Korean Period Dramas I Love

As many people already know, I have an unusual marriage situation in that my wife and I don’t share a common first language- hers is Mandarin and mine of course is English. (Technically, we don’t share a common second language either, since her second language is Taiwanese, and English comes up a distant third!) One of the results of this has been that while we both enjoy watching TV together while eating our meals, during the early days of our relationship it was a little tricky to find shows that we could watch together and both get equal enjoyment out of.

Eventually, one day while we were out buying DVDs to watch I picked up a set of a show I’d heard of called Dae Jang Geum, a Korean period drama that I’d heard good things about through the grapevine. I was even happier when I noticed that not only did the DVD have English subtitles, it had a Mandarin audio track as well as it’s original Korean one. What this meant was that while my wife could enjoy the show normally, I could just read the subtitles and we’d both be able to enjoy it in our respective first languages at the same time!

Well, once we got around to watching the DVD, I’d have to say it hooked me pretty fast. While I’d always enjoyed stories set in historical periods because I could both learn about history and be entertained at the same time, there was something special about this one. It was the story of the first female doctor to attend to the King in Korean history, a near legendary figure named Jang Geum who was an expert at not only herbal medicine, but cooking as well. The TV series is the story of her life, and it’s filled with gripping drama, palace intrigue, sumptuous displays of Korean cooking, and not a little romance as well. (Although being set in a strictly conservative setting the romance element is very subdued, especially since being a palace serving girl meant that if she consorted with a man she and her lover would be sentenced to death if discovered.) There are so many things to like about Dae Jang Geum, it was hard not to fall in love with it, and I’m not alone. Technically, it’s one of the most popular dramas in TV history, watched and adored by over a billion and a half people (including Iran, oddly enough)  but because they’re not white, and it’s not in English, it’s never gotten much attention in the English speaking world. I have to admit, while it had it’s ups and downs, it stole my heart as well.

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After we finished with Dae Jang Geum, we naturally hungered for more Korean period dramas like it to continue the enjoyment we got from this gem. A little digging turned up a series called Ju-Mong: Prince of Legend, which we decided to give a go. Unlike Dae Jang Geum which is set about 400 years ago, Ju-Mong is set in 60 BC (or BCE for you politically correct types), and is the epic story of a young man who goes from being a cowardly minor prince of a city-state to uniting the disparate Korean tribes of the time into a single powerful kingdom. To do this, he must go against the man who raised him, and his own adopted brothers- all of whom he loves as a loyal member of the family. It’s one of the most epic stories I’ve ever watched in my life, and despite being 81 episodes long, I was sad when it finished because I grew to love all the characters so much. A testament to both the writers and actors.

Following a break from Korean dramas for a bit (we watched an excellent HK Drama called A Step into the Past for a while, which I’ll talk about another time) we returned to Korean drama with what could be called a spiritual sequel to Dae Jang Geum called Yi-San. It is a different story about different people, but was produced by the same writers and producers, and starred many of the same actors. I felt this was a hinderance, actually, since they spent too much time trying to recreate elements of Dae Jang Geum and recapture it’s popularity instead of just letting this particular story tell itself. However, that said, it’s also an extremely good show.

The premise of Yi-San is similar to Ju-Mong in some ways, an uncertain prince finds himself thrust forward into becoming a King while being surrounded by forces working against him. However, unlike Ju-Mong he’s not trying to build a new kingdom, but simply reclaim from within the one that should be his to begin with. Yi-San takes the political intrigue elements of Dae Jang Geum and dials them up to 10! For the first part of the series, the Prince is literally living in fear of being assassinated by unknown elements almost every minute of his life, and we’re carried along with him as he tries to survive in this deathtrap called an Imperial Palace. The opposition has also covered their tracks so well that everyone around him thinks the prince is insane while he works to outwit them at ever turn. The only people he can trust are two loyal childhood friends, a royal guardsman and an imperial painter, and when the story is about the prince Yi-San it’s a rollicking good tale. The areas the story falls down (for me), are when the story is about the artist, a young girl who is basically set up to be Jang-Geum 2.0 and the romantic lead. Still, when it’s about Prince Yi-San, it really really rocks.

And, most recently my wife and I have started to watch what is effectively the sequel to Ju-Mong called Kingdom of the Winds, which is the story of Ju-Mong’s grandson. So far, it’s pretty good, with much higher production values than Ju-Mong, and the same lead actor portraying the grandson as played Ju-Mong in the original series. It feels a little like home to hear all these characters and places referred to again, and already there’s been some seriously badass fighting and court intrigues. I think that’s one of the things I love most about the good Korean period dramas, the chance to see Machievellian politics practiced by skilled characters who know what their goals are and vye with each other to reach them. There’s little fantasy elements in the good ones like the ones I’ve been talking about, and they’re great examples of how interesting characters and stories can make universally appealing dramas.