HomePop CultureUncle Samsik is seduced by power, but will the show seduce you?

Uncle Samsik is seduced by power, but will the show seduce you?

By Jana Monji

Uncle Samsik is a brutal depiction of the power struggle for a better South Korea during the late 1950s and early 1960s. This TV series isn’t about martial style and bold heroic men who throw away witticisms as they breeze through life. This is an unrelentingly somber saga about good intentions slowly seduced by promises of power, a political drama contrasting the politicians in the ministers’ offices and the politicians and power brokers on the streets, back alleys and hidden back rooms. 

The fighting in Uncle Samsik isn’t graceful or visually clever. This is men banging on heads with sticks, fists or pipes on the streets or back alleys. No one floats or glides. They run and clamber. In the more elite rooms of the power brokers, the fighting seems just as brutish despite and veneer of civilization.  

I’m not a big fan of political dramas, but my husband is yet since he appreciates the beauty of the language in something like House of Cards, his knowledge of the Korean language severely limits his appreciation as does his limited knowledge of Korean history. The series takes place the year the first president resign at the end of April in 1960. 

The first episode has a cold start where the audience is introduced to the titular character. “It’s out of love and respect that everybody calls me Samsik, brother Samsik, Uncle Samsick and I just love it, my nickname, I mean,” Park Doo-chil (Song Kang-ho) explains. 

Dressed in a Western suit and in a quiet place, Uncle Samsik seems unworried. Park is, we later learn the CEO of Sail Developments. Yet there is trouble ahead as the scene switches to somewhere less cozy. 

In the year 1960, at an unknown location in South Korea (a Capital Defense Unit secret bunker) it’s raining when a jeep pulls up to a check point gate. “It’s a standard operation. If you cooperate, it shouldn’t take too long” the colonel tells a man who is unbothered by the rain even though he is in just a suit and glasses. The man, San Kim (Byun Yo-han), knows the colonel and seems calm although his eye twitches. Another jeep arrives and the armed guards take out a blindfolded man whose hands are tied in front of him. San identifies him as Han-min. A panicked Jung Han-min (Sao Hyun-woo) declares that they didn’t plan any of this. It was all  Samsik. 

San Kim begins telling the colonel through flashbacks how he and Han-min became involved with Samsik. 

San Kim works in the Ministry of Home Affairs, but after an impromptu speech brings him newspaper front page fame, he’s scheduled to be transferred. His comprehensive economic policy for the five-year national reconstruction will likely not go forward.

If San Kim was a woman and Samsik was a man, we’d call what happens next something between stalking and courtship, but not out of romantic interest. Samsik sees possibilities in San Kim. If San Kim wants his plan to be implemented, he will have to give up his love for Joo Yeo-jin (Jin Ki-joo). Yeo-jin is the daughter of politician Joo In-tae (Oh Kwang-rok).  Although initially San Kim admires In-tae, San Kim will become disappointed in In-tae’s actions, leaving him vulnerable to Sansik’s persuasive offers. 

This political drama will remind viewers of just how far South Korea has come and how, in the sixties, South Korea was emerging from almost a century of war. In the 1860s, Korea has been able to repel foreign ships, but it was forced to emerge from a feudal society that had slaves until 1910, to a country that was subject to unequal treaties with China, Japan, the US, UK, Germany, Russia and France, to a colonized country and then briefly to a united independent country to one divided into North and South. That time spans the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), World War II (1937-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953). 

According to the Congress Research Service’s 12 September 2023 report on US-South Korea Alliance: Issues for Congress, “the U.S. military has maintained a large troop presence in South Korea since the end of the Korean War.” In 2023, that was about 28,500 US troops. Most of the troops are at Camp Humphreys which is the largest US overseas military base.

Despite this large presence in South Korea, it seems that we know so little about South Korea. If you’re not of a certain age and unfamiliar with recent history in Hawaii, you might not know who Syngman Rhee 이승만 is within the story and the indignation of some factions within the film. 

Rhee was the first president of South Korea but he was first elected in 1948. Rhee was fluent in English, having attended George Washington University in Washington, DC, and then going to Harvard for a masters, and a Ph.D. from Princeton. Because of this, “he was the Korean politician most trusted and favored by the American occupation government,” according to Britannica. 
Britannica further notes: “The entire Rhee regime was notorious for its corruption, with everyone in the government from the President downwards stealing as much they possibly could from both the public purse and from United States aid.” 

Britannica also notes that although the 1948 constitution limited a president to two consecutive terms, Rhee “had the legislature amend the constitution to allow the incumbent president to run for an unlimited number of terms.” When Rhee won the March 1960 election, he was 84 years old and had already been president for three terms. Students led an April Revolution that forced Rhee to resign and he was then flown to Honolulu for his exile. 

Understanding who Rhee was is crucial to understanding Uncle Samsik, and understanding more about the history of East Asia is crucial to understanding the world we live in. With just five episodes to view, I find Uncle Samsik has good production values, set and costume design, but I’m not sure exactly where it’s heading. If you like political dramas or stories about the slow corruption of well-meaning men, this might be for you. 

Uncle Samsik is on Hulu. The first five episodes on were released on May 15 and Hulu will release two episodes every Wednesday afterward until 19 June 2024 which will have a three-part season finale. 

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