The Hwangsa yellow dust season is here. So even though the temperature has been pretty warm and pleasant (16 degrees), the Korea Meteorological Administration advises people to stay indoors when the concentration of yellow dust in the air is high (it was over 200 micrograms per m3 over the weekend ). But then what better excuse is there to stay in and watch Korean dramas! 😉
I’m now watching sageuk dramas set in the period of the late Joseon kings (1649 – 1910). (here’s more information about dramas and the early Joseon Kings and mid Joseon Kings). I’ve just finished watching Dong Yi again (MBC 2010) a 60 episode historical drama about the romance between King Sukjong (r.1674-1720) and one of his concubines Choi Dong Yi who became a top ranking concubine and was given the title Suk Bin.
But the unusual thing about Suk Bin was that she came from the chonin class – the lowest class in Joseon. (read more about the Joseon class system here) So the fact that she actually made it to this level in the royal court is pretty remarkable.
And it gets better … despite some opposition in the government due to his mother’s modest background, Suk Bin’s son became King Yeongjo (r.1724-1776), who reigned for 52 years and was the longest ruling monarch of the Joseon Dynasty. I enjoyed watching this drama more the second time around!
King Sukjong (Ji Jin Hee), Dng Yi (Han Hyo Joo), Jang Hui Bin (Lee So Yeon), Chun Soo (Bae Soo Bin)
The drama stars Han Hyo Joo as Dong Yi and Ji Jin Hee as King Sukjong who have a cute romance. But then there’s the viciously ambitious Royal Concubine Jang Hui Bin (Lee So Yeon) who is a superb baddie along with her terrible brother and mother! Consumed with jealousy and petrified that Dong Yi will get in her way, she is determined to get rid of her.
The director Lee Byeong Hoon is famous in the sageuk world and he always directs this kind of long drama (around 60 episodes) – no namby pamby 20 episode offerings here! 😉 Lee Byeong Hoon also directed the hugely successful in Korea medical sageuk Heojun (MBC 2000), internationally popular Dae Jang Geum (MBC 2004), Merchant (Sangdo, MBC 2001) Horse Doctor (MBC 2012) and Wind of the Palace (Yi San MBC 2007 which has a whopping 77 episodes and I’ll be watching soon as it’s set later in the Joseon period)
Dong Yi as a court maid
There are lots of stylistic elements that run through all these dramas. One is the classic ‘shocked face ending scene’ – each episode usually ends with a shocked expression from the leading character. Here (above) is Dong Yi looking shocked at a revelation that will leave us hanging until the next episode…
King Sukjong and Dong Yi
In the drama, Dong Yi is kind and sensitive and understands the plight of the lower classes as she herself came from there. She is also extremely intelligent and manages to solve several crimes with her Sherlock Holmes skills. I can see a follow up series: Dong Yi, the Private Detective where in each episode Dong Yi solves another crime.
The king comes across at first as a frustrated man trapped in the serious political shenanigans of palace life. He has to use his diplomatic skills to balance the power in the government between the Namin (southerners) and Seoin (Westerners). And of course he has to deal with corruption and exploitation by his own officials of the Joseon people who are struggling to survive. The king tries to tell a joke now and again to relieve his stress but of course his servants can’t behave informally with him. They don’t know how to respond and it’s all very awkward.
The King and the future King Yeongjo
That’s where Dong Yi comes in. Although she is working in the palace, she has never actually seen the king. So she doesn’t know what he looks like. The king often goes out of the palace to see for himself how his people are living and Dong Yi meets him outside the palace when he is dressed as an ordinary yangban and so she has no idea who he is.
They keep bumping into each other and the king enjoys the relaxed relationship they have and this playfulness remains throughout the drama. But at first the King is still in love with his concubine Jang Ok Jung (who becomes Jang Hui Bin). It takes him a while to realise that she’s trouble!
The King and Dong Yi have something important in common – trust. As they get to know each other they grow to trust each other completely. The king wants to trust Hui Bin too, but eventually realises he can’t and gradually his feelings develop away from her and towards Dong Yi.
JANG HUI BIN
Jang Hui Bin has her heart broken when she sees the King and Dong Yi together
The theme of trust is a fascinating part of the drama. Trust can be powerful or extremely fragile. Hui Bin doesn’t trust anyone in the palace – not even the king who she loves deeply. She is pragmatic about her relationship with the king and understands that she can’t bank on his love to remain forever. (although she is heart broken when she loses him)
Her mission is to be Queen and mother of the Crown Prince. She believes that everyone wants power so you can’t trust anyone. Historically, she is one of the most infamous concubines of the Joseon period and was accused of turning to black magic to bring on the death of King Sukjong’s second Queen, Queen Inhyeon.
Jang Hui Bin (played by Lee So Yeon) will do anything to become Queen
Her distrusting nature helps her survive and thrive in palace politics. She believes that everyone in the palace wants power and will stomp on anyone else to get it. Allegiances are made but they can be broken in a moment. When it looks as though she may become Queen, the Namin Southern political faction support her whole heartedly, but as soon as she is accused of a serious crime, they drop her like a hot potato.
