화정 (Jungmyung, The Princess of Light)

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50 Episodes
A Kim Jonghak Production Production
Timeslot: Monday and Tuesday Evening, 10:00 PM
Genre: Sageuk
Format: 1080i Dolby Digital 2.0 – 60 Minutes
Runs from: 2015/Apr/13~Sep/29

WITH 이연희 (Lee Yeon-Hee) as Hwayi/Princess Jeongmyeong; 서강준 (Seo Gang-Joon) as Hong Ju-Won; 차승원 (Cha Seung-Won) as Gwanghae; 한주완 (Han Ju-Wan) as Kang In-Woo; 조성하 (Jo Seong-Ha) as Kang Ju-Seon; 신은정 (Shin Eun-Jung) as Queen Inmok; 최종환 (Choi Jong-Hwan) as Prince Imhae; 김여진 (Kim Yeo-Jin) as Kim Gae-Shi; 정웅인 (Jung Woong-In) as Lee Yi-Cheom; 엄효섭 (Eom Hyo-Seop) as Hong Young; 김창완 (Kim Chang-Wan) as Lee Won-Ik; 이성민 (Lee Seong-Min) as Lee Deok-Hyeong; 김승욱 (Kim Seung-Wook) as Lee Hang-Bok; 허정은 (Hur Jung-Eun) as Young Jeongmyeong; 정찬비 (Jung Chan-Bi) as Teen Jeongmyeong; 최권수 (Choi Kwon-Soo) as Young Ju-Won; 윤찬영 (Yoon Chan-Young) as Teen Ju-Won; 이태우 (Lee Tae-Woo) as Young In-Woo; 안도규 (Ahn Do-Gyu) as Teen In-Woo; 박영규 (Park Young-Gyu) as Seonjo; 장혁진 (Jang Hyeok-Jin) as Maruno; 공명 (Gong Myeong) as Ja-Gyeong; 강문영 (Kang Moon-Young) as Lady Yoon; 박원상 (Park Won-Sang) as Jang Bong-Soo; 김광규 (Kim Gwang-Gyu) as Lee Young-Boo; 안내상 (Ahn Nae-Sang) as Heo Gyun;

CREW Production Director 김상호 (Kim Sang-Ho) B-Team Director 최정규 (Choi Jung-Gyu) Main Writer 김이영 (Kim Yi-Young) Planning 이창섭 (Lee Chang-Seop) Executive Producer 손기원 (Son Gi-Won) Producer 유현종 (Yoo Hyeon-Jong) 박보경 (Park Bo-Gyeong) Director of Photography 김종진 (Kim Jong-Jin) 이태희 (Lee Tae-Hee) Lighting 정상수 (Jung Sang-Soo) 황명호 (Hwang Myung-Ho) Editor 황금봉 (Hwang Geum-Bong) Art Director 나이선 (Na Yi-Seon) Music 김현종 (Kim Hyeon-Jong) Action Choreography 김민수 (Kim Min-Soo) 윤진율 (Yoon Jin-Yool) Assistant Writer 전세희 (Jeon Se-Hee) 유수정 (Yoo Su-Jeong) 최윤선 (Choi Yoon-Seon) Assistant Producer 김성용 (Kim Seong-Yong) 홍석우 (Hong Seok-Woo) 유범상 (Yoo Beom-Sang)

RATINGS
AGB Nielsen Nationwide
HIGHEST: 11.8% (04/14 - E02)
LOWEST: 5.7% (09/28 - E49)
AVERAGE: 9.88%

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

FIRST LOOK

The strange void left by what looks to be a definite farewell for sageuk legend Lee Byung-Hoon has given MBC and his protégés a few new interesting questions to ponder and challenges to undertake: from their perspective, the task of finding someone who can if not replicate at least mimic his miraculous rating performances over the last 20 years – particularly considering what kind of decline the industry as a whole and sageuk in particular have been going through in the last few years; for anyone who has crossed paths professionally with him in the last half decade, the challenge to find their own voice, hopefully distancing themselves from the trendy cosplay antics of the venerable director of 허준 (Hur Joon), 상도 (Sangdo), 대장금 (Dae Jang Geum) and a collection of risible disappointments ever since. Not a coincidence to find Kim Sang-Ho, Choi Jung-Gyu and Kim Yi-Young together in this project, MBC's most ambitious sageuk of the year – given that it gets the prestigious distinction of being the 54th Anniversary Special for the station.

