Emperor of the Sea, also known as Sea God, Hae Shin or Haesin (해신), is the highly fictionalized life story of Goong-bok, or Jang Bogo, an 8th century Korean historical figure. There is almost no surviving historical record, and most of what there is was written centuries later, so author Choi In-Ho had a free hand for poetic license in the novel upon which the book is based. And he used it. The central romance of the series is entirely fictitious, and the early, motivating events of the hero’s life, as well as the characterization and motivations of the villains are also works of imagination.
The series has 51 episodes and was first shown in Korea in 2004, two episodes a week, running into 2005. It was the top-rated show in its timeslot for most of the series. A whole village was built as a set, and remains a tourist attraction. Its popularity transcended both cultural and geographical boundaries – it was, for example, much discussed in the middle east. One news story of 2011 suggested that it may be aired in the U.S. this year (2012), but I haven’t been able to confirm that. On the contrary, as the genre expands, Hae Shin is often neglected in online annals of sageuk.
Since it was my first complete sageuk, and introduced me to Korea as well as to Korean dramas, Emperor of the Sea holds a special place in my heart. Choi Soo-jong, an understandably popular romantic lead, received mixed reviews for his performance in the title role. Some felt he was too old, although I thought he made an entirely believable progression from angry young man to complacent middle-aged merchant. Korean actors in general are far, far better than their American counterparts at depicting age progressions with acting rather than make-up (as it should be), perhaps because Koreans are so conscious of age. That said, perhaps they are also better able to discern age. Whatever, it worked for me.
More difficult to refute is the observation that Choi’s character is so belligerent and petulant at times as to be less than sympathetic, even while enduring hardships that ought to provoke identification and outrage. I can’t deny this, but it looks to be a matter of direction rather than the actor’s choice, as the young Goong-bok (played by a different actor) is even less likable. Also, the two boys who portray Goong-bok and his lifelong friend Yon as children were bewilderingly cast so that the boy who most resembled the adult Yon played Goong-bok, and vice versa. I’d swear young Goong-bok was actually taller than adult Goong-bok.
It would be interesting to know how closely the series followed the book upon which it was based. There was a pervasive fatalism about it (reminiscent of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King), which prompted me to research author Choi In-Ho. I wasn’t able to find out much. The book doesn’t appear to be available in an English translation, and I couldn’t even track down the year of publication. I did learn that he was originally Buddhist, but converted to Catholicism, which explained a lot. He clearly doesn’t place much stock in the efficacy of attempts at individual agency, and punishment of his characters’ transgressions is much heavier-handed than is the reward of their virtues.
Song Il Guk gave a riveting performance as the villain and was (rather creepily) wildly popular among female viewers. I suppose this is comparable to the magnetism of Star Trek’s Spock, another man of severely repressed passions. Unlike Spock, however, Song’s Yum Moon is the most extreme form of sociopath, a serial killer (calling him an assassin doesn’t make it any better), who can reveal himself as he truly is to no one. His intermittent impulses towards honor are unseen or misunderstood, and ultimately overridden by fits of homicidal pique. His version of love invariably ends disastrously for the objects of his affection. Song Il Guk received numerous awards for his performance, and he deserved them all. I don’t believe such a deeply self-contradictory character could exist in real life, but Song made him believable and even sympathetic, which is quite an achievement.
Korean drama is often (though not always) more sympathetic towards villains than US TV. They don’t just arrive on the scene bad – we see how they got that way. Hae Shin seems to me to be, under the costumes, swordfights, and entrepreneurialist propaganda, a study of fractured family relationships, particularly of the effect of father figures upon their sons. There are only two actual mothers in Sea God (both die early in their children’s lives), and no scenes of mothering. Actual fathers are fatally flawed, and also depart early in the story. Surrogate parents leave a lot to be desired, and are the root of most of the evil in the saga. A contrast of Yum Moon’s motherless childhood under the care of abusive pirates (yes, pirates. I told you Korean drama had a lot in common with Victorian novels. Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens) with Goong-bok’s upbringing by a timid but loving father is inevitable.
