Thursday, December 5, 2013

Drama Review: Bridal Mask (2012)

Grade: B-

Action-flavored fusion sageuk

What it’s about
The struggles and triumphs of a masked vigilante who stands up for the Korean people during Japan’s occupation of Korea in early twentieth century.

First impression
As voted by readers of my blog, I’m giving another shot to this 2012 drama about a masked freedom fighter during Japan’s occupation of Korea. The first time I started watching it, I sat through all of ten minutes before moving on. I made a snap judgement back then: Between a cartoonily impossible opening sequence and the impromptu dance party that followed it, I was sure Gaksital wasn’t for me. But this time I’m going to stick with it. I’m in the mood for a show that has more on its mind than goofy comedy and the same old love triangle angst. Will Bridal Mask give me what I want? Only time will tell.

Final verdict
Unpopular opinion alert: I thought this much-loved drama was middling at best. 

As a near-memory sageuk, it includes most everything you’d want from a historical drama: a heartbreaking love triangle, a tragic bromance, and lots of good-versus-evil conflict. Its setting is a fascinating time in history, and I loved that it used its hero, Inglourious Basterds-style, to redress some of the real-life cruelties that Koreans experienced during their country’s occupation. He saves men from conscription in the army, prevents women from being tricked into becoming military prostitutes, and fights against the treatment of Koreans as second-class citizens in their own homeland. There’s also lots of intricately choreographed fight scenes, if you go in for that sort of thing.

In the beginning, I thought Bridal Mask would be amazing. Charismatic lead actor Joo Won plays an antihero like nobody’s business, and his early turn as an unapologetic supporter of Japan was endlessly compelling. Lee Kang To is happy to renounce his identity as a Korean—and eventually his relationship with his family—to secure for himself a more comfortable life and further his own ambitions. He’s a brutal, efficient officer of Japan’s imperial police, and he spends most of his time terrorizing his fellow Koreans. But he’s still never really accepted by the invaders, and this leaves him desperate to capture the rebel Bridal Mask and prove himself to his superiors. This is all great stuff, and the scenes showing the growing rift between Lee Kang To and his mother and brother are incredibly powerful.

The female lead is also one of the show’s strengths—although she eventually turns into a standard Kdrama damsel in distress, she’s initially a butt-kicking circus performer who’s drawn into the story by her father, one of Korea’s greatest independence fighters. She also happens to be pining over her first love, a boy she traveled to Manchuria with as a child. (I wonder who that might turn out to be?)

On the not-strength side of the equation is most everything else about this drama. What began as an exploration of nuanced characters with shadings of light and dark in their personalities turned into a cartoony dichotomy between the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably evil. In this process, Lee Kang To’s best friend suffers from serious character assassination. Played with frothing-at-the-mouth abandon by Park Ki Woong, Kimura Shunji is never conflicted—the screenwriter simply flips a switch, and the nice-guy teacher of Korean kids turns into a revenge demon possessed by a delusional belief that the female lead would be happy with him, even in spite of plentiful evidence to the contrary. His scenery-chomping inquest into the identity of Bridal Mask lasts forever, no doubt thanks to a mid-series extension of four episodes.

The show also suffers from serious plotting problems. After the characters of Lee Kang To and Kimura Shunji align themselves with the simplistic compass points of hero/villain about halfway through, Bridal Mask runs out of steam. Its opening is full of game-changing reveals and reversals, but the rest of the show turns into a never-ending repetition of the same conflict: Somebody gets kidnapped by the bad guys, is tortured a bit, and is then rescued by the good guys. Again. And again. And again. (There is one variant: much like the original Star Trek series, if the kidnap-ee is an extra rather than a lead character, he or she will die instead of being rescued.) 

Here’s my final verdict about this drama: I’m just not cut out for Korean action shows. Once they loose me with a misstep like Shunji’s devolution, I can’t stop nitpicking little details and appreciate the big picture. Lots of people loved Bridal Mask, but I’m not one of them.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. Now that’s more like it. Once you wade through some silly spectacle in the first part of this episode, Bridal Mask turns into an exciting, character-driven exploration of the things people are willing to do survive. There are plenty of tantalizing hints about he show’s overreaching narrative and the growth its characters will experience, along with lots of impressive set pieces. The circus is particularly gorgeous (and even goes a long way toward making up for the Epicott-at-high-noon hokeyness of the city streets).

