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God of War (2012) Episode 1 Recap

We open in a chaotic time in 1217, in the largest and most powerful of Korea’s Three Kingdoms - Goryeo. It shares a precarious relation with Baekje and Silla to the south, and remnants of Khitan invaders skirmish the country, but the greatest threat comes from the Mongol invaders that are ravaging China’s tottering Jin dynasty and are now looking eastward. Internally the kingdom is weak as well: although there is a monarchy headed by King Gojong, the de facto ruler is the powerful military dictator Choe Chung Heon. His grip on the military establishment of Do Bang ensures that he rules Goryeo. But now he’s aging and tired, and his two sons are eyeing his seat. The constant battles he’s fought has created dissent among the priesthood of Buddhist monks, who are now marching in rebellion upon the capital. Their target is Choe Chung Heon and his sleazy minister Kim Deok Myeong, but other forces are trying to twist the monks’ agenda to their own cause.


The drama starts as a monk, bloodied and tired, struggles to run onward in the blowing snow, chased by armed horsemen. His destination is the temple where our hero Mu Sang (Kim Ju Hyeok) is sparring with fellow monk Gim Gang. A young girl Wol A (Hong Ah Reum) watches in concern over the basket of fruit she’s brought for Mu Sang. Right away we see that the monks of this time are as martial than spiritual, although Reverend Su Beop doesn’t look upon this tendency favorably. He calls Mu Sang away to talk about the Classics, and the monks idly chat about the young man, some of which Mu Sang himself seems to be unaware of – he was brought here mysteriously at a young age with Wol A; both of them have been extremely close growing up, although they aren’t related.

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Su Beop questions Mu Sang about the Classics, tsking at Mu Sang’s pat straightforward answers. Mu Sang is a simple happy soul, happier to be sparring with Gim Gang than learning about the doctrines of Buddhism. Reverend Su Beop sighs, fearing that he’s been too sheltered in the mountain.

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The conversation is broken when the chased monk, Hong Ji, staggers in on the point of collapse and demands to see the Abbot. He brings bad news: the monk army, starved and weary from hard labor, had turned and marched against the capital. But there was a spy in their ranks, and the soldiers of Do Bang were prepared with arrows and fire against the wooden staves of the monks. Those who weren’t killed were captured, and Do Bang soldiers are marching right now toward the monastery and its village.

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Reverend Su Beop gives the order for the emergency bells to sound, and Mu Sang and Wol A, along with the other villagers, gather at the sudden clamor. Mu Sang realizes the danger first and shouts for everyone to run – but it’s too late, and soldiers crash through the town, killing and smashing everything in their way.

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Mu Sang and Wol A hide and watch in horror as a monk is beaten almost in front of them. Mu Sang leaps out in anger and manages to knock a soldier off his horse, but he’s quickly subdued; Wol A jumps out herself but she too gets captured. They along with the surviving monks and villagers are chained and marched out of town. Even Su Beop is arrested on the orders of the prime minister, even though he’s treated more gently than the rest. It looks very grim – there is no mercy shown to the prisoners, and as they go they pass the hanging bodies of slain monks put up as a warning to others.

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One of the most esteemed monks of the country receives this news with great trepidation. Buddhism has only a tenous grasp in Goryeo, made even shakier due to the clash between its peaceful doctrines and the militaristic Goryeo regime. He fears that the work that went into the Tripitaka Koreana (a collection of the Buddhist doctrines) will become collateral in Goryeo’s fighting culture. He is even more disturbed to hear the news of more opposition to the monks, as his fellows urge him to speak up on behalf of their captured brothers.

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A war council convenes to discuss the situation, headed by Choe Chung Heon’s eldest son Choe Woo (Jung Bo Suk). His generals are perturbed at the level of slaughter of the monks, and more so at the torturing of the survivors. The man in charge of ‘interrogations’ is Choe Woo’s younger brother Choe Hyang. Most sinister of all, his aim is to get ‘confessions’ implicating the general of the front line, General Jeong Suk Cheom, of instigating the rebellion against the Prime Minister Choe Chung Heon. As Jeong Suk Cheom is actually Choe Woo’s father-in-law, it seems like the younger brother has an ulterior motive for the false accusation.

