Moon Lovers Retrospective Ep. 4

The opening scene where Wang So tells Mummy that he sliced and diced a couple of dozen monks for her is probably one of my favourites in the entire drama. The first time I watched it, it hit me even then that I was witnessing an acting event. In my eyes, LJG went from being a decent enough actor to a whole new level of greatness. This scene more than any other so far brought out the duality in the Wang So character in such an emotionally gut-wrenching way… the lost boy craving for mummy’s elusive affection wrestling with his violent inner demons of primal savagery. It occurs to me now that perhaps one of the reasons why this drama did not have the same traction with local audiences as it did with international ones is because they didn’t particularly enjoy seeing one of their great kings moping around with mummy issues.

He saunters into her boudoir with a blood soaked sword accompanied by an eerie calm and an even more eerie smile. Like the little kid who’s pleased with himself for having done something that he’s sure he’ll get a pat on the back for. It’s the height of his psychosomething confusion and needy disposition but the payoff never comes. Instead, he is shattered and yet angry enough that his survival instincts kick into gear.

If LJG never plays an outright psychopathic villain, at least we’ll always have Wang So and Moon Lovers. Never has an actor done so much with the act of creepy smiling as he did bringing Wang So’s inner turmoil to life.

A young man in his teens eternally craving for his mother’s love enough to kill for it. Although we should be aghast at the horror of what he did… and to some degree we probably are… our pity for him overrides any kind of revulsion. It’s his passions that drive him, not a cold, calculating need to kill. He is monumentally angry and the rest of us are hopefully human enough to understand why.

I don't think So is psychopathic incidentally. A interesting argument could be made that instead of being ruthless, he is man driven by deep passions. This is a quote from the translator of my copy of The Art of War to illustrate where I'm coming from.

Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu show that the man of aggressive violence appear to be ruthless but is really an emotionalist; they they slay the emotionalist with real ruthlessness before revealing the spontaneous nature of free humanity.

The ancient Taoist masters show how real ruthlessness, the coldness of complete objectivity, always includes oneself in it cutting assessment of the real situation. The historical Buddha, a contemporary of Confucius who himself came from a clan of warriors in a time when the warrior caste was consolidating its political dominance, said that conflict would cease if we would be aware of our own death. (Cleary, T.(2011). "Translator's Introduction", The Art of War. London: Shambhala)

So throws down an ultimatum. He won’t make it easy for Mummy Dearest to ignore him and she can’t expect him to roll away and play dead just so she can satisfy her vanity. The woman’s psychopathic lack of empathy is translated into blithe irritation at having to deal with a lifelong nuisance.

This is followed by another deeply poignant scene in which So wanders and staggers into the area dedicated to rock shrines… a place where mothers pray for their children. In tearful rage, our blood-streaked prince mows into the rock pile closest to where he recovers from his tear-stained stupor. Who can blame him? Those rocks are a mockery to his pain although it’s not their fault of course that Mummy Dearest doesn’t have one dedicated to his welfare.

Su happens along, dives right in on impulse and wrestles to hold him back. She falls back and realises in horror that there’s blood on her hands. So laughs maniacally and declares with anguish and irony that he’s killed.

“You’re injured!”

I especially liked this brief moment where they’re talking at cross-purposes. He thinks she’s horrified that he’s killed but she’s all concerned that he’s hurt himself. He expects to see fear but her thoughts are on his injury.

Not only does she act contrary to his expectation, she gives him the very thing his mother is incapable of giving him. Compassion. This counterintuitive response naturally confuses him and in response to what he perceives as odd, unexpected behaviour, tries to intimidate her into thinking the worst of him… as everyone else does. “I told you I killed people!"

Instead she takes it to the next level and offers him empathy. Her voice holds steady as she asks, “Then tell me why you killed them?” Just to let him know that she heard him right the first time.

It’s a truly mind-blowing moment for him and in an instance it defeats the turmoil and the rage swirling around inside that body.

In this scene, LJG is incredible… there’s no doubt about it. The way his eyes dart around confused at what manner of creature he is faced with. The softening around the edges of his eyes and then the resignation. The man is at the peak of his game. There’s not a lot that needs to be said on his part because it’s all there. But the effect of the words on Wang So are palpable.

But I’d like to give some credit to LJE too for her delivery, her ability to project the right amount of simplicity, courage and sincerity in a way that would resonate with someone who has never experienced love even at its most fundamental. It wasn’t much of a speech but it was heartfelt and someone who’d been so deeply hurt could tell that there was something different in it. More importantly it struck a chord. She understood his need to be seen as a human being… to live as one and to be free as one.

The morning afterwards they’re both embarrassed. After all the emotionally charged, raw honesty, they now find themselves unable to communicate. Rather like a couple of awkward teenagers unsure of how to move on now that they’ve bared the darkest parts of their souls in an unexpectedly intimate way.

What makes Su and So somewhat unique (to me at least) is in the way they are bound by a kind of dark empathy. The darkness in So is an ever-present, overwhelming force and on a certain level Su is able to look it squarely in the eye, speak to it and even tame it. However, the darkness is only ever suppressed, never really driven away. There is a reason why his reputation precedes him.

The thing that interests me most about the Chae Ryeong whipping isn’t the beating itself but the aftermath. One clear highlight from this episode is that Uk is rather more of a reactive figure. He is less likely to take matters into his own hands immediately and is more likely to piggyback on what others are already doing and saying. Whether he is hesitant to act for fear of the consequences or whether he is merely circumspect, he ends up being the cultivated opportunist. The fact that he is positioned amongst the clamour of multiple female voices making demands on his attention (whether deliberate or unintentional) could be a large factor in his inability to act decisively.

