The first time I watched Budapest Diary I fell in love with it. I lost count of how many times I’ve seen it since and each time it captivates me. I wrote this review about a year ago and watching the film again last night reminded me of it. My views about this short film haven’t changed since I originally wrote this review.
Made in 2011, the plot is a romantic story of lost love. Jang Geun Seok’s emotions range from initial anger to acceptance to a return to living to, finally, redemption. In 40 minutes, Jang, under the direction of Director Chang, presents the entire range of emotions that accompany the loss of love. An amazing feat in a Korean industry that takes multiple hours upon hours to tell the same or similar story. In that sense, Budapest Diary has a very American feel to it. It gets to the heart of the story quickly and shows the character’s emotions without lengthy discussion or display. The film moves quickly, but yet it’s the many little details, such as a shot of left over food littered on the coffee table in his hotel room or Jang suddenly staring staring at at a tulip on his table in the restaurant scene, that enable the viewer’s imagination to fill in – or color – all of the character’s emotions without explicit explanation.
It’s like the difference between Dickens’ explicit, detailed scenes and Hemingway’s highly descriptive short use of words to show a scene. Dickens provides every detail, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination. Hemingway, on the other hand, does the opposite by providing just enough detail for the reader to use his vivid imagination to fill in details of the scene.
I believe it was famed acting coach Strasberg who taught that, when acting, the emotions should be honest; otherwise the audience won’t believe them. It’s clearly apparent that Jang displays honest emotions in this short film. In viewing Budapest Diary yet again, it’s obvious that anyone who denigrates this actor’s acting abilities hasn’t watched this film. The range of honest emotions he displays takes the viewer from lows to highs, from ddep anger to desperate sadness to free-wheeling joy to calm acceptance and everything in between. We partake in his emotional journey because we believe in it. It’s real to the viewer.
That ability to create desired emotional sensations in the viewer is the essence of good acting. Anyone within the industry – or out – who claims he’s not a great actor has not studied this short film. As that Korean/Canadian director recently tweeted, Jang is highly under rated by his Korean industry. Personally, given the broad stretch of emotions required in this film as well as in his other films (specifically, The Case of Itaewon Homicide), I believe Jang has the acting talent to become far more than an Asian actor. As yet, I’m not convinced that Tree J, which is his company, understands that potential.
Nevertheless, if I were still in school, I’d choose Budapest Diary for a thesis paper. It’s like a John Donne poem or late Shakespearean play: tightly woven and full of imagery that not only sets the mood but describes emotions, thoughts, settings and ideas without elaborate descriptions and words. Each scene is a painting, full of details that only the subconscious registers, creating a specific mood in the viewer’s mind.
Every time I watch it, I see different aspects of the film. I don’t think any film has so intrigued me. Maybe because it is so short that it’s easy to watch over and over again. The overall picture, like a masterpiece at the Louvre, is condensed; thus, each detail stands out waiting to be discovered. Director Chang and film editor did a masterful job. Interestingly, Chang is also the director for CAMP. Thus, I suspect the same attention to artistic details – metaphors, similes, and symbols – all designed to elicit an emotional response, without the viewer even realizing it. It’s highly possible that CAMP could well be extraordinary, given how much both have grown both in life and in the industry.
Moreover, even the music, from the initial song to the harmonica solo to the final orchestration, draws the viewers’ emotions along on the character’s journey: solitude to sadness to joy to, finally, grandeur…or hope. If you listen closely, you can hear the horn instruments softly holding up (or lifting up) the stringed instruments. Again, every detail of the film is as finely honed as a masterpiece…which makes me wonder why Tree J did not treat it as such?
Daebak (Jackpot) Queries, Post Episode 10 ~ History vs Fiction, in one of the most fascinating eras of Joseon history, and What Happens
I’ve just finished watching the fully subbed version of Ep 10 of #Daebak. So, here some questions to ponder before the next episode.
1) When Chae-geon referred to the Tiger that could move mountains he once knew and adored and to whom Dae-gil reminded him, to what person was he referring?
2) Do Dae-gil and Yeoning become friends at some point after rescuing Dam-seo?
3) Are Dae-gil & Yeoninggun working in concert? They both wear In-jwa’s old white masks and are both coming at In-jwa from different angles, converging on him, but have they coordinated their efforts?
