K-drama Indulgence – Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth

Today’s return to the world of K-drama springs from the urgings of an old friend and fellow addict, who has been raving about how much she loves Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth [Hwarang] (2016-17). Set in 6th century Korea during the Three Kingdoms era and revolving around a group of young men selected from the ranks of the aristocracy for their beauty and accomplishments to serve as an example to the people, it’s perfect material for South Korean TV, providing the showrunners with an obvious excuse to fill out the ranks of the actors with pop stars from 4 different boy bands and an Olympic athlete. Filtered through a strong sense of humour, the combination of political machinations and multiple potential romantic entanglements makes for a highly entertaining romp leavened with moments of tragedy.

The emotional core of the show is the relationship triangle formed by Moo-myung, more commonly nicknamed Dog-Bird (Park Seo-joon), a peasant of unknown parentage; Kim Ji-dwi (Park Hyung-sik), the young King of Silla living under a false identity to avoid assassins while waiting for his mother to hand over the reigns of power; and Kim A-ro (Go Ara), the daughter of a disgraced former court physician.

Dog-Bird and his best friend Mak-moon (Lee Kwang-soo) grew up in a small village outside the Capital of Silla under the care of adoptive father Woo Reuk (Kim Won-hae). Dog-Bird is a natural athlete and fighter with no formal training but quick to pick up new physical skills when given the opportunity. He is also subject to a form of narcolepsy which occasionally causes him to faint at unpredictable intervals, a trait which isn’t over-used in the story but does rear its head at some extremely inconvenient times. Mak-moon is kind, cheerful and an utter klutz – although this doesn’t prevent him from dashing in to attempt to defend Dog-Bird in a tight spot. While Dog-Bird has never known his parents’ identity, he takes some comfort from Mak-moon’s stories of the father and younger sister he hopes to see again one day. Although peasants are barred from entering the Capital upon pain of death, the two sneak over the wall one night in the hopes that they can locate Mak-moon’s family. After various incidents and some promising leads, everything goes tragically wrong after Mak-moon accidentally witnesses an attempt on the life of Ji-dwi. As the Queen has decreed that anybody who sees the face of the King will die, the Commandant (uncredited, possibly Lee Kwan-hoon) gives chase, killing Mak-moon and seriously injuring Dog-Bird, who is left for dead after Mak-moon smears his own blood over his friend’s face. The two are discovered by Mak-moon’s father, exiled physician Lord Kim Ahn-ji (Choi Won-young), who tends to Dog-Bird’s wounds. To facilitate Dog-Bird’s hunt for his son’s killer, and to help fill the gap left by Mak-moon’s premature death, Ahn-ji convinces him to live under his son’s real name of Kim Seon-u (rendered in online sources as Kim Sun-woo – I’ve opted to go with the spelling used in Netflix’s subtitles).

Since the death of King Beophung ten years earlier, Ji-dwi has been living incognito among the people under the protection of his personal bodyguard Pa-oh (Yoo Jae-myung). Now about to come of age, he has grown increasingly frustrated at the unwillingness of his mother, Queen Jiso (Kim Ji-soo), to acknowledge his identity as King Jinheung and allow him to come out of hiding. The Queen continues to cite the danger of assassins and his lack of preparation for the role as the chief impediments, but shows no sign of ever allowing him the opportunity to overcome that lack. The Commandant’s casual execution of a guard who saw Ji-dwi’s face alerts the Queen’s enemies to his presence, resulting in the assassination attempt witnessed by Mak-moon. Although Ji-dwi and Pa-oh chase the Commandant in a desperate attempt to prevent yet another pointless death, they arrive too late – although just in time for Dog-Bird, losing consciousness, to catch a glimpse of Ji-dwi’s clothing and to hear him state his responsibility for Mak-moon’s death. Ji-dwi’s dropped bracelet – which also happens to be the Royal Seal and the only physical evidence that he is the King – is retained by Dog-Bird as evidence leading to the killer of his friend.

