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The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): to the end

The Moon Embraces the Sun

I’m going to start off this consideration of the rest of The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012) with a question. Given the heavy-handed use of the sun/moon metaphor in the set-up, and the effect of the magic has been to completely empty the mind and personality of our heroine and leave only an intelligent girl behind,
what would it take to get the old personality and memories back into the body of our woman once she’s grown up? Those of you with experience in fantasy should have the answer instantly.

Kim Soo-Hyun

Lee Hwon (Kim Soo-Hyun)

So here we go with a rough and ready summary of the highlights. We have the spirit of the young girl as the weeping ghost in the palace (only the guilty can hear her) while Nok-Young (Jeon Mi-Seon) brings Heo Yeon-Woo/Wol (Han Ga-In) back to town after eight years thinking she’s nothing more than a shaman’s spiritual daughter. On her first day, she has to meet both Prince Yangmyung (Jung Il-Woo) and Lee Hwon (Kim Soo-Hyun) who renames our moon Wol. They both look at her and speculate, but she’s adamant she’s never met either of them before so their interest is muted.

Han Ga-In

Heo Yeon-Woo/Wol (Han Ga-In)

Because of the need to inspire the King to take an interest in Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim Min-Seo), Heo Yeon-Woo is kidnapped and sent into the King’s bedroom at night as a human talisman to soak up all the evil vibes holding back his sexual interest (note the law of unintended consequences). In fact, the sun is positively bursting out of him the next morning, but he’s not now looking at the Queen. Meanwhile Heo Yeom (Song Jae-Hee) has married Princess Minhwa (Nam Bo-Ra) and this has protected the family. This sets everything up for the predictable political manoeuverings. Without an heir, the only way the situation can be resolved is by a coup. For a revolution to drum up enough support, it needs Prince Yangmyung to agree to take over power. The revolutionaries try to manipulate both the King and the Prince by variously kidnapping and torturing Wol until she gets her memory back.

And now the answer to the original question. Because all the guilty ones can hear the ghost crying, they lock Wol inside the palace at a key moment. Yes! It’s an eclipse when the sun and the moon come together and blot out the light. The gravitational shifts on Earth trigger a reunification of ghost spirit and body. Now she’s back to being Heo Yeon-Woo, it’s the slippery slope to the end. There’s a shaman battle as the ghost monster is sent out again to kill Heo Yeon-Woo, but Nok-Young triumphs, killing the second-string shaman recruited by the Queen. The plotters among the nobility come out into the open, and the Prince is in line for leadership.

Jung Il-Woo

Prince Yangmyung (Jung Il-Woo)

Which leads to the last, distinctly odd episode, most of it being an epilogue which confirms the passivity of the women. The Queen has spent eight years deeply frustrated because the King will not consummate the marriage. She may capture the sunlight in the eyes of the court, but this does not save her from depression and suicidal tendencies. The Queen Mother thinks she has power but, when push comes to shove, the Prime Minister has no hesitation in poisoning her as an irrelevance to his power grab. With the climactic battle minutes away, Heo Yeon-Woo is put into one of these pallaquin boxes so beloved of the aristocracy and is carried off to safety by two men. There’s a moment of unintended hilarity as these men later explain why it took so long to get to their destination. They thought they were being followed so had to take evasive action. Picture them carrying this heavy box, running away, jumping behind walls and lurking in the shadows under bridges until they were satisfied the coast was clear.

Kim Min-Seo

Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim Min-Seo)

Anyway, once all the women have been sent away, the men can get on with the serious business of fighting. Except, of course, the king runs off to the side and lets everyone else have at it with swords. Only at the end does he pick up a bow and shoot a couple of arrows into the prime minister. With him slowed down, the Prince can deliver the coup de grace. So the death of all the plotters is righteous but, when a last attacker staggers to his feet with a spear, takes a few steps forward and pulls back his arm, everyone watches in fascination. No-one moves to stop him. Remember the king has a bow and arrow in his hand. There’s a small army with archers and warriors with swords in their hands. In slow motion the “assassin” throws the spear and the Prince does not dodge out of the way. He’s had enough of this two suns business and wants a rest. This leads to an interminable death scene as the heir apparent leaves this mortal coil, watched in deep embarrassment by all the grunts who fought alongside him, his brother and Woon (Song Jae-Rim) who may have had a thing for him (or were they just good friends).Then there’s the punishment of the Princess (after giving birth she’s demoted to slave but, when she’s served her time, everyone forgives her and she’s restored to the role of wife and mother) and Nok-Yung dies while performing appropriate rites to see all the deserving spirits get to Heaven. After that, the survivors all live happily ever after as you would expect in a romance.

