Moon Lovers Retrospective Ep. 5

These posts do contain plot spoilers written from the perspective of someone who is re-watching from hindsight.

While it isn’t beyond the pale for me to be prejudicially casting negativity on the blossoming romance between Su and Uk due to personal bias, there is a strong sense that the narrative itself projects the ups and downs of that relationship in dubious light. Superficially Uk is charming to boot, publicly he is careful to ensure that his actions are above board. However, despite claims to the contrary, it’s clear that he’s not content to just play the kind in-law and landlord. Obviously he craves more, but is quite aware of the limits of his position and the opportunities that are available to him. So as not to upset his ailing wife or draw negative attention to himself, Uk casually creates what he believes is a safe space where he’s able to negotiate the contradictions of his position -- “learning opportunity” as his means of “confessing love”. In a way all of that is quite pointless because his wife though sickly isn’t blind to the signs of infatuation so evidently written all over his handsome face. And it is a very handsome face indeed. The tortured, Byronic charisma is obviously to die for. Don’t you love that dark look that KHN projects when he’s about to do something really naughty? Anyhow, charismatic or not, however, fate isn’t swayed because before anything is allowed to take off, the whole thing comes crashing down. He has no idea that Su can’t read Hanja much less is able to engage with ancient literature and on top of that, Baek-A and Lady Hae chance upon the coded poem (Tang Dynasty poet, Liu Yixi’s “Song of the Bamboo Branch”) with Su happily quite illiterate about the piece of dynamite that’s in her hands.

Can a poem cause that much of an explosion? Well, seeing that Baek-A flipped his lid, hit the ceiling and raised the roof over it… I’d say so. It is a love poem after all and the intent is clear.

I imagine that even for a woman in Goryeo who loves her husband dearly that it must be excruciatingly hard not only watching him make googly eyes at another woman but also taking active steps to get close to “the other woman”. Sure her days are numbered and yes, polygamy is a legitimate form of family building but it must still hurt that she has no power over her husband’s heart. I can only imagine the devastation that she must have felt seeing her husband enamoured with another, convinced that his care and attention of her was a lot more about duty than love. It attests to her strength of character that she is able to keep it all together while succumbing to illness, take it in her stride and evaluate the situation with as much pragmatism as she can. To me she’s valiantly admirable.

Su maybe illiterate where Chinese characters are concerned but she knows too well the dilemma she’s in with the 8th Prince and Lady Hae. It’s an untenable situation and she knows from experience how painfully destructive this can be to the innocent party. When confronted by Baek-A she doesn’t deny the accusations, her only concern is with Lady Hae knowing that there’s something brewing between her and the 8th Prince.

All this begs the question for me… why does Baek-A go after Su and not Uk? It’s one of those things that bothered me endlessly the first time round. After all it was Uk who wrote the poem, got the ball rolling and naturally he should be the one held responsible for trying to “fan the flames". I’ve played with a number of possibilities in my head: fear of reprisals and so he picked a soft target; he didn’t want Uk to take it out on Lady Hae etc etc. The explanation that best fits the context for me after a second viewing is his belief that Su did the dirty on Lady Hae because of her amnesia/head trauma. Underpinning that notion was in all likelihood the belief that she probably used her newfound feminine wiles on Uk to make him fall in love with her. He’d witnessed first-hand her personality change (fight with Eun) and had been told by Lady Hae that Su’s entire personality had changed. In his mind, everything between Lady Hae was fine before Su lost her memory and underwent a personality change. Whatever his rationale was, I can’t help but think that there was some degree of cravenness in his actions. Why didn’t he confront Uk on his way out? Wasn’t he equally culpable? Or perhaps he thought that if he spoke loudly enough, it would somehow reach the 8th Prince’s ears. Rather fortuitously for him, it actually did.

While Uk’s lack of courage is even more deplorable, in the scheme of things, it’s scarcely surprising because doing things undercover is his default modus operandi. Under the nose of his sickly wife, he sends a veiled confession to another woman to test the waters. No one can say the man is not consistent in that regard. My impression after Baek-A had dished out some home truths was that he had been standing there for a good proportion of the tirade enough to get his ears burnt but numbly said nothing and did nothing in Su’s defence. Or even to take some responsibility for his own actions. Here is where I could quite easily call Prince Charming out on being a fair-weather wannabe paramour but I won’t because he’d probably justify his inaction by saying that he didn’t want to exacerbate an already tense situation. Whatever his justification might be, it’s not a good look and it sets the pattern for repeated inaction down the track. If Su had had her wits about her, she probably would have seen the red flags but yes, I can see how being accused of almost adultery even in a backhanded way could send a person into an emotional tailspin.

I am reminded of an early incident in Agatha Christie’s Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side where Miss Marple is taking a gander round the new housing development in her village. A young woman almost falls into a sinkhole and her boyfriend does nothing to help her. On witnessing this Miss Marple goes over to the young lass and tells her to see the back of this young man in a hurry (or something along those lines) because he can’t be relied on to take care of her. There’s something similar going on here.

Maybe it is a bridge too far to say that Uk is cut from the same cloth as Won, the 9th Prince. However it makes sense in light of why they become strange bedfellows at a later time. Both tend to act under the cloak of someone or something. Won behaves like a buffoon and Uk is happy for everyone to think of him as the sensible, diplomatic gentleman in their general dealings with him. The facade diffuses any thought that they could be possible contenders for the throne while they hide their true intentions.

It’s interesting but totally in character that Uk never acknowledges the true intention of the poem and prefers to sweep the entire thing under the carpet. His face at the end of the entire debacle says it all... thwarted again.