Kim A-ro is Mak-moon’s younger sister, who he had longed to introduce to his best friend. Her father has a complicated past with Queen Jiso which ultimately resulted in his exile from her court. His deceased wife was a mute serving girl, which under the rules of the bone-rank system (the Kingdom of Silla’s equivalent of the aristocracy) makes his children “half-breeds”, lacking the privileges granted to the “true bones”. A-ro splits her time between assisting her father with his medical practice; working off a family debt to tea-shop owner Pi Joo-ki (Kim Kwang-kyu); and making some extra money through dramatic recitations of self-penned lurid romance stories to the public. Prone to a fiery temper, she expresses her outrage at being cheated out of wages by one of her creditors by drinking the equivalent from his stock of expensive alcohol, leading to an embarrassing encounter with Dog-Bird on his first day in the city. When they next meet in her father’s home he is introduced as her long-lost brother, setting up many episodes of romantic confusion as she struggles to reconcile her initial attraction with the “return” of her brother, while he desperately tries to fend off his own interest and treat her as a sister (taking some dubious advice about realistic brother-sister behaviour). Meanwhile, of course, she has also managed to attract the interest of Ji-dwi, who has become a fan of her stories. After a cleverly choreographed fight between her two potential suitors in which Dog-Bird, pursuing a man in familiar clothing, never sees Ji-dwi’s face, the two re-encounter each other (unaware that they have just fought) during their separate attempts to rescue A-ro from Dog-Bird’s old enemy Do-ko (Lee Kyu-hyung), marking the beginning of their (somewhat combative) friendship.

While our protagonists are being prepared with enough complicated interrelations to drive 20 episodes worth of plot, the Queen is contending with the management of her Ministers, whose loyalty is split roughly 50/50 between the Queen’s faction of loyalists and the faction of wealthy merchants led by Park Young-sil (Kim Chang-wan), the richest and most powerful among the Ministers, who is responsible for both the continued attempts on the life of the future King and the gradual poisoning of the Queen. In an attempt to tighten her control over the Ministers, Queen Jiso authorises the release from prison of troublemaker Lord Kim Wehwa (according to the subtitles, or Kim Hi-hwa in online sources, played by Sung Dong-il) to oversee the creation of Hwarang (lit. “Flower Boys” or, more lyrically, “Flowering Knights”), drawing together the eldest sons of the aristocracy in a formal society representing the cream of Silla’s cultural, intellectual and military accomplishments. While the Queen sees this as nothing more than a smokescreen to seize control of the Ministers’ sons and thus ensure their fathers’ loyalty, Wehwa’s intent is to live up to Hwarang’s stated ideals, carrying out his educational remit while attempting to mould the future leaders of Silla so that they will transform their society into a more egalitarian one rather than perpetuating a system of ingrained privilege free from any sense of responsibility to their subjects. Wehwa contacts his old friend Joo-ki for assistance, who in turn enlists A-ro to do the ground work in identifying Silla’s best and brightest (and hottest).

Inevitably both Dog-Bird and Ji-dwi end up as members of the new Hwarang. Having unwisely attacked the Queen’s Commandant in broad daylight during a public procession, Dog-Bird’s life and that of his “father” are forfeit, allowing the Queen to take Ahn-ji into custody as both her personal physician and a hostage while she assigns the “half-breed” Dog-Bird as her personal Hwarang, intending him to act as a focal whipping boy for the “true bones”. In return for accepting the Queen’s nomination, Wehwa is granted the right to nominate his own choice – who, much to the Queen’s horror, is her son Ji-dwi, having approached Wehwa directly about his desire to upset the Queen’s plans and being introduced to the Hwarang as Wehwa’s nephew from overseas.

Sharing a dormitory room with Dog-Bird and Ji-dwi are three others. Kim Soo-ho (Choi Min-ho), from the Queen’s faction, is friendly, good-natured, a natural athlete and a huge flirt who has dated his way through most of the eligible young women in the kingdom, much to the embarrassment of his younger sister Kim Soo-yeon (Lee Da-in), who is best friends with A-ro – but his playboy instincts come undone when he falls in love with the unattainable Queen. Park Ban-ryu (Do Ji-han) is his bitter rival, a cold and arrogant intellectual who always manages to beat Soo-ho at soccer (or its perhaps-apocryphal equivalent). Ban-ryu is also the adoptive son of Young-sil, leader of the rival faction, being groomed for bigger things but secretly distressed at the treatment his biological father (Lee Byung-joon) endures in return for his elevation. A hilarious misunderstanding leads him to attract the romantic attention of Soo-ho’s sister Soo-yeon, whose sweet ongoing devotion complicates his life considerably and leads to a potential leavening of his rivalry with Soo-ho. Rounding out the room’s occupants is Kim Yeo-wool (Jo Yoon-woo), regarded as the most beautiful man in the kingdom and also the most sexually ambiguous – if he’s not gay, he’s at the very least more than willing to do his utmost to unsettle his fellow Hwarang members with his open interest, which clearly entertains him no end.

