In this episode we learn about the friendship between a lowly horse vet Yi Myunghwan and the aristocrat Kang Dojun. They have one thing in common – they both want to be herbal doctors and they enter the prestigious school in the capital. But their friendship is doomed and ends in tragedy. (Horse Doctor is currently on MBC Mon / Tues 22:00 from Oct 2012)
The opening scene shows Doctor Yi Myunghwan, looking exhausted and distraught, collapsing in (what looks like) a desert. (this scene was actually filmed on a sandy beach on Daecheong island, Incheon. see pic below. But I think the desert vibe makes the scene more dramatic) Something terrible must have happened as royal guards rush to a family home and a guard raises his sword to kill the new born baby clutched by a nurse. But whose home is this and whose baby? We’ll know by the end of the episode.
Horse Doctor (MBC 2012) Yi Myunghwan feels guilty over his friend’s death
This scene was filmed on Daecheong Island, Incheon, picture via MBC
But first we must jump back in time to when Kang Dojun and Yi Myunghwan first meet. Dojun is visiting a horse ranch in the country because he’s interested to learn how the elderly vet cares for the horses. Suddenly out in the field a horse bolts and ends up charging right for Dojun. His life is in danger, but just in time Yi Myunghwan leaps to his rescue and pulls him out of the horse’s way. Then he jumps on the horse and calms him down. Dojun is impressed, but the elderly vet merely tells Myunghwan off for going near the horses.
Kang Dojun arrives at the horse ranch to watch the vets
Oh boy, now we get a nice close up of huge acupuncture needles being pressed deep into the horse’s skin – with sound effects too, yikes. And if that’s not bad enough, the vet then shoves a piece of bamboo with some smoking moxa up the horse’s bum to get a stool sample. (I’m feeling quite faint right now especially with more squidgy squelchy sound effects ..)
The gruff, old vet is Myunghwan’s dad. And he wants him to stay away from the horses because he has higher dreams for his son than being a lowly vet – he wants him to be a ‘proper’ doctor. In fact, he’s invited a respected doctor to come and meet his son in the hope that he will invite him to join his famous pharmacy school in the capital. Myunghwan has studied medicine by himself but the visitor seems unimpressed until Myunghwan suddenly diagnoses what is wrong with the patient the doctor has brought with him – even without taking his pulse. This wins over the doctor and Myunghwan is accepted as his student. His father is delighted but harsh – he tells him to forget about his family and humble background because he is destined for great things.
Yi Myunghwan first works on a horse ranch with his father
And so Myunghwan begins his new life at the pharmacy. He soon becomes aware that his background as a horse doctor is looked down on. (BTW The head of the pharmacy school is played by Lee Sun Jae who also plays the teacher in Heojun (MBC 2000). There have been comments that this drama is going to be too similar to Heojun since both stories are about the rise of a man to become a top royal doctor. But we’ll have to wait and see.) Myunghwan is a keen student and tries to sneak into the library to get a look at some rare medical books. And here he bumps into Dojun again and together they sneak into the library.
Myunghwan is shocked to discover that Dongjun is a yangban, aristocrat. (the aristocracy usually become scholars not lowly herbalists!) He is embarrassed to introduce himself as a low grade pharmacist and horse vet. Despite their different social ranks they are to become good friends. Now they eagerly look through the rare books that are usually only accessible to the higher doctors. But they are not the only ones sneaking into the library. They hide and admire the skills of a nurse who enters the library to practise placing acupuncture needles into a dummy. (women couldn’t become doctors at the time) But then they are all disturbed again and hide together when another doctor and a high official arrive. The pair hurry out with a book on heated needles. But although they have the right to be here, the sneaking around at night suggests that they are up to no good.
With palace guards everywhere it’s difficult for the two lowly herbalists and nurse to get out of the library without being seen. But Dojun has an idea to create a diversion – he suggests they set fire to their moxa (뜸쑥 dum-suk) -since it’s very smoky and so when the guards see the smoke they’ll panic thinking there’s a big fire in the library. Sure enough the guards rush to get buckets of water but then are surprised to see that there is no fire after all – just smoking moxa! But by now the herbalists and the nurse are nowhere to be seen!
The Queen comforts King Injo over the undesirable return of the Crown Prince
Meanwhile, the Queen is scheming with the high official – they don’t want the crown prince to return to the capital from China.
