I’ve been meaning to get into saeguk’s or historical dramas for quite some time now, but I also felt that I needed to ease myself into it. This journey began with me watching “Chicago Typewriter”, followed by “Mr. Sunshine”, and now, after “The Tale of Nokdu”, I think I’m quite ready to delve more into the genre as a whole (“My Country” is the next saeguk on my watchlist!) However, aside from that, from the moment I learned that Jang Dong Yoon, whose short screen time impressed me on “Mr. Sunshine”, was going to star in this drama, and when I heard that they’d be using the cross dressing trope in it, I knew that there was no way that I wasn’t going to watch this drama someday. Thankfully, this a gem of a drama, although not perfect; boasts great chemistry from our main couple; good performances; and is the perfect star vehicle for Jang Dong Yoon, whose acting range impressed given the range he had to portray in this drama. Needless to say, this drama has become a quick favorite of mine, and I would definitely rewatch it in the future!
“The Tale of Nokdu” is based on a web toon written by Hye Jin Yang. The drama was written by Im Ye Jin and Baek So Yeon; and was directed by Kim Dong Whee. It ran for thirty two episodes from September 30 to November 25, 2019; and enjoyed a good following, especially by the younger generations, during its run.
The drama is set in the Joseon era. It follows the story of Nok Du (Jang Dong Yoon), a young man who lived a sheltered life on a remote island, who ends up chasing down a female assassin to a Widow’s Village after he and his family are attacked by a group of them. Nok Du ends up pretending to be a widow in order to enter this women’s only village in order to get to the truth; and along the way, befriends a young kisaeng trainee named Dong Dong Joo Kim So Hyun). As the drama progresses, Nok Du ends up finding out the truth behind the attack on his family, and unearths secrets that changes his life forever.
Many people enjoy watching different drama tropes, such as the cohabitation trope, which is very much present in classics such as “Full House” and “Goong”. However, after watching this drama, I realized that one of my favorite drama tropes is the cross dressing trope, which is probably why I loved “Coffee Prince”, and one of the reasons that this show intrigued me a lot.
However, the main draw for me to this drama was Jang Dong Yoon. As mentioned above, I was impressed by him although he had very little screen time on “Mr. Sunshine”, and I wanted to see what he’d do next. I haven’t been able to watch “A Poem A Day” or “Just Dance” yet, but I will definitely check them out someday.
Jang Dong Yoon was given the perfect opportunity to shine as a leading man in this role, and he definitely outshone all my expectations of him. First off, he had the task of having to somewhat convincingly pass as a woman, which he definitely managed to pull off well! He managed to to be both be beautiful and be handsome at the same time. In fact, the last time I’ve seen someone convincingly pull this off was Yoon Eun Hye as Eun Chan in “Coffee Prince”.
Aside from this, Nok Du goes through a whole spectrum of emotions that Jang Dong Yoon pulls of well, and showcases his versatility as an actor. Based on this, I’m definitely going to be watching his past work, and will be on the lookout for anything he does in the future.
This was my first time watching Kim So Hyun, and I’m glad that I picked this show as my first time to see her rather than “Radio Romance”, which I heard wasn’t so great. She does a great job in portraying the more tsundere character that Dong Joo is, and I was impressed by how well she and Jang Dong Yoon played off of each other. She also managed to portray her characters deep emotions well with a certain maturity that comes off of her experience as a child actress.
The secondary characters shone a lot as well in this drama, such as the Virtuous Women’s Corps and little Aeng Du (Park Da Yeon), who shone as a little girl who sounded like a grandma at times. Special mention also goes to the late Yun Yoo Sun, as this was one of her last dramas before she passed away, and Park Min Jung, who played the Queen with such emotion and grace.
I know that a lot of people had problems with the tonal shift somewhere in the middle of the drama, but I didn’t find it too jarring, as it was already being hinted in the beginning that our two leads had more tragic backstories. So, I just enjoyed the cute romance parts when it happened, and was quite ready for the tonal shift as that was a big part of the actual plot of the story.
There were moments where I felt that the writing was a bit weak, such as the actual plot of the story itself, and the villains; but there were also moments that shone and surprised me as well. However, if you watch this remembering at the back of your mind that it will darker, then the tonal shift will be less jarring for you.
Also, check out the OST for this drama, as the songs are just great, and are sung by artists such as Seventeen’s Woozi, Younha, Gummy, and NCT U (Doyoung and Mark).
Overall, this was definitely a gem of a drama, one that sort of got me out of a Kdrama slump, and really pulled me into enjoying saeguks more. If you are a fan of Jang Dong Yoon or Kim So Hyun, this drama is definitely a must watch, as it proves their acting abilities and range.
Now, you know the drill! From here on out, there will be spoilers!
Before we talk about the secondary and main characters, let’s delve a little into the main plot of the story.
I think that the tonal shift in the second half of the drama was really jarring to many as the drama served up the romance part and all the cute fluffy moments in the first half, and that was what made us forget that the main actual plot of the story was still yet to come- uncovering why Nok Du’s family was targeted by the Muweol Corps in the first place. However, during the first half, we are reminded of it little by little when we focus more on the king, and Lord Heo, his long time friend and advisor. Dong Joo’s tragic past is also featured, although not as prominently as the storyline involving Nok Du.
