Most sageuk, or historical dramas, airing in Korea deal primarily with the lives of their royals from centuries past: their palace intrigues, family rivalries, discords and power grabs. Chuno aka The Slave Hunters (2010) is refreshingly and excitingly different. The royals are only a backdrop here. More like a Spartacus story, Chuno gives a voice to the people who suffered under the kings, the common folk whose lives were cheap fodder to royalty, to be controlled, manipulated, and enslaved whenever possible, to suit their whims and political purposes, and to increase their treasuries through slave labors. Royals built their fortunes on these people, but the slaves were accorded no rights or privileges.
Chuno is an epic tale of the first degree, whose ratings reached 31% to 36% nationwide in Korea, while the majority of K-dramas average between 5% to 10%. It's a feast for the eyes and ears; the show was filmed in 16:9 widescreen like a theater movie, and the cinematography is the best I've ever seen in a Korean drama, since the production used an impressive Red One Camera which is superb for panoramic shots. The music soundtrack is stunning, with a nice variety of vintage and modern flavors, very similar to an Ennio Morricone film score (though honestly? even BETTER). As soon as I heard it I immediately bought a CD. Outstanding!
Also a feast for the eyes is the cast; all the male leads are in their thirties with well established careers and reputations. No flower boys for the teenage set here! Chuno is a show for mature audiences instead. We have Jang Hyuk (Thank You, Beautiful Mind, Midas) as the lead, a magnificent actor who can portray many different kinds of characters with a fascination few others can rival; Oh Ji Ho as the second male lead, who is so exceptionally beautiful to look at and watch, with those deep intelligent eyes of his and his soulful demeanor, that he often steals scenes away from everyone else, including Jang Hyuk! "How can any man look so handsome in rags?" I wondered. Every scene he was in I was mesmerized by him, and couldn't look away for a moment, and he quickly became my favorite character and actor in the show; also rounding out an unbelievably ravishing to look at male cast is actor Han Jung Soo (Arang and the Magistrate, Prosecutor Princess) as Jang Hyuk's most dependable friend in the story, a tall actor with a gorgeous physique as well, whose character was primarily a quiet, philosophical soul but who, when he spoke, always made you concentrate deeply with his perception and wisdom; then we have the actor who brought the most humor to the story, Kim Ji Suk (Personal Taste, Cheongdeom-dong Alice), as the randy ladies' man of the group, but nevertheless who also sported a fine strong physique all his own; as one of the villains, another good-looking male specimen, actor Lee Jong Hyuk (A Gentleman's Dignity and Green Rose), could be a scene-stealer too, especially in sword-fighting scenes; and rounding out the most important male lead characters is great character actor Gong Hyung Jin (Alone In Love), whose character often gave voice to the many slaves depicted in the story. In the last episode his character gives us an awesome display of courage that made me whoop out loud with joy!
I've seen all these male actors in other shows, but together here their chemistry was outstanding: explosive perfection. Does any woman out there have a problem watching a rich display of testosterone in action? No? I didn't think so.
From left to right, actors Kim Ji Suk, Jang Hyuk
& Han Jung-Soo as the Slave Hunters
To top off all these fascinating male leads, we have a female lead actress who is the epitome of beauty and grace, Lee Da Hae (My Girl, Miss Ripley, Bandit, Green Rose), who had probably the most challenging role of all, playing a woman in love with two men at the same time. There is plenty of romance for the female viewer too, as most of the characters are very passionate people. All the characters, including many in the large supporting cast, grow emotionally during the run of the story, and many develop courage and ethics they didn't have earlier in their lives.
That's the main reason I have watched so many K-dramas: they never present characters as static people who are the same at the end as they were in the beginning, like in so many boring American shows and films. Everyone's lives here are fluid and changing constantly, leaving you wondering how it will all turn out. Chuno is probably the least predictable Korean drama I have ever been fortunate enough to enjoy. Much of that has to do with the great writer of the show Cheon Seong Il (who wrote the Ye Jin Son and Nam Gil Kim film Pirates), and the director, Jung Hwan Kwak, who absolutely went to town on Sergio Leone's directorial style for his spaghetti western film classic Once Upon A Time In The West. It makes this drama much more sophisticated than the far more sloppily told historical Korean drama Hong Gil Dong which failed to win my praises.
