17 October 2012


Arang vs. Faith, Part V: The Props

Posted by Kakashi Sensei on October 17, 2012
Because I felt ever-so-slightly bad about bashing Faith all the time (sure, it mostly deserves it, but still...), I thought long and hard about categories in which Faith was bound to win. Long I thought, but then it had a sudden inspiration: the props! And I don't mean any ol' prop, but meaningful props. Little objects that matter to the story and that matter to us, the audience.

As always, be aware, there are some *spoilers* ahead.

Faith 신의

The number 1 endearing prop in Faith was The Police Shield. Choi Young brings it with him to 14th century Goryeo from modern day Seoul and uses it several times to fight off the bad guys, even sexily throwing it like a boomerang. Alas, Ki Chul brutally kills it in episode 7: He uses his own supernatural ice-powers to halt the shield in midair, freezes it over and then ... *sob* ... shatters it into tiny bits!! This moment touched me more than the death of the slightly overweight Woodalchi in episode 18 (the name is Joo-seok, I think?). It's an awful thing to say, kakashi, shame on you.

Choi Young's Sword also deserves mentioning. It has great symbolic value for him and seems to be a famous sword overall: it was handed down to him by his teacher, who was killed by one of the previous kings. Also, the hilt of the sword is wrapped with his Dead Fiancée's Bandana. She killed herself out of shame/guilt after their teacher sacrificed himself to preserve her honor. The taking off of the bandana in episode 12 signifies that Choi Young has moved on (after 7 years), and is ready for a new love - and life. Obviously, the sword stands for the warrior. But Choi Young's relationship with his sword is not untroubled: after Eun-soo mentions how disgusting the smell of blood on him is, he only uses it when he absolutely must. He knows he is a warrior and he probably knows he always will be, but the sword becomes a signifier for the burden he is carrying around, a burden he wants to lay down (and has wanted to lay down from the beginning of this show). A peaceful life, that is what he desires. He'll not get it, that much is clear (this is General Choi Young we're speaking about!), and he probably knows that there is no opt-out box to tick for him, but he still hopes for it. Overall, it's a nice sword and I like how he slams it down often to make a point. However, it constantly rattles so annoyingly and cheaply. Couldn't they have used a better quality sword? And how impractical is it to always carry a sword in your hand? He could put the thing on his back from time to time, or put it on his belt. That way, he could also piggyback her, as she suggests in one of the episodes.

My second favorite inanimate object is Eun-soo's Handbag (you know how long I had to hunt for a picture of that bag? I had to rewatch all of Faith's aired episode to find the best shot of the thing. It's not very photogenic, I tell you!). The handbag is a symbol for her alieness, and is empowering her at the same time. Though she gradually loses all her stuff from her previous life in Seoul (handy, jewlery, shoes, make-up, ...) the handbag stays a faithful companion, probably being filled with new womanly things from the Goryeo period (like the new make-up she is making). 
However, it has been shown to us less frequently, and in episode 19, when she leaves for the heaven's doors (for the umpteenth time), the handbag isn't there anymore. It might have been stolen, it might have been forgotten, or it might just be the overall inattention to detail that Faith is guilty of. More proof for Faith's sloppiness when it comes to things-that-matter: where did the Hello Kitty Mirror in the Handbag go? A good drama doesn't just show us such a great prop once and then never again, especially when the mirrors in Goryeo are so terrible (just polished metal)!

Another VIP item is The Aspirin Bottle. Eun-soo gives it to Choi Young when she is desperately trying to help him (after stabbing him with his own sword, mind you), but he refuses her help again and again. As a last resort gesture, she hands him the bottle and tells him to at least swallow these pills. We see in a later episode that he actually does - it's the first time he listens to her. The Aspirin bottle is an object that connects the two and symbolizes their special relationship. It makes a re-appearance several times. In one of the more emotional moments involving our stoic General, a desperate Choi Young pushes it on Dr. Jang, to save Eun-soo, who lies in bed unconsciously, poisoned, thinking/hoping it may help her.

And then, there's the Yellow Flower, which Choi Young puts into the Aspirin bottle. The Yellow Flower is given to him by Eun-soo in one of their early (semi-)romantic encounters. She even puts it into his hair - he scoffs at it and flicks it to the ground, but later, he picks it up and preserves it, as a token from a woman he is already in love with at that moment; but also a woman he doesn't dare covet (yet). She discovers the Yellow Flower in the Aspirin Bottle later and teases him about it - again a very nice moment between the two. In fact, Faith works best when it is about the relationship of these two people. Is it possible Faith wins in the romance department over Arang too?! I definitely need to explore that in more detail.

