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Dong Yi — the politics

July 16, 2011 1 comment

One of the more interesting questions about any modern drama is whether it can escape the limits of our own time and achieve some degree of universality. If we look back at Shakespeare, the people of his time no doubt thought him good. At the very least, they paid to see his work on the stage and read his poetry. But I seriously doubt anyone thought he would still be going strong almost four-hundred years after his death. That his work is still performed is remarkable for two reasons. First, the English is four-hundred years out of date, and a not insignificant amount of the vocabulary is no longer in direct use. Second, the format of blank verse makes the delivery of the words sound even less natural to our modern ears. Yet, despite the fact the language represents a barrier to understanding, the themes are as relevant today as they were yesterday. The plays speak to the realities of power and the frailties of human beings. Sadly, men and women have always been afflicted by excesses of pride, jealousy and cruelty. Fortunately, they have also been uplifted by charity, wisdom and love. That we have survived all these generations is testament to the fact that a balance has been struck between the virtues and the vices, with the former edging into the lead to the race to glory or perdition.

Ji Jin Hee usually showing the King as a man of great humanity

Dong Yi is a Korean sageuk serial, directed by Lee Byung-hoon and based on a script by Kim Yi Young. It’s a story set in the real-world Late Joseon court of King Sukjong (Ji Jin Hee). It’s not about destiny or fate although there’s a Macbeth-style witch to predict the future. It’s about choices and living with the consequences. The framework for the story is the political situation inside the court. It’s bedevilled by infighting between the Western and Southern factions, the latter later dividing into the Soron group which supports the claims of the Crown Price to succeed his father, and the Noron group which prefers the son of Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) for the next king.

The main problems with power and wealth are not just in maximising their accumulation, but being able to keep what has been acquired and decide what’s to happen after death. Succession planning becomes a key focus because those who follow the current power-brokers must decide how they will align themselves when the next generation takes over. The fact that fathers may favour one group does not guarantee the sons or daughters will view that group with the same favour. In a way, Dong Yi is a variation on the themes of King Lear in which an ageing king decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. We all remember Goneril and Regan, but it’s the virtuous Cordelia who wins out in the end.

Han Hyo Joo as Dong Yi showing the clothing appropriate to different ranks

Dong Yi balances on a political cusp between an old order and a new order. At this point, the inertia of the past reinforces an essential conservatism. Those that have the power naturally want to preserve the status quo and their politics are right wing. These are the High Tory grandees and the stalwarts of the Republican party. The new order is founded on more abstract notions of social justice. In utilitarian terms, it assumes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, that through the emancipation and empowerment of the lower classes in a society, the community as a whole will benefit. Making an economic point, if wealth is more evenly distributed, the poor have money to spend. They form a market and, if those with capital build businesses that sell goods and services to the poor, the quality of life for all may improve. This is not to say that either old or new order is more rational. But the issue is whether the combination of rationality with a more altruistic use of power produces a better, more enlightened society. If it does, then the new order will prevail.

The problem with King Sukjong is that he lacks the motivation to live up to his Confucian ideals. Like Lear, he’s delegated the running of the kingdom to successive political factions within the palace and “trusts” them to run the country properly. So, in the debate about means and ends, the realpolitik of this historical period sees a well-intentioned king forced to confront the corruption inherent in the old order. For the nobility, the end is the accumulation of personal power, no matter what the cost. By contrast, Choi Dong Yi accumulates power almost inadvertently and only uses what she has for the benefit of others. The relationship between the King and Choi Dong Yi therefore takes the first step in the direction of a renaissance. This is selfless individualism with the power to confront the entrenched interests, thereby promoting the notions of class mobility and a meritocracy. Going back to the issue of succession, this is moving from what we might call a noble line based on blood, to a noble line based on ability and virtue. It’s therefore a threat to the status quo, not to say revolutionary.

Lee So-Yeon as Lady Jang Hee-bin showing the high-ranking hairstyle

In terms of statecraft, the new order reflects a more profound application of Confucianism, demonstrating that being righteous and honest in the service of humanity creates a new political reality. Given the nature of Korean society as an autocracy, Confucius teaches that a ruler will lose Heaven’s Mandate if he acts without proper respect for humanity. This produces a framework of benevolence in support of the people. Mencius also hints at some degree of democratisation in that a ruler should listen to the will of the people on important matters affecting their interests.

Coming to the Jang family as the primary representatives of the old order, we have Lady Jang (Lee So-Yeon) who starts off in an indeterminate state. She is filial and has been involved in the inevitable manoeuvring to acquire power. But, as the family gains status through the murder of competitor nobles, she becomes less directly involved and, in the end, rises above the infighting. She has intelligence and this could have empowered her as a force for good in King Sukjong’s court. Yet she is trapped by her relationships and loyalties. Her decision is to sacrifice her emerging virtue to protect her brother, Jang Hee-Bin (Kim Yoo Suk). This is fateful, based on selfish emotion without concern for the broader social consequences.

