Wow – just wow. Joseon Gunman has exceeded my expectations, and brought my favorite ‘cheeky bastard’ back to life. Lee Jun Ki you are TOO cute for words! Action, melodrama, comedy, and historical fiction all meld together wonderfully in this first episode under the guidance of Kim Jung Min, who did The Princess’ Man. But where that drama had a beautiful but embellished first episode (as fitting for a sweeping romance), this one was a bit more restrained, and let the flourishes emerge in the action scenes.
We begin with some historical background for the drama’s setting. It’s 1874 under Emperor Gojong’s reign and the liberals and conservatives are at war over Gojong’s enlightenment policies. No doubt Gojong (Lee Min Woo) wants to shake things up, and his liberal scholars are all for it and for new weaponry like guns. Except, and I guess this is where the irony is, the very same guns are what’s killing them off one by one.
Immediately we see Park Jin Han (Choi Jae Sung) rallying up the palace guards to find the gunman assassin. They are under direct orders from the emperor to save and protect the remaining scholars. However, no matter how vigilant Park is, he is too late. The assassin, hidden in the foliage, manages to shoot one of the leading scholars Hyeon Am dead.
Park makes chase, and though he is described as one of the last master swordsmen in his time he is quite deft with the bow and arrow too. Just as the gunman is precise with his modern rifle, so is Park with the arrows. Park manages to nick the gunman in the arm enough to make him bleed, and it does affect the gunman’s accuracy. The chase leads them to a huge field of tall grass, and in this cinematic scene we see the old versus the new, the bullet versus the arrow. Just who will have the upper hand?
While the bullet has more speed over the arrow, it barely misses Park and blows the beads around his hat to bits. The arrow in turn grazes the gunman’s straw hat and knocks him off balance a bit. Both contenders still alive, it’s round two for shots… but the guards catch up and the gunman decides to make his escape.
Emperor Gojong knows there’s a traitor among his advisors and will do anything to find the gunman and traitor. He sends Park on a mission to find and protect another scholar, Oh Kyung, before he gets killed too.
Meanwhile, Park’s son, Yoon Kang (Lee Jun Ki), is busy entertaining some other nobles and gisaengs with his sword-wielding skills (no doubt learned from his father). He tells a lovely gisaeng that he’ll slice the flower she’s holding in between her lips cleanly from its stem, and begins to swing his sword wildly. A few quick slashes and it’s over – her blouse falls apart! That cheeky bastard! For this he gets quite a bit of gold, which embarrasses his father as this “showmanship” does not befit his status. But Yoon Kang is quite dismissive of his father’s stern words.
As he leaves the gibang, he bumps into Jung Soo In (Nam Sang Mi), a noblewoman who cross dresses as a man to pass off as a scholar while walking around in the city. She receives a tiny pocket pistol from her friend, Choi Hye Won (Jeon Hye Bin), a fellow noblewoman who’s the daughter of a merchant, and goes off in search of Oh Kyung. She has a book from Hyeon Am that she promised to hand over, a book that presumably is about his ideals and plans of action for the enlightenment.
Soo In bumps quite hard into Yoon Kang, which of course hurts her chest more than it should if she were a guy. Her tiny gun falls out of her clothes, and by the time she realizes and runs to jump on top of the fallen gun, Yoon Kang has already seen it. He acts like he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, but he confronts her about it in front of a bookstore. Seeing that she has a gun, he thinks that she is connected in some way to the gunman assassin.
Before he can hand her off to the police guards, a brawl breaks out in front of them, separating the two and allowing her to escape. Just like a comedic western film.
The conservative party meets, headed by the formidable Kim Jwa Young (Choi Jong Won). He wants Oh Kyung dead and Park Jin Han “taken care of” since his investigations is too meddlesome for Kim’s liking. The orders are relayed to Choi Won Shin (Yoo Oh Sung), Hye Won’s father and merchant, who then assigns another, uninjured gunman to “take care of” Park Jin Han and Oh Kyung.
After ten days of not going home, Park finally returns to his home and his worried daughter Yeon Ha (Kim Hyun Soo). Unbeknownst to them, the second gunman is perched in the trees ready to assassinate Park. It doesn’t matter that Yeon Ha comes out to greet her father, the gunman will still kill Park. He shoots… and misses.
Yoon Kang comes running out and escorts his sister inside while their father chases down the second gunman on horse. The second gunman manages to escape to town but bumps into none other than Yoon Kang, who’s already waiting down the street with his sword. With some fancy outmaneuvers he manages to stay just out of the rifle’s line of fire and gets up close to fight with the second gunman. They exchange a few blows, and just when Yoon Kang has him down, Park comes galloping down the street.
The second gunman flees, and Park’s guards join in on the chase. They track him down to the house of Choi Won Shin, who is displeased to see guards at his front door. Hye Won is more accommodating and invites the guards to inspect the estate, noting that they have nothing to hide. And it’s true – the second gunman is nowhere to be seen. Park and his men leave, and Hye Won chides her father for being too rude. I think she knows about the second gunman though, or is in the know about her father’s plans against the Enlightenment, which puts her at odds and in a strange relationship with Soo In.
