[Review] Jang Young Shil – 장영실 (蔣英實)


Born as a peasant, Jang Young Shil (Song Il Kook) is an innovative scientist and astronomer that is placed on the national civil service through a new policy established by King Sejong (Kim Sang Kyung).  This new policy supports that officials should be selected based on their talent and not by their wealth or social class.  As a result, Jang Young Shil is the mind behind some of Joseon’s famous inventions such as the water clock, sundial and the celestial globe.  Although he earns the respect of the king and becomes popular with the commoners, he also incites the jealousy of those government officials who dislike the fact that he becomes one of the king’s confidants.

If England’s age of renaissance was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the Joseon age of renaissance is probably during King Sejong’s reign.  Beyond creating the Korean alphabet, King Sejong supported creativity and innovation that began during the reign of his father, King Taejong (Kim Young Chul).  It was during this age that helped move Joseon forward and not always feel the need to rely on the science and technological advance of the Ming Dynasty.

The drama is considered as the first historical science drama and it does a good job in highlighting Jang Young Shil’s inventions despite the fact that he faces political setback after setback as his inventions become the subject of endless debate among the nobles.  Some nobles believe that advancing in science and technology will aid in having a stronger standing in front of their neighbors, such as the Ming Dynasty.  However, other nobles were afraid that making the advancements open to the public would make the lower classes rise up against them.

While I don’t think Young Shil’s intent was to breakdown the class structure, I do think he felt that his inventions would help all classes be more efficient in their daily activities, whether it’s the military coordinating a tactical strike or businesses in the town square agreeing on a mutual time to open up their shops.  It’s quite interesting how we take this one bit of knowledge for granted in the 21st Century and how revolutionary it was for the 13th Century.

Heading this story of enlightenment, Song Il Kook brings a childlike wonder to the character of Jang Young Shil.  What’s most interesting about his character is his relationship with Jang Hee Je (Lee Ji Hoon).

At the heart of their relationship, they admired each other, even though Hee Je rarely shows it.  Rather, it’s Hee Je that allows his feelings of jealousy over Young Shil’s natural talents to rule his actions.  Despite being abused by Hee Je again and again, Young Shil’s faith in Hee Je never wavers.  Perhaps Young Shil sees something in Hee Je that’s not even apparent to the viewers until much later in the drama.  Although they are not brothers or even royalty, their relationship resemble two princes who are in line for the same throne in which one is not above overthrowing the other to claim the seat for himself.

The drama doesn’t particularly move at a swift pace, it doesn’t move at a glacial pace either.  In fact, I was surprised that the drama was over at 24 episodes as I was expecting a long series.  What we got was just the right length for the epic story.

While much is known about Jang Young Shil and his life at court, there is a lot of mystery surrounding his life after exile.  The drama makes its own conclusions and it characterizes how Young Shil’s psyche is affected when he is suddenly ousted.

Because Young Shil is often positive throughout the drama, I suppose the writer’s intent was to show a side of Young Shil when he suddenly loses his life’s purpose.  However, I can’t help but feel a bit unsatisfied by the fact that the final scenes are so lackluster as life literally passes Young Shil by.  I think the intent was crucial to Young Shil’s story but the execution is frankly unimaginative.

The real reason why I wanted to watch this drama was to get a sense of the history and the drama certainly delivers on that front.  I think anyone who is interested in history, the science and technology of the times might find this drama interesting.

The veteran cast is great, the cinematography and special effects are beautiful and Jang Young Shil is a larger-than-life historical figure.  However, it is a traditional drama that plays by the rules and those who may be seeking a thrilling plotline or even a romantic one might not find that here.



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