Dong Yi — a review of the first 22 episodes
It would be easy to dismiss Dong Yi as yet another Korean historical with romantic overtones sageuk serial. It is, after all, no more than a rerun of familiar themes with a story about a brave young girl, blessed with surprising intelligence and a winning personality. So, although she starts with a lowly position in the court of King Sukjong in the Joseon dynasty, she rises through the ranks as her true qualities are recognised. We might recognise this as the script for Jewel in the Palace or Dae Jang Geum. Indeed, by some strange mischance, that was also directed by Lee Byung-hoon. Yet, for all this is kdrama recycling tried and trusted tropes, this 60-episode serial contrives to be fresh, highly watchable and genuinely addictive.
We start with the young Choi Dong Yi, winningly played by child actor Kim Yoo-jeong. She escapes a massacre of her family and entire clan with the only other known survivor being Cha Jeon-Soo, played by Bae Su-Bin, who is left for dead after falling from a cliff into a river and, possibly, Ge Dwo Ra, a childhood friend. You will benefit by taking notes during these early episodes. It all becomes highly relevant later on. Some six years later, we find Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo making the transition from a supporting role in Iljimae via Shining Inheritance or Brilliant Legacy) has been hiding in plain sight inside the court, working as a serving girl, most recently in the Department of Music. As we might expect, wherever she goes, she manages to befriend and entrance even the most curmudgeonly of peers and bosses. Being immediately identified as trustworthy, she’s commissioned to carry some herbs into the palace and, by an unfortunate accident, is embroiled in an early plot to discredit Lady Jang, played by Lee So-Yeon. Rising to the occasion, she not only outfaces the Surveillance Bureau, but also investigates in the best spirit of a young Miss Marple and proves the Lady Jang innocent. In doing so, she comes to the attention of Seo Yong-Gi, played by Jeong Jin-Yeong, who, as Chief of Police becomes pivotal in future investigations and defending the kingdom.
This marks a clever blending of court politics and more traditional detective or investigation themes. The Joseon court is disrupted by serious in-fighting between four factions, all vying for power. This is made possible because the majority is hidebound by tradition and fixated by questions of birth and status. This is not a meritocracy. The factions plot for position based on family ties rather than ability. This gives real power to those with the intelligence to see through these manoeuvres. For almost all inside the court, no-one survives without a patron or being able to physically threaten or blackmail enemies into submission. Dong Yi’s virtue is a certain innocence. She uses her powers of deduction in pursuit of truth rather than for her own advantage. This makes her particularly dangerous to the plotters and a target for disposal.
The King, played by Ji Jin Hee this time overcoming his past role in The Man Who Can’t Get Married with a wife and concubines, is fascinated by what life might have been like had he been born into an “ordinary” life. He therefore plays at ordinariness by walking through his capital city, dressed as a mere judge. In this he not only breaks tradition, but also gains an insight into life beyond the walls of the court. On some of these ventures he meets Dong Yi. The journey through several meetings until the final unmasking of his identity is well handled. The uncertainty of how they should then talk to each other is masterful. In this, the actors are wonderful, both achieving an almost luminous quality on screen as they struggle to reconcile an increasing level of personal affection with the impossibly wide gap in social status. There’s absolutely no precedent for anyone apparently so lowly born to be accepted in “Royal” circles. Unlike Lady Jang who becomes a Fourth Level Concubine when biology triumphs and a pregnancy is announced, there’s no immediate prospect of Dong Yi making progress on the heir front. For now, both King and Hound Dog must maintain several degrees of separation.
This does not prevent the King from helping Dong Yi advance. As a reward for rescuing the Lady Jang, Dong Yi is elevated from slave to lady and given a position in the Surveillance Bureau. This is taken as a step too far by most of the ladies and, by a dishonest manoeuvre, they trigger a rule requiring her to be dismissed from service. This shows no-one in a good light. If the girl was not worthy, why did the Bureau have to resort to trickery to eliminate her? When the issue is forced into the open, the Bureau must give her a second chance. With the secret help of the King, she passes and is immediately sent undercover to investigate alleged smuggling by one of a visiting Chinese trade delegation. This is also nicely handled as Dong Yi lives up to her reputation for tenacity and independence of thought, first sneaking herself back into the compound to continue the investigation when the cover of the Surveillance Bureau is blown, and later surrendering herself to the Chinese and avoiding an international incident. Fortunately, her investigative skills prevail again.
It’s fascinating to identify the members of the warring factions in the court and to see how incompetent so many of them are. People get high-powered jobs by grace and favour, which is deeply frustrating to the competent. Indeed, key decision-makers see the security of their nation threatened by the dead wood at the top of all ministries and bodies supplying essential goods and services to the community. Yet, without plotting a revolution, it’s difficult to see how reforms can be introduced. In this, we may be witnessing the transition of Lady Jang from victim to a possible co-conspirator with her brother, Jang Hee-Jae, who is played as a laughing villain by Kim Yoo Suk. While Queen Inhyeon played by Park Ha-Sun is a somewhat distant and tragic figure, childless and cast aside in favour of Lady Jang. So far, she is marginalised in court affairs.
One vague concern is that the “detective” elements require a certain suspension of disbelief. Although she’s the daughter of a coroner in a commoner’s village, it’s not clear how Dong Yi could have acquired such wide forensic knowledge and skills. Nevertheless, the whole program is carried off with such style and panche, we can easily forgive the more fantasy-based elements to watch the court plotting at work.
Then one year passes and a male child is born to Lady Jang.
For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics
Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself: