Dong Yi — final thoughts
It’s easy to dismiss shows like Dong Yi as being trite romantic melodrama. Worse, of course, is the cross-cultural factor. Not only is this historical romance, but it’s also from a foreign culture. So, before going any further, let’s put all our prejudices to one side and take a deep breath. Yes, this is a sageuk serial but, as in other countries, Korea has a fascination with its own history and, more importantly, likes to universalise events to make each retelling of their history relevant to modern viewers. The Joseon Dynasty has been a particularly rich seam for film and television directors to mine yet, as time has passed and sophistication increased, we’ve moved on from the versions based on folk tales or the strict historical record, to contemporary shows that mix folk tales, legends and pure invention into the history. For the Koreans, the quality of the drama is everything and, for a while, the viewers were distracted from the contemporary politics by the introduction of more sexual themes in their television dramas. Now, we’re back to the idea of history as allegory. Some like to call this fusion sageuk.
The problem for scriptwriters is always how to make a version of the historical record acceptable to modern sensibilities. If they take a literal view, they would be forced to show the patriarchy of earlier times with the only women rising above the fray being the concubines who were often power-hungry like Jang Hee-Bin. So creating female heroines to generate mass market appeal gets its first real boost in Dae Jang Geum or Jewel in the Palace (2003), where a commoner kitchen cook, Seo Jang Geum (Lee Young Ae), rises through the ranks to become Joseon’s first female royal physician. Thematically, this serial focuses on her strength to persevere no matter what the obstacles. This is not pure stubbornness. It’s the promotion of the notion of meritocracy — that those with ability will get on.
Which neatly brings us to Dong Yi, the latest version of this increasingly refined approach. This is a fusion between the traditional politics of court intrigue and an inspiring drama about a girl of common birth, but exceptional ability, who turns down the opportunity to become Queen. What clearly distinguishes this from the earlier dramas is the rather subversive subtext. This is a woman who beats the system by refusing promotion whenever possible, giving up her rank when she can, and thinking not of herself but only of others. Whereas the average court ladies would exploit the information they hold to blackmail or bring down their enemies, she prefers to sit quietly. Most of the blackmailing and disclosures in this serial are made by her supporters. The irony in all this is that most of those around her completely misjudge her. They believe she is either naïve and stupid, or has a hidden agenda they cannot immediately identify. As a result, they plan unnecessary countermeasures and are shown bringing ruin upon themselves. This is a very ASEAN or Chinese view, typified by the martial arts styles like Tai chi chuan where the soft movements beat the hard. In more general terms, it reminded me of the tactics of Alexander Nevski who led his more heavily-armed enemies on to the ice of Lake Peipus. He won just by retreating — well, there was some fighting as well, but you get the idea.
In a predemocracy period when a dog-eat-dog political fighting style usually wins, it sends an interesting message to modern viewers when they see a major government institution reformed by soft power. To improve the lot of the common people all you need is altruism and a willingness to be self-sacrificing. Even the King gets in on the act, being prepared to abdicate in favour of his older son so that the younger can be named the heir apparent. In historical terms, this was not unprecedented but, in the context of this story, it reinforces the more pervasive message that even the most senior leaders must consider the country before their personal interests. In this instance, the stability of Korea was threatened. Should the Crown Prince be unable to produce children, he would become the pawn of those wanting to influence the succession. With a strong heir apparent and the King acting as regent to protect his weaker son, civil war would be avoided and the future preserved.
The irony, of course, is that Korea today is still strictly divided into classes based on family and the credentials the people obtain as they move through the education system. The Korean College Scholastic Ability Test replaces the rigorous Civil Service Examinations that were so important during the Joseon Dynasty. Without a high passing mark in a competitive field, there’s no chance of access to the better jobs. This is a Confucian view of what represents a just and fair outcome. The more objective the judgement of achievement, the more fair the exam is claimed to be and, therefore, the more access to the better opportunities in life can be controlled. In some senses, we may say little has changed since the Joseon Dynasty in which we had rigid class structures based on family and a rote-based learning and examination system. That’s why it’s all the more important to see figures like Seo Jang Geum and Dong Yi succeeding despite the lack of family and credentials. People today need to be reminded they too can beat rigid systems based on credentials, and succeed by setting up their own businesses or proving to others they have the skills. With the right attitude and an above-average level of ability, anyone can be a success!
In a way all this allegory would be of little interest were it not for the quality of the performances from four of the actors. I cannot sing the praises of Ji Jin Hee too highly. It’s an immensely assured performance of great warmth, beautifully capturing the gentle man inside a ruler confident in his power. I prefer Han Hyo Joo’s portrayal of Dong Yi before she gets caught up in the end-game with the Jangs. Once the real fight begins, there’s a certain one-note quality to the acting. I think this is in part a problem with the script which makes her less positive and more reactive, but she does sit or stand around looking a bit lost for quite long periods of time. Lee So-Yeon as Jang Hee Bin remained compulsively watchable throughout. Even when she was on the ropes, she still managed to maintain a great public façade, only giving into frustrated tears when in private. Then, when Hee-Bin finally left, we could continue watching Choi Jong-Hwan as Jang Moo-Yul, the most interesting of all the court players. His chameleon-like ability to hide in plain view, not seeming to do anything but quietly advance his cause, was a delight. I was sorry he allowed himself to ignore the obvious. It was not wholly his fault. When you have been surrounded by people who consistently fit your model of how people behave, you can always be blindsided by the one or two who act differently. I hoped he would reach an accommodation much as Court Lady Yoo (Lim Seong-Min) took her second chance. It would have offered more hope for the future if an appeal to intelligence could produce an effective compromise.
It has been a wonderful three months watching this sageuk series unwind and my thanks go to the terrestrial station that screened it five days a week, albeit that it butchered the original episodes to produce more than seventy episodes. This confused me and all those who have been trying to relate my reviews to the original episode numbers.
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: