The pre-broadcast buzz surrounding The Duo (or Mate, MBC, Feb-May 2011) focused on the delectable prospect of Chun Jung Myung (or “PIE” to our fangirl club, short for “cutie-pie”) all gorgeously angsty in period garb and dashing about with a sword. But it wasn’t long before the chatter moved away from PIE and escalated to “OMG this is great!”, “Brilliant, brilliant writing”, and “It makes me feel so happy”. How did a mere PIE-vehicle turn into Drama of the Year? Let us share our joy; me, serendipity, and my friends momosan, Nimiwehy and nycgrl (plus, a short endorsement by Mr X himself):
Short synopsis: In the late Joseon period, Chun Doong and Gui Dong meet as teenagers and strike up a friendship that transcends deep social divisions. Chun Doong was born a beggar and Gui Dong is the princely only son of a nobleman. Or so it appears. In fact, they were switched at birth by the desperate (slave-born) mother of Gui Dong. Chun Doong thinks he was abandoned a birth; in fact he is the only son of the rich and powerful Lord Kim. Gui Dong does not realise that his (low-born) wet nurse and substitute mother is in fact his real mother. Their fates are connected by this woman, and their lives intertwine as they live in the same community, grapple with the same social issues, and love and are loved by the same women. All in the context of a society that is convulsed by corruption and injustice, where the choices facing a man are – milking the corrupt system, or fatalistic disengagement, or violent opposition, or reform from within. Chun Doong and Gui Dong are bound together by their friendship, but set on different paths. Will the fates let their birth secret lie quietly? And if it all unravels, how will they and everyone around them react?
So, we have a terrible birth secret, thwarted love, idealistic rebels prancing around in black robes, corrupt government officials and oppressed slaves. Haven’t we seen this all before? What sets this show apart from other sageuk?
It is FUCKING GREAT. Kthxbye.
I’ve been thinking about this one a while, and I think one of the things that sets it apart is its smaller scope. While we had government officials and rebels and slaves etc., we weren’t dealing with the grand scale of the palace, rescuing a prince-ling, or epic battles with casts of thousands.
Instead we were dealing more with the effects of the greater society on a smaller scale. For instance, the decisions of the corrupt selection of an official rippling down to the small valley where most of the action took place. Or the way the structure of society in general skewed or even warped the perception of a person due to their perceived positions. The focus was more personal than grand.
One of the things that really works for me about Duo is its representation of the subtle and unsubtle class relationships that exist between the various characters — whether it’s the beggar, servant, friend, lover, or lord. Separate from the context of the historical class divides, each of these individual relationships has various layers of pulls and pushes of power. The power-play may exhibit itself when the master of the house finds himself out-played by the beggar at the feast, or the lofty lord may think he is being the nurturing father figure without the self awareness that he and his kind are actually the oppressors.
I think it’s a measure of how fine The Duo is that its basic plot premise is quite unoriginal (and reads quite embarrassingly sensational in a short synopsis), but its thoughtful storying rises above the cliches. Duo people react to commonplace plot events in ways quite unexpected in a drama; and yet, if you stop to think about it, entirely consistent with what might happen in real life. Or, at least, in Shakespeare.
The Duo also has tremendous heart. Momosan and nycgrl have alluded to this. The Duo is pleasingly and intelligently grounded in real lives. But not dull old lives, mind you. Instead, interesting, breathing lives. Sageuk can get carried away with period, scale and costume, indulging in expansive gestures (and much shouting) that lose their grip on reality. But The Duo is different, somehow. It is subtle and humane. It doesn’t shout at the viewer. It speaks companionably.
Though I lament the lack of originality in our dramas, when truly faced with atypical characterizations I was blindsided. Masked under usual Saguek tropes, with the world’s most accurately-misleading synopsis ever*, Duo was a simmering poem on class tension, coming gloriously alive in the hovels and buzzing marketplaces rather than in the corridors of Yangban houses. And to pull off a large set of believable characters is not an easy task but Duo is the veritable proof that it can be done and be done well. Each role was portrayed with a sincerity and centrality becoming of a hero, unlike interchangeable side characters fated to be cardboard cutouts in someone else’s heroic saga/s. I will miss ex-magistrate’s live-in maid (literally!) and the toothless taffy vendor as much as Chun Doong or Dal Yi.