Put all this together and you have a formulaic fantasy with predicable political skullduggery. It could have been better, but the female principals were given nothing to do except be relatively passive victims, and the relationship between the stepbrothers is left curiously unresolved. If the Prince had any sense he would know only too well what was happening, but he’s left twisting in the wind as if he was innately stupid. Even Princess Minhwa, who was manipulated as a child, is never allowed anything other than a cowardly refusal to deal with the mess she was involved in creating. This takes the edge off her rehabilitation at the end. Yet another serial which fails to live up to its initial promise.

For a summary of the opening episodes, see The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): the teen years.

The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): the teen years

The Moon Embraces the Sun

The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012) may be touted as sageuk historical drama, but it’s actually almost pure fantasy romance, based on the novel “Haereul Poomeun Dal” by Jung Eun-Gwol. At first sight, it looks like another of these court dramas in which the king of the day has to deal with the factional infighting between the different family kin groups. Except little of what we see on the screen relates to any of Korea’s history. King Lee Hwon did not sit on the throne and none of the families who conspire to destabilize the country map onto known kin groups. More excitingly, this is a Korea in which shamanic magic actually works. This is not the simple foretelling of the future magic. It’s a much darker system which allows illness and death to be visited on enemies either by burying appropriate talismans in or under their houses, or by performing rites to invoke spirits which them go off like roiling black smoke snakes (someone obviously watched Lost) and invade bodies. Thematically, we’re into heavy-duty metaphor land.

Heo Yeon-Woo (Kim You-Jung)

Heo Yeon-Woo (Kim You-Jung)

The now quite common prefatory section to the first episode shows the key supernatural event which drives the rest of the serial. In this world, the sun divides. This is meant both literally and figuratively. For these purposes, assume that the sun represents the light and power attaching to individuals who may become king. During the serial, we actually see different people slightly backlit to create the effect of light generation. People nearby as these individuals walk past see highly attractive men and, more often than not, have to shade their faces and turn their eyes away. As in the real world, this radiated light can reflect off nearby bodies. So we see the moon because it stands out in the sky when the sun shines. This demonstrates the inherent sexism in the metaphor. Only men can be king (ignoring the right of the mother to act as regent during the son’s minority or incompetence). So the only women who can become visible in the sky are those who catch the light from the men. Were it not for the men, they would be invisible. So the plot device at play here is that, for our immediate purposes, the king of the day has two sons. The older was born to a royal concubine, the younger to the Queen. So according to the rules of succession, the younger son is the Crown Prince and the older is the heir apparent, i.e. he will take over should anything adverse happen to the Crown Prince. Not unnaturally, this gives conspirators hope because, if they get the heir apparent on their side and the Crown Prince then conveniently dies, they have their puppet on the throne. For this reason, the Crown Prince is not allowed in the palace, but is sent off to rusticate in the countryside where, hopefully, the conspirators will not find him. Unfortunately, both royal sons fall in love with the same woman. Hence the title of the serial leaves us to worry over the choice the moon will make and what effect that will have on the sun who loses out in this race for love.

Lee Hwon (Yeo Jin-Goo)

Lee Hwon (Yeo Jin-Goo)

All this future history is foreseen by Ari (Jang Yeong-Nam), a powerful young shaman who meets the heavily pregnant woman (Yang Mi-Kyeong) who will give birth to the moon. To create the maximum drama, Ari is later tortured but, before her execution, she passes on a message to her young friend, Nok-Young (Jeon Mi-Seon). She is to protect the girl who will become the moon by keeping her away from the sun. Not unnaturally, there are no names given which makes this task somewhat difficult to perform.