Episode 2. I get a good laugh practically every time someone in a Korean drama speaks English (well…tries to speak English). But are the actors as bad with other foreign languages? The Japanese they’re speaking in this drama is a lot more similar to Korean than English is. I’ve also seen several of the old guys who are speaking it acting as Japanese sympathizers in other shows (including Capital Scandal, which is like the rom-com version of Bridal Mask). Facility with languages must be on their resumes or something. (Sad that I can now play seven degrees of separation with even the bit players.)

Episode 2. I was spoiled for one of this show’s big secrets back when it was airing, and I’m now delighted to realize that it was given away in episode 2, instead of being a mystery that lasted all the way to the end of the drama. It would have sucked to know the finale before I even started watching.

Episode 2. It’s hard to do wire-work action scenes right. When they’re good, they’re weightless and amazing and impossible not to believe. When they’re not so good—like in this show—it takes a lot of energy to get past their goofiness. It’s as if these directors feel like they have no choice in the matter: every action scene must defy gravity. Personally, I prefer when they obey gravity in a spectacular way, like in the Bourne Identity movies.

Episode 2. More kdrama girls should take a page from this one’s playbook: she’s spat on the male lead not once but twice. And this is just the second episode! (Eun Sang from Heirs, are you listening?)

Episode 2. So can I just take this moment to point out that Gaksital’s horse is also wearing a mask? It reminds me how little girls like to dress up their American Girls dolls in outfits that match their own.

Episode 3. This show was obviously filmed in the same locations as Capital Scandal. I bet that’s not annoying if you watched the dramas when they aired, six years apart. But I just saw Capital Scandal this summer, so I keep expecting the inn to be home to city hall. The result is some weird, Terrance Malik-style disorientation.

Episode 4. How refreshing to see a Kdrama scene with people riding horses that actually features people riding horses. (A novel idea, yes?) Usually they seem to be riding trash barrels covered with discount velour. You clearly spared no expense, Bridal Mask.

Episode 5. Clearly, “Kimura Shunji” Japanese for “dead meat.” There’s no way this character is making it through the show alive.

Episode 6. And the Kdrama character voted most likely to require decades of intensive psychiatric help is…Lee Kang To! Korean dramas tend to be full of terrible things, but this constellation of suck is pretty spectacular even by their standards.

Episode 6. In real life, people who are in lots of pain sometimes faint. (I’ve done it myself, and at the time was quite grateful for whatever evolutionary quirk made it possible.) But in Korean dramas, if someone is seriously injured and looses consciousness, that’s all she wrote. I hope some clever comedy out there has made use of this silliness and had a character black out dramatically and recover five or six times before really expiring.

Episode 6. A corollary: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones; people who live in paper houses shouldn’t throw Molotov cocktails.

Episode 6. Why has it occurred to nobody in the history of Western civilization to put something other than tea in a teapot? I know the name seems pretty definitive, but Koreans obviously do it all the time. People are just as likely to be drinking hooch or water from them in the world of Korean drama.

Episode 6. Now that they’ve finally given up on all the silly wire work stunts, this show’s fight scenes are getting tighter and more visceral. The finale bout at the police station is probably one of the best-choreographed Kdrama fight scenes I’ve ever watched. Add this to Bridal Mask’s impressive direction and cinematography, and you’ve really got something special here.

Episode 7, Finding a way to create a true, believable sea change in a character is incredibly difficult. This show is doing it perfectly, though. It brought everything to a head: how Kang To is stuck between being Korean and Japanese, how he has hurt the people he loves, and how everything he’s believed in and worked toward has probably been a lie. It’s almost painful how clearly all that is etched on Joo Won’s face in this bicycle scene.

Episode 9. You’ve got to hand it to this show: for practically the first time in recorded history, its masked hero actually wears a mask that pretty much hides his identity. (And so does his horse.)