* “Serendipity, Are you my long lost twin?! Do you have a red birth mark? We could be starring in our own K-Drama for all we know!”
NimiWehy, when we finally meet, will we embrace each other, or run our swords through each other? Haha.
Back to The Duo, I thought I should just say: This show is Quality. Quality writing (Kim Woon Myung), quality directing (Im Tae Woo, Kim Geun Hong), quality sets, quality acting, quality editing, quality soundtrack… OK, I think I’ve made my point.
But one more thought on the sets. You know know how many sageuk sets look just like sageuk sets? The Duo doesn’t look like a set. It’s hard to explain. But there’s something about the setting that looks lived in and used. The bricks that are laid not quite straight, the dust on the road, the ashes in the stove, the worn furniture…, it looks and feels all so wonderfully real. Sometimes I had a hard time focusing on the drama, I was so entranced by all the interesting (and often edible) everyday stuff lying around.
That’s because it’s the “Korean Folk Village”, silly! Not that I knew all this beforehand, but I had similar thoughts about the sets as you* and was told by the Wise One and hjkomo that there’s actually a village dedicated to preserving Korean culture and heritage and they occasionally permit dramas and movies to be shot there. For more information, visit http://www.koreanfolk.co.kr/folk/english/index.htm. And, no, I don’t work for them. I just like pointing out trivial stuff. So, serendipity, I am such a tool for acting superior and calling you names:-)
* stop freaking me out!
I visited that folk village back in high school while attending a Korean immersion program, dubbed “The Love Boat”. I can’t remember much since my friends and I were so focused on trying to get something… ok steal something and it sorta grows there… and that is all I’m gonna say about that.
K-dramas are renowned for their addictive quality. What made this show even more addictive than usual?
Part of what made it addictive was wondering when various people would find out various secrets and the effect it would have on their relationships. Some of their reactions were not what I anticipated, so I clearly need to thank the writers for being willing to bring more complex thought to it than an average simple story line.
Truthfulness about human nature wrapped with some conventional storytelling devices. I frankly had a love-hate relationship with those highly addictive cliffhangers. “Hate” because I felt manipulated like the show was exploiting my weakness, but “love” because I was always willing to be the show’s chump in devouring the next episode greedily.
Yup, Duo pretty much perfected the art of the episode-end cliffhanger. Happily, I watched when most episodes had aired, so I could watch at least ten minutes of the next episode before going to bed, instead of chewing my blanket for a week in awful suspense. The thing is, some shows trick you with cliffhangers which are not cliffhangers. Like, you know, it makes it look like the slave-hunter has caught sight of his long-lost beloved. But come next week’s episode, you learn that actually he didn’t, grr. The Duo never did that. Whenever it ended with an “Oh no, he’s going to find out??!!!!” scenario, he always really does find out. So you know there is always a real game-changer. And to keep this plot movement and emotional suspense up for episodes on end is no mean feat.
Ha! Cliffhangers did nothing to me! But I got addicted to being outwitted, not in the detective sense of the word because nothing is hidden from us viewers, but in the character motivations. Not Who but mainly Why, and to a lesser extent, What (Next). Delving deep into other people’s psyches (albeit fictional) ends up being a curious journey of self-discovery. Also, half the fun for us Kdrama addicts is checking off our beloved set-scenarios before they happen, but it whets our appetite for more when they don’t.
We are all seasoned K-drama viewers. What made us particularly invested in this story and the people of this show?
I was sucked into Duo right away. The segment of the show with the younger actors was so well done, I can remember worrying that it would be one of those unfortunate instances where the show faltered when the adults came in. The show spent so much time with the younger set, and particularly with Chun Doong and the beggars, that it became a fairly believable town, with the nobles, the merchants, and the school. It was like reading a really good page-turner of a novel; you wanted to see where these characters were going.
The storytelling is both strong and personal so the joys and struggles felt personal. As we follow the individual arcs of Chun Doong and Gui Dong’s lives and witness their eventual intersections and budding friendship, you can’t help but become invested in these characters. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt such joy watching either a movie or k-drama as when I watched Chun Doong skipping with exuberant happiness after Dong Nyeo’s father accepted him as his student. How high the highs must be when you are the lowest of the low and someone offers you intellectual food when your soul is starving.