Choi Jong-Hwan as Jang Moo-Yul dressing down to pass unnoticed outside the palace

Jang Hee-Bin and Lady Yoon (Choi Ran), his mother, lack Lady Jang’s intelligence. They move at a more instinctive level, driven by the short-term desire to hold what they have despite the consequences, whether positive or negative. The most interesting counterpoint to Choi Dong Yi is Jang Moo-Yul (Choi Jong-Hwan). He represents the most rational mind in the old order. It’s interesting to watch him offer his services to Choi Dong Yi. This is pure pragmatism to join the new order while it ascends. If it then stabilises and holds power, he will be in prime position. If it should appear weak, he can bring it down from within. When she rejects him, he dismisses her as naive because he does not understand how fundamentally Choi Dong Yi’s philosophy will infect those around her. He’s blinded by his own faction’s orthodoxy, assuming the predatory ways of the court cannot change. As a result, he misses the straws in the wind like Matron Yoo (Lim Seong-Min). These people accept a second chance, develop a conscience, or trust each other as honest without looking for hidden motives. He loses when he selfishly overreaches to protect his own interests.

Although allegories are, by their nature, simplistic, Dong Yi is not simple fodder for television audiences. For those who want to look beyond the melodrama and romance, there’s a robust debate on the nature of power, who should have the right to wield it, and for what purposes. There are also fascinating uses of everyman figures. These are the fools and less able who nevertheless find their positions in the new order. To all their just deserts as we watch the more universal moral messages play out. Dong Yi is probably not going to be remembered in hundreds of years as a work of Shakespearean quality, but it’s a brave attempt to say something interesting about the kind of society we should all like to live in.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54

July 14, 2011 2 comments

This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.

At last, the restored Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha Sun) has decided to stop acting like wallpaper and to be more proactive, appointing Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) to take control of the Surveillance Bureau. When Dong Yi forgives the Surveillance Bureau ladies does this confirm that her servant was returned unharmed? You will remember the villains spirited her away when searching Dong Yi’s apartment. Shame there’s been no mention of it. It will be interesting to see how the three react to their reprieve. Matron Yoo (Lim Seong-Min) was clearly enjoying herself under Queen Jang’s protection. It seems unlikely this brush with death will reform her. The two more naive girls, Si-Bi (Oh Eun-Ho) and Eun-Geum (Han Da-Min) may prove more open to the idea of a second chance. In historical context, I suspect clemency in this court will be interpreted as weakness. If people believe they will not face death for their crimes, the deterrent value of capital punishment has been lost — assuming “criminals” ever believe they are going to be caught, of course.

Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo), Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) and Ge Dwo Ra (Yeo Hyeon-Soo) — three childhood friends reunited

In the best New York style, the deposed Queen Jang (Lee So-Yeon) gets to do the perp walk as she’s thrown out of her “housing unit” with all the servants and lesser ladies getting to enjoy her humiliation. Yet all this does us move a major enemy from one royal residence to another inside the palace.

The King (Ji Jin Hee) has a pregnancy dream and discovers Dong Yi has a craving for porridge. During their incognito visit to a government site supposedly dedicated to feeding the poor, they discover willful abuse of authority and probable skimming of stores. The King is now in his element, dispensing immediate justice and banishing all those responsible to distant border postings. It’s good to see him more involved in the day-to-day running of the kingdom rather than merely depending on the reports of his officials.

Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yu-Seok) is exiled. He’s not a happy bunny but, after sacrificing his wealth, he brings himself back into contention when the heat has died down. In the intervening period, our happy couple celebrate the birth of a son, and we have a new villain to enjoy. It’s the return to the capital of Jang Moo-Yul (Choi Jong-Hwan) who’s been working his way up the system, playing the part of an honest administrator. Even the King is pleased to see him and puts him in charge of the investigation into the outbreak of killings. Yes, the Geom-Gye or Sword Society has been resurrected and is once again the scourge of the nobility. Not surprisingly, Dong Yi, Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) and Chief Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon) are greatly upset by this development. So Dong Yi talks the Queen into allowing her out of the palace and now she and Shim Woon Taek (Kim Dong-Yoon) are investigating the hand signs she remembers seeing as a child. They identify it as the Chinese way of counting but, at first, there’s no clue how numbers might be translated into language. Meanwhile, Jang Moo-Yul exploits his knowledge that Deputy Prime Minister Oh Tae-Suk (Jeong Dong-Hwan) ordered the death of his father under the cover of the Sword Society campaign. Now we see the deposed Queen Jang reasserting her position with the South faction using Jang Moo-Yul as her stalking horse.

