KDRAMALOVE KOREAN DRAMA REVIEWS

Gu Family Book
구가의서 (2013) MBC 24 Episodes
Historical Fantasy, Romance, Grade: A



Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA
 
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I had read rave reviews about this colorful Korean historical drama Gu Family Book (2013) for a year before I dove in to see what all the fuss was about. After seeing many 5 star ratings online from other fans, I knew the ancient fantasy world I was about to enter would be something special, but I never suspected how utterly magnificent, captivating, and gripping this drama would be, in every category possible, luring me in to marathon it for practically 24 hours straight! I just couldn't tear myself away and once more grieved over why America can't produce something equally as impressive for television.

The cinematography, sets and locations, the acting from a superior ensemble cast of many of Korea's finest performers (including a performance by one of them as a character so evil and so appalling that I wanted to reach through the screen and kill him myself!), the haunting, poetic and wise script writing, the beautiful costumes, the stunning musical soundtrack, great martial arts (which won awards for its excellence), and perfect direction all combined to push this compelling drama toward the top of my favorites' list, right after my top favorite historical drama, Faith (2012) with Lee Min Ho.
Even if you are not ordinarily attracted to historical era K-dramas, just give this one a try, I'm sure you'll be hooked. In particular, the first two episodes are some of the most exquisite and breathtakingly dramatic and emotional television that I've ever witnessed in my life, and I cried like a baby at what happened to the characters of the parents of the lead male character in this show, played by the wonderful and dedicated actor Seung Gi Lee (Shining Inheritance, My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho), who won the Top Excellence Award for an Actor in a Miniseries at the MBC Drama Awards.

Despite my being impressed by everyone in this stellar cast, I must admit that the actor who stole my heart away completely in Gu Family Book was Choi Jin Hyuk from the hit show Heirs. Whereas his cold and austere older brother character in Heirs
rather failed to make me notice him too much (other than to confirm that he was good looking and had a deep and resonant voice), the passionate, mystical character he played in Gu Family Book literally made me fall in love with yet another Korean actor, and when his character disappears at the end of episode 2 and doesn't return till episode 13, I grieved and longed for him to come back the whole time! Jin Hyuk won the Best New Actor Award at the Daejeon Drama Festival Awards and I believe that he is largely responsible for this drama breaking the 22% ratings percentage, an acknowledged superior achievement (most K-dramas average 5 to 10% viewership ratings; 15% is considered good, and anything over 20% is considered a top hit and a reason to celebrate among cast and crew).



Actor Jin Hyuk Choi steals your heart away as mystical creature Wol Ryung Gu, half human, half gumiho

The Story: When a nobleman named Yoon is wrongly accused of being a traitor and executed unfairly without a trial, his pretty and feisty daughter Seo Hwa Yoon (Yeon Hee Lee in an unforgettable performance), her loving younger brother Jung Yoon (David Lee), and the loyal maid, Dam (Bo-mi Dam) are all taken from their comfortable home by soldiers and destined for slavery. They are sent initially to a gisaeng house (in Japan it's called a "geisha" house), with the intent of making Seo Hwa a sexual server of men. Refusing to work as a gisaeng, Seo Hwa is tied to a tree and denied water and food by the rather stern but patient head gisaeng, Soo Ryun Chun (beautiful actress Hye-young Jung, who impressed me so much as the devoted mother character in Playful Kiss). Seo Hwa finally reluctantly agrees to become a gisaeng after witnessing the brutal torture of her brother, who cries out to her in pain to never agree to it for his sake. Seeing her brother willing to sacrifice his life for her is just too much for her heart to take.

The monstrously evil villain who had killed their father unfairly, the politician - nobleman Gwan Woong Jo (a mind-blowing performance by brilliant actor Sung Jae Lee who played the wimpy father in The Suspicious Housekeeper), tells the head gisaeng that he desires to be Seo Hwa's first "patron". However, before Seo Hwa could be deflowered by Gwan Woong, Seo Hwa's loving maid secretly swaps clothes with her so that Seo Hwa can run away from the gisaeng house to freedom.



Wol Ryung witnesses Seo Woo being tied to a tree and humiliated after refusing to become a gisaeng

All Seo Hwa's struggles to survive are watched silently by a mystical creature in the woods who is part human and part gumiho (an Asian legend of a nine-tailed fox) named Wol Ryung Gu (Jin Hyuk Choi). He has lived for one thousand years in the same beautiful garden in the woods without getting involved in the lives of human beings, but when he sees Seo Hwa and her suffering he is hypnotized by her beauty and becomes smitten with her. His one human friend who is aware of his true nature, the Buddhist monk So Jung (Hee Won Kim), warns him not to meddle in the lives of humans, but after Seo Hwa runs away in the middle of the night from the gisaeng house, and falls and becomes unconscious, Wol Ryung forgets the monk's wise advice and takes her to his magical garden, watching over her till she awakens.