4) If they’re not working in concert, why did they both choose to use In-jwa’s old gambling masks at the same time?
5) What is Sukjong, if he’s still alive at this point, up to? He’s a master at playing politics, and from the look on his face when he dismisses Yeoninggun, telling him not to investigate further, he’s deciding on something. Who is he going to use and what is he going to do to bring down Yi In-jwa?
6) And what about Dam-seo? Does she just disappear? Where will she again appear? And what will she do now that she’s been disabused of her long held beliefs regarding her father’s death? Will she too choose revenge? If so, to whose camp will she choose to use her skills, Dae-gil’s or Yeoninggun’s?
7) Speaking of characters, when will Gye Sul Im show up again? And how will she, as a Busan gisaeng, help Dae-gil?
8) What about Kim Chang-jib, a previous Minister to Qing under a Cultural Exchange Program who has returned after 17 years, in 1712, and is now the new leader of the Noron party? He’s an actual historical person associated with the Noron Faction, although information on him is difficult to find. Nevertheless, what does he do to thwart In-jwa whom he finds objectionable?
9) Meanwhile, what about Crown Prince Yoon (aka King Gyeongjong)? Although he is politically aligned via his mother and her family to the Sorons, he’s a weak Crown Prince and King due to illness and, historically, a weak character who was easily swayed by whomever got to him first. (His reign as King only lasted 4 years.) But what does he do; does he continue to protect In-jwa?
Aside from the gambling aspect and the character Dae-gil, none of the historical aspects of this drama are too far off the possibilities of the historical record. Yi In-jwa did lose his family in the 1680 Gyeongsin Hwanguk purge. His father and grandfather both had been high officials in the Joseon government, but their downfall destroyed In-jwa’s future. So, even while the Annuals (not in English yet) don’t state the reasons for In-jwa’s Revolt in 1728, it’s not hard to imagine his scheming and planning a revolt against Sukjong and his son, King Yeongso (aks Yeoninggun/Prince Yeoning). Nor is it hard to imagine the other historical figures – Sukjong, Yeoninggun, Crown Prince Yoon, Kim Chang-jib, and even Suk Bin – acting as they do in this drama.
Personally, I think the scriptwriter, Kwon Soon-Gyu, has done a masterful job of distilling 30 years of Joseon history into one 24 episode fictionalized account. He’s blended the factional history of one of Joseon’s most dynamic kingship eras with a fictional story of gambling, revenge, and honor. It’s like reading a great suspenseful novel, filled with any number of heroes and villains, almost villains, greedy side characters, sorrowful characters, and great schemers. It’s a mystery, a thriller, and a fictionalized history all rolled into one…like a Steve Berry novel that combines history, mystery, and thrilling adventure into one magnificent tale.
But it requires an engaged mind, rather than being simple mindless entertainment, to enjoy this drama. Nevertheless, I am sure it will stand out as one of 2016’s best dramas.
Great heavens, I’m really loving Daebak The Royal Gambler!
In Hangul, the word deabak means a jackpot. In other words, this drama is a winner. It truly is a jackpot.
It’s been a long time since I watched a show that engaged my mind the way Deabak does. The closest to it was SBS’s sageuk drama Six Flying Dragons. But Deabak is by far a better drama.
Every episode just gets better and better. My only complaint is that the episodes end too soon. I want them to continue. I don’t want to stop watching what happens next. Honestly, this drama is better – more captivating – than Six Flying Dragons (and DoS), and I didn’t think any current drama could beat Six Flying Dragons. Yet, Daebak has easily…and I’m not saying that as a Jang Keun Suk fan. I’m saying that as a fan of suspenseful, high quality, well scripted and directed shows.
One of my main problems with Kdramas is that after the first couple of episodes the dramas fall into lag as main characters begin to over-analyze or become paralyzed into inaction. They let opportunity after opportunity bypass while they figuratively suck their thumbs. Daebak, thus far, hasn’t fallen into that trap. The story is fast paced and the tension remains constantly high, moving from one event to another with just enough dialogue to keep the plot logically moving without it’s becoming tiresome.
