The latest drama offerings have been showing a trend towards stronger (and more prominent) female characters, and lots and lots of sageuks. This is awesome, because I get to do things like talk about characters and their motivations and impact on society. (You can see my intro on Cruel Palace, War of Flowers here for a taste of some very simplistic analysis.) In Jang Ok-jung, Live in Love we see a very similar story to Cruel Palace in that it includes another femme fatale, but today, I’m going to focus the two most prominent female characters in Jang Ok-jung, Queen In-hyeon and Jang Hee-bin (Ok-jung), and their unfortunate relationship with a certain King Sukjong (Lee Soon). If you read my previous post that included a paragraph or two on my opinions of how Lee Soon treated Queen In-kyung, it’s quite clear that I’m not a fan of that guy. At all. I went from enjoying Yoo Ah-in to utterly despising his character within a matter of a few episodes. But I digress.
I want to make two thinks clear right off the bat. First, I don’t actually watch the show Jang Ok-jung anymore, because I have come to pretty much hate the story that the writers are trying stuff down our throats. I do follow the recaps on A Koala’s Playground (whose link you can find at the bottom of the page in “Blogroll”) so I know the storylines and interactions between the different characters. For this post, being in tune with the acting is not so important as just knowing what the plot line is like. Second, my opinions on the characters of Jang Ok-jung have absolutely nothing to do with how I feel about the actors of those particular characters. For example, I may hate Lee Soon, but I don’t think Yoo Ah-in is terrible. Actually, all of the actors in Jang Ok-jung are doing a great job, so no real complaints there. (Kim Tae-hee and Hong Soo-hyun are fantastic.)
To be honest, my interpretation of Jang Ok-jung‘s purpose is quite different from most. I think a lot of people went into the story expecting a high-stakes romance that was not meant to be coupled with some political maneuvering, which is fine. I agree that there’s a lot of that stuff involved with the show, especially in recent episodes. My personal interest in the show, however, stems from my fascination with aforementioned Queen In-hyeon and Jang Hee-bin (I would include Choi Suk-bin in all of this, but she was there for all of five seconds, and she wasn’t even Suk-bin). For me, the story really began with this scene:
In-hyeon: “When I stare at fireworks like this, for some reason, my heart feels saddened. The fireworks shine so brightly for a moment and then fade away the next…reminds me of our lives. Therefore, I prefer the moonlight, that always shines in the night sky.”
Ok-jung: “No. My heart races when I see fireworks. If I’m going to live this life once, I’d rather shine brightly even if it is for a short moment and fade away in the night sky like those fireworks.”
These two women have the same kind of ambitions with different goals. In-hyeon wants to be a true Queen; a ruler who can serve her people such that she remains in history as a moon-like figure that “shines bright forever.” Ok-jung feels differently. She cares not what people think of her in the future, or even if people remember her at all. She prefers to liken herself to fireworks, to be a person that carries great importance, influence, and success, even if it means that she will be forgotten or viewed negatively in the future. She wants to live her life to the maximum, wherever that will take her.
Neither woman is wrong for her sentiments, just different in perspective. Ok-jung places high value on love and heart while In-hyeon believes in duty. This would not be a problem save for the fact that these women have their lives irrevocably intertwined by King Sukjong. To be more specific, they’re irrevocably pitted against each other such that “neither can live while the other survives.” (Yay for Harry Potter references!) I blame Sukjong entirely for this. He’s an idiot, and here’s why.
First, we need a bit of (real!) history, so I turn to A Talking Cupboard to help me out.
Yi Soon or the his temple name Sukjong, is probably one of the well known rulers especially in popular culture. He took over the throne while the factions were still fighting against each other. Unlike his father Hyeonjong, Sukjong was a bold ruler, causing the change of ministers without any compromise. He caused multiple Hwanguk (change of state) by chasing out a particular faction from the government posts and letting the other faction to take over. There were three times in which the change of state took place: Kyungshin Hwanguk – the execution of Southerners faction; Gapsul Hwanguk – deposing Queen Inhyun and declaration of Jang Hee-bin as the new queen, leading to Southerners regaining their power; and Gisa Hwanguk – reinstatement of Queen Inhyun and stripping Jang Hee-bin off her position of the queen, bringing the Westerners back into power.
Yes. You are reading this correctly. Sukjong used his significant others as political pawns. Actually, “pawns” isn’t the right word, because that implies that the Queens/Royal Concubines were weak people—which they totally weren’t. It’s more like Sukjong was either a weak ruler who could carry no direct influence on his court by his own power, or two, a very twisted person that used romance as a means of manipulation. Both interpretations add negative points to the “Sukjong is a Great King” scale, but that’s just me. History and Media has portrayed this King in various shades of grey, but he definitely had a merry-go-round of queens in his day, not to mention various influencers as Royal Concubines.
