Chuno is a 24 episode historical drama set in Joseon Korea, in the year 1648. It is about Lee Dae Gil, a former noble who became an embittered slave hunter, and his quest to track down the runaway slave woman he had sworn to marry.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Dae Gil’s life had been shattered the night his father discovered that he was in love with one of their slaves, a woman named Un Nyun. Marriage with a slave was impossible, and Dae Gil’s father immediately put the girl in restraints and threatened to starve her to death. Un Nyun’s brother, also a slave, burned down the house in desperation, and ran off with his sister. Both of Dae Gil’s parents died in the fire. In that one awful night, Dae Gil lost his parents, his home, his status as a nobleman, and the woman he loved.
Chuno’s theme is the inhumanity of the institution of slavery. It dramatizes the impossibility of a truly human life in slavery, and the evil repercussions it has throughout society, not just among the slaves, but among the nobles and other free classes, as well.
The drama opens with Dae Gil and his two companions, General Choi and Wang Son, on the hunt for escaped slaves. They find the slaves in a tavern, and quickly subdue them. Outside, Dae Gil offers any one of them a chance to go free – if they can tell him anything about Un Nyun’s whereabouts, after he shows them a drawing of her that he carries with him at all times. This quickly shows us Dae Gil’s true purpose in life, which is not slave hunting, but finding his lost love.
None of them have any information, however, and Dae Gil and his companions therefore herd them along the road to the capital, where they will be turned over to an official for the reward money.
On the way, a female slave begs for pity from Dae Gil, and he asks if she has ever heard of a slave hunter named Lee Dae Gil. She affirms that she has, and proceeds to describe him: “His eyes are crimson red, his teeth black as a beast. He looks like he’s been starving for ten days, and is the kind of lowbred who would gorge the night away in a gisaeng’s embrace, on the same day his parents died. But sir, you couldn’t possibly compare with such vulgar beasts.” Dae Gil answers: “That’d be me – that vulgar beast you heard about.” With that revelation, the slaves give up all hope of escape or release, or any kind of pity or compassion from their captor.
This is the barbaric, merciless image that is Dae Gil’s public persona, and he works hard to make people believe it. But it isn’t his real self, as we soon find out. Among the slaves, there is a mother and daughter. When Dae Gil learns that the daughter, who appears to be about 12 years old, is to be made her master’s bedmate, he breaks into the man’s home, knocks him out, and rescues the child and her mother. He then advises them to go to a certain mountain, where there is a man who takes in and protects escaped slaves. Over the course of the drama, we learn that he has been sending a steady stream of slaves to this refuge since becoming a slave hunter.
This shows there is some kind of war going on in Dae Gil’s soul. Clearly, he could have saved the mother and daughter all this trouble by not having captured them to begin with. And what of the other slaves? He did nothing to help them, after turning them over to the law. Nevertheless, we see that he is not all he appears to be on the surface.
Dae Gil’s next assignment is to recapture a runaway slave named Song Tae Ha, who we learn had been a General in the military, and the most skilled fighter in all Joseon. Tae Ha was well known for his integrity, as well. But none of this matters when a powerful government official decides he wants you out of his way. So Tae Ha is framed for theft, and made a slave.
Tae Ha is an interesting contrast to Dae Gil. Where Dae Gil is disillusioned with the class system of masters and slaves in Joseon, Tae Ha looks upon it as the natural order of things, and simply refuses to consider himself a slave, even though he is one, and has the word for slave branded on his forehead, like any other slave. Once Tae Ha escapes he covers the slave brand with a bandana, and looks upon himself as a noble, in spite of everything. And whereas Dae Gil wanted to marry a slave, but was not allowed to, Song Tae Ha did marry a slave, without realizing it. The two have this conversation late in the drama:
LDG: “So tell me, have you enjoyed your life as a slave?”
STH: “I have never been a slave.”