For me at least, it’s like reading a Steve Berry thriller that combines both actual history and fiction to create a story that keeps the reader up all night reading. It’s more than engaging. It’s suspenseful and action-packed with a touch of humor and a just enough actual history to intrigue the mind of the reader. Or in this case, the mind of the viewer. I’m left after each episode – as with a well written chapter – wanting to know what happens next. I want to stay up all night with the story.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt at all that Daebak is extremely well acted. Nevertheless, it’s the story – the plot – that draws my attention and makes me want to watch more and more and more.
Jang Keun Suk has thousands of expressions in his repertoire. Each expression conveys the thoughts of the character he’s portraying. With one expression he can humanize his character and say more than any amount of explanatory dialogue, regardless of whether it’s the lusty teasing in Mary Marry Me or the haughty disdain he displays in You’re Beautiful, or the distilled evil of a psychotic killer in Where the Truth Lies.
Nevertheless, the expression he displays in Episode 6 of Daebak the Royal Gambler, leaning against the tree looking over at the Swordsman, is entirely new to him. That one look conveys hopeless desperation, paralyzing fear, wary apprehension, bone-chilling exhaustion, and forlorn despair. I don’t know what anyone else thought when they watched this scene, before he ruthlessly pulls the snake off the branch, stripping its’ skin away with his teeth and biting hungrily into its’ bloody flesh, but for me at least, that short moment in this scene represents the turning point in this character’s life. It’s the penultimate climax in which Gae-ddong starts becoming Dae-gil.
He’s reached his lowest point outside of death itself. His body still bleeding from the knife wound In-jwa inflicted and starvation racking his endurance, he’s desperate to escape. Almost subconsciously he knows that if the familiar-looking but still unknown Swordsman yells out, Gae-ddong cum Dae-gil will die. He knows Demon will ruthlessly slice his spine for attempting to escape. He wants to run but is too afraid to move. Exhaustion and starvation have taken their toll on his body and his mind. He can’t move. He can barely think. All of his attention and thoughts are focused on the mysterious Swordsman: if he sees me, what will he do; where can I hide; how will I escape death. His thoughts at this moment no longer center around revenge but solely on finding a way to continue living. He knows he has reached the ebb of his life…and the Swordsman holds his life in the balance.
Daebak’s script writer could have written a thousand words of dialogue to describe what JKS conveys with just that one expression. For me, at least, that one expression, combining a multitude of thoughts and fears, defines JKS’ amazing acting talent. Through his own innate sensibilities, he digests his character he portrays and becomes that character. Truly great actors have said they stay in character even when not filming as they don’t want to lose the character even for a moment because it’s too difficult to recapture the character. I don’t know if that statement is true of JKS, but I do know this solitary moment in Daebak The Royal Gambler defines the remaining development of Gae-ddong into Dae-gil,
Metaphorically, too, the entire scene holds resonance. With the Swordsman making a slight nod of his head, Gae-ddong subconsciously realizes he may have a friend. Moreover, in pulling the snake off the tree branch and devouring it, another metaphor is added. Snakes, in literature, are used to describe both evil and good, death and rebirth. One has only to look at the symbol of modern of medicine to see the snake of death and health entwined to see the symbolism. Thus, the slight nod of the Swordsman metaphorically signals the bloody change in Gae-ddong. In eating the flesh of the snake, Gae-ddong ingests the metaphorical powers of the viper – wisdom, deceit, cunning, and regeneration – as well as its’ life-giving flesh. It’s as if having eaten the bloody flesh of the viper, Gae-ddong unwittingly is reborn as Dae-gil, even though he fails to realize it until he meets his real tiger and endures yet another trauma to his rebirth.
Regardless, in that one short moment before Gae-ddong ruthlessly yanks the viper from the tree branch, Jang Keun Suk treats his audience to a multitude of emotions through one solitary expression that says so much and, thus, defines the enormous acting talent of this actor. When one expression displaces thousands of words, that truly is extraordinary acting talent.
Jang Keun Suk has never had as physically and emotionally demanding a role as he now plays in Daebak The Royal Gambler.
