This 50-episode historical drama had single-handedly dominated an entire fortnight of my life. That's actually saying something because I don't get impressed very easily. Not with KDramas, nope. But somehow, Six Flying Dragons might have spoiled every other drama out there for me - not just KDramas, no - I really mean everything else. My benchmark of a good show has gone up so high I don't think I can watch any other series, especially not another sageuk without comparing it to the greatness that is Six Flying Dragons.
These might not be everyone's favourite themes - politics, history, martial arts - at least, based on what I've seen around me. But I'd really recommend this series to anybody who would enjoy serious thinking; chasing and outguessing the plot before the writers reveal the next twists in their work; people who would enjoy watching political strategists outsmarting each other; people who would enjoy strikingly memorable portrayals of historical figures; people who enjoy intense swordfights; and especially people who would appreciate a faction sageuk art at its most polished state.
As someone who is not even a fan of KDramas, I will be very honest. I am more than just impressed. The entire series is, to put it simply - actually a classy production of epic proportions boasting an exceptionally excellent writing, stunning cinematography, stellar lineup of cast (I don't even wanna know how the director managed to pool the really big names in the industry here, someone must have sold his soul to the devil to gather all these people in one show), very impressive score, visually captivating battle choreography, settings, props and costumes (everything from the black string that holds together Lee Bang-won's suit to Lee Bang-ji's battered but deadly sword to Gil Tae-mi's wacky eyeshadows to the beautiful fields to the palace and Jo Min-soo's bloody banquet), and of course, the pure dedication of everyone in the whole production team. My vocabulary fails me terribly now but I hope the message that reaches you is nothing else but, 'Six Flying Dragons is a masterpiece and that's it. People who don't think so are wrong.' That's my message. It's personal and it's sincere. I hope you'd give it a try. And maybe you would tell me about it later.
The real reason I was compelled to give this series a chance despite the intimidating number of episodes, was the guarantee given my sister that I would not regret it. That was all. I wasn't a fan of Yoo Ah In (I am, now) or Shin Se Kyung or any of the six leads. I simply watched it because my sister said it would be worth it. So I did. And everything that makes the series the masterpiece that it is just stole my focus right from the first episode. I admit I'd rushed to complete my school work everyday just so I could go home in the later afternoon to continue watching because every single episode just leaves you craving for more, but of course we all have school to attend so I suffered those school hours for 2 weeks. Sigh.
I didn't know much about Goryeo or any of the dynasties for that matter, and I didn't know why it would take six very powerful dragons to flip an entire dynasty upside down to build New Joseon. I just know that there was a Sungkyunkwan then, and there is a Sungkyunkwan now and Song Joong-ki attended it some time ago, before his name blew up in the Korean entertainment industry. Basically that's it. I'm not even very well-versed in the history of my own country (I'm very bad at dates), so everything in Six Flying Dragons was new, curious and riveting. I remember Googling and reading countless articles - long and short - and blogposts on the timeline of late Goryeo and early Joseon, reading almost everything all the things people have written about Jung Do-jeon, Taejo Lee Seong-gye and Taejong Lee Bang-won in desperate curiousity. You would think that I was going to sit for a test on Korean history from the way I immerse myself in my reading. It was sheer madness. I'd paused the episodes so many times to read deeper into Joseon history so that I could comprehend the series better, so that I could understand who did what and why. Boy, I surprise even myself at the amount of knowledge and understanding I now have of the two dynasties. They're not much, but they're fairly commendable to say the least.
The six leads are among the best characters I have seen in TV dramas or films or even books, if not the best. My initial favourites were the three historical dragons, but as the story progresses, I found myself enjoying the three fictional dragons very much, too. Sambong Jung Do-jeon is my number one genius. I would be reading more into his life later and I'll definitely watch other productions in which his character is portrayed. Kim Myung Min's Sambong is my first exposure to the Architect of Joseon and his character effortlessly charms me. But then again I always find smart and kind people very, very attractive so, yes, Sambong rules. Wise, mature and driven, I was really rooting for him throughout the series - his brilliant counter-scheming skills, ideological design and compassion for the people were depicted successfully in this drama, I think I actually have a favourite Confucian scholar now. The very thought alone makes me raise my eyebrows. I had zero knowledge on Confucianism prior to Six Flying Dragons and I now have a favourite scholar. Damn. Talk about being obsessed. I love how Kim Myung Min just naturally exudes the essence of Sambong in his acting, so natural that he just becomes Sambong for me. I haven't seen other Sambongs but his embodiment of this political genius is just right. Inventive, respectable, dignified, brave and calculating, I will adore this character for a very long time, I believe.
