Monday, June 25, 2012

Guilty Pleasures

Through my subscription to Hulu Plus, the streaming video service, I have discovered Korean television. If you don’t know about Hulu Plus, you must at least have heard of, so I will not explain it here. Check it out, though, if you have any inclination to do so. It is a fun way to watch TV, anytime you want instead of having to keep an appointment in which you have no say.  

I seem to favor sci-fi/historical dramas such as “Joseon X-Files” (2010) and “Dr. Jin” (2012). That is unusual right there: there are two shows that combine sci-fi and historical drama.

Hulu Plus seems to come up with its own titles to foreign shows, so IMDb calls it “Joseon X-Files” but Hulu calls it “Secret Investigation Record.” (That probably should be “Secret Investigative Record or Report”; I think Koreans translate these titles; they certainly compose the subtitles with occasionally amusing results.) The “Korean X-Files,” as I call the show, takes the basic premise of the American TV series “The X-Files,” and changes it up. First of all, the series is set in 1609. Inspector Kim Hyung Do (Kim Ji-hoon) works for the royal government of the Joseon Kingdom (often spelled “Choson” or “Chosun”—Korean does not distinguish between the sound pairs represented in English as “b,p”; “g,k”; y,l; and “j,ch”), which was a kingdom on the Korean peninsula that existed, officially from 1392 to 1897 (although it actually continued on after 1897 as the Korean Empire).

Inspector Kim is brought in to investigate “tale bearing” about mysterious objects in the sky. The emperor is afraid that such stories, speaking as they do of power the emperor cannot control, will undermine his rule; if he cannot explain or control such phenomenon, why should the people trust him? Kim is expected to find out that there are no such phenomenon so the government can write off the reports as false, but Kim’s integrity won’t allow him to stop short of a full investigation. It turns out that Royal Secretary Ji Seung (Kim Gab-soo—also spelled Kim Kab-soo, Kim Gap-su and Kim Kap-su), is fully aware that there are strange goings on throughout the kingdom and in other countries, as well, but along with his research assistant, Heo Yoon-yi (Im Jung-eun), a woman who must hide her intellectual accomplishments in a feudalistic culture, he means to let Kim find out as much as he can and then bury the report where it probably will never be read.

“Joseon X-Files” is reminiscent of “The X-Files” but with little differences: Inspector Kim is like Mulder except that he is driven by a thirst for truth unalloyed with credulity; he doesn’t want to believe, he wants to find out the truth and to make rational sense of it. In this, he is more like Scully than Mulder. On the other hand, Assistant Heo is a believer; she has seen too much not to be, but, although it turns out in later episodes that she has her own demons, she generally seems calm in her knowledge of things that mystify and frighten others.

There is the added feature of Magistrate Jang Man (Jo Hee-bong) who is a stock comic character in Asian drama. Think 3-CPO from “Star Wars” only with flesh instead of metal skin. (Actually, I’ve read that George Lucas created 3-CPO and R2D2 based on a pair of lackeys in a 1958 Japanese movie called “The Hidden Fortress.”) He “helps” Kim in his investigations—when he is not getting in the way or dragging his heals, afraid to get in trouble either with ghosts or higher ups.

Though Jang Man is often the butt of humor, the fun is best when everyone is involved. In one episode, there is a telling bit of business that turns out to be more memorable than the overall plot. It has to do with the fact that in 1609, firearms are being introduced to Korea but are still somewhat rare. (Asia is already beginning to fall behind the west in technology, although most Asian rulers will be slow to appreciate the implications of this for more than two centuries.) At the beginning of the episode, Jang is trying to figure out how to operate one these new fangled pistols. Heo and Kim watch him struggle, and Kim tells him to let him know when he has figured it out. Being careless with the unfamiliar weapon, Jang shoots a hole through the brim of his own hat—while it is on his head. (A note about hats: all the upper-cast men wear dark, broad-brimmed hats made of a sort of transparent mesh; this fashion did not change between the early seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries.)

Later in the episode, everyone is searching for a homicidal and elusive monster in a forest. Kim and Jang are armed with the pistol, which they have barely gotten the hang of. When Heo shows up, they express concern for her safety, but she assures them that she can take care of herself and produces a pistol of her own. “You know how to use one of those?” they ask in wonder. But, they wonder next, why didn’t you tell us you already know about firearms when we were trying to figure them out? You didn’t ask, she replies.

Many of the strange goings-on are never fully explained. Not even close, in some cases. In a later episode, Inspector Kim stays at an inn located in the middle of the wilderness where he meets a fellow guest who also claims to be a government inspector. In this episode, a true oddity involving firearms turns out to be neither funny nor, in the final analysis, comprehensible. There is a group of somewhat menacing soldier/hunters whose intended prey might just be human. These men are armed with matchlock muskets, entirely plausible in that day and age: these were antique firearms that required the musketeer to light a fuse and wait for it to ignite his gunpowder before the weapon would discharge. A chancy weapon as is made clear in the scene where one of the men stares down the barrel at a charging vampire, hoping the gun fires before the creature reaches him.