For the sake of preventing major headaches, I’m going to stick with the story presented within Jang Ok-jung as my basis of interpretation of Sukjong, In-hyeon, and Ok-jung. I understand that the drama itself is supposed to be a re-adaptation of the history, but in many ways, being a “re-adaptation” has made Jang Ok-jung far more realistic than some other interpretations. Most importantly, they make the traditional “villainess” sympathetic. I highly doubt that Jang Hee-bin was Lucifer re-incarnate as most interpretations make out to be, so it’s rather refreshing to see her role in history become more humanized. That doesn’t mean that she isn’t a woman of steel or that she never made bad decisions; the show
just gives used to give her character more depth. The same goes to In-hyeon, who is normally the white queen to Jang Hee-bin’s black. In-hyeon is the “poor, weak queen” who was deposed and reimposed due to the machinations of a certain Jang Hee-bin. Yawn. I’m glad that In-hyeon actually has a backbone and ambition in Jang Ok-jung. In-hyeon desires to be and acts as a true Queen, a woman aware of her duties and place in life. She always acts accordingly to fulfill those duties as Queen in the most moral and precise way as possible.
So what exactly is wrong with Lee Soon? First of all, he puts “lust” infront of his duties as King. Even worse, he puts “lust” before respect for the people around him and by extension, his subjects. A true King will be able to smart his way to getting what he wants, while maintaining balance in his court and giving both his friends and enemies respect. Lee Soon does none of this. Instead, we have a man who thinks nothing but spending time with his “fling” Jang Hee-bin (who at this moment, isn’t quite Hee-bin in the show) and putting down his Queen whenever possible. It’s one thing to dislike your partner, it’s another thing entirely to be a (Insert Malicious Descriptor Here). Lee Soon makes my blood boil, because he has zero sense of responsibility. I mean zero. He legitimately ignores his actual step-mother-in-law (not even a proper greeting) to spend time with his concubine’s mother and concubine.(I don’t freaking care Lee Soon, how much you “love” Ok-jung. You have to at least give your mother-in-law a proper welcome. You also look terrible when you go to Ok-jung whenever you are called on to be with the Queen. I never said you actually had to consumate your marriage, just give her enough respect to just sit in her room and talk for crying out loud!)
I would be more sympathetic towards Sukjong if In-hyeon acted upon her jealousy towards Sukjong’s and Hee-bin’s relationship, but she doesn’t. Indeed, In-hyeon derives her power from Hee-bin’s presence (She becomes Queen through a deal with Sukjong), but no one said she had to be nice to Ok-jung. Nevertheless, In-hyeon actually treats Hee-bin as well as she can without pushing the Dowager Queen Kim’s buttons (she politically aligns with In-hyeon). She may get into verbal spars with Ok-jung and threaten Ok-jung back into her proper place, but she never strays from being civil towards Ok-jung. The Queen does none of the legitimately insane things that the Dowager Queen attempts towards Ok-jung. No matter how many times Lee Soon is told that the Queen has nothing to do with the Dowager Queen’s lunacy, he still takes out all of his anger on the Queen. If only In-hyeon didn’t fall in love with Lee Soon…she doesn’t even deserve a man like him.
Ok-jung is even more unfortunate, because she is an intelligent woman who is stripped away from her dreams of becoming a “fashion designer” (at least in this adaptation) in order to fulfill the fancies of a block-head King (yes, I will insult Sukjong in as many ways as possible without actually swearing). Ok-jung, as a woman of great pride, defends herself in the palace in the only way she can; by waging war against the Queen and the Dowager. Basically, Ok-jung has to get as close to being Queen as possible in order to save her hide (which is already suffering due to her low birth). For that, I understand her actions, though I don’t find her steeliness the most attractive quality of hers, and its frankly quite out of character given the beginning of the story (Thanks for screwing her up, writers!). What makes matters worse for Ok-jung is the willingness for Sukjong to make the entire palace hate her existence just because he’s infatuated with her. Oh, and I can’t forget that she even dies at the hand of this ridiculous and useless King, who now “lurves” Choi Suk-bin.
So I think I’ve spent long enough hating on a fictional version of a real king. The bottom line? Sukjong sucks. Go In-hyeon and Ok-jung! (Too bad the success of Ok-jung and In-hyeon are mutually exclusive.)
(SBS, A Talking Cupboard, Screencaps via A Koala’s Playground)