Hi everyone, Noël here with a review for a very praiseworthy historical drama called The Nokdu Flower. I went into this drama with relatively low expectations because, despite being familiar with director Shin Kyung Soo, who has previously done an excellent job with projects such as Tree With Deep Roots and Six Flying Dragons, I was unacquainted with writer Jung Hyun Min’s works. However, the show turned out to be one of the most solid historical dramas I’ve had the pleasure of viewing in a long time. To give you an idea: the last time I thoroughly enjoyed a high quality sageuk was back in 2017 with Rebel: Thief who Stole the People. Feel free to check out my thoughts on the show below, and as always, thanks for reading!
[Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below]
Since we’d be here all day if I tried to speak on everyone, I first want to make it clear that the acting in this drama was phenomenal across the board. There wasn’t a single acting hole to be found in this production. The supporting veteran cast, boasting reliable names such as Choi Moo Sung, Choi Won Young, Park Hyuk Kwon, Seo Young Hee, and Ahn Kil Kang (among others), all proved themselves great assets to the show. I was really impressed with how well everyone portrayed their characters, and how well all of the actors and actresses worked together. Even the characters with the least amount of screen time were able to make a memorable impact, which made the drama all the more meaningful and enjoyable. For the purposes of this review, I will only speak more in depth on three leading characters.
Jo Jung Seok: This was my first time watching Jo Jung Seok on screen (I’ve been living my life all wrong), but I absolutely loved his portrayal of Yi Kang. Very authentic. I truly bought into his plight of convoluted family issues and his personal growth, most especially because the actor demonstrated such genuine emotion. I was very impressed with his ability to evolve and adapt his performance so effortlessly as his character transitioned over time. I liked that he was able to evidence his character’s growth gradually over a reasonable period of time. This helped to make his character’s enlightenment much more believable. He had the gargantuan task of making an antihero (who was detestable at the beginning) become a completely beloved and morally conscious character. It’s not easy to do so, especially when the character starts out on such a cruel and violent note. He exceeded all expectations, which served as a testament to his abilities.
Yoon Si Yoon: I’ll be completely honest with you. I used to think Yoon Shi Yoon was kind of bland. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen much of his work, so it was wrong of me to make such a judgment. Starting about a year or two ago, I began watching more of his projects such as: Your Honor, Grand Prince, and Secret Healer. Full disclosure, I didn’t finish any of these projects, which was not his fault. I actually loved him in all three, but in Grand Prince‘s case, the female lead (bless her heart) was off-putting among other problems; aside from Secret Healer getting a bit too boring and repetitive for me, the glaringly obvious age gap between the two leads left me feeling more than uncomfortable; and Your Honor proved itself a genre that unfortunately, was not my cup of tea. Out of these and other projects I’ve seen him in, I think The Nokdu Flower is easily my favorite role of his thus far. Firstly, it was a more villainous role, which he hasn’t done often (in the dramas I’ve seen of his), and it really challenged him to dig deep. I thought Yoon Si Yoon really outdid himself. Sure, I may have been frustrated with the writing of his character at times, but the role sure was a perfectly juicy part that allowed for the ultimate showcase of skill. Once his character started to truly lose his marbles, Yoon Si Yoon was more than able to deliver; A very impactful performance to say the least.
Han Ye Ri: Han Ye Ri is one of my favorites. She has a unique elegance and maturity that she brings to the table. I thought she was a perfect fit for the grounded, independent, and strong-willed Ja In. She exhibited a lovely chemistry, not only with Jo Jung Seok, who played her romantic interest, but with Kim Sang Ho as well, who played her faithful companion Deok Ki. There were two scenes of hers that profoundly moved me and further highlighted her capabilities. The first was when Ja In was standing alongside Yi Hyun bearing witness to the absolutely gruesome Battle of Ugeumchi. There was no dialogue in this scene, but the way Han Ye Ri conveyed shock and grief over the battle’s events through her body language and facial expressions was very stirring, as were the moments that followed where she was seen praying for the soldiers. A second scene was the gut-wrenching and barbaric execution of Deok Ki right in front of Ja In’s eyes. All I can say is that Han Ye Ri completely captured the raw devastation necessary for the success of such a tragic scene.