Then, in a climactic scene—and I am going to spoil the surprise  here, so stop reading if you want to and are able—one of the muskteers prepares to shoot the mysterious man who claims to be an inspector. As the muskteer’s fuse burns down, the “inspector” pulls out a revolver and shoots the musketeer dead. Yes, you read it correctly: a revolver, a weapon that was not invented for another two centuries. Indeed, the glimpse of it that I got suggested to me that it was of a type that would not be invented until the late nineteenth century but which continued to be manufactured into the twentieth century and might still be made to this day. The obvious conjecture is that the “inspector” was really a time-traveler, but the episode did not provide any conclusive explanation.

Speaking of time-travel, my favorite Korean TV series is “Dr. Jin.” I do not know whether “Joseon X-Files” has origins in other media, but “Dr. Jin” (aka, "Time Slip Dr. Jin" or “Dak-teo Jin”) is a Korean version of a Japanese television series called simply “Jin,” (2009-2011) and it, in turn, is based on a Japanese graphic novel (manga) of the same title by Murakami Motoka. So this story has been told and elaborated before. Still, the Korean version is the first one I became familiar with; so I am understandably partial to it.

“Dr. Jin,” like “Joseon X-Files,” is set during the long-running Joseon Kingdombut more than two hundred years later than “Joseon X-Files.” Revise that: since this is an all-out time travel tale, it begins in the early twenty-first century when crack neurosurgeon, Jin Hyuk (Song Seung-hun), pining over the loss of his fiancĂ©e (Park Min-young), is mysteriously transported back to 1860. Not much has changed since the seventeenth century. The hats are the same and the commander of the imperial police, Kim Kyung-tak (Kim Jae-joong) is the only person who carries a firearm—and it's an eighteenth century flintlock.

Poor, disoriented Dr. Jin lands in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of being a member of a band of rebels. Running for his life, he eludes the police but falls over a cliff where he dangles precariously until he is rescued by Lee Ha-eung (Lee Beom-su) who turns out to be one of my favorite characters in this drama. He is like the elf that the hero meets in the forest and at first underestimates. (Think Yoda in “Star Wars.”) Lee (or Yi—as I said before, the difference between “y” and “l” is ambiguous to the Korean ear—it’s the same lightly pronounced “l” sound that the Japanese can’t easily distinguish from their “r” sound.) is a member of the royal family but has been forced aside by the powerful Kim (of) Ahn Dong family. (I have learned that the Kims had been providing Queens to the Lee - or Yi - dynasty for generations and thereby had become powerful ministers who decades before had reduced the Lee dynasty to puppet status.) Intelligent and subtle, Lee Ha-eung has been forced to play the buffoon for years in order to stay alive. Remembering his Korean history, however, Dr. Jin eventually realizes that Lee is none other than Heungseon Daewongun who within a few years would become the regent of Joseon until his son could take the reins of power as king. For now, poor Lee must force his young son to hide his intelligence lest the Kims decide to nip a potential rival in the bud--something they had often done to members of the Lee family.

Dr. Jin has other things to worry about at first. He meets the Hong family, also poor nobles on the outs, when he finds Hong Young-hwi (Jin Yi-han) stumbling about with a head wound. It is a good thing that Jin is a brain surgeon because he is repeatedly called upon to operate on haematomae in the brains of important people. Hong is his first patient. The families of his patients are always reluctant to let Jin cut their loved one’s skull open, but after his first few successes, his methods are not only accepted but acclaimed. The royal physician does not share everyone else’s enthusiasm, however, and becomes Jin’s implacable enemy. When the Kim who is the de facto head of state suggests that perhaps Jin learned his mysterious medical skills from the Chinese or from Westerners, and Jin replies, “Something like that,” the royal physician, who is anything but stupid, mutters that he has studied Chinese medicine and even perused Western medical texts and knows there is nothing there about Jin’s methods. Oops. My favorite medical anachronism is Jin's use of the stethoscope he has made, because I happen to know that even American physicians had not adopted the stethoscope at this time; only the most advanced European doctors were using them.

But most troubling of all for Jin is the fact that his first patient’s sister, Hong Youngrae (or Younglae), is the spitting image of his lost love—which she is, of course, because she is played by the same actress, Park Min-young. To add mix to the soup, she is not available since she is betrothed to the police commissioner, Kim Kyung-tak. Jin would probably spend more time than he does moping about this, but he doesn’t have time as he must constantly battle diseases with primitive medical equipment that he often has to make himself. He thus manages to cure brain injuries, tumors, cholera and syphilis. It is only when he is inventing penicillin to cure syphilis that he begins to be worried about the Prime Directive that every “Star Trek” fan knows to mean that superior technology should not be introduced to a primitive culture lest it result in cultural changes that could be devastating.