But in the end it is her distrusting nature that is her downfall. She refuses to believe Dong Yi when she says that she really isn’t interested in power. If only she had trusted Dong Yi (in the drama anyway) her life could have taken a different turn.
The only person she seems to trust is her ruthless brother, Jang Hee Jae – ironically he is now considered to be one of the worst government officials in history! Hui Bin becomes ruthless too, though. If she doesn’t need someone anymore she can simply call on her brother to instruct his team of assassins to get rid of them!
Jang Hee Jae (played by Kim Yu Seok) was a major baddie in Joseon political history
Jang Hui Bin is a fantastic baddie because she is a master Spin Doctor and can turn any situation around to her advantage. When it looks as though her dastardly plan to murder someone is about to be revealed she can spin the evidence around to make it seem that SHE is the innocent party and being framed for the deed! And the poor king really really wants to believe her.
Her brother and mother are much less sophisticated and resort to a very direct approach. At one point Hui Bin’s mother wants to kill Dong Yi and her son so while they are living outside the palace she pays some ruffians to set Dong Yi’s house on fire. Her plan fails. Mum is not very subtle. And luckily not very effective.
Chun Soo (Bae Soo Bin) is always there to protect Dong Yi from the assassins
I wrote in a previous post when I first watched Dong Yi that I thought her character was too passive and that she was always saved by the king or Chun Soo her ‘brother’. But I disagree with myself now after watching the drama again. It’s fitting that we see Hui Bin playing the Korean board game Baduk with the King! (below) Because she is in a kind of game with Dong Yi and they take turns making their strategic moves – Hui Bin always on the attack and Dong Yi on the defence. They predict each others moves from their own respective royal residencies and then instruct their loyal supporters to carry out their next move.
Dong Yi is actually very hands on even though she is confined to the palace she often dresses in regular clothes to get out of the palace to investigate things for herself. And in the end it is Dong Yi who manages to get checkmate.
The King and Hui Bin enjoy playing Baduk together
Yes, she has to be physically saved by Chun Soo several times because Jang Hui Bin keeps trying to get teams of assassins to kill her, but she isn’t passive. She just doesn’t want to attack Jang Hui Bin or anyone else. She also proactively helps the people of Joseon and opens the king’s eyes to the reality of life for the poor.
Dong Yi and the King go out of the palace and meet the poor
I also read in an article that the drama was losing popularity due to its lack of historical accuracy. The problem with Dong Yi’s character is that she was lowborn and female. So there is very little information about her in the record books. So although she did exist and she did become a top royal concubine, and she was the mother of King Yeongjo, not much else is known about her really. Was she really the love of King Sukjong’s life? We don’t know. (maybe not). Did she really work as a lady investigator in the palace? (probably not!) So without any records the drama has to be fiction. It’s a good story though.
PLOT AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
The drama kept my interest as it goes through several different phases: At the beginning, Jang Hui Bin doesn’t seem to be so bad. The king is in love with her and she’s happy although she knows that the Queen Mother is against her. She is ambitious but doesn’t really want to play dirty to get what she wants – power. Meanwhile Dong Yi enters the palace and meets the king. But her focus is not on the king or titles or power: her father and brother have been killed and she wants to know who framed them.
Then in the second phase Hui Bin turns to the dark side, she has lost the king’s love and focuses on becoming Queen which means getting rid of the incumbent Queen! Meanwhile Dong Yi has captured the king’s heart and unwittingly rises to the top of the royal rankings. Her relationship with Jang Hui Bin has soured and Hui Bin considers Dong Yi her enemy.
In the final phase the rivals have both become mothers and their sons have the right to become king since neither Dong Yi or Hui Bin are Queen. Dong Yi has matured into a confident high ranking concubine. Hui Bin’s confidence is deteriorating and she is getting desperate as she sees her dreams slipping away. She has given up on being loved by the king but focuses on making sure her son becomes Crown Prince no matter what…
Dong Yi moves up the concubine ranks
A drama needs a strong baddie and I totally believed that Hui Bin was viciously ambitious. And any strong emotional reactions I felt throughout the drama were often due to Hui Bin – I felt sympathy and pity for her as she realises that the king’s affections are moving to another woman, I felt horror at her cruel nature, I felt a certain respect for her intelligence and tenacity, but finally I felt frustration at her inability to back down and let go. Why did she want to be Queen so badly? Surely it wasn’t worth it in the end?
I also enjoyed the playful chemistry between the King and Dong Yi. A lot of the humour in the drama comes from the King and his puppy love behaviour towards Dong Yi. Of course the cynic in me says that this would never be like this – the King wouldn’t be in awe and nervous in front of a mere servant girl – it would always be the other way around. But then, this isn’t real life. This is DRAMA 😉