(20 episodes; 63-72 min each)
I’ve been escaping reality lately by watching a whole slew of Korean Joseon-era dramas. Sometimes I think watching period dramas is a lot like watching fantasy: everything is different enough to seem like a completely different world—from the clothing to the social structures to the food to the customs and so on. (Certainly Bridgerton is pure fantasy that seems to completely ignore Britain’s colonial history.)
There are three that I’ve completed recently and I thought I’d review them over subsequent blog posts. (Sorry Facebook friends: I’m posting these reviews to my blog because my blog is way easier to search than my Facebook page.) I did consider putting all three reviews into one post, but that would make it waaaay too long. Nevertheless, I’m hoping I can still compare and contrast them, because I find the commonalities between them quite interesting. I don’t know if the Joseon K-Drama is an actual genre the way that wuxia and xanxia novels/films/TV shows are in Chinese culture—it probably is and I’m just ignorant—but it’s interesting identifying some of the tropes and how each series uses them.
The Joseon era of Korean history (from my very meagre knowledge of the subject) lasted for about five hundred years—1392 to 1897. From what I can gather, it was a pretty turbulent time, with Korea existing as a vassal state to China, on the one hand, and being invaded by Japan on the other.
Moon Embracing the Sun was adapted from the novel by Jung Eun Gwol and contains many of the trappings of a Joseon K-Drama: a King is on the throne, but his rule is unstable due to various factions within his court—the largest one led by one particular court official with a lust for power, who often is/becomes the Prime Minister; the King’s successor, the Crown Prince, is usually the romantic male lead in the A plot, who often clashes with his father because their desires and goals do not align; there is a Queen, who may or may not be the Crown Prince’s mother (though in this particular drama she is); there’s a Crown Princess, who is not necessarily the romantic female lead (more about her later; it’s complicated); there’s a Princess, the Crown Prince’s sister, who carries the B plot; and there’s the third side of the love triangle involving the romantic leads (though depending on the drama, there can be multiple triangles involving various characters).
Moon Embracing the Sun begins with a bit of a prologue: the Queen, concerned about her son’s succession to the throne, orders the assassination of her stepson, the King’s son by a concubine, and enlists Lord Yoon Dae Hyung to help bring it about. Unfortunately the hit is witnessed by A-ri, a shaman of the Royal Astrology House who grew up with the stepson and knew that the bastard prince had no interest in becoming King.
A-ri is discovered and pursued, and in her flight, she runs into the pregnant wife of the Chief Scholar, who helps her and hides her. In return, A-ri vows to protect the unborn child and prophesies about the child, who she claims will have a noble, but tragic fate. Here’s where the imagery of the series title comes into play: the “sun” is the King; the “moon” is the Queen. But there can only be one sun and one moon. Two suns spells instability for the kingdom; two moons spell instability for the King. She predicts a bloodbath in the palace, and the rest of the series plays out in the shadow of this prophecy.
Unfortunately A-ri is captured, tortured and sentenced to be executed. Before her death by dismemberment (definitely not a nice way to go!), A-ri enlists her best friend and fellow trainee at the Royal Astrology House Jang Nok Yeong to look after the Chief Scholar’s child in her stead.
Fast forward 13 years. The Chief Scholar’s child is born: Heo Yeon Woo, a girl of great beauty and singular intelligence and wisdom. (As a 13-year-old, she’s played by the absolutely adorable Kim Yoo Jung, who goes on to do Love in the Moonlight, which I will review next.) Jang Nok Yeong ascends to become the Chief Shaman of the Royal Astrology House and therefore at the beck and call of the former Queen, who is now the Queen Dowager. In the absence of any competition, the Queen Dowager’s son has become King and has sired three children: a son by a concubine (Prince Yang Myung), the Crown Prince (Prince Lee Hwon) who is two years younger than Prince Yang Myung, and Princess Min Hwa. In addition, the Queen Dowager’s murderous accomplice, Lord Yoon Dae Hyung, has become Prime Minister (Prime Minister Yoon).