Jang Hyuk and Lee Da Hae as
secret sweethearts early in their lives
The Story: At the beginning of Chuno, which takes place in the mid-17th century Joseon era when slavery was still in effect, we are given the royal history backdrop which sets the foundation for our story. Weak King Injo (veteran actor Kim Kap Soo, who played the father in the classic film A Tale Of Two Sisters) is on the throne and his kingdom has seen two Manchu invasions in the preceding years, which had forced his son, Crown Prince Sohyeon (played by gentle actor Kang Sung Min who was the nice psychiatrist in 49 Days), into exile for years, and when he finally returns to Joseon within a month he dies under mysterious circumstances ... in his father's own study! To this day it is not known whether he was stabbed by his own father (he had tried to bring Christianity and Western science into Joseon -- oh! we couldn't possibly have that!), or whether he was poisoned. Injo has his dead son buried quickly, with no pomp and circumstance, which alone is suspicious. Sohyeon's wife also dies under mysterious circumstances, most likely poisoned, and her three young sons are exiled to Jeju, and only one survives, Seokgyeon (eventually Prince Gyeongan), who becomes the focus of hope for the future for many of the main characters in the story.
The suspicious deaths of royals often result in bloody political struggles, and this is what happens here, too. Half the population of Joseon were slaves at this time, ill-treated and given no rights to property or free speech. If they even glanced at a royal or member of the aristocracy they could be executed. They couldn't marry or own a business without aristocratic approval, there were no schools for them so they couldn't read, they just eked out a living for their owners. Those slaves who ran away were chased by bounty hunters / slave hunters and often executed upon being returned to their masters.
"Young Master" becomes Dae-gil Lee,
a famous chuno, or slave hunter.
Incredible performance by Jang Hyuk!
In our story, male lead Jang Hyuk plays "Young Master", a nobleman's son by birth who falls in love with a beautiful slave girl named Eunnyeon (Lee Da Hae). Their love must be treasured in secret; he tries to make her life easier in various ways as she goes about her chores, often chilled by winter weather, and when they are alone he promises her a future world where slavery is abolished and the world is at peace.
However, their love is ultimately discovered and Eunnyeon is planned to be sold; her loving slave brother Keun-nom (Jo Jae-wan) is outraged, and burns down the nobleman's home and property, stabbing the owner to death, and attempting to stab Young Master as well, against the anguished cries of Eunnyeon's protests as she looks on helplessly. After being stabbed in the face, Young Master collapses and appears to perish in the flames as the roof caves in. Keun-nom and Eunnyeon escape together and since their slave tattoos were on their chests and not their faces they stoically use hot irons to burn them off, making them look like regular scars. Slowly they begin to alter their identities, and pose themselves as part of an exiled aristocratic class. They change their names to Hye-won Kim for Eunnyeon, and Seong-hwan Kim for Keun-nom, and the brother even arranges a marriage for her with a middle-aged nobleman, which would thereafter safeguard her future in comfort. Although Hye-won sadly agrees, and dresses the part for her wedding, she flees during preparation for the the marriage ceremony. She escapes to the mountains and heads for a Buddhist temple as a hiding place. Her brother appeals for her life to the nobleman and declares he will track her down and return her to him. Will he be successful?
However, Young Master had not been killed. With his family and property gone and his heart devastated by the loss of Eunnyeon, his forehead and cheek permanently scarred by her brother's sword, he steels himself to the life of a thief and bounty hunter, and re-names himself Dae-gil Lee. He privately promises himself that he will track down the two slaves who ruined his family and attain his justice from them, although deep down he still treasures romantic memories he had experienced with Eunnyeon. He learns his martial arts fighting skills from his first mentor, the flamboyant tradesman Jjak-gui (Ahn Gil-kang). They have a very caustic relationship, especially after Dae-gil manages to slice off a piece of one of his ears in a fight!
Kim Ji Suk as Wang-son "Big Hand" -
he was a delight to watch as a wandering ladies' man,
who had an entire routine worked out so that
he rarely missed a chance to seduce a lady -
I laughed so hard at his antics!
He was just perfect casting for this role.
By a series of rather amusing circumstances Dae-gil aligns himself with two new friends as well, a mysterious traveler who calls himself General Janggoon Choi (Han Jung-soo) and the happy go lucky pickpocket Wang-son "Big Hand" (Kim Ji Suk) who fancies himself quite the ladies' man. Together they decide to become a chuno team (slave hunters). A frequent rival and antagonist they face is the often-laughing but really deadly serious renegade Ji-ho Chun (Dong-il Sung from It's Okay, That's Love) who is often secretly paid by the aristocracy to challenge Dae-gil and his slave hunter team. Between Dae-gil and Ji-ho Chun and Jjak-gui there is a love-hate relationship, with some surprising twists along the way as the story unfolds. Their relationships keep the audience on their toes because we never know if they will fight, or just have a drink together and laugh while insulting each other!
