December 28, 2012

Arang and the Magistrate – Korean drama review

Arang the ghost sits on a roof in brightly-colored Korean traditional dress;Arang and the Magistrate (아랑사또전) is a 20-episode MBC drama that aired in the fall of 2012. I LOVED the first few episodes. Arang the amnesiac ghost (Shin Min Ah) is an agile imp with absolutely no respect whatsoever for authority – in short, my kind of gal :)

The drama is a sageuk-fantasy fusion – my first. The fantasy element manifests as a whimsical, eclectic melange of religious and folk traditions. Upon a floating island in the clouds, traditional Asian (Yoo Seung Ho) and Greek (Park Joon Gyu) deities play Go (바둑 or baduk in Korean) with the lives of mortals. Yeah, Ingmar Bergman did it first, but did he think to embellish the scene with a flower-backed goat? He did not.

The over and underworlds provide an eye-catching counterpoint to the early Joseon setting, with as much flair for spectacle as a Kpop video. I particularly enjoyed the trip to Heaven via Hell, spread across two episodes and fraught with scenery changes and obstacles so it really felt like a journey. The computer-enhanced natural settings of this passage are among the most imaginative images in the series. Later, there is a memorable vision of eternity for the unrepentant.
The lord of the underworld sits on a grey throne framed by twisted bare trees;
The earthly sets were well done. I particularly liked the shaman’s cottage and the abandoned warehouse. Exterior scenes were nicely framed and located. Especially notable are the cliff and cave scenes.
The magistrate sits on a stone cliff framed by pines looking out over a winding river below;
Alas, after this promising start, the script becomes bogged down in its own exposition. The spiritual rules and regulations grow more and more complex, convoluted and inconsistent. This is a common problem for supernaturally-based U.S. dramas after multiple seasons, but surely it could have been avoided for a single-season drama.

Even the earthly rules are warped to fit the plot. An illegitimate son becomes a magistrate. Family members roam free after the family head is arrested for treason. Both are highly unlikely in the Joseon era.

There is also a disappointing meekification of Arang, which happens all too often to Kdrama heroines. Her abilities change, but it doesn’t slow her down much. And yet, Eun Oh (Lee Joon Gi) relentlessly and incessantly drags her around by the wrists for the rest of the series.
Photo of male hand grabbing female wrist inside a red circle crossed with a diagonal line;Since she is fully capable of stopping it, are we supposed to infer that she doesn’t mind? Well, I do. I’m fed up with the man-handling of heroines. ENOUGH, ALREADY! Physical restraint of another is abusive! I don’t know about Korea, but in the U.S. it’s a criminal offense. Being emotional is no excuse.
The 2012 Kdrama Grabby Award goes to… Arang and the Magistrate!

The villainess in an elaborate wig glaring sideways;The main villain (Kang Mun Yeong) is another weakness as the drama progresses. Her evilness is expressed primarily by a lot of head tilting and eye-rolling. It’s not enough. The coldness of the sub-villain (Yeon Woo Jin) is far more chilling. And was it really necessary to throw in an incest reference near the end when they had gotten through 16 episodes without one? Argh.

Although there is a lot of death in Arang and the Magistrate, the violence is relatively muted for sageuk. The featured weapon is a fan rather than a sword. The one exception is Arang, who cannot keep an outfit bloodless for the life of her (pun intended). And speaking of outfits, this series marks the introduction of romantic measurement-taking, the uninjured couple’s answer to romantic bandaging.

The second couple is ably portrayed by Hwang Bo Ra and Kwon Oh Joong (who barely seems to have aged since his somewhat similar role 9 years ago in Damo). Their slapstick interludes are entertaining, and their blushing-teen-like romance is charming, although their intelligence level seems to fluctuate to suit the storyline. As usual, Korean drama does a great job of integrating comic relief with serious themes. Kwon Oh Joong’s bromantic competitiveness for his master’s attention is pretty over the top, but I like to think that’s evidence of a relaxing attitude about same-sex romance.
Bang Wool sits at a table in her hut ignoring the food Dol Swe has brought her;
Although Lee Joon Gi does a respectable job of transforming Eun Oh from cold to warm and indifferent to compassionate, Yeon Woo Jin’s transformation is more riveting, perhaps because he has so much more to come to terms with. His acts have been too extreme for redemption, and yet, in comprehending his own monstrousness and administering his own solution, there is redemption after all. With the even-handedness I love Kdrama for, we see the terrified, starving street kid inside the slick, well-heeled adult.

Our understanding of him builds slowly, as does his understanding of himself. For awhile I was distracted by the resemblance of his hatstring to a necklace I own, but eventually he made me forget that.
A young man in a black gat hat with pink and blue beads on his hatstring;

The ending of Arang and the Magistrate is something of a compromise, but the script had painted itself into a corner by then, so the options were limited. The wrap-up wasn’t great, but it was good enough, which also sums up my reaction to the series as a whole. If it didn’t fulfill its initial promise, Arang and the Magistrate was nevertheless entertaining, creative and thought-provoking enough to be worth watching.