Also it doesn’t hurt that the music score is all kinds of wonderful and complements the overall build up of that scene perfectly.
The soundtrack is awesome. Why hasn’t the OST album been released yet? Beautiful (and period appropriate) music used with taste and discernment, enhancing rather than distracting. And sometimes the show even has the courage to have no soundtrack at all, to allow the sheer drama and fine acting speak for themselves. And did anyone else notice how often outdoor scenes had a soundtrack that included bird-song?
The theme song called Biyun (flying kite) was written by Ji Pyoung Kwon. It mixes West and East by combining opera with pansori (Korean narrative songs). The highs of the song by the soprano reflects the soaring kite (e.g., acquiring knowledge, friendship, kindness, and love) while the pansori rings of the sadness and bitterness of a falling kite (e.g., corruption, betrayal, a lost love, a lost ideal, and tragedy to come).
Have a listen:
Here, have some more gorgeous soundtrack:
I cannot be seasoned by any standard, me, the poser! I still don’t know how Hyun Bin is pronounced (Hoo Bin? Hey Bin? Gives up!). I cannot reel off the names of PDs or actors or writers unless they are hot or diabolical! I still measure a drama by how much personal enjoyment I get out of it. But I digress…
Period movies and dramas are the only places nowadays where people talk about “changing the world” with a straight face and still expect to be taken seriously. We forget that only a century earlier humans were bartered like beasts and a child could be snatched from a mother’s breast. Duo is set in this world, ostensibly a tale of two men* with entwined fates, but is really a microcosmic view of loves and struggles of men and women caught unprepared in a strange period in history. Common people were only beginning to question their hardships and sorrows and find outlets for their dissatisfaction. And into this world came Chun Doong and Gui Dong and company, and for a brief moment they enthralled and captivated us by their daringness and youthful idealism. Duo is a drama made with intelligence, romanticism and love without short-changing on realistic aspects.
*I am so tempted to quote the opening passages of The Tale of Two Cities here
Sageuk are often inhabited by larger-than-life characters. Villains so black there is no reprehensible or horrid act beneath them, saints so white and innocent you want to scream at them, “Stop being so naive, you idiot, you’ll be eaten alive!” The Duo, however, is not so lazy as to merely inhabit either extreme end of the moral spectrum. In The Duo, the most heinous character has empathetic points (well, except for a few stock corrupt government officials and mobsters — but I guess we can’t paint everyone in rainbow colours). And the saintliest saint has some flaw or weakness.
And woven into the story are real issues of life which are compelling. What is fate? What is filial loyalty? Does nurture trump nature? Is wickedness better served thoroughly avenged or forgiven? How does one reform a corrupt system; by working within it or by opposing and upturning it? In life’s complex moral dilemmas, how dare we take a stand, where must we compromise, and what do we do about friends and family who take a different path?
The Duo is heart-warming. How I hate that twee word! But really, it is. Some dramas make me feel like the world is populated by dim-wits and lunatics. But Duo affirms that a warm beating heart resides within every human breast.
The acting: Stellar across the board. But who particularly shone for you? And who, if any, were the weak links?
It may sound a bit odd, but to me, Lord Kim (played by Choi Jong Hwan) and Maksoon (Yoon Yoo Sun) were extraordinarily well done. They were like bookends – opposites in so many ways, but linked.
The young cast was very good, especially Chun Doong and Dal Yi.
And of the main characters, I will forever have a fondness for Lee Sang Yoon’s Gui Dong.
As for weak links, I hate to say it, but Chun Jung Myung took several episodes to settle into his role, and never really shone as brightly as some of the others.
The younger gang of four and the veterans were really stellar. The older gang of four took some time to settle in – some longer than others. Out of the four older cast members, Lee Sang Yoon surprised me the most. I have to admit I was initially disappointed he was cast as Gui Dong but he wound up having the strongest overall performance out of the four.
Not to mention, Dimples totally rocked the hat.
I still think the younger set of actors out-performed their grownup counterparts, especially Noh Young Hak (young Chun Doong) and Choi Woo Shik (a young Gui Dong, who will be bucket-worthy* in a few years time, y’all watch!); so much so that I felt distant and irrationally mutinous when the older crowd showed up.
[* Explanatory note: In our set, a bucket is required to quench the fires of hell we are bound for due to lusting after an inappropriately young k-drama male – serendipity.]