(Hopefully you’re still with me after all those names! For the purposes of the A plot, the most important ones you need to remember are Heo Yeon Woo, the Chief Scholar’s Daughter, and the Crown Prince.)
One fine day, Heo Yeon Woo goes to visit the palace with her mother because her older brother, Heo Yeom, who came first in the academic exam, is being honoured, along with the other graduates of the civil service examination. (This includes Kim Jae Woon, who came first in martial arts and who was childhood friends with Heo Yeom and Prince Yang Myung. I only mention him because he eventually fills the role of the Crown Prince’s bodyguard. Strangely enough in these dramas, the bodyguard is the only male at court who doesn’t wear a manggeon/circular headband, and his wild hair usually makes him appear more attractive. See Kim Ga On, the bodyguard in The King’s Affection.)
During the ceremony, Heo Yeon Woo becomes distracted by a butterfly and decides to chase it, which takes her into another part of the palace grounds. There she runs in the 15-year-old Crown Prince, Lee Hwon. (The younger version of him is played by Yeo Jin Goo, who was the hotel manager in Hotel Del Luna.)
At first, Heo Yeon Woo thinks that Crown Prince is a thief, because he’s carrying a bag full of stuff and is trying to escape the palace by climbing over its walls. He seeks to defend himself, saying that he just wants to go visit his brother, Prince Yang Myung, who has been sent to live outside of the palace—perhaps by the Queen Dowager, who is concerned, again, about the line of succession. But the Crown Prince does not reveal his identity to Heo Yeon Woo—at least, not at first, fearing that if he does, she would change the way she is treating him. Instead, he begins to fall for her, thanks to her intelligence and wisdom, and very strong sense of what is right and wrong. Nevertheless, before she leaves the palace grounds that day, he finds a way to send her a note with a riddle that causes her to work out who he is.
Now for the love triangles—of which there are two: not only does the Crown Prince fall for Heo Yeon Woo, but his older brother Prince Yang Myung is also in love with her, having been acquainted with her through his friendship with her older brother, Heo Yeom. For her part, Heo Yeon Woo has no interest in Prince Yang Myung, but instead develops an affection for the Crown Prince—so much so that when the time comes for the Crown Prince’s marriage to be arranged, she willingly becomes a candidate, even though she knows that if she fails to become the Crown Princess, she can never marry.
Of course, Heo Yeon Woo isn’t the only candidate, and there are forces at work behind the scenes, trying to make sure that the future Queen is someone who can be controlled—who can influence the future King in the “right” direction. The Queen Dowager and Prime Minister Yoon put forward Prime Minister Yoon’s daughter, Yoon Bo Kyung, who takes one look at the palace and decides she wants to live there. She and Heo Yeon Woo are placed in the company of Princess Min Hwa to befriend there, but there’s a rivalry between them from the start—particularly as Princess Min Hwa favours Heo Yeon Woo because she is in love with Yeon Woo’s older brother, Heo Yeom. Shaman Jang Nok Yeong sees immediately that the two girls are the two moons who will bring instability to the King.
The Crown Prince is desperate to marry Heo Yeon Woo, but unfortunately he has no say in the matter as royal marriages are usually decided by the Queen Dowager. The way he gets around this is quite inventive, though, and fortunately for the two young lovers, Heo Yeon Woo passes all the tests and becomes the Crown Princess.
This does not please the Queen Dowager and Prime Minister Yoon, though, and they enlist Shaman Jang Nok Yeong to curse her with magic. The Royal Astrology House is dependent on the patronage of the Queen Dowager for its survival in an age of Confucianism, you see, and so this places Shaman Jang Nok Yeong in a very difficult position. On the one hand, she needs to appease the Queen Dowager or risk the destruction of her order; on the other hand, she made a promise to A-ri to watch over and protect Heo Yeon Woo. Her solution is to pull something of a Romeo and Juliet: she casts evil spells on Heo Yeon Woo that make her seriously ill—so ill that she is forced to leave the palace, much to the Crown Prince’s distress—and then she gives her a potion that makes her seem dead. Shaman Jang Nok Yeong hopes to give her a fresh start, and at first, things certainly seem that way—particularly as, after Heo Yeon Woo is revived, she loses all memory of her former life and is taken away by Shaman Jang Nok Yeong to become her apprentice.