CHARACTERS & DEVELOPMENT:
Yi Kang: I think we all hated Yi Kang at first. Actually, I guess what I should really say, is that we all hated “That Man,” but ended up loving Yi Kang. After General Nokdu knocked some sense into him, along with a little encouragement from Yi Hyun’s and Yoo Wol, Yi Kang turns his life around for the better. It was a pleasure to watch him find himself as a person, work hard and so passionately toward a cause he cared deeply about, and blossom into an admirable leader that his family, friends, comrades, and neighbors could look up to. I like that Yi Kang is the heroic figure, because he maintains low class status. It would have been drab to watch another sageuk with an upper class hero at the helm. I felt the drama in general did a great job of placing the focus on the struggles and contributions of the lower class rather than telling a story about the upper class “nice guy” or “the guy we thought was of lower class but actually turns out to be of noble blood” story. I think we’ve seen enough of those, or at least, I sure have. What I loved about Yi Kang, even if it sometimes bit him in the ass, was that he never gave up on anyone. He had a softness about him that really made him very endearing. He did everything in his power to help his brother Yi Hyun and those around him. He always took care of his mother, and even his higher-status relatives despite their cold attitudes for him. When he lost those closest to him, he made sure to follow through with giving them a proper burial, even if it put him at risk. Ultimately, his relationship with his squadron and General Nokdu were touching to witness, and one-of-a-kind.
Yi Hyun: Yi Hyun’s arc was a bit frustrating for me. Some portions were very nonsensical and hard to believe. There were many unnecessary bits to his transformation and too many inconsistencies in his choices to count. There was no need for him to randomly shoot Donghak soldiers from his brother’s squad just to make him look twisted and evil. Having his character make the switch to supporting the Japanese would have been palpable enough without that, considering he spent time there and had previously expressed appreciation for their civilized state. However, this is literally the only issue I took up with the drama, so I am willing to overlook it. The later episodes where Yi Hyun actually starts working as Oni under the supervision of Takeda are much better. I would have rather seen this sooner and without some of the middle scenes they used to get his character to this point. There were many reasons why I lacked sympathy for Yi Hyun that stemmed from some of the writing blunders, but overall I found his character interesting to watch on screen. It certainly made for great theatrics. I thoroughly enjoyed the complex relationships between Yi Hyun and his brother, as well as his father and Master Hwang. Ultimately, Yi hyun meets a pretty pitiful demise, and I did feel empathetic for him toward the end where I knew he’d absolutely lost his marbles and was giving his final goodbye to his brother. I think rather than Master Hwang, it was his manipulative scumbag of a father who played the most critical role in ruining him. By the end, Yi Hyun’s realization that the position of power he desperately yearned for was merely a phony guise that came, not only at the hefty price of losing everyone closest or important to him, but also losing himself, was too much for him to handle.
Ja In: I totally loved Ja In. She was spunky, yet classy. She was independent, stubborn at times, but thoughtful. She was loyal to those she was closest to, and never made spur of the moment decisions without careful consideration. Ja In was faced with several unfavorable predicaments where she was forced to choose between her life, the lives of those she loved, her morals, and her position as a merchant. The mature and realistic relationship shared between Yi Kang and Ja In felt appropriate for the romance aspect. It was never forced, never awkward, and she never lost her autonomy in this relationship. A nice balance was maintained between the two of them. She was just as independent and strong as Yi Kang was. She didn’t need him in order to survive and make big moves on her own. My heart truly broke for Ja In when she was forced to reckon with what being a merchant truly meant. She loved her father, but could no longer continue to follow his flawed ideology after coming to understand how merchants profit at others’ expense. On top of that, her father was slowly withering away before her eyes, and she was often consumed by the guilt of having to lie to him all the while. There were several times where he admonished her for her decision to stick to her morals, but I like that she stood up for herself and never wavered. Once she came to realize what was just, she marched forward and never looked back.
General Nokdu: I can’t talk about the drama without addressing the most critical character of General Nokdu, or, Jeon Bong Joon. Portrayed brilliantly by Choi Moo Sung, I found Nokdu to be an admirable and inspirational hero. His way of mentoring Yi Kang, his approach to battle, and his decision to face death head on because of the impact it would have on his followers, all pointed to his unparalleled wisdom and leadership. His character was very well written, I couldn’t help but feel just as passionate about the cause, and uplifted by his presence, as his followers did, every time he appeared on my screen. He was portrayed here as a very humble, fatherly, and dedicated figure who never took any decisions lightheartedly. He devoted careful thought and consideration to even the simplest of tasks. He always thought about different perspectives and made sure to use these viewpoints as a way to better understand which solution would be most beneficial to the people. Lastly, I appreciated that he was a hands on kind of man. He didn’t sit idly by while his followers did all the work for him. He actively fought in battle until injured, was always coming up with clever tactics and strategies for battle and negotiations, and consistently maintained and open line of communication with all of his followers to gain insight on their own opinions/
Beo Deul: I just want to say how thankful I am for Beo Duel’s character. There was horrifying potential for her story to get super ugly, but thankfully the writers avoided the dreaded tropes that usually plague so many secondary female characters. I thoroughly enjoyed Beo Deul’s rough and tumble aura, badass sniper skills, unbeatable courage, and compassion for others even in the toughest of moments. I can’t explain how relieved I am that they didn’t make her the classic angry, jealous b***h that lashes out at the female lead, simply because they love the same man. She truly loved Yi Kang, but instead of letting those emotions manifest into wrath toward the woman he loved, she quietly offered him comfort as a friend in his times of need, and even supported the leading pair’s relationship over and over again. Never did she show any sort of malice toward Ja In. I’m glad that Yi Kang was sensitive to her feelings, and I’m glad he didn’t push her away or make her feel bad about them. They ended up sharing quite a unique and beautiful bond. I loved that Beo Duel was just happy knowing she could still keep Yi Kang close by, and that he showed her that she was indeed a special person to him, even if not in a romantic way.
