Jang Ok Jung (Hui Bin) was an infamous concubine in Joseon history. She was famous for her beauty and infamous for her ambition to be Queen and King Sukjong did end up dethroning his second Queen – Queen Inhyeon – and putting JOJ on the throne. But she was eventually demoted back to Hui Bin (the top level concubine in Joseon times). JOJ was suspected of several crimes including using black magic to put a curse on the ill Queen. Finally she was put to death for her crimes along with members of her family. Even though JOJ was only a concubine, her son still became King – King Gyeongjong (r.1720-1724).
pictures from SBS
But this drama’s version of events are far more sympathetic towards JOJ than other dramas. Here she is not the villain, she’s the (almost) innocent victim. Most of her crimes are shown to be set ups by her enemies and apart from one major mishap, she is only guilty of behaving rather arrogantly and feeling entitled because the king loves her. She’s young and naive. According to the drama King Sukjong always loved JOJ and she was not the villain she has been portrayed to be. She was the victim of politics and the Joseon social class system.
This was Kim Tae Hee’s first sageuk and whilst in general I enjoyed her performance as Jang Ok Jung I felt that overall she portrayed her as a waif and that is not the impression I have of an infamous concubine – but perhaps that is the point since this drama wants to show her in a new light! Yoo Ah In portrays King Sukjong as a cold king who follows his intellect and not his emotions. He’s a far grittier King Sukjong than I’ve seen before and his presence was strong throughout the drama.
Although he’s attractive, there were times when I didn’t particularly like the King’s character though. He’s not the warm, much jollier King we see in Dong Yi (played by Ji Jin Hee) but then it’s made clear that he is facing serious threats from his government – the officials are shockingly open about wanting to kill him. And every relationship he has must have some political connection. So it’s no wonder he doesn’t trust anybody. He’s not easily seduced by a pretty face. And this makes him more attractive – when he falls in love with JOJ, he only has eyes for her.
I enjoyed the romance developing between JOJ and the King. Making her a seamstress in the palace gives her an excuse to wrap her arms around him with her measuring tape. 😉 the king is visibly affected when she stands so close to him even though she is focused on her work!
But some of the romantic scenes did go over the top…The real cringer for me was when the king rushes over to the palace laundry department where JOJ is wading up to her thighs in water gathering the washing that has been thrown into the water by other court ladies (they bully her for being low class). Of course it’s pouring with rain at the time too – isn’t it always? – and the king wades into the water in his royal robes and boots and everything and grabs her and kisses her. This scene is far too Cinderella for my taste – and JOJ has suddenly gone from a confident businesswoman to a helpless waif waiting to be saved from her drudgery by the handsome prince (or in this case King). And for more impact Prince Dongpyeong who is also in love with her turns up at the same time to save her from palace life only to find that the king has got there first. Come on now, give me a break. 😕
But once this honeymoon period is over, JOJ becomes worried about losing the king’s affection. Her treatment of other court ladies when she becomes high ranking is unattractive – a jealous wife beating up pretty young court ladies! The drama does a good job of showing how JOJ is out of her depth when she becomes Queen. At one point the king tells her to capture the people’s hearts. She just looks at him blankly as though ‘the people’ have never entered her mind. She has no interest in them, she only wants to be with him. And we’re reminded that whilst he has been brought up to be King and work for his people, she has never thought she would ever be Queen!
JOJ VS QUEEN INHYEON
JOJ and Queen Inhyeon are two very contrasting characters. JOJ likes bold colours and designs to supposedly reflect her flirtatious and bright personality. She’s a rule breaker refusing to be tied down by tradition and rules. She’s criticised for being flirtatious in her fashion and behaviour which is perhaps why all the men are in love with her – The King, Prince Dongpyung, and her older ‘brother’ from childhood, Chi Soo! But I have to say that to my eye she wasn’t coming across as particularly flirtatious – perhaps by Joseon standards she was? And I didn’t find her choice of fashion to be that outrageous. Perhaps it was just too subtle for me. 😉
On the other hand, Queen Inhyeon (played by Hong Soo Hyun ) certainly pulled off the demure noble lady brought up to be Queen but having no idea how to capture a man’s heart. She understands that she has to reach out to the people and be seen as faultless. But she sees life too simply – believing that rules must be followed no matter what. And this ends up frustrating the King and pushing him away even further.
The most moving scene of the drama for me was the death of Queen Inhyeon. She tells the King how she feels about her life. I cried. She was lonely and still so young. And although she had been brought up to be Queen she obviously had not realised what it would really be like. To make things worse she couldn’t have children (the main part of her ‘job’). Anyway the king was cold to her and they only have a political relationship. He reflects on his behaviour on her deathbed. But it’s too late now.
There are several ‘baddies’ in the story but not one baddie mastermind calling the shots – someone to make me go ‘boo’ whenever they come on screen. Lord Min and the Seoin faction plot to kill the King but although Lord Min is ruthless and determined to secure his position and his daughter as Queen, he doesn’t come across as purely greedy and evil as political baddies often do. The King still respects him as a politician and even brings him back to court when he can.
JOJ’s relation and rich merchant Jang Hyun wants to use JOJ to get revenge on powerful Lord Min for the death of Jang Hyun’s daughter. He’s prepared to use anyone especially JOJ to get his revenge. But although he’s manipulative and tough, I still have sympathy for him since his daughter died.
So there are no baddies that I can really love to hate except possibly Suk Won and she doesn’t enter the story properly until near the end to cast the final blow to JOJ’s fate. She’s a hard young woman who sees becoming a concubine as an opportunity to get out of her hard life as a servant. But her manipulative behaviour means I have little sympathy for her.
As the drama progressed and it was clear that JOJ was not going to turn into a villain, I did wonder if the writers would change history at the end too and give us a happy ending. But that’s not the case.
If she had become evil and committed all the crimes (that according to the history records) she committed, then the end would be satisfying. But because I had already seen other versions of her story I couldn’t really believe that she was such an innocent victim. Perhaps if I saw this version before others then I would be more emotionally involved and be heartbroken for the couple at the end too.
As the drama centres on the love story between JOJ and King Sukjong, some historical facts are omitted or given a different angle. For example in the drama, the young concubine Suk Won has no relationship with the king at all. She’s just an ambitious and conniving court maid. But actually she became a top ranked concubine – then named Suk Bin – and had a son who became King Yeongjo the longest reigning king in Joseon. (Suk Bin and King Sukjong’s supposed romance is shown in the drama Dong Yi, 2010 MBC)
Also, when her son becomes ill, Jang Ok Jung is caught praying with a shaman – which was not allowed in Confucian law. In the drama she is innocently praying for the health of her own son but she is framed by Suk Won who plants evidence to ‘prove’ that JOJ is really praying for the death of Queen Inhyeon. But according to the history books, JOJ WAS participating in black magic against the Queen and happy that she was dying. King Sukjong sentenced her to death along with members of her family – she had already lost the King’s favour by this point.
After the ambitious JOJ’s unsuccessful time as Queen, King Sukjong made a law that no concubine could ever become Queen – this was to stop greedy and ambitious concubines getting ideas. But the drama suggests that Suk Won was the evil one and so perhaps she is the reason the king made this law…
Overall I was totally entertained by the romance and then JOJ’s difficulties trying to cope at the palace. I could feel chemistry between the main characters and other characters were sympathetic particularly Queen Inhyeon. The new angle of JOJ’s life is thought-provoking too. Perhaps the historians who wrote about her were biased? Perhaps she wasn’t really that bad. Anyway, whatever the truth, it’s a good story.