In his past roles, he played a variety of characters, from a psychotic killer to a loveable if emotionally scarred musician. His previous roles absolutely showed his acting talent and his potential to play more substantial characters. His portrayal in Where the Truth Lies of a young adult who wantonly murders a stranger chills the audience. He plays the role with a charisma that makes you want to like him; then suddenly he exhibits pure evil with one look. That one look is shockingly real and intense, leaving us both confused and frightened. In Beethoven’s Virus, he makes us believe he is a musical genius, torn between loyalty and honor for his mentor and his desire to be strike out on his own, seeking new interpretations of classical compositions even at the cost of being abandoned. At times, he seems so lost and alone and at others abrupt and abrasive. But we empathize with his character and want him to succeed because Jang plays the role with such honesty and truth.
Acting, according to the famous acting coach Lee Strasberg, is the art of making the unreal real. In other words, the acting must appear honest and real and truthful – of making the audience believe everything the actor does and says really happens. As many directors who have worked with Jang have said, he’s a natural born actor. He instinctively knows what to do, how to say a line, what look to give, and what movement to make to create a believable character.
His character, though, in Daebak (Jackpot) The Royal Gambler is something entirely new for Jang. Born out of long year of reflection and a greed for strong role, he chose this script exactly for the reason that it would change the trajectory of his acting career. No more soft roles, he said; he wanted roles and characters that were difficult to play and would challenge him as never before, to force him out of his comfort zone. But he’s never had to endure physical stunts that would make most of us cringe and go screaming towards the exit.
Although early in Daebak, he plays a free-wheeling, mischievous country boy, innocent of city ways and city people, his character swiftly endures harsh struggles to survive and is nearly killed in the process. He sees his father murdered in front of him; he’s beaten, stabbed, falls off a cliff, gets buried up to his chin in salt flat mud, and starved long enough to grab and rip the skin off a live viper and feast on its’ raw meat. And if that isn’t enough, he’s tossed into the outhouse dung hole.
Having endured all those traumas, much like the protagonist of a Greek tragedy – and in many ways, Daebak is much like a Greek tragedy – he emerges a stronger, wiser, and even harder man. He becomes Dae-Gil the Royal Gambler, the best gambler in Joseon. He may not like this new world he’s discovered, where winner takes all and never mind the consequences to others, but he knows how to play the game, even if it requires swindling. Yet, for all his newly found toughness, he harbors a sense of goodness, fairness, and honor. We see the compassion in his eyes when he encounters injustice to others. We also see the hard gleam of revenge flashing in those same eyes when he seeks to destroy his antagonist.
This actor is not the soft, handsome Jang, with his long locks, winning smile, and bluff jokes, so often portrayed in the media and elsewhere. This Jang is one who has acquired a vision of his career and now greedily pursues that vision, regardless of the hardships and physical challenges required.
His year of reflection, wherein he endured the stings and barbs of the media and public opinion, created a new Jang. He emerged stronger Jang who, like his character in Daebak, single-mindedly seeks his goal of becoming a truly great artiste.
This Jang is a phoenix reborn from the ashes of his past.
Since the beginning of Daebak, Jang Keun Suk has enjoyed renewed interest in his acting talent. Admittedly, it’s been a long time since he played a character other than a somewhat arrogant pretty boy. However, the people who scorn this acting talent undoubtedly fail to know about his complete body of work.
Jang debuted in 1997, when he was 10 years old, in the Korean sitcom, Selling Happiness. He plays an irrepressible boy constantly getting into comical mischief or some other comical incident. The show enjoyed immense popularity, particularly among the pre-teen viewers, and garnered considerable attention for Jang. A year later he acted in another TV show, entitled Hug. In 2000, he joined the cast of School 3 and moved on to the successful segeuk drama Ladies of the Palace in 2001. Jang played the role of an arrogant, spoiled son of a noble. At its’ peak, this drama garnered a viewership ratings of 49.9%, something nearly unheard today. From there, he went on to act in Four Sisters, Orange, Daemang and the short film, Lucky Ten. Although young, Jang hit a slump where he thought his roles and acting were going nowhere. As a result, he moved to New Zealand for a year to study English and Japanese.
On his return to Korea in 2003 he accepted a leading role in the hit sitcom series, Non-Stop 4. Again, he proved his natural comedic timing and talent in the role of a slightly bumbling premed student. The show also provided him the first opportunity to show his musical talent. Also in that same year, he starred in The Owl Museum about a lonely young teenage boy, growing up with his grandfather, and his estranged, dying mother and their attempts to reunite. In 2004, Jang accepted the role of young Yun Geun-Hee in the drama, Lovers in Prague. Jang played the troubled teenage son of the Korean president.
