Moon Lovers Retrospective Ep. 3
So there’s some kind of follow-up to the beating of Prince Eun who turns out to be the simple sort of fellow that we suspected him to be from the first episode. His brother talks him into believing that the nutty Hae Su has romantic designs on him which is her upside down, crazed rationale for making violent physical contact with him. A seed is firmly planted in that simple brain of his… another infatuation is born.
I once said on Soompi that this drama has the best and most brutal reverse harem I’ve had the fortune to cross paths with. Far from the Madding Crowd I imagine could be a worthy contender but for the purposes of this post, I shouldn’t go there at all. Nevertheless, seeing that Moon Lovers is an adapted work which owes a great deal to its source material, it can’t get all the credit for dishing out the double-edged elements of one woman caught between far too many men. In the beginning as we see, being loved by many men shields her from the big bad medieval world of Goryeo as she spouts radical ideas of equality and individual freedom. I’m also inclined now to see Su as that embodiment of those ideas and her wrestling match with Prince Eun is indicative of that. The drama intimates that these are attractive ideas even for some in Goryeo but whether they survive the rigours of that political context remains to be seen. Ideas have practical consequences. Nowhere is this more true than the heart of Goryeo’s power base.
In my travels around sites dealing with the superhero genre, I have often heard it said that a hero is only as good as the villain. I imagine that comes from the fact that a villain must provide the right kind of challenge worthy of the heroic figure It’s an idea with many supporters but not one that I subscribe to. Not that I don’t enjoy a good villain that proves to be a worthy adversary but I’m one of those oddities that prioritizes a well-developed, multi-dimensional hero over a souped up villain.
On one level, villainy is reasonably easy to identify in Moon Lovers. There’s Yo and Queen Yu who are obviously “baddies” because they’re a pernicious influence to familial harmony. Short of evil laughter and moustache twirling (although there’s the trademark evil smirk), they’re so evidently greedy for other people’s things that they tick all the right boxes in the “villainy” column. To our modern sensibilities, if a creature walks like a duck, waddles like one and quacks like one… clearly it must be a duck. Queen Yu fits the bill as the scheming witch from the fairy tales and her abject rejection of a son she disfigured has us modern types shifting uncomfortably… how can a mother reject her own child so readily and so cruelly and remorselessly? Then there’s an older son she wants sitting on Goryeo’s throne. With him she’s apparently quite motherly and supportive (in a scheming ambitious way) but there’s a lingering suspicion that he’s not just her spawn but her pawn too. With him, she’s seeking to supplant the legitimate heir with the goal of consolidating her own power. To all intents and purposes, Queen Yu is the archetypal villain writ large. In flashing neon lights. On the other hand she has a soft, cuddly side reserved for her true favourite… her youngest son that she fawns over in sickening fashion. The favouritism is egregious to the point of being nauseating especially when her treatment of her second son seem so absurdly brutal. All of this is to leave little doubt that she’s a woman who loves and hates in extremes.
Queen Yu is easy to pick from a lineup. But where does Wang So stand in this game of categories? At first glance he would scarcely be labelled “heroic” in the traditional sense. I’ve heard the term antihero bandied around. Sure he’s instrumental in thwarting the nefarious schemes of the villains but it isn’t out of pure altruism that he puts himself in harm’s way although he may have some affection for the Crown Prince who was perhaps more of a brother to him than the ones that were born out of the same uterus. However, there’s an aspect to him that solidifies him as his mother’s son.… Not just the darkness she obviously disdains but the tendency towards extremes in both hate and love.
I have always held that Taejo deliberately took So out of Songak and left him with the Shinju clan to keep him in large part away from his mother’s grimy influence. This is I think borne out in later episodes when it is revealed that Taejo and Ji Mong have both known all along that So, despite the physical obstacles, was destined for great things. The fact that he arranged for him to learn martial arts from a master is another point in favour of that theory.
It’s easy to forget that Wang So constantly teeters on the edge of “villainy”. Just because he has mummy issues and desperately needs a hug or two doesn’t mean that his propensity for violence should be swept aside. Of course it helps that he’s played by LJG with poise and great gusto but locked inside that emotionally needy boy is a trained killer. He remains very much the guy whose savage instincts have been left to fend for themselves which means given the right circumstances he could slit your throat without batting an eyelash.
