Gu Family Book:
Oooh, I like this. I like it a lot. However, if you don’t do supernatural, you’ll want to skip this one. The lead character of the first two episodes is a gumiho (sort-of-kind-of-but-not-really similar to a werewolf in Western culture, because traditionally a gumiho is a 9-tailed female fox instead of a wolf, and there are other differences as well), as well as a sort of minor deity who guards and protects the forest and has magical powers- which he mostly uses to protect the forest, make things grow, make pretty blue lights in the air, gather butterflies, and leap over trees. The primary male lead of the remainder of the show is his son by a human mother.
If you need to know more than that, I suggest you read the recaps of the first two episodes at Dramabeans and Koala; DB loved it all, K loved the first but hated the second with a passion that, fair warning, turned the air blue. It’s kind of cool to see how very, very, differently we can see the same drama.
I found it stunningly beautiful as far as music and cinematography go. In the first two episodes I loved the lead character’s acting and his character, and his monk friend is a sweetheart. I found the female lead’s acting a little off, and while I felt desperately sorry for that character, I neither liked nor admired her much and felt sorry for the man who fell in love with her, so I wasn’t that angry about the 2nd episode, since I never had a high opinion of the lead female’s brains or character to begin with. However, these first 2 episodes are only back-story- the leads here are not the main characters of the show, they are merely the parents of our hero, so whatever we liked or disliked here may have nothing to do with the rest of the show. You need to preview them, as elements of this backstory are not family friendly.
Kang-Chi is our hero, the adult son of the parents we met and said good-bye to in the first 2 episodes- our half man/half gumiho hero, who is played by Lee Seung-Gri (King2Hearts; My Girlfriend is a Gumiho; cameo role in Greatest Love). I’ve loved him in everything I’ve seen him do, and that holds true for this show as well. His character doesn’t learn he’s not fully human until a few episodes in, and you know, that’s kind of earth shattering revelation to deal with, “By the way, son, you’re actually part puppy.”
Yeo-Wool is lead female, played by Suzy, who was in Dream High, and is a member of the Korean girl group Miss A. I liked her in Dream High, though a lot of reviewers didn’t. I thought she was fresh, cute, and believable. A historical drama is quite a bit different, and I don’t think she’d fit well with a traditional sageuk, but that’s not what this is, so she worked for me. Her character dresses like a boy (our not always bright hero thinks she is a boy), and she has been a martial arts instructor at her dad’s school, so, not too traditional.
Currently she travels incognito with a wonderful bodyguard, male servant of her father’s, Gon. He’s played by Sung Joon, who was the lead in Shut-up Flower Boy Band (my favorite of the Flower Boy series, and one of my top 10 favorite K-dramas, ever), and the little brother in Lie to Me. He’s fabulous here. You have to watch his face whenever he’s on screen, even if he’s not talking.
Episodes 3-10: I am really enjoying this. It’s still incredibly pretty with great background music and an intriguing story, and now they’ve added a bromance and two loving, warm family bonds, which is like catnip to a cat for me. It is true that sometimes Lee Seung-Gri’s delivery is a wee bit awkward or over-acted, but I didn’t mind. He’s as cute as a puppy and the story itself is just over the top enough that it’s kind of like watching an old martial arts film but with better production values, so his occasional (very occasional) awkward delivery fits the tone and just adds to the fun, and honestly, it’s not all that awkward, and definitely not all the time.
I’m enjoying Suzy’s role, too. I understand that if I actually spoke or understood Korean, I might find her jarring. I think I recall reading a reviewer who does both (I forget who, though) saying it’s kind of like finding a valley girl accent in a story set in the middle ages. But you know what? That reminds me of A Knight’s Tale , a movie ostensibly set in the middle ages, the days of chivalry and Chaucer, where the audience watches jousting tournaments while cheering to AC/DC’s We Will Rock You. I’m okay with that. She is a female dressed in boys’ clothes, skilled in archery and sword fighting, a martial arts instructor and a tomboy much beloved by her father in a period show set in the Joseon era when girls didn’t even always get a name from their parents, so I don’t see why her modern sound should be an issue.
I’ve also read a lot of complaints about her acting, and I just don’t get it. I think she’s doing a great job. Well, unless she’s in a scene requiring her to run. She runs like a girl, and I mean that in the most scornful imaginable way.