LDG: “Even with that mark on your forehead, you still flaunt your nobility.”
STH: “I might have spoken and behaved like a slave, but my soul never knelt before anyone.”
LDG: “That is why you shall never judge a book by its cover. Hey, if you do manage to change this world, give it a try. Making a world where no people will be forced by distress to run away, and there will be no need for people like me, spending their lives trailing them. This world where people cannot even experience that damned love as they wish. Is it not a wretched nuisance?”
"My soul never knelt before anyone." A magnificent statement. The problem with Song Tae Ha, however, is that he does not recognize that no one deserves to be a slave, any more than he does. But he begins to understand this as the drama unfolds. Dae Gil, in this scene from later in the drama, speaks sardonically, like he doesn't really care, one way or the other. On the inside, though, he is simply heartbroken. The sardonic attitude is simply his way of hiding it.
When Dae Gil accepts the assignment to capture Tae Ha, the Minister stipulates that if he doesn’t succeed in 30 days, his life will be forfeit. If he succeeds, a very large reward will be his and his companions, enough to quit the slave hunting business and buy some land and houses to live on and farm.
Matters soon become complicated when the Minister also sends another man out to bring back Tae Ha. So we meet Hwang Chulwong, who had been Song Tae Ha’s fellow officer, and who also happens to be the Minister’s son-in-law. Chulwong is another bitter man, a parvenu perhaps, whose bitterness stems from his belief that Tae Ha, and others, look down on him, and never showed him proper respect. His marriage to the Minister’s daughter also seems to have embittered him, since the woman is afflicted with some severely debilitating disease (possibly muscular dystrophy?), and Chulwong seems to despise her. From the outset, he acts like a man who wants revenge on the world, and he also is a tremendously skilled fighter. He is after power, and doesn’t care who he has to kill to get it. Finally, he is a cynic, who believes anyone who attains high position will use it for his own power and aggrandizement, even seemingly honorable characters like Song Tae Ha. This is perhaps the reason that Chulwong is so determined to crush Song Tae Ha, since his honor and integrity give the lie to Chulwong’s cynical philosophy.
So the plot follows the cat and mouse games of these three opposing forces, Song Tae Ha on a mission to save a disinherited child-Prince, with Dae Gil and his fellow slave hunters coming at him from one direction, and Chulwong and his minions coming at him from another.
Then the last big complication is added to the main plot: Dae Gil’s lost love, Un Nyun, who has assumed a new name, Kim Hye Won. She and her brother had managed to buy their way out of slavery, and she was set to be married to a well-to-do noble. At the last moment, however, she runs away from her marriage, unable to forget the “Young Master” she had loved, Lee Dae Gil. On her own, Hye Won runs into trouble from ruffians, but is rescued by Song Tae Ha, who happened along at just the right moment. As she clearly was alone and in need of protection, Song Tae Ha, being a gentleman, offered to let her travel under his protection for as long as they were travelling in the same direction, and she gratefully accepted.
Meanwhile a major subplot is developing. A group of slaves, given help and direction from a mysterious source, are plotting rebellion. They acquire a firearm (a matchlock?), and begin assassinating selected nobles (selected for them by their mysterious helper). Gradually they acquire more firearms, and become more effective. It is in this subplot, among the slaves, that we are shown the impossibility of a human existence as a slave. Daughters are sold from their parents, or forced to cohabit with the master. Total submission to the whims of the master is mandatory. Forming relationships is almost impossible, since one’s fellow slaves can be sold off to some other master at any time. They are clothed in rags, fed poorly, worked mercilessly, and branded like cattle. It is little wonder that slaves are fertile ground for rebellion.
As Dae Gil continues his pursuit of Song Tae Ha, it becomes apparent that he is travelling with a woman. At one point Dae Gil catches sight of her from behind, as she and Tae Ha are riding away on horseback. Dae Gil has the uneasy feeling that it looked like Un Nyun, but his two friends convince him he is just imagining it, as he has imagined seeing her many times before. Unfortunately for Dae Gil, this time it was not his imagination. It is Un Nyun/Hye Won, and as she and Tae Ha have travelled together, a friendship has formed between them, that is blossoming into love.