Prince Yangmyung (Lee Min-Ho)

Prince Yangmyung (Lee Min-Ho)

We now move forward thirteen years and find Heo Yeon-Woo (Kim You-Jung) attending a celebration in which her brother, Heo Yeom (Siwan) is to be acknowledged as scholar of the year (at the same ceremony, Woon (Lee Won-Geun) is to be confirmed the top martial arts exponent). A supernatural butterfly, one of many different mechanisms to make fate work out, leads Yeon Woo into a supposedly closed section of the palace where she meets the young Crown Prince Lee Hwon (Yeo Jin-Goo). Later at home, she’s visited by Prince Yangmyung (Lee Min-Ho). Yes, the older prince has known her for some time and is in love with her. The other key player is Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim So-Hyun). She’s the daughter of Yoon Dae-Hyung (Kim Eung-Soo), one of the senior ministers who’s plotting with the Queen Mother (Kim Young-Ae) to ensure his daughter marries the Crown Prince. Needless to say, these two moons are polar opposites. Heo Yeon-Woo is a socialist and not ashamed to treat the poor with respect, helping those in need and generally being a do-gooder, wise beyond her years. Yoon Bo-Kyung is born into old money and privilege. She is petty, vindictive and absolutely determined to do everything in her power to advance her family’s interests.

Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim So-Hyun)

Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim So-Hyun)

Once we’ve established the love triangle as teens, we now move into the power plays. The king initially intends to allow the Queen Mother to decide who shall marry the Crown Prince. For once showing some life, the Crown Prince winds up the scholars to petition for full and fair elections. Democracy is a wonderful thing. All girls from the right families are to be eligible and the best shall be chosen. Not surprisingly, when the king accedes to the multiple petitions, Heo Yeon-Woo is the winner. This seriously dents the ambitions of the Yoon family so the Queen Mother leans on Nok-Young. By this time, she’s become shaman-in-chief and performs a rite to send the smoke monster to eat Heo Yeon-Woo. Now you’re thinking this is a bit hypocritical. Nok-Young knows this girl is the moon she’s supposed to protect, yet here she has the maiden at death’s door. But fear not. This is all part of a cunning ploy. She engineers a situation in which the girl is seen to die and is buried. She returns at night and digs her up. Unfortunately, she’s a little late and Heo Yeon-Woo goes through the trauma of waking up inside a coffin several feet down. This trauma (or perhaps the residual effects of the smoke monster) causes her to lose her memory. The shaman then takes her off into the countryside where the girl is raised as a shaman. So the teen years come to an end with everyone except the Yoon family devastated. The Crown Prince marries Yoon Bo-Kyung but, as revenge, he refuses to touch her. Without an heir, he thinks he’ll be safe.

To see how this is resolved: The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): to the end.

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

July 20, 2011 2 comments

In another article, I happily assert that Dong Yi is not a serial about fate. It’s about the choices people make. This reflects my own prejudices. Since I do not believe in anything supernatural, all representations of religion or “magic” do nothing more than show the belief systems of the day. None of them can be real. Hence, in my view, the serial is always about the choices people make. But, of course, if the characters do believe in magic, their decisions are inevitably influenced by what they believe.

The role of superstition or magic in any culture can never be underestimated. In the Late Joseon period shown in Dong Yi, the moral and intellectual framework for their society comes from Confucianism and Taoism, i.e. from a more formalised religious base rooted in a relative degree of rationality. The more traditional culture, what we in the West would call pre-Enlightenment, is rooted in ignorance and a fear of the unknown. Superstition takes natural events that cannot be explained in scientific terms and gives them an unnatural explanation. Anything unusual is taken as evidence of supernatural beings and their influence over our world. This can be returning spirits and ghosts, or gods and demons. Standing in the centre of this cultural phenomenon is the shaman. He or she contests the battle between the rational science that appeals to the educated classes, and charlatanry that appeals to the gullible peasants and slaves. Even the nobility can find it difficult to throw off the old social practices, looking for a cause and effect in defending their financial and social status through a shaman’s intercession with gods and ancestors who might affect their fortunes. Such beliefs run in parallel with their equal acceptance of medical science, an increasing understanding of chemistry, astronomy, and so on. For them, there’s no need to choose between the old and new beliefs. You can pray to any god or ancestor that might help you while exploiting all the latest in knowledge and technology. Naturally the Confucian officials condemned shamans as practitioners of black magic with unclean rituals. This was not to deny the existence of spirits. But rather to say there were better ways of honouring ancestors.

