Halfway through this sageuk I underwent stress. I was hard put foreseeing what the writers/producers intended for the package to be. Is this to be a statement on ‘free love’? Would this work be labelled as an expression of ‘carnal lust’? Are the people involved in making it aware that they are treading delicate ground? Sageuks are, after all, ‘safe’ genre, intended for everyone. If the ratings have to be high (which is understandably a major aim) then the drama cannot afford to be ‘scandalous’. I was not willing to have such a lovely work ‘ruined’ by harsh reviews.
I was anxious because I could not easily put myself into the shoes of the characters. I am not an ‘artist’, I do not have their eyes, I do not have their ears, I do not have their perception. This drama is about the two best artists of the Joseon era, in this fictional setting set on the first year of King Jeongjo’s reign (Yi San). The drama cannot be comprehended unless the ‘artist’s’ perspective is taken. And, as we already know, artists are ‘out of this world’. They have worlds of their own. Like mathematicians and physics theorists.
Ah, I had taken so many snapshots that I was hard pressed into forcibly leaving off most of them. In the end I chose the ones that show the relationship between Dan Won, the teacher, and Yun Bok (aka Hye Won), the disciple. Through most of the story it’s a bit of a problematic relationship. There were all these staring in the eyes and body contact that Korean society, then and now, would not deem proper between a teacher and his pupil, more so between two people of similar gender. Painter of the Wind is so full of this between Dan Won and Yun Bok that at times I could feel the hairs at the back of my neck stand. I believe it can be attributed to the excellent acting, plus the theme song. There’s constantly this hand-grabbing and piggy-back-carrying between Dan Won and Yun Bok. They could even do it in front of so many people. And the people around them, seeing how eccentric these two weirdos are, just take it for granted that it’s fine. But for the two it’s not fine. Their feelings for each other slowly unfold, like a blank canvass at first, and as the artist’s instinct guides, takes hold little by little, the empty space is filled with entities that take a life of their own. An unknown form is slowly revealed. The unknown is unveiled.
What’s more problematic is that Dan Won is already a mature individual, a veteran of the world, not intimidated by conventions, and yet here comes one whom he calls ‘little bean’ who manages to upset his equilibrium — he’s trying to figure out how to deal with the attraction he feels to this little bean. Does what Dan Won feel for Yun Bok similar to what Yun Bok feels for the gisaeng (female entertainer)? Yun Bok has told her that she is special to him (her). The gisaeng has already fallen in love with Yun Bok. On that bridge scene I was bracing myself against the pain that I will see on the beautiful face when Yun Bok breaks her heart. Her question is similar to what I would have asked myself had that happened to me also: What do I do now?
By their eventually unfolding dialogues I was able to understand the depth of the attraction that Yun Bok/Hye Won felt for the gisaeng. Hye Won is an artist of the highest calibre. S/He worships beauty. S/He has never been a girl ever since her parents died. She even shares the same bedroom with her older brother, Young Bok (almost similar names). She is virtually a he. She had stepped onto the shoes of the male of his era. He walks and talks and projects masculinity. She and her foster family cannot afford to get caught of this lie. Had they been not brothers Young Bok and Yun Bok could probably already have thought of running away and getting married. Dan Won himself saw this intimacy between them.
The gisaeng is blameless. Her love for the Artist is in its proper place, and it is beautiful. There’s that scene, the night before Yun Bok was to be punished, where both were performing their arts simultaneously, painting and music. A special episode of the drama explained how that take left a profound effect on the participants: the professional musician, the professional painter, and the working staff present. On screen the scene is utterly moving, a frenzy of passion on the throes of … impending oblivion …
Are Yun Bok and Dan Won just artists ‘attracted’ to each other, the way Yun Bok and the gisaeng are, primarily because ..they could ‘understand’ each other?..they could feel each other’s passion for beauty? Do they, each respectively, value the other because of the ‘treasure’ that the other is? Ah, if only I were an artist I wouldn’t have so many of these questions. Like Dan Won and Hye Won and the gisaeng I would have taken everything in stride, have accepted whatever is there without much ado.
