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.

7 thoughts on “Korean Period Dramas I Love

  1. I also am a fan of Korean dramas, especially Dae Jang Geum, my all time favorite. I also enjoyed Jumong, especially the tragic character of King Kumwa. Outside of historical dramas, there are good modern ones, too. The Romantic Comedy My Lovely Kim Sam Soon is fantastic. I also loved two dramas focused on professional careers, Beethoven Virus, and White Tower. Most recently I watched the fabulous period drama, Chuno, which I just wrote up on my blog. K-Dramas are a treasure trove of good entertainment.

    • I’m with ya! The King in Jumong is one of the most classically tragic characters I’ve ever seen- forced to choose between the son he really loves and his own flesh and blood. Dae-Su, his son is also a great character, and the actor did a great job of making you both alternately love and hate Dae-Su in turns.

      I’ve tried watching modern K-dramas like Love Story at Harvard and All In, but quickly got bored with them. (Okay, All In wasn’t too bad, until I got to the end, and then both my wife and I wanted to put a brick through our TV.) I just find them too predictable, and they tend to lack the martial arts elements I like mixed in to make the story more interesting. (Having lived in Korea myself, watching modern dramas isn’t a learning experience for me either because I know the people and the culture fairly well, even if I don’t speak the language.) I’ll keep Kim Sam Soon, Beethoven Virus and White Tower in mind when I go DVD hunting next time though.

      As for Chuno, after reading about it on your blog, it just got a spot at the top of the “must watch” list! Thanks for the tip! 🙂 I’m always looking for new historical ones to watch!

  2. Another thing that struck me about Jumong was the similarity of the Hae Mosu story to Braveheart. The royal family was officially against fighting the enemy (China/England), so a man of the people (Hae Mosu/William Wallace) rose up to fight them. Then a prince does what he can to aid him (Kumwa/Robert the Bruce, I think). Finally, the father of the Prince, at total pragmatist, pressures him into betraying his friend to the enemy.

    I also loved Sosuhno in that drama – what a lovely woman. And her father was a great character, too. Merchants aren’t often portrayed positively (think of Choi Pan Sul, from Dae Jang Geum), but he was a good one.

    By the way, the woman who wrote Dae Jang Geum wrote another excellent drama of similar kind, called Sodongyo. It is about a group of scientist/inventors, sort of like Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park group, in some historical era (I forget which years it occurred in). Their main goal in the drama is to find a way to make better swords than the Chinese have, making better iron or steel. Anyway, the whole group is very interesting, one of them turns out to be a prince without having known it, and another turns out to be a spy from a rival Korean kingdom. A really excellent drama I’m sure you would like, if you liked Dae Jang Geum. The spy character reminded me a lot of Keum Young, you know, great talent and potential that somehow went bad. And the princeling is his Jang Geum nemesis.

    • I’ll definitely check out Sodongyo then, although I hope it doesn’t fall into the traps both Dae Jang Geum and Yi-San did with the heroines- where they just pout and look sad instead of doing anything as bad stuff happens to them for 20 episodes. There are times I wanted so badly to slap Jang Geum and Song Yeon and just tell them to DO something! Anything! I think without Song Yeon, Yi-San would have been twice as good, and half as long, but that’s just me I suspect. ^_^

      You’re right, a big part of Ju-Mong was indeed trying to learn how to make steel so the army would have a chance against the Han. I thought that was one of the coolest parts of Ju-Mong, when it turned into a giant espionage story about inventing technology that’s ancient to us, but new and powerful to them.

      I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right. there was a big element of Braveheart in Ju-Mong. Even though Ju-Mong is based off historical records, I imagine that the Hae MoSu parts were indeed borrowed by the writers from other sources. I’m hesitant to say they ripped off Braveheart, though, since you need to remember that in Asia they’ve been making period dramas since the dawn of TV. I’m pretty sure that scenario has been done many times in Japan, China, HK, Korea, etc, and they all watch each other’s dramas as well.

  3. Wait a minute, that was Jumong where they were trying to develop the better swords, wasn’t it? I’ve watched so many now, I’m getting them mixed together! Anyway, the scientists in Sodongyo come up with several great new technologies – I just don’t remember what they were!

  4. This is what I came up with when trying to describe the plot of Dae Jang Geum in one sentence:

    In a patriarchal and rigid class society, a fugitive orphaned girl of the lowest class sets out alone, armed with nothing but her own determination, intelligence, and integrity, to vindicate her wronged mother’s honor against the implacable opposition of a powerful and merciless faction in the royal palace.

    • I’d almost call that a perfect summary of Dae Jang Geum’s core story, except that it does leave out the fact that while that is her motivation at the start, becoming a doctor to help others becomes the motivation that carries her through most of the story.

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