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This is pretty obvious at the interrogation ground, as monks are tortured with hot irons and flogging, each time stubbornly insisting that their only target was the Minister Kim Deok Myeong. Their army was starved and basically used as a slave army, but Choe Hyang’s generals aren’t interested in this matter. They offer their own version of the truth: that Jeong Suk Cheom has instigated the rebellion.

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Finally, one monk can’t take anymore and breaks down. Choe Hyang kneels in front to receive the ‘confession’; as soon as the monk is done, he orders him to be dragged out and executed.

Choe Chung Heon (Ju Hyun), the de facto ruler of Goryeo, sits in his residence playing a game of Janggi (a version of chess) with his minister, Lee Gyu Bo. Their conversation is deceptively simple, as they casually trade remarks on the politics disguised as wayward comments over the game. Choe Chung Heon is weary and old, but still very much in possession of all his deviousness. He reminds me of Vincent Corleone of The Godfather – so used to power that he doesn’t have to wield it anymore.

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His sons enter to pay their respects to their father, and address each other. The younger Choe Hyang takes a stab at his elder brother’s inability to control the rebellion even with the command of Do Bang; right away it’s clear that he has a chip on his shoulder.

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Choe Chung Heon pays no attention to his sons, only answering when Choe Hyang brings up the recent implication of Jeong Suk Cheom. The Prime Minister is displeased at the betrayal, even though Choe Woo speaks up on his father-in-law’s behalf. Irritated, Choe Chung Heon dismisses his sons summarily in favor of his chess game.

Mu Sang and the rest of the villagers are dragged on through the city under the whips of the guards, Mu Sang in particular beaten for speaking up on behalf of the struggling elderly. He collapses on the steps of a building just as some finely dressed women emerge: Choe Woo’s wife and his daughter, Song Yi (Kim Gyu Ri). Mu Sang collapses against Song Yi’s skirt, earning him another whip – but she stops the guard, snapping about the treatment of monks. Not women’s business - her mother entreaties her to leave, so she only presses a handkerchief to Mu Sang’s cut forehead before sweeping away.

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The villagers and the monks are lined up at the interrogation ground to be questioned; the generals are particularly interested in their background, as many of the villagers are runaway slaves. Anyone who can’t prove that they are freeborn are immediately dragged off for execution.

Each of the monks is questioned in turn, and curiously, Mu Sang gets more and more anxious. Su Beop too shoots him anxious looks. Gim Gang is recognized as a famous warrior, which lets him off the hook for now, but then the general Choe Jun Mun turns to Mu Sang and demands his name.

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Mu Sang only replies that he doesn’t know. The Choe Jun Mun scoffs, as yet again Mu Sang repeats that he knows nothing about his origin. Angrily, the general decides that torture will do it then –and Mu Sang is seized and dragged toward the pillory.

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This is a saguek for those people who want a break from the recent deluge of pretty-pretty Joseon fusion saguek. It’s masculine, fiery, and adrenaline-charged. The director knows how to rein in the chaos and battle of the times and compact it into the stories of a few characters that we care about. And he does it so well: the fight scenes bloody and fast, the politics simmering with tension, and characters full of vigor and pathos. It’s a throwback to the historically-charged sagueks of old times, with the modern edge of fast pace and character focus.

It’s too soon to comment on the plot, as the first episode is mostly exposition, but given history we know we have a dramatic ride with our hero. Mu Sang starts from the most humble of origins, and most importantly as a helpless and hapless pawn of those more powerful than him. We know that this Mu Sang will one day be Kim Jun, ruler of Goryeo – and so we can look forward to seeing him shed his naivety and becoming a commander of men. The side characters, especially Choe Chung Heon, his sons, and Song Yi, are probably going to become important characters, and each is played with complete conviction.

The OST is subtle when needed, but more often stirring to match the intensity of the story, and it’s powerful. The costumes and sets are lavish, very fitting to the Goryeo times the drama is set in. All in all – a great start to a drama that keeps getting better.
  • sayeh and Superboy like this


Now this was a great read, indeed. Better yet; I think I'll be watching this drama next after I finish up Warriror Baek Dong Soo. Till then I'll just keep reading right along. Thanks for the recap, diorama. ^_^

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