Even if you’re not watching Hwajung, there’s one thing about it you should know: Han Joo-Wan is one to watch. In the role of Kang In-Woo, he hasn’t had as many scenes as first lead Seo Kang-Joon, who plays Joo-Won. But every time he appears on screen, he shows new sides to this character. Episodes 13 to 16 give In-Woo his turn at adventure, as he helps Hwa Yi save Joo-Won. He also finds time to flirt with Hwa Yi and figure out the secret of her identity.
The King’s Follower
Not that Joo-Won’s character is particularly idle here. Despite spending episode 13 in prison awaiting torture, we see new sides of him as well. After helping Hwa Yi escape, Joo-Won is philosophical about the possibility of death. King Gwanghae visits to make it clear that Joo-Won can’t look to the king for help. Gwanghae will prosecute him to the fullest in order to save himself.
Joo-Won respects the king for this decision. He lapses into uncharacteristically good manners and addresses the king as “sire.” Gwanghae notices too, and comments on the irony.
“Now you call me Sire,” he says (above). The king is visibly troubled that he’s turning his back on Joo-Won. Why is the young man who said he didn’t deserve to be king acknowledging him at this particular moment?
Joo-Won explains that he respects that the king for doing exactly what needs to be done to preserve the armory bureau. Joo-Won’s okay with dying but not with the program collapsing. Joseon needs armaments to protect itself against the Manchurians (Jin) and the Ming.
It appears the young man is developing an appreciation for realpolitik. But does this mean he’ll have to change his mind about what the king did to Jeongmyeong and her family? Was eliminating them also necessary to make Joseon stronger against its enemies?
Joo-Won is quickly growing close to the king. Mayor Kang and his associates are convinced Joo-Won will betray the king in exchange for his life. Joo-Won’s father asks Joo-Won to say the king brought Hwa Yi, “the Japanese saboteur,” to the bureau. (Part of this statement is true. Gwanghae did know that Joo-Won hired a Japanese technician. But of course it’s false that Hwa Yi is a saboteur.) Joo-Won refuses.
His own father—still friends with Mayor Kang—oversees Joo-Won’s torture. The young man continues to insist that the king knew nothing. Finally, bleeding and broken, he asks for death (above).
And that would be the end of our noble hero, except that Hwa Yi turns herself in (below). Her investigations have revealed how the sabotage happened, but In-Woo will have to track down the saboteur on his own while Hwa Yi stalls for time with the king. Fortunately, In-Woo finds the guilty sulfur technician and captures him at the city gates just as he’s fleeing the city.
The corrupt technician doesn’t know who is behind the conspiracy to sabotage the armory and discredit the king. But he knows who hired him: Do-Ha, the former guardsman who has been doing Mayor Kang’s dirty work.
This information is enough to clear Joo-Won’s name. It’s a puzzling plot gap that no one bothers to look for suspects beyond Hwa Yi, yet the nobles are quick enough to accept that Hwa Yi is innocent. I suppose Mayor Kang’s skills at persuasion have a limit. He has many of the nobles in town on his side against the king, including a few very honest men, like police chief Hong. But unfortunately, honest men can recognize a mistake. Chief Hong almost apologizes to Joo-Won for torturing him. (Worth noting: Hong grows suspicious of his old friend Kang in episode 16, so hopefully he’ll reconcile fully with his son.)
Freed, Joo-Won goes home to recover. When he protests Hwa Yi’s advice to rest, she points out that it’s obvious he’s never been beaten before (below). She has experience with it, she reminds him. That quiets him, but he’s still painfully awkward—and she’s outrageously bold in trying to get her hands on him. Queries: why doesn’t he at least pretend he’s not afraid of women? And why doesn’t she remember a bit of aristocratic etiquette? C’mon, girl, you’re embarrassing the kid!
This scene may be meant to establish that’s there’s chemistry between Hwa Yi and Joo-Won—he’s the leading man after all. I’m not buying it yet, though. They haven’t shown an attraction between them that could lead to deeper feelings.
For the moment, their feelings are merely friendly. If Joo-Won likes Hwa Yi, he isn’t aware of it. And Hwa Yi distrusts Joo-Won, as the young man’s support for the king is actually growing. After his trial, the king visits Joo-Won to thank him personally. Ironically, he also warns Joo-Won not to trust him. Gwanghae thinks it suits the young man better to be suspicious.
