Mystical Quintet

Inuksuk / inukshuk / inukhuk / inussuk in 2014 Korean weekend drama Mama - Nothing to Fear

Rock art, remarked philosopher Thomas Heyd, transforms land into landscape by imbuing it with cultural meanings. When someone looks at an old inuksuk, as Arctic researcher Norman Hallenday similarly opined, he is seeing more than a pile of stones—what enter his gaze are also the thoughts of another human being. And depending on how the viewer further engages with the stone structure, he adds new meanings to this landmark.

Traditionally used by various indigenous Arctic peoples as markers for food, direction and danger, as codes for private messages and as decoys that lead animals to hunters, inuksuit (the plural form of inuksuk) can carry a strong connotation of survival. In their unpolished states, they show mankind triumphing over nature by reconfiguring rather than destroying all its key elements. Co-existing on these man-made stacks of boulders, flat stones and/or broken rocks are the rustic beauty of unadulterated mineral formations and the moving beauty of human fortitude. To modern, non-Arctic viewers, these attributes add layers to inuksuit‘s exotic charm, harking back to a long-lost age of simplicity and primitive magic.

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Xue Shao (Winston Chao) and Princess Taiping (Zhou Xun) in 2000 Chinese historical drama Da Ming Gong Ci / Daming Gong Ci

The Poets’ Camp

Prince Consort Xue Shao:
[Y]our mother (Empress Wu below) killed her to fulfill the romantic fantasy you conjured on a whim! Which was the same as killing me! […] [T]he day you and I married became my wife’s death anniversary. I once thought of giving you the cold shoulder to punish you for the wrong you did to the idea of love, tormenting your feelings to pay homage to her spirit. But I was wrong. You’re not the cold and selfish princess I imagined. On the contrary, you’re not willful, unreasonable or arrogant. Scarier still, you’re loyal. All these years, I kept fearing that I would grow irrevocably in love with you. Now, my fear has come true—Princess, I…I have fallen for you. I tried mustering all my willpower to resist it, but there was nothing I could do! The hatred in my heart was no defense against your purity and loyalty! Yet how can I develop romantic affection for you? […] What does that make of my vow to my wife? […]

Princess Taiping (shaken and learning the truth only now):
Please pardon my…my mother’s sins, on account of the fact that you now return my love…

Prince Consort Xue Shao (before thrusting a sword into his heart):
No, one can encounter happiness numerous times over the course of his life, but he can commit himself to only one thread of happiness among them.


The Pragmatists’ Camp

Empress Wu:
A person who has suffered misfortune usually has two choices: Live, so that he can rewrite a happy destiny and let others share his joy; die, such that his fate becomes more wretched and others are forcibly buried along with him. If a man tortures one woman for the sake of keeping another woman in loving memory, he cannot hold a candle to even the meanest womenfolk on earth, let alone be considered an honest individual.


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A Soldier Wearing a Ball and Chain

Yi Bang-won / King Taejong (Yoo Ah-in) in Jung Do Jeon / Jeong Do-jeon's cave in 2015 Korean historical drama / sageuk Six Flying Dragons

Eminent American judge and legal scholar Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once expressed the following disturbing opinion:

“If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, I don’t doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises.”

Essentially, Justice Holmes believed that the importance of crime deterrence outweighs that of considerations about social circumstances which have led a person to go down a criminal path. Yet the idea of sacrificing a hapless individual to the common good runs contrary to modern notions of civil rights. This struggle between the individual and the masses is echoed in Six Flying Dragons, a historical drama about three fictional and three non-fictional personalities’ involvement in the establishment of the Joseon dynasty. In the dark times of the preceding late Goryeo dynasty, when many are already dying under oppressive politics, its characters wonder if their own political means are really worth more than the ends. As a 12-year-old boy, bright-eyed protagonist Yi Bang-won already had his own answer:

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Of Sky Waltzes and Rain Dancers

Kim Shin-hyuk (Choi Siwon) in 2015 Korean romance drama She Was Pretty E4, performing Gene Kelly's "I'm Singing in the rain"

Amidst a sprinkling of American pop classics, She Was Pretty‘s characters live, laugh and love, alternately pulling off hilarious shenanigans and waxing sentimental about work, romance and friendship. Second male lead Kim Shin-hyuk merrily glides through rain puddles and twirls his umbrella to the tune of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” all by himself on a slightly busy pavement under the city lights. Main couple Ji Sung-joon and Kim Hye-jin bond over the Carpenters’ “Close to You” during a downpour that triggers a panic attack in him and annoyingly curls up her hair. But it is without lyrics when second female lead, Min Ha-ri, daintily holds out her hand to raindrops from a drizzle, smiling brightly at the rain itself. In their asymmetrical love quadrilateral, which tests the ladies’ non-romantic love for each other, the first leads take to blue skies, in quiet unison, whereas the second leads ultimately tune in alone to the music of rain.

