Goong, Vol. 5 | By Park So Hee | Published by Yen Press – Goong is set in an alternate version of modern Korea in which the monarchy survived and continues on as in England or Japan. Chae-Kyung is an ordinary girl who happens to attend the same high school as the country’s current crown prince, Shin Lee. Though the prince is much admired and fairly dreamy, Chae-Kyung discovers early on that he is also a real jerk. Unfortunately for both of them, the royal family has decided that it is Shin Lee’s time to marry and after the only girl he proposes to turns him down, he’s bound to follow his family’s wishes and marry the granddaughter of his deceased grandfather’s best friend–a commoner who “treated him like a normal human being and not a king.” The granddaughter is, of course, Chae-Kyung.
Though both Chae-Kyung and Shin dislike each other intensely, they each agree to the marriage for his/her own reasons–Shin Lee to deliberately bring someone he sees as a troublemaker into the family, and Chae-Kyung to try to obtain some financial comfort for her struggling family. The premise sounds too contrived and stereotypically “shojo” to be real, but its execution is actually quite impressive. Though the melodrama never stops (the manhwa-ga even throws in a rival for the crown and his conniving mother), the characters are unexpectedly nuanced and both the human drama and the royal politicking feel grounded, even when things are being carried over the top. Though circumstances force Chae-Kyung and Shin to become close as the series progresses, their relationship remains strained and devoid of any true intimacy–mainly thanks to Shin’s overdeveloped boundaries,
In volume four, the manipulative daebi-mama–who would have been queen had her husband not died and who wishes to put her son, Yul, onto the throne–deliberately kept Chae-Kyung behind while Shin departed for a trip to England in order to make her as miserable as possible. As volume five opens, the daebi‘s brutal treatment has definitely taken its toll. Left alone at a castle away from Seoul (supposedly to learn about cultures outside the city) Chae-Kyung is quietly wasting away–saved only by Yul who arrives to retrieve her (after confessing his love for her to his deeply appalled mother). Meanwhile in England, Shin (who is avoiding Chae-Kyung’s calls as a means of avoiding his own feelings) finds himself in a bad situation when someone with ties to the daebi-mama frames him for possession of drugs. Though Shin and Chae-Kyung are eventually reunited back in Seoul, misunderstandings continue to pile up between them, keeping either of them from being able to be honest about their feelings.
This volume is actually a perfect example of what I most enjoy about this series overall. Though the story of two young people afraid to admit their feelings to each other (thus creating a never-ending cycle of misunderstandings and missed opportunities) is a stale classic of girls’ comics and television shows that survive on unresolved sexual tension, the emotional roadblocks between the two romantic leads in Goong are set up so well, the device feels far from stale. Shin’s inability to outwardly display affection or to trust another person with even his most surface feelings has been so carefully bred into him (as has his overdeveloped sense of entitlement), it’s difficult to imagine how he will ever break through it all, and Chae-Kyung’s insecurity and tendency to lash out when she’s feeling vulnerable is the perfect catalyst for Shin’s worst behavior. They actually bring out both the best and worst of each other which is the stuff of great, fiery romance, assuming Park So Hee has the chops for it (which considering the wonderfully restrained fashion in which the story has played out so far, I’m optimistic that she does). Their chemistry is neither romantic nor explosive at this point in the story, but the foundation has been painstakingly set.
Another strength of this series is that though the daebi‘s machinations are destructive, misguided, insanely selfish, and deliberately cruel, it is easy to understand how she became bitter enough to become the person that she is. Having had everything taken from her (and her son) upon the death of her husband with, one would assume, the same kind of businesslike coldness this royal family displays in all of their decision-making, it’s hard to imagine her not being affected in a fairly extreme way–not that she has any monopoly on royal pain. Though it’s easy to understand the daebi‘s twisted cruelty, it is easier to sympathize with Shin’s mother, who is stuck in a miserable marriage with a man who not only loves someone else (the daebi, who married his brother instead) but takes few pains to hide it.
The one mystery in all this is Yul. His love for Chae-Kyung appears to be genuine but his jealousy of Shin has twisted him into someone very much like his mother, which prevents him from from being able to love her purely. Though his kindness towards Chae-Kyung actually acts as a balm through much of the story, it is difficult to forgive him for the times he has let jealousy motivate him into using her in order to hurt Shin or to deliberately create strife between them. That said, he’s young and at least some of his kinder impulses seem real. It will be interesting to see where the story takes him by the end.
My only real caveat regarding this series concerns the recurring character Eunuch Kong–a chibi (or its Korean equivalent) character who is played entirely for laughs, notably as a device for breaking up the two leads anytime they are in danger of treading into romantic territory. His appearances are trite and increasingly irritating, the character is offensive (implying that “eunuch” is synonymous with “gay”), and even his cheerful affair with England’s Prince William fails to be truly funny. That he appears only twice in volume five is perhaps a blessing, but even half that would be too much.
I am generally a fan of manhwa-style art and Park So Hee’s is no exception. Detailed and beautiful, her character designs are a highlight of the series–the one exception being her chibi designs, which are too exaggerated to be cute and not funny enough to compensate for it. One of the nicest aspects of this story is its visually anachronistic setting, represented very well by the cover of this volume which features a traditionally dressed Chae-Kyung chatting on her cell phone and holding a teddy bear. The combination of traditional beauty and modern style is very attractive in this series and a big draw, visually, for me.
Goong is a charmingly conceived, nicely plotted, character-driven romance that is engaging to read and lovely to look at. With eighteen volumes currently in print in Korea, this series obviously has a long way to go before its end. I’m anxious to see where the next few volumes will lead!
Review copy provided by the publisher.