I watched this series when it first came out, slapped a 7.5 star rating on it, and moved on with my life. Except I didn’t move on. I kept coming back to it. I don’t know how many times I have watched it now, but it’s a lot. A lot, a lot. And I honestly think it gets better with each rewatch. Now I’d say it’s a perfect 10/10. Occasionally our first impressions are just… wrong, okay?
Listen, sometimes you have to change your mind about stuff. It’s good for the soul.
Just like this drama.
Just like these two.
Bae Suzy and Lee Seung-Gi are the two leads, both of which are notoriously charming in all their dramas. Sticking them together was like the first person who thought to create a double layer cake. What if we put a cake… on top of a cake? Afterwards humanity forever wondered why they hadn’t been doing this the whole time. Cause of course, of course, cake on cake is perfect. And Bae Suzy and Lee Seung-Gi are perfect. They’re both charismatic actors who bring innocence, humor, and sincerity to all their roles. And just so you know – they don’t even really show up until episode 3. Like Queen Seon Duk, the first two episodes are all about the laying foundations of the story with the generation before.
The plotline of Gu Family Book is fantastic – both the supernatural plotline and the political one. There’s melodrama, action, revenge, political intrigue, and the supernatural. But at its core, this is a romance. And the romance is achingly romantic, with the plot winding slowly around your heart until by the time things start coming together for these two, you’re already desperately bound to their stories.
Oh, Gu Family Book! This show has it all. It packed in everything you can think of in its suitcase of plot devices to spellbind an audience. Kang Eun-Kyung wrote a script to rival some of the best historical dramas of all time. The story is huge, complicated, and multi-generational – yet it’s easy to follow and just builds on itself as it goes. There’s tons of humor to balance all the tragedy. The stakes are high but realistic. All the characters are fully developed, and I mean all of them. And they all get complete characters arcs, too, with transformation and growth (even if towards the dark side). I’ll get into all of this in more detail in the spoiler section.
Sometimes your protagonists are only as good as your antagonists, and Lee Seung-Gi plays one of the most monstrous villains of all time. You’ll be rooting for someone to cut this man down from the very first episode. Lee Seung-Gi will make your skin crawl. He plays his role with such menace, such devious certainty, that you never once doubt his character’s soul is blacker than the eyeliner of the lead singer of The Cure.
There are really dark aspects in this drama – human slavery, rape, torture, and murder – though their presentation is PG-13, you might be disturbed by the content. Gu Family Book does not pretend that the past was an entirely pleasant experience – it could be a very, very harsh world. But our characters still find ways to survive, to find beauty, joy, and pleasure, in the world they occupy. Sometimes the darkness can be overcome, and sometimes people have to make room for the light despite of it.
Listen, I’m hard pressed to think of a reason why you won’t like this drama. Other than the “old-school” special effects – which okay, sure, they’re old fashioned… it’s just glowing lights and rather painful looking colored contacts most of the time, but whatever. I’m embarrassed to admit I was overly dismissive of the simplistic special effects first viewing – which now don’t bother me in the least. In fact, I actually prefer a lot of these FX tricks over more tedious CGI.
Don’t let your modern eye keep you from enjoying this fairy tale goodness just because its special effects are a bit dated. Maybe at first you’ll be a little unsure of how to feel about some of the show, but it will hypnotize you. Next thing you know you’ll be utterly delighted every time those little blue will-o’-the-wisps show up, every time Kang Chi’s eyes switch colors, every time the operatic theme song by Yisabel busts in… “There’s a stone for the things forgotten…”
Around the early 2010’s is when Korean dramas started picking up a substantial fan base in America. There is something particular about the shows coming out during this time – they were so universally loved by viewers (with a few problematic elements here and there, sure) – they were so addictive, so shamelessly full of love, sorrow, hope, honor, and friendship – that they swept people up into the fan base and retained them as permanent K-drama addicts. Warrior Baek Dong Soo, The Moon Embracing the Sun, Queen In Hyun’s Man, Sungkyunkwan Scandal. If you’ve watched any of these dramas – then you know what I’m talking about. They’re distinctive. Distinctively freakin’ good.
Check it Gu Family Book and fall in love with a smitten tomboy warrior girl and the half-human half-mythical creature whose big heart and dimpled smile will win you over.
Overall Rating: 10/10. Supernatural Tale Involving Magical Blue Lights and Colored Contact Lenses.
Character Discussion & Spoilers Follow…
I mentioned spoilers, so… let’s do it.
Let’s just start with the parents of our hero.
At the beginning of our story, a family has just been ruined by political machinations – the father slain, the children sold off into slavery. The daughter, Seo Hwa, is hauled off to the local brothel – but she isn’t taking the transition from nobility to slavery very well. She’s stripped to her undies and tied to a tree as a lesson in humility – a pretty effective move, honestly, as it proves just how powerless she is against the rules of society.
