18 April, 2015

First Look at Hwajeong (Episodes 1 & 2)

Hwajeong looks to be an interesting and intense drama if it keeps up with the events and emotional nuances unfolded in episode 2. It has a plethora of seasoned and experienced Korean drama actors in supporting roles as the members of the royal court, politicians and advisors, which makes it a pleasure to watch. Of course, one of the most interesting performances so far is that of Cha Seung Won's fairly anguished and frustrated Gwanghae. All in all, I think we have some excellent potential on our hands for a really good political sageuk that bites into all sorts of historical and political complexities. Of course, this might not be everyone's cup of tea. I just hope it doesn't devolve into sappy love triangles and petty revenge fueled by scorned lovers etc. in the second act once Princess Jeongmyeong grows up and tries to wrest back the throne.

After watching the first episode, I was hesitant to even watch the second though. That might su=ound a little strange considering my positive introduction. The first episode took a little while to warm up and its establishing shots and storyline didn't feel super smooth and polished. For example, I think this would have made a much better establishing shot to start with, so I was glad to see this one when it came up.

This introduces us to Lee Deok Hyung, played by the excellent Lee Sang Min. You can tell that he is no one to mess around and I really liked his interplay with many of the characters in the cast. You can tell that he is going to be fairly influential with how the story plays out. He also seems like someone intent on making sure the just thing happens that also avoids the most bloodshed and I was glad that once Gwanghae ascended to the throne he was made Prime Minister.

Something that I really appreciated is that the drama thrust itself, right from the get go, into the "Splendid Politics" promised in the title. It is very apparent that this drama is going to grapple with the elements of political power struggles that go into making a king and a nation. The director, Kim Sang Ho, who directed Arang and the Magistrate (among other things), also talked about how this drama will echo modern-day politics, and in particular South Korea's place between the United States and China. You could see that sort of political implication in play with the scene about Gwanghae's decision to tax the nobles to continue building the palace, which of course references modern-day questions about whether or not the super-rich should also be subject to higher taxes and fewer legal loopholes. (If you want to read more about what he said about that, there are some really great quotes about his philosophy towards portraying history here and here). He also said that they really are going to try and stick closer to the side of history, but still try to tease out nuances of character and motivations behind decisions.

I think one particular historical, and general theme we are going to see portrayed is that of how power corrupts and it will be interesting to see Cha Seung Won play continue to show Gwanghae as a somewhat tortured politician trying to do what is best, but also falling prey to the tides that will seek to keep him in power. Gwanghae is such an interesting historical figure to me because he seemed like such an excellent ruler and politician and yet at the same time couldn't maintain control over a court that ultimately led to his being ousted. If you don't know much about Gwanghae, here is a good encyclopedia synopsis about him.

Now more specifically to the episodes that have aired. As I mentioned above, I was not as impressed with the first episode as I was the second, and mostly because of editing and camerawork. I know that might sound snobbish, but to me it's crucial in storytelling if you want a really excellent production. I was glad to see that the same cinematographer, Kim Jong Jin, who worked on Arang and the Magistrate, is also working on this drama. I wonder if perhaps the first episode didn't go through a couple of last minute editing changes that interrupted the beauty and fluidity of camerawork and editing we saw in the second episode. (Lee Tae Hee is also assisting with cinematography, but I am not as familiar with their work. They worked as principal cinematographer on Goddess of Fire).

I just love it when you have beautiful cinematography to match a well told story. I mean, just look at this shot.

It follows the principles of thirds so well! Haha. Sorry if this is boring you dear reader, you can skip ahead if you want, I won't know. I also really like the use of long shots to show the immensity and grandeur of being in the royal palace like we see when Gwanghae receives the king's seal and can officially ascend the throne.

We also see it in the scenes between Gwanghae and his father where we can see the power differences at play and the long shots establish how small and insignificant Gwanghae is without official recognition as the crown prince.

This is even further emphasized by the use of high and low angles to show how powerful even an ailing king is against Gwanghae's inability to ensure that he will stay the crown prince.

