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March 20, 2012

Hon | Soul – Korean drama review, Pt. 2

(Pt. 1 of this review is here.)

“Whew,” I said, as the final episode of Soul ended. “That was intense.” Hon is deep, dark and thought-provoking – not for the timid, and the opposite of escapist.

One of the advantages to watching dramas online is that you can pause and look things up. I researched a number of subjects over the course of watching Hon, from Confucianism to psychopathy, not to mention the lyrics to the T-ara song that closes the drama. Even so, I have a feeling there are additional nuances to Soul that don’t translate for non-Koreans. Lee Seo Jin’s character is named after a 17th century Korean general. Many of the lines exchanged between his character and Kim Gab Soo’s arch-villain Baek Do Shik are Confucian quotes. The T-ara song is called “Lies.”

This is not to say that there is anything specifically Korean about the issues of morality that Soul addresses – on the contrary, they cut to the very core of human identity. What does it mean that we can examine and judge our own emotion-driven behavior, and that of others? Are killers still human? Where are the boundaries of responsibility, between stepping up and overstepping? Can violence be contained without more violence? Are we capable of creating harmony just because we can conceive of it, or are we doomed to yearn for a safety that is congenitally beyond our grasp?

If Hon offers any answer, it’s that courage to act on an independent moral imperative without honesty – particularly within oneself – is more likely to be sinister than heroic. That’s not a much of an answer, certainly not one that makes the world a safer place. We can hardly rely on the consciences of real psychopaths, who have no capacity for remorse, and can there be serial killers who are not psychopaths? I hope not, but that’s another of Hon’s questions.

Whether or not such a man could really exist, Lee Seo Jin makes his character all too credible in both of his extremes, breaking our hearts in the process. Though his girlfriend (Lee Jin) is portrayed as naive in her comprehension of evil, hers is the stronger moral compass. She lies for him when she believes he’s innocent, but when she discovers a different truth, she faces it unflinchingly and acts immediately.

Although Hon isn’t ultimately about their characters, the performances of Im Joo Eun, Park Ji Yeon and Park Gun Il must not be neglected. They are all essential to the storyline. Im Joo Eun walks a very fine line between vulnerability and helplessness – if she were less skilled, Lee Seo Jin’s investment in protecting her innocence (even as he exploits it) couldn’t have worked. Her connection with Park Ji Yeon is particularly sweet – we don’t see loving sisters very often in Korean drama. Im Joo Eun also does a great job with her spirit possession/psychotic break scenes, which can’t have been easy.

Poor Park Gun Il plays a more familiar character, the devoted and overlooked lover. Yet, we wonder for a time whether he’s the real serial killer. He doesn’t seem to have graduated to larger roles yet – I hope he’ll get that chance. Chun Jung Myung, recently of Young Love Jae In fame, has a brief but effective turn as the young Shin Ryu, where his ability to project open-heartedness enhances the poignance of the backstory.

One of the things I learned during Hon-related surfing was that Korea has produced a crop of extremely violent revenge films during the last decade or two (which were disturbingly popular, inside and outside of Korea). This saddens me, but shouldn’t really surprise me, as revenge and violence crop up in all but the most trivial Korean dramas. The cultural, spiritual and geopolitical pressures that Korea is now grappling with and attempting to integrate boggle the mind. Something’s gotta give.

Perhaps that is why I continue to be riveted. I do ask myself “Why Korea?” What is it about this culture that mesmerizes me and so many others from widely divergent cultures? Korea is a puzzle I’m compelled to try and assemble, even knowing that I may never find all of the pieces I need to see the whole picture. Somehow, Korea’s questions are my questions, urgent and essential human questions upon which the very persistence of our planet may depend. I can’t ignore them, as my own culture seems determined to do. I don’t know whether they can be resolved, but I have to care. That’s my own definition of being human.

6 comments to Hon | Soul – Korean drama review, Pt. 2

  • I also want to watch HON but can find a copy with english sub and also don’t know where to buy. :(

    • Mihansa

      I don’t know about buying it, but if you just want to watch it with English subtitles, it’s free on DramaFever, where it’s called Soul. Let me know what you think!

  • Azerjaban

    …I just didn’t understand the point of the ending. It made no sense to me. Why did Chi So go out like that? Or the girlfriend? When the big evil gets away? What does that mean…that the whole revenge was pointless?

    • Mihansa

      It’s been awhile since I saw it, but as I think back on it now, it seems that the underlying point of the story was karma – understanding an antagonist’s viewpoint once you have had similar experiences (this comes up constantly in Korean drama). Ha Na and her sister were essentially an opening act to set up the relationship between Shin Ryu and Do Shik.

      Do Shik was already punished by the death of his son – Shin Ryu had taken away the one thing he cared about, so he got his revenge, inflicting the same pain that had been inflicted upon him. Yet taking revenge turned Shin Ryu into as much of a monster as Do Shik was (and created a weird intimacy between them, since only Do Shik recognized that). Revenge that compromises the avenger is also very common in Korean drama, perhaps due to an irreconcilable clash between Buddhist acceptance and Confucian righteousness. It’s like they’re asking over and over again, “we know revenge just makes things worse, but what else can we do with our rage?” Which is a really good question.

      I have to confess I don’t remember what happens to Lee Jin and Park Gun Il in the end, except that it didn’t match the opening scene of the first episode as we all were expecting it to (and we never did find out why his hair was a different color).

      I’ve read that a lot of people were confused by, or unhappy with, the ending when it originally aired in Korea. The production was under a lot of time pressure, and there was discussion about extending the series two more episodes to reintroduce some things that were cut out of the initial episode, but it didn’t happen. I’m tempted to wish they’d had time to fully realize the director’s vision, but you never know, it may have been those very pressures that made it so powerful. At the end of Hon, you know something hit you, even if you’re not exactly sure what.

  • Mo Eul

    I would like to know the real name of Shi Ou.Can I?

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