Kim Sang-Ho is an interesting choice for a long feature sageuk, because he definitely has mainstream sensibilities, but also a very distinctive visual flair – see 혼 (Soul) and 아랑사또전 (The Tale of Arang) to get an idea. MBC had tried to groom Kim Geun-Hong as Lee's successor for years, but after two lukewarm solo directing performances in consecutive sageuk – the infamously lousy 계백 (Gyebaek) and the Choi Wan-Gyu-penned 구암허준 (Hur Joon) – they have mostly given up on him as his heir to the throne. Kim getting the nod here signals their hope that he will somehow be able to carry the torch, and if not an incredibly bold choice, it's nonetheless an intriguing one.

Choi Jung-Gyu and Kim Yi-Young are a whole different story, especially in Kim's case: her last three dramas were long sageuk helmed by Lee Byung-Hoon, and one of them – 마의 (The King's Doctor) – had Choi as a B-Team director, so they obviously know each other. What's interesting here is how Kim would perform outside the boundaries of Lee Byung-Hoon's sageuk microcosm, famously made of clear-cut heroes and villains, overly linear storytelling, broad comedy and even broader, grossly stereotypical romance. Kim and Choi actually worked together in the intriguing short 이상 그 이상 (More and More), a rare period noir with Jo Seung-Woo as part of the 드라마 페스티벌 (Drama Festival) lineup.

This is also an interesting turning point – at least a potential one – for Cha Seung-Won: if there's anything that highlighted the fact that Cha had some serious acting chops was the 2005 sageuk 혈의 누 (Blood Rain), which still remains his best performance to date. It was also followed by years of diminishing returns, chasing popularity on TV and projects on the big screen that might have increased his cachet, but not quite his reputation as a potentially fine actor.

A big challenge for everyone involved, then. Even when it comes to wooing audiences with something eclectic, because Gwanghae as a subject is dangerously close to over-saturation – appearing in over half a dozen dramas and films in the last three years.

The first two episodes are a huge surprise, though. Not so much because they ooze with excellence (they clearly don't), but because everything feels so distant from what Lee Byung-Hoon (and his “creative offspring” Kim Young-Hyeon and Choi Wan-Gyu) had given us for the last decade, it doesn't even feel like an MBC sageuk. It's a lot closer to the weekend KBS sageuk of the late 1990s, with little to no time given to comic relief, and a tight yet simple storytelling structure pushing a few key issues with admirable focus. Of course more than an incipit this is a prologue of sorts – the show is about Princess Jeongmyeong and not Gwanghae, and MBC was smart enough to quell our hopes by giving it that title – meaning that once the kids take over there is a very good chance that the same focus that permeates the show might give way to vapid love triangles, shallow success stories and semi-Shakespearean histrionics thrown at the screen by people who haven't the closest idea of what sageuk acting should be. Like any other modern Lee Byung-Hoon sageuk, you know.

Still, a Cha Seung-Won in fine form supported by great work by Choi Jong-Hwan, Park Young-Gyu and Lee Seong-Min – great because it takes advantage of every second given to them functionally and organically, not because it tries to win an award upstaging everyone else; an operatic and yet never intrusive score by Kim Hyeon-Jong; and, last but not least, the kind of visual allure which made Kim Sang-Ho an interesting choice to begin with. It all combines to create a charming intro to what could potentially be a decent show. We'll just have to see if MBC wishes to take a step in a different direction and keep things serious and focused, or if the spirit of Lee Byung-Hoon's work is still alive and well, in which case we'll soon be welcomed by the same old trendy cosplay shenanigans. And lament that sageuk is still a dying genre.

I'm curious either way.

It's a relief that the ratings are still somewhat stable, and that criticism has mostly been confined to the bleeding-heart nationalists and armchair historians out there – in the latter's case we're dealing with people who complained for every sageuk ever made, even for all time classics like 신돈 (Shin Don) and 용의 눈물 (Tears of the Dragon), so steer clear of giving them any credibility as they don't understand the concept of dramatizing history.

That's because while this remains a very solid show, there are a few structural problems which could eventually harm its current, very welcome if somewhat uncomfortably surprising quality -- and we don't need an irate station breathing down the writer's neck because their expensive jewel isn't delivering where it counts. I'm not going to bother complaining about the copious amounts of historical distortion or just plain silliness – not only was gunpowder readily available in middle Joseon, Choi Mu-Seon had taken care of it centuries earlier in the Goryeo Dynasty, and the least said about the black and white nature of the courtiers' portrayal, the better. It's just that when everything seems so focused narrative-wise, you tend to concern yourself with the little things that could derail an otherwise very organic and cohesive whole.

