Joo-Won is horrified to discover Hwa-Yi is a girl. He can be so tough and resourceful sometimes, but offend his propriety and he’s got no idea what to do. It’s hard to say what bothers him more, the fact that Hwa-Yi has lied to him, or the fact that Joo-Won has accidentally spent time with a woman. A woman!
“I touched your hand!” he gasps. I love this guy. The actor exaggerates a little, but it’s very funny (below). Joo-Won spends these episodes fretting over Hwa-Yi’s improper behavior, and at the same time, worrying about her safety—revealing his own naiveté about the hardships she’s already had to survive to get this far.
But Hwa-Yi’s unmasking begs the question. How did this disguise work in the first place?
It’s a Girl!
Lee Yeon-Hee doesn’t look like a guy. No way, no how. At least not to twenty-first century eyes. So what’s been going on till now?
One way to think about her disguise comes from social historians. They tell us that different historical periods had different ways of thinking about men and women. Thinking about every social category, in fact.
Back in the 1600s, everyone could be identified by their clothes. The only people wearing trousers were working-class men. Check it out (below). Even the men in Hwajung wear skirts, if they’re nobility. (If you didn’t wear a skirt, your translucent black cowboy hat would look totally weird!)
People tended to stick with the “right” uniform. I’m not sure about Korea, but I know that in Europe, it was actually illegal to wear the clothes of another gender. The English burned Joan of Arc at the stake for the alleged crime of cross-dressing.
With clothing providing a reliable way of identifying people, why look closely at anyone—especially poor male laborers like the one Hwa-Yi is impersonating? Most people aren’t naturally suspicious. If they glance at someone and see working man’s clothes, they assume a working man’s inside them. At first impression, at least. And noblemen don’t spend much time staring at the poor.
Charades like this were rare, but historical evidence says they did happen. Some women cross-dressed for years to work as soldiers or butlers. (Movies like Albert Nobbs are based on real lives.) And Hwa-Yi is like those successful imposters in one way—she’s good at appearing male simply by acting confident (below). A woman would never act this way around men, with is why her “macho” qualities freak Joo-Won out.
What about anatomy? Historians and sociologists argue that we look more carefully at that stuff today because women now wear men’s clothes. (Men, curiously, don’t wear women’s clothes. “Unisex” clothes are all based on men’s fashions—no unisex mini-skirts with pink ruffles. Even the kilt, the only socially acceptable men’s “skirt” in the West, isn’t unisex. Women don’t wear kilts.)
With today’s women in the West running around in blue jeans and T-shirts, we routinely look past clothing to identify people. And we don’t expect everything to be obvious. Women come in a few shapes and sizes and so do men. Otherwise we wouldn’t have push-up bras and Seinfeld’s tongue-in-cheek invention the “Bro.” In the twenty-first century we also pay some attention to subtle differences between men and women—throats, hands, shoulders.
But this sociological stuff only explains why people passing her on the street don’t notice. What about people who spend time with Hwa-Yi?
The whole thing should fall apart at that point, because actress Lee Yeon-Hee isn’t remotely androgynous. Even the least perceptive person of the seventeenth century will eventually notice there’s something weird about her.
We have to suspend a fair bit of disbelief.
The writer’s helping us suspend disbelief by keeping Hwa-Yi away from people. So far, not many have had a good look at her. Only Joo-Won has been fooled. The men at the mine have known she’s female for years and they definitely don’t think she “passes.” They discourage her from coming to Edo because her disguise is weak.
And then at the gate to Edo, the female official who scrutinizes visitors spots Hwa Yi almost immediately. Our heroine is going to be arrested on the spot when the guards are distracted.
Once inside Edo, she has a brief audience with the Japanese smuggler, who sees her from a distance and doesn’t pay much attention. The police see her, too, but they arrest and imprison her on a dark night.
In getting to the ship, presumably an oarsman sees her, but he’s got work to do. Presumably, Joo-Won keeps her hidden on the sea journey, since she’s without identity papers. And soon after arriving in Joseon, she encounters In-Woo, who does spot her and can’t believe Joo-Won didn’t (above).
So up to this point, the only person who spent time with her and failed to notice is our naive Joo-Won. And this tells us more about him than about Hwa-Yi’s disguise. He has limited knowledge of women. He’s deeply uncomfortable with Hwa-Yi now that he knows her secret (above). Joo-Won only accepts her because he needs sulfur smelting technology. Even when he’s concerned about her (below), he’s awkward and flustered. He’s pretty typical for a sex-segregated society.
Now that Hwa-Yi’s working at the weaponry bureau, she’s working with a number of people and I expect others to start noticing that there’s something odd about her. But it’ll take time. Right now the sulfur guys are too angry at the “new guy” to examine the new guy’s appearance.
