Sunday, February 15, 2015

[Drama Review] Cruel Palace - War of the Flowers


Yam Jeon - a woman with hands redder than her lipstick and soul blacker than her hair.
King Injo - traumatized by bowing in front of Manchu Emperor and easily played by one woman.
Prince Sohyeon - a tragic visionary who never bloomed.
Princess Min Hui - a strong woman desperate to save those close to her.
Kim In - an eunuch who knew too much.
Prince Bongrim - cautious to the point of callousness. 
Nam Hyeok - a broken man who loved the devil.
Those are main dramatis personnae of this scarlet red drama about love, betrayal and greed that never stops, that is never satiated, that destroys everything on its path.

   This drama, plagued by accidents and tragic events from the beginning, aired in 2013 on JTBC channel as their first period drama. And I think it displayed the channel's specific narrative and style in a sageuk. Its luscious colours, well orchestrated score, beautiful settings and clothes, detailed characterization of characters through small, unimportant gestures - it all created a hypnotic series that kept me glued to my screen for half a year last year. Just lately I rewatched it partially and decided to write something short about it. Oh, I mean I wrote about this drama when it was airing as well. Just here. And by short I really mean short. This post may serve as the trigger for those who missed the drama somehow, as a reminder for those who have it on the list. Other people just ignore it for being a sageuk. This review is over a year overdue anyway, therefore I will not be able to give any additional thoughts on it that haven't been already written. This draft has been sitting on the post roll for long months and I decided that drama deserved to be brought to light once again.

   There is politics in it. Quite a lot, in fact. It has to be as we are dealing with the reign of King Injo, who had to declare a defeat after long, brutal and bloody wars with Manchu dynasty that established last dynasty in China. The majority of drama takes places in 1645, when Prince Sohyeon returned from China where he was a royal hostage. With him, his wife and their three sons returned as well. And younger brother, Prince Bongrim. It quickly turned out that royal couple was way ahead of their times, they didn't belong to Joseon era. And the series used a very efficient emotional blackmail on all of us. They gave us this perfect couple, loving each other to the point of sacrifice. They had three kids whose lives quickly became endangered. The subtle and cruel battles started when Yam Jeon immediately recognized the danger - her son would never be the royal heir if any of Prince Sohyeon's children live. And Yam Jeon being the monster that she was, orchestrated an intrinsic plot to get rid of the three boys. She succeeded and Nam Hyeok who was sent to Tamna to save the kids, came too late (in history, only the youngest boy survived and came back to the capital). The oldest boy has been strangled in a graphic and brutal way. This series received a huge backlash over this scene, viewers saying the kid's death was too cruel and uncomfortable. Maybe it was, but it was real. He struggled, he suffered and he was in pain. All was done to stress out the monstrosity of Yam Jeon, who laughed when she heard about the death. Prince Sohyeon was dead already, craftily assassinated and buried quickly to prevent any inquiries. The history says that his body gave out unbearable stench just hours after his death, a clear suggestion of being poisoned. But there was no investigation into the cause. And Princess Min Hui's plea to do it was the reason to get her eliminated as well. The scenes of royal couple together, or widowed Min Hui sleeping tight with her children, ominous and tear inducing, tied us to the doomed characters. Their death, inevitable from the Yam Jeon's voracity point of view, left us with the huge hatred towards the woman.

   Yam Jeon, an illegitimate daughter of a yangban and his concubine dreams of a better life and proving "all them aristocrats" she can reach the highest titles being de facto a nobody. To pursue this dream, she rejects the love of a young man who wanted to give her everything he had. But he wasn't king, so it wasn't enough. Yam Jeon becomes a royal concubine and quickly moves up the ranks becoming the one and only favorite woman of King Injo. When King marries a young woman from a noble family, Yam Jeon manages to alienate the Queen and soon she wields an absolute sway over the aging King. Unfortunately her first child is a girl, and that would nullify her every effort to pursue her ultimate goal - becoming a Queen. So she decides on switching her own child for some newborn baby boy and presents him as her and King's offspring. Meanwhile, her own daughter is taken by a gisaeng, therefore will be raised as one.
   Her second child, a girl, is Nam Hyeok's child, born after Yam Jeon decided to end her love relationship with this young man. And since there is only one way to end things permanently, she hires assassins to kill him. Moments before falling from a cliff, heavily wounded Nam Hyeok sees Yam Jeon observing the whole scene. If you want the things to be done right, do them yourself. If Yam Jeon wanted Hyeok dead, she should plunge a knife into his heart herself. At this very moment one may conclude that Hyeok would become her downfall in the future. This drama proved to be unpredictable in this plain and simple plot. He wouldn't. In the scheme of things he remained what he always was - a shadow and nothing more.
   And the justice Yam Jeon met with by the end, didn't come from the court, didn't come from any office or edict. It came from the hands of citizens - they stoned her.

   This drama is a big parable of "what ifs". What if Yam Jeon wasn't as greedy as she was? What if Nam Hyeok really died? What if Prince Sohyeon didn't get this acupuncture shot? What if King Injo's rightful second wife bore a child? What if certain people weren't late as they were? It gives us the opportunity to ask questions and imagine other scenarios. And this is what is beautiful about history - it always allows that, no matter of hard facts it presents us at the same time.

   And just for history buffs - the premature death of Prince Sohyeon had further repercussions than just those told in the series. Prince Bongrim after becoming King Hyojong in 1649, hated Qing Dynasty and started the preparations for war. But the real problem that divided Korean court appeared later. After he died in 1659, the court was divided over the length of the mourning period for the King's Mother: one year or two years. One year for a royal son but two years for royal heir. The problem was - Bongrim was never a real heir, because Sohyeon was. So the division was whether Hyojong was a legitimate King or not. If the one-year period was chosen - that would nixed his legacy and his own heir. If two-years period won - that would mean he was a legitimate King, despite not being the oldest son of his father (thus a precedence). From this turmoil one faction came out victorious - namin. The rival faction, seoin, was cast out. Not for long, cause the similar conflict erupted in 1674, after Hyojong's wife died. In 1680, namin were accused of corruption and discredited, but the victorious this time seoin divided into two factions yet again: noron and soron.

And now we should go to sad fate of Prince Sado or embark on a journey through Seonggyungwan!