Dong Yi discusses old times with the Sword Society

As an aside, I wonder about the use of language in this series. When I was growing up, I was bilingual in “English” and Geordie, the local dialect. This was essential to be able to fit into different social situations. So I assume Dong Yi is the same. Born and brought up as a commoner, she would have a pronounced accent and some dialect usages that would clearly mark her speech as low-born. Moving into the palace, she would then learn the different class-based vocabulary and syntax. I ask this because, if armed Geordie terrorists burst into my home and were about to kill me, the moment I opened my mouth they would know me as one of their own and not a southern toff. More importantly, if all but Ge Dwo Ra (Yeo Hyeon-Soo) are new recruits, how do the rank and file killers know about Dong Yi and membership of the old society? As an aside, Ge Dwo Ra gets to wear a unique hat that allows you to track him as he runs through the countryside or moves through a crowded city street. Great thinking by the leader of a secret organisation.

I’m also increasingly confused about geography. While we were mainly based inside the palace or in distant parts of the countryside, it didn’t matter if we had no idea of the scale of movement between different buildings or parts of town. But we now have Lady Jang and Dong Yi out visiting different houses and I have no idea how easy it is to get from one place to another or, even, which are within or outside the city walls.

Jeong Dong-Hwan as Oh Tae-suk is finally expendable

This all boils up to a great climax as the two sides jockey for position. Once Dong Yi cracks the code and identifies Oh Tae-Suk as behind the killings, they spook the veteran politician into giving himself away. Dong Yi also confronts Lady Jang and they both now recognise each other from the murderous events all those years ago. It’s now a race. The Jangs need to kill Oh Tae-Suk and frame the Sword Society. Chief Seo and Cho need to collect all the evidence and arrest Oh Tae-Suk. In the end, Ge Dwo Ra is seriously wounded when Oh Tae-Suk and his entourage are killed. He escapes to Sul-Hee (Kim Hye-Jin). Dong Yi rushes to his side. This is the Jang’s chance and, with the King incognito and encouraged to follow the investigation, he’s there when Dong Yi is “arrested” for aiding a murderer.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50

July 5, 2011 1 comment

This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.

So now we come to the real test of strength over the border logs. The Chinese delegation is blackmailing the Jangs and upping the ante with the King (Ji Jin Hee). Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) sits in the middle with the real logs. If the Chinese gained access, they could confirm their suspicions that the King has been secretly rearming and rebuilding military strength both in physical fortifications and the disposition of troops. Because of the Chinese blackmail, Queen Jang (Lee So-Yeon) and Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yoo Suk) are all fired up to steal the logs back from Dong Yi. They assume she has hidden them well so they cover all the bases, arranging to search every possible hiding place. As with many of their plans, this involves the death of many minions.

Kim Yoo Suk as Jang Hee-Jae being properly villainous

This raises an important issue about the way the plot is constructed. We can accept life was cheap in Korea in the seventeenth century, but I would prefer to see some consequences to criminal activity. For example, let’s go back to an earlier episode when the Treasury official and his family were killed by assassins as they helped Dong Yi escape. His long-time friend, Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon), was not seen to investigate. Indeed, only the burning of the Treasury was featured in later episodes. None of the associated deaths were mentioned again. I accept the plot cannot spread too wide. This would distract from the primary focus of the show. But since Dong Yi comes to prominence because she’s an effective investigator, there should be more on how the policing system works. Given the arson at the Treasury buildings, the deaths of so many other people must have been noticed and could have informed the King of the wider conspiracy. When making choices about what to include in the plot, we could do without all the subplots involving the Music Director’s family. In particular, the rivalry between Lady Yoon (Choi Ran) mother of Lady Jang and Jang Hee-Jae, and Lady Park (Lee Suk) is little better than comic relief.

Anyway, the plan involving the border logs is ingenious on both sides. The Jangs will attract all eyes to the banquet given to placate the Chinese delegation while their agents search everywhere. By appearing to threaten Dong Yi, they believe Chief Seo will move his troops to protect her. Later, if there’s any fall-out with the Chinese, the South faction can offer the Chinese money to finance their campaign against Mongolia and produce “peace in our time”. The treason will be converted into victory. So we see Dong Yi and her “merry men” playing the fool and leaving the logs to be found. I’m unhappy with this plot device of suddenly changing the point of view. Showing us the “good guys” acting dumb and falling into the trap, followed by an extended reveal showing how this acting trapped all the conspirators is unfair. That said, bringing back the combination of ginger and vinegar from the investigation that saved Lady Jang earlier in the series is a really nice “touch”. It shows the scriptwriting team prepared to exploit irony. So this incriminates the faction in the Surveillance Bureau that carried out the search of Dong Yi’s residence and shows Queen Jang touched the logs.