This is first time perhaps that GHJ-Su is mugged by the reality of what Goryeo is. She had an inkling previously but this time she’s experienced it first hand. It’s where her 21st century sensibilities of freedom and basic human rights clash with the reality of medieval life. Killing to stay alive may be understandable but apparently beating a person up like an animal isn’t. Why this glaring inconsistency? Or is it an inconsistency? My guess is… it depends on what is more valued… life or freedom.

In this instance, Uk makes in all likelihood the second in a series of promises to Su. (Hey, but who’s counting?) He says, “I promise you that no one will ever treat you in such a manner again. Trust me.” Or something to that effect. And of course he looks extremely swoony when he does it. Well, he practically looks swoony all of the time in this early stage. I’m sure he means it too except that no one least of all a man whose natural inclination is to hesitate should ever make such a promise. But he is so infatuated with her that he would promise her the moon if it cheered her up. It has the right effect on her because while she doesn’t swoon, her heart does that thing again for him. She wants to do the right thing by her kind cousin and shrugs off his nicely placed grasp on her shoulder. He does appear to be unusually decisive when trying to play Romeo to her Juliet but for now at least Juliet has a conscience.

If the man didn’t have a wife already, would we heartily approve? Maybe. Maybe not. There’s a dark edge to him that surprises even So. When So tells YH that Su belongs to him… this stuns everyone obviously. Everyone on the scene interprets it differently. But only 2 perspectives matter enough for further exposition… the one who does the beating and her brother. Uk takes offence and takes it personally. “Nothing here belongs to you.” is a statement absolutely calculated to make So feel his place and to curb his complacency. Uk, in his most territorial, leaves little doubt that the point of contention is ownership, casting a different edge to his promise to Su. When he makes his promise about never allowing anyone to do that to her, he is speaking from the perspective of perceived ownership of her. But of course all that is hot air posturing when Lady Hae dies and Su is sold off to the king as political chattel. That promise and those that follow turn out to be empty oaths not because he was wanting to be intentionally deceptive but at the end of the day, he is quite simply powerless to deliver. In effect, nothing really belonged to him. Not even the freedom to fall in love with his wife’s cousin and act on it.

While the drama was airing, there were many repeated complaints that too much time was spent on the Su-Uk romance which left very little time for the OTP to have their time in the sun. I defended the writer’s choices vociferously on Soompi not just because I had an inkling or two as to what was coming but I really believed at the time that the Su-Uk entanglement was built on shifting sand and unlikely to survive the test of time. Although I still think that, I am more inclined to see Su-Uk less as a viable romance in a love triangle but more as a staging point for how Uk turns over to the dark side. It’s pointless now it seems to me, to argue if either of them were really in love with each other because in the scheme of things, that turns out to be the least significant outcome as love is never the endgame in this drama. What is far more crucial to the plot is the long-term effect that this unfulfilled desire for Su had on Uk. Watching this episode again, it’s clear that Uk wants desperately to be the Prince Charming that he thinks she needs but circumstances inadvertently show him to be inadequate to the task. On the two occasions in this episode, he doesn’t cut it. Twice it isn’t he that saves Su. He almost does it twice. He almost confesses. He almost kisses her. And it turns out to be a recurring metaphor of his relationship with her: Almost. The following words could quite easily be inscribed on his epitaph… "Here lies the late Prince Almost"… and it has nothing to do with whether he has the King’s star or not.

As I had intimated in a previous post, there is also a sense where Uk’s newfound passion has a forbidden aspect to it. Despite his posturing, she really doesn’t belong to him in any sense. On a certain level he takes responsibility for her well-being but every attempt of his to cross that line into something more definitely romantic is thwarted both literally and figuratively. The presence of So looms large in that. The ending scene of the episode captures that picturesquely and poignantly. Su’s heart may be wavering in Uk’s favour due to his grand gestures but on the other hand, she’s building an awkward, yet earnest friendship with the dark prince. Then there’s also her growing relationships with other princes… embodied in her spontaneous hug of Jeong.

This reminds me of another criticism I’ve heard about Uk is that he has a major personality transplant in later episodes but I think it’s clear from even these early days that there are already distinct features about his personality that give way completely to the less attractive aspects of who he is later.

Time constraints aside, it is necessary for the romance elements here to serve many purposes. Those who watch it for the romance and many happy moments between the OTP will probably be sorely disappointed. If the intent of the show is to make this primarily about the game of thrones than the romance will in all probability be relegated to being the vehicle rather than the destination.

This episode is also quite significant in terms of establishing Su’s relationship with Jeong and his role in how things play out in the final resolution. Certainly Su’s misguided attempt to save Jeong provoked no little amount of hilarity and creates a long-term bond between them. More importantly, it foreshadows a long-term promise that will have other kinds of ramifications. My only beef about that incident is that we didn’t get to see LJG in any sword fighting action. What’s the fun in seeing him merely trading on the currency of his wolf dog reputation with one draw of his sword?

Speaking of foreshadowing, the other aspect to the Chae Ryeong beating is how draconian punitive measures becomes a major part of tensions between the OTP in the final episodes. I say this now to point to a consistent thread that runs right through the drama. This breach of basic human rights was a sore point with Su on this occasion and it recurs, as it were, one last time in later episodes. In Su’s eyes, whatever CR’s crimes were, she didn’t deserve to die so cruelly. This is GHJ being true to her 21st century self… all throughout. Whoever these people are, whatever they’ve done (CR or Uk), no one deserves to die horribly for them.

Edited to add missing articles, conjunctions and other misc lexical items when I was hurriedly trying to get this posted etc.