Whenever men with beards appear in Hwajung (a.k.a. Splendid Politics), I feel like the serial killer in Girl who Sees Smells. The murderous Chef Kwon can’t recognize faces because of a neurological problem—what’s my excuse? All I can say is that to my eyes, the men in beards are almost identical. It’s week four and I’m finally able to recognize key figures, just in time for one of them to make his exit.
Here in this uncap, I’ll give the lowdown on men in beards to watch for. I’ll also try to clarify the places where the show got so subtle it kinda failed to tell the story. And describe a few good scenes in case you missed them or you don’t have fifty hours free to watch every episode. (Do I have the time for this myself?!? Time will tell.)
You can also find out more about the cast of Hwajung over at Asian Wiki.
Princess Jeongmyeong Gets Tough
The princess’s journey from sheltered royal pet to resourceful slave had barely begun when the volcano exploded at the end of episode 6. Jeongmyeong stops to help her Korean-speaking friend. Flying debris catches her and she’s injured. It’s Ja Gyung, the no-nonsense “boss” of the child slaves, who digs her out. We can see he’s coming to feel some reluctant friendship for her.
Despite her injury, she refuses to let Murano’s right-hand man treat her. As a result, he and Ja Gyung realize she’s a girl. With this discovery, Murano, the mine owner, isolates and imprisons her with the intention of selling her to a brothel.
Cue an intense scene in which the princess showers Murano with imperial hauteur. She’s the princess of Joseon, she says, and how dare he?
Her tone is so convincing that it takes everyone aback. But then Murano recovers. She almost had him, he says, but he heard news from Joseon today. The princess and prince are dead, killed by the king. He explains how Prince Yeongchang died of suffocation and heat stroke. The princess is devastated (above).
Her horror at the news of Yeongchang’s death is great enough to convince at least Ja Gyung that her story has some truth in it. After she’s confined in a cave for the night, Ja Kyung goes to her and cuts her free. He tells her to flee.
Another great scene here: the young princess begs Ja Gyung to kill her. He’s disgusted with the request. Does she think she’s so high and mighty that death is better than life in a brothel? What’s wrong with just trying to stay alive?
But she isn’t asking for death to save her dignity. As she weeps, she says she has no reason to live if her brother is dead. Ja Gyung’s face softens and he’s sympathetic. But as usual, he gives her some hard advice, straight up, no ice.
“Die as a princess,” he says, “And live as an animal.” That’s what the rest of us do, he says, we live like animals, but at least we survive. If the princess doesn’t have anything to live for, then let the princess part of you die. But don’t be stupid and give up on life completely. He gives her his knife and says if she wants to kill herself, she’ll have to do it herself. He’s not going to help.
For some reason, this threat works on Murano. Perhaps Ja Gyung is a particularly useful overseer to him, or perhaps he has a soft spot for the kids who speak the language of Joseon, since Murano is from Joseon originally.
The princess has decided to follow Ja Gyung’s advice and live without being a princess. She goes so far as to tell Ja Gyung that the princess thing was a made-up story. But that means she doesn’t even know how to introduce herself when Ja Gyung asks her name.
The gruff young man offers her a new name, based on the name of his dead sister: Hwa Yi. In a poetic touch that echoes the prophecy, he says in Jeongmyeong’s case, it means “child of fire.”
Way to go, princess! I would have been happy to watch this young actress for longer, in fact. The sulfur mine narrative was good. It was hard for Jeongmyeong to even realize how bad her situation was. It would have been unrealistic not to show her struggling. When she finally makes the conscious decision to act tough and bide her time, it’s the believable outcome of wrenching loss—not just of her freedom but also of her brother.
Gwanghae Gets Tougher
King Gwanghae was getting boring in his indecisiveness in recent episodes, but that ends here.
This is the episode where he sells his soul for good, no exchange or refund. In episode 7, he learns from Haneum (a.k.a. Lee Deok-Young) that evidence says the king his father was poisoned. Haneum tells Gwanghae he doesn’t know whether or not Gwanghae was involved. But the people behind Gwanghae certainly were.
Enraged, the king confronts Lady Kim. She responds with an idealistic glow that she isn’t afraid to die (above). She did what she thought was right so that Gwanghae could be king. If his father had lived long enough to change the heir apparent to Yeongchang, Gwanghae most likely would have been killed to prevent a power struggle. He wouldn’t be alive today if she hadn’t poisoned King Sunjo.
