Skip Navigation

Top Menu

Home Archives About

Blog Post

What I Learned from Bridal Mask

I recently started watching one of the highest rated and most recommended Korean dramas of the 2010s, Bridal Mask (or Gaksital), starring heartthrob Joo Won as the titular superhero. The show aired three years ago, but I resisted watching it before this month because the premise didn't appeal to me. A 1930s Korean Zorro? Really? And the promo shots looked so dark and depressing.

Well, the promo shots weren't inaccurate. The show is very dark and depressing, and brutally violent and gut-wrenching. To watch it you need a strong stomach and an open mind.

But it's also lovely, and touching, and inspiring in its tragic way. Joo Won's acting is superb, the story is expertly plotted, and the cinematography is gorgeous. I haven't seen senseless bloodshed this poetic since Sweetie forced me to watch Hero.

The one fly in the ointment—and it's a very poisonous fly—is the heroine, Mok Dan. I can't stand her. She annoys me so much I had to take a break from the series after episode 20 of 28 and still haven't finished it. (Though I know how it ends because the Internet has spoilers aplenty.)

Mok Dan's characterization didn't bother me at first. I happily watched the first few episodes without caring much for her either way. But then I started to feel impatient every time her face appeared on screen. I noticed that many other people were aggravated too.

"Joo Won is amaaaziiing! The girl is blah, but Joo Won is amaaaziiing!"

"Ugh, less than ten episodes in and I already hate the love interest. I hope the writers keep the focus on Bridal Mask, and not on the clichéd romance."

"Am I the only one who wants him to end up with the villainess? Mok Dan just isn't cutting it for me."

For a while, I couldn't put my finger on the reason Mok Dan was so unpopular. On paper, there's nothing irritating about her. Mok Dan is actually the only "good" character in the cast. She's courageous, selfless, and filial. She has rock-solid ideals and is the perfect model of loyalty, piety, and patriotism.

Then I realized that's precisely the problem.

Every main character in Bridal Mask, with the exception of Mok Dan, is an ambiguous hue of gray: all colors mixed together in unique and interesting ways. The result looks like this.

Rembrandt's Night Watch

But Mok Dan is pure color, with no mixing or blending. The result looks like this.

My Little Pony

And that's what bothers me about Mok Dan: she's a cartoon inserted into a Rembrandt. Her flawless simplicity ruins the whole picture.

Bridal Mask, starring Pinkie Pie

There's no nuance to her emotions.

Mok Dan has four faces: an angry face, a sad face, a relieved/happy face, and a confused face. None of these faces ever overlap. In contrast, every other character usually has two or more emotions teeming under the surface: hatred fighting with sympathy; anger masking grief and despair; brittle happiness tempered by quiet worry and fear.

Because she's so "pure," Mok Dan feels fake. She cries prettily, sighs and gasps perfectly on cue, and transitions between expressions in a careful and controlled manner. Watching her reminds me that she's an actress playing a part. Real people have messy, mixed-up emotions. They're not neatly compartmentalized like the colors on a My Little Pony character.

She experiences no internal conflict.

Though a better actress might've been able to deliver a more complex performance, the fault with the character lies largely in Mok Dan's story arc, or the lack thereof. Her story creates no internal conflict, while the others' stories do.

Lee Kang To is a famously heartless detective in the Japanese police force. When he was a child his father was assassinated, and when he was a teenager his older brother was mentally disabled by extreme torture after participating in a political protest. To support his family, Kang To joined the police. Branded a traitor by his neighbors and a lowly Korean dog by his bosses, he coped by abandoning his humanity to climb the ranks. After several tragic events he becomes Bridal Mask and secretly joins a group of freedom fighters lead by Mok Dan's father, Mok Damsari. By day he's the enemy of the Korean people, and by night he's their celebrated savior.

Kimura Shunji is the son of the chief of police, and Kang To's best friend. He starts out as a handsome and kindhearted schoolteacher who's very popular with the local Korean children. But when Bridal Mask kills Shunji's brother, Shunji joins the police to bring him to justice. His personality is slowly corrupted by his obsession with catching Bridal Mask and by the influence of Kishokai, the yakuza-like organization his father belongs to. He eventually uncovers Bridal Mask's identity and becomes the mortal enemy of the two people he loves most: Kang To and Mok Dan.

Ueno Rie, born Chae Hong Joo, is a former gisaeng who was adopted by the boss of Kishokai. Under his tutelage she became a talented spy and assassin. He sends her back to Korea, disguised as a nightclub singer, to kill Bridal Mask. However, she discovers that Bridal Mask is the man who saved her life five years before, Lee Kang To. She struggles between her duty to kill him and her desire to help him.

Oh Mok Dan is the daughter of independence leader Mok Damsari. She hates Lee Kang To and is in love with Bridal Mask. That's basically it.

