01. 2013
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Hur Jun, New Beginning

The drama that once had everyone’s attention is coming back. Hur Jun is returning. This time, as a daily historical drama. This is already the third remake, the most of any drama after Jang Hee Bin. The first drama based on the doctor Hur Jun was Jibnyeom, which aired in 1975 and starred the late Kim Mu-saeng. As many already know, the drama was scripted by Lee Eun-seong who also wrote the novel Dongui Bogam.

photo 1
Lee Byeong-hun’s “national drama” Hur Jun.

Lee Eun-seong planned to release four books of Dongui Bogam, but his health deteriorated and he died after completing the third sequel. Eventually, Dongui Bogam was reorganized by Lee’s acquaintance and published posthumously. It instantly shook the publishing industry and became a bestseller. Dongui Bogam, along with Lee Jae-un’s Tojeongbigyeol, set the foundation for faction (although at the time, such term did not exist). Then, in 1991, Dongui Bogam aired with Seo In-seok taking the lead role, and eight years later, it was remade into Hur Jun. The drama instantly made its lead actor, Jeon Gwal-ryeong, a star, and Hwang Su-jeong playing Ye-jin also became an iconic figure among Korean men. The drama itself was a huge success, recording over 60% viewer rating. Dongui Bogam was also a hit, but there is more to Hur Jun than just the high viewer rating.

Recognized as the first of Lee Byeong-hun’s historical dramas, Hur Jun was clearly different from the historical dramas of its time. While previous historical dramas focused on “evidence” and “events” rather than “characters,” Hur Jun moved away from the royal family and created a common “hero,” even if its attempts were a little dogmatic.

Historical Dramas as Heroic Epics

Hur Jun can attribute its success to the epic tale of the hero. People long for heroes, regardless of what age or what country they are living in. Their heroes are not figures that save the world with supernatural powers, but they are figures that cast a positive influence over the world with their actions. In that sense, Hur Jun presented the most ideal image of a hero. The drama portrays Hur Jun as a character that develops over time. He is not born perfect or with a silver spoon in his mouth; in fact, Hur Jun is an illegitimate child and gets involved in smuggling at an early age. But he does not stop there. He reflects on his life and breaks away from old habits after meeting his mentor. From there, he develops into an adult and eventually into a hero. The story deviates from the traditional epic tales of a hero, but it is quite similar to the narrative of Hollywood’s hit product, the “superhero” genre. Superheroes are creations of the U.S. popular culture that made up for its lack of native myths with imaginary figures. Examples include Marvel Comics’ Iron Man and Spider-Man. Marvel Comics, unlike its rival DC, tend to illustrate the growing up of characters who fail or possess little in the society. This plot bridges the distance between the bad guys and the good guys (albeit in a fictional environment) and creates empathy.

Going back to Hur Jun, as the whopping viewer rating of 60% suggests, people sat in front of the TV to meet a hero they cannot meet in reality. The powerful narrative of Hur Jun continued in Dae Jang Geum and created yet another historical drama sensation. Lee Young-ae’s Jang-geum is not too different from Hur Jun. Despite the tautology, many viewers sat in front of the TV because Dae Jang Geum was a story of a growing up hero. Of course, Lee Byeong-hun’s directing skills played a part in the success of the two dramas. What is interesting is that after Dae Jang Geum ended, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code swept the bookstores in Korea and started the faction trend. Works of faction dominated publishing houses, drama and movie productions, and musicals. In the film sector, the office box hit King and the Clown, Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield, War of the Arrows, and the recent Masquerade enjoyed huge success. The publishing industry released bestsellers Painter in the Wind and Deep-rooted Tree by Lee Myeong-jeong, and the two works were later adapted into TV series. Aside from the two adaptations, Queen Seon Deok, Jumong, Yi San, and The Legend did splendidly on TV. In general, historical dramas fared pretty well. They probably benefited from the success of Hur Jun and Dae Jang Geum, but it is true that the historical drama as a genre evolved and still continues to develop.

The two earlier works paved the way for historical dramas to go beyond royal palaces and experiment with more diverse stories. One example is the series that created drama addicts (“pae-in”), Damo.

A New Attempt, Fusion Historical Drama

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Drama Damo
created a new genre called fusion historical drama.