One of Dae-gil's most lucrative jobs is to find a missing slave who had worked in a horse stable until a slave revolt had erupted and he had fleed, the only one to survive. This on-the-run slave is none other than a former popular and talented general under King Injo's military wing named Song Tae-ha (my favorite actor, Oh Ji Ho) who had been cruelly framed as a thief of state crops by jealous military competitor Hwang Chul-woong and his fearsome nobleman father-in-law Lee Gyeong Sik (veteran actor Kim Eung-soo, who often plays dastardly characters). They had ruined Song Tae-ha's life on purpose and they are not about to let him remain at large and perhaps improve his lot in life. Dae-gil is told he will be given a fortune if he can track down Tae-ha within a month, in fact so much money that he would be able to retire for good and buy some property for himself and his other slave hunters, who have become like brothers to him. The offer is too good to pass up.
Song Tae-ha, once a general, falsely accused of a crime and made a slave
Oh Ji Ho gives a new meaning to the term 2nd Male Lead Syndrome!
As the chuno team start to track down Song Tae-ha's whereabouts (with Dae-gil also searching for traces of Eunnyeon along the way, always carrying a drawing of her to show people), another quirky character starts to follow them and is slowly accepted by them, a female escapee of a strict traveling dance troupe, named Seol-hwa (cute actress Ha-eun Kim), who quickly starts to fall in love with Dae-gil. Like Wang-son, she often brings some necessary humor and sentimentality to the chuno team, so that they aren't always seen as hard-hearted and cruel slave hunter bastards by others; in other words, she brings out their human side. On occasion Dae-gil will even secretly allow some particularly hurt captured slaves to go free, and tells their owners they were killed on the road instead.
Two villains in Chuno you will love to hate,
played by actors Lee Jong-hyuk and Kim Eung-soo;
the older man controls the younger with bribes
and through marriage to his handicapped daughter
That Red One Camera Takes Gorgeous Panoramic Shots!
Here the Chuno Team and Seol-hwa make a dash for it across the plains
The most romantic (to me) parts of this epic tale were when the chivalrous former general, now-slave Tae-ha Song and the indomitable slave Eunnyeon, now Hye-won Kim meet up, and start to help each other out while on the run from the slave hunters. Both of them disguise to each other at first that they are slaves on the run, giving other excuses, but eventually both their ruses to each other are revealed, when Tae-ha's head scarf is cut off his head revealing his slave tattoo on his forehead, and when Hye-won becomes ill and injured and Tae-ha has to remove her blouse to treat her, and sees her chest scar, which he quickly perceives to be an effort to disguise that she was a slave. They quickly realize how much they share in common. Their long time together on the run is filled with suspense and turbulence, but leads to a wonderfully romantic companionship for the viewer to enjoy, as old lies and subterfuges pass away, and a new trust and affection begins growing between them.
Tae-ha is the perfect gentleman, and understands that she still hasn't forgotten a former love whom she believes died tragically, and so he never overtly approaches her in any sensual manner: it's more evident that they have started to fall in love by their surreptitious glances toward one another, and tender ministrations during times of injury. Hye-won couldn't have asked for a more astute traveling companion: a former military general knows many tactics to camouflage their path to outsiders, and Tae-ha is able to fool Dae-gil time and again as to where they are headed.
Thrown together first by necessity and then finally by love,
Tae-ha and Hye-won's relationship grows slowly and beautifully.
After his slavery scar is revealed to her, Hye-won makes
a new forehead band for him to cover it up.
Dae-gil's determination becomes all the more fierce when he begins to suspect that his former slave Ennyeon and the former general he is being paid a fortune to track down and capture are, in fact, actually traveling together on their journey to avoid his capture. His thirst for revenge seems doubled, and then he hears rumors that his Ennyeon might actually be married to the man he seeks to capture as an elusive slave. His friends caution him to tread carefully where she is concerned, if they ever manage to find her. Old feelings can't be allowed to hamper their professional pursuits.
Tae-ha manages to meet up with former allies who know he was framed for a crime he did not commit, and he also takes clandestine charge of the sole surviving child of the deceased Crown Prince Sohyeon, named Seokgyeon (eventually Prince Gyeongan) who is only four years old at this time. Tae-ha's best friend, the portly but strong soldier named Han-seom Kwak (an OUTSTANDING actor named Cho Jin-woong, whose performance made me cry numerous times during the drama) delivers the child to him after the governess caring for the child was brutally killed. He had loved this woman and had promised they would be together someday, but now it was never to be.
Hidden temporarily in a safe place, donning better clothes and a more secure outlook for a brief time, Tae-ha finally gets up his courage to propose to Hye-won. She believes she has finally come to terms with the loss of her "Young Master" to death, and with great affection for the man who has protected her and cherished her for so long, she agrees to the proposal.
