It’s 1568 the first year of King Seonjo’s reign.
Yes, the thing with Heojun is that right from the word go, it’s intense. (No wonder it reached record-breaking viewing figures of over 60%!!) By the end of the first episode my stomach was in knots over the injustice of it all. Heojun, I feel your pain. Straight away we know that this is going to be all about overcoming the injustices of the class system and the social rules of Joseon society. Heojun is the son of a magistrate which should make him a yangban aristocrat, but his mother is a gisaeng, entertainer. And that puts him in a very difficult situation. He is not an aristocrat but not really a commoner. And he’s got a chip on his shoulder about that. (I KNEW I was going to get really into this again. But this time I am going to try to ration myself to one episode a day 😉 )
Jun Kwang-ryul as Heojun (MBC 2000)
Often in these marathon sageuks directed by Lee Byeong Hoon, the first 3 or 4 episodes cover the lives of the main characters when they are children (with child actors). But here we get straight into Heojun’s adult life.
The first episode goes to great lengths to show us that Heojun is tough and streetwise. He’s the leader of a gang of smugglers and a bit of an anti-hero at the beginning. In the dead of night his gang meet herb buyers. But when they refuse to pay what Heojun wants, he sets fire to the produce rather than sell it off cheaply. The traders fly into a panic and hastily agree to pay up whilst desperately trying to put out the fire! They (and we) realise that Heojun is not someone to be messed with.
But beneath the bravado is a man in pain. He gets into a fight with some gamblers when they disrespect his mother (since she was the magistrate’s concubine). And here we discover his problem: Heojun is struggling with his position as the son of a nobleman and concubine and watches in dismay as his mother is chastised by younger women and has a hard life as a maid cleaning for the gisaengs. His father neglects him. Flashback shows that he was good at school but bullied because of his background – the other yangban kids wouldn’t accept him..
Da Hee (Hong Su-min) dresses as a man to try to buy herbs illegally for her father
One day he meets a young aristocratic lady and he seems moved that she is so desperate to help her sick father that she even dresses as a man to try to buy herbs illegally. She begs him to help her but Heojun refuses saying it’s too dangerous. But he seems mesmerised by her. However, knowing that in his position he could never be with someone like her, he does what a man does in this situation – he gets drunk.
Heojun struggles between his caring mother and cold father
Then out of the blue, his father wants to see him. His father is a stoic man who points out that he himself spent his youth fighting in the army whilst all his son seems to be doing is getting into trouble and embarrassing his father! Heojun’s face is bursting with frustration.
Just then the commander of Weeju arrives and announces that he is looking for a fugitive named Lee Jung chan and his daughter. Heojun looks startled realising he knows where they are. He decides to help them secretly.
Da hee greaves over her father’s death and Heojun comforts her
Unfortunately Da hee’s father dies and Heojun helps with the funeral although he could get in trouble for helping fugitives. He has strong feelings for Da hee already – perhaps because she is so passionate about saving her father when he is so distant from his own father. He wants to help her escape but he gets caught and arrested.
The magistrate is berated by his superior for not bringing up his own son properly. But the magistrate doesn’t seem to want to blame himself. He berates Heojun for being useless and angrily raises his sword to kill him. Heojun’s mother rushes in begging the magistrate for forgiveness. She blames herself for giving birth to his son and bringing shame to him!! Heojun seethes with frustration.
Heojun kneels before his father, the magistrate.
OOOOh! This episode made me SO ANGRY. The magistrate doesn’t take any responsibility for his own son. He doesn’t seem to understand what a terrible position Heojun is in – he has to live with the stigma of being his illegitimate son in this strict Confucian society. He’s not a yangban but he can’t work as a commoner either. He’s just floating in no-man’s land. It’s the magistrate who is at fault here for being irresponsible but it’s Heojun and his mother who are the ones who suffer. Despicable. Especially when Heojun’s mum starts blaming herself for bringing shame on the magistrate? Oh PLEASE! I’m only at the end of episode 1 but blood pressure is already rising. 63 episodes to go. It’s going to be tough.
I wasn’t completely convinced about Heojun falling in love with Da hee so quickly though. I suppose it’s meant to be love at first sight? Or does he simply feel sorry for her because she is so vulnerable in exile and now has to deal with her father’s death all by herself?