scene between Hae Soo and Wang So and I couldn’t help but cringe from second hand embarrassment).
Then we meet Mak Moon’s father, Gong An Ji (Choi Won Young). A gentle doctor who takes care of a patient despite his lack of ability to pay for the services. He is still looking for Mak Moon, and has searched high and low without success.
The young King faces his mother in a rather anticlimactic exchange of words. He’s clearly aware of her greed for the throne, but you could never guess she was intimidating enough for him to back down, due to the continuous blank expression that actress Kim Ji Soo has been sporting for the entirety of the episode (yikes).
Then mommy hires an assassin to kill her son. How kind. He sniffs this out before the lowly peasant posing as an assassin (to make ends meet) even takes the first step into the bedroom. The King has intentions to let the the poor man go since he only did it for three bushels of rice to feed his family. The King calls out for his bodyguard, Pa O (Yoo Jae Myung), however, it is the Queen’s main man, Hyun Chu (Lee Kwan Hoon) who enters and kills the assassin. He claims that it is the Queen’s orders, since no one is allowed to see the King’s face.
This leads to Mak Moon accidentally getting a glimpse of the King’s face, a big no no since his mother is insisting on his identity being kept a secret. He’s able to escape with the help of his pal Moo Myung, who seems to always show up at the right time. Mak Moon reveals that he believes he just saw the King, but Moo Myung laughs it off, finding the idea preposterous. Moo Myung asks to hold onto the necklace so he can scour the capital the next day, knowing that Mak Moon’s height prevents him from being able to blend in with the capital crowd.
The next day Moo Myung inquires about the necklace with no luck. He eventually meets merchant Joo Ki, who thinks it looks familiar. He also presumes that Moo Myung is ugly, since he covers his face with a hat but is proven quite wrong when Moo Myung eventually lifts it and bears his beautiful looks.
Fast forward to that evening and suddenly we have Mak Moon standing in the vicinity of what I am convinced is a Silla version of a night club. (It really has no business being there and the architecture screams modern day but okay I’ll try and go with it). Anyway this night club is popping. Its got music, its got dancers, its got fine looking gisaengs dressed to the nines, oh and most importantly, it has rival boy group cliques. Yes you read correctly. This night club is home to two pretty boy clans. On one side we have leader Soo Ho (Minho) and his crew, and on the other we have head honcho Ban Ryu (Do Ji Han) and his homies. And let me tell you, these boys are petty as fuck. Looked like a clip from something you’d see in an all girl high school locker room.
Meanwhile, A Ro is in a room full of gisaengs where she begins spinning her stories. Both boy cliques listen in through the walls, including the King.
Anyway Mak Moon peeps this poppin’ party and definitely likes some of the ladies, but more importantly he spots the very same necklace his father gave him on A Ro and realizes she might be his long lost sister. He manages to squeeze into the club by pretending to be a booze delivery man but he eventually gets found out and then beaten up by the lowest ranking member of Ban Ryu’s Homie Hut. Unfortunately for Mak Moon, this guy’s already in a cruddy mood thanks to Ban Ryu’s earlier smug reminder that he’s the lowest on the totem pole. I guess he thinks beating up a peasant is a way to boost his status and fan his insecurities.
By now A Ro has lost her audience, as everyone has gathered in the main hall to spectate this fight. A Ro is left alone, or so she thinks until the King enters the room, now dark and stands extremely close to her. She closes her eyes and backs away thinking he’s going to hurt her and questions his identity and purpose. The King seems to tease her by making statements that correlate to her story, but it’s pretty clear he has no intention of hurting her.
Back at the fight club, Ban Ryu’s extra baggage ends up getting his own ass whooped, publicly I might add, once Moo Myung shows up and literally pummels him to a pulp without breaking a drop of sweat. Cool, calm, and collected, Moo Myung dips, taking his battered buddy with him much to Soo Ho’s amusement.
