So I’ve just finished watching the marathon of 77 episodes of the drama Yi San (MBC 2007). The drama is based on the late Joseon king, Jeongjo (r.1776-1800) who along with his grandfather King Yeongjo (r.1724-1776) is considered to be one of the most successful kings of the Joseon period.
In a nutshell the drama is about the struggles of the king as he tries to modernise and reform his government and country while constantly under the threat of assassination from enemies in his own government. He has to deal with betrayal from members of his own family. But there’s romance too between Yi San and Song Yeon, his childhood friend, who eventually becomes his concubine Ui Bin. Here are my thoughts on the drama and my 3 favourite scenes.
At the beginning we meet the future king as a lonely boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He has to watch his father Crown Prince Sado suffocate to death in a rice chest (top left) on the orders of King Yeongjo (bottom right played by Lee Soon Jae) who believes he has committed treason. He then has to prove to his grandfather, the stern King Yeongjo that he is worthy to be king and not a traitor himself! He doesn’t automatically become the Crown Prince so his position is fragile.Then he spends his life wanting to clear his father’s name.
Most of the plot is based around a series of assassination attempts and instances by the Noron officials to sabotage Yi San’s work and ruin his reputation. The Noron party officials have become too powerful and with it greedy and corrupt. Yi San has progressive views and wants to rid the government of corruption which means shaking up the balance of power. Over the course of his reign we see Yi San battle with his government over trading laws, slavery, and the general structure of government – he even moves the capital to nearby Suwon to try to weaken the hold the Noron officials have.
With his life in danger most of the time, and with few people he can trust, there is little for him to smile about. But Lee Seo Jin who plays King Jeongjo (Yi San) sometimes brings a playful side to the character. For example, he winks at Dae Su (not scripted) when he gives him his certificate for passing the military exam and he winks at Song Yeon (again, not scripted) during the ceremony where she becomes a concubine. Director Lee writes in his book that he got annoyed with the actor for ‘ruining’ the scenes with his winking, forcing the director to do retakes. But then during editing, the takes with the winks were chosen as it worked really well!
To emphasise Yi San’s isolation and difficulties as king, we see that the main baddies are close members of his own family! At the top is King Yeongjo’s Queen who controls members of the Noron party. And then there is King Yeongjo’s daughter and her son who also have their eye on the throne. They all manipulate everyone pretending to be loyal to the King and Yi San whilst plotting against Yi San behind his back.
BEST SCENE 1
My first favourite scene of the drama appears in Episode 19. King Yeongjo (below left) becomes ill and orders that his grandson Yi San (right) be put in charge in his place. This terrifies the Noron officials who DO NOT WANT YI SAN TO RULE. So the baddie Queen (played by Kim Yeo Jin, bottom right) hides the decree. But then the king recovers and sends for the Queen demanding to know why his orders haven’t been carried out….
The Queen, who always pretends to support Yi San, arrives and gives an Oscar winning performance about why she hid the decree – she was only trying to ‘HELP’ Yi San. Neither King Yeongjo nor Yi San want to believe that she would sabotage Yi San. (She is family after all!) So they accept her explanation. It’s the intensity of the dialogue and the brazen in-your-face lying of the Queen that makes this a great scene. It an invigorating shout-at-the-TV opportunity for us, the audience, who KNOW that she is GUILTY!
And whilst other baddies get caught, exiled, or executed along the way, the Queen manages to keep her double life secret and be the puppet master behind many of the plots against Yi San.
ROMANCE AND THE ROYAL PAINTING BUREAU
What is a Korean drama without a love triangle? And we have one here with Yi San and his childhood friends Song Yeon and Dae Su. Both men are in love with Song Yeon.