Historical note: Crown Prince Sohyeon was the son of King Injo (1623-1649) but they had different views on how to rule. The Prince returned to Joseon after being held in China for political reasons, but he was soon found dead in the king’s quarters. There is still a mystery behind his death. Later the king’s second son who was also being held in China returned to become King Hyojong r.1649-1659) see chart of Joseon Kings and related sageuk dramas
Back to the story. At least the commoners are happy to see the Crown Prince return from China and line the streets to greet him. Dojun takes his heavily pregnant wife to pay their respects too. He thinks back to the time the Prince rewarded him for helping the royal family with his acupuncture techniques and encouraged him to become a doctor instead of a scholar. Dojun now wants to realise his dream – he wants to help the poor who can’t afford doctors, not the wealthy yangban. So he sets up his own hospital.
The doctor hired by the Queen prepares his lethal needles
But while the crowds welcome the prince, the doctor hired by the queen is out abducting commoners to practise his evil art on. With only two heated needles put in the right pressure point the doctor confirms that he can kill a man without leaving any proof of his guilt. He has abducted two victims but unfortunately for him, the second one manages to escape after he witnesses the first victim die. Worriedly, the doctor orders the guards to find him as he has seen everything …
A poor victim watches as the doctor kills a commoner with a heated needle
Dojun receives a letter from Myunghwan saying the prince is very sick. Dojun hurries back to the palace to help the prince. And as he crosses the river on a boat he happens to meet the poor man who escaped from the queen’s doctor. The man is with his heavily pregnant wife who seems in discomfort. Dojun wants to help her but her husband is antsy because he knows the police are after him. There are guards with wanted posters for him everywhere. When they get off the boat the guards ask to see his ID but luckily Dojun butts in to give him some medicine for his wife. This distracts the guards who are confused to see this poor man with a yangban.
Munghwan sneaks in to the palace to check the doctor’s acupuncture needles
Dojun hears from Myunghwan that a doctor that the queen recommended is looking after the prince. They say he has malaria. This bothers Dojun – there is no reason for the prince to have malaria. He is sure that they are plotting to harm the prince but Myunghwan is frightened to talk about it. And there is no evidence to confirm his suspicions – except that the doctor was looking for a book in the library…
Later in the market place Dojun saves the poor man again after they are turned away from a doctor. The queen’s doctor happens to see him in the street and he follows him. (OK now this is all getting a bit too much of a coincidence ...) Dojun steps in to help the poor couple again! The doctor is sent off in the wrong direction. Dojun agrees to try to help the poor couple but it is too late. His wife is going to die. But he agrees to try and save the baby. He delivers a baby girl. The poor man tells Dojun that he saw the doctor kill a man with a needle and this confirms Dojun’s suspicions that the prince’s life is in danger.
Dojun is arrested and later killed
Dojun sneaks in to the palace to see the prince, although Myunghwan tries to persuade him not to go – it’s dangerous and he’ll be killed if they find him there. The prince tell him to leave quickly. The queen’s doctor will be coming soon to treat him. Meanwhile Myunghwan sneaks in to check the doctor’s needles and realises that they have been POISONED. But he gets caught and taken to the high official. He is given an ultimatum – he must give up his friend if he wants to live.
The chilling truth is that is it the king who wants the crown prince dead. Myunghwan is terrified to hear this. He realises that there is nothing he can do to save his friend. Dojun will be executed no matter what. He can only save himself now – so he does what the doctor tells him to do. But it doesn’t stop him being filled with guilt. Dojun is arrested for treason and killed. And while his wife gives birth to their baby the royal guards are on their way. If she gives birth to a boy, the baby will immediately be killed …
the nurse tries to protect the new born baby from the guards
Aha so there’s a twist at the end here. Is the baby the nurse is holding the baby boy that Dojun’s wife just gave birth to? If so he will surely be murdered by the guards. Or has he somehow been swapped with the baby girl that Dojun just helped deliver for the poor couple? In which case the baby will probably be saved. My money is on the second option. Otherwise what was the point of this episode!
So we’ve had an action-packed first episode. The two scenes that stay in my mind both involve acupuncture needles. First, the scene where Myunghwan’s father treats the horses with needles and then with moxa. Yikes, hopefully that is the end of any of these close ups! The second scene involves the queen’s doctor outside in his den. He is brutal in the way he kills his victim – the murder is over in an instant and the poor man’s body removed like rubbish. It shows how a poor man’s life was meaningless. The doctor is SO cold-hearted, but now we know that he is working for the king, his actions are more understandable – after all, his life will be on the line if he doesn’t succeed in this assassination.