What’s poignant is the way Yun Bok is slowly revealed. Her self-portrait in the end is the revelation. But why oh why oh why couldn’t she just be selfish and accepted her teacher’s desire to run away with her? The reason why she had to break the gisaeng’s heart is that she couldn’t respond to the love that the gisaeng had for him/her. She knew it was wrong for her to have kept at it. Simultaneously her attractions to both the gisaeng and her teacher became revealed to her, and she decides to finally tell them her secret.
Many times as I watched on (I did it in one go, taking a break only to sleep) I felt envious of the relationship between Dan Won and Hye Won. He is her guardian angel. He never fails her. Maybe that’s the main reason why she eventually falls in love with him. He’s so positive and so profound that not even his confusion with his emotions could drive him away. He finds a treasure and he stakes his life on it. Only Young Bok could be equally capable of this self-sacrifice…and he had to be killed!?!? … tsk tsk tsk … why did Young Bok have to die?—he’s among the sweetest sageuk characters I have come across and I really didn’t want him to die. However, it was primarily to provide angst for Hye Won so that the wheel can keep on turning. It’s his death that brings the main characters together. What a pity. Is it really justifiable this way? … ah, dying is really too easy in dramaland … in moments like this it’s, well, ah, I don’t have the words to say …
Yun Bok said that when she looks at the gisaeng it’s as if she’s looking at her own self. She has lost her femininity and she is all of a sudden confronted by it when she sees the beautiful gisaeng. Yes, the gisaeng is very beautiful, so beautiful that the richest merchant simply had to have her. And when he acquires her he treats her with utmost care, like how a priceless porcelain is guarded from scratch and breakage. Yun Bok lost her femininity along with her childhood, along with many of her memories. As her attachment to Dan Won grows she slowly retrieves these memories, this life as being her father’s, and mother’s, doted little girl.
I felt that 20 episodes was too short. Only the relationship between Yun Bok and the gisaeng (ah, Jeong Yang her name I think is) have developed fully. The teacher-disciple and person-person relationships between Dan Won and Hye Won have ended prematurely. Hye Won is too young to be parted from her Sonsaengnim (teacher). Was that competition supposed to indicate that Hye Won has already matured as an artist and hence has come to her teacher’s level? It was too abrupt for me. Couldn’t have they been given a longer time together spent learning, together, and learning from each other, and producing art together? Their partnership as teacher-pupil is so dynamic and I felt that what they had should have been shown to have spilled over to the other artists surrounding them. There were hardly any scenes where fellow artists are checking out their work. The other artists were left out in the painting-analysis scenes. I had wanted to see how Dan Won’s and Hye Won’s style could have impacted the common people, since it’s about them in the first place.
Also, Hye Won has just newly hatched from her shell of masculinity. Surely the evolution of her relationship with her teacher, and the king, would accord the three of them new perspectives in life. But she had to be sent away so abruptly she might as well not have gone out of her shell after all. So, see, look at the consequence, she had to leave her teacher. That was the best choice. She couldn’t sacrifice her teacher’s happiness. If he leaves with her his great talent will come to oblivion. She cannot face that, especially now that he has become precious to her. Earlier she had asked him that crucial question, that what if ‘he’ were a ‘she’, then, what, Teacher? I was so scared of that suicidal question that my relief was so great when he kissed ‘his’ forehead. The teacher so loved this disciple that regardless of what, ‘he’ or ‘she’, he couldn’t hurt his/her feelings and so he just goes and expresses what’s real for him. That scene is so unbelievably selfless that I couldn’t help but, along with Hye Won, fall intensely in love with this great teacher.
I don’t know how the novel on which this drama is based reads. As of the 6th episode the novel’s author has expressed satisfaction with the portrayals. I have been rewarded in having decided to see this one. My guide in finding this were the names of the writers and directors that did Tree with Deep Roots. Like that one, this is also a beauty. However, this is the first time that I am so affected by an ending. It felt like something precious has been blown away by the wind from my hand and I can’t get it back anymore. I’m sure both Dan Won and Hye Won, however they led their lives after that, would always long for that which they lost, each other, and this longing will have to be expressed in their paintings else they would simply stop.. ..breathing.
Dan Won: “What is a painting?…”
Yun Bok/Hye Won: “It is a longing…”