Master Hwang: Master Hwang was interesting. He was entirely consumed by the idea of maintaining and asserting his noble blood, so much so, that he went ahead and butchered the relationship he shared with his sister Myung Shim and his pupil Yi Hyun. However, as time passed by, even Master Hwang seemed to have better chances for turn around than Yi Hyun. After witnessing Yi Hyun’s metamorphosis into absolute nuttyville, Master Hwang began to reconsider his own ideology. However, his transformation didn’t truly kick into full throttle until after his sister Myung Shim was attacked and saved by Yi Kang. At this point, he began to revaluate his life’s choices. Eventually, after more chiding from Myung Shim, and hearing other nobles talk foully of her, he realized all the wrong he’d done, knew he couldn’t undo it, and decided to lead the Royal Army against Japan even though there were only about 10 soldiers in his aristocratic troupe. Master Hwang told Myung Shim that if he survived, he would return and be a better brother to her from then on, an even seemed regretful for having sent his pupil (Yi Hyun) into war. In the final face-off between pupil and Master, his growth was most apparent. It was Yi Hyun that was distressed and disturbed, still discontented with his life, but Master Hwang was at ease, ready to die, enlightened as to everything he’d done wrong, and prepared to take responsibility for it all right then and there. I thought his story was satisfying to watch, and was thrilled to see him undergo such change, even if it was a bit too late. He made the effort that Yi Hyun was unwilling to make.
Baek Man Deuk: While Yi Hyun was godawful at times, his useless, diabolical hag of a father rustled my jimmies the most. Out of every evil character in this show, Baek Man Deuk was the weasel I abhorred the most. At first, I wanted him to die the most grisly death possible, but as his behavior reached even lower levels I never thought possible, I felt that he was undeserving of death. In fact, death would have been a rewarding scapegoat for a hoodlum like him. I felt he was truly the root of all evil among the Baek family. He clearly played the largest role in corrupting Yi Hyun and sending him over the edge. His behavior toward Yi Kang and Yoo Wol were equally disgusting. He was literally the most shameless and vile creature of all. Yi Hyun’s decision to take his own life right in front of his father’s celebratory dinner table, was truly is the ultimate punishment for Baek Man Deuk. This was something he never could have imagined was possible, and although it was a pitiful moment for Yi Hyun, it was exactly the kind of suffering Baek Man Deuk was due for after his unending string of revolting deeds.
PLOT & STORYLINE:
The show’s first episode was admittedly a bit slow and confusing to start. Some of the music choices in the very beginning were also kind of questionable, which I will briefly address later. However, The Nokdu Flower really gained decent traction toward the end of the first episode and, as the story progressed, each episode that followed became increasingly more promising and engrossing. The story was engaging, especially as the brothers appear to switch roles, and tension begins mounting between The Kingdom of Joseon and Japan. I must be honest and confess that I’m not well versed in the history, I just know a few basic drops of knowledge about the time period. Thus, I cannot speak too much on the accuracy, but I can say that this is one of the better dramas I’ve seen that touches on the Japanese invasion of Korea in terms of viewing it as an audience member. They really captured the brutality and anguish of the Korean peoples’ plight well, and the depiction of tension and loss was expressive and inspirational. A focus was placed on the various individual stories of average people, not just the major contributors to the rebellion. This allowed for better connections to be forged between the audience and the characters, as well as provided some spotlight for characters and historical figures who may have been forgotten along the way. For example, there were several little vignettes of specific peasants who fought and died in the Battle of Ugeumchi. Since so many died there, it was important that viewers remember that the efforts were made possible not just by General Nokdu, but the approximately 200,000 everyday people that decided to join the forces in the devastating battle. Finally, for those who love romance, this drama does have a touch of it sprinkled throughout. Far from heavy handed, I found the lighter moments between the leading pair to be just enough and I also favored the simplicity and maturity of their shared relationship.