Han Hyo Joo as Dong Yi finally feeling comfortable in her consort robes

It’s always a problem when the King may still have feelings for his Queen. If you are going to accuse her of crimes, there must be very good proof. What makes this all the more interesting is to see a slight shift in focus from Chief Seo to Shim Woon Taek (Kim Dong-Yoon). Trusted by the King to protect Dong Yi, he’s adding to the general brain power while prepared to put himself in physical danger. Better still, he’s not prepared to respect anyone on the basis of their status. He deals with people as he finds them which is refreshing and explains why he gets on with Dong Yi. However, he was exiled because he was a vocal supporter of Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha Sun) and there’s increasing triumphalism in his behaviour which rather takes the edge of his “nice guy” image.

Not unnaturally, as the evidence emerges, the South faction abandon the Queen and persuade all those already arrested to blame the Queen for ordering them to commit all relevant crimes. They reason the Queen will be untouchable as the mother of the heir so, although her family will be disgraced and a few will be executed, she will be safe without them having to put themselves at risk in trying to defend her. When the Queen goes to the King and confesses her leadership role, this is a moment of sadness. Although the King feels betrayed, there’s a sense of mutual failure. The Queen failed to trust to King to hold her safe and, when Jang Hee-Jae became more aggressive, she resorted to lies. He trusted his Queen and failed to see through the lies.

Kim Dong-Yoon as Shim Woon Taek working his way into power

The show then polarises the debate about the nature of power. Lady Jang believes in realpolitik. Perhaps, in an ideal world, society would be a meritocracy with the best rising to positions of power. But, in this Joseon court, those seeking power use every means at their disposal to get it. Once they have it, they use every possible means to hold on to it. There’s no place for ethics or morality in this world. On the other side of the fence, Dong Yi feels terrible guilt that she’s responsible for exposing all this corruption and criminality. No matter she was only defending herself, she finds this aspect of power deeply troubling. She’s the voice of altruism and virtue. To her, power is not something desirable in itself and, once you have access to it, you should only use it when the results will be morally acceptable.

Well, after much soul-searching, the King decides to use his power to clean house. There has always been corruption at the heart of government so, starting with the lower officials, the King orders a purge of most of those in the South faction. Queen Jang is demoted. Queen Inhyeon is restored. The wheel has turned and virtue is rewarded.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47

June 30, 2011 2 comments

This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.

The question of who will dare join the support staff for Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) is a nice plot idea. The issue is simple. Dong Yi has come from nowhere so she represents a terrific opportunity for established court ladies to arrive at the top of the social heap with one jump. But if Dong Yi fails, anyone who joined her will be cast into the outer darkness. Only the most willing volunteers can be accepted, and it’s not even convenient to accept all of those who do step forward. Fortunately, the King has finally managed to get past the first kiss and Dong Yi is moderately safe in her new role. This encourages some to be brave enough.

Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) and the King (Ji Jin Hee) finally have their moment

The issue of the border defence logs finally resurfaces. This was threatening to be really bad continuity. As it is, it’s only bad continuity. Dong Yi should have immediately handed over the logs, rescued Shim Woon Taek (Kim Dong-Yoon) from exile and introduced Sul-Hee (Kim Hye-Jin) as a back-up witness so that Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yoo Suk) could be brought down. But we cannot have our enemies killed off too early with so many episodes left to fill. We have to see Jang Hee-Jae humiliated as the maitre d’ of palace functions. After all, as a man notorious for his patience, there’s no-one better to field complaints about the food and poor service.

Although I understand that the King (Ji Jin Hee) wants to keep the common touch going and he does recognise that Dong Yi feels more comfortable outside, he’s getting more testy when the drunken Young-Dal (Lee Kwang-Su) drools over Dong Yi. Let’s hope the warning shot finally penetrates the thick head of the comic relief musician and we don’t have to watch the King get murderously jealous and petty. It rather spoils his image as an easy-going kinda royal guy.

The plot to make everything think Dong Yi is out to kill the Crown Price is moderately ingenious. Except what illness could possible only affect people of one particular class? The answer, of course, is no illness and, with much application of brain power, she deduces the answer (which, incidentally, is the second murder method in Agatha Christie’s Death Comes At the End and in several other mysteries). Now it’s down to collecting proof and Court Lady Jung (Kim Hye-Sun) gathers the loyal members of the Surveillance Bureau to track down the villains. However, with timing everything to prevent suspicion falling on Queen Jang (Lee So-Yeon)’s mother, everything is swept back under the carpet and the more ingenious plot can move forward.

Kim Hye-Sun as Court Lady Jung checks on one of the ladies who have fallen ill

If you can’t easily catch someone in a murderous plot, you have to attack their reputation. The move by Queen Jang to promote Dong Yi catches everyone by surprise. But the promotion depends on Dong Yi disclosing her parentage. Since her father was a convicted murderer, this is inconvenient. Fortunately, Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) and Sul-Hee have manufactured evidence to conceal Dong Yi’s identity. They set off to collect it while the King secretly orders Chief of Police, Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon) to investigate her background. Unfortunately, when the King recounts recovering Dong Yi from the cliff top where she claimed her parents perished, this rings alarm bells. When Seo pulls all the old records out of storage, he’s convinced of Dong Yi’s parentage and, when he confronts her, she admits it.