Episode 9. Here’s a sad statement about how unsophisticated my appreciation is of the acting in Kdrama: The sound is wildly out of sync in this episode, but it’s not even bothering me. When you’re so busy reading subtitles that you rarely look up, it’s possible to overlook the fact that someone’s mouth is twenty seconds off the sound if their voice.

Episode 11. At any given moment, half of this show’s cast is wearing white pants. The wardrobe supervisor must have had nightmares about someone sneaking in black underwear. VPL isn’t even befitting of the bad guys.

Episode 12. In the beginning it was nice that this show included at least one Japanese person who wasn’t totally evil. I get that the wounds of occupation are still pretty fresh, but must every single person of Japanese descent be totally bonkers in shows set during this era? It also doesn’t help that while the writers did great job with the lead’s transformation from Japanese lapdog to freedom fighter, they botched Sunji’s change from cuddly nice guy to rage-monster.

Episode 12. So does bridal horse have like a stable or something? It just appears when it’s needed for a melodramatic chase scene and then disappears afterward. Horses aren’t cars—they need thing like food, water, and attention to survive. Or maybe Bridal Mask is horse-jacking some unsuspecting Korean every time he needs a lift? This is just like City Hunter, which was ruined for me because I spent do much time worrying about the health of the female lead’s poor, neglected dog.

Episode 13. I hope to someday have the opportunity to play the video game Duck Hunt against these police officers. I would totally win, because they’re incapable of hitting anything even remotely close to their targets. (Bummer about all the random guests that were just killed by stray bullets.)

Episode 13. But where does he keep his bridal mask costume? He’s always showing up in it when he’s just been wearing his police get-up, which clearly doesn’t have the kind of storage required for the mask and that volume of fabric. Should somebody be doing body cavity searches at these events?

Episode 13. I now see why most superhero masks are so useless when it comes to disguising their wearer’s identity. As soon as you hide enough of someone’s face to make it hard to tell who they are, you limit their ability to convey emotion so much that they’re no longer a compelling presence on screen. Joo Won is doing a good job in the role of Bridal Mask, but the mask itself is making it impossible for him to do a great one.

Episode 18. I’ve heard that once upon a time sageuks were known for their attention to detail and the historical accuracy of their sets, props, and costumes. Which is pretty funny when you think of what’s become of the genre today. It doesn’t take a skilled eye to see that pretty much everything about this show is an anachronistic mess, from the cars to the shoes to the Justin-Bieber-circa-2011 hairstyle occasionally worn by the male lead. But far be it from me to let a little thing like history interfere with my enjoyment of a Korean television show.

Episode 19. It’s so bizarre that the go-to ethnic barb against Koreans is to say they smell like garlic, as one Japanese officer does in this episode. Is Korea’s cuisine the only one in east Asia to use garlic? Who decided that this would be an ugly thing to say about Koreans, and why? I think it must be limited to Asia—before I started watching Korean drama, I’d certainly never heard of such a thing. (But then again, I’m of French descent and only just learned that the word “frog” is a slur against French people. I guess that’s a serious example of white privilege—prejudice against people like me is so alien in my world that I didn’t even know the term existed.)

Episode 20. As far as Kdrama girls go, this show includes an impressive variety of characterizations. Some of its female characters are good, some of them are bad, many of them kick ass. They each have their own distinct approaches to life and how to live it. They’re also important actors in the development of the plot, not just love interests. (Although, to be frank, I could use a bit more love. [Obviously.] Couldn’t the lead couple have some cute moments as significant others instead of spending all their time rescuing someone from the police station or getting all misty about the Korean nation?)

Episode 20. Let me get this straight: the girl who almost beat up Bridal Mask several times in the early part of the show was just knocked out by a garden-variety thug after he grabbed her hair and she was unable to free herself? Why is it that the female characters who start out tough are never allowed to stay that way?

Episode 21. Dramafever didn’t translate it, but I think this episode might have started with a propaganda notice about some islands Korea and Japan have been having a dispute over. I know Kdrama is government-funded and has a nationalistic bent, but that seems to be taking things a little too far. It wasn’t even part of the story—it was just a picture of an island with a Korean flag superimposed on it.

