DEEPLY INVESTED IN ROOTING THROUGH THE MYSTERY
The drama is based on the novel of the same name by Lee Jung Myung which focuses on a series of killings on the eve before the announcement of the Korean alphabet. Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) grows up to become a royal guard in order to get close to King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu) in order to assassinate him.
When Sejong’s scholars are murdered, Chae Yoon becomes a part of the investigation but soon finds himself embroiled in a bigger conspiracy.
The drama does take licenses with the history so I’m just going to mention some basic broad strokes. A series of murders did happen right before the official release of the hangul alphabet. It’s uncertain that these two events were directly tied with each other. Aristocrats very much opposed the hangul alphabet. Because of the discovery of the Hunmin Jeong-eum Haerye (The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People: Explanation and Examples) in 1940, we now know the creation process of the alphabet. They used articulary phoenetics to create the consonents and they used yin and yang principles and vowel harmony to create the vowels.
Jung Ki Joon and Jung Do Jeon are real people who did have a conflict with King Taejong. King Taejong was all about having an absolute monarchy while Jung Do Jeon believed that Joseon should be ruled by ministers while the king remains as a figurehead.
However, Jung Do Jeon and King Taejong’s discord with each other started way before when King Taejo (first king of the Joseon dynasty) was trying to select a successor. Taejong very much killed anyone who didn’t agree with him, which included his in-laws and his son’s in-laws. He is mainly responsible for strengthening the military. King Sejong’s son, Gwangpyeong did die early but it’s a little unclear as to how he died. One source says he died of an illness, possibly measles, another source says he starved to death.
King Sejong is this prime historic figure in Korean history. Seeing him in portraits, to me, he resembled this kindly, father figure who created the Korean alphabet and brought forth an intellectual renaissance during his reign. Upon learning that Han Suk Kyu was going to play him, I really couldn’t see him playing the role. Mind you, this is only on the superficial level. I just felt that they really looked different. Even between Song Joong Ki, who plays the younger King Sejong (aka Yi Do), and Han Suk Kyu, the actors don’t really look alike either. However, I don’t know what Han Suk Kyu did but he did something truly magical. He became that portrait that I’m so used to seeing.
I’m only scratching the surface here with Han Suk Kyu but I want to get into how Yi Do was written as a character. As this magnanimous figure in history (and it doesn’t help that his portrait makes him look all kindly and wise), it’s hard to really get a 3D picture of King Sejong as a real person. I think this drama made him look very human. He is intelligent, loving, caring, wise, a jokester, passionate, petty, childish, wrathful and has major daddy issues.
And Han Suk Kyu plays all of those emotions so well. I have not seen Han Suk Kyu in a drama since the mid-90’s and oh man, the drama world has missed you. I mean, I don’t think I could see this kind of performance in the most Oscar-worthy motion picture but it was an honor to watch him here. I’d be upset if he didn’t win the SBS Drama Award this year for his performance.
Here is where I’m going to stop you and just tell you that you need to watch this drama. I’m going to get into spoilers and if you decide to start this drama you should just stop reading now. The drama won’t have the same impact if you know all these details. So stop now! (I still see you reading!!)
That said, Song Joong Ki played the younger version of Yi Do very well. From Sungkyunkwan Scandal to this drama, it’s clear that Joong Ki has matured as an actor.
It’s interesting to see the battle of strength and wits going at each other in full force at the head of the drama because that sets the tone throughout. TKing Taejong is depicted as a king who rules with an iron fist which is juxtaposed with King Sejong who rules with his head and his heart. Coincidentally, King Sejo (Sejong’s 2nd son and 3rd king after Sejong) is more like his grandfather but more on this later.
I can’t leave out Jang Hyuk. I think Jang Hyuk is an excellent actor. As for the dramas he’s been in, they are a hit or a miss. But as an actor, he’s talented. Jang Hyuk always plays these poor, good-for-nothing types very, very well.
Sometimes it’s very comical and other times it’s a bit heartbreaking. Jang Hyuk is part caricature actor and part serious thespian. I love both parts equally. Ddol-bok was born to be played by Jang Hyuk but it’s not like I haven’t seen this caliber of acting from him before. However, the little actor who plays young Ddol-bok was very impressive.
Shin Se Kyung, on the other hand, does a satisfactory job as So-yi. Her job is more difficult as an actress as she doesn’t speak for a large part of the drama. All of her acting must be done visually and through narration.
Was her acting groundbreaking? No. But she does a decent job.
Yoon Je Moon plays a fabulous mole/villain. His role was the best Keyser Soze moment I’ve seen in a long while. Knowing that he’s the antagonist, head of the secret society called Milbon, he plays dual roles by switching between humble servant to evil mastermind. You could literally see him do a 180 with his facial expression.
