I broke my sagaeuk quota this year…and all because of Park Seo-joon.
- Park Seo-joon (from She Was Pretty) as Moo-myung (and his adopted name, Sun-woo). A low-class born peasant, he slips into the capital city with his buddy, Mak-moon (cameo by Lee Kwang-soo) in search of the latter’s family. Mak-moon is murdered by the Queen’s guard, for having seen the young King’s face. Moo-myung vows to avenge his friend.
- Park Hyung-sik as Sammaekjong (or Ji-dwi). The young King in hiding. He returns to the capital in adulthood, and is resentful of his mum’s (Queen Jiso) long reign in his absence.
- Go Ara (from Reply 1988) as Ah-ro. The daughter of nobleman and physician, Ahn Ji-gong, she is considered a “half-aristocrat” by Shilla standard cos her mum is a commoner.
We get a fair bit of historical background even before seeing the Hwarang boys in action. Moo-myung is introduced as a fearless man, who is well known in the lower caste village as being peerless in his fighting skills. He and Mak-moon (who was estranged from his noble born family) slip into the capital city in search of Mak-moon’s father and sister. Along the way, Mak-moon happens to catch a glimpse of Sammaekjong, and brings death upon himself.
Moo-myung witnesses his friend’s passing, together with Mak-moon’s father, Ahn Ji-gong (who managed to catch up with both of them way too late). Ahn Ji-gong shelters Moo-myung, even though he knows harbouring a lower-caste person will bring about severe punishment, or death. He tells Moo-myung to take on his son’s identity in order to stay on in the capital so that he can carry out the revenge plan for Mak-moon. Moo-myung has mistakenly latch on to Sammaekjong as being Mak-moon’s killer, after overhearing the latter blame himself on Mak-moon’s death and Moo-myung’s severe injuries.
Ahn Ji-gong’s daughter (or Mak-moon’s younger sis), Ah-ro, is upset that an impersonator has taken on the role of her missing brother. More so when her first encounter with Moo-myung (then a stranger) is while she is embarrassingly drunk.
Elsewhere in the palace, Queen Jiso promises to relinquish her hold on the throne if Wi Hwa-kong (Sung Dong-il) successfully pulls together a band of noblemen’s sons to form a warrior faction, Hwarang, to protect the King.
I quite like Hwarang, more so when it blatantly throws sagaeuk’s format away. Like. we have a hip clubbing culture in the capital, and it is not your usual gisaeng brothel, but more akin to a pub or disco. Complete with a spiffy, modern-Artesque, contemporary facade. Then in ep3, while Wi Hwa-kong is putting up his proposal to the formation of Hwarang, instead of suffering through a half hour debate by boring granddaddies in the court, we not only have bg music playing to tune them out, we also see this ridiculous slo-mo montage of said granddaddies arguing among themselves.
However, the fusion parts are all in the delivery of the narrative. We are reminded quite starkly that Shilla culture is very close-minded, with a strong caste system that physically separates the haves from the have-nots. And for the latter group to even dream of stepping into the affluent city, the punishment is death.
Although the Hwarang band in the narrative accepted lowly Moo-myung as one of their members, historically, it is still an indication of caste divide within Shilla’s society. Only the elitist aristocrats need apply.