Cheon Ho-Jin plays Choi Hyo-Won, Dong Yi's father as a noble commoner

To recap the earlier history, Seo was a junior officer from a good family and very friendly with Dong Yi’s father, Choi Hyo-Won (Cheon Ho-Jin) who was the leader of the Geom-Gye or Sword Society which ran an underground railway to help escaped slaves. At the time, there was a series of murders with key figures in the nobility being killed. Despite his own father being killed, Seo is left in charge of the investigation. He hears evidence framing Choi Hyo-Won. When arrested, his friend admits it. As a result, the King orders all the family and clan members killed. During the massacre, it was Seo who let the young Dong Yi go.

When Cha Jeon-Soo returns with the false evidence, Seo threatens to arrest him, but Cha Jeon-Soo explains why the confession was made. At the time, Seo did not have the political support to investigate the families actually responsible for the murders. Indeed, being seen to doubt the evidence framing Choi Hyo-Won could have exposed him to great danger. So, to protect him, his friend confessed. Now Seo has the chance to set matter right and gives the King the false evidence, explaining away Dong Yi’s connection to the Geom-Gye. This leaves him determined to get to the bottom of what happened. Now he does have the status and royal protection to identify those actually responsible for the deaths, including that of his father. More importantly, it focuses the King’s attention on Dong Yi’s birth as a commoner. Whereas, before, the King might deceive himself into believing that he was protecting the interests of all citizens equally, now he has Dong Yi as a positive reminder to be more active in defending the “ordinary” people against predatory nobles.

Kim Dong-Yoon as Shim Woon Taek ambushes Kim Yoo Suk as Jang Hee-Bin

This just leaves us with the border logs. With Shim Woon Taek rescued and joining the Dong Yi family, he brings a sharp mind to bear on her situation. Local society looks on with interest as a major Chinese delegation comes to town. It brings news that the “boy” is accepted as heir. Without hesitation, Shim goes to confront Jang Hee-Bin. This comes at the wrong moment because the Chinese envoy has just told Jang Hee-Jae that the logs were fake. He gives three days for Jang Hee-Jae to come up with the right logs or the acceptance of legitimacy for the heir will be withdrawn and the King will be told of Jan Hee-Jae’s treason. Based on the conversation and on what he discovers when he visits the Chinese envoy, Shim works out the situation. The problem is how to exploit it to bring down the Jang family.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41

June 22, 2011 1 comment

This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.

The scriptwriters have been playing with the convention that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. If the King (Ji Jin Hee) and Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) had met on an occasional basis inside and outside the Palace, there would have been continuing sparks. But this forced separation has really set the relationship on fire. So, finally, we have the touching moment. From this, you will understand the pun. It’s always emotionally affecting to see a couple reunited after a long period. That it should produce an almost immediate hug sealed the deal. There have been moments of physical contact before. We won’t count Dong Yi using the King as a step ladder to climb over a wall. She didn’t know who she was standing on. Overall, there’s been a slow but steady journey to this moment of intimacy. They have been wrestling with the problem of mismatched status as affection grew more real.

The King reminds Dong Yi of the rings in his proposal of "marriage"

The melodrama was really cranked up with Dong Yi inside the Palace as a laundry maid first able to contact Surveillance Bureau Court Lady Jung (Kim Hye-Sun) and fellow surveillance lady who have been so loyal. Then her hopes are dashed as she watches them arrested and her own safety comes under threat. The lascivious son of the Music Department’s director spotted her, sending the Palace into full lock-down as guards with the the right to capture with extreme prejudice scour every nook and cranny. Only just escaping before the doors to the outside world are closed, she retreats to the place where she and the King had enjoyed happy moments. Taking out her trusty fiddle, she plays the siren song that brings the King to her side. Good job he decided to spend the nighttime hours visiting old haunts.

Except, when you think of all the alarums and excursions she has endured over the last few episodes, running hither and thither under threat of death, it’s hardly surprising she manages only a few hours before the adrenaline finally runs out and she collapses. This leaves the King even more devastated. Having just recovered her only to find her at death’s door, the King and brother Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) can do nothing but look on helplessly.

Lee Kwang-Soo and Lee Hee-Do as salt-of-the-earth musicians

In the meantime, the Southern faction in control of the court is readying itself to fight any attempt to reopen the case of the deposed Queen. Since they are all entrenched in the most senior positions it’s going to be difficult to work around them. Although our Chief of Police, Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon), has been promoted to the highest possible position to mount a full investigation, it’s not at all certain he will be allowed access to all the available information — not forgetting the fire at the Treasury destroyed most of the key documents anyway.