Hwa Yi witnesses this visit and Joo-Won admits to her that he doesn’t know what he thinks of the king. He used to think Gwanghae was cold and power-hungry but he’s no longer sure. And the king trusts Joo-Won more and more, calling him a trusted associate and assigning him secret negotiations with the Manchurians (“the later Jin”).
Hwa Yi takes note. She may have felt thankful enough to Joo-Won to try to save his life, but she can’t trust him in her future plots against the king. In episode 15, she makes excuses to move out of Joo-Won’s house. The young man realizes at this point that she means something to him. He looks for her with no success (below).
Seo Kang-Joon’s limitations as an actor are becoming more evident. This scene should be heart-rending (at least so the swelling music would have us believe). Instead, it feels forced. Joo-Won’s sad expression too closely resembles his expressions of confusion, surprise and concern. His one moment of excellence here was his torture scene in episode 14.
Joo-Won is a serious and introverted character, so Seo Kang-Joon might be aiming for subtlety and arriving at under-acting. Joo-Won is an interesting character on paper, but Seo Kang-Joon isn’t making him more than paper. I was more engaged in his story when 15-year-old Yoon Chang-Young was playing the part.
In fairness, Yoon Chan-Young only had to work for a couple episodes and Seo Kang-Joon has dozens of opportunities to fail—or succeed. But if he’s not sure what to do with the part, it could be because he’s only 21. He won “best newcomer” at last year’s Korean Drama Awards, for playing the lovesick second lead in Cunning Single Lady, but it wasn’t an obvious win. And this is his first historical drama, his first outing in the silk robes and gauzy hat. He may need more experience before he can really bring this character alive.
The Man about Town
By contrast, Han Joo-Wan brings a treasure chest of expressions to the role of In-Woo. Fear for Joo-Won’s safety in episodes 13 and 14 (above). Concern and then attraction as he gets to know Hwa Yi. Sly amusement as he teases Joo-Won (below). Bitterness towards his father, and sarcasm towards his “mother.” (It appears she has adopted him legally as her own, but he’s actually an illegitimate son.)
Whether the script intended it or not, In-Woo establishes himself in these episodes as the more compelling of the two young men, thanks to Han Joo-Wan. Age may make a difference. Though Han Joo-Wan’s career resume is similar to Seo Kang-Joon’s, he’s 31, with a full decade more life experience. Han Joo-Wan also has the benefit of having acted in a costume drama before, albeit a “fusion” history drama, last year’s Joseon Gunman.
The biggest challenge in a history drama is acting through the costumes—keeping the performance large and vivid enough that we stop noticing the hats and gowns. (And that’s apart from all the other challenges for an actor! The fighting, the horseback riding, the antique diction, the beards! Not to mention fighting on horseback while wearing the hats and gowns and beards!) Han Joo-Won has figured out how to distract me from the hats. Hopefully he’ll teach Seo Kang-Joon the trick over the next thirty-some episodes.
In-Woo’s big moment is his realization at the end of episode 16. Throughout these episodes, people are increasingly suspicious of Hwa Yi’s identity. Clues that Hwa Yi is the lost princess are everywhere, for someone who understands what they mean. And In-Woo figures it out.
Hwa Yi herself is increasingly worried she’ll be discovered. Episode 15 opens with the king confronting her at sword point. He thinks she looks familiar. On discovering she knows the customs of the royal court, he grows more suspicious. But when he demands to know her identity, she lies. She isn’t very believable, and Gwanghae makes it clear he’s only letting her go while he investigates her further.
The king will soon find out Hwa Yi’s identity papers are fabricated. She has to reach her mother before then, which is perhaps why she agrees to an uneasy alliance with Gyosan, the poet turned power-broker who kidnaps Hwa Yi to ask about his identity (below).
Gyosan, also known as Heo Gyoon, is on the outside a lover of wine, women and song. His friendship with In-Woo probably started at the gisaeng houses. But he’s also secretly an intriguer who helped the king locate Chinese military secrets in earlier episodes. Now, he’s increasingly serving as right-hand man to King Gwanghae and Lady Kim. Poor Lee Yi-Cheom is losing influence, while Gyosan’s star is rising.
But even while Gyosan is working for the king, he’s thinking of joining up with Mayor Kang. It was Gyosan who helped the king discover Kang’s treacherous intentions in the first place, so he has an idea what Kang is up to.
