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Korean War retold in two new series

Sixty years have passed since the nightmare that was the Korean War broke out.

Since the war, films, documentaries and miniseries have done their best to serve as a reminder of the war that forever changed the history of this nation.

“TaeGukGi: Brotherhood of War” (2003) drew millions to the movie theater with its melodramatic story of two siblings whose love for one another went beyond enemy lines.

“Welcome to Dongmakgol” (2005) portrayed the tragedy of war invading the lives of a village of pure-hearted civilians.

With such stellar blockbusters having set a precedent, this year’s retellings of the civil-turned-proxy war faces several challenges. 
MBC spent 13 billion won to create “Road No. 1,” a drama that features intense battle scenes from the Korean War. LOGOS FILM
MBC spent 13 billion won to create “Road No. 1,” a drama that features intense battle scenes from the Korean War. LOGOS FILM

Namely, from what angle will the incident be explored? How will the work set itself apart from its successful predecessors? How will it fire the imaginations of a younger generation of viewers for whom the war is primarily an incident taught in history books?

Amid tension heightened by the tragic sinking of the corvette Cheonan and on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, two new miniseries take a stab at retelling history.

KBS’ “Legend of the Patriots” pre-empted MBC’s long-awaited “Road No. 1” by airing its first episode on Saturday night.

The series nabbed nationwide viewer ratings of around 15 to 16 percent for its first two episodes, a good beginning for a series whose competition includes the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

The placing of the 20-episode series in a weekend timeslot saves it from direct friction with the Wednesday and Thursday night primetime slot that “Road No. 1” will be slipping into this week, a boon for “Legend of the Patriots,” whose production costs stand at an estimated 8 billion won ($6.6 million) – lower than the 13 billion won injected into “Road No. 1.”

Furthermore, “Road No. 1” boasts heavyweight Hallyu stars So Ji-sub and Kim Ha-neul, and former boy band member Yoon Kye-sang. The trio will fill out the “Pearl Harbor”-esque love triangle that will surely attract female viewers who might otherwise be turned off by the gruesome battle scenes.

In contrast, “Legend of the Patriots,” a remake of the 1975 KBS classic war series, focuses on a primarily male cast, headed by veteran actor Choi Soo-jong, in a plot that may conjure up comparisons to HBO’s “Band of Brothers” (2001), which hit Korean audiences via cable.

The focus lies primarily on Choi’s character and his squad, on their battles against North Korean and Chinese troops, their struggles to survive and the psychological and spiritual challenges they must overcome.

Unfortunately, the gritty believability needed to bolster such a devastating take on the war was not present in the first two episodes.

Battle scenes took on the staged nuances of a theatrical play. Operatic music in the background detracted from key moments of terror when Chinese intervention in October 1950 brought about the horrific realization that the war was far from over.

The key, then, to maintaining viewer interest will most likely lie in the human factor, on how well Choi and his co-stars are able to portray the personal toll that the war takes on them, on the heartbreaking bonds that their characters form, and on the connections that they make with the audience.

On the flipside, “Road No. 1” shows all the signs of a success-in-the-making.

A massive budget, two major directors -- “Stairway to Heaven” director Lee Jang-soo and “Time Between Dog and Wolf” director Kim Jin-min -- and scriptwriter Hahn Ji-hun, who helped script “TaeGukGi: Brotherhood of War,” form the backbone of what promises to be a solid series.

Filming for the drama was completed over a period of six months, giving production plenty of time to amp up the grit and add gloss to the romance.

Most importantly, the combination of heavy-duty action and high stakes romance gives “Road No. 1” the ability to attract a wide audience, both domestic and international, both male and female.

“I think Korean dramas have a specific characteristic,” said “Road No. 1” actor Yoon Kye-sang at the drama’s press conference on Friday. “Because they portray truly ardent love, love of the kind that one can sacrifice oneself for, I think it gives overseas viewers the ability to dream, to sort of dream of a love like that.”

Yoon, whose character courts Kim Ha-neul’s heroine after she receives news that her sweetheart (played by So Ji-sub) is dead, added: “I watched the first two episodes of ‘Road No. 1’ and, wow, they (So’s and Kim’s characters) really love each other.”

Romance, however, is not the only kind of love to be featured in the upcoming series. While both Yoon and So play rivals for the affections of one woman, the two characters end up bonding and fostering feelings of brotherly love for one another.

“If I was a woman, really, I would have hit on him (So),” Yoon joked.

“While one shouldn’t use the word ‘love’ to describe one man’s feelings for another man, while filming, we bonded, and there are so many heartbreaking scenes,” bantered So. “The only thing we didn’t do was kiss.”

“I loved him (Yoon’s character) more, more than Soo-yeon (Kim Ha-neul’s character),” So added in jest.

Intense battle scenes, as showcased in the preview highlight reel, promise to balance out the romance and melodrama of “Road No. 1.”

Dirt flying from bombs exploding -- which according to actor Yoon, was recreated with real dynamite that was chopped up into bits -- trucks overturning, catching on fire, soldiers coughing up blood say that this is not a glorified, gentrified take on the war.

“Road No. 1” starts on Wednesday at 9:55 p.m. on MBC.

“Legend of the Patriots” airs on KBS 1 TV on Saturdays and Sundays at 9:40 p.m.

By Jean Oh  (