(Warning: this post contains Spoilers!!)
So why Gu Family Book, which ended weeks ago? Because a few months back I decided to try starting my kDramas only after they had already finished airing -- the agony of weekly viewing was wearing me down! And so, while the rest of you may have moved on, I'm still basking in the glow of the my most recent kDrama obsession.
Gu Family Book was by no means perfect (the ending was pretty lame, in particular), but on balance I would say it was more good than bad, and it was the first kDrama to crack my Top 20 list in months, coming in at #11. In honor of the nine tails that we never saw, here are nine things I loved about it:
9. The 9-Tailed Foxes
Gu Family Book's interpretation of the Gumiho myth bore little resemblance to what I expected. Most notably, there were no tails at all, much less nine, and precious little that resembled a fox. But this interpretation was actually much more plausible, and one that I could genuinely believe in if I were the kind of person who believed in real magic. Most importantly, it kept its Gumihos out of the realm of caricature, which really helped me to form an emotional connection.
8. Choi Kang-Chi
I loved how un-angsty our hero was! He had a lot of reasons to be a hot mess: parental abandonment, semi-humanity, the murder of his primary father figure, the betrayal of his surrogate family, etc... But Choi Kang-Chi started out as a generally happy, big-hearted hero, and he stayed that way until the end, in spite of everything. What is more, as each new painful experience hit him (because they came pretty regularly in this drama), he was allowed to be human (ie. react with anger, jealousy, pettiness, petulance, etc.) but never got stuck there. When it came right down to it, he was a remarkably well-adjusted hero who was easy to root for every step of the way. Sadly, this forced me to face the fact that I secretly love the angst, which is why he fell so low on this list (that and the fact that Lee Seung-Gi really doesn't tickle any of my naughty parts, though I do feel he did a great job with the role), but the rational side of my brain appreciates not feeling manipulated.
7. The Fathers
This drama was full of fathers and surrogate fathers, and every single one of them was awesome. Lord Park took Kang-Chi in and always treated him with respect and affection. Steward Choi was overshadowed by Lord Park in the first few episodes, but proved himself a devoted foster father who loved Kang-Chi unconditionally as the series wore on. Lee Soon-Shin was more distant, to be sure, but his dependability and trust in Kang-Chi never wavered. Even Wol-Ryung, who first met Kang-Chi as an amnesiac, soul-less demon, repeatedly treated his son with every scrap of compassion he could muster up, making it easy to imagine what a great father he would have been if he'd been given the proper chance. (Granted, he chose to abandon Kang-Chi yet again – so that he could spend eternity sleeping next to the corpse of his One True Love – as soon as he was cured of his demon-curse, but I forgave him because by then Kang-Chi already had so many surrogate fathers in his life that there wasn't a whole lot more Wol-Ryung could have offered beyond his spot-on parting advice. Also, it meant that Wol-Ryung and Seo-Hwa's story began and ended with just the two of them, and that felt right.) Last, but certainly not least, Dam Pyeong-Joon was the greatest dad ever! He wasn't perfect, but even in his moments of weakness, his deep-seated love and respect for his daughter, her lover, and humanity (and gumiho-kind!) in general, always shone through. The father-figures in this drama were so fantastic that I bawled as Kang-Chi bid farewell to them at the end, in marked contrast to my dry eyes during his true love's death scene only minutes earlier.
6. Chung-Jo got to kill Jo Gwan-Woong
Yes, Jo Gwan-Woong deserved a lot worse than to drink poison before he had a chance to be tortured and executed for treason, but I still appreciated that Chung-Jo got to kill her rapist. It was particularly cathartic considering that Chung-Jo's character was a let-down in just about every other way. So much of her story mirrored Seo-Hwa's that I nurtured a hope for many episodes that she would somehow be strong and victorious where Seo-Hwa had not been. Again and again, she disappointed me, even devolving for several episodes into the petty, vindictive second female lead – one of my least favorite kDrama tropes. Her character and story felt sorely neglected, even at the end (did I miss it or was she one of few main characters who received neither a proper farewell with Joseon Kang-Chi nor a reincarnated reunion in the ridiculous modern-day epilogue?), but at least she got to kill the Big Bad – a rare feat for a woman in kDramaland, indeed!
5. The Music
Yes, Kang-Chi and Yeo-Wool's love theme was criminally overused, but it wasn't a bad song in and of itself. And Wol-Ryung and Seo-Hwa's love theme ("My Eden" by Yisabel), with its English lyrics, felt jarring and anachronistic at first, but it really was a beautiful song that brought me both joy and tears to hear reprised at the end of the drama. The same goes for the rest of the soundtrack – it occasionally yanked me out of the drama's universe, but was indisputably lovely even so.