The first major plot we see from within the palace shows Queen Myeongseong (Park Jeong-Su), the Queen Mother, exploiting the superstition of the masses to destabilise the position of Jang Hee-Bin (Lee So-Yeon). First comes the fall of the meteorite into the palace. The Ministers immediately claim this as an ill omen, arguing that King Sukjong (Ji Jin Hee) should not reinstate Court Lady Jang (Lee So-Yeon). It seems the fate of the nation turns on such events. It’s fascinating to watch the fear of the Ministers when they are each given tokens made out of the meteorite. The King, it seems is not only a rationalist, but also has a sense of humour. However, he stops laughing for the Omen of Dissonance. The nation’s music has lost its melody which, of course, foretells the fall of the nation — at least that was supposed to be why China fell into chaos. For King Sukjong, it seems if the meteorite doesn’t fall on your head, the music can assault your ears. The masses in the city are thrown into a panic. Fortunately there’s a rational explanation.The pitch of the chimes has been altered using rock salt. The fact the plot is illogical takes nothing away from the power of the idea. If the instruments were tuned wrongly, the musicians would play badly from the outset. Unfortunately, the dissonance in the main banquet is shown only as coming on dramatically after playing had begun.

Later in the serial, even Chief Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon) gets in on the superstition act with a reference to a “falling star” being a harbinger of doom — in his case, not fully realised, of course, just the coincidence of a minor wound. Then Dong Yi herself exploits the superstition there’s a “kingly” aura in the house where the newly married prince would go to live. This would lead the common people to expect the prince to become king, somehow usurping the Crown Prince. Fearing this might influence the succession, the young prince is therefore allowed to stay inside the palace.

More generally, the serial is framed by the predictions of two seers or soothsayers depending on your preferred jargon. They both claim to see into the future but are very different. In terms of magical systems, the first represents a form of neutral advisor. Although he’s interventionist, he’s less engaged in the real world. Yes, he talks with the rich and powerful, and takes their money, but he also offers help to the weak and unlucky. However, having offered help, he steps back. Those who have heard his words are free to decide how to react. This is an interesting view of what we might consider fate. He physically holds back Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) when she might have given herself away as her father and brother are dragged past her under arrest but, thereafter, he turns away with a prediction of great things if she can survive. Later, by another coincidence, he’s on hand to pull Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) out of the river. Whether by accident or design, he keeps the key players alive — good scriptwriting!

He offers the lieutenant for Chief Seo advice on who will win the wrestling match. Taking the powers as real, he achieves a godlike omniscience and detachment. He knows the unlucky lieutenant will reject the advice and go home to face the wrath of his wife. This does not prevent him from offering the advice and watching the choice made. Equally, it does not prevent him from making the right bet and profiting. We can say he’s moved by pity for those that cannot change their nature, but there are also signs he has hope for the future. Over time, nothing is ever completely certain. Many factors must interact to produce outcomes. There are always random elements that can change those outcomes. Sometimes, perhaps, individuals could surprise him by making different decisions.

So the pivotal movements come in the Jang household where he advises Oh Tae-Suk (Jeong Dong-Hwan) that the young Jang Hee-Bin whom the family proposes to place in the palace as a concubine, will rise to the top position. In a private session with the girl, the seer advises there will be a challenge from another girl who will burn as brightly. He warns that, if she does not want to be in the shadow, she must not fight the other girl. This is advice to a tiger to change its essential nature but, given Dong Yi’s nature, he’s right that they could share in the good outcome. The second seer is explicitly a shaman who represents the darker arts. She tells the future for Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yu-Seok) and his mother, Lady Yoon (Choi Ran). They are more open to the notion of proactive black magic and participate in a ritual to curse the dying Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha Sun). Under the law of the time, this was considered an act of treason against the Crown. That they are prepared to run the risk is a sign of both their belief in the power of the ritual and their desperation.

Superstition is both an intellectual trap and an opportunity. It closes your mind to other belief systems that might provide more reliable insights and outcomes. Yet it also represents an opportunity for, if you understand how to exploit the power of the beliefs in the mass culture, you can bring down Kings — the notion of an ill-omen can infect a mob and incite chaos. That the magical systems ultimately fail in Dong Yi shows a new rationality in the ascendancy. Curiously, the battle is still being fought today as remnants of shamanism persist in modern Korea. In some parts of Korea, you will still find shamans performing a kut to exorcise adverse ancestral influences. Misin T’ap’a Undong remains a powerful ideology even in modern times.

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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