Cheon Ho Jin as Lee Seong-gye (later King Taejo) did a superb job at being extremely but believably righteous. The General Lee he portrayed is honest, loyal and courageous and he owns up to the errors he committed in his own virtuous ways. I marvelled at the difficult decisions he did not like but had to make - like going against the king when he truly believes in loyalty, by returning 50 thousand sons to the 100 thousand parents because to go ahead with the war just would not make any sense; discrediting the contributions of his sons (especially Bang-won's, the one who has done so much because he believes in Sambong's idea of Joseon more than anyone else ever could) after toppling the last king of Goryeo; going into the turbulence of politics when his real talents lie in the military; and becoming the first King of Joseon because no one else in the land was right for the throne. His character is intriguing to watch - reliable, trustworthy, judicious and unyielding, it's heartrending that he is destroyed by the loss of Sambong - the companion he has so highly esteemed for his brilliance and allegiance - and the infighting of his family. He would have made an even more remarkable king of Joseon, given his noble heart and bravery. He could have ruled longer, and far better. But history has its way around things and people, so I bid a pained farewell to King Taejo after he was irreversibly broken by the murder of his crown prince at the hands of Lee Bang-won, who was also a son he had loved.
Now, Yoo Ah In as Lee Bang-won. *takes a very deep breath, slowly lets it out* Right. *long pause* Wow. *blinks* Where do I even begin with this one particular dragon? He's the type that leaves you speechless and lost in thought long after his story is over, and you don't see that kind of dedication in most dramas you watch. Never have I seen so young an actor manifesting such immense talent in portraying one sole role the way Yoo Ah In did for the character of Lee Bang-won. As Bang-won, he intensely radiates this intimidating yet very addictive and fascinating presence on screen. Every single scene he is in is so compelling, every single thing he does is astounding to watch, every single line he delivers is filled to the brim with all the right emotions - despite the fact that nothing Lee Bang-won felt was ever short of complex, tormented, bewildered but resolute and terrifying all at once most of the times - throughout the entire series, Yoo Ah In didn't slack off, not even once.
When he was lying in the snow with Boon-yi - this is one of his most powerful performances throughout the show IMO - he flashes at least four to five expressions in between seconds; childlike glee, almost psychotic desperation, poignant solitude, intrepid decisiveness and suffocating misery - how the hell do you even do that, Ah In-ah? You must have lived and breathed as Lee Bang-won to be able to illustrate his chaotic thoughts that melt into focused strategies and violent heartaches so clearly on your (beautiful) face! I had to repeat the scenes several times to actually believe that there is an actor who can do that. How? OMG. I thought he got me when his tears begin to spill (really people, Yoo Ah In does spectacular breakdown scenes I swear to God - you MUST check out his other works!), but then he tells her that play time is over; I think my heart broke for both him and Boon-yi at that very moment. It broke further when he asks Boon-yi to call his name. At this moment I could already guess what was going to happen, and I wasn't ready. But when he further explained that they must stop speaking informally to each other, I realized that Boon-yi's 'Bang-won-ah' just a few seconds ago would be her last, so my guess was right! - I cried so hard, God, I sobbed into my pillow and paused the episode then and there. There was an apocalypse in my thoughts and my sanity almost didn't make it. Seriously, how is this man not winning every single award out there for every damn category, I don't even know.