If there’s anything really wrong with Moon Lovers it’s that there’s not enough sword fights. They seem to be largely concentrated in these early episodes and then they taper off until the commencement of the game of thrones with the death of Taejo. Perhaps when the wolf is momentarily tamed he has no reason to wield his sword and once he becomes King, he has other people doing all the housecleaning on his behest.
Undoubtedly it's more than a little cheeky of the director to juxtapose Uk and Su’s growing infatuation with these incredibly violent, bloody scenes of So slashing his way through speechless monk hell. There’s something playfully cliche in the scene where Uk’s fingers accidentally makes their way to Su’s which sends her heart all aflutter… It’s the kind of thing that comes out of Rom Com playbook 101 and it affects Su more than I think it really should. Particularly as she’s just come out of a really bad relationship and particularly as she’s come off the back of a major betrayal. Maybe it’s the power of the 8th Prince who seems to have it all together, who manages to say all the right things at the right time. Myself, I think it’s the power of KHN.
This time round I’m looking at that relationship much more critically. It isn’t just because of what we know now of how that relationship turns out but it’s also the little hints here and there that this relationship doesn’t quite have the approval of the gods. The writer clearly wants to parallel Go Ha Jin’s experience of betrayal with Lady Hae’s growing feelings of misapprehension about Uk’s attraction to Su. When Su told Lady Hae about her dream… her experience of relationship betrayal, it felt as if Su was foreshadowing Lady Hae’s own eventual experience of betrayal regarding what her husband about to do behind her back. This is of course not discounting the fact that polygamy is an accepted, legitimised reality in this society but even so it was still a matter that brought great pain to Lady Hae. It became a relationship built on a breach of trust and someone else’s pain whether it can be categorised as “adulterous” in the sense that we understand it, remains a matter for debate.
When first we watched this very episode, I primarily saw this infatuation from Su and Uk’s point of view but this time round, I paid much closer attention to how it was affecting Lady Hae. Yes, there were elements of cute but there were also indications of forbidden passion. Whether polygamy legitimises this attraction and whether us modern types object to our taboos being flayed publicly, let’s not forget that first and foremost, there is another person involved in this. A good, kind innocent woman whose heart is being trampled on while she witnesses her husband going moony-eyed over her cousin under her nose. Worst still, he tells her thoughtlessly that her amnesia stricken cousin is a source of happiness to him. Everyone wants something from him but this bright young thing is a breath of fresh air in that she wants to carry her weight. I don’t know if he was listening to himself on that occasion but the implications of that for his sickly spouse can't have been pleasant.
The OTP aren’t off to a good start. Not that any OTP usually are. But threatening to kill the woman, that will one day become the great love of your life on more than one occasion isn’t exactly an auspicious start to a long and mutually satisfying relationship. If anything it must seem ominous for longevity. However, while he labours under a dark cloud, so does she. Clearly they are both interlopers… outsiders to a well-oiled machinery that is Songak. Evidently their presence portends something ominous for its inhabitants. Then there’s the label “OTP”… what does that even mean when applied to those two in light of how things end up?. Does it mean that just because things don’t end happily for them in a fairytale ending that they aren’t the OTP? Her rhetorical question to him sets the stage for their checkered relationship… “Is it so wrong to want to live?” The question is posed in relationship to his “Don’t show your face to me again.” Which is echoed in Ep. 19… when So finally finds out at long last who Su’s secret paramour is. We know of course that it’s an empty rage-filled comment because no matter how So feels at at the time of vitriol spitting his bond to her is forever fixed.
So yes, I do contend that they are the OTP because of that eternal bond that transcends time and space. They’re tragedy bound but they are no less tethered to each other. Still it’s a glorious mess… he, with his savage inclination for violence and she, with her disruptive, radical ideas of equality and individual freedom. it’s the sort of collaborations that bloody revolutionaries could be made of.
Moon Lovers Retrospective Ep. 3