Saturday, October 5, 2013

Kdrama Review: Jang Ok Jung: Live in Love (2013)

Jang Ok Jang, Live in Love
장옥정, 사랑에 살다

I’m not a huge sageuk fan, nor have I been entranced by or enticed to watch too many fusion sageuks of late, which is a tiny bit surprising considering I was a history major and 70% of the books on my shelf are historical non-fiction. It’s not that I don’t like watching history unfold on the small screen, but in my youth I spent a great amount of time reading historical fiction. Unfortunately, I was a huge fan of medieval European history at the time, and the majority of fiction about that era is written by women for women, which means that your heroines were almost always the same. 

You can get:

  1. Royal women who are badgered and pestered by men whether or not they make good marriages, 
  2. Minor noblewomen who by chance get to interact with (male) greatness, or
  3. Mistresses, the latter of which is usually the most depressing and utterly exhaustive subject of storytelling. 

I got so burned out by the genre that I haven’t touched historical fiction in nearly a decade.

Bring it on Jang Ok Jung, concubine of an age! I wasn’t going to watch this one, I swear. But something about its pitch got a hold of me. I love a good ‘what if?’ historical retelling. What if, Jang Ok Jung (posthumously known as Jang Hui-bin) wasn’t the evil, conniving woman that history paints her as? What if she wasn’t totally about greed and power. What if it really was all about love between Lee Soon and herself, to hell with all else…?

Pshh.. This is well documented Korean history.
But that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be more to the story than history has to say. Or that the inner motivations of these highly visible personages were ever truly known by more than themselves or a few other people.

In other words, history always gives us this much leeway to make a romance out of nothing. If you want to approach Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love as infallible history, don’t. But if you’re in the mood for a sweeping epic love story set in historical period based more or less on real people– this might be a good drama for you.

We’re certainly not working with highbrow historical revisionism here, so I’m going to just go ahead and review it as historical fiction. The 2013 drama Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love is based off a 2008 novel of the same name by Choi Jung Mi. It’s basically chick lit, so don’t say you weren’t warned. In our drama version, Kim Tae Hee plays the titular role, and her lover is none other than Yoo Ah In who is finally back in hanbok (Thank you Drama Overlords! Thank you!) as the Crown Prince Lee Soon and later King Sukjong.

More mostly-non-Spoilery thoughts on Joseon History, the fictional world of Jang Ok Jung, and why it almost works.

A Brief History of Joseon Korea, ca. 1680s.

Born Jang Ok Jung, our leading lady becomes King Sukjong’s favorite concubine and bears him a son. So that her son can be named Crown Prince, Sukjong’s wife Queen Inhyun is demoted, and Ok Jung becomes Queen. History says she was greedy, ambitious, and trampled on anyone in her path, including the often beleaguered Queen Inhyun. Throw in a lot court politics, warring factions, familial disputes, and lots of people killing each other (whether or not Ok Jung was at the center of the dispute or not) and what you get is a particularly bloody period of Joseon history.

So What’s the Problem?

This is a romantic and simplified spin on what’s probably 10x more complicated than the drama depicts. I’m actually okay with that. Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love actually does a decent job of making all these events make sense in a way that won’t make your head spin. (Just reading the wiki page on this era of history made my eyes roll back into my head.)

But it’s also romantic in that the story it tells is exactly opposite from what history tries to tell. Give a quick thought back to last year’s hit drama Queen Inhyun’s Man, and the depiction you get of Jang Ok Jung is of a conniving bitch. So who wants to see Ok Jung get a makeover? Apparently not Korean audiences, because the ratings were just not there. It took an extra dose of romantic scenes to garner interest in the show. I think it’s shame because despite the unconventional retelling, Jang Ok Jung wasn’t all that bad. 

What’s great about it were the actors. I can’t gush enough about Hong Soo Hyun as the pitiable Queen Inhyun. It’s the second time I’ve seen her playing a tragic Joseon royal (the first time from The Princess’s Man), and once again she nails the part. Props to the show’s writers for not twisting the story completely – rather than Ok Jung being the ‘good’ character and Inhyun the villain, Inhyun was still a realistic character: a bit naïve, a bit ambitious, manipulated by those around her (particularly her father and her mother-in-law) and though she made enough bad decisions, none were enough to damn her as a human being. Her interactions with Ok Jung were some of my favorite. There’s obvious tension and jealousy, and enough spite to make them hate each other – but contrary to my normal aversion to Dramaland redemption stories, the last minute friendship/understanding between her and Ok Jung before Inhyun’s death was more than touching. I almost cried. Yup. I’m still a sucker for stories where females learn to walk the path life hand in hand, even if it happens too late. 

Other notable cast members were Lee Sang Yeob as Prince Dongpyung. I loved the guy from his lawyer role in Nice Guy, so it was a little sad to see him here as the mopey second lead, and despite playing a real historical character, his story was of course completely skewed for the sake of the drama. Not that I minded – because when he schemed along with his cousin the king, those particular plotlines were absolutely thrilling.

Of course the most disappointing casting was Jae Hee (of My Girl fame) in a completely fictionalized role that promised a great story arc and absolutely didn’t deliver. Everyone and I mean everybody got excited about this guy – just so he could show up randomly, look good, and then not contribute anything. What was even the point? 

So How About That Romance? 

It worked. It was compelling. However, this is history, and history has an outcome that won’t be undone by fiction no matter how good your script is. As for the love between Lee Soon and his beloved concubine/queen, I bought it completely. Even within the grounds of how unhistorical it was that King Sukjong could’ve only had one person he ever loved (or even slept with – because, history says he had tons of concubines and a parcel of children). But I liked how the relationship between the two worked as an anchor for the overall political story. Ok Jung was portrayed as smart and wily, King Sukjong as a master politician, and as such their teamwork was a boon to the storyline. It kept things fresh and interesting 80% of the time, so despite some slow episodes near the end, the story never faltered completely. So what that the real Ok Jung died some 20 years after her Dramaland counterpart. No one wants to see Kim Tae Hee with old lady makeup anyways.


  1. It's finally up! Good read :) I totally agree with your points in the last paragraph!

    1. Yes, it certainly took me long enough. I wrote half of it a month ago and then got bored with writing lol. Sometimes you really do just need to put a drama away for a little while, and then you can come back and think a little more clearly.

  2. I clearly need to give this show another try now that it's done and available for marathoning. As a live watch, it just doesn't hold my interest but your review makes it sound worth revisiting...

    (That and Yoo Ah In in a hanbok. Meow.)

    1. Some men look totally goofy in hanbok garb... And some.... MmmmMmmmMmmmm