After completing that role, he accepted the lead role in the comedy manga film Alien Sam. As Bong Sam, he’s an alien Prince who crash lands in Korea near a school and winds up becoming a teacher. Unprepared for employment, let alone understanding humans and Korean culture well, he makes one mistake after another but with his innate sense of kindness, he wins over even his most antagonist student, Wang Hae-Ryong, played by a young Yoo Seung-Ho. This is a light-hearted film that’s just fun to watch.
From that role, Jang moved to a far more serious role as the forlorn lover and son of a powerful lord, Kim Eun-Ho, in the sageuk drama Hwang Jin-Yi. Kim Eun-Ho falls in love with a beautiful gisaeng dancer played by Ha Ji-Won. But in Joseon’s (Korea) rigid class structure, their love cannot be. Eun-Ho dies; his heart broken. Jang’s performance was enough to attract the role in the Japanese film One Missed Final Call. A mystery horror film, Jang plays a charismatic deaf teenager who is friends with one of the students attempting to solve the mystery. Nevertheless, he ends up being killed. For the part, Jang studied sign language to make his acting more authentic.
His big break came, though, in 2007 when he landed the part of Hyun-Joon in film The Happy Life. The film depicts the unhappy lives of three men who decide to restart their college rock band. They recruit young Hyun-Joon to take over as their front man. It just so happens Hyun-Joon’s dead father was the fourth band member. Jang’s own singing is featured in the film, which caused a sensation among female audience members.
2008 proved to be an extraordinarily busy year for Jang. He starred in the sageuk drama Hong Gil Dong as the Prince seeking to regain his rightful throne; in the film Crazy Waiting as young soldier in a relationship with an older and more successful woman; in the film Doremifasolasido as a musically talented teenage band member who becomes mentally and emotionally unbalanced when he loses his girl friend to another band member; in the comedy film Baby and Me playing the lead character, Joon-Soo, a rebellious high school kid who suddenly finds himself with a baby he thinks is his and must take care of; and finally playing Kang Geon-Woo, a gifted, naturally talented music genius, in the hit drama Beethoven’s Virus. In each of these roles, Jang exhibits a versatility of acting skill and range far beyond his age of 20.
In 2009, Jang accepted what is perhaps the most challenging role at that point in his career. He starred as Robert Pearson, a psychotic killer, in the hit movie Where the Truth Lies, also known as The Case of Itaewan Homicide. For this role, Jang won the Most Favorite Actor award at the 2010 (46th) PaekSang Arts Awards.
His next role, again in 2009, is one with which most people associate him: Hwang Tae-Kyeong in the drama He’s Beautiful. Although not a ratings winner in Korea, the drama sold for record amounts overseas and put him on the international map.
In 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, he starred respectively in the drama Marry Me, Mary; the film You’re My Pet; the drama Love Rain; and finally Bel Ami. Although each of these projects rated better overseas than in Korea and again sold for record amounts, they are among his most beloved projects by his fans.
In addition, in 2011, Jang produced his own short film, Budapest Diary. Shot entirely in Budapest and the surrounding countryside, this 40-minute film is a masterpiece of cinematography, acting, script, and tight direction. Not one scene is wasted as Jang takes the audience of a roller coaster ride of emotions, from the depths of anger and despair to renewed joyfulness to the calm happiness of acceptance. His emotions are so real and the dialogue so honest, it’s remarkable that it wasn’t entered in any short film award show.
Then, in 2014, Jang released another short film, CAMP. Written and produced by Jang, the filmed is shot on Jeju Island. It’s the story of a documentary film maker who hasn’t gotten along with his father and grown up a loner. When he goes shooting in the mountains, he encounters a strange incident and suffers injury and loss. Through an encounter with an old man, he learns to deal with his past as well as reconsider his present and future life. CAMP was directed by same director from Budapest Diary. Although the director wanted to show the short film in Cannes, he was unable to make that happen.
