Chuno, Diverging Dystopias

One of the great treats of my Hulu subscription is access to a selection of Korean historical dramas, and I have to admit that shows like Chuno are a real treat.

Chuno is a multifaceted adventure set in a darker part of the Joseon era, when poverty was widespread and slavery afflicted the population.  There is a fair amount of comic-bookish cheese in the characterizations, but the ensemble cast is full of memorable figures.   There is a fallen general who must life as a slave in order to save the heir to the throne.  Dae Gil, the main character, is the best slave hunter in the business, but his repulsive trade gives him money and freedom to search for his long-lost forbidden love.  (Guess who she ends up on the run with?  It is not Dae Gil.)  There are corrupt officials, a pair of remorselessly cool assassins, scoundrel slave hunters to show how refined and kind our heroes are, and great sidekicks.

But mostly I wanted to talk about Chuno as an example of Korea’s long-overlooked action/drama mixes.  The peninsula is home to a wide variety of martial arts styles, but the historical dramas tend to the Chinese-influenced arts with wide spins and beautiful movements.  Here are the kicks and tricks that first brought me to anime and Kung Fu movies, but the character of the films is markedly different.

Unlike China and Japan, Korea has has a sizable Christian population for more than a century, and it carries through in their media.  The perpetual foul language of anime is gone (half the Japanese I’ve picked up watching anime I could never use in polite company) and as far as I can tell there is no skin.  Chuno uses blurring effects when a woman has her shoulders bared and wore more than an American sports bra.  The Koreans have held onto the virtue of modesty, and it is a real treat to see politics and sword fights like Game of Thrones without parts that make me feel dirty until my next confession!

Bad guys find redemption in these films (though they tend to die doing so), broken relationships are healed, and while there is plenty of romantic drama, Korean men aren’t afraid to show deep non-sexual affection for one another on film.  Bad-ass warriors cry for hours over their lost loves, their fallen comrades, and their shattered dreams.  I love it because it reminds me of King David, Israel’s ultimate warrior who could write the tender and sensitive passages of the Psalms and charge into battle in the same week.

Chuno and its fellow dramas aren’t afraid to throw easy humor, slapstick and silly minor characters for those of us in the cheap seats.  If that doesn’t sound like a great deal, think about how Shakespeare made sure to include at least one such scene if not recurring comic relief characters in almost every play.

The humor may swoop low but the stories consistently aim for the skies.  Warrior Baek Dong-Soo deals with Korea’s struggle for independence from the Chin, and a bunch of marginalized martial artists who really did save the throne in open battle around the time America fought its own Revolutionary War.  Chuno is more favorable towards China, but nobles, generals, and hidden princes occupy the stage with stranded ladies, damsels in distress, and most of the great epic qualities I grew up loving in other media.

Chuno is  a solid adventure that doesn’t require as much understanding of Confucian bureaucracy to enjoy, but it is a good introduction.  I would also recommend King Gunchogo and Warrior Baek Dong Soo for those of us in the frozen north and elsewhere who look to be frozen indoors over the next few weeks.

***

I finished the Divergent series by Veronica Roth this week, and it has given me a lot to think about.

Dystopian fiction has been around for a long time.  I might even argue that everything written in France since the enlightenment is dystopian to one degree or another.  The really dark stuff uses dystopia as the backdrop without pretending to engage in solutions.  The middle-of-the-road stories are often about an escape from dystopia, The Far Blue Mountains were my first real introduction to this.  The Divergent series tries for the entire hat trick, the holy grail of dystopian fiction.  First, to introduce a world gone wrong in a way that sheds light or insight into the faults of human nature or worldviews WHILE still making it interesting and enjoyable.  Second, figure out a way for a hero to survive the system without being as broken or compromised as it is.  Third, find a way to conquer the system that is just as interesting, and totally in character.

I read so many negative reviews about the third book that I only picked up Allegiant because of a work ethic.  I was pleasantly surprised.  I can understand why it was hard to take, because this is not the same story as before.  Veronica Roth doesn’t just take the hat trick I described, she goes above and beyond.  The solution to her first dystopia turns out to be a second, surrounded by a third, and Allegiant has to contain the solution to all three broken societies.  The Factions, the Factionless, and the United States are interlocking pieces of an iron blacksmith’s puzzle, and the solution is bold and complex.

There are other really bold choices here.  It is easy to write super-happy endings where everyone is fine and everything works out well.  It is even lazier to write black-hat endings where everyone might fail nobly but they all still die.  Without giving any spoilers away, people in this series pay the price.  Good people die.  Bad people survive.  It isn’t always all right in the end, and the price of the path is paid in characters we have known and come to love.

But in my never-to-be-sufficiently-humble opinion, Mrs. Roth achieves the high mark she shoots for, a very great accomplishment.  Trice does not just conquer the three hat tricks, but as this has been a story about a teenager struggling to define herself in a dystopian challenge, she solves a fourth great dilemma and discovers her true self in the end.

It isn’t as light or fun a read as Twilight or as casually immoral as Mortal Instruments but Divergent stands not just as a well-crafted young adult story, but I will give it my rarest compliment and recommendation.

Ladies and gentlemen, Divergent is literature.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s