If I have to pick a favorite, I‘d have to say Choi Jong Hwan’s portrayal of Lord Kim. He was the Man, the Lord, patriarch, father, and husband, all in a heartbeat. The actor gave a nuanced performance, embodying the spirit of the era and class with aplomb, faltering only ever so slightly when it came to his son(s). Another crucial point to be considered in earnest is that, man is scorching hot!
Ditto. PIE was adorable but awkward, very awkward, at first. (At times I wanted to yell at him: “If you furrow your brow enigmatically just one more time, sonny boy!”). It took a few episodes before I could connect with his “under-stated” style of acting and believe that he was the same Chun Doong played by Noh Young Hak of the full-on, no-holds-barred school of precocious acting. Happily, by the end PIE finally WAS Chun Doong, so all was well.
Choi Jong Hwan as Lord Kim was amazing. I could love him, fear him, fear for him and pity him all at the same time. Also I should have hated Maksoon; technically, all the bad stuff was All Her Fault. But the exquisite acting by Yoon Yoo Sun and the thoughtful script made me pity her and in the end when we learn her full story, even, astonishingly, root for her.
I also loved Kim Myung Soo who played the corrupt magistrate and brother-in-law to Lord Kim. Whom I first loathed and wished dead, then felt compassion for, and finally got rather fond of. What a jaw-dropping performance of venality, vulnerability, and moral courage snatched from the fire.
What would you say to someone who still can’t decide whether to watch this show?
Short of hitting them with my “watch this show now” stick, I’d just have to say that it’s a really good show, both for those who love saguek and those who aren’t as addicted to them.
Not your mommy. Do what you want.
This is good stuff. Really good stuff. Thoroughly enjoyable quality stuff. Don’t waste your life on forgettable fluff. This one will stay in your heart forever.
Turn to it the day when the drama you are watching has Kang Ji Hwan taking multiple showers as the main plot and all you do is yawn and think, ‘if only there was a fugging story in there somewhere‘. For many that may not be a deal-breaking proposition but for the rest, Duo is waiting for you.
I have to add that while is Duo is profound and intelligent, it’s not art-house high-brow or self-conscious. You know how you can watch a highly-acclaimed art movie and be thinking “I’m sure I’m supposed to be deeply impressed. But I’m SO BORED.” Duo is not like that. It is very watchable. It has a gripping story and a zippy pace. And it is often extremely funny. Not funny by way of ridiculously unrealistic embarrassing situations, exaggerated facial expressions or arch meta jokes. But genuinely funny. Like Gui Dong tricking his prospective brother-in-law into playing strip archery (yes, I said “strip archery”, with a drinking game and a dancing troup thrown in). Or the down-and-out yangban awkwardly trying to learn to sell rice cakes on the street. SO FUNNY!
SPOILER ALERT: The ending. Though the greatest trips are more about the journey than the destination, some people still want to know about the destination before they’ll come along. How did you feel about the ending of the show?
After re-watching the last two episodes, I actually wish they had drawn it out just a tiny bit more. The ending was a fitting one for the show, but I just wanted a bit more time spent on Chun Doong’s side of things. I could have done without Dong Nyeo’s final classroom scene; although it is basically a traditional “statement” saguek ending scene, those have just started to irritate the daylights out of me.
I did feel it was rushed and of course it was bittersweet, but like my chocolate, I like my sageuk bittersweet.
I thought the ending was just about perfect. I mean, we’re not kidding ourselves, right, nobody expects this all to end happily ever after with all issues and conflicts conveniently resolved. That would not be true to the realness of the story. But the important things – love, loyal friendship and integrity – endured, and that should count as a “happy” ending of sorts.
Nonetheless… yes, it’s a tragic, tragic end for one of our boys *sob*. The scene playing as the final credits roll hits me hard. When I took this screencap, I felt a lump in my throat. Here is a scene that doesn’t actually appear in the drama, as far as I can recall — Chun Doong and Gui Dong are running together through the market with their swords drawn and their faces open with joy, leaping through the air in sync. They never actually did that; their lives were set on courses that were just too far apart. But in their hearts, that’s how they were: Companions, best friends, the Duo, forever. *sniff*
Serendipity, you mean the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid run? Yeah, that was a perfect shot.