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10 comments to Arang and the Magistrate – Korean drama review

  • Jillian

    Just starting to browse your site here – very much enjoyed your Introduction to Korean Drama and Sageuk. I think you nailed the comparison between K-Drama and pop-Victorian novels – something I had felt but hadn’t been able to pin down. Here I had to chuckle about your rant on wrist grabbing. I actually feel the opposite – I love the wrist grabbing in passionate moments. For the most parts these dramas are otherwise so restrained, I feel like the wrist grabbing is super cute. Haha…but that’s just me. :) Thanks for the review on Arang and the Magistrate – I keep thinking about watching that one…

  • Jillian Weir

    Oops! Totally forgot about this thread. Better late than never, right? ;-)

    I did end up watching Arang and the Magistrate (although it’s been a long time now) and largely agree with your conclusions. Somehow the whole show felt very unanchored with so many characters running around without their families and all of the roles/rules/restraints that come with everyone knowing their place in society. Does that make sense? The wrist grabbing still doesn’t bother me – it’s a more patriarchal society than ours (now and especially then) and whenever a guy is dragging a chic around in a drama it’s always a demonstration of love/concern, for her own good, in other words. Condescending, patronizing and overbearing? Probably. I’m still a sucker for it.

    Good review!

    • There has been a lot of discussion of feminist issues in Korea recently, in the wake of some particularly egregious incidents of violence against women (though I suspect they were not that unique, just better publicized). I posted related several related news stories to the Mihansa Facebook page over the summer.

      It will be interesting to see whether wrist grabbing gradually fades out of Kdrama as consciousness around sexual violence in Korea rises. I caught a few minutes of a current drama while channel-surfing recently, and was amused to see that there was quite a lot of female on male wrist-grabbing. I am not in favor of non-consensual forcible restraint of anyone by anyone (though it does not have quite the same implications when the grabber weighs 50 lbs less than the grabee), but I guess if reversal is what it takes to get Korean men to think, it’s a step in the right direction.

      Showing Korean men how it feels to be a Korean woman by turning the tables has been a controversial tactic advocated by some members of the online Korean feminist community, Megalia. You might find this recent podcast from of interest. It discusses the rise and division of Megalia, which was, unlike most other Korean online communities, anonymous. The primary source for this podcast is a Korean man who sounds surprisingly sympathetic to Korean feminists (for the most part).

      A Korean voice actress was fired from an online gaming role this summer because she posted a selfie of herself in a t-shirt that said “Girls do not need a prince.” The issue was not the shirt itself (so they said), but that it was sold by Megalia.

      Here is the Megalia logo:

      As you can see, a giant step away from female submissiveness! But then again, since Megalia was anonymous, there is no way to know whether this logo was actually created by a Korean woman, or by a Korean man trying to undermine the Korean women’s movement by characterizing it as anti-male, something which happened quite a lot during the second wave of feminism in the U.S., and which continues here to this day (in the word “femi-nazi” for example).

      • Jillian Weir

        So, I really didn’t want to get into a huge discussion about feminism and violence against women here. I listened to a little bit of the podcast and it was interesting to hear the state of gender politics in South Korea. I think all of us wish for greater freedom and better choices for women everywhere. I can also understand why people who are concerned about violence against women would be troubled by the cavalier way in which men frequently interact with women in Asian dramas.

        With this said, a little wrist grabbing is hard to complain about when the writers go so far to demonstrate to the audience that the man is acting in the woman’s best interest, that his intentions are honorable (he’s not dragging her off to rape/beat/leave her) and that he is willing to make personal sacrifices to protect/provide for her (the whole “taking responsibility” bit).

        No, you will not see men in American TV shows being physically forceful with women, but you will also not see them treating women with respect and honor either. Americans don’t bat an eye to see men aggressively hitting on women, sleeping around, cheating, not raising their children, etc.

        So if we’re talking about the influence of fiction (book and TV) on culture, I would take a little wrist grabbing along with the honorable intentions and taking responsibility than the “let’s have fun screwing around but you’re on your own after that” consensual stuff. But that’s just me.

        • I assure you, many Americans bat an eye and more about men behaving badly! But overcoming gender stereotypes is an ongoing processes everywhere, I suspect.

          I’m afraid we are going to have to agree to disagree about wrist-grabbing. A woman (or anyone else) has a right to control who touches her and how. That right is not suspended according to what is going on in the mind of someone who puts hands on her without her consent. I would seriously question the “honorable intentions” of a man who is incapable of respecting that most fundamental of personal boundaries.

          Men have no business “taking responsibility for” another adult. That is control, which is the antithesis of responsibility. If men want women to be protected and provided for, I suggest they confront violent and demeaning attitudes in other men and lobby for pay parity so women are free to protect and provide for themselves.

