Greensleeves was all my joy, Greensleeves was my delight, Greensleeves was my heart of gold, and who but Lady Greensleeves
“Greensleeves” is a 400-year-old tune you may know as “What Child Is This?” Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” a marvelous piece made all the more so by starting with this melody.
Many people tell fanciful stories about the origin of this song. Was it written by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn, who “cast [him] off discourteously” without losing her head for the moment? Was it an old Irish song, as we all know every good song is? Was it first sung by dog-headed men surrounded by rats? The rumors abound. The Early Music Muse drills into this musical history and reveals the truth, as is so often the case, rather boring. In short, a musician wrote a hit tune that many people used for their own songs, and everyone loved it–they still do. It’s the feature song in the K-drama I just blogged about, Mr. Sunshine. While Savina & Drones have a good composition based on Greensleeves, what Vaughan Williams did with it can’t be outdone for sublimity.
We recently finished a 24-episode historical drama created for South Korean television in 2018 and distributed this year through Netflix. Set at the end of the Joseon kingdom, while Korea tried to move into the 20th century as subjects of a king, Mr. Sunshine is essentially a fiercely patriotic story. It begins with loyalists attempting to defend their peninsula from colonialists, despite obviously being outgunned. It ends with rebels raging against the rising tide of Japanese occupation.
We first see Choi Yoo-jin (Lee Byung-hun) as the son of slaves, who runs to avoid being killed and makes it to New York City. He grows up to become U.S. Marine Captain Eugene Choi, deployed to the American embassy in Joseon. He’s an American soldier with Korean skin; most people don’t know what to make of him. But he’s glad to be back in Joseon so he can find the people who murdered his parents and take his revenge.
On a risky American assignment, he encounters the beautiful Lady Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) doing something distinctly unladylike. He won’t know about her family until long after his interest in her has grown. But two other men are interested in her too: a Korean samurai, who is thought to have sold his soul to Japan, and the son of the second richest family in the country, who happens to be Lady Go’s fiancé. The three men are drawn together by their proximity and held by various mutual interests.
It’s a beautifully filmed drama told reservedly and works as a personal story of love and duty as well as a historical tribute to Korean independence. Americans will find many things to love about it.
If you know a bit of the history of Korea, you’ll be able to guess the story doesn’t have that happy of an ending; if you don’t know the history, you’ll be able to guess the tenor of the end by the prominent place of “Greensleeves” or by the first English words Lady Go learns: gun, glory, sad ending.