Review: Hwarang

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Co-posted at Still Just Alison

TV Series – 20 episodes

Is it just me, or does Park Seo-jun’s contract stipulate at least one shower scene in every drama?

In this case, he’s joined in his ablutions by several other young men, so if that’s one of your criteria for a good drama, then put Hwarang on your list.

Ditto if you want as many K-pop stars as possible, because this has no less than three: Park Hyung-sik (ZE:A), Choi Minho (Shinee), and V (BTS). Verily, my K-pop cup runneth over.

But the series is not just historical silk-clad eye candy. It’s also got a neat script with a fairly high Binge Index. Each of the three main characters has a story: Dog-bird (Park Seo-jun) is a commoner who follows his friend to the city, then assumes his friend’s identity and seeks revenge for his death; Sam-maek-jong (Park Hyung-sik) is the young king in hiding, trying to survive to wrest the throne from his mother; while Ah-ro (Go Ara) is the half-breed daughter of a noble physician struggling to make a place for herself in a highly caste-oriented world. All three have secrets, and they circle around each other in a mix of distrust and growing friendship as the series progresses.

Go A-ra, as the female lead, is an excellent choice for this role, adding an unpredictability and a layer of quirky sass to what might, in other hands, have been a rather pedestrian character. Like Han Suk-kyu, Go A-ra is an actor who impresses her own personality on a role, so there are similarities between her character here and those she essayed in You’re All Surrounded and Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol.

Park Hyung-sik, as Ji-dwi/Sam-maek-jong/King Jinheung (to be) is quite credible as the lonely king in hiding, unable to assume his throne due to an overbearing mother who refuses to relinquish, but also unable to find a place in a strongly stratified society that insists on knowing who your parents are. And that mother is a shocker: she’s the shrieking chaebol mama in a gold frock, 1500 years early and with life-or-death power over the entire nation. No wonder our boy is hesitant – if a chaebol heir can’t win against his mother, imagine dealing with one who has her own dungeon.

And in case you’re wondering, Park Seo-jun does a lot more than just take showers. You might be surprised that he can act, but act he does, beginning his journey as a gormless bumpkin who develops through his quest, building to a spectacular finish. His Captain Stoic act works as well here as it did in Itaewon Class, although he gets to stretch his acting muscles a little more, as well as his actual muscles (of which he has a plenitude).

Between them these three young actors do a lot of heavy lifting, conveying not only high drama, but also the more subtle moments: the first sparks of friendship between two isolated and wary young men, the yearning of lovers who can’t be together, the poignant sadness of a lonely king recognising the long empty path ahead. They’re ably assisted by a support cast filled with seasoned professionals, and you’ll recognise lots of faces from lots of other series.

One highlight of this series is that, unlike every other historical drama you’ve seen, this is set in the Silla kingdom (1500 years ago) rather than the Joseon era (more like 500 years ago). I’m not sure how much was filmed in the capital, now called Gyeongju, but the scenery and locations are pretty stunning.

It’s also based rather loosely on historical fact – the Hwarang (known as Flower Youth in China, because of their beauty) were a cadre of young men drawn from the aristocrats and selected for education in Buddhism, civics, and martial arts. Both King Jinheung and Kim Isabu (Park Seo-jun’s final character iteration) were real historical figures, although the story here is fiction using these figures.

There was one glaring inconsistency that made me shout at the screen – Dog-bird hands A-ro flowers neatly wrapped in 2 sheets of coloured tissue paper, square-cut edges and all. This was exceedingly out of place, in a society where paper was hand-made and precious, and completely blew the moment – I could suddenly see the production assistant picking them up at the local convenience store, and the large crew massed just behind the camera.

Aside from that, though, it’s got everything you want in an historical K-drama: romance, action, comedy, drama, palace intrigue, breathtaking scenery, acres of embroidered silk, and beautiful historical locations.

And K-pop stars dancing in the shower. Who could ask for anything more?

You’ll find 3 songs from the OST at my blog here.

Alison blogs at Still Just Alison, where she writes about Korean drama, movies, music, and, very occasionally, things that aren’t Korean. But only occasionally.

9 choreographed shower scenes out of 10.
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