This episode has a heavy focus on Mak Moon’s impending and ultimate death. Though they escape the night club, the pair are ultimately hunted down by Queen Ji Soo’s henchman Hyun Chu. Moo Myung tries to help Mak Moon escape, but unfortunately his fainting condition kicks in at the worst moment, right as Hyun Chu is charging at them on his horse. He’s not a merciless man either and doesn’t even pause before striking them both down with his blade. Moo Myung is devastated at the sight of his dying friend Mak Moon, who tells him to remain quiet as he smears his own blood onto Moo Myung’s face to ensure that he appears to be dead. He tries to comfort his friend and tell him to live on.
The King arrives at the scene to find the two gutted men, and sighs in disgust that it his his own fault that they are dead. Pa O notices that Moo Myung is still breathing, but they ultimately walk away from the scene, not without Moo Myung getting a glimpse of the King’s wrist/bracelet as a marker. The two are gravely injured and it is by chance that Mak Moon’s father, An Ji discovers the bloody pair on the brink of death leaning against a tree. The three men share a devastating last exchange. As angry and heartbroken as Moo Myung is, Mak Moon’s final words are a bittersweet, “we found him” before he breathes his last.
The doctor then walks off with a passed out Moo Myung on his shoulders, his son’s burial in the background. A Ro shows up to her father’s house, unknowing of the previous night’s events. Her father plans to keep it that way, only informing her that he has a very important patient and won’t be making any house calls for the time being. That patient is Moo Myung, who the doctor has brought back to life. Moo Myung is still mourning the loss of his friend and therefore exchanges cross words with the doctor and refuses to eat. It isn’t until A Ro brings him food and he remembers how Mak Moon promised he could marry his sister that he decides to eat. The two never catch a glimpse of each other’s faces however.
Moo Myung receives a pair of capital worthy clothes from the doctor that were intended for Mak Moon before taking off on a new mission to exact revenge on the man who killed Mak Moon.
Meanwhile, a notice calling for talented pretty boys to join the king’s guard is put out around the town. Both boy cliques take a gander at this proposal and pass insults back and forth. Merchant Joo Ki assigns A Ro the job of hunting down potential flower boys. She takes this very seriously and proves to be decent at this task.
The King spots her in the crowd while she’s on the job and begins to follow her, but he has also attracted a follower, Moo Myung. Unfortunately, Moo Myung has spotted the bracelet he’s wearing, and it’s the one he saw the night of Mak Moo’s death. He thinks it’s the King that killed his friend, but really it was Hyun Chu. Unknowing of this fact, Moo Myung stalks him with the intention of killing him.
The King hides in an old building, where A Ro enters in search of some possible recruitees. The King quickly grabs her from behind, pulling her close and telling her to remain quiet, for if she makes a noise, the man following him may kill them both. Enter Moo Myung, who eventually engages in tense conversation with the hidden King. The King lets go of A Ro and quietly tells her to escape. But Moo Myung starts cutting through obstacles in his desperation to find who he thinks is the murderer of his friend, and is caught by surprise when he and his sword are met with A Ro’s face, instead of the male’s.
I’m not quite sure where to begin on this one. I don’t hate it, but I’m not loving it either. It’s an extremely odd drama with its own flavor, I’ll give it that. Unfortunately, there’s a lot gone wrong here.
Styling: First of all, it doesn’t feel pre-produced in the slightest. My first impression was an extremely low budget version of Scarlet Heart Ryeo with a B grade cast that lacks the glamour and beautiful cinematography that Scarlet Heart Ryeo could provide. Don’t get me wrong, SHR had its own breed of problems, but they don’t come close to the catastrophe that’s happening here. I’m not sure what’s worse, the overly colorful and accessorized costumes from the local Halloween Adventure Store or the dowdy wigs that just beg to be burned. It’s extremely distracting, especially the styling. The dangle earrings Minho sports are an atrocity to mankind. Not to mention everything looks extremely prop-like and fake in the drama which really takes away that element of realness that can transport you into the realm of a sageuk.
