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Thursday, May 26, 2022

5 years of Guardian The Lonely And Great God: The truth behind Gong Yoo’s breakdown during Kim Go-eun’s death scene

As Guardian: The Great And Lonely God completes 5 years of its release, here's looking back at the magical K-drama that was imbued with philosophy and realism.

Written by Lakshana N Palat | New Delhi |
Updated: January 23, 2022 9:41:20 am
GuardianGuardian: The Lonely And Great God completes 5 years today (Photo: TVN)

Reincarnation, deities, the mysterious ‘Goblin’, the Grim Reaper and one confused human being trapped as the sands of fate shift. It’s no surprise why Guardian: The Lonely And Great God, starring Gong Yoo, Kim Geo-eun, Lee Dong-Wook and Yoon In-na is such a comfortable, yet bittersweet watch that has lost none of its attraction even five years after it ended. For the non-Hallyu watchers, it ushered new words into the vocabulary, including ‘dokkabe’, which means goblin. These are not the surly English creatures trotting around in forests, but spiritual and magical entities of the Korean folklore.

The show revolved around Gong Yoo’s Kim Shin, a celebrated warrior, who is betrayed and killed by his king. However, death doesn’t come to Kim Shin as he is cursed to roam the earth with an invisible sword in his chest. He can only be free when the destined Goblin’s bride can pull the sword out of him. Enter the bubbly but Cinderella-like Kim Go-eun’s Eun Tak, a girl whose fate has been sealed, but due to Kim Shin’s whimsical interference one night, she is saved before she is even born. Lee Dong Wook plays the Grim Reaper, who is roaming with Kim Shin. While he struggles with his complicated love life with Yoon In-na, he forms a tentative friendship with Eun Tak, though he knows she will die eventually.

Lee Dong Wook Lee Dong Wook, Gong Yoo and Kim Go Eun (Photo: Netflix)

Bonds are forged, broken, and made again, while some have to wait for another life. Guardian is a drama with much heart and soul, and has an exemplary OST to support it. It is a slow watch, and not something that can be binged easily. It needs patience, but pays off beautifully. The acting isn’t over-the-top at all, but quiet, subtle with only occasional outbursts of emotion, by all the four charismatic leads. There are many things to cherish about this drama, beginning with the acting skills by the cast and the emotional maturity they bring to their roles — balancing the light humour well. As each character’s pasts, dilemmas and demons are unpeeled through the show, the actors sink further into their roles.

The writing of the fates

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Guardian espouses many ideas of destiny and fates, which have been written by ‘higher deities’, but blended with realism. This world of fantasy that has been crafted is so utterly convincing, that you are drawn into this mysterious blend of modernism and fantasy. In the show, some deaths are painful and sudden, but they cannot be avoided. Lee Dong Wook’s Grim Reaper walks around with envelopes or the ‘fates’, and connects to people who have just passed away. This isn’t the cartoon caricature of the Grim Reaper, dressed in a gloomy black cloak. He is a cog in the corporate grim machine, who has to report to work on a daily basis.

At times it’s comical, on other occasions it is heart wrenching, as the victims often would like a little preparation for death, as they need to bid their beloved goodbye. As the spirits pass through his ‘office’, which is actually a limbo, he hands them a drink to forget their life, so that they feel no pain.

Eun Tak’s fate is a curious exception, because she wasn’t meant to be saved. Kim Shin, who falls in love with her, rescues her from danger at every chance that he gets , cheating death. The deities — dressed as fashionable humans — visit him and express their displeasure. However, Eun Tak evades death, and the makers almost have you fooled that she will get her happy ending with Kim Shin, who is freed from the curse. Her death unfolds in one of the most tragic scenes of the show, as she sacrifices herself to save children from a car crash.

A tearful Grim Reaper stands by the wreckage, and explains to his confused colleague why there was no envelope of her name. Some human deeds are so unexpected that even the higher powers cannot write them. It is a profound line, and the show doesn’t delve into further explanation.