I think that the tonal shift worked with me because I always kept those things at the back of my mind, and, more importantly, because the setting changed. All the cute and romance was in the secluded Widow’s Village, while all the politics and the secret behind Nok Du’s true identity came in full focus when we were in Hanyang and at the palace.
I thought that the writing of the villains were weak, and in particular Cha Yul Moo (Kang Tae Oh), although Kang Tae Oh gave a good performance, and it seemed that he was relishing every moment that he got to play the more villainous side of his character.
I’m also not so sure if we were supposed to see King Gwanghae (Jung Joon Ho) as a tragic figure or a villain. There were moments in which you end end empathizing with him, but during his irrational moments, you end up getting annoyed at his logic, especially as his paranoia kept on leading him to kill his only son.
However, I found it very interesting that these are real historical figures, and that in reality, Yul Moo, who really was Grand Prince Neungyang, did lead a revolt and dethroned Gwanghae.
Now, let’s finally talk about Nok Du and Dong Joo, who both went through very interesting yet different journeys in order to find themselves.
One thing that I loved about Nok Du’s character was how consistent he is, even though circumstances changed, and even as he learned more about his true identity. Nok Du is honest, pure and loyal, and is motivated by one major guiding principle- to protect those that he loves and cares about, no matter what. In fact, even though he is consumed by a lot of hatred for his biological father to the point that he was willing to help dethrone and kill him, he is still guided by that principle- revenge for all the suffering that his foster parents and his friends experienced because of him. But in the end, he chooses to do the right thing, as we know he would.
His pureness, loyalty and honesty is also seen often in his relationship with Dong Joo. Once the pretenses had been dropped and he knew his feelings for her, he was honest about it and protected her, without being too annoyingly overprotective about it. It’s also seen when he realizes her real backstory and doesn’t take her mission against her at all, but let’s her go free, and still continues to worry about her even after that.
In the end, Nok Du does discover who he truly is, but instead of claiming the crown for himself, what he wants in the end is what truly makes him happy- having a simple life with the woman he loves, and the people he loves, including his biological mother whom he was reunited with.
Again, Jang Dong Yoon’s performance was nothing short of stellar, and to be honest, there were moments while we were in Hanyang that I really missed him as Lady Kim.
As a character, Dong Joo is the tsundere, and is the complete opposite of Nok Du. Unlike Nok Du, Dong Joo is very guarded and doesn’t easily let a lot of people into her life, even though there are some who have known her for a long time, such as Yul Moo. She isn’t exactly that cold with him, but she’s still guarded, despite the fact that he knew knew her real background and her reason for wanting to kill the king so badly.
For me, I found Dong Joo’s journey of self-discovery interesting because she went from having a singular purpose and mission in life-killing the king, as he was the one who had her entire family killed, from discovering a new reason for living- being with Nok Du. If she had continued on with her mission, I think she would have joined forces with Yul Moo’s plot, if he had let her in on it. Instead, she focused her attention on not killing the king, but protecting Nok Du as much as he protects her.
This is also why there were two major scenes of hers that really left a deep impression on me. The first was the scene in which Nok Du is pushing her on a swing. While she’s riding it, she imagines her family around her with her, like it was before. As she swings, her family melts away, but she is happy and enjoying her time with Nok Du. This was the first sign in the drama that her priorities were changing and that she was starting to heal from her past trauma.
The second scene was when Nok Du was crying by the swing after learning that his biological father wants him killed as he is scared of getting dethroned, and Dong Joo, at this point knowing full well who he really is, just runs towards him and hugs him from the back, and they both comfort each other while crying without talking about it. At that point, although Dong Joo stilll was trying to assassinate the king, we know that, push come to shove, she would pick Nok Du over anything. I honestly thought that she would leave him, so that move surprised me a lot.
In the end, we see that she ends up discovering herself and healing from her past traumas because of him.
I also really liked Nok Du’s and Dong Joo’s relationship. Although they did have a lot of secrets, there were many points in which they were honest with each other, and you could see that it didn’t matter to Nok Du that they didn’t talk about why she wanted to kill the king.
I also absolutely loved the way they ended the show, with both of them waiting on the beach with the Queen just in sight and nearing the shore, a few moments from her and Nok Du finally reuniting for good. I’d like to believe that our Widow’s Village, in the end, lives in peace, helping out troubled widows; and that Nok Du and his entire family live in peace and harmony on their island, with no politics or anything to disturb that at all.
I also wanted to mention that I loved how strong the women were portrayed in the show, while also focusing on their femininity as well- from the Queen, to the Virtuous Women’s Corps, all the way to the Muweol Corps.
Although the show wasn’t perfect, “The Tale of Nokdu” is a wonderful little gem of a drama, and if you want something a bit lighter on the palate to get you started on saeguks this one is a good one to choose.
Have you seen “The Tale of Nokdu”? What did you think of it? What did you like or not like about it? Any more saeguks aside from “My Country” you’d like to recommend? Let me know in the comments below!