Tae Ha had been married before, with a child, but his wife and child had both been killed by the enemy in a war against the Qing. Hye Won, for her part, believes she has found a man who will enable her finally to get over her loss of the “Young Master,” who she has always believed died in the fire that killed both of his parents. At this point it has been ten years since that catastrophe. She has been thinking of him ever since, and Dae Gil has been searching for her all this time.
When the longed-for moment finally does happen, and Dae Gil sees Un Nyun before his eyes – it is just as she is performing the marriage ceremony with Song Tae Ha. And so the woman he wanted desperately to spend the rest of his life with, and whose happiness means more to him than anything else in the world, is not only married, but married to the man Dae Gil must capture and enslave, or face his own death for failing to do so. That is a value conflict, a life changing dilemma.
Whenever anyone asked him, Dae Gil always claimed he was hunting Un Nyun as an escaped slave. Now the moment of truth has come, and his actions are not in keeping with his words. Un Nyun is right in front of him for the taking, as is Song Tae Ha. But Dae Gil suddenly tells his fellow slave hunters he’s done slave hunting, it’s time to retire and enjoy a quiet life in the countryside. As he admits to General Choi, he has found Un Nyun, and she is happy with Song Tae Ha. He will not upset her happiness, even though it means he can never get back together with the woman he loves. It also means his life is in jeopardy from the Minister who paid him to capture Song Tae Ha.
How did this happen? Why did a man and woman who loved each other get torn asunder, leading to so much pain for both of them? The institution of slavery was the cause of all their suffering, for killing the love and happiness they should have enjoyed together. A master is forbidden to marry a slave; a slave has no right to love a master. Slavery ruins the lives and happiness of both slaves and masters.
Parallel to this ruined relationship is one among two slaves in the subplot of the slave rebellion. Eop Bok, a former tiger hunter who was enslaved for unpaid debts, had fallen in love with Chobok, a bright, intelligent young slave woman. Both of them were almost afraid to fall in love, because they both knew one of them could be sold off at any moment, and they’d never see each other again. But they were fiercely determined not to be separated. Then one day it happened. Chobok’s master decided to trade her for a cow. When Eop Bok found out, it was the last straw in his existence as a slave. He burst in on Chobok’s master, demanded to know who he had sold her to, and then he killed the man. None of this would have happened absent the institution of slavery. Their happiness would not have been broken up, and Eop Bok would not have committed a murder.
Dae Gil’s troubles did not end with his acceptance of Un Nyun’s happiness with another man. Her husband, Song Tae Ha, was still the object of a nationwide manhunt, led by the implacable Hwang Chulwong. When Chulwong found Dae Gil’s friend, Wang Son, still trying to capture Song Tae Ha, he viewed Wang Son as a competitor, and so he eliminated the competition – with his sword. When General Choi came out looking for Wang Son, he too was eliminated by Chulwong. He then set it up to convince Dae Gil that Song Tae Ha had killed his friends. This was more than Dae Gil could bear, and he set out to capture or kill Tae Ha, regardless of how it might affect Un Nyun.
Dae Gil rushes to the home where Song Tae Ha and Un Nyun had been staying, and finds only Un Nyun there. In his anguish for his lost friends, and his fury at the man he thinks killed them, Dae Gil cannot bring himself to show his love for Un Nyun. He pretends he has simply been hunting her, like any other slave. This scene is crucial to the story, and their conversation brings to the surface the theme that has been underlying the whole story. It begins with Un Nyun turning to find Dae Gil standing behind her. Dae Gil stands there silently, staring at the ground, as if to say: ”Take a good look at what I have become, compared to what I was –before your brother destroyed my home and family, and you ran away from me.”