However, in the end none of it makes any difference. The storyline is an endless procession of bad decisions producing repercussions that are negative to a grossly disproportionate degree. Dad agrees to illegal work to get his rebellious son out of harm’s way, with the opposite result. Goong-bok commits a senseless act of animal cruelty, which initiates the love triangle that drives the characters involved for the rest of their lives. Yum Moon kills, and kills, and kills, irretrievably isolating himself when he all he ever wanted was to be loved. Chae-ryung (Chae Jung-an) marries a man whom she knows can’t love her, and Jung-hwa (Soo Ae) refuses to marry the same man who does love her (a choice which is never adequately explained). Just when things are finally going well, it all falls apart again. And be warned, almost everybody dies in the end. The survivors are our fictional heroine and a minor comedic character who is no better than he has to be.
This last is particularly intriguing. Mak-bong (Lee Hee Do) is a petty civil servant (the only path to a better life for those of common birth at the time), who is casually, habitually corrupt, often to the detriment of those who hold an unaccountable affection for him, yet he alone escapes the consequences of his misbehavior. The moral seems to be that trying to live too principled a life is an act of arrogance and will be punished. Only those who surrender to a self-interested nature, as long as their offenses are minor and balanced with a little altruism along the way, will survive. Class struggle is a recurring theme in Korean drama (inevitably, given its national situation and proximity to China), and this drama salutes the average citizen, who is socially rather than intellectually gifted, and unburdened by idealistic morality. Not that characters with ideals in Hae Shin adhere to them with any consistency. Perhaps that was the point, and Mak-bong endures because he embraces his own imperfections.
One of the first things that caught my attention in sageuk (in Queen Seonduk) was women in prominent roles. In Emperor of the Sea, these roles are all manufactured. Neither the heroine, the villainess, nor the woman warrior are historically based. I appreciated them nonetheless. Chae Shi-ra’s beautiful, indefatigably ambitious, and utterly self-centered villainess, Madame Jami, is a consummate survivor who rebounds from every defeat. Her performance is so effective that her ultimate implosion just doesn’t work. We want to see her go down, but not that way. Surely this is a woman who would fight tooth and nail to her dying breath.
My favorite female character is Kim Ah-joong’s woman warrior, Hajin. Although not as developed as she could have been (I’d like to have seen more of her backstory, for example), she is the most balanced of the female characters, and Kim does a lot with limited screen time, including rare scenes of female nurturing. A woman martial arts expert seems at first glance to be an anachronistic bow to feminism, but it ain’t necessarily so. Silla had already seen two queens, and historical accounts of women in traditionally male roles, even in the most male-dominated cultures, may be found the world over. If it didn’t happen that way, I like to think it could have. Like many viewers, I didn’t appreciate her early and gratuitous demise.
Sea God is full of beautiful scenery, stirring music (much lauded), and fantastical swordfighting. Considerable resources were devoted to creating period settings and costumes, which seemed credible to me, though (like most viewers, I suspect) I am no judge of authenticity. I can forgive the obviously machine-milled lumber of the 8th century village, but surely they would have eaten brown rice, not white? The actors try hard to remember to read scrolls from right to left and top to bottom, but don’t always succeed. However, these are petty quibbles, and I apologize for them.
Less forgivable is a dragging section in the middle of the series, where several episodes are devoted to ship-loads of grim-faced men (and one woman, see above), traversing sparkling seas to martial music, only to find that the enemies they came to engage are away on a mission to their turf to engage them. Missed connections are a recurring theme of Hae Shin (and Korean drama in general), but really, after a couple of rounds it gets boring.
The historical Jang Bogo is a hero in Korea. In Emperor of the Sea he is represented as a slave to explain his later crusades against the slave trade. However, there is no record of his origins, other than that he was not of noble birth, and his repression of the slave trade was under order of the king, and may not have been a personal crusade at all. Those of us outside Korea must take Hae Shin for what it is, a stirring and attractive fabrication with only the most minimal traces of historical content.