Caveats for family viewing: with one or two exceptions I would not skip most of these scenes, but I’m trying to be sensitive to all our readers. That said, I probably missed something. Don’t let this glimpse substitute for your informed judgment:
The lead bad guy was and is cringe-worthy. His lines are cheesy, over the top, mustache twirling, and it must have really pained the actor to have to say them. Ugh. There is a brutal scene between him and the servant girl in the first or second episode which I would have rather skipped and suggest you do the same. You don’t see anything, but the dialogue is ugly. There is also a scene where the human female lead is stripped and tied to a tree, but her undergarments are long and billowy bloomers and a sleeveless top. You see more skin at most modern weddings. There are two hangings, one a suicide and one not. That’s the first 2 episodes.
When Gumiho Papa marries Kang Chi’s human mama there is a suggestive bit of ribbon undoing before the cut away.
And, you know, Kang-Chi is half man, half beast. Like the hulk. Except not green, and with the addition of fangs, claws, and a bit of blood lust. If you have sensitive young people, they will probably find him scary.
The lead bad guy continues to be disgusting, and his conversation at the Gisaeng house is not edifying IYKWIMAITYD.
episode 7 has a lot of swearing in one scene.
episode 9/10 : A big reveal, and since it is a spoiler I will share it in yellow text- highly to read: Kang Chi discovers that Young Master Dam is actually agasshi Yeo Wool (ie a girl, not a boy) when she trips and he conveniently catches her and starts to restore her balance with one hand behind her back and the other hand in front, er, full of the evidence that she is definitely a girl. It’s played for astonishment and shock, with a lot of awkward, not sensuality, but there it is. end spoiler.
There are some great boy lessons (like in Spiderman) in Gu Family Book. Episode 19’s gem:
“Teach me how how to fight better. I need to become stronger because I have more I need to protect.” He’s referring to people here, not things.
“If you become stronger, you also have to bear more responsibility.”
As it happens, one of those responsibilities is an absolutely grim and shocking one, particular in a culture based on Confucianism. When asked if it’s really okay, the character who bears this responsibility says something like, “What difference does it make that I’m alright with this task or not? It has to be done, and I’m the only who can do it so that’s what I will do.”
That’s when I decided I just might have my 14 year old son watch this with me next.
Episode 20: Has a shirtless Kang Chi scene and his girl is not quick to look away. But it also has these lines:
Once you decide you must attack, do not hesitate. It’s not just you who will die, but all of those you need to protect (I love the presumption that being strong means you have a responsibility to protect). Being strong means knowing how to draw the line between mercy and mercilessness. Being strong means having a burning heart for justice and a cool head for judgment. To be strong is to be lonely, but only when you can keep your strength under control can you win.
Master Dam: “Strength is compassion fighting against cruelty. Strength is simultaneously carrying warm ties of friendship and cold duty. That is why—to be strong is to be lonely. And only when you can bear those things, can you win.”
I loved this one almost to the end. I did find the final ending less than satisfactory, as it relied entirely on a typical Korean mystic theme that I find philosophically and theologically unsound, and storytelling wise, a total cop-out (if you saw Rooftop Prince, kind of like that). It left too many questions unanswered. But it did have its own special share of cute. I still like it, and my son will watch it with some cutting of certain scenes. If the ending had been better, this would have been in my top ten, but it wasn’t, so it’s probably closer to one of my favorites in a list of two dozen.=)
If you’re interested in using Gu Family Book for some ‘social studies’ or history and culture for school, you may find these links useful (posted with permission from the amazing Zelda) :
GFB Historical Background Posts for those who are curious:
Japanese merchant group: Miyamoto clan crest | Place in time and class 1, 2, 3 *series completed*
Saeguk/fantasy webcomics/graphic novels I really recommend for the bored: HERE | Alternative ending to GFB short story
Conclusions: I liked it enough that I plan to watch it again with my teenagers sometime in the next year.
Dramas I’ve completed, recommend, and reviewed: see here.
Things to know when watching a K-drama
Where to get your fix: Sites where you can find subtitled K-dramas, and dramas from other countries, as well. I’ve watched a handful of J-dramas (Japanese) and TW (Taiwanese) dramas, but I vastly prefer the K-dramas, even though I knew more Japanese when I started my K-drama addiction – I got an A in my Japanese 101 class back in the day, when we actually lived in Japan and once I even knew both hiragana and katakana- but still K-dramas interest me vastly more. As a Chinese acquaintance recently told me, “Everybody likes K-Dramas.”