Meanwhile, in a frighteningly violent and realistic scene, Gwan Woong rapes the maid Dam, thinking she is Seo Hwa. When he discovers it is not her he goes into a rage and orders his soldiers to find the girl he is obsessed with conquering.

   

A brief few months of bliss are all Wol Ryung and Seo Hwa are destined to have together

When Seo Hwa wakes up in the magical garden in the woods, she falls in love with the kind and sweet Wol Ryung, whom she naturally assumes to be human, and agrees to marry him after being assured by him that both Dam and her brother Jung Yoon were able to run away and are safe. Wol Ryung simply doesn't want to break her heart, so therefore he deliberately doesn't tell her that Jung Yoon has been publicly hanged by Gwan Woong's soldiers and that her maid Dam has committed suicide by hanging after being violated sexually by Gwan Woong. For a time the couple are blissfully happy, though Seo Hwa sometimes worries that Wol Ryung will be put in danger if it is discovered he is harboring a slave girl.

Wol Ryung is so in love with Seo Hwa that he decides to give up his immortality and become fully human in order to be with Seo Hwa completely, to grow old with her, have a family with her, and ultimately die with her. However, to do so, he is told by the monk that the Gu Family Book states he must 1) live 100 days without showing his true form to any human, that 2) he cannot take a life (animal or human) during those 100 days, and that 3) he must help anyone in need. If he fails to meet any of these requirements he'll lose any chance of ever becoming human, and will in fact become a demon for the next 1000 years!

Wol Ryung successfully lives most of these days following the rules, but one day near the end of those 100 days, Gwan Woong's men, including a nobleman-soldier named Pyeong Joon Dam (Sung Ha Jo), finally find Seo Hwa alone in the forest after she had ignored Wol Ryung's advice to stay close to their home. To her horror she is told that both her brother and her maid have been dead practically since the time she escaped from the gisaeng house. Wol Ryung had lied to her!

Realizing Seo Hwa is in danger, Wol Ryung rushes to help her, but ultimately reveals his true form as a gumiho when he sees her tied and bound. "Let go of MY WOMAN!" he screams at them. He massacres many of the soldiers who had captured Seo Hwa. So now Wol Ryung has broken two commands from the Gu Family Book: he has revealed his true nature to men and he has killed human beings.


Seo Hwa, horrified to see Wol Ryung turn into the gumiho, forgetting who the REAL monster is behind all these events (Gwan Woong!), cowardly leaves him and goes with the remaining soldiers. Later, after tearfully begging Seo Hwa to explain why she had betrayed him by deserting him, Wol Ryung is stabbed to "death" by Pyeong Joon, but in reality his spirit floats away and is buried in the magical garden for the next twenty years, at which point he will return as the prophesied Demon for 1000 Years.

Seo Hwa soon discovers that she is pregnant with Wol Ryung's child, once again escapes from the gisaeng establishment, runs back to the magical garden in the woods, and gives birth to a son. At first covering the baby's face with a blanket, thinking he will be a monster gumiho, she moves to kill her child by striking him with a metal bar, but then she looks at him and realizes that he isn't a monster, weeps and decides to save the baby's life.

Truly regretting her betrayal to Wol Ryung, Seo Hwa entrusts the baby in the care of the monk, So Jung. So Jung places the baby in a basket and puts it in a stream where he knows the current will bring the baby to the attention of a righteous nobleman named Mu Sol Park (actor Hyo Sup Uhm from In Soon Is Pretty), who is having an outdoor picnic with the lords and ladies he is friends with. Mu Sol rushes to scoop up the baby in the basket and then gives the child to his chief manservant Choi (Dong Kyung Kim) to raise as his own, although it's mostly Mu Sol who fancies himself the boy's surrogate "father" in the ensuing years. The monk tells Mu Sol that the baby will bring great blessings upon their lives. 

 

Meanwhile, after the baby's secret birth, Seo Hwa finally gets up the courage to confront the despicable man who has destroyed all their lives, Gwan Woong, and while in the middle of a public gathering she manages to slice his cheek with a knife, leaving a permanent scar, but she fails to kill him (AT WHICH POINT I WAS SCREAMING "NOOOOOOO! YOU SHOULD HAVE AIMED BETTER !!!") and Seo Hwa is "fatally" stabbed by a nearby soldier. Everyone assumes she is dead, however, as we see later in the story, Seo Hwa is actually saved by a nearby Japanese man who covers her body like a corpse and then carries her away to his own country, where she stays for the next twenty years, planning her ultimate revenge against Gwan Woong.

