AGHHHHHH – I’M GOING TO DIE FROM DRAMA OVERLOAD!!!
One more to add on my weekly “to watch” list – Tree with Deep Roots. I don’t like historicals, and I’d like to say I’m “famously averse” to them, but the “famously” part is questionable. I mean, as much as I love Park Shi Hoo and no matter how interesting The Princess’ Man is, I still can’t get into that drama and finish it. Yet.
But this one? Well, I had to watch it and see, and so far, I really like it. I’m watching it on DramaFever by the way…
Historicals require a certain level of investment and commitment, especially coming from an outsider to Korean history like me. I don’t know everything about Korean history, except for the fact that King Sejong created the alphabet, Joseon Dynasty was an amazing time period before it collapsed, there was a cool queen named Seon-deok, and there was a famous empress who got assassinated, Myeongseong. Yay.
So to watch this drama, I had to pay a little more attention, be a little more vigilant with the language. It helps that the effects are gorgeous and Song Joong Ki really is quite regal in this. It also helps that the drama hooks you in with Jang Hyuk and Han Suk Gyu for the first five minutes, but then leaves you without them for the next hour.
The cinematography – especially in the beginning – is top notch. It’s a quick setup on the tale of revenge, but I’m glad it only took one episode. I hope Song Joong Ki still appears for at least one or two more episodes because he’s doing a swell job as the scholarly king. After his fanciful turn in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, he returns to this world completely mature by tenfold. I could believe him growing up into the mild-mannered Han Suk Gyu, and I think that’s part of his appeal.
So here’s a mini recap of episode 1. We’ll see if I continue recapping this – I just may end up tuning in about it every so often.
We begin with Kang Chae Yun (Jang Hyuk), who creeps into the royal palace in the dark of the night using his awesome ninja moves. He’s a palace guard, but tonight, he’s an assassin. He counts the steps up to where the king will be sitting during the congratulatory assembly. He plots out the king’s path, and envisions the courtyard as it is dressed up for the assembly – guards and ministers pop up and fill the courtyard; the stage is set for the king to come in.
Chae Yun envisions how he’ll break out of his formation in the yard, run up the sacred path meant only for kings, fight the guards off, and then face Mu Hyul, the king’s trusted swordsman. He leaps and flies through the air, worthy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and blinds Mu Hyul with a pack of powder that explodes mid-air. But just as he’s about to stab the king, he gets hit by the many archers surrounding the palace.
Success rate is below 70%; he won’t be able to attack.
Chae Yun then makes his way back to his quarters, but gets caught in the path of King Sejong (Han Suk Gyu) taking his evening walk. He’s so stunned by the king’s appearance that he forgets his manners to bow before the king. And when he does bow, he forgets to speak and answer the king’s questions. The whole time, he’s calculating his success rate in assassinating Sejong now and how many guards he’d have to fight off.
Too bad Mu Hyul then arrives, decreasing Chae Yun’s chances, and so Chae Yun lets the king go without another peep. But the king turns and asks what Chae Yun’s name is.
His name was Ddol Bok. And we flash back to when he was a young child.
Ddol Bok was a bully – or at least, he beat up anyone who bullied his father. His father Suk Sam is a little bit slow and retarded now, due to a bad accident that involved falling down a hill while trying to save his son’s life. Now Ddol Bok is being his father’s biggest protector. (His father is played by Jung Suk Yong from Beethoven Virus and I am Legend. He gives quite a heartwarming performance here.)
They’re both servants to Shim Won, the father-in-law to King Sejong and also chancellor. Another servant is also Gul Sang, who bullies Suk Sam a lot, and hence gets beaten up by Ddol Bok a lot. (Haha – so funny to see a little kid slap the living hell out of a grown man.) Gul Sang’s daughter is Bam, and she is best friends with Ddol Bok too. She sides with Ddol Bok and Suk Sam all the time, scolding her father for being so disrespectful.
There is a lot of political upheaval as well. Though Sejong (or Lee Do) is the king, he is actually quite powerless. His father Taejong (played by Baek Yoon Shik of Harvest Villa) may have “retired” but he holds most of the power. He still calls the shots during the council and influences the way Sejong makes decisions or stamps decrees. Everyone in court is under Taejong’s payroll, so to speak.
