Before I run off to finish the five hundred things I have due tomorrow, here’s a quick preview for the most anticipated sageuk of the season, Secret Door. Recent years have been really underwhelming on the sageuk front, not because they haven’t been successful or sold, but that there were so few of them were made well. This year sort of made things worse by having so few made altogether. Three sageuks have captured some sort of acclaim this year, be it just popularity (Empress Ki and Joseon Gunman) or positive critical reception (Jung Do Jeon) and part of me thinks that they are the only three that aired this year. That’s obviously not true, but you get the point–traditional sageuks are getting scarce.
Based on promotional material, Secret Door is showing signs of being among the ranks of Tree With Deep Roots in terms of rapid delivery and depth. Song Joong-ki first reached major critical success from a four episode stint with Han Seok-kyu, who also stars in Secret Door, so I can see Lee Je-hoon doing something similar if he steps up his game here (plus he gets the entire show to wow everyone rather than four episodes).
Press Conference:[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBOuNCeuF7Y]
The production team includes the writer of Hwang Jin Yi, who has written a half-a-dozen other sageuks, so I’m hoping that she’ll do a good job on virtue of experience alone. In fact, the premise is amazing–a philosophical struggle between King Yeong-jo and his son, Crown Prince Sado, that escalates to the latter’s death. This isn’t exactly an accurate portrayal of history, as Sado was said to be mentally ill, and Yeong-jo was forced to kill him for the good of the country. (Though if you watched the preview, you’d think it was Yeong-jo that was crazy).
Sado’s life and death remains the single gray mark in Yeong-jo’s reign, and as with all such mysterious moments in history, it spurred controversial theories. The one I found on Wikipedia said that Sado was framed as being mentally ill and a rapist, but it never really states what caused him to be framed for such things. It should be noted though that Park Eun-bin‘s character, Princess Hyegyeong (Prince Sado’s wife), ends up confirming most of original history in her famous memoir. Based on that, I guess most of the conspiracy theories are dead, though who said we can’t make up history for a show? (There’s actually one point that keeps the doors open, albeit weakly, which is that Yi San (Jeong-jo) tried to clear his father’s name.)
This becomes a messy point for Korean sageuks as of late, because so many of them are ‘fusion sageuks.’ Sageuks once had a respected position as a conveyor of Korean history after Japanese rule, so seeing the “art” crumble to into 90% fiction is upsetting to some. This is part of the reason that Jung Do Jeon was sweeping awards left and right–it’s one of the few thoroughly historically consistent sageuks in quite some time. Empress Ki and Joseon Gunman are more or less works of historical fiction, and they’ve probably gained a lot of international fame because of it. Fiction is not inherently a bad thing, as long as people are upfront about the fact that it’s totally fake (and both were).
Despite all of this, I think that some level of “fiction” is fine in historical dramas; maybe even required. Challenging events logically is important to how we interpret history, because the reality is that most of written history is, in some way, tainted. “The victorious hold the pen of history” is not just a saying I made up (well it is…) but truth. The survivors write the accounts that we all read and they’re going to write things in their favor. What person would write their death sentence in the annals? I would bet that Sado would have helped his case had he survived, just like Yeong-jo helped his own case. I also think that Hyegyeong had something to gain from supporting the death of her husband, and did so in her memoir.
But that’s not to say that what history exists in our books are wrong–I’m only suggesting that we take things with a grain of salt. This philosophy can easily translate to how we write dramas, and Secret Door is a representation of that. No one is absolutely clean in a version of history that can hold water. In a perfect world, I’d like to see things get really murky for both Yeong-jo AND Sado in Secret Door so that we can debate their intentions and ethics. I do think that Sado had mental problems, but also I think that those problems were not enough to get him killed by the court and his father for the reasons that I’m currently aware of (unless the goal was to simply have Sado skipped over for his son Jeong-jo). From this vantage point, I think there’s a lot of possibilities to explore in Sado’s and Young-jo’s relationship and the one that Yoon Sun-joo has chosen holds promise, even if it comes off a bit idyllic on Sado’s end.
With all of that in mind, I’m still wary of what the drama actually holds, mostly because of the addition of Kim Yoo-jung‘s fictional character. She’s sounds pretty cool (an author! Who writes thrillers!) but could easily (come on, it’s KDrama) become a daisy in the dark. If that happens, I’m sure that I’m going to loathe her character for taking up screen time, no matter how much I do like Kim Yoo-jung. Hyegyeong is compelling enough, and I’d much, much, rather see three really gray characters than have Sado totally redeemed and “normal” (a complex, realistic portrayal of mental illness would be nice right after SBS’s own IOTL) fighting against baddies Hyegyeong and Young-jo with Kim’s character magically becoming a love interest. If things go well however, she could be an interesting perspective on the events of the drama.
And so, here I am both thrilled for the show premiering in the next 14 hours or so and worried that all my own idealized expectations would fall so hard that I’ll spend tomorrow lamenting what could have been. Secret Door has so much potential as a story that if it were to fail, it would be a waste indeed.