So, in twenty years, Wol Ryung will come out of his grave a 1000 Year Demon, and Seo Hwa will return with a different identity as a rich Japanese woman who supposedly desires to do business with Gawn Woong, but who really desires to seek her ultimate final revenge against him to kill him (a different actress, Se Ah Yoon, plays the older Seo Hwa fabulously).


The story then transitions to twenty years later and we follow the son of Wol Ryung and Seo Hwa, who is named Kang Chi Choi (Seung Gi Lee). He is an upright young man who has no idea about his true parents and heritage but who considers himself basically the adopted son of servant Choi and the righteous servant of nobleman Mu Sol, who runs the successful Hundred Year Inn. He has a crush on Mu Sol's biological daughter Chung Jo Park (Yu-bi Lee), even though she is promised to a man she has never seen, and he is fond of her scholar brother Tae Seo Park (actor Yeon Seok Yoo who played the villain in the film The Werewolf Boy). The only family member who dislikes Kang Chi is Mu Sol's uptight wife Lady Yoon (Jung Hee Kim) who considers him an interloper in her family's business, even though he has done nothing to earn her ire. Kang Chi is saddened that she never seems to accept him, yet despite her future conspiring against him, he is committed to protecting her family whenever possible.



Seung Gi Lee as Kang Chi, son of the tragic Wol Ryung and Seo Hwa, who has no idea growing up that
he is not fully human, but is part gumiho like his "deceased" father

Everything seems peaceful for awhile but there are rumors that other villages are being taken over by the ever greedy "nobleman", Gwan Woong, who is always conspiring against his fellow countrymen in his lust for power. He believes the wealthy Lord Mu Sol Park has hidden treasure inside the Hundred Year Inn, and in his scheme to take over the Inn, Lord Mu Sol is killed when the throws his body in front of Kang Chi as he is about to be stabbed to death. In fury, seeing the man dying who had, to all intents and purposes, been the father who raised him, Kang Chi begins to take on some of the same characteristics of his gumiho father, threatens to kill the astonished Gwan Woong, and eventually learns about his parents' true identities from the monk So Jung. He is told that he is not fully human and that the secret to his being able to become fully human resides in the elusive Gu Family Book.

 

Kang Chi threatens Gwan Woong after Mu Sol is killed, and I didn't blame him one bit!

With the protection of Lord Mu Sol gone, history begins to repeat itself where Gwan Woong is concerned: he throws Tae Seo and his mother in jail, and Chung Jo is sold as a gisaeng, and tied to a tree when she refuses to submit (just like Seo Hwa had been!). When Kang Chi tries to save her his true nature comes out, and just like with Seo Hwa, Chung Jo cannot deal with this knowledge. This time head gisaeng Soo Ryun manages to convince Chung Jo, unlike Seo Hwa, that survival is what really matters in life and that if she is clever and uses her body and beauty and wiles she will ultimately achieve the power to gain revenge against Gwan Woong. Even though she is terrified, Chung Jo decides Soo Ryun is right, and stoically submits to being raped by Gwan Woong (who keeps seeing Seo Hwa before his eyes whenever he looks at Chung Jo! - boy, is this creep criminally INSANE!), and poor Chung Jo pretty much gives up her dream to ever be with Kang Chi, whom she had once fancied herself to be in love with.



Another innocent, Chung Jo, is tied to a tree for the lusts of creepy Gwan Woong!
Head gisaeng Soo Ryun advises her to remember that she needs to survive in order to achieve revenge against Gwan Woong.

Chung Jo eventually does achieve her goal to gain top status as a powerful gisaeng and Soo Ryun even teaches her how to play the Five Drums, which is an admired skill among the nobility. But will she ever achieve her ultimate goal of destroying the evil Gwan Woong, when so many people before her had failed? Gwan Woong has already succeeded in taking over her father's One Hundred Year Inn and moves himself and his soldiers into it as a headquarters.



"Peep!"

Even Lady Yoon makes a futile attempt to stab Gwan Woong, to get even with him for destroying her family, but she is tragically killed as well (too bad, I was just starting to like her and her fighting gumption!). Gwan Woong becomes intrigued by Kang Chi and his seemingly super-human strength, which occurs whenever he takes off a red bead bracelet that was left to him by his parents. Gwan Woong hires a magician to use hypnosis against Tae Seo, making him think that it was Kang Chi who murdered his father and not Gwan Woong. Eventually this curse is lifted but not before Tae Seo makes several attempts to kill Kang Chi, who still looks on him as a brother and can't understand why Tae Seo has turned on him.