And finally: The Hwata-Artifacts, particularly the Notebook. Faith has often been stagnant and (close to) boring, but the moment she realizes that one of the artifacts, said to be hundreds of years old, is a notebook with her handwriting in it and her signature at the end was surprising and therefore good. Unfortunately, the writers didn't manage to keep the momentum, and the so-called 'mystery' got very annoying the moment the notebook was taken away from her, stolen by this or by that guy, read by her but only in parts, then burnt in parts, etc. Does it also get poisoned? Ah no, that's her. Twice, so far. However, it's not the notebook's fault that it is under-used by the writers of Faith, and it has a nice cover. I might refuse to think about the time-travel shenanigans in this show, but I have noticed that the notebook ages quite well.

Arang and the Magistrate 아랑사또전

Ah, my love ... why do you have to end this week, why? What will I do when you've ended? ... Rewatch you from the start. What a great idea.

There are many 'objects-that-matter' in Arang. The drama is so good because it doesn't waste any character and the same goes for its objects: All of them have great significance and often several meanings, not all of them readily discernible.
First, I would like to mention The White Goat. Obviously, a goat is not a thing or an object, but I just wanted to feature the goat here. This goat has flowers growing on its back, flowers that Jade Emperor uses for weird tea/drug experiments. I think he also uses her droppings for his teas. I have a lot of affection for this goat, and I know others do too, kinda like for the police shield (before it died). The goat is in heaven, so it's probably already dead. Which is good, because then it cannot (again) die. But I wish to see the goat again before the show ends, just to make sure it is well. I really don't trust Jade Emperor.

Also up in heaven is another VIP prop: The Heavenly Badook-Game-Board. Pretty Jade Emperor and his grim brother Hades (or rather, Yeom-La) often play badook (if they do not fish) and there seems to be more at stake than just a game ... they play for souls. These Gods may admit that the one thing they cannot know (and understand) is the human heart, but that doesn't keep them from playing with humans as if they were pieces of their badook game. Jade Emperor wins most of the time, which is probably good, because Hades is in charge of the souls that go to hell. Though frankly, I think I prefer Hades, who wears his 'emotions' on this sleeve - it's Jade Emperor who is full of secrets and schemes.  

On earth, we have two major props, both in the hands of Eun-oh. A Mystical Fan and a (very ugly) Hairpin. It has the hanja characters 'mother', 'heart', and 'pin' engraved on it, and his mysterious teacher suggest to give it to his mother as a present (which Eun-oh does, right before the mother disappears). The mysterious teacher is nobody else than Jade Emperor in disguise We know Eun-oh is 'his' creature, because Jade Emperor gave him (borrowed) life, when he had already died as a child. With the fan, Eun-oh can kill ghosts, and it's pretty awesome when he does. He can also erase talismans and open secret trap doors to scary underground demon-making dens. With the Hairpin, he can kill/save his mother (knew it! Pointy object in connection with 'heart' ... very clear where that has to ultimately go).

The hairpin is the reason Eun-oh gets involved with Arang in the first place, because he sees that she wears it (as a ghost). She has lost all of her memories, so she doesn't know why she has it and where from, but for Eun-oh, it's the only link to his missing mother, so he sticks with Arang in the hope that she will recover her memory and will be able to tell him where his mother is. Bet he wishes by now he never found out ... The thing with the hairpin is a bit complicated, really, and one of the things I don't fully get yet. It could be that Jade Emperor knew/hoped/suspected that Eun-oh's mother, who is hellbent to make Lord Choi pay for the suffering he has inflicted upon her family, and who has been serving Mu-yeon for decades, would become Mu-yeon's next vessel, and he knew that Eun-oh's mother/Mu-yeon would meet Arang, and he knew that only a relative could 'kill' Eun-oh's mother/Mu-yeon, so he had to get his weapon (Eun-oh) close to his mother/Mu-yeon. To do that, he needs Arang. How he could make sure that Arang gets the pin and wears it? No idea. Did he know that she would have her memories erased by Mu-yeon? Probably.

