“Hwajung” (“Splendid Politics”) Episodes 1 to 4

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.

hwajung drama episode 1 park gyu young thumbnail

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.

Evil Dad

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.

hwajung drama episode 1 park gyu young large

Awesome anti-hero

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.

Charismatic kids

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.

next »

7 thoughts on ““Hwajung” (“Splendid Politics”) Episodes 1 to 4

  1. well as you know I am all for the Hat Project. But I had to stop reading your post as soon as I got to the bit about Hwajung being better than Wolf Hall. The main reason being I don’t want any spoilers for the former which I might start once I finish A word from Warm Heart, but a strong secondary reason being I loved Wolf Hall. Mark Rylance gives a truly landmark performance. I even watched some episodes twice. But there were some flaws and one of them is something I found occurred in Moon Embracing the Sun as well. My inability to tell some important ministers apart. But in Wolf Hall I felt it was flawed script writing trying to force the characters into a compressed time format where in METS I gave up after episode 2 and started to view the ministers as the greek chorus AKA “those nogoodnik ministers in funny hats” 🙂

    • I haven’t started Wolf Hall yet–it just started in the States a few days ago. I worry I won’t be able to get into it because I have too many opinions of my own about the period, but you’re encouraging me to give it a try. Hwajung is going to be very long, so I’m reserving judgement till we meet more of the key cast members. But it’s outstanding so far, especially Cha Seung-Won’s role. I should apologize to both shows for suggesting a comparison, because they are very different lengths. The BBC has to work hard to compress stuff into such a short series, and the K-drama will have an equally tough time keeping things this polished and nuanced for 50 episodes. But a few of my family members who are watching Wolf Hall would love Hwajung as well–and unfortunately, they’ll never see it, because they don’t believe me that Korean TV can be high quality. For a few adventurous Americans, though, Hwajung could be a gateway to K-dramas. Its tone and style are accessible to any of us who love the BBC costume dramas.

      The Greek chorus! That’s a good way to think about some of those interchangeable ministers. When I don’t recognize them, I mentally label them as Men in Beards Talking. 🙂

      • well Wolf Hall is pure fiction and you will only be frustrated if you expect historical accuracy. But it is beautiful fiction with some fabulous acting. If you like reading comments the Guardian episode guide was generally poorly written but had lots of good informative comments.

        Where Wolf Hall desperately needed more episodes I do think the length of Korean dramas may simply be too much for many North American viewers to give them a chance. My movie watching partner is fine with subtitles and all manner of foreign storytelling techniques. She has agreed to watch 3-Iron with me. From the description I think this is a much tougher watch than the k-dramas, but she just giggles when I mention them. Having just been blown away by A Word from Warm Heart I would love for her to see it and to discuss it with her. But there is no way I will be able to convince her to invest 20 hours in it. And I can sympathise. The length of Rosy Lovers made me mad. I felt like 52 hours had been stolen from my life.

It's okay, it's a comment. Leave a note!