Based on a comic by Bang Hak-gi, Damo is set in the past but the characters are fictional. It was an ambitious undertaking, especially considering that the historical drama genre has a large following of conservative viewers. However, contrary to concerns, Damo put countless viewers under a spell. The romantic, heart-tickling lines, such as the famous “Does it hurt? I hurt too.” were unthinkable for a historical drama.

The Damo syndrome even gave way to a new term, “fusion historical drama,” and it opened the valve of creativity. Historical dramas expanded their spectrum at a rate that gained speed in the last half of 2000s.

The heroic epic tales of Hur Jun and Dae Jang Geum were continued by Sangdo, Jumong, and Emperor of the Sea while the appeals of Damo that grabbed the hearts of women were further developed in The Princess’s Man. The legacy of fusion historical dramas was extended by Strongest Chil Woo, Iljimae, and Grudge: The Revolt of Gumiho. In the case of Queen Seon Deok, the antagonist Misil enjoyed as much popularity as the heroine, if not more. Some historical dramas abided by the traditional guideline. The Great King Sejong and Yi San proved that the traditional form can be just as successful. Historical dramas progressed and transformed over time, and managed to escape the trap of repetitions and clichés.

But as if the achievements were not enough, the genre tried yet another new experiment in 2007. It was The Legend, based on the myth of Dangun and the story of King Gwanggaeto the Great. The Legend took a completely different path from the very beginning and interwove elements of fantasy into the drama. The viewers were both taken aback and intrigued by the flashy CG work and fantasy genre. If these new attempts had ended in failure, then such dramas as Faith and The Sun and the Moon would not have been made.

Fantasy and historical drama. This ingenious combination was once unthinkable. But hybrid genres are nothing new in contemporary creations. In fact, they are fast becoming a trend.

Historical Dramas Keep Developing

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The most successful drama of a hybrid genre,
Deep-rooted Tree.

The changing trends maneouvered historical dramas too. The result was Deep-rooted Tree, which proved that Han Seok-gyu is not an actor of the past. Regarded as an ultimate form of a heroic epic, the drama displays almost flawless production. Everyone is aware of Sejong, but Han Seok-gyu’s Lee Do is not a familiar figure. Rather than a genius and a wise king, Lee Do is portrayed as a father and a man who faces trials and challenges. This portrayal made Sejong more approachable and familiar, just as Hur Jun did with its hero. Deep-rooted Tree creates another hero by showing how Lee Do is forced to make sacrifices for politics. The drama is an ensemble of interesting characters (compared to previous historical dramas)—aside from the hero and the antihero, there are Kang Chae-yun, who keeps the plot moving; prodigal court girl Soy; and faithful royal warrior Mu-hyul. Moreover, the drama added mystery to the genre and commanded the viewers’ attention until the final episode. In this sense, Deep-rooted Tree is the most successful drama of the hybrid genre.

Another drama to look at is The Sun and the Moon, which caused a sensation in the first half of 2012. As a fusion historical drama, the story takes place in a fictional era and includes conspiracies, romance and even elements of the occult. This blend of genres actually raised the quality of the story and tightened the plot. Hur Jun created a hero that people wanted to see, and The Sun and the Moon showed what the younger generation wanted to see. The 40% viewer rating attests to that, and this success implies a lot of things. Now, the viewers’ standards are higher, and the dramas that fall below their expectations are neglected. This is obvious with Jeon Woo Chi. The unstable plot, awkward CG, and the contrived plot are working against the actors’ efforts and the viewers’ interests.

Let us go back to daily series Hur Jun.

According to the press conference, the new remake will give insights into Hur Jun’s childhood, which the previous works have overlooked. This has raised expectations as well as concerns. The story itself is a tried-and-true content, but the key point will be how the drama avoids mundanity of tautology.

Meanwhile, viewers are getting more demanding and selective. Fortunately, historical dramas have managed to keep up with the changes so far and even develop into a powerful killer content. This was possible because the genre moved away from repetitions and accepted changes. What is important is that the genre continues to develop instead of being stagnant. The strengths of previous works need to be absorbed and the weaknesses promptly discarded of. The drama Hallyu that Dae Jang Geum started is still prominent even if it has weakened a little. It is also true that there has not been second Dae Jang Geum for years. Until when will we rely on the glory of the past? It is about time for the second Dae Jang Geum to appear. We now know that our culture can grab the attention of the people around the world. In that sense, are we being too optimistic to place our bet on the next historical drama?

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