CINEMATOGRAPHY & DIRECTION:
Shin Kyung Soo masterfully directed the series. The show boasted superb direction and cinematography all around, with a plethora of angles, breathtaking landscapes, and brilliant use of depth of field. The careful attention to detail in various key scenes elevated the story to new heights. During the first episode in particular, the juxtaposition of two frames pinpointing the stark gap between the aristocrats and working class was exquisite. The difference between the dark, gritty and dreary world of the poor, who struggle to meet their most basic needs, flawlessly contrasted with the vibrant, carefree and gluttonous nature of nobles, was night and day. The battle scenes in particular stood out for their ability to evoke the agonizing determination and loss of the Donghak Army, though the one victorious skirmish where the Donghak Army makes use of large cotton-stuffed cylinders made of straw as protection from machine guns and canons, was simply exhilarating and marvelous to experience on screen. A latter scene shared between Master Hwang and Yi Hyun was also ingeniously depicted. By this point in time, Master Hwang, of all people, has become more enlightened and redeemable than Yi Hyun, who coldly executes him after an emotional discourse. The frame divides into two sections, with Master Hwang’s side remaining in full color as he lays dead on the ground, and Yi Hyun’s half turning to black and white as he stands there, gun in hand. The symbolism of the scene is simply sublime. Finally, a scene that I can’t speak more highly of includes the process of taking General Nokdu’s photograph, as prompted by Ja In. The scene sets up so that the photo of General Nokdu in the drama is matched almost perfectly to the pre-existing photo of his real life counterpart. It was lovely how they were able to include the authentic historical photo so seamlessly in to the drama series, and it made for a very special moment.
Fantastic OST. Honestly, exactly how a soundtrack for a sageuk should be. I’m normally actively against vocal tracks in period dramas aside from ballads or other hymns, such as chanting or traditional style pieces that are fitting to the time period. The reason I typically have a strong dislike for vocal tracks, is because there is usually a pattern of slipping pop songs into historical dramas, and I not only find the trend annoying, but highly inappropriate and ill-suited to the setting. Bird Bird Blue Bird by Forestella was particularly poignant and became a theme song of sorts for many pivotal scenes. I imagine it was in reference to the most famous folk song to arise from the Donghak Peasant Revolution, Oh Bird, Oh Bird, Oh Roller. “Because It’s You” by Young Joon of Brown Eyed Soul was a nice touch. He has a very husky, yet soft voice that makes the ballad warm and comforting. I’ll Wait by Park Yun of Damsonegongbang was a light and airy ballad that proved lively and refreshing. That Day by Im Do Hyuk made for a gentle, but effective ballad to round out the soundtrack. Moving onto the instrumental tracks, the use of classical instruments to foster emotion and create effective tension building was divine. Some of my favorite instrumental pieces were: Kim Su Jin’s You Are a Devil, Land of Grass and Wind, The World Stands to Change, Hwangryonggang Victory, and Dochaebi; Lee Jong Han’s Meaning Embraces the Chest, Hwangtohyeon Battle, and Baeggaui Gwihwan; XKA’s Tumult, Bloodlust, Pursuit of Darkness, and I Will Live Like a Man and Die As a Man; and finally, Become a Demon by Joo In Ro. Perhaps my favorite song of the entire soundtrack, both vocal and instrumental tracks considered, was the hauntingly evocative Huanglong Village Gakseolyi by Lee Jung Su, Singyeongsu, Kim Hyun Dong, Lee Kwang Moon, Jeong Sang Pyo, Jang Yeong Seog, Shin Jung Hoon, Yang Ho Jung, and Lee Eung Jun. The only tracks I strongly disliked, out of the whopping fifty-five making up the soundtrack, were the three pieces by Warak. They were a bit too close to the tacky comedy side of the spectrum for me to enjoy and felt mismatched for sageuk.
The Nokdu Flower was truly one of the most spectacular sageuks I’ve seen in a very, very long time. Without any hesitation, I’d recommend this drama to everyone, whether you are a fan of the historical genre or not. If you enjoy period dramas without fantasy elements, this is also a great fit, as it is a traditional sageuk based on historical events, and lacks any supernatural or fusion elements. Romance is limited, but the story is solid, compelling, well-acted, and divinely directed. Of course, if you totally hate politics, this might not be your cup of tea, but even so, I urge you to give it a try, as it is a very moving piece of history that is well told through this profound production.
Did you watch The Nokdu Flower? What did you think of the drama? If you haven’t already, you can check out the extended preview here.
Written by: Noël / @LEEJUNKL