It’s during a time when the kings held most of the power, and so whatever the king says, goes. Sejong grew up with too many memories of his father mercilessly executing his enemies, and so he retreats to his library where he can study language, science, and defense mechanisms.
When his father-in-law becomes a target for Taejong, it immediately worries his wife. She wants him to act and stop his father, rather than always going to the library and try to solve a defensive strategy through mathematics (think Sudoku, but with bigger numbers than just 1-9). However, Sejong is too afraid, too traumatized, too emasculated. It’s amazing to watch Song Joong Ki quiver with quiet strength, and yet be completely helpless. He isn’t a strong king, and he knows it. And that’s the sad part.
Taejong visits him in the library and tells him to stay inside and study while he finishes up the Shim Won business. (It’s mainly framing him for plotting to rebel against the king.) He lords over Sejong’s mathematical studies and tells him to forget all the numbers but 1. Put 1 in the middle of a blank board, and you get the same result of 1 no matter which way you go; centralize your power in 1 man, and you’ll get your way no matter which way you go.
He is pressured to stamp a decree ordering Shim Won’s arrest and execution before the court. The royal guards even invade Shim Won’s home and arrest his brother, holding all the slaves hostage. Ddol Bok, Bam, and Suk Sam manage to get away, but Gul Sang returns from an errand at the wrong time, and is caught inside.
In an attempt to do something, Sejong calls for one of his palace maids – a really young child who would not be so corrupted by court politics – to deliver a message to Shim Won, who is on his way back to Hanyang after a trip to China. The child can’t get inside to Shim Won’s residence because of the guards, so she gives the message to Ddol Bok and Bam instead. Ddol Bok is wary in trusting her, and since he can’t read, he’s not sure if what the girl is saying is the truth. The girl insists that the letter tells Shim Won to get away, and Bam, who can read a few characters, hesitantly confirms the message.
Ddol Bok wants to go and deliver the message himself, but Suk Sam takes it away. He’s the father, and it’s a dangerous mission – he will protect his son for this.
Suk Sam runs day and night until he finally catches up to Shim Won’s envoy. He delivers the message out of breath, and Shim Won quickly opens to read it.
The letter contains orders to gather an army so that they can rebel against the king. It’s a set-up.
Somehow before leaving the palace, the girl had swapped the letter with one planted by Taejong’s men. Suk Sam innocently delivered it, and the royal guards came upon the envoy with Shim Won holding the incriminating letter.
Suk Sam and Shim Won are promptly arrested, with Suk Sam getting a deadly blow to the head. Shim Won is a compassionate master, and he feels terrible for Suk Sam – a simple man wanting to get back to his son. Despite being a criminal, he demands for some paper and ink, and writes up a will for his servant.
Word reaches Sejong that Shim Won got caught, and he overhears his father talking about switching the letters. His anger boils over, and he clenches his fist, but he restrains himself from acting. Not now, not yet. His advisor Lee Shin Juk (Ahn Suk Hwan) – who I’m guessing is on his side – looks fearful in anticipation that Sejong would do something so rash. Taejong knows that Shim Won would rather die to protect Sejong than deny any involvement with a rebellion, and Shim Won does choose to drink poison rather than say another word.
The servants of that household are carted away to prison, and Bam and Ddol Bok witness Gul Sang getting dragged away. Gul Sang wants them to run, but the guards catch them and throw them into prison as well. (You know, even though he’s a bully – he’s still a father…) Ddol Bok blames Bam on not being able to properly read the message; if she had read it properly, they wouldn’t have been tricked!
Suk Sam is thrown into the same cell but he’s already half-dead. He reaches out to Ddol Bok and hands him the written piece of paper. And then wordlessly, he dies.
At the same time, Sejong’s wife enters his room, accusing him of sending an incriminating letter to her father, and sending him swiftly to his death.
And I love the cutting between the scenes, as Ddol Bok screams, “Who did this to you?!” to his lifeless father, and the queen tearfully says, “It’s your fault he [her father] is dead!”
He’s being blamed twice for one crime he didn’t commit.