          • Jillian Weir

            Which is why I didn’t want a full on discussion on gender politics, especially when we add another layer of complexity by discussing the roles and responsibilities of those who produce fiction. Are those who produce TV shows and write books/comics/magazines responsible for making sure that they are always moralizing to their audience by only depicting perfectly ideal relationships? Or are they only responsible to produce content that sells? Pretty tough call.

            If we’re not discussing fiction, but talking about real life, then we ought to ask why almost all cultures throughout history have been patriarchal. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that it is practical. In the US it is no longer PC to talk about the fact that men and women are biologically different, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are. Women are physically weaker than men and are automatically a target for sexual abuse (whether this is of the rape variety or of the seduction and deception variety) since men are stronger, more aggressive and have a higher sex drive (thank you testosterone). Are there exceptions to these generalizations? Sure. Overall, however, this is reality. In addition, once women have been impregnated, they are at a further disadvantage since pregnancies are often difficult and debilitating (speaking from experience here). Once the children are born, they must be nursed and cared for intensely for many years before they can live independently. All of these are reasons that “taking responsibility” is a big deal. Even in modern, developed societies where birth control is easily accessible and women have equal access to education and employment, dealing with a pregnancy and raising a child on your own is an enormous feat and one that will almost always result in severe sacrifices of health and material wealth.

            All of which is why I deeply appreciate the seriousness with which Asian dramas treat physical intimacy (even if they only do so because of government censorship) and overlook an occasional wrist grab.

          • It’s not a tough call to me as to whether media producers bear responsibility above and beyond their self-interest. Research has shown again and again that these fictional worlds disproportionately influence us all, and media producers live in the same world as the rest of us, and are just as responsible for the impact of their choices and actions as anyone else.

            There is a weird belief in capitalist societies that having a profit-motive somehow exempts those involved in commerce from ethical considerations. I have never understood the logic of that, and I emphatically disagree with it. One of the things I appreciate in Kdrama is that this kind of behavior is often referred to as “greed,” which is exactly what it is.

            I am not suggesting that only “ideal” relationships should be depicted. That’s obviously a problem from the get-go, as who would decide what’s “ideal”? However, eroticizing violent behavior by men towards women is hugely problematic for both genders, and the responses I’ve received when I raised this issue show only too clearly how successfully that has been done.

            I would urge you to examine more closely the research you have been relying on regarding biological differences between men and women. Especially compare the percentage of difference in studies that compare women and men with the margin of error for such studies, which is usually as large, or larger. Even if all of those studies were perfectly accurate, 97% of women and men would be comparable on most comparisons.

            You have some misconceptions about the connection between testosterone and violence, or at least, violence in men (many people are unaware that women also have testosterone – called androgen in women, and generated elsewhere in the body, obviously, but chemically the same stuff). You also seem to assume that sexual aggressiveness is a natural urge, but there is not nearly as much biological imperative for human males to physically and sexually dominate human females as you seem to think.

            Not that it would matter even if there was. There IS a certain biological imperative for humans in general to conk other humans over the head and take their stuff if it is attractive to us, but we nevertheless expect responsible adult humans to resist that urge, and punish them if they choose not to. In any case, biological tendencies towards socially damaging behavior strike me as an argument in favor of modeling more constructive actions.

  • Jillian Weir

    Sorry for the rant above. I think that the feminist movement, along with greater rule of law, advances in technology and industry, healthcare (especially birth control and access to safe abortions), etc. have meant a world that is much safer, healthier and happier for women, however, I think it is naive to think that we can ever expect true gender equality when the root causes of inequality are largely immutable. Just to satisfy my own curiosity, I did some quick research on gender equality in Sweden, which came first to mind when thinking of egalitarian societies and I found this brief article which pretty much substantiate, or at least add weight to, my suspicions:

    Men and women should treat each other better, for sure, and there are definitely actions we can take towards those ends, but ending wrist grabbing in dramas probably isn’t going to move the needle. More likely, it’ll fade as the culture changes, just as it has with Hollywood. Not that many people would argue that what Hollywood produces these days is really an improvement…

    Anyway, sorry for coming on so strong.

    • No need to apologize for having strong opinions. I never do :) I do apologize, however, for taking so long to respond to your comments.

      As I said in my reply to your previous comment, I don’t agree that the root causes of inequality are immutable. Difference does not automatically result in inequality. Culture is hugely influential.

      I don’t know how old you are, but I remember when the attitude towards women in the media was not too different from the way it is now in Korea. Offhandedly sexually harassing, sexually objectifying and belittling women who were, for example, guests on talk shows because of their expertise at something was the norm back in the ’60s. I would be the first to agree the U.S. still has a long way to go – in pay equity and positions of economic/political power in particular – but my contact with Korean media has reminded me of how it used to be here, and given me some perspective on how far we have come.

      This has benefited men as well as women, by permitting both genders to be individuals first, which has greatly enhanced the overall maturity level of American men. Check out ’60s TV shows, and you’ll see what I mean.

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