I was going to write about my bipolar relationship with Jang Ok-jung, Live in Love, but I had watched a few episodes of Cruel Palace, War of Flowers recently, and I just had been itching to give a shout out to what is currently my OTP of the year: The Crown Prince and Princess of Joseon. Yup. OTP of the year, already married from Episode 1. Best Ship EVER. If only history wasn’t so cruel to them and they could live happily ever after on their farm in Manchu China with their adorable son…[Wait, this is supposed to be an overview? Really? I can’t spend the whole time talking about So-hyeon and Min-hae and how perfect they are? No? Fine then. Let’s bring out the
Cruel Palace, War of Flowers, broken down into some generalized components, is comprised of 20% romantic dilemmas, and 75% political intrigue between the various members of the palace during a very unstable period of Joseon’s history; the period immediately after Manchu invasion during the reign of King Injo. (The other 5% is the Crown Princess and Prince being freaking awesome. —Yes, I put the Crown Princess first for a reason.) This period of time was one of many grievances for the Kingdom of Joseon, as hundreds, even thousands, of Joseon citizens were kidnapped to become slaves for the Manchu, while the rest of the country lay in shambles. What was even more demeaning to the Joseon people was the fact that they had been conquered by the people they believed to barbarians–uncivilized folk that could not dare be overlord to the great Joseon Kingdom. With this underlying international political conflict comes internal conflict, and we see the political machinations of the Injo court manifest in response. The “protagonist” of the story is Lady Jo, or Jo Yam-jeon, an “illegitimate” daughter of a lord and a concubine who is forced into becoming a (royal) concubine herself for sake of a coup-de-tat led by Kim Ja-jeom, the man who used to be Injo’s right hand. Kim Ja-jeom has a vendetta against Injo for various reasons and the two are both constantly at odds with and civil to each other. This rather juvenile game of chess between Injo and Kim Ja-jeom (if you watch the show, you’ll understand why I call it juvenile) gets further complicated by the personal aspirations of Lady Jo to become Queen of Joseon.
I’ve only seen about 5 or so episodes of this 50 episode sageuk, so I certainly have a ways to go with this one. Unlike most sageuks however, those five episodes were so jam packed with plot, I don’t think I have enough time in my life to go through it all. Yam-jeon alone is an extremely complex character, let alone the two people are equally insane: King Injo and Kim Ja-jeom. Frankly, none of their “plans” make any sense and I end up wondering if the two of them take the same “whack job” drug. (Actually, Yam-jeon is a bit crazed herself, so maybe all three of them took the same drug.)
In all seriousness, I have have to commend Cruel Palace, War of Flowers for being one of the best written sageuks in a long time. Characters are engaging, they have real issues, and their political machinations are never contrived. The quality of this drama is especially apparent when you find yourself sitting on the fence with the main character, who neither has noble ambitions nor a moral mind. Even then, you find yourself understanding in her actions and sympathizing with her fate. While watching, you dissect where she succeeded where she faltered, how certain events influence her character, simply because she is that engaging. I remember, back in high school, my English Literature teacher telling our class “Almost every novel you read can be condensed into a conflict between parent and child, whether it is the lack thereof of a parent, or simply tension between the two.” That could not be more true for Yam-jeon. The catalyst for everything she has done so far is the lack of a true father in her childhood. [I’m going to take a second to mention how amazing the young Yam-jeon was for the few seconds she graced our screens. That girl has a bright acting career waiting for her. Believe it or not, I actually cried for Yam-jeon in her scenes—which is seriously an achievement. I normally don’t cry for anyone.] The number of times you see the same flashback in different lights really reveals how much of an impact being discarded by her true father has affected Yam-jeon.
