When I was down with the flu last week, I watched some history dramas. My goal: desensitize myself to the funny hats. I can get pretty distracted by sixteenth-century clothing, whether it’s Korean or European.
After a week and a half of history dramas, I still notice the weirder bits of headgear, but I’ve learned to look past them to enjoy the story underneath. The stories underneath are the kind I can quickly get lost in.
And I really mean lost. The BBC—once America’s source of costume drama goodness—now produces “series” that are only six hours long, but Korean costume dramas are still really, really long. The latest BBC drama, Wolf Hall, will end at the point that Korean dramas are still introducing the main characters.
The Hat Project made me curious about the opening episodes of Hwajung (aka Splendid Politics), which premiered on MBC on April 13.
The show has a cast that’s a costume drama Dream Team. These actors and actresses aren’t going to be upstaged by their hats or hair-dos. And it’s set in the early seventeenth century, roughly the same period as the current BBC drama Wolf Hall. I had to check it out, and frankly, I think it would beat Wolf Hall‘s pants off if Americans knew about it.
Because Hwajung is 50 episodes, there’s no knowing if it will remain good. But these first four episodes are worth enjoying. Here, an uncapping of a few cool things I found.
Where does Park Young-Kyu find the time? He’s currently playing the evil uncle on JTBC’s Fall for Sung Joon, but he dominates the first episode of Hwajung as the aging king. Within a few short scenes, we can easily see why his daughter the princess will have fond memories of him (below) and why his son, Crown Prince Gwanghae, likely despises him.
When we join our story, the king finally has an infant son with his legitimate queen, and he wishes to make the boy Crown Prince. For sixteen years, however, that title has belonged to the competent and dedicated Gwanghae (played by Cha Seung-Won), one of the king’s many sons via concubines.
Not everyone is willing to see Prince Gwanghae lose his place. And as the king humiliates Gwanghae in several short scenes and flashbacks, it’s almost impossible not to sympathize with the Crown Prince. All my sympathies were with him in this first episode.
Cha Seung-Won anchors these early episodes as a compelling, complicated Prince Gwanghae. This role is 180 degrees different from his self-parody in the comedy Greatest Love, which may be how he’s most familiar to subtitled K-drama fans. I’m not a particular fan of the actor, but he’s fantastic here in this anti-hero role.
He spends the first episode of Hwajung wrapped in mournful dignity. Prince Gwanghae wants to do his duty to his family, but knows, too, that his father is using him. Gwanghae has skillfully kept his father in power despite political turbulence, but the king doesn’t plan on rewarding his loyalty with a crown. Cha Seung-Won nails this part, giving us a prince who isn’t particularly ambitious, but does long for recognition. He’s characterized by his air of sadness, even before he does anything he will have to regret.
The young Prince Gwanghae is played in flashbacks (below) by Lee Tae-Hwan, with the same look of vulnerability and innocence that made him such a treat to watch in Pride and Prejudice. It’s easy to believe that the young man is full of good intentions.
In one scene, the young prince rushes to help his older brother Imhae, who is drunk in front of the king at a gathering. Gwanghae apologizes for his brother and begs the king’s pardon. The king—his father—looks puzzled and asks, “But who are you?”
Only after a courtier whispers in his ear does the king show signs of recognition. At least he knows the names of his children, apparently. But that short scene makes it easy to feel sorry for the prince, as well as showing the prince’s devotion to his brother Prince Imhae.
In the second episode, Prince Gwanghae’s relationship with his brother will be tested when Imhae is accused of plotting treason. In a fifty-episode series, a story such as Imhae’s is at risk of getting lost. But the writer and director make every scene count. Imhae’s confrontation with the Chinese ambassador and his subsequent revelation to Prince Gwanghae form turning points in Gwanghae’s reluctant drift toward the Dark Side.
We also see Gwanghae through the eyes of his young half-sister Princess Jungmyung. Sometimes the child actors in the early episodes of a drama leave me impatient for the “real” grown-up actors to arrive. But in Hwajung, the child actors are so strong that I don’t know if I’ll still like the show as much when the grown-ups get here. The child actress Seo Jung-Eun holds her own in scenes with Cha Seung-Won like a born star (above).
As a child and teenager, the princess is a great character, full of assurance and ideas of her own, but also aware of her family responsibilities. At the end of episode 3, she’s shocked to learn it’s time for her to marry, at the tender age of 13. But she soon can recite the political reasons why her marriage is essential to protecting her little brother’s position in court. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and I hope she remains this interesting.
Fun and games
Although the plot is serious, these first four episodes also offer a few entertaining lighter sequences. In the first episode, we first meet noblemen’s sons In-Woo and Joo-Won as they lead a traditional New Year’s Day “palanquin fight” between rival gangs. When the police catch them, the ten-year-olds convince their fathers to let them off—even though their fathers are in charge of maintaining order in the city.