In episode three, the princess and her little brother Yeongchang break out of the palace for a day, wanting to see the Full Moon Day festivities (below). The sequence shows how sheltered they are—they are surprised when asked for payment in a restaurant—but also captures their excitement at sneaking out for an adventure.
The mood of the adventure shifts when the princess hears citizens talking casually about how Prince Yeongchang will probably be killed off in the palace power struggles. And when the two children can’t find their way back into the palace, it’s a foreshadowing of darker trials to come.
The kids who play the Princess and young Prince Yeongchang are immediately likable, and the time we spend with them on the streets is so enjoyable that I don’t want anything to change. Even though we know a bad fate is in store for him, I can’t help getting attached to Yeongchang.
In-Woo and Joo-Won are also likable, both at ten years old and at fifteen. The opening episodes give a clear sketch of their personality differences and their childhood friendship. When the two discover they’re prospective finalists to be married to the princess, In-Woo’s response is to want a drink, whereas Joo-Won tries earnestly to understand the political situation. Their interactions are another element lightening Hwajang’s dark mood.
Experienced cast, writer and director
It’s impossible to predict whether a 50-episode series can maintain this kind of quality, but the writer and director here are experienced. Writer Kim Yi-Young has three long historical dramas under her belt already, most recently the 2012 Joseon-era Horse Doctor, so she’s reached the 50-episode mark before. And director Kim Sang-Ho has worked on a number of well-done melodramas and comedies. Only one was a costume drama, but it was the refreshing Arang and the Magistrate.
When we get our adult Princess Jungmyung, she’ll be played by Lee Yun-Hee. She’s going to need a lot of charisma to not be upstaged by the kids playing her in early episodes. But she has a decade of experience, which makes me optimistic. Most recently she had good press as the lead in last year’s Miss Korea, and in a small but important role in Gu Family Book.
The young men are more of a question mark. Joo-Won will be played by Seo Kang-Joon and In-Woo by Han Joo-Won. Because Han is a decade older than Seo, I don’t know if the two will still convince me they are childhood friends. But I look forward to seeing what happens to them.
K-Drama’s most talented villain and villainness
And even if the adult characters turn out uninspiring, we’ll always have a great set of bad guys (above). Notably, Jung Woong-In is already oozing cynicism and malevolence everywhere he goes, in the role of Lee Yi Chum.
And just as much of a treat, Kim Yeo-Jin is playing court lady Kim Kae-Shi. The part is nothing like her smiling, sinister Director Oh in Pride and Prejudice, but it’s an even meatier role. The story she tells at the beginning of episode 4 gives a window into the life of a smart young woman without looks or money. She may not be ambitious for herself, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to make a mark on the world.
One other character of mention as of episode 4: Prime Minister Lee Deok-Hyung is played by Lee Sung-Min, who played Chief Oh in this past winter’s Misaeng. He’s a man of conscience and possibly a counterweight to the manipulative schemes of Lee Yi Chum and Kim Kae-Shi.
Like many history dramas, Hwajung occasionally presents us with more courtiers and court ladies than we can easily keep track of, but so far it has succeeded in making the central conflict clear. And the human cost of the intrigue is front and center so it avoids becoming a sterile exercise in scheming 101.
Each episode so far has had memorable scenes. It’s tempting to watch each one twice, and I have no doubt that rewatching will clarify lots of things. For instance, I think (Spoiler!) that food-tester Lady Kim was poisoning herself regularly with small doses of poison, in preparation for making her move. But it’s merely implied.
The production values are top-notch, which is most evident from the liveliness of the camera work and the nimble editing. The costumes and sets are full of treats, too, such as the unsettling sight of the entire court dressed in white mourning clothes, and the Venetian arabesques on Gwangchae’s robe and hat (above). (This was a popular design on Italian textiles in the sixteenth century. I was surprised to see it show up this far from the Mediterranean, but why not?)
Hwajung promises to be a historical drama focused on human emotion and wiles, with relatively little action. But with a script this good and the directing moving us along briskly, I haven’t even noticed the lack of ninjas or gumihos. Though I’m not crazy enough to write recaps, I’ll check back in regularly if it remains this good. ♥