I love it when villains can make the viewer see their point of view and can convince us to take their side. I could see that through the writing, the writers were trying to do that but I don’t think they succeeded because although Jung Ki Joon makes some excellent points, at no point in time did I want to say that I’m Team Milbon. The American TV series Lost did a great with these debates on good and evil, right and wrong (ahem, until the final season). I think it’s a bit unfortunate because you could have made your 2-dimensional villain into a 3-dimensional person.
This is a thinking person’s drama. You follow along with the clues, you piece together the timelines and you debate about whether serfs deserve the right to be literate.
Words do equal power so Jung Ki Joon has a good reason to be fearful. King Sejong wants his people to be able to help themselves and not be so helpless. This is the debate that rules most of the latter half of the drama.
I had made a comment that met with some criticism when I had tried to compare it to the Occupy Wall Street protests. Obviously, I wasn’t trying to say that the present is exactly like Joseon era but I think it’s an extremely lazy to think that it’s not relatable. Case in point, The Birth of a Nation. Filmmakers still watch this silent film to evaluate it on a technical level (Ugh, I had to watch all 190 minutes of it in film school. One word: Painful.) but the storyline promotes the idea that separation is equality and racism is acceptable. I don’t think that’s an acceptable idea and therefore it makes the subject matter of the film irrelevant to me. And I certainly don’t think Tree with Deep Roots is irrelevant. People like Jung Ki Joon exist, even today.
Anyhoo, the debate in this drama is thought provoking. It’s interesting how the Milbon followers are all about changing the system. But because of Jung Ki Joon’s one-track mind, they start question if he’s fit to lead them. Since words have power, what will happen to the upper class, their birthright, if the lower class starts to learn to read. Who will the kingdom now belong to?
To Lee Shin Juk (Ahn Suk Hwan), it doesn’t matter if the lower class learns to read. If change does come about, it won’t happen for several generations. What matters is that they stick to Milbon’s original plan and change the way this society is run. The ministers should be deciding on the laws of the kingdom.
Going along with this epic debate, the cinematography and editing adds a grandiose feel with an air of mystery and intrigue. Here are some of my favorite shots. These two shots can reflect this feeling of the miniscule being unswayed by an overwhelming opposition.
Here, a lonely Ddol-bok is facing out into the world and Sejong is forlornly dealing with the overwhelming pressures of being a king.
This is an action-thriller so I can’t leave out how beautiful some of the night, fighting scenes were.
There’s so much going on in this drama that I can’t discuss it all here. Something would be amiss if I didn’t mention some of these great supporting characters. Where would Kang Chae Yoon be without his two royal guard buddies Cho Tak (Kim Ki Bang) and Park Po (Shin Seung Hwan)? This drama truly loves the use of language and it’s also heard in the various accents we hear from them. Cho Tak with his North Korean accent and Park Po with his Gangwondo accent.
Kang Chae Yoon has got his bromance going on with Cho Tak and Park Po and King Sejong got his in Mu Hyul (Jo Jin Woong), loyal friend and guard. Mu Hyul is savvy in his own way and immediately recognizes Kang Chae Yoon as Ddol-bok by his scars. I’d say upfront he’s more cautious about trusting people than King Sejong is but that’s because his job is to protect the king with his life.
A Milbon loyalist is Yoon Pyung (Lee Soo Hyuk). Lee Soo Hyuk is aaaall over the tube these days. He’s currently in What’s Up (filmed earlier this year) and Vampire Idol. He’s a much bigger player at the head of the drama but other than being devoted to Jung Ki Joon, his role dwindles a bit at the end. Not to say that he becomes an unimportant character but his character comes out when they need to use him as a plot device. To be honest, there’s a whole lot that’s going on in this drama so it works for the story.
And the Hall of Worthies scholars, Park Paeng Nyun (Kim Ki Bum) and Sung Sam Moon (Kim Hyun Woo). They’re modeled after the real-life people who helped to create the Korean alphabet. Those two remind me of the Sungkyunkwan Scandal in that bring an element of enthusiasm and a feel a sense of responsibility when King Sejong first tells them about his secret project.
Finally, there’s Han Ga (Jo Hee Bong). All throughout the series, he’s loyal to Milbon and more significantly, Jung Ki Joon. At the end, we learn that Han Ga is really Han Myung Hwe who historically rises the ranks to become a trusted advisor to King Sejo (aka Prince Suyang, King Sejong’s 2nd son).
The drama ends saying that Milbon will continue to undermine Hangul and will even try to secretly get Prince Suyang on their side.
There’s a scene where he accidentally bumps into Sung Sam Moon and Park Paeng Nyun. It’s an omen indicating that the two die during King Sejo’s reign at the advice of Han Myung Hwe called the Six Martyred Minister or Sayuksin (사육신).
Really, you could go from watching this drama to watching The Princess’ Man to kinda get a timeline for the history. It picks up right as King Munjong is dying. King Sejong had asked on his deathbed that his scholars at the Hall of Worthies watch over Prince Danjong knowing that Prince Suyang had his sights set on the throne. Just be aware that The Princess’ Man is a melodrama and has an entirely different feel, dramawise.