Review: KBS’ Bridal Mask – A Thrilling Hero’s Epic

TYPE OF REVIEW : FIRST IMPRESSION
Contains mild spoilers up to Episode 18

Some of the most exciting, action packed storytelling in Korea hasn’t been in the movie theatres, but on network television. Korean dramas such as Iris, Chuno, Warrior Baek Dong Soo, and many others have shown that the small screen is just as good a medium for big thrills as the big screen.

And for a lot of these stories, the longer format, several weeks as opposed to a two-hour film, allows for some deeper and many times more engaging story.

KBS’ Bridal Mask is just that; the thrilling and epic ascent of a hero.

The Story
It is the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Korean-born Lee Kang To (Joo Won) enlists in the Imperial Police force to provide for himself and his family, much to the ridicule of his fellow countrymen and especially his mother. Kang To’s older brother Kang San was tortured and imprisoned for being suspected as a freedom fighter against the Japanese, seemingly causing serious damage to his mental health and regressing his thinking to that of a child.

And while he draws the ire of fellow Koreans in town, Kang To remains loyal to Japan and even leads the effort to capture Damsari, the leader of a group of freedom fighters. He soon learns his childhood friend and first love Boon, now Mok Dan (Jin Se Yun), whom he believed was killed, is very much alive and actually Damsari’s daughter. But that won’t shake his resolve to put down any attempt at rebellion against the Empire.

Hindering his efforts, however, is a mysterious masked man, known to the locals and the frustrated Imperial Police as Gaksital or Bridal Mask for his disguise of white robes and traditional mask. A highly skilled and clever martial artist, Bridal Mask comes to the rescue of Korean townsfolk as well as sending the message that the Korean people won’t take the mistreatment from the Japanese any longer.

Kang To soon turns his attention to capturing Bridal Mask, only to discover, just when it is too late, that Bridal Mask is actually his own brother Kang San. The punches in the gut only keep coming after his mother and brother are murdered and Kang To learns the bloody truth behind the Japanese occupation of Korea and the truth behind the death of his own father.

Filled in on the details by his father’s former confidant and bodyguard, Kang To is compelled to continue his brother’s mission as Bridal Mask, not only to avenge the death of his family, but to continue helping the Korean people and helping the fight for independence.

The Cast and Characters
Joo Won is perfectly cast as Lee Kang To. After his powerful and dramatic debut in the blockbuster national drama Baker King, Kim Tak Goo, Joo Won showed a softer side of himself with the romantic family drama Ojakgyo Brothers. But in Bridal Mask, his intensity returns and is used very well in conveying Kangto’s evolution from the ruthless and oft-called “Japanese dog” to determined and vengeful Korean hero.

The series begins with Kang To being, pretty much, the unlikeable villain; the anti-hero in every sense of the word. Turning his back on his family and the Korean people, even being brutally ruthless. just to enjoy the benefits of being in the Imperial payroll. But even then, through an excellent scene with veteran Shin Hyun Joon as Kang San, Kang To expresses the inner struggle where he has to reconcile the fact that he has Korean blood with having to pledge loyalty to the Japanese empire. He feels he has no other choice.

That makes the scenes of Kang To’s enlightenment all the more effective and gut wrenching, easily making the viewer go from siding with the Koreans who hate him to rooting and cheering for him whenever he knocks some Japanese police officers on their behinds.

The transition is well-written and effective, making the complete-180 character change for Kang To believable and engaging. The same can also be said for Park Ki Woong as Kang To’s best friend, Kimura Shunji, the Japanese son of an Imperial Police Chief.

He begins the series as a warm-hearted schoolteacher who fully enjoys working with Korean children every day. But after seeing Bridal Mask kill his brother (a captain at the same precinct as Kang To) and to save Mok Dan (whom he is in love with and also has history with) Shunji strikes a deal with his father to enter the force and immediately assume the position left vacant by the death of his brother.

Park Ki Woong’s performance shows Shunji’s confusion and own inner struggle coupled with a vengeful resolve and the dream of going back to the way it was before when he was a simple schoolteacher in love with a girl. But he soon gets sucked into Kishokai, his father’s secret organization whose sole mission is for Japan’s world domination, or at least Asia and the Pacific. Park Ki Woong believably takes Shunji lower and lower, into darker places no one would even dream.

It is a busy first couple of episodes and by episode 18, the conflict and tension is at an all-time high and only continuing to rise.

Romantic Balance
My last action-packed Korean drama was Warrior Baek Dong Soo and while I mostly enjoyed the series, I was disappointed in the lazy inclusion of a romantic angle that would’ve been better off scrapped from the beginning. It didn’t help when stars Ji Chang Wook and Yoo Seung Ho had much more chemistry as Dong Soo and Yeo Un than they did with their supposed female love interests. And that was as much a product of the writing for their characters as the actors’ talents themselves.

It must be a big trend now in Korean entertainment with dramas and Kpop music acts, playing up and teasing non-platonic male relationships, even if just for show. And in Bridal Mask, Kang To and Shunji’s bromance is definitely front and center for a lot of the first half of the series; Joo Won and Park Ki Woong sharing great chemistry as well.

But Bridal Mask does what Warrior Baek Dong Soo did not and actually makes the real romantic aspects of the writing convincing and even essential to the overall story. The possible romantic couples are grippingly established using the “first love”/”childhood friends”/”one true pairing” tool and are actually followed up on. (I’m looking at you Baek Dong Soo!)

The love triangle between Kang To, Mok Dan, and Shunji works hand in hand with their various conflicts of national loyalties, friendships, and inner struggles. And the full and jam packed Episode 18 featuring a huge turning point for the triangle helps propel the story forward even more.

Cause and Effect

So far, Bridal Mask isn’t the kind of series that is about twists, shocks and revelations that are meant to surprise the heroes and heroines and most importantly, the viewers. The audience for Bridal Mask is dropped into this place in time and is asked to watch events as they happen; to see characters make decisions and watch what happens because of them.

The one big reveal, that Bridal Mask was actually Kang San, was uncovered very early in the series, but it was the jumping off point for the road of conflict we’re on.

That isn’t something you see in Korean drama every day, when even the most lighthearted romantic comedies throw in revelations of secret siblings, parents or inheritances as they close out their respective runs. You’ll get the close calls and cliffhangers, but Bridal Mask uses its characters to drive story. The characters and their actions are what engage the viewer and ground the story.

A Pace Almost As Fast As Bridal Mask Himself
Based on a Korean manhwa, Bridal Mask is an action thriller, a romantic drama and political theatre all in one. Taking history and dramatizing it with contemporary sensibilities has always been fascinating to see play out in both Korean and Filipino dramas.

The action is slickly produced and paired with the excellent production design and beautifully crafted 1930s setting, provides for a stunning cinematography and exciting visuals. The look and feel of the series helps emphasize the grand adventure the series is shaping up to be.

The writing’s quick pace has made for one edge of your seat episode after another. There hasn’t been a dud yet and at Episode 18, just a few episodes past the halfway mark. Joo Won gives a strong, powerful performance as the title character with Park Ki Woong able to match that intensity more and more as the drama kicks into an even higher gear heading into the homestretch. They and the rest of the strong ensemble establish a connection with the audience early in the series. That’s always important, making the audience care about the characters and giving a reason to tune in every episode. Even the best stories and plots can be forgotten if the characters can’t forge that connection with the audience.

Bridal Mask has been running on all cylinders, a truly epic and thrilling series that doesn’t seem to have even scratched the surface of what it can do. It has certainly been compelling enough as it is, but what is shaping up to be one of the year’s best series, still has plenty more to come.

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