Just a few episodes to go, of the best historical drama I’ve seen… a show that has been a vehicle to learn so much Korean history, and more importantly, has gotten under my skin with its surging and delving story lines and layered, duplicitous characters. How horrifyingly beautiful humanity seems, when taking in so many sides…
Bang Won’s obliterating ambition and ruthless willingness to betray anyone who presents an obstacle, coexists with a high-minded, and at least at first, softhearted calling, to take hold of and make a new world. And Yoo Ah In is an actor able to carry that role… able to allow the child, the future king, the idealistic adolescent, the ruthless prince, and everyone in between, to ebb and flow across his face.
He is not the only stellar actor in this series. SFD has transformed my impressions of an actor who plays harsh mother roles too well in other dramas, an actor who played a flat character-ed ex-boyfriend in a disappointment last year, and an actor who was ‘just okay’ as a lead after being a marvelous ensemble actor in Misaeng. It also gave a perfect opportunity to an actor I like, who isn’t always liked in general. Shin Se Kyung was the reason I was first drawn to the series, not immediately recognizing Yoo Ah In from Secret Love Affair.
I love passionate takes on history, especially histories of places like Korea, which has fallen into the background of other histories (China, Japan) so often. Official writings are gleaned from not without skeptical inquiry, understanding the power dynamics of the times in which they were penned. This allows for revisiting of scenarios and flawed, majestic figures like Jung Do Jeon, the first Prime Minister of the Joseon Dynasty he co-conspired to establish.
Approaching this kind of material originally, I had hopes of gaining a better understanding of Confucianism in practice, Silhak especially, of which Jung Do Jeon was said to be the first, though unofficial, scholar. I’ve not had much luck in that regard. By the time I come to this subject matter, it is through so many other subjects, all of which have left indelible imprints, each necessary to understand the other therefore not so easy to parse apart.
Six Flying Dragons spans from the end decade or so of Goryeo, into the founding of the new country designed to be ‘for the people’, rather than for the corrupt leaders. At least in this telling, the issues of the time bear resemblance to current political discourse around inherited wealth and power, and the cycle/system which shuts out and exploits common laborers.
Sambong’s revolutionary vision (Sambong is Jung Do Jeon’s pen name) was meticulously written out and had begun to be implemented with King Taejo on the throne, before what is called the first ‘Strife of Princes’, when Lee Bang Won raises forces against Jung Do Jeon’s influence, killing he, and two of his younger brothers, one of whom was named Crown Prince. Still, Jung Do Jeon’s writings, left behind, and the vision contained within, would be the blueprint for the next 500 hundred + years.
Previously, my impressions of Lee Bang Won had been limited to the awful figure of a father shown in Tree with Deep Roots, which follows Six Flying Dragons chronologically. That drama centers on the scholarly and most highly praised of all the kings of Korea’s history, Sejong the Great, who was the third son of King Taejong (who Lee Bang Won would become), an admirer of Jung Do Jeon’s philosophy, and who created the Korean alphabet Hangul.
Had I done a little homework back then, I might have had more regard for King Taejong’s complexity, but instead had resigned him to the category of brutal dictator. SFD rights that error in spades, by giving many reasons to fall in love with his sense of righteousness early on. He had me when he asserted his desire to be not good, but just.
“I looked for you” he says to Sambong, when meeting him for the first time. “I have seen all your thoughts; my heart raced again.”
And although drunk with power as he takes the lives of his enemies, there is also the reaching in for something like prayer, somehow the sense of sacred duty as he acts, and as he accepts his actions and what may result. His willingness to act, and to accept responsibility and blame, is key to our almost understanding him.
I love also, when a writer is able to sneak something or someone in, and in just a few scenes, impart another entire captivating story line, as these have done with Cheok Sa Gwang.
The elegance and brutality of the fighting, the high regard for each character’s skill and dreams; rarely granting their wishes but rather giving them Roles, often of honor, within wider, overlapping landscapes.
All the while (48 episodes out of 50, so far, and never losing momentum!) watching I’ve held a sense of shared values and trust, like I had with Misaeng. Blends (fact and fiction, fantasy and history, romance and trajedy), are my favorite genre; not much else makes sense.
Even the music is fittingly haunting.
And, in spite of the serious tone you might gather from these glimpses, this is also a world with warmth, love, and humor, that even allows for a character like Hwarang Warrior Gil Tae Mi.
And warrior Moo Hyul, the supremely tenderhearted…