This is a light sageuk drama (32 episodes) set at the royal kilns of Pulmon during the reign of King Seonjo (r.1567-1608). I thought that having the story based around ceramics was an interesting angle. I did a bit of throwing on the wheel when I was at art college and I was quite interested in doing ceramics as my major until I discovered that it is really, really hard! Trying to centre the clay before you make your bowl just KILLS your wrists. Ow! No wonder we only ever see our heroine when she’s putting the finishing touches to her pot, never doing the hard work at the beginning! (pics from MBC)
But although I liked the idea of the plot centring around ceramics, the drama only really dips its toe into the world of Joseon ceramics and somehow never manages to truly convince me of its beauty and importance. Half the time, the supposedly desirable works of art just feel like props. Even though the characters do their best to marvel at the cutting-edge designs and beautiful glazes. That’s unfortunate. Perhaps some close ups of actual professional ceramicists at work on the wheel, or some more elegantly shot camera angles of ceramic art would have helped. I don’t know, but something more was needed to make me believe that this pottery was so in demand that the Japanese were willing to kidnap Joseon potters to get their hands on it.
Yoo Jung and her teacher
The heroine, Yoo Jung, is based on an historical figure, Paek Pa Sun, Joseon’s first female ceramicist. During the Imjin Wars (1592-1597) she was one of many ceramicists captured when Japan invaded Joseon. She was forced to continue her groundbreaking work in Japan so helping to develop Japanese ceramic art.
Moon Geun Young as Yoo Jung
The multiple award winning and very popular Moon Geun Young plays the ALWAYS cheerful no matter what happens spunky kid archetype lead, Yoo Jung. I’m a bit tired of the spunky kid archetype to be honest. Yoo Jung was born in a kiln and saved before the kiln comes crashing down killing her mother! (I know. Don’t ask) Yoo Jung is so bubbly and positive. But she actually doesn’t have much to be happy about since both her parents have been murdered, but at least she has two cute men in love with her: her childhood friend Kim Tae Do and Prince Gwang Hae!
Rivals Tae Do (Kim Bum) and Prince Gwang Hae (Lee Sang Yoon)
picture: Jung Yi Goddess of Fire MBC 2013 Kim Beom as Tae Do and Moon Geun Young as Yoo Jung
The brutal Yi Kang Chon (Jun Kwang Ryul) is ambitious, mean, and evil. Through some dodgy dealings he gets the position as head of the royal kilns and rules Punwon with a heavy hand while secretly building his own personal fortune by illegally selling royal ceramics to outside buyers. He kills anyone who gets in his way. He is against women becoming ceramicists or even working anywhere near the kilns (because they will upset the kiln god!) So he doesn’t like seeing Yoo Jung becoming more skilled and he wants to be rid of her. But there’s a twist to their relationship.
Then there’s Prince Gwang Hae’s feckless elder brother Prince Im Hae (Lee Kwang Soo) who wants to be the crown prince and can’t understand why his heavy drinking and laziness aren’t impressing the king or the government! I’m calling him a baddie but his antics are really just comedy and he’s far too silly to do any real harm. Although he constantly tries to frame his more able and studious brother Gwang Hae. He even sides with In Bin because he’s too stupid to realise that she’s only using him.
Yoo Jung’s talent also brings her a surprising enemy in her childhood friend Hwa Ryung (Seo Hyun Jin) whose jealousy takes over leaving her full of hate for her old friend.
The CRINGE FACTOR
Unfortunately the cringe factor in this drama is pretty high. I didn’t count how many cringe opportunities there are – maybe that’s something I should consider doing in future! But there was plenty of eye rolling, nose wrinkling, and head shaking. Sometimes I had to cover my face with a cushion (and it’s not even horror). Here are a few of the clangers which leapt out from my computer screen and slapped me around the face.
The Cinderella Straw Slipper
This scene is a head scratcher. Early on around episode 7 we are subjected to a Cinderella slipper scene. Do we really have to have a Cinderella slipper in every romance drama? Even in Joseon? Yoo Jung and her friend Tae Do have been separated for years and have lost touch. Now she is dressed as a boy and so when they meet again years later they don’t recognise each other. But she still carries a pair of peasants straw sandals that he gave her years ago. When he gave them to her they were too big for her as she was a child. Now when he discovers this ‘stranger’ carrying the sandals he places one of them on the stranger’s foot and hey presto it fits perfectly. And all doubt melts away. This must definitely be his long lost friend Yoo Jung. Head shake, frown.
Saving Yoo Jung from the River
There were several moment when I really did have to ask myself if I should continue watching this drama. Here’s one: Yoo Jung is still disguised as a boy so Prince Gwang Hae doesn’t realise who she is. They are running to catch a boat and she clumsily trips and falls into the river. Gwang Hae has to leap in after her when she doesn’t surface. At the bottom of the river Gwang Hae grabs at ‘the boy’s’ clothes and the clothes come undone revealing an under garment Yoo Jung has wrapped around her chest to hide her femininity. Whilst underwater and fully dressed in his princely robes at the bottom of the river, Gwang Hae has time to draw back in shock and stare at the body as the penny drops that ‘the boy’ is in fact a female. Apart from all the other problems with this scene – NEVER MIND STOPPING TO LOOK AT WHAT SHE’S WEARING. SHE’S NOT BREATHING.
The ‘Ghost’ Scene
A romance set around a potter’s wheel? I know, let’s have the lovers sitting together hands caressing each other at the wheel. What? It’s already been done before? Surely not. That’s right, we get the obligatory Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore moment when Yoo Jung teaches the prince to make a pot on the wheel. Their hands touch covered in soft, wet, clay. I suppose it had to be done. Pity there’s still no sexual tension. Sigh.
To sum up
In theory the forbidden love idea of a prince falling in love with a commoner makes for a better story than two commoners falling in love. Yoo Jung and Tae Do could easily marry as they are in the same social class, but Yoo Jung could never marry Prince Gwang Hae and become Queen because she is a commoner. The best she could hope for would be to become a concubine. But in reality it may have been better to develop the love between Yoo Jung and Tae Do since the chemistry was there.
Tae Do and Yoo Jung, Prince Gwang Hae and Yoo Jung
This drama often seemed like it was trying to avoid getting too technical about pottery in fear of losing the viewers. Maybe I’m just boring, but I think that a more serious attempt to delve into the world of Joseon ceramics would actually have been an improvement. For example, the details about medicine that are given in the Joseon medical drama Heo Jun, and the information on food woven into the script in Dae Jang Geum, make the dramas (to me anyway) much more meaningful and addictive.
So if you’re looking for a juicy romance this is not the drama for you. And if you want to walk away with a deeper understanding of Joseon Art this is not for you either. It doesn’t have sweaty palm cliffhangers and you probably won’t spend sleepless nights worrying if our heroine will survive her latest ordeal. But for something light and fun in parts with more than a spattering of cringe, then this could be a winner.