 

Meanwhile, Pyeong Joon Dam (who had been the soldier who had "killed" Wol Ryung), who now runs a martial arts school, begins suspecting that Gwan Woong will target him and his school next. He has a beautiful daughter named Yeo Wool (actress Suzy from Dream High who does a nice job here considering she was only 19 years old when she made this). He has raised her as a tomboy with great sword and archery skills, so much so that when Kang Chi first meets her he thinks she IS a boy (one of his hands that slips onto her chest by accident makes him realize his error soon enough). Unlike Chung Jo, Yeo Wool does not flinch when she discovers Kang Chi's true nature. She is a much stronger woman and even seems to like a fight (my kind of gal!).



Actor Joon Sung as Gon stares a lot at actress Suzy as Lady Yeo Wool ...
 reportedly off set they had a bit of a romance going on as well, eating together, holding hands, etc.

Yeo Wool has a faithful body guard named Gon (one of my favorite actors Joon Sung from I Need Romance 3 and Lie To Me) who is more than a little bit in love with her but who never makes himself a nuisance about it. Yeo Wool and Gon are dispatched to the village by her father to gather information about murders that Gwan Woong is suspected to be responsible for committing (one would think there would be PLENTY of evidence against him over twenty years' time, but no one ever seems to be able to stop the satanic killer-rapist). Oh, how I yearned to go into the TV screen and do it myself!

Yeo Wool hears about the tragedies that befell Kang Chi and the people he cares about and helps him when he is hunted down by Gwan Woong's soldiers. Kang Chi is rescued from an unjust death sentence and taken under the wing of respected naval commander Sun-sin Yi (veteran actor Geun Yoo Dong). Sun-sin, Master Dam, and the late Lord Park were part of a secret group protecting the Joseon nation against foreign invasion, and the survivors (and eventually Seo Hwa in disguise as the Japanese woman) begin to secretly plot against Gwan Woong, since the King himself seems unable to stop him.

Sun-sin places Kang Chi in the martial arts school run by Master Dam, and there he is trained physically and mentally to be a fighter and learns to adequately control his gumiho transformations. Kang Chi and Yeo Wool gradually fall in love, especially when her father fears for her continued safety and insists she turn in her sword for dresses, curls, sewing and cooking skills, things that don't really suit Yeo Wool's nature at all, but which certainly make her more physically attractive to soft-hearted Kang Chi.

Everything comes to a violent confrontation when Wol Ryung comes out of his grave as the 1000 Year Demon and starts murdering Gwan Woong's soldiers one by one (the special effects here were incredible, with the soldiers' faces and bodies turning charcoal black, smoking and disintegrating!), and Seo Hwa, 20 years older, and now disguising herself as the powerful and rich Japanese entrepreneur, comes back to the village and attempts to lure Gwan Woong into a trap ... though he almost immediately begins to suspect that Seo Hwa didn't die and that this potential "business partner" might actually be her. (Gwan Woong is just too smart for practically everyone in this story, which makes him so incredibly fascinating AND frustrating! He's always one step ahead of everyone! ... well, almost).

There are MANY more shocking twists and turns in this story; there is pathos, there is forgiveness, there is love, there is justice, there is humor, there is a nifty surprise ending. When Kang Chi discovers that it was Master Dam who stabbed his father to "death" will that destroy their mentor-student relationship? When Kang Chi finally meets his parents will he be able to forgive them, and will Wol Ryung and Seo Hwa meet again, and perhaps, even love one another again? What will become of them? Since Wol Ryung is now a murdering demon can there be any restoration of his soul?

Most importantly of all: will the REAL MONSTER, the reprehensible Gwan Woong, ever receive the justice he so richly deserves, and if so, who will do the honors? There was a superb moment in the show where I actually cheered and yelled "YES!" (a la Home Alone style) and it was when Suzy as Yeol Wool looks calmly into the depraved, angry eyes of Gwan Woong and says loudly and clearly: "YOU are the REAL monster here!" 

DO NOT MISS seeing Gu Family Book. You will NEVER forget it. You can purchase a Poh Kim DVD set for the show off Amazon but I cannot give an opinion as to its visual and sound quality. Always beware of bootlegs floating around - you will be shortchanging yourself if you have to settle for their less than stellar quality. These magnificent shows deserve the best releases possible. 

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