Of course poor old Dae Su (played by Lee Jong Soo, above right) doesn’t stand a chance and can only watch as love blossoms between Yi San and Song Yeon. But he remains loyal to both of them until the end. The character of Dae Su is really similar (same?) to the character of military guard Cha Chun Su in Dong Yi – he has also known Dong Yi since she was a child, is in love with her, but has to watch as she falls in love with King Sukjong! Neither Dae Su or Chun Su get married either.
Song Yeon, is the quintessential spunky kid archetype who is kind and sweet and tries to see the bright side in times of hardship. But she has two roles in the drama. One is to be the love interest of Yi San and to support him emotionally and even to move the plot along by helping him solve diplomatic and political problems including clearing his father’s name. Her other role is to showcase the workings of the Art Department.
In his book Make a Kingdom of Dreams, Director Lee Byong Hun says that he chose to put Song Yeon in the Dohwaso art department as a damo, assistant painter, because he wanted to see how the viewers would respond to painting as a theme in a drama. If he got a good response he planned to make a drama about the famous Joseon painters Kim Hong Do and Shin Yun Bok. (But SBS made a drama on this topic soon after Yi San – Painter in the Wind). I guess directors always have to be thinking ahead!
I found the sub-theme of painting interesting in the drama. We are reminded that there was no photography or photocopiers at the time so everything had to be painted by hand – the painters get annoyed when they have to paint lots and lots of deer heads for target practice when Yi San pushes his military to train harder. On another occasion the painters are woken in the middle of the night to paint maps for the soldiers going into the mountains.
It makes me think how much easier things are today! Here are members of the art department (above) in the art storage room spending hours and hours searching for a specific painting of a ceremony that the king wants to look at. The painters had to document all events of note in the palace from marriages to executions and torture (above left)
BEST SCENE 2 Ep 50 POLITICS
Between the assassination attempts, the Noron officials have to debate with the king. And as their battle of words intensify, the Noron bring in their secret weapon – a stoic hardliner ex official, Jang Tae Woo. They hope HE can CONTROL the king and stop him doing crazy stuff like bringing in opposition party Namin officials back to the palace and hiring illegitimate noblemen to work at the palace – shock horror!
When negotiations break down, the Noron cause chaos at the palace by resigning in protest at the King’s decisions. They also sabotage the civil servants exams so that no more officials can be hired. The king responds by accepting the resignations announcing that there are too many scholars in government anyway… It’s a great, intense scene as the officials think their resignations have forced the king to retreat. Their faces fall at the king’s chilly response!
Yi San has to find a balance working with the government and find ways to deal with the neighbouring Qing Dynasty too. And he does this with the help of his trusty sidekick Official Hong. When the smart and intellectual Official Hong comes to work for him Yi San is positive that they can achieve so much together.
Finally it seems that Yi San has someone he can trust. And for a while this is true. But then Official Hong becomes greedy for power too. Yi San continues to trust him though. So it’s a major blow when it’s revealed that Hong has turned to the dark side and betrayed the king.
BEST SCENE 3 Ep 66 OFFICIAL HONG IS ARRESTED FOR TREASON
His ambition gets the better of him and in the most moving episode so far, Official Hong (below right played by Han Sang Jin) is found guilty of treason. The worst of it is that Yi San didn’t see this one coming at all. And he had planned to do so much work with Hong. But now he feels lost and alone again…
There’s more death and sadness to come. But in general the drama celebrates the reign of King Jeongjo despite all the obstacles he had to overcome. From a historical point of view the drama is interesting – King Jeongjo made lots of reform. I also enjoyed getting an insight into what went on in the Royal Art Department.
But with 77 episodes this was a long drama and I think it would have fit nicely into a more manageable 50 episodes. (The ratings must have been high to have it extended.) The constant assassination attempts get a bit repetitive and with all the political intrigue going on Song Yeon is often missing for longish periods of time so perhaps this is why I wasn’t 100% sold on their relationship or any ‘romance’. The breakdown of trust between Yi San and Hong was the most moving point of the drama for me and I would have liked to have seen even more development there.