Few stars have been cannier with their stardom than Bae Yong Joon, the South Korean actor who won the hearts of Japanese women in the 2002 soap opera “Winter Sonata.”
Though the bespectacled, smiling visage of “Yon-sama” occasionally pops up in advertisements for stamina drinks and home-security systems, the only major acting job he’s had in the past few years was in the movie “April Snow,” which was also a hit in Japan.
Last year he appeared briefly in the TV Asahi drama “Hotelier,” a Japanese adaptation of a 2001 South Korean TV series that featured him in a leading role.
Bae’s star seems to shine brighter here than he does in his native land, where he is basically famous for being famous in Japan. But in late 2006 it was announced he would star in what was touted as the most expensive drama series in South Korean TV history, and since it was presold to Japanese TV, Bae’s participation may have been a precondition.
NHK started airing “Tae Wang Sa Shin Gi” on its BS-Hi channel almost as soon as its South Korean run on MBC ended in December. The 24 episodes are subtitled, and as soon as the series finishes it will start again on NHK-G in a dubbed version. However, fans who don’t receive BS-Hi and can’t wait until April can also see the series in 10 movie theaters throughout Japan for ¥1,200 per one-hour episode.
There’s also a merchandising campaign centered on photo books and other publications, which are actually necessary. As with most historical dramas, it’s difficult keeping track of the characters and complicated intrigues, and those of us who know little about South Korea may need more than just a score card.
The official English title is “The Legend,” which isn’t very descriptive but is certainly more elegant-sounding than the literal translation: “The Story of the First King’s Four Gods.” By combining a creation myth with a fictionalized tale about the establishment of the fourth-century Goguryeo Empire that figures so prominently in the national imagination, the series could be seen as a tutorial in Korean values. And by casting Bae, whose image is quiet, thoughtful and sensitive, as the king who expanded Goguryeo, the producers of the series connect those values to a certain sensibility.
Bae plays two roles. In the main story he is Damdeok, the reluctant heir to the throne, and in the prologue he is the god Hwanung, who descends to Earth to stop the fighting between the clan of the tiger, which ruled Jushin (the world), and the clan of the bear, which resisted the tiger clan’s domination. Having failed to do this, Hwanung returned to heaven, leaving a son as well as four artifacts that contained the “powers” of the four gods of nature in the safekeeping of certain individuals. It was prophesied that a Great King would be born 2,000 years later, at which point the four gods would be unleashed and Jushin rebuilt.
Just as the Star of Bethlehem heralded the birth of Christ, a bright heavenly body marks the birth of the Great King. As the descendants of the tiger clan raid villages in the hope of securing the four artifacts, the wives of two members of the court give birth to boys. One is Hogae, whose parents believe he is the chosen king. The other is Damdeok, the son of the real heir to the throne of Goguryeo. However, Damdeok’s father conceals the birth and makes it appear he was born three days later. He wants to hide his son’s provenance from possible enemies until Damdeok is old enough to acknowledge the responsibility of his burden and defend it.
Damdeok grows up in a relative state of innocence. He gravitates toward the common people and studies science while secretly cultivating his martial skills. Meanwhile, Hogae is groomed as a military leader, and after Damdeok uncovers a plot by Hogae’s mother to poison Damdeok’s father, who is now king, she commits suicide. Hogae pledges to destroy Damdeok, who has yet to comprehend his destiny.
What makes Damdeok different from your run-of-the-mill future king is his lack of ambition. The histories I’ve read on the Internet of Gwanggaeto the Great, the 19th king of Goguryeo who expanded the kingdom throughout the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria, paint him as a conqueror. Damdeok, however, believes that military aggression generates a never-ending cycle of resentment and revenge, and thus permanent instability. He actively rejects his destiny until he is forced to accept it sometime around the eighth episode.
There’s something unmistakably Christ-like about Damdeok’s forbearance, and Bae (who, incidentally, is a Catholic) embodies these traits in his public image as the ideal lover. Though “The Legend” is clearly as much a fantasy — complete with cheesy special effects — as it is a historical drama, it’s easy to get the impression that writer Song Ji Na adapted the script to fit Bae’s special appeal.
The series isn’t intended to be historically accurate, but its production coincided with a row between China and Korea (both North and South) over cultural claims to Goguryeo. As such, “The Legend” can be seen as both a work of national pride and a pop epic that’s like a cross between “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It simultaneously speaks to Korean identity and to the larger Asian market, where Bae is also popular.
In this regard, Bae’s acting is less important than his public persona, and that’s too bad. It would have been interesting to watch him try to recreate an ambitious warrior-king, since he’s proven he’s capable of playing something other than the pure-hearted, starry-eyed object of desire. In the 2003 movie “Untold Scandal” he was very convincing as a conniving, sexually predatory nobleman, but the film was perceived as something of a tour de force, so it was back to mooning and spooning — and being Jesus for the ladies.