4. The Gender-Bending
Full disclosure: I have a serious weakness for stories about women dressed up as men. My favorite Shakespeare play since childhood is Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, and my enthusiasm for cross-dressing stories as an adult has in no small part fueled my obsessions for both smutty romance novels and Korean TV (I admit it, even To the Beautiful You is in my Top-20, and I am fully aware of how bad it was). Because of this weakness, I am willing to overlook many of the inherent flaws of the genre, particularly the ridiculousness with which certain characters cling to the illusion that the heroine is a boy (yes, I'm talking about you, Lee Seon-Joon!). However, some stories deal with the setup and/or resolution of the illusion better than others, and Gu Family Book did a particularly nice job of both. Yeo-Wool's decision to pursue martial arts felt real, and her adoption of masculine attire felt both practical and natural. What is more, it was never about hiding her true identity (except when it came to hiding from Kang-Chi that they had met before), and she never went out of her way to deceive anyone about her gender. She was comfortable with who she was, independent of society's expectations, and unconcerned with the perceptions of others. Even better, when Kang-Chi realized the truth, he neither agonized over her deception (yes, I'm talking about you, Choi Han-Gyul!) nor drastically altered the way he treated her (okay, he had a few glitches in the treatment department, but they were few and forgivable). He respected her as a person and as a fighter when he thought she was a boy, and he continued to respect her even as he grew to love her as a woman. Yay!!
3. The Messages
Gu Family Book was deep – for reals! For all its fantasy and silliness, its heart contained genuine, powerful messages about our definitions of family and friendship, and what it means to be human.
Holy hotness, Batman! Okay, in all seriousness, Wol-Ryung wasn't just hot (Aigoo, that voice!), he was also generous and loving to a fault, totally adorkable, strong in all the right ways, and achingly, heart-breakingly human (yes, I know he wasn't actually human). His biggest flaws were his inexplicable love for Seo-Hwa (Seriously, what did he ever see in her that he couldn't have seen in scores of other women during his thousand-year life span? Yes, she redeemed herself in the end, but it took her 20 years – and a lot of luck – to get around to it. Surely this gorgeous demi-god could have done a little better!) and his demon-phase hair, but I cannot in good conscious blame him for either – his love for Seo-Hwa may have been nonsensical, but it was movingly portrayed, and his floppy eye-patch demon coif was clearly the fault of the hair department. His demon phase in general was woefully under-developed, but what was there felt natural. Most of all, I cried buckets when Wol-Ryung was “killed” and again when Seo-Hwa died to cure his demon-curse, whereas Yeo-Wool's death left me surprisingly unmoved. (Seriously – how anticlimactic was that?) Kudos to the writer, the director, and especially the actor (Choi Jin-Hyuk) for making the only non-human in the story feel perhaps the most human of all.
I know, I know – she died at the end and I never even shed a tear! But while her romance with Kang-Chi may have felt tepid (especially compared to the epic heartbreak of his parents), and I was deeply disappointed in its resolution (One-sided reincarnation? Really?!) Yeo-Wool's character never let me down, except in the last couple episodes. (Let's just pretend those never happened, shall we?) She was strong without being a bully, confident without being arrogant, loving without being a martyr, beautiful and feminine without being dainty, and funny! Best of all, she knew and spoke her own mind, refused to let anyone else's expectations dictate her choices, and really, truly lived each day in the present rather than just paying lip-service to it. Again and again she yanked the people around her out of their pity-parties and hypocrisies, and steadfastly refused to allow her relationship with Kang-Chi to fall victim to that most-tired of cliches: the Great Misunderstanding. Arguably, her greatest failure was in not telling Kang-Chi that her father had “killed” his father, but even that I can forgive because it spared us the obligatory “your father killed my father” angst, and the relative angst-lessness of this story was one of my favorite things about it. (Also, she knew all along that Wol-Ryung wasn't technically dead, right?) I admit that a part of me really wished this show had been a love story between Yeo-Wool and Wol-Ryung because I totally adored them both and want to believe that they would have been awesome together. But the truth is that part of what made them awesome as individuals was their weaknesses for their substantially less-awesome partners...because perfect + perfect = boring as hell, as much as I may want to pretend otherwise.
In conclusion: Thanks again, Gu Family Book! After slogging my way through the agony of both IRIS and IRIS 2 (yes, I am a masochist), you have restored my faith in kDramaland, and will always hold a fond place in my heart.