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The Korean Martial Arts Genre Chooses Love

Posted May. 26, 2005 03:32,   


On May 25, the KBS drama “Emperor of the Sea” (Korean title: “Haeshin”) came to its epic conclusion with the death of Jang Bo-go. The show, which recorded ratings over 30 percent throughout its run, became the subject of myriad conversations and speculations with such visual offerings as the solid acting of its cast (which includes Choi Soo-jong, Chae Si-ra, Song Il-gook, and Soo-ae), elaborate costumes, and sophisticated action.

The broadcasting industry attributes more than an individual “hit” status to this successful show. They see it as marking the beginning of a transition in the paradigm for period dramas.

Cultural critic Kim Heon-sik (32) said, “The possibilities for a distinctly Korean martial arts genre, which was first glimpsed in the show ‘Damo,’ were strongly affirmed in ‘Emperor of the Sea,’ which placed powerful masculinity and physicality at the fore.”

“Emperor of the Sea,” Martial Heroism Both Strange and Familiar?-

Although “Emperor of the Sea” takes history as its subject, its production formula differs from existing period dramas. Producer Kang Il-soo explained, “We tried to depart from the formalized conventions of the historical drama, including the conflict resulting from the protagonist’s political leanings, the intentional hero-making that sees the protagonist automatically becoming a grand figure, and the long catalogue of characters.” Previous hit shows based in history, like “Tears of the Dragon,” were carried by the conflict structure between the protagonist and his nemesis. In addition, the protagonist was portrayed as a hero chosen by the heavens, while numerous peripheral characters came and went as the story progressed. By contrast, in “Emperor of the Sea,” Jang Bo-go is depicted as a more realistic character, and the drama is intensified by a focus on the action surrounding the protagonist and a few surrounding figures.

Although it excludes many of the conventions of the period genre, “Emperor of the Sea” is more familiar than otherwise because it follows a formula that has long been known to Koreans through the martial arts dramas (or “muhyeop” in Korean) available for rental at video stores.

“Go Murim,” an association of martial arts writers, contends that “Emperor of the Sea” possesses the classic structure of the martial arts genre. The protagonist’s training is given emphasis (Jang Bo-go learns the martial arts from Choi Mu-chang and undergoes rigorous warrior training); the premise endows the protagonist with supernatural martial arts abilities, and outlines a hierarchy of martial prowess (Jang Bo-go is at level one, Yeom-jang at level two, Neung Chang at level three, and Jeong-yeon and Choi Mu-chang at level four. When the fighters face off, the person with the higher ranking ends up being victorious.); and conflicts are resolved according to the protagonist’s physical abilities (such as escaping slave status via victory in a martial arts contest and protecting and rebuilding his group Seolpyeongsangdan via battle).

The Viewers Want the Hero’s Love-

But “Emperor of the Sea” has one characteristic that clearly distinguishes it from Chinese martial arts dramas. The definitive difference between the Korean and the Chinese varieties lies in whether more weight is placed on love or heroism.

Although “Emperor of the Sea” features elaborate action, what is more important is the love among the characters. The plot of “Damo” also built itself around a love story. But in most Chinese martial arts pieces, the love between the hero and his lady is merely “added spice.”

This difference translates into a difference in the type of characters they each portray. Chinese martial arts heroes are one-dimensional characters whose good or evil is unequivocally revealed in their heroism. However, the protagonists of Korean martial arts dramas that have met with success through an emphasis on love are as complex as the changeable emotion of love itself, and this becomes their chief appeal.

Although Yeom-jang (Song Il-gook) in “Emperor of the Sea” and Jang Seong-baek (Kim Min-jun) in “Damo” sometimes stand in opposition to the protagonist, they evoke the audience’s sympathy rather than partaking in an axis of evil. A substantial number of viewers lamented more over Yeom-jang’s impossible love for Jeong-hwa (Soo-ae) than over Jang Bo-go himself.

The Impact of the Show’s Success on Other Dramas?-

Another point of contrast between Korean and Chinese martial arts dramas is how they handle historical figures. In the Chinese variety, real historical figures serve merely as background characters, but in “Emperor of the Sea,” a real-life figure is the eponymous protagonist. Cable channel Muhyup TV’s Lee Gye-taek noted, “It’s rather easy to turn a fictional character into the ideal martial arts hero,” and explained, “Although the Chinese like farfetched fantasies like people flying and generating wind from their palms, Koreans like their martial arts dramas to be rooted in at least a minimum of reality rather than on excessive exaggeration.”

The success of “Emperor of the Sea” is likely to impact other upcoming historical dramas, including “Taewangsasin-gi,” a show about Goguryeo’s King Gwanggaeto, that is set to air soon.

Lee Young-min (Cheong Am Entertainment), who is producing this upcoming show, said, “We’re only in the preparatory stages as yet, but the show is similar in tone to ‘Emperor of the Sea,’ with action on a larger scale.”