Nevertheless, the last four major studio projects are not considered his best work, although they remain among his most popular. His best work, prior to his new drama Daebak, occurred in 2008 and 2009 and in his short films where he really exhibits his skill as a versatile, highly skilled actor, capable of convincingly playing any character. His acting shines with authenticity, causing audiences often to mistake the character he’s playing with the man himself.
As a psychotic killer, Pearson, in Where the Truth Lies, he’s frightening. His eyes gleam with a maliciousness that’s shockingly real. As the musical genius Kang Geon Woo in Beethoven’s Virus, he seems to feel the music deeply in his being even as he argues with his mentor and teacher. And who cannot feel empathy for young Joon-Soo in Baby and Me, trying so hard to take care the baby he thinks is his; yet, feeling so incompetent and lost and alone.
Daebak, thus far, appears to transport him back to his best and most skilled work, showing he can play any role or character convincingly. Jang really is an extremely talented actor. As several directors have noted, he is one of the best actors with whom they have ever worked and probably the most under-rated actor in Korea. I hope this new drama puts him back on the top of acting charts where he belongs.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve become enamored by Korean movies and dramas, particularly the dramas. Like Hollywood mini-series, they feature one extended story line of usually 20 to 24 episodes, although some have fewer and some have more. I particularly enjoy the sageuk genre. “Sageuk” is the Hangul (the Korean language) word for historical dramas which are a mixture of factual history and fiction.
SBS (Seoul Broadcasting Service) has begun broadcasting a new sageuk entitled Daebak (Eng: Jackpot) The Royal Gambler. The plot of this 24-episode drama revolves around two brothers: one abandoned at birth; the other destined to become King Yeongjo. It is a story of political intrigue and conflict over the fates of both Joseon and the two young men, set against a background of gambling, betrayal and revenge.
The first two episodes reveal the overall plot conflict and the life and stakes in play. The scenes are tightly written, the dialogue sharp and to the point. No fluff or wasted dialogue fills the scenes. The actors’ expressions as well as the scenes of dramatic action take the place of words. The Director made each scene tense with dramatic cinematography, moving quickly from one scene to another while not losing the story line.
The third episode introduces the protagonist: young Dae-Gil, abandoned at birth by his Royal Consort mother who fears for his life in the palace. Born premature, many at court suspect the child is the son of another man (her previous husband) and some see the infant as a threat to their power and influence. As a result, Consort Choi Suk Bin gives the infant to her previous husband, a perpetually losing gambler addict, to raise. Nevertheless, the infant suffers repeated attacks on his life, but his destiny thwarts the attacks.
Now, twenty years later, Dae-Gil has become a charming if slightly comical young man, going from one comedy-laden incident to another as he tries to win or steal enough money to return to Hanyang (Seoul) with his father and adopted uncle. First, he tries to win at cock fighting, but just as Dae-Gil begins jumping up and down, cheering his rooster winning, the bird quits mid-battle and sits down. The feckless bird becomes lunch for the losing three-some as they ponder what to do next.
The scene shifts. Dea-Gil now tells a group of thieves an excited story, sending them off on a wild goose chase whereupon he quickly enters their warehouse and begins stealing their money. Of course, the thieves discover him. A mad chase begins as Dae-Gil leaps from the warehouse and races out of town. Meeting his family on the road, the three run for their lives to the boat dock and board a departing boat…only for Dae-Gil, grumbling that the boat isn’t moving fast enough, promptly gets into a tussle and falls overboard. Finally, arriving in Hanyang young Dae-Gil excitedly jumps for joy, flinging his arms wide. But destiny steps in to show him the woman he’ll come to love.
Thanks to a cast of veteran actors, nothing is superfluous. They each play their parts to perfection. With a lesser skilled actor, Dae-Gil could have become a one-dimensional character, perhaps to be pitied or scorned. But Jang Keun Suk breathes life into the character of Dae-Gil. He’s at once charming and comical, young and happy-go-lucky, spirited and enthusiastic and yet a trouble-making, unrestrained and anxious young man always getting himself into one situation after another.
Needless to say, I’m enjoying this drama tremendously. How will the two brothers meet and how will their signaled conflict play out? How will the woman with whom Dea-Gil fall in love at first sight and whom young Prince Yeongjo desires affect their lives? Where will gambling and politics collide? I have a feeling Daebak will provide a very bumpy ride but thoroughly enjoyable one.