This is a rumination of the 2009 sageuk (South Korean historical drama) The Great Queen Seon Duk. I rushed my way through Episodes 53 to 62, not having seen everything in detail but enough to grasp the overall picture, and I am now about to store it to where it belongs in my psyche, so that I could draw breaths from it whenever I need to in my ongoing journey of earthly life 🙂 Ja, some intense sageuk characters do hit me hard, almost wrenching me away from non-screen life, and so I have to place them among my scheme of thinking, and so to be washed off of the business-world’s intent to profit from emotions. I really condemn mass media’s shameless exploitation of the human psyhe, but, it’s shikataganai (nothing-can-do-about-it). However, knowing the opponent is a first rule in conflict, and that’s why I have to put into perspective an exploitative drama that is just one among the thousands 🙂 Simply put, I feel the need to tame my reaction to the story 🙂 One of these days I will go back to it, see all the gruesome scenes and hear all the maddening scheme-ings, so that, in Chunchu’s words, I’d be able to turn all the stones.
This drama presents the extent to how far power can disfigure and dehumanize. Mishil, the concubine to two kings here, pining after a dead love, lover to a general, wife to a noble, mother and aunt to warriors, and mother to the abandoned direct-descendant-royal-prince Bidam, plays with the viewer’s life-defense-instincts until you (at least it happened to me) realize that her angelic smirks are too theatrical to take seriously. And so I managed to shift from being terrified of her potency to laughing every time one of her brows lift.
I have already seen a bit of this drama years ago. I have marked the Bidam character to be worth looking at again, and that’s why I recently did so. I have marked also that the Mishil character is vile, the accompanying OST to her I deemed to be like those from the horror movies. Chincha. Fortunately time has passed, I have seen Sa Taek Bi and Eun Go, I have re-viewed Kiha and her dark-lord guardian, and several other near-invincible antagonists, and so things have resettled again: evil never wins. Mahatma Gandhi is my hero.
Mishil ceases to be an empathetic woman and excels in moving people around in her many years of romance with power. Her early life isn’t depicted here. She only says that one day she suddenly stopped being abhorred by violence — she stopped crying for other people. She simply stopped feeling. And there was that love whom she abandoned, she says, because she went for the king.
That lost love was her downfall: he provided her with the key to more power-sucking, the capability to be seen as super-human through the use of pure science. She used an astronomical almanac and a mathematician monk to get the better of her shamanistic-drenched society. Until Deokman, by her knowledge of the wider world through her international contacts in the desert, and by the naive fearlessness of her friend Bidam, pulled an eclipse on her face. Mishil’s sun was darkened starting that day.
And so Deokman engages in conquering the evils of her inherited kingdom. Alas, she will not prevail. The worm Yeomjong will defeat her. The guile that is her beloved nephew Prince Kim Chunchu will cut her heart to pieces. Alas, we, all of us, continue to contend with evil everyday. Trusted persons may and do betray us. And that’s why we hope, and we also pray. And that’s why we teach our children to hope, and also to pray. And that’s why even sincerely hatched ideologies cannot bring in utopia. And that’s why sageuks and regular dramas will continue to be a very profitable industry. Kaja.
The day Deokman wielded power, on her installation as Silla’s ruler, the ‘Deokman’ persona disappears. She must be on guard against everyone and everything because she ultimately is responsible for all that will befall her kingdom. The sense of ‘taking responsibility‘ is taken very seriously in the world of sageuks, and that’s why the ‘ranking’, the ‘ordering of status‘, borders on insanity, borders on discrimination, fosters marginalization, and, since it involves humans, feeds on greed. Shikataganai. That’s how it was then. That’s how it is in the world today, albeit that ‘responsibility’ part is something that only the likes of Kim Yushin can consistently adhere to.
Gen. Kim Yushin is so steadfast that he can cleave a rock by sheer perseverance. This, his unbending course, almost caused him to deal Deokman a double-wham in the heart, losing both Bidam and him. Yushin is not spared of the tension of wavering between two loyalties. The characters are all presented with agonizing choices of loyalties, be it to persons or to causes or to self. Bidam was torn between Munno, Mishil, and Deokman. Yushin was torn between Deokman and Gaya. Alcheon was torn between which person represents his true calling as the people’s protector: Mishil or Cheonmyeong. Bojong is torn between his father’s sense of personhood and his father’s devotion to Mishil. The viewer’s logic is constantly bombarded with issues of ethics and morality that their real-life manifestations are in danger of being relegated as just matters for passive viewership. Like being slowly convinced that violence is the norm. It’s a very dangerous phenomenon.