Dr. Jin tries to put the breaks on his introduction of advanced medical technology before he finishes making penicillin, but his friend, Lee, begs him to save his girlfriend who seems to be the only case of syphilis in Korea at the time. (She caught it from a westerner who was the secret guest of the head of state’s son.) Jin is too involved with these people and can’t deny his friends the fruits of his knowledge and skill. (One problem, never explicitly addressed, is an obvious one: If Jin does not strictly regulate his new “panacea,” people will gladly take his penicillin for whatever ails them and soon the drug will stimulate penicillin-resistant strains!)

I should not forget Jun-pal (Lee Won-jong), the king of the underworld, to whom Lee Ha-eung owes money for gambling debts. (Think Jabba the Hutt from "Star Wars.") Lee Won-jong portrays him as a sharp-eyed wheeler-dealer with taurean appetites and a mercurial temper such that he can be comical at one moment but menacing the next.
While I have seen all twelve episodes of “Joseon X-Files,” I at first believed that there could be more episodes of “Dr. Jin” to come, but the series is actually finite and complete. There are two ways I might have already spoiled the ending of this story for both myself and you, dear reader: First, I have already guessed a partial explanation of how Dr. Jin traveled through time, especially in terms significant to the denoument, and, second, I have read about the history of the historical period where Jin lands in his backward time travel. So, taking the second case first, Jin actually spoils the story by revealing that Lee is the future regent of Joseon. Indeed, with the story set in 1860, Lee is only three or four years from taking control of the kingdom away from the Kims. At the end of episode eight—which could be a season finale, Lee has won an audience with the secluded Dowager Queen Sinjeong who has the power to name the curent puppet King Cheoljong's successor.

As to the story of Jin himself, his time-travel is precipitated after he operates on a mysterious patient whose face is obscured by bandages. The patient has a highly unlikely homunculus in his head, which Jin removes and puts in a jar for further study. But before he can do anything further, Jin goes to the roof to mope. Meanwhile, the patient, his face still covered in bandages, gets up, steals a bag of medical equipment and the jar, and goes to the roof where he attempts to jump off. In trying to stop him, Jin himself falls off the roof clutching the bag and reaching in mid air for the jar. Suddenly he falls into a wood outside the Joseon capital of Hanyang in 1860.

I think the solution—or at least the partial solution, because I don’t know yet where that little homunculus came from or how it triggers time travel—is that the bandaged patient was Jin himself, having traveled from 1860 to 2012 via the homunculus. Now Jin has gone back to 1860 with the jar containing the homunculus. Sometime in the not too distant future, he will decide to go back to the future for more supplies, and he will end up causing his earlier self to go back to 1860 in the first place; thus causing a time loop.

Now that I have spoiled that storyline, I still am curious to find out all the details that I haven’t guessed, and I am also fascinated with the melodrama of all these characters, even knowing how the historical events are supposed to play out. I suppose that the real guilt of this pleasure arises from the fact that near or at the heart of the story is the love triangle between Jin Hyuk, Hong Young-rae and Kim Kyung-tak. You just know that Hyuk and Young-rae are meant for each other, but Kyung-tak has her within his grasp and won’t let go. The flaw in his love, which is real enough on a platonic level, is that he is in love with the idea of her more than with the woman. To Kyung-tak, who is the illegitimate son of the head of state, she is a noble woman whose betrothal to him means advancement in his status and, certainly, that of any children their marriage produces.

But I am also intrigued with watching how Lee and Jin navigate the tricky waters of the potentially fatal court intrigues they have gotten into. Their enemies are gathering and are warned. The head of state obviously no longer buys the ruse that Lee is just a buffoon, if he ever really bought Lee’s act at all, and the court physician is out to get his rival Dr. Jin one way or another, whichever is most permanent.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Inaccurate with an Asterisk

A response to

10 Historically Inaccurate Movies by Jane McGrath

McGrath criticizes Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" for its historical inaccuracies, but did the filmmakers know what they were doing?
After watching "Braveheart" seventeen years ago, I did some research of my own. Screenwriter Randall Wallace impressed me not with his accurate telling of history but his obvious knowledge of what he was doing in bringing bits and pieces of history together in a collage. For example, Isabella did have an affair with a Welshman (not a Scotsman) who fathered a "prince"; but this was a generation after William Wallace was executed. And Edward II's gay lover was murdered, but not by his already dead father, but rather by members of his court.