One of those “little” details is period awareness. I'm fine with historical distortion and could even accept it as a sort of artistic license – especially when justified by the storytelling. But we should never forget we're still dealing with a historical drama, so nothing outrageously anachronistic should happen: in this case, that would be a 13 year old princess complaining that she's too young to get married at her age. Girls routinely got married in their early teens up to the early 20th century, even at a younger age in the case of royals – as preserving the blood line was paramount. Not only is her rant completely out of place (as is the usual cliché of the hyper noble damsel trying to experience the “secular world outside the palace,” but that's more of a bad habit carried over from the literary sphere), but completely ridiculous considering that by that age she would have been indoctrinated enough to understand marriage as part of her social duty.

The bigger concern is that just about everything dealing with the titular Princess Jeongmyeong feels like it went through a modern “remastering” to make it more palatable for the masses – from the aforementioned complaints all the way to every narrative obstacle that comes her way, feeling so distanced from actual history and the reality of the period as to feel like science fiction. This means that while the show remains in the realm of Gwanghae, his conflicting relationship with the court and the diplomatic turmoil that animated the period, writer Kim Yi-Young manages to make the proceedings compelling. Whenever Jeongmyeong and the two male-leads-to-be enter the fray, both characterization and plot development are perilously hovering around the ridiculous. Which is to say that we're preparing for the real fireworks when Lee Yeon-Hee, Kim Jae-Won and Seo Gang-Joon will join us – as none of them has the tools to carry a sageuk with their acting, let alone having to compensate for a script that morphs acceptable reality to make space for yet another commercially accessible exercise in conflicted petting.

Not a bad show, not by any means. Good music, flamboyant (love the drone cam!) but still assuredly sedated directing, and good performances across the board keep the story engrossing in what has so far been an intriguing show (with a few occasional tonal shifts, truth to be told). But concerns loom around the corner, and until the adult leads quell them, I'm afraid we'll have to continue this “suspicious enjoyment.”

EPISODES 05~06 [69/100]

Here's an interesting conundrum to ponder upon: if I were to evaluate this show on a vacuum, as if I was approaching Korean dramas (sageuk in particular) for the first time, I'd probably be inclined to think it's a fine production that deserves to be seen abroad -- regardless of its meager appeal outside Asian history and drama aficionados. Kim Sang-Ho has managed to find the right milieu between the kind of subtler, more cerebral pathos of the political ruminations the animate the court and the quintessentially visceral, bombastic, adventure-like turmoil the titular princess is facing. The acting is solid across the board, even though at times it's limited by the image many actors (and perhaps Kim himself) have matured of what sageuk acting is supposed to be (so whenever Gwanghae finds himself in a momentous, well, moment… Cha Seung-Won tries to win the Daesang a little too blatantly); music is wonderfully muted yet expressive, in a way mirroring the cinematography's qualities. This, by all means, is the kind of homogenously solid production MBC's yearly anniversary sageuk were sorely in need of.

Then again, I'm still worried. Maybe worried is not the right term at this point; perhaps skeptical would do.

Skeptical because while all this is quite compelling and I'd find it hard to find anything particularly wrong with it, once you start to analyze everything that's transpired so far in a larger context – that of the sageuk canon as a whole, MBC's degeneration into RPG-like success stories from 허준 (Hur Joon) onwards in particular – then you can't help but frown at the derivative nature of its narrative. How many times have we seen sageuk (MBC ones in particular) literally ship its protagonists overseas to embroil them in manufactured peril all the while the storytelling conveniently sets the table for their return? Deokman of 선덕여왕 (Queen Seondeok) fame even went as far as the Taklamakan Desert to showcase her Latin-speaking prowess, so why not have Jeongmyeong be sold as a slave by Wa pirates, you'd say.

Because it's lazy storytelling, I'd say.

All this does is creating “foamy” spectacle while we wait for the writer to possibly, eventually grace us with some kind of plausible characterization. While we witness her endure all sorts of flamboyant and unrealistic ordeals, we're served with flavor-of-the-week intrigue and machinations (not to mention the explosions, the blood, the Uh-Oh-Serious-Shit-Is-About-To-Happen musical jingles full of trailer-like gravitas), because organically and realistically introducing a character within her living environment in a supposedly historical drama is hard work, especially when for most of her life she's been everything but heroic (or iconic). It's much easier to assume she was destined for greatness and she only needed to experience enough challenges for her inner mojo to emerge – think of level ups in role playing games.