There are also just some great establishing shots that set the mood and the sombre intensity of court intrigue and the death of the old and the rising of the new king, all accompanied by some really lovely muted, yet intense filters. There is an earthy sense to them, that allow the vibrant reds and blues of the royal court to shine through in contrast. All in all, I am really enjoying that aspect of the drama.

Another thing that I really appreciate is the careful attention to fleshing out a complex and nuanced Gwanghae. We are sympathetic to Cha Seung Won's portrayal of a man desperately trying to hold onto the power he has worked towards for a long time. He does not at this point seem power hungry, but more intent on making sure he can hold onto what good he has already accomplished while protecting his country and his right to the throne. He does not seem like the villain right now, but rather he is trying to patiently do things the right way. Of course, we can still see moments when he snaps, like withholding water from his dying father, but that also seems like the frustrated action of someone constantly snubbed despite his obvious political worth and effort he has made. His metamorphosis into someone less sympathetic will be interesting to watch.

Something really interesting about Gwanghae is that despite his excellent hold on foreign politics and diplomacy, he was unable to fully control his court at home. As far as the drama goes, we have seen that there are court officials willing to help him come to power by ensuring the least bloodshed possible. It seems that there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that Gwanghae is not aware of (like poisoning his father or his half-brother) amid politicking factions vying for their own favour with the future king, but at least there are some officials that he can rely on. Some shots Gwanghae seems to call, and others not so much it seems. Of course there is always the question about how much he really does know, and how much he is pretending whether or not there is dirty work going on behind the scenes.

Hopefully this will form a crux of the narrative the drama will choose to tell: just how complicit Gwanghae was in the actions that result in him being viewed as he was. For now, he seems sympathetic and almost naïve in how much he can protect Princess Jeongmyeong and Prince Yeongchang. There have been some really lovely scenes between Gwanghae and the Princess that are the perfect build up for the coming betrayal when her life will be on the line in order to protect his throne. How will he go from wanting to protect her, to wanting to kill her. Queen Inmok certainly isn't sure how much she can trust him.

I wonder just how soon it will be before his promise made gets broken. I have also really enjoyed the depth of performance from child-actor, Seo Jung Eun, who plays the child Princess Jeongmyeong. She's just great! I also really love the rapport between her and Cha Seung Won, as well as with Shin Eun Jeong, who plays her mother, Queen Inmok.

I especially loved the scene where just before Queen Inmok hands over the royal seal to Gwanghae, she looks over her shoulder at the Princess and infant Prince and Princess Jeongmyeong makes eye contact with her. Of course her motivation is to do whatever she can to protect her family. I can't imagine it is an easy task.

Another really interesting familial line portrayed in the drama is that between Gwanghae and his older brother, Imhae. Choi Jong Hwan brings such an intense gravitas to the role that you can almost question for a second about whether he might have a claim to the throne.

What is especially heartbreaking is that scene between him and Gwanghae, where he has to reveal that he has indeed acted treasonously. Ah. That scene. You can see how it just about undoes Gwanghae to realize that his trust in his brother is unfounded.

This might be the beginning of part of Gwanghae's conflict with who he can trust and how he has to move forward to maintain power. Of course, we shall have to see where the drama chooses to go, but I for one and really interested to see how the story will progress. Of course, I am sure we are headed for some love triangle shenanigans once the Princess comes of age, but I hope that drama spends lots of time unravelling Gwanghae's journey struggling to maintain power, and ultimately losing it before we get caught up in that. And also hopefully maintaining the nuance of trying to achieve greatness, and perhaps even trying to do good, that Cha Seung Won has so skillfully started off with so far.

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  1. Now I am convinced I must start watching this drama. Thank you so much. I wanted to wait until JANGIROK finished, but I can only understand one language, English, and the subbed videos are only at Episode 5, So a little bit of overlap of characters and historical events will be fine!

  2. I've heard that episodes 3 and 4 weren't as good, but I haven't checked them out yet. Cha Seung Won is amazing so far though. Probably at about half-way through the drama, he won't be in it as well or at all though. So I am just going to enjoy it for now and see what happens :)