With a trap set by burying fake evidence in the grounds of the Treasury, Seo Yong-Gi arrests the Treasurer and Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yoo Suk). With the torture starting, the King asks Queen Jang (Lee So-Yeon) whether she admits any wrongdoing. He cannot cover up the crimes, but he says he will forgive her in his heart. Not surprisingly, she rejects any hint of confession and, to turn the tables, gets the Southern faction ministers to demand the King hand over Dong Yi for examination. Since she’s the source of the information being used to accuse Jang Hee-Jae, it’s only fair that she also be examined in public. When the King attempts to protect Dong Yi by declaring that he’s already slept with the girl, thus making her a Royal Consort in fact if not in the record books, the Southern faction are outraged. This girl is a declared criminal, having been convicted in her absence of burning down the Treasury. They immediately look to Lady Jang to take action.

Kim Hye-Sun as Court Lady Jung

Once Dong Yi re-enters the Palace, there are two great moments of reunion, first with her friends from the Music Department Hwang Joo-Sik (Lee Hee-Do) and Young-Dal (Lee Kwang-Su) and second, with Court Lady Jung now released from interrogation. Both meetings, in their different ways, give Dong Yi a perspective on her situation.

When the “proposal” finally comes following Dong Yi’s unilateral promotion to Royal Consort, it’s rather endearing to see how inexperienced the King appears to be. It’s fairly obvious he’s never really been in love. Yes, he has had two wives and, no doubt, several concubines, but watching how his heart races and he struggles to come to terms with his emotions, this is obviously a first for him. The combination of Dong Yi’s innocent confusion about her “status” and the King’s boyish embarrassment is all beautifully portrayed. The return of the rings from an early meeting in the market is a nice touch to show how long he has been attracted to her. It all contrasts really well with his self-confidence when confronted by Cha Jeon-Soo who wants to know what the King intends.

Park Ha-Sun as the ex-Queen Inhyeon increasingly shows dignity and humility

We now come to the supreme irony because Dong Yi is the daughter of a convicted criminal. For those of you who missed the early episodes, the entire family and clan were massacred apart from Dong Yi, Cha Jeon-Soo and, possibly, Ge Dwo Ra. That they may have been wrongly accused and killed for political purposes does not change the record. Fearing to be with the King lest her past be discovered and it affects the King’s reputation, she leaves the Palace. Fortunately, Cha Jeon-Soo is able to tell the King exactly where she will be and, at last, we have the confirmation that she will love His Majesty. The whole sequence up to this moment is very nicely paced with Cha Jeon-Soo finally giving up whatever hopes he might have had to win Dong Yi’s heart. In the end, he really is a loyal brother.

As a final thought, Lady Jang does a deal to have her brother released. There will be no more torture for now. Similarly, when told Dong Yi has been acknowledged as receiving the Royal Grace, ex-Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha-Sun) immediately instructs the Western faction to support Dong Yi. It seems loyalty between brothers and sisters, both of the blood and in spirit, runs deep in this culture.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36

This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.

In Dong Yi, a lot can happen in 120 days. A new Queen can be installed and have a chance to replant an ex-Queen’s garden. A King (Ji Jin Hee) can mourn a missing smiling face. Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon), the Chief of Police, can be dismissed from his post by the King and disappear into the countryside with a trusted friend Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin). The family of the new Queen and some of their loyal supporters can find new wealth and status, moving up in the housing market. . . So what’s really happening?

Queen Jang (Lee So-Yeon) is haunted by dreams of Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo), fearing that she will suddenly reappear and reveal all to the King. She and her brother, Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yoo Suk), are also concerned that the Chinese have not yet acknowledged the “boy” as the heir. While the passage of time is wearing away resistance among the courtiers, this failure from the neighbours is disconcerting. Otherwise, all the plotting appears to have paid off. Except, out in the countryside, Seo Yong-Gi and Cha Jeon-Soo are turning over every stone in their secret search for Dong Yi. Yes, the dismissal was a ruse. This ex-Chief of Police is carrying a royal seal requiring instant obedience. Not surprisingly, this “secret” mission is soon reported back to the capital.

King Sukjong insists Dong Yi looks directly at him

As to Dong Yi herself, it now appears she was found unconscious by a merchant who has nursed her back to health. She was unconscious for two months but is now regaining her strength. He has already found her to be an astute businesswoman, prepared at her own initiative to take control over much of the day-to-day trading. He has been lying to her, of course. He sees profit in a wife and someone to run the business for him. None of the messages she wrote to the capital have been delivered.

Now the searchers are on the trail. They have literally been turning over the stones left by merchants to give each other messages. They have found word of a Dong Yi in a distant province. By one of these coincidences favoured by scriptwriters, Jang Hee-Jae is also going there to meet with a Chinese delegation. Now, after delivering the good news to the King, everyone is converging on the right point on the map. Not surprisingly, by this time Dong Yi has recruited a potential ally. A young nobleman turned academic in exile, Shim Woon Taek (Kim Dong-Yoon) has appeared as a lodger in the merchant’s house.