That’s why I have no excuse to offer for the genius of craftiness who is Kim Chunchu. The nearest would be ‘nationalism‘, and that’s why I understand why Germany for one is wary of this noble phenomenon. Like Bidam, nationalism is a double-edged sword, it both builds up and distorts, carrying both life and death. Kim Chunchu, in his nationalistic fervor, cause the downfall of both queens Deokman and Eun Go (of Baekje, of the drama Gye Baek 🙂
Even if Deokman had been effective in everything else the presence of Kim Chunchu would constantly threaten her predetermined course. Well, it would be illogical to surmise that Deokman less Chunchu would have been tragedy-less. Even as supreme ruler Deokman wouldn’t have been able to contain all the freely-moving thinking entities surrounding her. Like the way atoms would move, in the Brownian model, to new directions after being mutually hit by others, there’s no way of predicting how isolated human decisions would end up in the domino effect of things. The nakedly base persona who is Bidam — itinerant, instinctual, eccentric, unbound, expressive, vulnerable, deadly, emotionally hungry, naive — through leaps of events that usually happen in fairy tales he metamorphoses into the queen’s soul-mate. Or should I say that, in the words of Bidam himself, all things find their final place. Bidam said this to himself when, upon his engagement to the queen, decided to accede to Munno’s wish of giving the geographical books to Yushin. Bidam’s metamorphosis is reflected in Deokman’s, whom the desert eventually spewed back into Gyerim, where she became one with the boys, though not becoming as warrior-fierce as Mishil once was.
And, as in mirror images, their ‘directions’ are opposite: Bidam came from isolation and had to prepare to be the ruler’s consort; Deokman came from the openness of free thinking but must now focus on the path of wielding absolute control but where as she controls she is also being controlled, manipulating but also being manipulated. Many personalities evolved in this story: Jukbang, Godo, Seolwon, Chilsuk, Munno, Sohwa, but it is the transformation of Deokman and Bidam that are most remarkable. And, between the two, it is Bidam’s. On the contrary Yushin stayed as steady (as the rock before he cleaved it 🙂 — otherwise Deokman would have been left with nobody to be thankful to on her dying chair.
The Great Queen Seon Duk utilizes this steady image of the great hero Gen. Kim Yushin in order to cook up a tale of males vying for the alpha position. The male characters have their own charms, even the funny Santak and Jukbang who in the end teamed up in trying to bridge the misunderstanding between Bidam and Deokman. Even the slime Yeomjong could be attractive to some, with his wealth, position, influence, and the capabilty to mobilize amrs. Ah, needless to speak of the array of masculinity, from Chunchu down to the Hwarangs, down to the resistance movement where Wolya is the most beautiful. I am relieved that Alcheon was spared of the bloody battle for Deokman, and he becomes Deokman’s beta instead (a step down, supporting, positive). The final alpha candidates, Yushin and Bidam, are a confusion to me because Yushin was never aggressive towards Bidam. It was difficult for me to accept the battle between them.
Bidam, the alpha male for me, was simply a damaged material to begin with. But for many that’s no excuse. Episode 53 was a painful watch for me, where Bidam, basking under Deokman’s confidence, starts to push people around including Yushin-the-ever-good. Uhm Tae Woong was a very good choice for this role because his face, even in his ‘fierce’ look, communicates “sincerity”, truth, jinsil.
However, when Bidam “saw the light”, which is his term for his bond with Deokman, he settles. He refutes Mishil’s reasoning that loving is taking. He says that it is the opposite: it is giving up. He becomes the pupil that Munno would have been howling proud of. His volatility quiets. It didn’t count for him that he’s the son of a Holder of the Royal Seal and a former king. He wishes to forsake the world on the day that, if ever, Deokman dies before he does. He gives up his claim to Munno’s premature promise that he’ll be the one to unify the three kingdoms. He basks in Yushin’s thankfulness. Deokman fully embraces, gives him the highest government post, sends him away to safety as she battles the hidden traitors. She gives him what is equivalent to the West as the marriage ring. He achieved THE alpha position beside the top female. (I have to refocus against the fact that Deokman’s father is his cousin; this might be strange to me but it’s natural in that part of history.)