Then he turns to her and speaks:
LDG: “Thought a runaway slave like you could have it so easy?”
UN: “Were you looking for me?”
LDG: “Slaves like you have no right to ask their keeper any questions.”
UN: “Did you, even if just for once, think about me?”
Dae Gil laughs, and says:
LDG: “What deranged fool would ever have feelings for a lowly slattern like you? Now I shall ask the questions. You couldn’t be incognizant of the tenets ruling us all, so how could you forsake our guiding principles and betray your keeper?”
UN: “Who created those tenets? And where did those principles originate? Isn’t trying to live life as decent human beings what our guiding principles should be?”
LDG: “And you even consider yourselves human beings? You know what you are? You are . . . nothing but slaves.”
. . . . . .
UN: “How could a paltry runaway slave implore for survival? Now . . . may you slay me. Seeing you alive itself brings me happiness.”
At this, Dae Gil is genuinely shocked, and indignant.
LDG: “Happiness? And what would you be happy about? Happy that I’m living this way? Or that we met in this manner? A single day feeling like endless moons: is that happiness? What the hell are you happy about?. . . Stop talking about happiness. Survival alone does not grant happiness to everyone.”
Dae Gil is unable to speak honestly with Un Nyun about his love for her. What he says to her is virtually the opposite of what he really feels. He says “What deranged fool would have feelings for a lowly slattern like you?” The truth is that Dae Gil is just such a ”fool.” He loved her long ago, has loved her for the ten years he has searched for her, and he loves her still.
When he asks how she could betray her keeper, he is betraying his own confessed desire to live with her forever in a changed world. He is pretending to believe in the master-slave system that has destroyed his life, simply so that Un Nyun will not see his anguish at having lost her.
Finally he does speak honestly, when Un Nyun says she is happy he is alive. This genuinely shocks Dae Gil, and he lashes out at her unfairly. Can you not see, he asks her, that I’m living like an animal, hunting slaves? Our meeting as enemies, instead of reunited lovers, makes you happy? What’s wrong with you?
This causes Un Nyun to break down in tears, for this is certainly not what she meant about happiness. But this meeting with Dae Gil had come about suddenly, and she had not had time to consider what Dae Gil’s life had become, and what he had suffered.
At this point, Song Tae Ha shows up. He and Dae Gil march off to a deserted spot to settle their grievances against one another, once and for all. They fight each other ferociously, each one thinking the other had killed his closest friends. In fact, Hwang Chulwong had killed all of them. As they fight, Dae Gil taunts Tae Ha with marrying a slave. Tae Ha had no idea Un Nyun, whom he knew as Kim Hye Won, had been a slave, and this shocks him profoundly. He refuses to believe it, and they renew their assault upon one another.
The fight results in Dae Gil capturing Tae Ha, and heading back to the capital to turn him over to the authorities. Before they get there, however, they have a revealing conversation about their differing world-views:
STH: “Was my spouse – truly a slave?”
LDG: “And so what? Slave or noble, what difference would it make? If you have feelings for each other, that is all that matters.”
STH: “Be that as it may, people’s roots are unalterable.”
LDG: “It’s because people like you are in power that we live in such a wretched world. If people like you didn’t exist, then there would be no need for people like me, either.”
LDG: “I don’t know what brought you to Jeju, but all you want is returning to your past, nothing more than that. You must be eager to return to all that luxury which surrounded your life.”
STH: “Do you have any right to say so? You spuriously parade the streets on the pretext of restoring public order, but it is likely that all you do is torment innocent people, and demean yourself with the vile haughtiness of a vandal.”
LDG: “That’s natural, for only that way can we survive. For creating a world where only that grants you survival is what people like you have done.”