Witness to this pitiful, heartbreaking event is Wol Ryung – our local divine creature, an immortal shapeshifter who watches over a sacred mountain and mainly stays out of human business. He’s captivated by the scene before him – and watches it all from a safe distance. Eventually he decides to break his own rules and intervene – but his one human friend, a wandering mystic and scholar, stops him just in time. They argue a bit over whether or not it’s appropriate for a mystical being to meddle in the fates of human beings – and Wol Ryung decides that fates be damned, he’s gonna help the pretty girl tied to a tree…
Only it’s too late. By this point she’s gone, having been dragged into the brothel.
But their fate is sealed. They cross paths again when she escapes the brothel – and he fights against the humans who pursue her with his awesome supernatural powers. They run away together to his mystical mountain… where he offers her sanctuary… and his heart…
Gah, they were soooo cute! This large immortal man trying to figure out how to woo a human girl. It didn’t take much, honestly… his handsome face did most of the heavy lifting for him. But our big hunky immortal makes two mistakes – first, he lies to his honey about her family, telling her that they are safe when in fact they are both dead. Then he lies by omission, failing to disclose that he is, in fact, not at all human. He’s not a malicious creature, he just wanted to protect her from the painful truth… and had decided to pursue becoming a human (which involves a ritual and the infamous Gu Family Book). But the heavens are harsh – and these two lovers could not escape their sad stories.
Tragically they are separated. She discovers his lies – and is horrified and scared of him – falling back into the hands of her pursuers. He fails the sacred ritual of transformation – and is cursed by the gods to become a vengeful demon. They are each banished to their unhappy fates – but not before our hero is born – our half human, half divine baby boy.
So what is the major theme of the show? What is the story it’s trying to tell?
There are no easy answers to the hardships of life in Gu Family Book. It’s not a drama that preaches the importance of adhering to the rules – it shows you that sometimes you have to fight against them while other times you have to accept them. It’s not a drama that illustrates the importance of honesty – as all the characters lie for different reasons all the time, as all humans (and divine creatures) do. Sometimes they are punished for it, sometimes not, regardless of whether or not their intentions or motivations behind it were pure.
There are lessons, though, in Gu Family Book – about how to live. It has the vibe of a fairy tale, the old fashioned kind, not the Disney versions. The ones that showed young folks how unpleasant life can be, and how many injustices and hardships they’d have to endure, even though they’d done nothing wrong. This is that kind of story. About staying true to yourself and being good to people, regardless of how awful life might be at any given moment.
For the parents… they lived their lives oblivious to the world. The noble lady in the safety and security of her father’s house, protected by his wealth and political position. The divine creature in the safety and security of the mountains, protected by the spirits and the gods. The divine creature lost his carefree existence when he meddled in the lives of humans – and by deciding to try to be one and then becoming a cursed creature. The noble lady lost everything she had when her father did – and was confronted by how society had been working in her favor when it shifted to working against her. What held up her family was the same things holding others down.
Think about this fun fact – the servant Seo Hwa had, who had probably worked for her family her entire life and was so grateful that she’d been treated kindly and humanely by her masters that she was willing to subject herself to rape to give her previous owners children a chance to escape. We know she was a slave because she was in the cart with them, being sold off to another situation. So this slave girl was willing to sacrifice her body and risk her life so the children of her former master could run away… for the simple reason that they were family to her. She had been their servant, but they’d treated her with respect and love, as they did their own family members – and so she loved them, just as they loved her. This, arguably, is the lesson. The theme, if you will. Despite the laws and roles in their society, the simple act of treating others kindly and humanely is what drives people to meaningful action in this show. They will live, fight, and die for those who treat them as humans worthy of respect and love.
Now, our modern brains want to post comments on these events and point out all the problems with it – all the problematic issues of that society, as well as the problematic issues of the society that was recreating the past (like all the homophobia used for comedy, for example). But we need to put away our modern brains and use our imagination and empathy to ponder the lessons this sad story.
I’ve read a lot of reviews or comments criticizing Seo Hwa, our runaway slave girl who married a handsome mythical mountain man, for everything she did in the beginning of the story. But let’s reconsider her actions. Being seriously hurt and betrayed that your husband lied to you about the deaths of your only remaining family is a rational response. In olden days as well as in the modern era. Witnessing your husband transform into a beast and rip people’s insides out with his bare hands and then freaking out… is a perfectly rational response. In olden days as well as in the modern era. Being extremely paranoid that the negative, or perceived negative, traits of your DNA gene pool will be passed down to your offspring is a rational response. In olden days as well as in the modern era.