My second favourite scene in this entire episode has to be when Hae Su meets Taejo. Introduced by loud dramatic music, it’s undoubtedly a comical blast meant to elicit laughs from what should ordinarily really be quite a serious moment. Face to face with the founding monarch of Goryeo, the first thing that pops into Su’s mind is her immediate reference to the historical figure — television dramas. (Does she break the fourth wall?) Then there’s mention of the high school history lessons that were drilled into her with no little amount of reluctance I’m sure. A sharp reminder undoubtedly that she’s an ordinary woman who has time travelled into extraordinary times. By now, she’s developed a bit of a reputation in the palace for having given Eun a good thrashing but apparently it elicits a certain level of admiration rather than disdain. Fortunately the Hae Su-GHJ charm seems to work its magic and Taejo is grounded and magnanimous enough to see the humour in all of it.

So why make such a fairly significant moment a comical one? The cynics amongst us might suggest that it’s a timely reminder to the bored kiddies that historical facts are important because one never knows when facts about long dead kings will come in handy when one accidentally finds oneself transported via an eclipse or through a wormhole and into the past. However, on a more serious note and as a history buff, my view is that the teaching and learning of history goes beyond cramming one’s head full of useful facts and into the realms of policy making in all levels of governance. But there is also the application of history on an individual level. These days everyone’s heard the Santayana quote that’s often bandied around, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” There is that of course. Then there is the fact that ignorance of history leads to the making of poor choices in all strata of life. History is ultimately about facing reality. Ignore it and you will most certainly be mugged by reality.

It’s a pity in this drama we don’t see Taejo Wang Geon quite enough. In general I like the character with all his flaws and i like the actor who plays him. On the one hand, Taejo must seem like such an awesome, larger-than-life figure. Yet there’s something distinctly down-to-earth about him. He’s no fool but the weight of the throne lies heavily on his ageing shoulders. In this drama he is the kingly figure first and foremost in the way he prioritizes the demands of the throne. On the rare occasion we catch glimpses of the father inside the robe we see a much more complex creature at work. In the game of thrones, he sets the template. Well, he is the template. He is the guy that all the other guys will be compared to. So while his physical presence in this drama is limited, his influence endures.

The snow scenes are pretty to look at and the close-ups are gorgeously shot but there’s for me a troubling undercurrent that never allows me to enjoy them fully. Su and Uk playing in snow may seem adorable to some but for me I feel it comes at the expense of a noticeably absent sick wife. I’m sure the symbolism of the whiteness of snow is deliberate here pointing to concealment and feelings that are hidden. I think it’s evident from the little he says that Uk does find Lady Hae is a burden with political benefits. She’s a stabilising influence and a restraining force and there’s a part of Uk that longs to be free of the straightjacket of being the head of the Hwangju clan. Piggybacking her isn’t just a visual metaphor of the dynamic of that relationship where he shoulders the responsibility of caring for her physical needs while she gives him clout and respectability, it’s also a larger picture of how he sees people in his life… as responsibilities… that an intelligent, well-to-do, privileged young man like himself need to carry through to the end. Condescension, I believe, is part of that package.

Speaking of condescension, there’s a fascinating conversation between 3 of the siblings in this episode: So, Yeon Hwa and Yo. As usual when 2 or more of these siblings are involved in a conversation it’s about marriage, mostly initiated or at least provoked by Yeon Hwa. There’s little doubt that Yeon Hwa is an interesting contrast to Su. She seems to have her fans in ML fandom but I’m not one of them. I don’t fit into the hate camp either but I find little to admire in her although I suspect she’s doing the best she can in a world where marrying expeditiously trumps marrying for companionship. With all her practiced cynicism she’s obviously trying to have the best of both worlds, which largely explains why she has these cryptically flirtatious conversations where she throws out bones to see which dog bites. In her mind marrying well is her meal ticket but for someone who professes to be highly ambitious it doesn’t feel like she really distinguishes herself in any noticeable fashion. She can scheme and backstab with the best of them but she doesn’t give anyone any real reason why apart from the power of her clan, she should be queen or anyone of importance in Goryeo’s political landscape. With all her so-called intelligence, she only uses it reactively and to do serious damage. Ironically in thinking only about power and self-survival, she keeps her world very small.

I thought it was fascinating when LJG was asked at a fan meet who he preferred: Su or Yeon Hwa. He said that while he was filming, it was Yeon Hwa but while he watched the drama, he changed his mind to Hae Su. I can’t remember whether he gave an explanation why his thoughts fell along those lines. For me I feel similarly. In the early days I thought Yeon Hwa was a lot more on the ball. However, taken as a whole even with all her flaws and naiveté on certain issues, I’ve concluded that at the end of the day Su was the real risk taker. Her thoughts and actions were far bigger than herself and in the end her impact on the people around her and history was much greater.

There’s no doubt that the death of Lady Hae was gorgeously and poignantly done and like many of the these key scenes in the drama, it’s the reaction of those around that are far more important to the overall story than the event itself. Nevertheless this should not take away from how valiantly she lived out her final days and like all selfless people her thoughts were first and foremost on those she was going to leave behind. Her final words to Uk are a delayed response to what he said about most people being a burden to him. She never wanted to be a burden to him but someone who would lift him and his family out of ignominy. It didn’t matter whether he loved her or not, the main thing was that she loved him.

This episode and the ones preceding it are largely constructed to demonstrate how much of a fish out of water Hae Su is. In these early days, the showrunners take a more light-hearted approach although the darker undercurrents are never really far away. So far she managed to get by with her personality quirks and the graciousness of Lady Hae but as the 4th Prince says, what is she doing in a place she really doesn’t belong in?