Leading him back to the capital proves to be a mistake, because the government wants Dae Gil just as much as it wants Tae Ha. Both of them are taken to be tortured, and Hwang Chulwong is in charge of the proceedings. Both of them defy his attempts to make them talk about the whereabouts of the Prince that Song Tae Ha was protecting, and finally it is decided to simply hang them both. During the torture they learned that Chulwong had killed their friends, and so their hatred for each other abated substantially.
After being rescued from execution by allies, Tae Ha and Dae Gil search for Un Nyun, who is now being hunted because she is shielding the Prince. When they find her, it is the first time Tae Ha has seen her since learning she had been a slave. Un Nyun says she will leave him, because she deceived him about being a slave. Tae Ha finally asks her to stay, and give him time to overcome the prejudices that he had learned over a lifetime. Un Nyun/Hye Won agrees to stay with him.
All three of them then go to the mountain where runaway slaves have a sanctuary, until they can decide how to proceed. There, Dae Gil finds his two comrades, alive but nursing severe injuries. Tae Ha decides his only course of action is to contact the Crown Prince, and ask him to intercede on behalf of the young Prince, to allow him to live. Dae Gil considers this foolish and suicidal, but determines to accompany him. He will not allow Un Nyun’s husband to come to harm.
Their meeting with the Crown Prince did not prove fruitful, and after it Hwang Chulwong sprung an ambush on them. They fought their way out of it, however, and Tae Ha decides the only option left is to leave the Kingdom entirely, and take refuge with the Qing.
They get a message to Un Nyun, and she meets them on the way to a port from which they plan to make their escape. Dae Gil will accompany them to the port, and then bid them farewell.
But Hwang Chulwong has other plans. He and his men intercept them on their way, and a melee ensues. Song Tae Ha is severely injured, Un Nyun is injured, Chulwong is injured, Dae Gil is injured. Tae Ha can barely stand, but still wants to fight. Dae Gil tells him to go, to live for Un Nyun, or Dae Gil would be dying for nothing. He orders Un Nyun to take Tae Ha away, and she tearfully complies.
Dae Gil and Chulwong resume fighting. Chulwong cannot understand why Dae Gil is fighting, giving up his life, for Tae Ha. Dae Gil tells him Tae Ha saved his life once. And of course he is also doing it for Un Nyun. As they continue savagely beating each other to a pulp, Dae Gil says:
LDG: “Even if we only rid this world of people like you and me [slave hunters and brutal public officials], I’m sure it will be a better place.”
Somehow this love for which a man will give the last full measure of devotion – laying down his life – finally reaches some spark of decency buried in Chulwong’s soul, and he is changed. He stops fighting. Dae Gil prepares to fight another group of soldiers that has just arrived on the scene. As he summons his last reserve of strength, his thoughts turn to Un Nyun:
LDG: “Un Nyun, Un Nyun, live in happiness. Spend endless moons with that man of yours, and that child, until the day we shall once again meet, and you will tell me how your life was. My Un Nyun, my . . . beloved.”
And with that, Dae Gil charged full speed into his final battle.
Some of the soldiers come to Chulwong and ask him which way Song Tae Ha went, and Chulwong tells them to forget about it. It’s over, let’s go home. And he throws down his sword. When Chulwong gets home, he collapses in his wife’s lap, crying in regret for the terrible life he has led, and the way he has treated his wife.
As Song Tae Ha and Un Nyun stagger off into the distance, Tae Ha stumbles to his knees, and he speaks to Un Nyun.
STH: “My dear, will you follow my wishes?”
STH: “I shall not leave with you for Qing territory.”
UN: “As you wish.”
STH: “I am too indebted to this land of mine, so I don’t believe I could ever leave it.”
UN: “I’m grateful to hear you say that.”
STH: “Thank you, my dear, for saying that. I shall recover in no time. Once I have recovered, we must make a better world. Hye Won. Un Nyun! I shall make sure you will never have to use two names.”
[Subtitles and translations by WithS2, Written in the Heavens Subbing Squad. Screen captures from DramaFever.com.]