Now – I am not saying that our dear slave girl Seo Hwa was correct in repeatedly trying to kill herself and her unborn child, but I am also able to imagine her point of view. Considering everything she loved is gone and everyone she loved is dead – and she’s now a slave in a whorehouse… it’s safe to assume she was dealing with massive depression. Add the fear of giving birth to a possible clawed supernatural creature… and perhaps we can have some sympathy for her. There were no ultrasounds way back yonder, after all. There were no other women with a similar life experiences to offer her comfort or perhaps ease her fears – as no one else had gotten pregnant with a shapeshifting creature’s baby in town. So her fear was a rational response to the unknown – how she dealt with that fear may have been irrational, but… there’s no clear path forward for her.
What would she do if it was a monster? Watch the villagers boil it alive? What would she do if it wasn’t? A child born of a slave is also a slave, so it’s life was already tied to misery. And people were gonna whisper about who the baby-daddy was – and if the rumor it was half human started to circulate, we double back round to the villagers probably killing it.
Anyways, my point is that we might be tempted to jump in with our assumptions about what she should have done, or what we would have done – but it’s not a story about what a modern person would do if put into a supernatural situation in the past. Gu Family Book does not feel inclined to spell things out for us with obvious choices for life’s dilemmas.
Though it may not be immediately clear, the story illustrates that it sympathizes entirely with the choices Seo Hwa made. We know this because it repeats almost all the same dilemmas she faced in the first two episodes through other character’s stories (being sold into slavery, being forced to become a whore, being forced to sleep with the villain who murdered your father, running away from society, falling in love with a supernatural creature, keeping secret identities or secrets about cursed fates, and so on) – showing us that different choices in such scenarios do not necessarily mean your life will be any better or worse.
We know Seo Hwa is not a villain because when the character returns, we discover she’s been punishing herself for her misdeeds – living with deep regret and painful sorrow – tormenting herself for years. The woman refused to let herself lay down to rest, for heaven’s sake… that’s brutal. We know the story sympathizes with her because when she explains her choices, both good and bad, to her son – he forgives her. Easily. As should we.
Forgiveness and kindness are the lessons we are supposed to learn.
To be kind and humane to others is to forgive them when they ask for it, and even when they don’t.
I mean, just think of how many times people mistreated or misjudged Kang Chi, our hybrid baby, throughout the story. And what did he always do? He forgave them. Even Kang Chi mistreated and misjudged people throughout the show – and thankfully most of them forgave him too.
Now let’s talk about fate some more.
Kang Chi is a character who fought against his fate the entire show. And his lady love, our swordsman Yeo Wool, is a character who accepted her fate the entire show. They are the yin and yang, the perfect complimentary pieces in a matched set.
Kang Chi is a abandoned child who is constantly fighting against the stigma and position society places him in. Though he treated with love and respect from the majority of his adoptive family, he is still stuck in his societal role – as an outcast. First he struggles to be accepted and valued amongst his peers as an abandoned and adopted child, then he struggles to accepted and valued amongst his peers as a half-human half-creature. He spends the entire series fighting against his societal role as a lowly person or feared “other,” slowly winning over hearts and minds one by one. Even when he breaks up with Yeo Wool towards the end, it’s because he wants to fight against the decree of their fate. The man will buck any system which tries to pin him down with pre-ordained rules, regulations, or expectations.
Yeo Wool is the daughter of a martial arts trainer, a disciplined young lady who has been allowed to break the majority of the societal rules for women. She runs around in men’s clothes, wields a sword, and roams the world freely – often without a chaperone. When a mystic warns her that true love might lead to her death, or theirs, she is not deterred. So what? This seems a gamble worth taking, in her opinion. Her mother died unexpectedly, so she’s already accepted that death comes when it so chooses, so why not experience love before it does?
Yeo Wool is especially awesome as she always knows herself. She knew when she had feelings for Kang Chi and felt no shame over it. Even when it seemed it was not returned. Even as she watched him fawn over another woman. Even as she watched him walk away. She is the perfect example of someone who will not let pride hold her back. She’ll chase after what she wants because its what her heart tells her to to, even if everyone else thinks she’s pitiful or pathetic for it. She doesn’t care. When Kang Chai messes up, forgets about her, disappoints her, she always forgives him. Easily. Yeo Wool doesn’t play games with people.
Anyhoo – I could go on for miles about how awesome all the characters or plot elements. The stubborn, military authority of Yeo Wool’s father. The humorous reserve of Yeo Wool’s friend and body guard. The desperation and confusion of Kang Chi’s psuedo-family, his brother and sister, and the extremes in which power and position shaped their lives and livelihoods. How violence and the military upholds structured society, for good and bad. But I think I’ll stop here.
I hope you will watch this show and if you don’t enjoy it as much as I did… that’s okay. It might wait to make you love it, like it did for me… with the second, third, or fourth re-watch.