Fast forward eight years to episode 7 (and I promise I’ll stop recounting the plot in a moment). The entire cast changes and that’s quite disconcerting as you then have to get used to who the new actors are playing. The Crown Prince has now ascended to the throne as King. He has been married against his will to Prime Minister Yoon’s daughter, but he disdains his Queen and refuses to sleep with her, despite of the pressure his court places on him, because he still mourns for Heo Yeon Woo. Prime Minister Yoon controls his court and works against him, on the one hand; the Queen Dowager, who is still alive, also tries to manipulate things behind the scenes from her end. Prince Yang Myung still isn’t that welcome in the palace, and the relationship between him and the King is strained. (The Prince also still mourns Heo Yeon Woo and has also not moved on.) The King’s only friends are his chief body guard, Kim Jae Woon, and his chief eunuch. (His interactions with his chief eunuch are one of the few moments where the series feels more lighthearted; otherwise, it’s all very serious and tense, much like The King’s Affection.) Princess Min Hwa, however, has been given her wish and has married Heo Yeom.
The Prime Minister, sensing the Queen Dowager’s influence is waning, is seeking more power for himself. The Queen Dowager, for her part, is keen to establish her dominance, and summons Shaman Jang Nok Yeong back to court. This brings Heo Yeon Woo (now known as Shaman Weol) back into the palace—and back into the orbit of the King, who has never forgotten her. But it’s been eight years and she still has amnesia …
Moon Embracing the Sun, much like The King’s Affection is a very tense drama. There’s not a lot of lightheartedness to it, aside from a few of the interactions between the characters. (The King, for example, likes to tease his chief eunuch by implying that he and his chief bodyguard are romantically involved.) That said, I thought the cast was excellent: the younger actors in the lead roles were particularly charming, and I could see why both the Crown Prince and Prince Yang Myung fell for Heo Yeon Woo in the first place, and why they mourned her for so long. Their older counterparts do a good job, and I did like Kim Soo Hyun who plays the older Crown Prince/King, even if he does get a bit shouty and impatient at times. (Kim Soo Hyun was the male lead in It’s Okay Not to be Okay, which, unfortunately, I have never reviewed on this blog, but it is excellent. Also, not a Joseon K-drama. I think Moon Embracing the Sun was his breakout role.) Ha Ga In is lovely as Heo Yeon Woo/Shaman Weol (though, in my opinion, overshadowed by her younger counterpart), and while the amnesia plot is somewhat frustrating, it’s also very satisfying in the third act when the truth finally comes to light and the suffering of the leads is vindicated. The more minor characters I have not mentioned here are also terrific because they are fully fleshed out with their own smaller arcs, and at times, they are even given more to do than just aid the leads.
The court politics were not that interesting to me, though they did spur a lot of the tension that plays out in the backdrop of the A plot love story. I did like that much was made of the morality of characters’ decisions, with those decisions determining whether they will walk the path of righteousness or no, and therefore whether justice will be eventually be served (even K-dramas can’t escape fate!) Princess Min Hwa’s arc in particular was very well done, though devastating.
The part that disappointed me was what happened with the extraneous sides of the two love triangles: the Prime Minister’s daughter/Queen Yoon Bo Kyung never really stands a chance, and Prince Yang Myung never finds happiness (though his actions are very heroic).
But I did like that the series tied things up well at the very end, particularly as not all K-Dramas do that: after all that tragedy, you do actually find out what happens to all the characters. There is a reckoning, there is forgiveness and there is even redemption. But there is also peace and the re-establishment of order. Things are made right in the end, and while not everyone gets a happy ending, there is still a happily ever after.