Well, that's a little puerile, folks. It's like coming to the poetry club in a shiny Armani dress bought at an outlet after having read Eliot for Dummies. It makes you look cool, but it hardly makes you smarter.

And I can't even contemplate how that shiny dress will look after Lee Yeon-Hee, Seo Gang-Joon and Kim Jae-Won show up and do their number on it...

EPISODES 07~10 [62/100]

People might assume setting popular acceptance as your ultimate goal is as easy as pulling a lever, after which you can shamelessly go on autopilot and wait for the results. Such artless abandon is often the domain of writers like the Hong Sisters and Kim Eun-Sook, who are not very likely to be affected by the existential dilemma that such a decision entails. But it's a lot more unnerving for anyone with a modicum of artistic integrity and/or talent, perhaps more so than sticking to your vision regardless of what the mainstream might think about it. That's why they call it “compromise,” because the checks and balances this decision involves are not something everyone can accept and endure. You want people to watch your show and are willing to “bend the rules” to accommodate them by catering to their facile whims, but you still want to look back at what you've written without feeling embarrassed or dirty. I'm not sure the allure of money can erase the side effects of being someone whose work the people “love to moan about,” mainly because legacy tends to outlive dead presidents printed on a paper.

The problem with the last few years's worth of MBC's special anniversary sageuk has predominantly been that of forgoing any such artistic dilemma at the altar of wholesale prostitution towards the viewer: Lee Byung-Hoon, Choi Wan-Gyu and then Kim Young-Hyeon eliminated compromise by willfully bastardizing the genre – to make it even more accessible for the casual viewer and palatable to advertisers.

When you meet something like this, where the compromise is a little more visible, then you're probably going to feel even more disappointed, because you know this show could do a lot better but it won't (or can't) do so, afraid as it is of losing its perceived aura of accessibility. We go back to my initial arguments, essentially: whatever could have been functional about the titular princess' trajectory has long been lost in clouds of fluff and vacuous adventure, to the point that the disconnect between those portions and the more sageuk-worthy Gwanghae trajectory feels increasingly jarring. It's an insult to any remotely discerning viewer to have to sit through historically inconsequential happenings away from the main thread just because introducing a character in media res and positioning her within a certain historical context might prove a bit too “upscale” for the dishwashing horde. We shouldn't have to endure this fruitless “poetic license" – where our protagonist's trajectory develops in a world parallel to the history being haphazardly narrated, until the fateful day when the two narrative lines will hopefully be reunited into a whole. Expect that whole might never come to fruition, as the Choi Wan-Gyu lore this writing formula is based on would lead you to believe.

It's the whole “childhood 삽질 (waste of time)” you've come to expect from MBC's annoying RPG sageuk canon, where you'll get black & white villains creating ad-hoc obstacles for our perky blue-blooded tomboy occasionally punctuated by broad comedy (complete with cute muzak on the side), overwrought action and even a little bit of trendy drama dynamics – because being devoid of romantic elements would mean eliminating an important portion of your accessibility pie. All the while this envelops, there's a derivative but intriguing drama waiting to set sail, but it's constantly being held back by the need to cater to this exacting mantra – that of never being allowed to be as good as you can be, because someone might not appreciate that quality and compromise are rarely good bedfellows. Hell, someone might not even appreciate something that doesn't live and die by their needs for instant gratification. After all it's just a drama, right?

If Kim Yi-Young cared or was good enough to make this fluff feel like an organic part of the narrative, she would find a way to make the poetic license that is the princess' trajectory something mired in period awareness and not simplistic make-believe. Someone like a Kim Won-Seok or Jung Ha-Yeon would understand that women in Joseon exercised power via proxy, indirectly; the Lee Byung-Hoon canon instead sticks to a much more conservative, patriarchal (and perhaps misogynistic) notion: we'll just have ladies dress up as men and directly inhabit tomboyish traits, so that a modern viewer won't need to ruminate upon the possibility that maybe things in the past didn't go as they do today. Fat chance. We're talking about people that argued about the existence of democracy and proto-feminism in the Shilla Dynasty, after all…

Yeah, okay. It's a watchable show, and MBC might just have found the right successor for Lee Byung-Hoon, as Kim Sang-Ho is striking a decent balance between technical rigor and the simplicity that's required from this staple of Yeouido's mainstream acceptance. You could also argue that Seo Gang-Joon is defying expectations and Lee Yeon-Hee – while generally unimpressive – is no longer the acting liability she used to be.

