Gil-dong: “My father is the servant Ahmogae.”
King Yeonsan: “That cannot be. Such a lowly man could not have a son like you.”
Gil-dong: “Then why did you become such a lowly man when you were born from such a mighty king?”
After watching a number of fusion sageuks in the last few years, i chose Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People to be my venture back into the sageuk-sageuk realm for no particular reason. I didn’t even know the storyline, the drama length, or the cast beyond the main four in the poster. Hence my excitement upon seeing Kim Sang-joong here (my favorite veteran actor!), then my surprise upon learning that it’s gonna be 30 episodes long (though honestly, which sageuk is short?).
Not gonna lie, the long episode count is one of the reasons of my reluctance to check out historical dramas in recent years. I loved some titles in the past, but extended palace intrigue and politics could easily frustrate or bore me out. Not to mention the unequal law and devilish antagonists. Besides, i feel like certain level of knowledge on the real historical figures is needed to fully understand and follow the plot — something i often too lazy to look up. In this case, i knew about Hong Gil-dong being hailed as the Korean equivalent of Robin Hood, though am unsure if that’s the kind of legend journey Rebel is gonna tell here. I mean, he supposedly steals from the rich, yet after a third through the series, i don’t think that’s what he’s doing. He’s after revenge after all, at least thus far.
But before being held by Gil-dong, the baton is on Ahmogae (Kim Sang-joong) for the first few episodes. Drama starts with him, his little family, and his life as a lifelong slave to greedy master and spiteful mistress. Despite the lowly status, he’s a happy family man, a loving husband, and a caring father. Their life is relatively peaceful as long as they don’t cross their lord, and though Ahmogae eyes the chance to live outside the quarter, which would grant the family more freedom — for the spouses to eat on the same table, first son Gil-hyun to study, and second son Gil-dong to eat white rice he so loves — it’s not until little Gil-dong is showing signs of unusual physical strength does he seriously consider and work toward buying his family freedom.
And that’s when things begin to get ugly.
Because slave isn’t the social status one can easily climb out from. Moreover, the family have been productive and useful workers that not even a large sum of money can easily convince the owners to let them go. Part of which is due to the conspicuous way Ahmogae goes about it. As it turns out, the family’s freedom comes with a hefty price to pay — Mom. Though saddened by her departure, it isn’t surprising. Drama isn’t a drama without tragic backstories, which ofttimes includes either or both parents’ death. Because good parents are short-lived in dramaland.
I, for one, actually expected Ahmogae to be the one who’d go first, mainly due to the voiceover in the opening minutes of episode 1, wherein adult Gil-dong (Yoon Kyun-sang) narrates about his father’s life as a slave and less-than name (Ahmogae is translated as “nameless” or “anything”) till his death. Thereafter, each of his escapades made me overly wary fearing it would be the end of him, hence a sense of relief upon watching him get out of slavery (and the kids make it to adulthood) just fine — in that no more losses were incurred.
That’s not to say there’s no further sacrifices made, especially on Ahmogae’s end. He’s a shrewd man given his background and upbringing, which helps him choose his allies wisely, with whom he forms blood brotherhood and builds his empire from scratch. Too bad his morals also get compromised along the way — he can be quite ruthless to those who wrong him. Nevertheless, the rags-to-riches journey was a sight to behold that the first 5-6 episodes didn’t feel like the backstory at all. It’s so engrossing that i was in no rush for the kids to grow up and for Yoon Kyun-sang to take over the lead.
However, as is the case in any other show, no one can get away from their past sin(s) forever; it will surely come back and bite you in the ass, leading to your downfall, even if it’s your favorite father figure in dramaland.
Albeit the pretty slow pacing (which is expected from this genre) and lack of killer cliffhangers, Rebel is the series i look forward to every week. It is intriguing, though not the omg-i-can’t-wait kind. And its main charm isn’t even about the romance. I love it when such scenes happen, but i don’t complain when it doesn’t occur frequent enough. I just wish i could enjoy the show for what it is, for what each episode tells and brings, instead of worrying about what’s to come; however, snippets of the vicious confrontations shown at the very beginning keep haunting me.
I don’t know if it’s a good idea to give away those crucial, possibly climactic, moments at the outset because 1) i cannot fully lap Ga-ryung’s (Chae Soo-bin) cute crush on Gil-dong up knowing he will end up piercing her heart with an arrow, and thus 2) quite surprised that Gil-dong takes a serious interest in a famous gisaeng Nok-su (Honey Lee) instead; 2) I’m only counting down to the moment the young king (Kim Ji-suk) will notice Nok-su’s talent or beauty knowing she will be his lady, or queen even? or 3) the moment Gil-dong will reunite with his hyung (Shim Hee-seob), while 4) keep questioning the newly appointed king’s true nature; he seems a good and well-meaning guy facing many oppositions and under tremendous pressure, though i cannot crossing my fingers he’ll stay grounded knowing his despicable future self. The only thing i’m truly curious about is the state Eorini (Ahmogae’s youngest child) is in, since she doesn’t seem to be in the hands of any current players.
The thing about sageuk is there are a damn lot of characters, all of whom play a pivotal role in one way or another. I don’t even cover a fraction of them here as it can take another thousand words to introduce everybody. I have yet to remember all names, even those in the inner circle, though i’ve recognized their faces. Also, while there are bound to be at least one or two characters that annoy the heck out of me in a drama, it doesn’t happen with Rebel. I still wish the worst kind of comeuppance for the loathsome baddies, but i’ve seen most of them as good guys before that instead of letting their villainy get to me, i simply focus on their performances, which are convincingly good. Especially Seo Yi-sook. Besides, i love how strong the female characters are (except Mom and Eorini, perhaps). Madam Jo is basically a woman of steel. Nok-su is a talented and ambitious lady whose world won’t crumble over a man. Ga-ryung is tough and feisty, and although her world seems to revolve around Gil-dong, she’s proven her usefulness and versatility in the gang.
While a lot has happened in these five weeks, we’re only a third way through and there are so many grounds to cover in the next two-third. I may not understand or follow every subplot clearly (as i tend to get too distracted by the gorgeous cinematography and sweeping scores, haha), but i love how Gil-dong gathers the scattered gang/family back together, one member at a time, and appreciate his determination to restore his father’s name, reputation, and power, as well as willingness to exact revenge on Ahmogae’s detractors when he wanted nothing of the semi-mafia business/lifestyle before. It’s also interesting to note the differences in leadership styles.
It may take a while for him to reach his goals, and despite my tendency to drop dramas early in their run lately, i’ve made it to the 10th episode. And i guess i’ll tune in till the end of their journey.