Gyosan switches sides in a dramatic fashion. The king sends Gyosan to arrest Do-Ha for organizing the armory sabotage and find out who he’s working for. Gyosan goes after Do-Ha with apparently every intention to arrest him alive.
Gyosan confronts Do-Ha, who waves a knife at him. Do-Ha says he’s sure Gyosan has come to kill him. Gyosan reassures him—he just wants to arrest him and take him to the king to talk. Just at that moment, though, Mayor Kang enters the courtyard, hoping to reach Do-Ha before the king’s soldiers. He’s too late.
But Gyosan sees the mayor’s tense face. Gyosan grabs at Do-Ha and the knife. In a quick short scuffle, Do-Ha is fatally wounded with his own knife—a wound inflicted by Gyosan, who says it was suicide. Gyosan has saved Mayor Kang from a dangerous potential informer, and he wastes no time in capitalizing on the fact.
Since Kang’s sabotage plot fails in episode 14, Kang sits back in episodes 15 and 16 and lets Gyosan take the lead. It’s Gyosan who figures out Hwa Yi is connected to the Queen Dowager through the Eye of Mercy Goddess bracelet.
It’s also Gyosan who frames the Queen Dowager in episode 16, using the bracelet and Hwa Yi as bait. The Queen Dowager’s apparent “plot” against Gwanghae comes at a bad time—right after the Ming ambassador threatens and embarrasses Gwanghae by paying formal respects to the exiled former queen (above).
Gwanghae is under pressure from Manchuria and Ming. The two powers are moving towards war with each other and want to know who Joseon will support. Gwanghae doesn’t want to lose territory to the Manchurians, but he’s also defying Ming by refusing to send troops, even though Joseon is technically subject to the Ming emperor. This conflict between Manchuria, Ming and Joseon is a looming problem for Gwanghae and Joo-Won.
Into this explosive situation, we drop a small but exotic bracelet with a blue bead to ward off the evil eye—an “Eye of Mercy Goddess.” Now that Hwa Yi has lost it—and told In-Woo and Joo-Won about it—she can’t keep her identity a secret much longer.
With so many clues out there, it’s a relief to see someone put them together. In-Woo discovers Gyosan is visiting his father frequently and that Hwa Yi’s kidnappers are connected back to Gyosan. He’s soon threatening his old drinking buddy with a knife to the throat. He demands to know what happened to Hwa Yi.
The clever Gyosan doesn’t take In-Woo’s threat to kill him seriously, but he perceives In-Woo would be happy enough to simply hurt him. He explains that he used Hwa Yi to get access to the Queen Dowager.
“How is Hwa Yi connected to the queen?” In-Woo asks.
He has the unusual bracelet that used to belong to Princess Jeongmyeong, Gyosan says. That bracelet he lost, the one you drew for me.
No one else except In-Woo has all the puzzle pieces, and he’s quick to put them together. Hwa Yi isn’t a he, he’s a she, and she said the bracelet was important because her mother gave it to her. And In-Woo is one of the very few people who knows that the princess might still be alive. (I’m assuming Gwanghae kept the police investigation results secret.)
I hate dramas where characters don’t ask the big questions. Luckily, Hwajung isn’t one of them. In-Woo wants to know Hwa Yi’s real identity, and as soon as he finds her, he asks (above). It’s almost a repeat of the cliff-hanger with the king that started the week. Once again, someone is sure she’s hiding something. Will she lie as she did to Gwanghae?
Hwa Yi’s been searching all over town for Joo-Won since hearing of her mother’s “treason plot.” Presumably, she wants Joo-Won’s help to free her mother from suspicion.
But Hwa Yi can’t let Joo-Won know her identity. And Joo-Won spots her and calls her name just as the episode ends. Will she lie to In-Woo so that Joo-Won won’t find out? Or make In-Woo her ally? And what will Joo-Won really do when he finds out her identity?
Both young men had crushes on the princess in the past, but In-Woo didn’t admit to it. Now that both are interested in Hwa Yi, In-Woo was first to speak up, making the friends more likely to come into real conflict over her. I think the tough princess needs someone as resourceful as herself, which would clearly be the man of action In-Woo, not the naive Joo-Won. I’m preparing myself to shed bitter Second Lead Syndrome tears at some point down the road.
And I’m already wondering what Han Joo-Wan’s next drama will be after Hwajung. ♥