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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. ♥

More cast info at Dramawiki and Asian Wiki.

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.

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