Episode 22. The last time I went on a diet, I cried whenever I saw a potato, too. Koreans are clearly missing out on the best part of baked potatoes—all the butter and salt and pepper we Americans pile on them.

Episode 22. They really should save everyone some time by installing a revolving door in this police station. Every episode, it seems that someone is being dragged into the torture chamber only to be rescued within the next 20 minutes. The good guys and bad guys have a very Tom-and-Jerry relationship: They can batter the hell out of each other, but little of substance ever changes.

Episode 25. Gee, it’s Bridal Mask fighting that same guy again. I wonder what will happen? Maybe it will be a draw so he can fight him again for the FIFTH time in the next episode? I know this is a really popular and well-loved show, but at this point it has pretty much lost me. The plot is repetitive to the point that I’m having a hard time caring about any of the characters. The lead couple never talk or spend any time together, and two-thirds of every episode is devoted to Shunji being insane. He used to be a interesting character back when he was a teacher, but his evolution into a total nutcase was poorly drawn and lacking in sophistication. This show has failed its premise—instead of exploring the evolution of an antihero, it’s all about cartoony good guys versus bad guys in a conflict with no real stakes and no forward motion.

You might also like
The infinitely superior Cruel City, which will keep you guessing (and occasionally sobbing) from beginning to end


  1. Haha- I've been noting your episode commentaries on tumblr, and the ever increasing bewilderment of how a series can go down the drain so fast. Maybe I'm evil but I kept thinking, 'Just wait Amanda.. oh just wait..." Lol

    It really was fun in the beginning. Oh well.

  2. I agree with everything written here. I'm in the minority that thinks this show could have been great, but is ultimately overrated.

  3. Yeah, you've hit exactly on why I thought Gaksital a very mixed bag: the repetitiveness of the plot after the halfway point (and even before then, how many times did Mok Dan get arrested and then released?), Mok Dan's chickification and Shunji's sudden character derailment. I don't know why after setting up such a wonderful range of moralities in the first 6 eps the writer decided to dumb it down. Well, I know why, but I'm disappointed.

    All that being said, I'm glad it gave Park Ki Woong exposure, since I've been a fan of his since Story of a Man (which had the same director as this). He and Joo Won both hammed it up here, but he was much more believable in SoaM.

    Also, I'm kinda amused that this is one of the few dramas where so many ppl wanted the hero to end up with the second female lead instead.

  4. B-, yeah that sounds about right, maybe I would make it a B. I enjoyed not only the bromance of the Lee Kang to and Shunji, but also the matching of wits between the two later on, despite Shunji's really inexplicable turn to the dark side.

    The aesthetics of it I liked. The music, action scenes, production. But the side characters, the circus folk were underdeveloped and boring, although they did try to develop them more in the last five or so episodes, it was too little, too late, I still cared nothing for any of them outside of Kang to and Shunji.

    I also found Mok Dan as insipid as the romance was, devoid of any real intelligence or meaning, a lot of heat with no fire or sincerity. I had been hoping she would fall for the evil Kang to before he changed, without all that childhood love stuff, think of how that would have added some real conflict and pathos into the works. Instead, she's shown to love Bridal Mask, but I was never really convinced of her love for Kang to.

    Overall, I think it works well as an action adventure drama that is entertaining as well as providing some insight into Korea's problems at the time despite its various flaws (Disguises anyone? and Mok Dan's historically unconvincing outfits and hair).

  5. Despite the fact that it did not look appealing to me, I gave it a try when it aired, mostly because i was curious on how they would depict the era as I am a history major. I watched the first episode, dropped it. Tried the second, it was just off, somehow. And there was someting in the fiest episodes that was historically inaccurate, can't remember....maybe a vehicle? Sloppy. All the squeeing and hype made it even less appealing. i really kind of felt it was th Joo Won fan faction that conflated the supposed quality of the drama. I do love me some Park Ki Woong and I bet he was fun to watch but not even for him would I suffer that drama. I do like to use screencaps from it for memes though, Ha.

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