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The “Was” in She Was Pretty

Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) wrapping his coat around Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-eum) in a back hug in front of a frame at a beach in 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty

Does our opinion of an acorn change slightly when we recall that it was once part of a majestic oak tree previously looming tall on some revered mountain? Yet, an acorn has a brand new life waiting to be unleashed from within, on whichever shores animal companions bring it to. It does not want to be locked away in some dark museum, forever remembered as a dead tree.

Similarly, does knowledge of someone’s past enhance or detract from our understanding of him? While She Was Pretty‘s lead character Hye-jin hides from her childhood beau, Sung-joon, out of insecurity about herself—after he grows up successful and good-looking and she underemployed and “ugly”—their colleague Shin-hyuk hides away from everyone to be himself.

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Monte Carlo Fallacy

Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) climbing into a slide in 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty

Here goes a popular mathematical joke: If you are fearful of the small risk of boarding the same plane as a bomb-crazy terrorist, make the odds even tinier by packing along a bomb in your luggage!

Known as the gambler’s fallacy or Monte Carlo fallacy, the most spectacular example of this type of flawed thinking took place in the eponymous casino in 1913, when the ball in a roulette wheel landed on black 26 times in a row, taking away millions from players believing that it was more likely to give red after each lengthy sequence of blacks. Like these players, many people tend to believe that after the same event has happened multiple times or after a single unlikely event has taken its course, the likelihoods of events of an opposite nature will rise as part of some compensatory mechanism of the universe. Yet, in reality, if each event occurs independently, such that an outcome does not alter the conditions under which the next event takes place, the probabilities of the events should remain constant, regardless of how unlikely the previous results are.

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Heaven in the Voices

Jeong Do-jeon (Kim Myung-min) in 2015 Korean historical drama / sageuk Six Flying Dragons

“War should not be waged by the rich, because it is the poor who make up the casualties,” bellows Jeong Do-jeon, the man who will become the founding prime minister and master architect of the new nation Joseon. Pointing at the Goryeo prime minister and his cronies seated comfortably under the tent, he continues, “War should not be decided on by the old, because it is the young who perish.”

One by one, the massive sea of common folks, scholars and ministers in the square joins him in the rally against diplomatic ties with the weakened Yuan regime, which the elites are pursuing for personal benefits despite the risk of antagonizing the mighty Ming empire that has replaced it in China. Fights break out between the two sides, as the prime minister lets his armed guards beat up even the weak and the old to shield the Yuan envoys secretly present. Watching on with tears in his eyes, Jeong leads a Goryeo-equivalent of the crowd anthem, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” in the film Les Miserables:

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Fly Away, Skylark!

Ha No-ra (Choi Ji-woo) in 2015 Korean drama Twenty Again

This is a familiar sight in family photographs and illustrations: the wife wraps her arms sweetly around her child, the husband wraps his protectively around them. They are in love yet not quite in love.

Things are not entirely rosy beyond the halo around romantic and parental love. German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) argued that love is really greed in disguise. Each party wants to possess the other and absorb something new from that person into himself. Even sympathetic love is dispensed to relish superiority over the “weak” party. Those craving for such love, in turn, are actually trying to wield the one power they may still have: the ability to get people to suffer for them.

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Citrus Rhapsody

Writing the Way to Happiness Today, the book read by Ha No-ra (Choi Ji-woo) and featured in episode 14 of 2015 Korean drama Twenty Again 필사의 발견 오늘, 행복을 쓰다 : 아들러의 행복과 긍정 메시지 99

Is it ever too late to chase a dream?

Twenty Again juxtaposes its 38-year-old college freshman heroine’s regrets about her past passivity with some of her youthful schoolmates’ indifference to their hearts’ desires. While she does not think it possible at her age to pursue the dancing career she had wanted as a youth, they, sticking to dogmas and cold pragmatism for the larger part of the show, are not always objects of envy either. As the show nears its conclusion, it shares these lines from a book titled Writing the Way to Happiness Today:

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Fermat’s Last Theorem—It All Starts With a Little Confession

Cha Ji-an (Jang Na-ra) and Lee Hyun / David Lee (Seo In-guk) with purple flowers in 2015 Korean drama Hello Monster / I Remember You

The identities of Hello Monster‘s criminal masterminds are no real mysteries, but the show regales puzzle lovers all the same with ingenious cryptograms, including asterisk-based symbols that translate into flag semaphores coding for geographic coordinates of crime locations, with missing strokes of the asterisks representing flag positions, and crossword puzzles which black and white spaces encode binary numbers that lead to resident registration numbers of murder victims. There is also the male protagonist’s evaluation of the female protagonist: 15 plus alpha, 15 being the score he also gives to most of their colleagues and “plus alpha” being loan words used in Korea and Japan to mean “something extra.” When she requests an elaboration, he likens her worth to the exponents in Fermat’s Last Theorem—an unquantifiable value.

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