Friday, December 10, 2010

Seon Deok yeowang

One of the Korean TV series I had been watching during my mother's sickness was "Seon Deok yeowang," or "The Great Queen Seon Deok." It's the factual/fictional tale of the rise of Silla's first queen, and for much of 2009 it was the top-rated TV series, popular enough to receive an extension from some 50 episodes to 62. While the show's production values couldn't possibly rival the big-budget fare that we in America are used to, a lot of credit has to be given to the writers for telling a complex, engaging story that moves along at a healthy clip.

The DVD set comes as 13 discs in three packs, with each individual DVD containing on average five episodes. I've been working my way through the story from the very beginning since I had actually missed the first ten or so episodes when the series initially aired. I'm now around episode 15, which puts me into "already seen" territory; I probably saw through about episode 40 or so last year, which means I still don't know how the story ends.

Of course, a brief perusal of Seon Deok's history will give one the big picture, but a TV series is at its best when it makes you care about its characters, even the ones most likely to be fictional and/or composites of real people. Obviously, we know from the beginning that Seon Deok (known at first as Deok Man) will rise from poverty and strife to take the Silla throne; the suspense, at least for me, lies in what will become of her nemesis, the crafty, ambitious Lady Misil (pronounced "mee-shil," not "missile"). Will Misil go down in flames, a victim of her own hubris? Will she escape ruin, Darth Vader-like, and live to fight another day (or gnaw on her anger until she dies in obscurity)? I'm rooting for ignominy followed by public execution, but you never can tell.

I'm watching this series at the same time that I'm rereading Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap Cycle-- a series of five novels about-- among other things-- a woman named Morn Hyland who goes through hell but manages to win out in the end through sheer grit and wit. Donaldson's main characters are often dragged endlessly through the muck before they can experience any sort of relief; I think he'd appreciate the Seon Deok story, which involves plenty of close calls, betrayals, reversals, unexpressed love, and long, long misery.

Koreans, in their turn, might appreciate Donaldson's understanding of han, a Korean term that's hard to translate, but which might be described as a searing, soul-binding knot of impassioned bitterness, if that makes any sense. Han is concentrated anguish and sorrow, but it's also, perhaps paradoxically, the energy that drives one to soldier onward in spite of one's debasement or abjection. (See the movie "Seopyeonjae" for how a father instills han in his daughter in order to get her to sing p'ansori well. The paradox of han is in full view in that story: the father blinds his daughter with poison, and the daughter's misery, her han, leads her to become a true p'ansori singer.)

Otherwise, aside from the reading and TV, the settling-in continues. Books and kitchen stuff-- that's what it's all about. Oh, and I bought both an acrylic and an oil paint set. I'm curious as to what I might end up painting... and whether it might be worth selling. The last time I worked with acrylics and oils was... good Lord... junior high. I have some picture ideas, but we'll see.


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