Bae Su-Bin as Cha Jeon-Soo riding to the rescue again

As an aside, I find myself growing slightly annoyed by the instant flashback technique employed in this series. I’m quite happy for this to be employed every now and again to remind us what happened in previous episodes. But it’s a bit wearing to have a scene start, then we cut to “some time later” and have flashbacks to discover what was said in the first scene or to hear the same lines instantly repeated. This is bad continuity, redundant padding, and distracting. And that dream sequence. What where they thinking? This is so Dallas when Hollywood is having a bad day. Korean directors should have more style.

So now we know Jang Hee-Jae is prepared to give military secrets to persuade the Chinese to formally endorse the “boy” as legitimate heir. He will stop at nothing to see his faction win even though this may mean prejudicing the defence of the realm. Dong Yi is fortuitously reunited with Sul-Hee (Kim Hye-Jin) from her past, now acting as a courtesan in this border region. It seems she has fallen among friends but, because her new male confederate’s name is known to Jang Hee-Jae, the letter he tries to send to the capital is intercepted and she’s once again captured by her enemy. This is cranking up the melodrama, but it remains quite exciting. I’m reminded of early Batman episodes where super-villains come up with ever more elaborate plans to kill the caped crusader rather than just shooting him in the head. A rational Jang Hee-Jae would immediately insist on having his nemesis killed in front of him with the body cut into pieces and buried in distant parts of the land so she can never be resurrected. But the exigencies of the plot require her to survive so, with a little help from her friends, she’s free again and heading off in the direction of the capital to tell all. Fortunately, thanks to the ingenuity of our academic, the Chinese delegation leaves with the wrong documents. Not unnaturally, Dong Yi is carrying the military secrets safely with her.

Kim Hye-Jin as Sul Hee — a courtesan with a heart of gold

While the Police Chief and her brother search for her in the provinces, Dong Yi and Sul-Hee make it back to the capital only to find it in lock-down mode. The Jangs have put every police officer and soldier under their command on the look-out for Dong-Yi — it’s wonderful just how many copies of an artist’s impression of our heroine can be cranked out and distributed only among the “loyal” supporters. Cross-dressing as a boy, she sneaks into the city by the skin of her teeth and, as a chambermaid, gets to within sight of the King before being caught by disinterested guards and thrown out of the Palace. Now she needs a Plan B.

Back in the palace, desperate times call for desperate measures, so Lady Jang takes poison, and all her supporters allege yet another conspiracy from the deposed Queen. Although the plotting remains quite interesting, I find the melodrama of whether Dong Yi will be caught before she gets to the King with all the evidence is a little wearing. When you know how many other episodes there are to come, I wish the scriptwriters would make faster progress to reunite the lovers. As it is, she sits outside the walls playing her two-stringed fiddle with a tear in her eye, while he moons about inside the Palace dreaming he still has the chance of seeing her again.

Lee So-Yeon as Lady Jang relaxing into a happy moment

In all this, Lady Jang is actually the most interesting figure. Having been trapped into playing the role of a villain, she displays a simple determination to succeed. She’s risen from poor circumstances to the position of Queen and she’s not going to give up the position without a fight. Ironically, she feels the King has betrayed her. During all this, he has smiled, allowed her to become Queen and made a fuss of their son. But he has had the Chief of Police out in the countryside secretly searching for Dong Yi. She takes poison not caring whether she lives or dies. Either way, the ex-Queen can be blamed. When she lives, the relief that the King showed signs of worry is short-lived. It seems the King continues to play a double game as the search for Dong Yi focusses on the capital.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29

June 7, 2011 1 comment

This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.

The birth of a son to Lady Jang (Lee So-Yeon) changes everything or changes nothing. It all depends on your point of view. This boy could be the heir to the Joseon throne or he could be the bastard no-one ever talks about. So all the political factions in the court focus on the issue of the succession. Since the Queen Mother has said this child will only be nominated as heir, “Over my dead body”, Lady Jang’s brother Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yoo Suk) whose villainy grows ever more delightful, decides to take her at her word. The plot to poison her is elegant. Nothing on its own is poisonous but, when you take two different medications, they interact. Not surprisingly, such elegance is transparent to Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) and Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon), so now it comes down to a question of what price to pay for the truth. Has the Chief of Police the courage to investigate independently? Has the Lady Jang “bought” Dong Yi? As we should expect for Dong Yi, the answer is a sad shake of the head and a tear of disappointment. How could Lady Jang betray such high expectations?