Bang-won now knows that he could no longer afford the luxury of having friends, or a romantic companion from that moment on. Ambition trumps camaraderie to nothing more than just memories. The path he decides to take is a very lonely one, dauntingly lonely if I may add. But nobody else would walk that path and someone had to. But it's his and his alone. So when he wipes his tears and forced a sorrowful smile, looking ever so magnificent but shattered at the same time (freaking how did you do it, wow), I know that I've completely lost the Lee Bang-won I have so adored for 31 long episodes. And I lamented that loss. It felt like someone in my favourite book had died. It really did. It's the same ache I felt when Sirius Black died, the same ache I suffered when Nathaniel didn't make it. *takes a deep breath, trying not to cry* It's gonna be a while before anyone else could ever play that character again and not being a pitiful joke in comparison to Yoo Ah In's performance. And not to mention that he looks incredibly royal from any angle it's actually heartbreaking.
Personally, if you ask me, Lee Bang-won owns the entire series. Really. Charting his gradual transformation - from the hero-worshiping idealistic boy who harbours a disturbingly dark side (getting people presents just so he could look at their faces before deciding if he could kill them or not, at 12?) to the man who grows up so fast he becomes the political rival to his own teacher whom he used to worship; the man who discovers what his heart really wants and follows it, consequences be damned; the man whose ambition is so immovable that he makes a place for himself in the grand scheme where he is firmly told to have none; the man who took the throne against all odds because he believes that the right person should always take the job - was a roller-coaster ride of raw emotions that in the end, you're left scarred and battered. But I'd definitely do it again because Yoo Ah In really is THAT good.
Now, most of the articles I read about Lee Bang-won describe him as someone ambitious, ruthless and unforgiving. He seems like someone you just can't agree with, let alone befriend, no matter how hard you try. But writers Park and Kim's take on this very decisive king of Joseon is engaging to watch. The production team didn't hold back one bit in showcasing his brutality as the formidable political genius that he was nor did they offer excuses for the things that he did and the decisions that he made, because most of them were justified - at least in his judgment; in his prominent way of looking at the world and its intricate workings. So good job, writers Park and Kim! At least to me, he wasn't heartless, evil or any of those things. He was a young boy who craved guidance from the hero who turned away from him; a young man who was denied the path to greatness when he was exceedingly capable and highly qualified (Lee Bang-won was popular, possessed profound literary and military abilities and was a Confucian scholar, like why should there be any problem?); a prince who fearlessly challenged the status quo and a king who finally commands absolute authority but suffers severe loneliness to his end. This version of Lee Bang-won must have been such a joy to write. His vivid charisma was portrayed so precisely by Yoo Ah In's frighteningly imposing execution - it will take some time before anyone could even think of competing with him in this industry. He will stay unrivaled for a long time, it seems. *sighs in admiration*
Right. One can't have everything in life. Bang-won deals with this painful notion more than anyone in the Six Flying Dragons universe. His losses are great as his gains are greater. But none of the losses were as impactful as losing the following people. His difficult quest for power costs him three companions whom he had truly loved - Yong-gyu whose unquestioning loyalty was one of the retainers of Bang-won's sanity - died defending his secret; Boon-yi whose poetic personality stole Bang-won's heart from the beginning - left his side to protect her people, and Moo-hyul who looks up to him and his capabilities to make people smile - walked away as the last bit of the Lee Bang-won he decided to follow to the gates of hell died out with the murder of Sambong. We see Bang-won becoming lonelier with their departures, but he was not weakened. In fact, he overcompensates the losses by hardening his heart even more. They were difficult people, he said. They didn't directly go against him, nor did they stay within his reach, close enough for him to hold on to - for someone who only deals in black and white, comprehending this was a real struggle, emotionally taxing even. A younger Bang-won would have done anything to make them stay, he would have made promises and even kept them just so they won't leave. But that Lee Bang-won was long gone, he wasn't coming back and so the best, and the only thing left to do was to let them go. So, let them go he did.
I would love to sincerely thank the writers for the valiant choice Bang-won made with regards to both Boon-yi and Moo-hyul - it is in that exact stance of letting them leave, setting them free to live their lives as they wish that we get to see his enormous (though hidden) capacity to love, amidst the overwhelming regality he now projects. And that, in its truest essence of the phrase - is exceptional writing. For someone who has lost significant favours along his journey to the throne due to his reckless though objective actions, this side of him is refreshing to watch, although it wasn't easy. The last few episodes were difficult to get through, by this time I've gotten too attached to everyone and everything that makes Six Flying Dragons what it is. Watching how Bang-won's dreams soared and wrecked and rebuilt - you can't help but get a little too emotional as the series draws to a close. Back then I used to wonder if I could say goodbye to the show when the time comes. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. 'But we'll cross the bridge when we come to it, OK?' said someone I know.