Kang In-Woo’s All Grown Up
Why does In-Woo notice she’s a girl right away? The fact that he’s sparring with her is one reason. (A kinda sexy reason.) Another reason is that In-Woo has a twisted mind. Or rather, he has a perceptive mind, even if it means perceiving something twisted.
As an adult, In-Woo has a knack for subterfuge that Joo-Won lacks. In-Woo alternates between easy-going smiles and suspicion. We learn in these episodes that he’s the son of a concubine, not the son of Mayor Kang’s wife whom he calls mother. But in earlier episodes, he “passed” for the legitimate son. I suspect In-Woo has grown up knowing that people aren’t necessarily who they appear to be. He’s hiding something himself, so he expects others to hide things, to try to “pass.”
And most people around him do have secrets. His father is a schemer and In-Woo has probably studied his methods. Episode 11 doesn’t waste any time introducing conflict between In-Woo and his father Mayor Kang.
We can gather In-Woo doesn’t approve of his father. He has been away from home for some time (where was he?) and on returning home, the first person he visits is Joo-Won. Then, he doesn’t hesitate to challenge his father’s plans to hurt Joo-Won (below).
Perhaps the fact that Joo-Won is so open and honest is why they’re friends. This guy Joo-Won, really, he’s so incapable of lying that he can’t even call the king “sire” since he doesn’t feel sincere respect. (C’mon, learn to lie a little and it’ll increase your life expectancy.)
Of course In-Woo is also a “player,” as a few people point out. He actually knows what women look like, unlike Joo-Won, who doesn’t even seem to have a mother or sisters. That could be why In-Woo spots Hwa-Yi.
But I think his cautious nature helps a lot. When it comes to In-Woo’s reputation as a ladies man, women are more of a hobby than a passion for him. He lives with the same heartache as Joo-Won. We learn in episode 12 that although he didn’t show it, he, too, had a crush on the princess. And he hasn’t talked about it, because of his friendship for Joo-Won. Suddenly, he looks like a much deeper character than he did a few episodes ago.
The conflict rising between Joo-Won and In-Woo in episode 12 is ironic. The sweet, sensitive Joo-Won seems to have become cynical and political-minded in joining the king. And the hard-headed, practical In-Woo appears emotionally roiled by the knowledge that Joo-Won supports the king and In-Woo’s father is trying to destroy his friend.
But if In-Woo were involved in politics, would he make different decisions than Joo-Won? Perhaps we’ll find out, as he begins to make his own moves in episode 12, approaching Heo Gyoon for information (below).
(By the way, Heo Gyoon has been confusing me because he’s called by several different names. I finally found out some more about him as a historical figure, and he did indeed have several names. He was a famous poet. When Lady Kim calls him Gyosan, she’s using one of his pennames. And if he looks familiar, it might be because the actor playing him is Ahn Nae-Sang, who recently played Do-Hyun’s father in Kill Me, Heal Me.)
The King and Kang
Joo-Won is so appalled by Hwa-Yi’s deception that he’s ready to send “him” back to Japan. Hwa-Yi lied, after all. And getting into the weaponry bureau requires what bureaucrats today would call “security clearance.” Hwa-Yi’s way too dodgy for clearance.
But Joo-Won convinces the king to hire Hwa-Yi, because Hwa-Yi knows how to smelt sulfur. Joo-Won puts his life on the line to vouch for Hwa-Yi.
The king figures out this week that Mayor Kang is up to something. He tells Kang he has an eye on him. The king also openly defies Ming this week, by refusing the empire’s request to send soldiers to fight for Ming. He explains to his ministers, including Mayor Kang, that he feels confident about the weaponry bureau. He now has a lot of sulfur, and a new arrangement to get more from Japan.
Gwanghae also has the Ming text that Heo Gyoon found. It contains instructions for Ming military technology. And thanks to the princess, Gwanghae now has the Japanese technology for purifying sulfur.
But Mayor Kang and his supporters have started moving behind the scenes to stop Joo-Won and the king. The industrial accident that kills 20 workers with poisonous fumes is likely their work.
When Chief Hong appears at the end of episode 12 to arrest his own son, it seems likely he’s working with Kang. Kang is an old friend of his, after all, and Hong hates the king. Hong’s appearance surprised me, but when I thought about it, it wasn’t illogical.
The episode ends with Joo-Won and Hwa-Yi under arrest (below). And a number of councilors are meeting to push back against King Gwanghae’s plans to part ways with Ming.
I’m wondering a lot about Joo-Won’s motivations. Why does he think helping Gwanghae is right? And did Joo-Won really give up looking for the princess? Has he grown cynical?
And will Joo-Won and In-Woo be able to work together again? Now that we know In-Woo did like the princess back in the day, will we see love come between the two men as well as politics? Please, no! They make a great pair of best friends—total opposites who nevertheless care about each other. Please don’t let their disagreement be too vicious or prolonged! ♥