With little Seokgyeon in attendance, whom they are beginning to think of as their own child, they marry -- but incredibly, Dae-gil shows up on the date of their marriage ceremony, and seeing the little boy between them as they gaze at each other with love, he assumes the child is their own and they are indeed happily married. Grief-stricken, Dae-gil runs off and weeps profusely in the nearby town, shocking bystanders and forlorn little Seol-hwa, who has trailed him along the way and loved him for a long time, and who grieves when he grieves. How is this the same boisterous and confident Dae-gil, the slave hunter? He seems shattered! When he recovers, Dae-gil knows he will still have to capture at least Tae-ha, whom he has been paid a fortune to capture. Dae-gil knows that if he does not bring Tae-ha back to his "master" that he himself will be killed. What will happen? Will Dae-gil ever succeed in capturing Tae-ha, and what about Hye-won and the little prince? There are several factions out to grab the little prince to destroy him, so the story is a lot bigger than just some private romance between two slaves on the run. And what will happen if Hye-won discovers her "Young Master" never died that day, and has been alive all this time while she believed him dead? How would it affect the relationship with her new husband?
Meanwhile, we have been following the lives of many slaves who have learned secretly how to shoot a new warfare technology on the market: guns. They target various aristocrats for execution due to their horrendous treatment of their slaves. The ringleader is a slave by the name of Eop-bok (Gong Hyung-jin), who is not so secretly in love with a pretty and affectionate slave named Cho-bok (a lovely performance by Ji-ah Min), and they plan their rebellions for a cause larger than themselves: freedom. With no rights to speak of, everything they organize is done in secret, but then they fall victim to a pretend insurrectionist leader (only called "That Person") who is really working for the aristocracy (played evilly well by actor Park Ki-woong who played the assassin in Bridal Mask), and their lives are on the line, as well as everyone else who trustingly followed them. When Eop-bok hears that Cho-bok has been forcibly married in secret against her will by his master he throws all caution to the wind and barges in before the marriage can be consummated and shoots the "husband" dead and also his "master". Now the slave couple are on the run, but their group is waiting for them to show up and storm the palace walls in a supposedly huge slave insurrection that was planned to be forthcoming. Will they instead decide to escape by themselves to get away from the insanity of the insurrection, or will they serve their cause of freedom to the end, despite the risks of death?
Tae-ha Song and his princely charge, Seokgyeon, whom
he hopes will bring about a better tomorrow for the Joseon Kingdom
The prince was played by little doll Kim Jin-woo, who was so
adorable I wanted to capture him through the TV screen
and give him a hug!
There are many more enthralling scenes and characters to discover in this landmark series, that has now become my new Number One Favorite Korean Drama. I don't want to give away too much more, but the second half of this historical drama is not to be missed for any real K-drama fan. It's absolutely THRILLING! The sword fights (it's a wonder no one was injured filming them!) are the best I've ever seen in my life, and the love and trust between the married couple touched my heart deeply. The chemistry in this ensemble cast is off the charts wonderful for entertainment. I have even purchased the KBS DVD Set online so that I can re-watch it in future without any pesky problems that often result from watching on the online web sites devoted to Korean dramas (problems like freezing and pixelating are NOT what a film buff wants to suffer through during such a magnificent series). You can watch online, of course, but my strong suggestion is that you purchase the legitimate KBS DVD boxset and avoid the cheap bootlegs, which will put this dynamic and gorgeous show from 16:9 widescreen to flat and boring 4:3 pan and scan, cutting off the right and left parts of your screen. and giving you terrible subtitles as well. Really, the true K-drama fan realizes that you get what you pay for, and that it is worth it to spend more and get the best DVD set release from KBS.
Slave Eop-bok (Gong Hyung-jin) gives voice
to thousands of cruelly treated slaves
with his gun shooting skills
Don't miss Chuno, or you will be missing a true masterpiece. If you are a sageuk fan give the common folk a chance through watching this one, instead of just the selfish, stuffy royals! Enjoy! Trust me, the best way to see it is to buy the legitimate DVD BOXSET ON AMAZON. It's too great a show just to watch online in mediocre resolution on various annoying streaming sites, and it won't have nearly the same visual quality as the KBS DVD Boxset. If you can't find a KBS DVD Boxset at the link above then try eBay. Make sure the version you get is widescreen 1080p and has excellent English subtitles.
CHUNO PICTURE GALLERY
"Dad!" "Son!" from Personal Taste (2010)
Actor Han Jung Soo and Actor Oh Ji Ho (above) - hard to tell them apart sometimes, isn't it?
Some smart Korean drama producer should hire them to play brothers!
Bridal Mask Deja vu - love this actor!