A third super-natural item on earth is Joo-wal's Ring. It's not a thing from the Jade Emperor, but an evil thing from the Evil Fairy. Joo-wal needs it to find 'pure souls' every leap moon. When he touches a pure soul, the ring lights up with swirly red light. He kills the girls, inserts a talisman into their body, and brings them to the evil fairy for ... nourishment? Yuk. The ring binds Joo-wal to Mu-yeon and makes him her slave. When he finally breaks free in episode 17, he breaks the ring. That wasn't sad at all: In the case of this object, I was glad to see it shatter. Still mourning the police shield, though.

Another important prop for the storyline is Seo-rim's Diary, a key to Arang's memories. Seo-rim is who she was before she died and was re-born (temporarily) as Arang with-no-memory. The diary is a bitter-sweet thing, because it is full of what she felt for her first love: Joo-wal. The audience knows what he is and what he does, but Seo-rim does not and Arang doesn't for a long time, either. And by the way, the things she writes into the diary are so ... poetic and beautiful; as only Asian poetry can be (see below). And it's so, so sad when Eun-oh reads it, because these are words for another man (one that he seriously dislikes on top) from the woman he loves (though technically, he loves her new-self, Arang, and not the old-self, Seo-rim). 

(*Side note: Jun-ki, I have a request: could you please make sure to do equally great things with your hair like Lee Min-ho in your future dramas? You may be the better actor and you are definitely the better fighter, but you do lose when it comes to hairstyles. You've had the same boring hairstyle for the entire 20 episodes of Arang, even in captivity, even when wounded, even when sleeping! (Yes, I know, your hair is still short because it's not long since your military days, but!) I'm a really disappointed about it. I demanded to see a mane of glory several times, and there was none.)
Last, but not least, there are the Peaches (and the Peach Blossom Petals that are like Kryptonite to Reapers and Ghosts). In a show that is, fundamentally, about the big topics of life and death, and what it means to be alive or dead, this fruit is used as a symbol for life: It is juicy and sexy. When she comes back as 'a person' in episode 5, Eun-oh offers a peach to her to like a reverse of Eve offering Adam the apple. It's the start of their relationship and the start of her humanity. Arang and the Magistrate masterfully conflates Buddhism, Jeju Shamanism, Chinese mythology, and Confucianism in its mythological background. And in Jeju mythology, peaches signify the creation of humanity. Also, the flower-trope: Flowers in Korean mythology symbolize life of the person. Her love of flowers symbolizes her love for life. Sadly, we know that there are a lot of flowers in heaven, too (and some of them on the goat's back), though I doubt that they would make her happy ...
Ah! But ... after Episode 19 ... might there be hope for a happy ending after all??

Who Wins?

Pff. I promised that Faith would win this round. However, I promised when I hadn't quite thought this through. I was under the impression that there were far fewer 'objects-that-matter' in Arang than in Faith, but that's simply not true. A variety of objects are at the heart of Arang as fundamental part of the great mystery.

Still, I promised. And Faith can indeed win this contest when I make the funny count - Arang is definitely un-funny (though not without humor). It is very, very serious as it tackles the most serious of all questions: life and death. Faith, however, thankfully brings us humor through its props: The out-of-place things in medieval Goryeo are really a hoot. Faith, you win - but only by a thread.


Seo-rim's Diary Entry: 

Original text:

능수버들 사이로 보이는 님의 얼굴
바라보아도 바라보아도 덧없어라
삼경 밝은 달 아래 서 있노라면
임의 푸른 그림자 마당으로 들어오니
님도 없는 아름다움이
내 가슴에 남네
하늘에 달빛이 그윽하니
님 향한 그리움 계곡처럼 깊어
환한 달은 나를 따르는데
그리는 바라는 정은 오갈 데 없어
옥피리 소리만 달 아래로 흩어지네
꽃잎 지는 창가에 앉아
붉은 비단 수틀을 잡으니
부귀영화 모란꽃 내음
가까운 곳에서 피고 지는데
임 향한 마음 달랠 길 없어
백옥 같은 눈물이
실과 바늘을 적시네


The sight of my beloved I see through the weeping willow
I gaze at you, I gaze at you
all but an empty dream
Standing under the moon at the dead of night
His blue shadow appears in my yard
I enshrine the beauty without him
The fragrant moonlight that fills the sky
makes this longing as deep as a vally
The moonlight follows me
but my affection has no place to go
Only the music of the jade flute scatters under the moon
I sit by the window where flower petals fall
and hold the embroidery frame with red silk
The riches and honors and the scent of peony
bloom and fall nearby.
How to ease my heart, I do not know
Only pearl-white tears fall on the needle and thread

(thanks to an unknown translator)

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