The fault lies in the Brownian motion. I will side with Deokman and I will not condemn Bidam. The queen may have abandoned the traitor but Deokman did not abandon Bidam. Indeed it was only him who was responsible for all his actions but Bidam was simply too ‘deficient’ to start with, or whatever safe description there is, to take the quantum leap of accepting-betrayal-in-exchange-for-200%-sincerity. Not everyone has the capacity to be like the biblical character Job. The author-philosopher C. S. Lewis says something like it being more laudable to appreciate the man who has traversed from ‘badness’ to even a bit of ‘goodness’ than a man who has always been ‘good’. THAT IS, if Bidam did betray Deokman… Bidam had found his rest. He had renounced all claims in favor of the light who for him is in Deokman. He had become a happy man getting ready to retire 🙂 I was already at rest with his happiness. The writers simply had to find a good excuse to have the drama end ‘very dramatically’. On the other hand I’m glad that it showcased personhood. Personhood is the redemption of the tragedy that is Bidam and Deokman.
I will have to write another post on the anatomy of their separation. It has something to do with the frailty of trust. What I believe in now is that none of the two betrayed each other. Deokman’s hands were tied with the country’s laws. Bidam may act on the contrary in the face of people he intends to confuse but I will stick to my conviction that, in his own reasoning, he will work for what would be advantageous for Deokman.
When Deokman sent him away from the city with a ring the twin of her own Bidam was concerned of the separation, an echo of repeated abandonment in the past, plus he instinctively wants to protect Deokman knowing that she is facing a big problem that is threatening the royal family’s safety. When a fake assassin fails to take him he says something like: if that throne is too heavy for you then I will be responsible for it on your behalf, or I along with those who threaten you will disappear from this earth, or that I will become the throne so that you will not be torn into different loyalties anymore. What’s tragic is that as Bidam was formulating all this, slumped against a tree and clutching his ring, Deokman was writing him a letter, that she will abdicate after she solves the current problem and so he just wait for her, find a temple where they will stay together, because, ugh, she is dying. I don’t want to cry right now so I need to finish this long post fast.
The fault lies in the Brownian motion. Chunchu acts. Yeomjong acts. The power-greedy act. The fearful act. Bidam was cut off from his line of communication with Deokman. Deokman cannot be as expressive as she was in her childhood. Bidam, who only very recently got healed from being damaged, but still hurting from the cruelty of his mother, crumbles in the onslaught. He returns the dragon ring to Deokman. Disaster. Everyone has a field day. I think about life. I mourn for the possibilities. I have to accept so that I could move on. Shikataganai. I breathe because Yushin is still standing. Like Dongyi’s orabeoni. Like Songyeon’s Daesu. He carries on the legacy of the woman that he loves.
I am relieved that the suave Seolwon died with honor. He was a sincere beta to Mishil’s alpha, and his speaking voice commands respect. I am saddened that Deokman’s and Cheonmyeong’s father, the king, was such a weakling. Perhaps that was the result of being born to a household drenched with tension: one opts for the extremes. The way Mishil’s men face each other at their table meetings, concocting schemes, in terror of her, and maintaining superficial amicability, is sickening. I wouldn’t want children to watch this drama. Mishil herself, with the OST accompanying her, is a dose of unhealthy information about a reality that isn’t necessarily so. I’m sure the Mahatma Gandhi would have thought so, too. Confronting an evil structure does not necessarily entail violence, and so the supposedly frightening monster is reduced to an object of perspective. For Deokman it took only a sincere dialogue with the mathematician monk. And confidence in Bidam’s ingenuity. And the guts to risk a bit bigger than she ever did before.