The Grim Reaper’s romance

 It’s a common trope for K-dramas to have several parallel storylines, one of them being the two-second leads, who are usually related to the protagonists somehow. When it comes to Guardian, the ‘second lead syndrome’ as fans call it, is particularly strong, owing to the overpowering chemistry between Lee Dong Wook and Yoon In-na. Gong Yoo and Kim Go-eun’s romance was bittersweet and wholesome, no doubt, but it was the relationship between the Grim Reaper and Kim Sun that was electric to watch. You didn’t care how many times they cried, you would just cry with them.

Lee Dong Wook (Photo: Netflix)

As far as unlucky romances go, Grim Reaper tips the scale, as he was the insecure king Wang Yeo, married to Kim Sun, who was Kim Shin’s sister in their previous lives. She was killed along with Kim Shin, and a heartbroken Wang Yeo, realising his sins, dies too, only to come back as Grim Reaper, who has no memory of this past. That is till he meets Kim Sun, a sparkly bright girl in the modern era, and Eun Tak’s best friend.

For several episodes, Grim Reaper is unable to understand why seeing her causes him such intense pain, and they finally piece the puzzle together. They are not meant to be in that lifetime, but there’s always a next life if you’re lucky — and they find happiness again, and have no memory of their previous sorrows.

The show does not wish to be morbid, it wants you to find that solace in loss, that you might just meet your loved one again—even if it takes being reborn in another life altogether.

The brotherhood between Grim Reaper and the Goblin

 One of the delightfully unusual things about Guardian is that the Grim Reaper and Goblin have to share a house. You almost forget that these are two unworldly entities, as they seem like warring housemates. Kim Shin takes several jabs at Grim Reaper’s work outfit and hat, and walks in and out of portals as he pleases, just to annoy him further. Yet, when it comes to the safety of Eun Tak, the two unite, and in possibly one of my favourite scenes of the whole show, they emerge from the darkness ‘like models’ to save her. In a hilarious twist, they tried to recreate the same scene while buying groceries, but it just does not fly as a truck comes roaring behind them, shattering their vibe.

Lee Dong Wook Lee Dong Wook with Gong Yoo (Photo: Netflix)

After much sparring and trying to terrify each other, they strike up a close bond, only to realise that the Grim Reaper, in fact has a dark connection to the Goblin’s previous life as a warrior, though he doesn’t realise it. If Gong Yoo and Lee Dong Wook can make us laugh with their mobile expressions, constant bickering over breakfasts, they can twist the knife in our hearts, during the particularly emotional scenes. The chemistry between the two actors is a joy to watch, and this friendship translated off-screen as well. They barely hug in the show — but their camaraderie is reflected in the tiny details.

The ending

Sorrow cannot last for an eternity, but neither can profound love. But what can last forever? Eun Tak answers, it’s sorrowful love. When we hear these words at the beginning of the show, it’s difficult to comprehend what she means. But as we see Kim Shin being compelled to live a life without Eun Tak, just quietly longing for her presence, we understands what she means. This explanation of love is a tad unusual for a Korean drama, and yet, it’s what adds to the realism of the show.

Guardian leaves you with a little hope, after the particularly tear-jerking scene of Eun Tak bidding goodbye to a sobbing Kim Shin. She tells him gently to continue living his life and doesn’t take the memory-wiping tea. The nerve-wracking sobs from Kin Shin are so achingly realistic as Gong Yoo had sunk himself deep into the role. In an old video with Lee Dong Wook, it was revealed that he had stayed up for many days. “You were tired. I kept paying attention because I was so worried about you.” Lee Dong Wook revealed that he had personally gone to Gong Yoo and tapped him on the shoulder, to check if he was okay. “Upon hearing action, you started crying. I was standing next to you, and I teared up.” Even when the two of them recalled it, they got sentimental.

Gong Yoo (Photo: Netflix)

In the last few minutes of the show, Wang Yeo is born again, and is reunited with Kim Sun, who is now an actress. There is solace that they finally found each other, even if Kim Shin didn’t quite have that luck. Nevertheless, Eun Tak returns to him in the last minute, reborn again. They don’t embrace, but a meaningful glance is passed between these two, along with a few words. He will live for eternity, and she has only a handful of lives left—but you know that despite that, she will find her way back to him. There is a flashback to the explanation of sorrowful love.

The Guardian is not a run-of-the-mill Korean drama that should be watched to pass time –underneath all the humour and romantic mush and fantasy, it offers deep reflections on life and love.

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