A Historical Epic: Korea-Khitan War

This drama was promoted as being based on true events and carefully researched. I was interested because I wanted to see some real history, and thought it was bound to be well done. Come along and see if it held up or if I took one for the team!

So what is it all about?

This is the story of a war of expansion by the Khitan. They were nomads who kept herds for most of the year, then went out on raids. Their first invasion of Goryeo had been in 993 when Seongjong was king, and it took about a year to push the invaders out.

Goryeo occupied most of the Korean peninsula, but it was small compared to the Khitan teritory. That first invasion ended in an agreement that Goryeo would gain territory but pay tribute and that Khitan would approve all Goryeo kings. Goryeo also agreed to cut off relations with Song, but they didn’t.

Episode 1 gives us a peek at the end of the drama, a huge battle. Although I have seen comments that it isn’t realistic enough, it is realistic enough for me! I thought it was movie level. (There is a moment of silence, which is strange.) They had a huge budget for the two main battles and used an LED video wall for wide scenes.

How about that royal family?

The next king after Seongjong was Mokjong (his father had been king before Seongjong but died young) and the main story starts with him in 1009. He’s very charismatic. He had become king at age seventeen, with his mother as regent. History says Mokjong made some reforms early in his reign but later neglected his duties. (We see him partying.) He is known to be homosexual, and his only heir is a cousin.

Mokjong’s mother is Queen Dowager Heonae. She was a sister of Seongjong. Another sister had a love affair with an uncle, who was a younger son of the dynasty founder. They had a child, who is the cousin that Mokjong is counting on as his heir. Meanwhile, the Queen Dowager has another plot going on. This all seems like a soap opera, and you would never think it really happened, but I looked it up, and yep!

King Mokjong’s cousin is Prince Daeryangwon. You would think he could not inherit the throne because he’s illegitimate, but protocol said both parents of a king had to be from the royal family. A previous king had too many people bumped off, and now Mokjong and Daeryangwon are the only males left. The Dowager didn’t want any rivals to her son, so she sent the cousin to a monastery. It’s true that she tried to have him killed and that the monks protected him.

History plays out

The first half of the drama plays out largely as history tells us, based on a highly regarded novel that was carefully researched. The weapons and costumes are as authentic as possible, as are the battles. The show was produced for the fiftieth anniversary of KBS, the national television station, and they wanted it to be impressive and celebrate their country’s history.

The original intent of Khitan Emperor Shengzong was to conquer Song, but he decided to get rid of Goryeo first so they couldn’t attack him from behind. He and Mokjong both inherited thrones at young ages and their regents were their mothers. He became emperor at the age of 12 and his mother, Empress Dowager Xiao, went to war with him and led the army.

The Khitan emperor’s chief advisor and general is Xiao Paiya. He’s a smart one, and you have to admire him. The emperor should have taken his advice more often. There is torture in a couple of episodes (they don’t show a lot but it’s still gross) and this guy and the Emperor are the ones who instigate it.

The lives of the historical characters have been somewhat fictionalized, because no one knows all the details. Kang Cho is Goryeo’s general in charge of the northern border. He is very pro-active and can’t sit by when his scouts tell him the Khitan are getting ready to attack. He is very likable.

Yang Kyu was the general in charge of Heunghwajin, the Goryeo fort nearest to Khitan territory. It was the first one to be attacked during the second invasion. He is famous for holding out well against the siege, and those episodes are awesome. Notice him when he first shows up, because his earnestness is going to make him one of your favorite characters.

We meet Kang Kam Chan when he is a low level rural judge. Being one of the smartest people around, he is soon promoted and comes to court. He is a deep thinker and tends to look for solutions that will benefit the most people. (I don’t know if he did all the negotiating he is shown as doing, but King Seongjong had a minister who did.) Watch him as he rises in importance and becomes a major player.

This lady is his wife. She is fictionalized, because though he undoubtedly had a wife, we don’t even know her name. She is portrayed as being acerbic and argumentative, but having a hidden softer side. I really liked her.

What happened to the second half?