It’s not long before A-ro ends up assigned to the Hwarangs as their in-house physician, reviving the opportunities for both Dog-Bird and Ji-dwi to vie for her affections while their friendship develops and their education continues. As the first half of the series plays out, Wehwa begins his instruction of Hwarang while Young-sil attempts to sabotage their reputation – and, by extension, that of the Queen. As the extended cast among the Hwarang get to know each other and factional lines begin to shift, most of the key secrets that the central characters are hiding come out in one way or another before the audience has time to get overly frustrated at their inability to communicate with each other, allowing the interpersonal dynamics to spin off in different directions. Throwing everybody off balance at the midway point is the revelation that the King is concealed within Hwarang, leading its members to look at each other with fresh eyes as they try to determine his identity and prompting the furious Queen to bring her daughter Princess Sook-myung (Seo Yea-ji) out of hiding in an attempt to take control of Hwarang. The cold Princess – very like her ruthless mother and intended (in keeping with tradition) as the future bride of her brother to maintain the royal bloodline – attempts to convert Hwarang into a purely military organisation, but finds herself (much against her will) falling for Dog-Bird, which does not at all help her increasingly antagonistic relationship with A-ro one bit. As hostilities from the neighbouring Kingdom of Baekje worsen and plague begins to ravage the peasantry of Silla, the question of what makes a worthy King comes to a head – as does the question of just who that King should be.

Although the parallels are less than exact, the historical grouping of the Hwarang holds much the same significance to modern Korea as the Knights of the Round Table do to the United Kingdom – a symbol of courtly values representing the aspirational ideals of a nation. Preceding the Hwarang were the Wonhwa (“Original Flowers”), an equivalent group of young women who started out as warriors but were later transformed into more of a spiritual role. The story behind the original Wonhwa, likely mythical and only referenced in the latter half of the series, is worth going into here because of the light it casts on the character dynamics. The original leaders of Wonhwa, Nammo and Junjeong, are reputed to have been jealous of each other – Junjeong is said to have poisoned her rival, resulting in her execution and the Wonhwa’s disbanding. The names of the two women are telling. Nammo suggests somebody who is likeable and lucky, able to get by on natural talent without having to strive for her accomplishments – also suggested in the show as being from a lower class background. In contrast, Junjeong represents the more driven and directed talents of the “virtuous” upper classes, somebody who is theoretically more worthy but struggles to make friends. Queen Jiso’s narration of the story establishes this myth as something which actually happened in her youth, if perhaps not in exactly the same way as the people remember it. The most obvious characters to view through this lens are A-ro and Princess Sook-myung – A-ro is a well-liked “half-breed” who has managed (inadvertently) to attract the romantic interest of both Dog-Bird and Ji-dwi, while the Princess is high status but difficult to like and sees the romantic attentions of both men as her due (despite only being interested in one). The same lens could easily be applied Dog-Bird and Ji-dwi – one the well-liked peasant with a knack for learning physical skills and an inseparable bond with A-ro, the other a royal heir who sees Dog-Bird as effortlessly achieving the things for which he struggles. Various other character pairings can be filtered through this perspective, the most interestingly complex being that between fellow Hwarang Suk Han-sun (Kim Tae-hyung) and his older half-brother Suk Dan-sae (Kim Hyun-joon). Han-sun is the spoiled “true bone” younger sibling, raised by his grandfather (Kim Jong-goo) to be the future hope of the family line. Basically a cute little puppy in human form, veering between adorable and annoying, he just wants to be left alone to become an astronomer and not have to worry about weapons training. Dan-sae, who as the oldest would normally carry the burden of continuing the family name, is a “half-breed” and thus of lower status, treated like dirt by his grandfather and beaten in his younger sibling’s place. Despite this uneven dynamic, the two half-brothers are devoted to each other, but the desperate political machinations of their grandfather (a junior member of Young-sil’s faction) run the risk of interfering with their relationship.

