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New KBS drama takes fusion to extremes

2008/01/07 Source

Actor Jang Keun-suk, 20, captured the essence of KBS's newest drama "Hong Gil Dong" when he said, "I think 'Hong Gil Dong' truly is a fusion drama".

Playing a troubled crown prince on the run in this new drama, Jang added, "It's got a very young and energetic storyline".

Young and fresh are the right words to use when referring to "Hong Gil Dong", which started last Wednesday night on KBS 2. This new take on the traditional historical drama presents the most unlikely mix of global pop culture references to ever hit TV screens.

From Hong Kong action stunts to Bollywood belly dancing to a touch of Shakespearean stage humor, this drama gives the classic story of one of Korea's most popular heroes, Hong Gil-dong, a radical makeover.

The original Hong Gil-dong, upon which this drama is based, was a heroic character from an old Korean novel written in the Joseon Dynasty. A Korean Robin Hood, the original Hong was depicted as a model hero. Morally upright, intelligent and driven by a desire to right the wrongs of a nation, Hong and his band of thieves stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

But the new Hong Gil-dong, skillfully played by actor Kang Ji-hwan, 30, breaks all stereotypes. This village bully who drowns himself in merrymaking, gambling and women is a far cry from the beloved hero of yore.

Kang's Hong swaggers, burps and masks his good intentions with a deadbeat attitude. And it takes real acting flair to pull off just the right mix of physical humor, wild stunts and poignantly masked emotion and pain to make this new hero come alive.

Kang doesn't disappoint. A seasoned actor both onscreen and onstage, Kang makes for a refreshing Hong Gil-dong. He artfully navigates the dual role of a bastard son who secretly desires his father's affections and the comic village bully, coupling the right amount of exaggerated, bawdy theatrics with candid emotion.

And audiences are noticing.

After the first episode, one domestic viewer wrote on the drama's official bulletin board: "Kang Ji-hwan ... I am a big fan of him from now on ... his acting is very good, smooth and natural".

And Kang is not the only star that merits attention in the drama. His beautiful co-star, Sung Yu-ri, a former member of the hit girl-group Fin.K.L., turns bathroom humor into an art in her role as the boyish heroine Heo Lee-nok.

In the second episode, Sung, 26, defecates in the wilderness, to put it nicely. From her singing while she does her business to her delicate selection of the right leaf to use as toilet paper, Sung pulls off the scene with perfect comic timing.

But it's the side characters who threaten to steal the show. From Kang's Yoda-like Zen master to Heo Lee-nok's crazy grandpa, the supporting cast really beefs up "Hong Gil Dong" with their colorful antics.

Particularly noteworthy is the mock-Chinese peddler with the surname of Wang. Sporting a little Chinese silk outfit, Wang punctuates all his lines with a "yah" at the end to try to sound Chinese in the hopes that it will help boost sales. But the joke is on Wang when Kang tells Sung Yu-ri's character that Wang is not Chinese at all but a Korean native from Gyeongsang Province.

But underneath all the lighthearted comedy lies a solid plot that follows Hong Gil-dong on his heroic journey. Though the new Hong Gil-dong is a bit more wicked, it seems like the drama will stay true to the original story.

The second episode ends with Hong and his future band of thieves, hinting that things might get a bit more serious in the third installment. And that Hong Gil-dong might discover that he has the makings of a hero after all.

While the over-the-top stunts, gaudy costumes, bathroom humor and strange cartoon-like characters might be a turn-off for some viewers, audiences seem to be taking a liking to the quirky combination.

According to AGB Nielsen Media Research, viewer ratings were 15.4 percent following the first episode and rose up to 15.8 percent after the second episode, placing it second to MBC's medical drama "New Heart".

"Hong Gil Dong" plays on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 9:55 p.m. on KBS 2 TV.

By Jean Oh

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