The likes of the character that is Bidam does not come along often. I am glad that I have come to know him. His image as a killing machine is something I would like to protest against. I don’t believe that anyone as simple as child like him has the heart of a cold killer. He does kill very efficiently, yes, but the standard at that time was to exactly excel in that art. That’s why Munno realized in the end that he was wrong about Bidam. Bidam is his pupil, is like him, and is not a monster. It’s just that Kim Nam Gil’s eyes can really shoot daggers 🙂 His theatricals are excusable considering that Bidam has to be portrayed as a character of extremes. However, I wish the violence in that last fight, one against many, was done away with. If it was only to feature Bidam’s Munno-like prowess then it wasn’t entertaining at all. It was very painful to watch. Why did the writers have to make Bidam decide to fight his way to her? It’s a pointless recalling of the theme of mass murder that happened to him a long time ago. Was it to emphasize who the real Bidam is and so justify the violence done against him? The writers should have made the queen shout for everyone to stop. Or to rope him. Or a net. It’s ridiculous that all those troops couldn’t stop a single un-armored man, as if to really put him across as a killing machine. No wonder Deokman’s heart rioted. Also, I simply protest against the killing of Santak. It was pointless.
I can generalize the story’s theme this way: touching another person creates miracles. The Bidam-Deokman bond was defined when she embraced him, they embraced each other, figuratively and bodily, instead of condemning him for a lie she found out about. From then on it was only him who could continue to address her casually and hold her hand. He pats her to sleep, a replica of how he touched her forehead when they were babies.
Bidam’s heart was touched at Mishil’s unexpected touch, extracting a stalk from behind his ear, a trick she may have conjured to trick him into filial piety despite everything she did to him. Earlier he was already startled when it was his arm that Mishil took instead of Chilsuk’s to support her on the rough terrain.
The tensions in the entire storyline are tied to the relationships of these three. Mishil’s safety net is her people’s devotion to her. Deokman’s are Yushin and Alcheon. Bidam’s, well, lest I say Munno’s acceptance of him, then he has nothing. But for me Munno would suffice for him, and that’s why I have faith in his final decisions. He faced death just so to relay to Deokman that her love for him was not betrayed. That, I believe, was her foundation why she continued to wear her pair of their rings on the day she died, which was only three days after he did (so, Bidam’s answer to Mishil became true, that he’d die three days before the ruler of the kingdom does). I repeat: The queen may have abandoned the traitor but Deokman did not abandon Bidam. Deokman fulfilled Bidam the vow that he gave to her, to give up the world also in the event that the other dies first. But Deokman went all the way for both of them. She did not merely retire from power. She left everything.
There was also that embrace from somebody, in a dream when she first came to Gyerim, that she relates again to Yushin. She says she now knows who it was, and Yushin repeatedly asks her to tell him. We don’t hear her tell him. We are instead shown a scene of grayed Yushin and Alcheon (whom to my delight was put by the queen in the position that Bidam vacated, the Sangdaedung, the highest office in the court) unexpectedly meeting at the queen’s mound, each to report of the success that Silla had over Baekje (ah, poor Gye Baek and Eun Go). Next we are shown the teen-age Deokman’s dream: the unknown woman who embraced her was the Queen Seon Duk wearing mourning clothes. Was the queen mourning her own death? Did the queen signify the Deokman who will die once she comes to the palace? Does it say that Deokman has been embraced by ‘non-person’, a queen but not a person, the moment she came back to where she belongs? That one who embraced her also urged her to endure until the end.
And how about Yushin, her first love? Yushin deserves all her gratitude and more. Yushin more than deserves to hear all those words from her. Yushin became a man side by side with her, had been hers and her twin’s strength. But she and Yushin were not ‘people’ to each other. They were subject and ruler. It was only with Bidam that she is a ‘person’. Naturally she collapses when he died. Three days she was unconscious, on regaining consciousness she goes out to see the sky and the land — much the same scene at Eun Go’s final moments — she goes out and be with Yushin for a few hours, expressing her love for him. She asks him to run away with her now like the way they planned to a long time ago. But Yushin becomes flustered, and seems to say he possibly couldn’t because she, after all, has just left to him all the tasks for the sake of land still left undone . In Bidam’s insecurity he believed that it was Yushin who achieved everything, who had ‘all’. He didn’t see how Yushin would have liked to be in his shoes since a long time ago. Yushin knows how Deokman loved Bidam despite of her being unsure herself of that love. Love for many cannot really be formulated into words. But when Deokman told Yushin earlier that she wanted to spend her final days with Bidam then what more can be said about how she truly felt? So Deokman closes her eyes, tears fall (of regrets? of happiness? of relief?), and then she goes to follow Bidam.