The beginning of the war was gripping, but I’ve got to admit that I got tired of all the battles halfway through the drama. I stuck it out to see what happens to General Yang. Starting in episode 17, there was a controversy in Korea about the story veering away from history and becoming mired in jealousy and factional infighting, which we have all seen forever. It turns out they had changed writers. The original writer objected bitterly, especially to seeing the king and his chief advisor at loggerheads. The show starts getting back on track in episode 21 with the build-up to the third invasion.

Park Jin is a fictional character, so his story is manufactured. We meet him when his second son gets drafted and he complains that he already lost his older son in the first invasion. He represents factions of nobles who oppose the king, as well as factions in the army. You’re going to get really tired of him.

I enjoyed watching King Hyeonjong mature and grow into his responsibilities. He had started out in 1009 as a scared teenager, and by 1019 became a force to reckon with. His relationship with Kang Kam Chan is the most important one to the drama, only marred by the woes that hit the second half. You watch the show for these two.

Queen Wonjung and her half sister Queen Wonhwa were daughters of King Seongjong. That makes them cousins to King Hyeonjong. They were married to him soon after he was crowned, since he had to have someone from the royal family. Queen Wonjung is shown as being very sweet and supportive in the first half of the drama, and I liked her. Unfortunately, she too gets caught in the second half woes.

During the second invasion, King Hyeonjong evacuated the capital and fled to the south of the peninsula. About halfway along he met Kim Unbu, a local military governor who gave him much needed support. This character also gets caught in the second half slide. The king actually promoted him to a high court position and married all three of his daughters.

Queen Wonseong was the eldest daughter of Kim Unbu, who made a connection with King Hyeonjong during his flight from the Khitan. You should watch for her, because he broke royal custom in order to marry her. This is not really a spoiler because they tell you who she is right away. She is portrayed as being very confidant and involved in helping her father.

Out of all the court officials, I’ll give you this guy to look out for. His name is Joo Jin, but I called him the whiner. I’m sure you’ll recognize that tremulous voice. He is one thing that improves in the second half, because he starts out being a big pain, but has a transformative conversation with the king, and after that you can occasionally cheer for him.

The third invasion

One thing I was looking forward to in this show was the beginning of the third invasion. In real life, Kang blocked up a stream, and when the Khitan crossed the Yalu River, they broke the dam and let loose a flood. Unfortunately, that seems to have been beyond the budget. The Khitan really did push deep into Goryeo territory past their supply lines, though. Goryeo really did have heavy cavalry. And the outcome was really as one-sided as it is portrayed.

I enjoyed the little touches as well as the extravagant scenes. The culminating battle was at Guijo Castle. As the fighting begins, a ladybug lands on Kang’s uniform collar. It’s easy not to notice it, but he notices it and recognizes it as a sign of good luck.

I loved the friendships that we saw build up with the army officer’s wives, the palace ladies, some of the court officials, and the loyal army officers. There were several scenes of people of faith praying together for the outcome of the war. The king and queen went together, and so did the general’s wives.

So what’s the verdict?

I like history and I mostly liked this show. You can tell because I started looking everything up. As I said, in the middle I got tired of all the battles, and there were several problematic episodes. Even though I was not familiar with the actual history, I still thought something was off. I actually took a break and watched a different show, (My Perfect Stranger), then I returned and got immersed in the story all over again. I got fond of Kang and his wife. And I loved Yang. We need more of him.

The production level was great, and this show really has the epic sweep of history. You can see by looking at these screencaps that the photography was beautiful. The sets, costumes, and props are amazing. There aren’t many historical dramas like this any more, and there aren’t many about Goryeo. My favorite historical is probably Six Flying Dragons, which was consistently good and had no dragging.

The ending wound down in a good way, with a touch of nostalgia. We see the king as he remembers all the important people of his life, those he still has as well as those he has lost. It is a good ending, and besides, the Khitan never invaded again.

This show has 32 episodes and is found on Viki and Amazon Prime in the United States. It began with a rating of 5.5, hovered around 9 or 10 for most of its run, and ended at 13.8 so it was well liked. I hope I’ve talked you into giving this drama a try!


Dramas With a Side of Kimchi

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