From the perspective of the show, though, I felt that Lee Bang-won's doom to his dark path was predetermined, because Sambong was stubbornly uncompromising in his philosophy and belief; because he insisted that royal family members should not be allowed to be involved in politics - that was the reason he ended up colliding with Bang-won every single time, which is frustratingly ironic since their political ideologies were almost identical. And this kept going on for quite some time even when everyone else around them were already acknowledging Lee Bang-won as the most ideal successor to Sambong's vision of Joseon (who else could it be, jinjja?), to the point that nothing else could come out of the rivalry except death on either side, or one of them withdrawing from the game. We know Bang-won would first take his own life before taking that option into consideration. Which leaves us with Sambong and his inflexibility - and ultimately, his glimpse into the fallibility of human nature became the catalyst that set Bang-won's insurgency in motion. There was no turning back. And so when he said, 'Bang-won-ah, I'm exhausted,' with a weary smile on his face, I sobbed once more (I've actually lost count of the times this show made me cry). Kim Myung Min-sshi, you're awesome.
It will forever be a wonder how different things would have been if Sambong had more trust in the inherent goodness that I believe must have resided within the young and righteous Lee Bang-won; and offered the guidance he was craving instead of telling him outright that he has no place in the political landscape of the new country just because he was hasty and immature. From where I am standing, that was unfair. Sambong seonsaeng-nim, you know that Lee Bang-won was that one wild card you couldn't factor into your calculations and he worshiped you! With all his heart he believed in your dreams when no one else would. More than anyone else, he truly wanted you to be his teacher - did you not see his face when you allowed him to call you seonsaeng-nim? Of course you didn't! *shaking my fist* Instead of dismissing his brash actions, you could have harnessed his raw talents and mold him into the heir you envisioned. *sigh* But of course we can all be pretty senseless at times, it's human to make terrible decisions and Sambong had his flaws, so. I would say that even though Jung Do-jeon is my number one genius, he was hopelessly incompetent at managing young talents (well most seonsaeng-nims would pull their hair out in clumps when dealing with students like Lee Bang-won). IMHO, things could have taken a different turn if he hadn't completely dismissed Bang-won, but we would never know. Because the only predictable thing about life, is its unpredictability.
Alright. So, that ends my long rant on my third sageuk (my first ones are Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Mirror of the Witch, and I haven't even finished either of them). Initially I wanted this to be a real review, where I talk about the score, Lee Bang-ji VS Gil Tae-mi, the camera works, the setting, Boon-yi's hairpin, Sambong's grave and everything else but it's not to be because of all the Lee Bang-won feels. And saying goodbye was so hard! I was hypothetically fidgeting when the final episode drew closer to the end - like what am I going to do after this? But cushioning the fall was that small scene in the finale, where King Taejong gave Moo-hyul to his wide-eyed, enthusiastic son - and telling Moo-hyul how this young boy is so different from him. 'He's a peculiar one. He is not like me. He is like the people I missed.' *sobs* What the hell are all these Sambong and Boon-yi feels doing here now, OMG? But yes, I think the parting hurts lesser because of the scene, that sparks the beginning of a beautiful king and warrior relationship that would span thirty long years. I'd also like to think that it hurts lesser because of the possible reunion in Deep-rooted Tree. *smiles*
It's been a long, adventurous journey. I think my brain could be tired. So, for the time being, I'll go back to living. Will let you guys know if I'm starting Tree. Until then, take care everyone. Live well.
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If you have actually read up to this point, I have nothing but humble thanks to offer. Who knows when the next post will be coming - the updates will stay irregular until I finish writing my thesis by the end of this year. So, if you're still dropping by and not giving up on me, I love you. You're my Boon-yi if you're a girl. You're my Moo-hyul if you're a guy. Peace out. Later.