The only opportunity to develop Mok Dan's internal conflict, the fact that she loves and hates the same man, was wasted in the show. I would've liked to see her struggle with a growing attraction to her nemesis, but instead she despises him thoroughly until the mask comes off. I also would've liked to see her shaken when she finds out the hero she worshiped, Bridal Mask, is the same person who once tortured her and nearly executed her by firing squad. But nope, the moment she takes off his mask, all is forgiven. A mere ten minutes later she's declaring she'd happily follow Kang To to the bottom of the ocean.

She's predictable.

The plot of Bridal Mask keeps the audience in a constant state of breathlessness, because you rarely know exactly what the characters will do.

Will Kang To stand still and watch while Shunji tortures Mok Dan's mother figure for information, or will he expose himself as a rebel by interfering?

Will Shunji sacrifice Mok Dan to catch Bridal Mask, or will he give in to his personal feelings and save her?

Will Rie report the identity of Bridal Mask to Kishokai, or will she betray her adoptive father and protect Kang To?

The exception is, of course, Mok Dan. I don't recall being surprised by anything she's done so far. She always acts according to her crystal clear ideals, and she's never tempted to do otherwise.

She never second-guesses herself.

While Kang To, Shunji, and Rie often make tough choices and question their decisions, Mok Dan never does. She doesn't think twice about whether her father's terrorist tactics are right, or whether she should protect her friends by submitting to the Japanese instead of causing trouble. When Rie, the official villainess, points a gun at Kang To, she's falling to pieces inside. When Mok Dan, the official heroine, attempts to stab Kang To in his sleep, she shows no trace of doubt or guilt.

And it's hard for me to like a person who makes this face when she hears a bomb go off at a party, killing who knows how many people.

Mok Dan smiling after bomb

Mok Dan's "heroism" is the kind that rubs people the wrong way: self-righteous, unforgiving, and narrow-minded. This would've been fine if she'd been written this way intentionally. She could've been the fiercely patriotic rebel's daughter who falls for a Japanese supporter and faces the uncomfortable truth that her enemies have families and feelings too. Her growing self-awareness would've made her complex and interesting. But since we're supposed to think she's an angel just as she is, she's simply annoying.

What I Learned

Even in an action-packed thriller driven by external conflicts, like Bridal Mask, characters need to have internal conflicts as well. They need to struggle within themselves and display multifaceted emotions.

The character of Mok Dan is an example of what not to do, unless you want people to root for the villainess. Characters with no internal conflicts, who think and act according to the template of a perfect hero, are boring and unlikeable.

On the other hand, the character of Lee Kang To is a great example of what you should do. Because of his backstory, we can understand each of his actions, even if they're immoral. He has duty and self-preservation pulling him to one side, and love and ideals pulling him to the other. He often has to choose between doing what's right and doing what's necessary, and either choice will have painful consequences. This tug-of-war creates an emotional tension that makes him interesting to watch.

However, a backstory alone doesn't make a character interesting. Mok Dan has a painful backstory too, but she's still flat and boring. Tragedy might make a character pitiable, but it's only one color. To make the character complex, that tragedy needs to be the source of other clashing colors. Kang To's tragic past breaks his moral compass and generates and his internal conflicts. But Mok Dan's tragic past does nothing. Her character and behavior aren't affected in any way. We're just supposed to love her because she's "been through so much."

I often see writers make the same mistake with dark character traits. They'll create characters who are angry, or cruel, or steeped in enui, and they'll think that's enough to make their stories "deep" and "real." It's not. Angst-angst-angst is just as one-dimensional as pep-pep-pep. Darkness doesn't make characters interesting; the conflict between darkness and light does.

Take Rick Blaine in Casablanca. The movie is a classic not because of its plot, which frankly isn't all that exciting, but because of Rick's internal conflicts. Will he keep his safe and comfortable lifestyle by cooperating with the Nazis, or will he stick his neck out to help the resistance? Will he really betray Laszlo, or will he sacrifice his own happiness to help him? You're not certain until the final minutes of the film whether Rick is truly a cad or secretly a hero.

Or on the villainous side of things, take Michael Corleone from the Godfather books and movies. In his youth, Michael tries to be a nice guy. He's a war hero who wants nothing to do with his father's "business" and intends to settle down with his college sweetheart in the suburbs. But when rival gangsters attack his father and brothers and murder his bride, Michael's thirst for revenge transforms him into a full-blown mafia boss. He spends the rest of his life see-sawing between being a ruthless murderer to protect his family and a pious philanthropist to ease his guilt. Without this internal struggle, the trilogy wouldn't have been nearly as interesting or popular.


No comments

(Will not be shown)

What is the first letter of "Connecticut"?