Each episode of Hwarang opens with the statement that the drama is based on real facts of the era – this extends to the incorporation of real historical characters, although some liberties have been taken and their personal chronologies don’t always match up. King Jinheung was officially the 24th monarch of Silla, reigning from 540-576 AD, and is generally considered to have begun the consolidation of Korea’s Three Kingdoms into one. Although his mother Queen Jiso is not listed among the ranks of Silla’s monarchs, she’s represented here as ruling in her son’s name from 540-550 until his formal ascension to the throne – which, although not strictly supported by the historical record from what I can tell, is a plausible variation. Lord Kim Wehwa’s identity as the first Chief Instructor of Hwarang comes straight from history. Dog-Bird’s adoptive father Woo Reuk is a legendary musician, the first person to compose for the newly invented gayageum, which was developed further during Jinheung’s reign – he gets a chance to show off his skills when brought in as a music instructor for Hwarang. The one major outlier is Dog-Bird, who is intended to be a young General Isibu – a respected military leader from the reign of King Jijeung (437-514), Silla’s 22nd monarch, long before Jinheung’s time. While this might be a frustratingly impossible choice for purposes of historical accuracy, it’s really no worse than anything Shakespeare did in his history plays, so I’ll just note it for the record and move on.

Writer Park Eun-yeong generally gives each of the three central protagonists equal time, without stinting on the development of the key supporting cast (which is fairly large compared to some of the other K-dramas I’ve watched). Although she manages to keep this juggling act going for most of the 20-episode run, A-ro ends up sidelined and pacing in a room for most of the final two episodes while the question of the succession is resolved – although Park does at least give her some small scenes which arguably impact the final outcome. The choice to keep each episode just under an hour (which is by no means a given – some Korean TV series routinely allow up to 90 minutes per episode) generally works for the series in contributing to a sensation of pace, but Park does have a tendency to over-indulge in lengthy flashbacks to re-establish context, to the extent that it’s not uncommon for the audience to be treated to a repeat of dialogue they just heard a minute ago. I also found the motivations for some of the Queen’s actions to be difficult to understand – there were occasions when I wasn’t sure what she was trying to achieve, or when it seemed obvious that her machinations would have the opposite effect to her intentions. On the whole, though, the plotting is suitably intricate and the character actions filled with enough humour and personality to paper over those cracks in the facade. And, perhaps more importantly for the target demographic, Park isn’t afraid to provide shameless fan service moments taking full advantage of the male pulchritude on display, whether by providing room for slashfic writers or by the inclusion of a carefully framed shower scene (which she repeats in a final episode flashback for good measure).

The cast, of course, deserve their own credit for treading the line between drama and humour, unafraid to embrace the ever-present sprinkling of comedy moments at the expense of their own characters’ dignity. Park Seo-joon is generally serious and self-contained in the central role of Dog-Bird, but also capable of showing his vulnerable side as well as acting like a lovesick goof when he lets his guard down. Nominated for an Excellence Award for his work here, his follow-up role as the star of Fight For My Way [Ssam Maiwei] (2017) saw him winning seven awards out of the eight for which he was nominated. He has since taken the lead role in What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim [Kimbiseoga Wae Geureolkka] (2018) and Itaewon Class [Itaewon Keullasseu] (2020), stopping off in between for a cameo appearance in Bong Koon-ho’s Parasite [Gisaengchung] (2019). He’s set to make his international breakthrough with an as-yet-unnamed role in Disney+ series The Marvels (2022), which serves as a sequel to the Marvel Cinematic Universe releases Captain Marvel (2019), WandaVision (2021) and the yet-to-air Ms. Marvel (2021). Go Ara is given the opportunity to display a greater range of emotions than her more tormented character in Black [Beullaek] (2017) (reviewed here) and is particularly entertaining in the performance of her invented romance stories. She has a very expressive face which, at times, reminded me of Taiwanese actress/singer Joey Wong. I’ve now added Haechi (2019) to my watchlist, since I’m curious to see what she’ll make of her role as a top female police detective with martial arts skills in a period drama. Park Hyung-sik was a charming and funny romantic lead in Strong Girl Bong-soon [Himssenyeoja Dobongsun] (2017) (reviewed here) – his role here as the King-in-waiting shares some similarities with that role, but has a stronger touch of ingrained privilege and entitlement which he is struggling to overcome.