The second gunman is hidden under the wooden flooring of the house. Won Shin forbids him from ever coming to his house if he’s being chased down, and if he were to make the mistake again Won Shin will never forgive him. This second gunman clearly isn’t as good as the first one.
Since it’s no longer safe to live in their house, Park sends Yoon Kang and Yeon Ha to his friend’s estate for the time being. His friend is Jung Hwe Ryung (Uhm Hyo Sup), the official interpreter, who also happens to be Soo In’s father! Of course their paths will cross!
When Soo In greets Yoon Kang in her female garb she’s shocked to see Yoon Kang in her house. But he doesn’t recognize her off the bat. She is forced to show him to his quarters, and then comments that he reminds her of an unreasonable, rude man. It’s her way of getting back at him without revealing her identity, heh. Right away these two are not going to get along thanks to their temperamental personalities.
Once settled in, Yoon Kang heads out to town to drink with his friend. Soo In nearly runs into him again while dressed in her more familiar, scholarly male clothes and just barely avoids him. She goes to the local bookstore to see if there’s news of Oh Kyung and finally tracks him down. It takes Oh Kyung a bit to recognize her, and I find it quite interesting that he knows her female self as the true pupil of Hyeon Am. Clearly he has no problems in having a woman be learned and scholarly. Oh Kyung tells her to meet the following day to hand off Hyeon Am’s book.
Yoon Kang gets drunk all night with his friend and by the time he returns to the house it’s already daylight. As he sneaks in, he spots Soo In (in her male garb) leaving. Curious because he recognizes that person, he follows her to town.
Meanwhile the guards have tracked down the whereabouts of Oh Kyung and have one man keeping an eye on him. That one man is quickly dispatched by the second gunman though. Park calls his men to head over to protect the scholar immediately.
Soo In rushes to the rendezvous point to meet Oh Kyung but gets delayed by Yoon Kang. He still thinks she is in league with the gunman and tells her to follow him to the police station. She refuses to go and so Yoon Kang draws his sword. With no choice, Soo In draws her gun.
At the same moment, the second gunman loads his rifle and aims at Oh Kyung from a distance.
Yoon Kang stubbornly believes that his sword can win over Soo In’s small pistol, even though they’re so close it’d be hard for her to miss if she were a trained marksman. She grips tighter around the handle… The second gunman readies his finger on the trigger…
Yoon Kang swings his sword over his head… And a gun fires.
I really enjoyed this first episode. It was a strong premiere and hit all the different genres of a drama at once without being too jerky and awkward. Aside from being a historical, it’s a comedy, a melodrama, a thriller with political intrigue, and an action drama.
I love the way the first ten minutes of the drama was handled. We immediately see the conflict in how the era is changing between the old and the new. Because the older weapons are associated with the good guys you just want to see the arrows win out at the end, or the sword to overcome the rifle. You want to see proof that – as Yoon Kang says – it’s a skill to know how to win the fight no matter what weapon is used. It’s like that scene in “The Bourne Identity” where Matt Damon beats the crap out of an enemy agent with just a rolled up magazine; primitive but effective. We know that eventually Yoon Kang’s father and sister will die, which will propel him to use the gun. But right now watching him wield the sword is exciting enough, and I find myself cheering for the sword to win over the rifle.
The comedy and love-hate relationship between Soo In and Yoon Kang was a bit unexpected because I didn’t expect so much lightheartedness. It was really nice to see them in a playful relationship though, and I do enjoy watching Lee Jun Ki be more teasing and mischievous. It’s a little strange to see Nam Sang Mi act so petulant though because she clearly has aged (sorry) and looks a bit too old to be talking and acting that way. It’s a little unsettling, but I’m okay with her having so much spunk. I love that she’s a learned woman because it really makes her more modern for her times. She’s not just a spunky woman who will do things out of station in society, but she is an enlightened woman who can bring about political and social change. If Oh Kyung dies (and I don’t have much hope for his life expectancy being long), she could very well be the last person who can help the emperor institute change. I’d like to think that she’s read Hyeon Am’s book already, since a flashback shows that he gave her the book first to look at. I hope the drama doesn’t pull a switch on us and say she never read his last book.
I’m really intrigued by Jeon Hye Bin’s character as well. She seemed like a good friend and even gave Soo In a gun to protect herself from any assassin, and yet I have a feeling she’s part of her father’s plans in using guns to silence the enlightened scholars. She knows Soo In is one of those enlightened scholars, so it makes me wonder if she’s using Soo In for information on the scholars’ activities and whereabouts. I think it would be really fascinating to make these two women who happen to be friends to be polar opposites in beliefs and morals.
This drama really has me excited for more! I can’t wait to continue watching this series for the very awesome Lee Jun Ki.