Han Hyo Joo as Dong Yi waiting for the action to start

In a way, Lady Jang’s position is rather unfortunate. Her brother was acting in secret. Yet now she knows the plot, her character comes into focus. She always was a tiger playing defence. This was strength with honour. It was what attracted Dong Yi and formed a bond of mutual respect. Except, once you are put into a situation when you must either sacrifice your brother or sacrifice your son’s chances of succession to the throne, it doesn’t help to complain about unfairness. You take the cards you are dealt and make the best of them. The same fighting qualities she displayed when outfacing the Surveillance Bureau in the first narrative arc are back. This time brother and sister aim to use Dong Yi’s investigation as a trap by persuading the identified physician to implicate the Queen. To those who know the facts, it’s an obvious lie, but even the King (Ji Jin Hee) must hesitate when both Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha-Sun) and Lady Jang as the newly promoted Concubine protest their innocence. The real cleverness of the plot to implicate the Queen is that it depends on the investigation unearthing planted evidence and then accepting it at face value. So the physician has connections to the Queen’s family. It appears the family gave him a note representing large sum of money just before the poisonous combination was delivered. Except Dong Yi and the Chief of Police check with the merchant house that was supposed to honour the note and find it a forgery.

Bae Su-Bin enjoys a moment of peace as Cha Jeon-Soo before Dong Yi gets into trouble again

The real point of interest lies in the emergence of the Queen. Until now, she’s been very much in the background but, with her moving centre-stage, we see this must have been an arranged marriage, made in the hope she would bear lots of healthy children. Sadly, although she can wear the royal dresses and walk without falling over, she’s about as interesting as wallpaper. Now, in those distant patriarchal times, women would always been been valued more if they were seen and not heard. Passivity would have been a good quality. Except, when you see the King’s impish sense of humour, you can understand why he would seek outside companionship. That he should turn to is Lady Jang is more interesting. She’s a more determined social climber and fits into the plotting and feuding environment, understanding its ways and prepared to fight her corner as necessary. But there’s no joy in either woman. Coming back to Dong Yi, we can see she’s going to win the day. She fits the model the King likes — she makes him laugh just by being herself. She doesn’t have to pretend or act a part like a courtesan. Seeing them together, triggers such naked jealousy in Lady Jang she agrees to kill Dong Yi. She knows the King will dump her in favour of this “force of nature”.

Park Ha-Sun looking regal as Queen Inhyeon

Once we’ve got over Dong Yi being thrown in the river with a rock tied around her legs only to be rescued by Cha Jeon-Soo, played with increasing confidence by Bae Su-Bin, we can observe her as an ace bluffer with no obvious tell when it comes to confronting Jang Hee-Jae. Then the hunt for the money is to continue. Except it all proves too little too late. The Queen Dowager dies and, with all the evidence stacked, the Queen must be dethroned and sent off in disgrace to a humble cottage in the countryside. At least the Queen shows some dignity in defeat. She and her family may have been victimised, but she holds her head up and no-one sees her cry. Later Dong Yi goes to visit her in exile and finds her working the land to grow vegetables. We see the Queen happy and relaxed. She has given up the past and now embraces the quiet life outside the court. This is the first time the Queen has felt real. Up to this point, she has seemed a mere cypher. Now at least she’s a happy cypher.

Through a detour into the world of fortune telling where Lady Jang’s future doesn’t look so good, we get the biter-bit syndrome. To get Dong Yi into trouble, Lady Jang and the Matron of the Surveillance Bureau conspire to have Dong Yi sent to the Treasury which is controlled by the eunuchs. Since they are protected by custom, it’s expected they will beat Dong Yi black and blue and drive her away. They do beat her but not before she discovers a part of the paper trail to prove where the money came from to bribe the physician. It looks as though the evidence will now surface but the King stops the audit.

Seo Yong-Gi righteously upholding truth, justice and the Joseon way

Continuing the emerging romance, the King uses the musicians as messengers to call Dong Yi to a secret meeting where he explains why he stopped the Surveillance Bureau’s investigation into the Treasury. On another occasion when he’s setting up a meeting, he’s surprised when his personal advisor asks whether he wants to sleep with Dong Yi. This is the reality of the court where it’s almost impossible to do anything without a partisan servant observing it. This is torture for the Lady Jang. It can only mean the King is going to become a real friend to Dong Yi and replace the Lady Jang as confidant. The only hopes for salvation are to destroy all the records held by the Treasury and ensure Dong Yi’s death. Meanwhile Cha Jeon-Soo is given legitimacy by the Chief of Police and continues to spy on Jang Hee-Jae and intercept his mail. They know everything will come to a head when the King goes away on a hunt. During this time, Dong Yi insists on bluffing her way into the Treasury before there is any chance of the records going missing.

On the dread night, Dong Yi is stalked by masked killers as she breaks into the Treasury. First the killers set a fire and then chase her through the streets. A knife strikes her in the shoulder. It’s wonderful melodrama maintaining the interest and excitement of the first section of episodes.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

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