But, seriously? Let's try to compromise a bit more. Let's elevate this genre at least back to the pre-Hallyu era, where there was at least the pretense of trying to interpret history in a dramatic way, instead of dressing up pretty faces in ancient garb and throwing them in random turmoil that leads nowhere (until it's too late to do anything of note, and we get a sped-up Reader's Digest of history). Let's, for once, ponder upon the possibility that there might be viewers out there who would like to see some complexity in a genre which by nature tends to require some effort. Let's not assume that everyone is too lazy to compromise visceral escapism for thoughtful narrative that might leave a mark in your mind and possibly even become memories.

Otherwise we can just stop donning hanbok and populate the talking box with random histrionics and romantic fluff all year long. I'd rather see the genre die a honorable death than see its life prolonged in this miserable way.

EPISODES 11~18 [59/100]

It's hard to realize how precious something is until its absence becomes obvious, and the legacy it has left behind becomes all the more pungent. When what you're mourning is a genre that has played such an important role in the history of this medium, the feeling is even more bittersweet. Because sageuk is dead, now for good. It's become as obvious as the fact that daily dramas are a low-brow cesspool that solely exists for the sake of making a few pennies on the cheap (in every sense of the word).

I think 정도전 (Jung Do-Jeon) was the last bastion, an exception confirming the rule that in retrospect is more painful than harboring no hope at all would have been. It's probably even more evident in KBS' gradually regressing 징비록 (The Jingbirok: A Memoir of Imjin War) – a format that had at least kept the illusion alive for a while – but upon watching how childish this show has become, you can't help but lament the fate of this genre.

I'm not going to blame Lee Yeon-Hee; she's clearly out of her element and unable to convey the complexities of sageuk acting that in itself is a steep learning curve (but still, the moment she appears on the screen the show has to dumb down a few notches, perhaps unintentionally). I'm not even blaming Cha Seung-Won and the array of veterans who either ludicrously overact as if this was an opera, or underact to the point that it feels like they're reading the phone book to fill a word quota. I'm not going to blame Kim Yi-Young, who has now mastered the dubious art of the Lee Byung-Hoon sageuk, which surrounds an inordinate amount of fluff with manufactured angst, superficial characterization which seems lifted directly from a 1960s period drama, and “history” that's so random as to feel thrown in at the last minute.

I'm certainly not going to blame Kim Sang-Ho, who's doing his best to get something that looks somewhat competent out of these nondescript cosplay antics. There is nothing here that registers as even remotely compelling, even if you forget for a moment that we're supposedly dealing with a distinct historical period with distinctive traits that are being blissfully ignored for the sake of yet another paint-by-numbers farce that will passively linger on until it's too late to do anything. I think it's an inevitable result of all these years spent destroying what this genre represented at the altar of cheap flavor-of-the-month popular acceptance. Those we should blame are already retired (like Lee Byung-Hoon), have long moved on (like Choi Wan-Gyu), or are so popular and pampered as to be virtually untouchable (like Kim Young-Hyeon). So, like in a perfect Park Chan-Wook revenge drama, vengeance would ultimately be pointless, and only hurt those seeking it.

So it's just time to turn off the lights, there is nothing left to see here. Especially if you have even a passing interest in what sageuk used to represent.

ACTING GRADES

82 최종환 (Choi Jong-Hwan)
79 박영규 (Park Young-Gyu)
79 이성민 (Lee Seong-Min)
72 장혁진 (Jang Hyeok-Jin)
72 김창완 (Kim Chang-Wan)
72 안내상 (Ahn Nae-Sang)
72 조성하 (Jo Seong-Ha)
71 엄효섭 (Eom Hyo-Seop)
70 김승욱 (Kim Seung-Wook)
70 정웅인 (Jung Woong-In)
70 차승원 (Cha Seung-Won)
70 박원상 (Park Won-Sang)
69 서강준 (Seo Gang-Joon)
67 김여진 (Kim Yeo-Jin)
67 최권수 (Choi Kwon-Soo)
65 강문영 (Kang Moon-Young)
60 한주완 (Han Ju-Wan)
60 김광규 (Kim Gwang-Gyu)
59 신은정 (Shin Eun-Jung)
59 허정은 (Hur Jung-Eun)
59 정찬비 (Jung Chan-Bi)
59 안도규 (Ahn Do-Gyu)
58 윤찬영 (Yoon Chan-Young)
58 이연희 (Lee Yeon-Hee)
58 이태우 (Lee Tae-Woo)
43 공명 (Gong Myeong)

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