This brings us to the curious addition of the character Nam Hyuk, an aristocrat turned commoner who is not actually a historical figure (as far as my knowledge goes). He does however, play a huge role in the events of the story by being an anchor for Yam-jeon during their youth (he first becomes friends with Yam-jeon in that well known flashback) who then becomes her quasi-lover and then the cause of half-a-dozen more problems. Despite not liking Nam Hyuk himself very much, I do think he’s very useful to the story. Nam Hyuk, to say the least, is an extremely flawed person with his head in the clouds. Under the shadows of the forest, Hyuk serves as a resistance leader to bring “societal change” in a flawed world. Hyuk claims that his uprising will turn society on its head and promises Yam-jeon that he will marry her against his mother’s wishes “When the world changes.” Yam-jeon, the realist, (and unaware of Hyuk’s alter ego) puts her pride aside and begs to Hyuk’s mother to take her in, sending gifts and prayers to let her enter their ex-aristocratic family. Though Yam-jeon could put her pride aside, Hyuk’s mother certainly couldn’t, who ended up chiding Yam-jeon for her audacity to attempt to place herself amongst the ranks of the blue-blooded. Hyuk’s mother did “pity” Yam-jeon for her efforts and offered her a chance to be Hyuk’s…concubine. Of course that was the last straw for Yam-jeon, who vows to become a woman whose feet the entire Kingdom will fall to. At the time, she doesn’t know that she’ll have to be a concubine to do it, but nonetheless, it it was her tipping point.
Yam-jeon can easily become the woman you hate; she’s blood thirsty for power and willing to tear people down to get what she wants. However, her transformation is real and believe it or not, needed. As the title says very explicitly, its a “Cruel Palace.” You can’t walk in and expect to survive without throwing morals in the back-burner for a while, or at least, being aware and self-preserving. For Yam-jeon, who is till the very moment she enters the palace, forced to do so, she should at least be given the freedom to survive; whatever it may take to do so. Yam-jeon doesn’t have the luxury to start from the top or have sponsors who will make the ride easy for her. She has to fight for herself. She certainly plays Injo, but in the process, she’s also playing her “adoptive father” Kim Ja-jeom, and the beauty of all this is that her actions hold power over the fate of the country, even if she doesn’t quite see the extent of the consequences of her actions.
Yam-jeon’s “awakening: per-se is not relegated to the political sphere. From episode one, her innocence as been slowly been shedding from her body, layer by layer as she becomes aware of not just how cruel the palace is, but how cruel the world is. She wasn’t a innocent girl in the sense that most people would characterize an “innocent person” but she lived and pursued a carefree and simple life. It showed in her day to day actions, the spring to her step, and her desire to be with Hyuk. Yam-jeon is quick to realize that this kind of life cannot be, and by the time she spends the night with Hyuk and enters the palace, that carefree life is demolished. She now has to dedicate her life to being a seductress just to make it out of each day alive.
What Cruel Palace does exceptionally well is balance the dark side with sprinklings of purity from the beloved Prince and Princess of Joseon. (Great transition, right? You know it is.) They are a very intelligent couple, who want nothing more than to serve their people. This could be very cheezy with a “z,” (which it really is at times) yet I find the two of them to be that gasp of air right before you’re pushed back into the dark depths of the ocean. Min-hae in particular is a character I greatly admire, for the sole reason that she knows exactly where her place is. She does everything in her power to be the best Crown Princess possible, and never truly resents anyone or anything, while always putting her country first. She’s a woman to takes life in stride, though not naive. I could enumerate her merits forever (okay, not forever, but you get the point) as a leader and woman beyond her time. She rides horses and farms and breaks societal barriers; and if that isn’t perfect enough, she has a husband who also lives beyond the times and supports her every step of the way. I respect So-hyeon so much because he’s the kind of man I wish Lee Soon was; a man who knows how to respect his wife, whether or not he actually “loves her” in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, he does fall head over heels in love with the bold, caring woman in Manchu China, but even when he “resented her” for taking the place of his first love (who committed suicide) as his wife and Crown Princess, he gave her the respect she deserves. So-hyeon and Min-hae are such a perfect royal couple, it’s really a shame that they have to suffer at the hand of So-hyeon’s legitimately insane father. But that’s just me getting ahead of myself.
Hopefully this immensely long overview that should probably be shorter has convinced you to watch Cruel Palace and appreciate a well crafted show. My overview might be verbose, but the show doesn’t waste a second. You can find a much better overview than mine by HeadsNo2 over at Dramabeans, and the show on various drama viewing sites such as Dramafever (though as a “Beanie,” I don’t think I should be supporting them…*shifts eyes*).