Cinematography…or lack thereof : But styling aside, let’s talk about the filming because I am straight up dizzy from the shoddy camera work and transitions. It’s extremely choppy and there is a ton of shakiness during scenes of pursuit which is really unprofessional. It’s like they shot it from an old samsung phone on video mode without stabilizers. Not to mention there’s practically no landscape scenes or captivating elements for the eye to look at (It’s just us and those ratty wigs). And some moments are just plain awful, eg. the scene where PSJ makes an impossible jump across the cliff and they decide to use this stupid slow motion action scene effect that screams corny. And what was up with that random Night club????? It was so geometrically constructed that it looked photoshopped into the Silla era. It was utterly ridiculous to the point where I actually burst out laughing at the thought of them thinking we’d find it believable. It’s like they thought if they casually slipped it in there we wouldn’t notice (we noticed).
Moving onto the cast: I’m honestly miffed. I’ll start with the disclaimer that I love Park Seo Joon. I do. He’s brilliant. I mean it. So now you know how painful it must be for me to say I wasn’t impressed. Some people just aren’t made for sageuks and unfortunately, I’m thinking this might be true for our main man. Look, everyone has their specialties and their weaknesses (not everyone can crush sageuks like Lee Jun Ki and similarly I would add that Lee Jun Ki shines less in lighthearted modern day dramas). That being said, I think Seo Joon’s achilles heel may be sageuks. He doesn’t seem to be able to really take command of the role and own it. It’s like he’s not quite sure what he’s supposed to do. It just doesn’t seem convincing to me and that’s an issue.
Surprisingly, I found Hyungsik a lot more convincing. He looked extremely comfortable in his role, and from the start I felt like he had control of the reigns. I found his scenes a lot more interesting than Seo Joon’s and ironically, I’d never even seen or heard of Hyungsik before watching Hwarang. Similarly with Seo Joon, I felt Minho looked very out of place. He just looks like the odd man out. It was honestly jarring. I’m not a fan of his acting to begin with, but acting chops aside, his visuals were just distractingly unfit for the scene.
The Queen was also a dud for me. I’d say Kim Ji Soo’s uninspiring queen mother couldn’t hold a candle to Park Ji Young’s bone chilling performance as Wang So’s coldhearted and greedy mother in Scarlet Heart Ryeo. She really fell flat and I find her lisp extremely distracting as well (it’s not her fault, but unfortunately good diction a key part of acting and a significant lisp takes away from that). But lisp aside, her entire persona from facial expressions (or lack thereof) to monotonous tone are a total buzzkill and leave a lot to be desired.
Sorry, but I also must address how glaringly awful Go Ara is in this drama. This is my first time seeing her act, but I hope it’s the last. I’m not sure if she’s this bad all the time or if she’s also trying to figure out what the fuck this drama is attempting to be. Her character is often the target of the tragically embarrassing wannabe comedic moments that come off as awkward, and not to mention uncomfortable. Her facial expressions are like an overdone New York Strip steak. Way too much. It’s just horrifying to watch her overreact to every little thing. I suddenly have a newfound appreciation for IU, and that’s saying something.
For me, the veteran actors were the real star of the show here. I found the brief exchanges between Kim Kwang Kyu and Sung Dong Il to be the most comedic and captivating. Their chemistry was very natural and quite humorous which was much needed in these messy first episodes. Props to Choi Won Young as well. I thought he portrayed the role as father and doctor very well and was extremely believable. Kwangsoo’s cameo actually gave the drama some desperately needed depth. It’s a shame he had to die, but I would say his character’s sacrifice was necessary and finally gave the drama something to propel it forward. For this reason, I found episode two a lot more intriguing than episode one. Still, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before I commit to watching it. If it doesn’t get its act together by episode six, I’m most likely dropping it.
Are you watching Hwarang? What did you think of the first two episodes? If you haven’t seen them, you can check out the extended preview here.