The older supporting characters include some entertaining performances from both old favourites and new discoveries. I’ve raved about Kim Won-hae before for his appearances in Strong Girl Bong-soon, Black and Are You Human? [Neodo Inganini] (2018) (reviewed here) – this time around he not only provides a sympathetic performance as Dog-Bird’s adoptive father, he gets to show off his musical chops as a percussionist. Yoo Jae-myung, familiar to me from Strong Girl Bong-soon and the first season of Stranger [Bimileui Sup] (2017) (reviewed here), is both dignified and hilarious as the King’s bodyguard, frequently coming across as a frantic mother hen as he attempts to keep up with Ji-dwi’s crazier ideas. Sung Dong-il is clearly having a great time as the Chief Instructor of Hwarang, chuckling away to himself while annoying the great and powerful – apparently I’ve seen him before in The Great Battle [Ansi-seong] (2018) (reviewed here) but am regrettably unable to remember anything about his role as Woo-dae. More recent roles include The Cursed [Bangbeop] (2020) and Sisyphus: The Myth [Sijipeuseu: The Myth] (2021).

Other familiar faces include Kim Ji-soo as the Queen, who would later appear as a version of Princess Iron Fan in the modern reinterpretation of the Monkey stories A Korean Odyssey [Hwayugi] (2017-18), and Lee Kyu-Hyung as the scar-faced criminal Do-ko, who had a significant role in the first season of Stranger. Outside the world of TV, Seo Yea-ji as Princess Sook-myung is someone I’ve previously encountered in By Quantum Physics: A Nightlife Venture [Yang-ja-Mul-li-hak] (2019) (reviewed here) – although the film itself made no lasting impression on me, her performance easily outshone her co-stars. And continuing my tendency to fixate on minor characters with underdeveloped CVs, I’d like to highlight Oh Eun-ho as Mo-yeong, the Queen’s personal attendant, who has barely any lines but is a constant presence and has an important role in the plot. It was difficult to find out much more about her career since the filmographies I found online are incomplete – IMDB only lists two of her roles, Asianwiki pads that out to 6, but both of them cut off at 2015 and neither of them mention Hwarang at all. The best I can tell you is that she had higher-profile roles in Bridal Mask [Gaksital] (2012) and The King’s Face [Wangui Eolgool] (2014-15).

Having mentioned at the beginning the range of K-pop stars on display here, it’s only fair for me to provide a brief rundown of the musical talent (despite personally finding the show’s selection of songs to be irritating). Both male leads, Park Seo-joon and Park Hyung-sik, contribute songs to the soundtrack. Hyung-sik was a member of boy bad ZE:A from 2010-14 and has performed in musical theatre, appearing most recently (2018-19) in Sylvester Levay’s 1992 musical Elisabeth in the role of Death, which was modelled on a combination of David Bowie and Heinrich Heine. Also contributing to the soundtrack is Kim Tae-hyung, appearing here in his only acting role as spoilt younger sibling Suk Han-sun. Better known under his stage name V, he is a member of boy bad BTS, who are not only the best-selling music act in South Korean history but the only Asian and non-English speaking act to be named the IFPI Global Recording Artist of the Year (2020). (As a side note, his older brother is played by Kim Hyun-joon, who represented South Korea in the men’s 50 metre rifle three positions event at the 2016 Summer Olympics.) Choi Min-ho, who has a prominent role in the second-tier cast as Kim Soo-ho, has been a member of boy band Shinee since 2008. Ooon, who appears in a more minor role as part of Ban-ryu’s faction, was a member of boy band HALO until they disbanded in 2019. But the most surprising musical guest of all is the 62-year-old Kim Chang-wan as Park Young-sil, the leader of the conspiracy against the Queen. Described on his Wikipedia page as “rock singer, composer, musician, actor, TV host, radio DJ, writer, and poet”, Chang-wan was the lead vocalist and guitarist for psychedelic rock band Sanulrim (1977-84), recording 10 albums alongside his two brothers and collectively becoming one of the most influential bands in the Korean rock music scene. I never would have guessed it from the wizened schemer he plays here, but what I’ve heard of the band’s output so far on a quick YouTube trawl is pretty decent.

The three promotional teasers below show off different aspects of the show: the first one highlights the historical aspects and the third one focuses in on the central romantic triangle, while the second one foregrounds the humour. The second teaser also provides the most fan service moments, so if you can only be bothered to watch one of them, that’s my recommendation.

2 thoughts on “K-drama Indulgence – Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth

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