In a nutshell: A drama that managed to take an interesting premise (a half-human, half-gumiho boy wanting to live as a human) in an interesting time period (somewhere just before 1592; Lee Soon Shin is here) with a strong group of actors (Lee Seung-ki, Jung Hye-young, Sung Joon) and turn out a steaming hot mess that stumbled past confusing, flopped face first into offensive, then rolled over to drool its way into a meaningless and boring conclusion. The biggest lesson I learned from this drama is sometimes it’s just best to walk away.
Breaking the Basics Rules of Storytelling: The problem with Gu Family Book is it never seemed to decide on its plot. We were given a main character and expected to be interested in him because… he was the main character. They relied on the immense likability of Lee Seung-ki, who could seriously make reading the phonebook seem adorable, as a crutch and never bothered developing Choi Kang-chi into an interesting and dynamic character.
A huge mistake (and warning sign) was that the story never settled on what Kang-chi wanted, what his ultimate goal was. When we first meet him, his goal seems to be getting fully accepted by his “adoptive family.” The mother doesn’t like him and we see him stare wistfully at family gatherings he’s not included in. Which is a poignant and universal goal — finding a home and acceptance and love.
But then it gets confusing. We learn Kang-chi wasn’t actually adopted by the family he’s staring at so wistfully. He’s the adopted son of their servant. So his hurt at not being included felt out of place once you thought about it. Also, he’s adored by everyone else around him: his actual adoptive father, his fellow servants, even the wealthy family he serves. The mother is hostile, but the father, the brother, the sister all love him. His romantic love for the sister is even returned. It’s a love that can never be because of class differences, but he’s not personally rejected — he’s embraced.
So Kang-chi’s goal, as first suggested, is watered-down to non-existence. He has a home and love and acceptance. Then crisis, in the form of an evil villain strikes. Everything falls apart and this should have been the part where Kang-chi gets a goal — restoring the loving home and family the villain has destroyed. And, at first, it seems to be happening. Kang-chi makes a vow to do just that, twice even. Only, he keeps wandering off course.
Instead, he learns about his biological family and there’s random storylines about being a half-gumiho that never really go anywhere. (Does Kang-chi want to control his gumiho side or break free of it? The show never really decides.) He joins a martial arts school and there’s random storylines about his time there. He develops a new love interest. But, since he’s as readily embraced by this girl as he was by his first love, the romance is cute but static. (Lee Seung-ki reading the phonebook.) And, rather than tying into his stated goals, the above storylines distract him from it.
Kang-chi still crosses paths with the main villain every now and again. But defeating the villain is, for some odd reason, the goal of other characters and Kang-chi’s not that involved. Rescuing his former family and restoring their good name gets completely lost in the shuffle and the drama apparently forgets they’d had Kang-chi make any vows in the first place. Home, acceptance, love surround Kang-chi pretty much all the time. Since his first family gets so easily and completely replaced, the restoration goal no longer exists.
When the drama ends, Kang-chi is exactly the same character he was at the beginning. Only less interesting because there’s nothing more to throw at him and by now we know the surface is all we’ve got. (Lee Seung-ki is adorable, but the phonebook is just a list of names.)
Breaking the Basic Rules of Humanity: Because the story was so sloppily told, with storylines picked up and dropped without apparent rhyme or reason, Gu Family Book did manage to make some incredibly offensive, rage-inducing, implications regarding rape.
Two characters are brutally raped by the evil villain. Apparently just to show how evil the villain is and also throw in some titillating shock value. The first rape victim suicides and is quickly forgotten. The second rape victim becomes a prostitute and is forced to service the villain who raped her. Again, apparently just for the titillating shock value as it adds nothing to the plot.
The implications are ugly enough with the above alone. But the second rape victim was Kang-chi’s first love. And, after her rape, he cooly rejects her and the drama moves on to his much more innocent (now) second love. His first love is forgotten so thoroughly by the drama that Kang-chi even refers to his second romance as his first.
I find it hard to believe the drama actually wanted to spread the message that raped women are no longer romantically viable, fit only for prostitution and should probably just kill themselves. But because they told their story so thoughtlessly, and because they use rape as a one-off form of shock value and attempt to bypass any consequences, that’s the message they end up delivering.
Stupidly, I kept watching. Hoping against all my better judgement, that the second character’s story would turn out… less horribly, horribly wrong. It didn’t help that she was played by an excellent actress (Lee Yoo-bi) who managed to find depth in a character whose only purpose was to paint the evil villain a darker shade of black. But an actor can only read the lines she’s given. And in the end, she was given barely any lines at all. The drama had, effectively and offensively, moved on.
(It, also unfortunately, colored my viewing of Kang-chi’s second romance. Their romance read as cute. I could tell it was supposed to be all kinds of adorable. But it occurred over the bloody, broken body of his first love and ain’t no amount of cute can fix that.)
In Conclusion: Seriously, by all that’s holy, give this one a pass. If you’re a huge fan of Lee Seung-ki and simply must see him acting out the paper-doll-thin character he was handed for this project, I’d recommend looking for fan-vids. They’re likely to have more coherent storylines and provide greater character depth than this drama managed to achieve in 24 episodes of increasingly horrifying dreck.