I’ll kill myself, she says. But I’m grateful I could serve you and ensure that you’re still alive and that you’re king. She begs him to remain a strong king after she’s gone. He can remain strong if he eliminates Haneum.
King Gwanghae is appalled, but sends for Haneum to find out what Haneum plans to do next with the poisoning story. Meanwhile, Lady Kim informs Lee Yi Cheom that they’re going to take responsibility for the poisoning. They must kill themselves, she says. I can foresee a number of possible outcomes at this moment. Will either of them give in to death easily? Lee Yi Cheom makes it clear he doesn’t have any intention of dying. Instead of stabbing himself, he picks up the knife and threatens Lady Kim.
I suspect Lady Kim also wants to live. When she told King Gwanghae he needed to kill Haneum, it was a clever move. She hopes he’ll realize he needs her and Lee Yi Cheom to do the dirty work. Smart woman.
Gwanghae makes a decision. His conversation with Haneum shows that the man of principle will never bow his head to him. Haneum would rather stay outside the court as loyal opposition. He’s no good at playing along, he says, implying that he can’t hide what he knows about King Sunjo’s death. As he leaves the palace, Haneum appears to know he has sealed his fate and is heading to his death.
The king asks Lady Kim and Lee Yi Cheom to live, instead of killing themselves—and to work for him to atone for their crime against his father. Their first assignment is to kill Haneum. He also wants them to help him find out who is the mastermind behind the recent information leaks. Who spread the seditious story of the prophecy? Who arranged for Haneum to discover the last king died by poison? This person is dangerous. Gwanghae needs to know who he is and what he’s up to.
Hong Joo-Won Gets Toughest
Episode 7 deals with Haneum’s death swiftly. Lee Yi Cheom kills Haneum in the garden of his humble house (below). Police Chief Hong arrives a minute too late and Lee’s soldiers inform him that “Haneum died of an illness suddenly in the night.”
Chief Hong isn’t buying this story. He’s outraged. But his teenage son Joo-Won takes outrage and turns it into action as only a reckless teenager can. In a spectacular example of foolhardy courage, Joo-Won obstructs a royal procession. He shouts at King Gwanghae that he doesn’t deserve to be king.
Gwanghae pauses, gets down from his magnificent palanquin. He recognizes that Joo-Won is the son of Chief of Police Hong. He instructs the royal guards to let the boy go.
Joo-Won is terrified, but refuses to lower his eyes. Prince Gwanghae appears slightly amused. This is the fiesty new Gwanghae, the king who has decided to stop feeling bad about breaking a few eggs to make an omelette. He used to be idealistic like Joo-Won. Now he speaks from a new, more cynical place.
He doesn’t mind Joo-Won’s bad attitude, Gwanghae says, because Joo-Won has no power whatsoever to harm him. But someday years from now, when Joo-Won comes to him with a knife to stab him in the back, he looks forward to hearing Joo-Won’s defiant speech again.
Young actor Yoon Chang-Young delivers a good confrontation in this scene (below). He’s shaking with fear but he’s been through so much in such a short time that he doesn’t care about fear anymore. Like the princess who decided to survive no matter what, Joo-Won has reached a kind of decision. Instead of getting drunk and feeling sorry for himself that the world is corrupt, he’ll take action. He’ll do whatever he can to stop the in-fighting and brutality that killed the prince, princess and Haneum.
Everyone Gets Older
We next see Joo-Won several years later. The young man has passed his civil service exams with flying colors. He passes up the plum assignments offered him, and asks for a tougher job: the weapons bureau. This is King Gwanghae’s pride and joy, where the king is trying to develop functional gunpowder, muskets and cannons.
More about this a little later. First, let’s take a deep breath and adjust to the new cast!
Though grown-up Joo-Won first appears at the tail end of episode 7, it’s episode 8 before we get to see Princess Jeongmyeong as an adult. With Lee Yeon-Hee playing her now, she’s undeniably cute and plucky.
But at first I find it jarring to adjust to a new actress. Jung Chan-Bi, who played the thirteen-year-old Jeongmyeong, was one of the most engaging teen actors I’ve seen in K-dramas. Her version of the princess was memorable and vivid. Lee Yeon-Hee has some big shoes to fill.
At first Ms. Lee seems too cheerful and resourceful—not to mention beautiful—to be the same princess we saw struggling in episode 7. Years have passed, but it’s still shocking to see her looking completely adjusted. Where has she stashed her grief? As episode 8 progresses, however, we learn that she is still determined to make it back to Joseon. The grief must be well-hidden under all that resolve.
In the years since we last her, Jeongmyeong appears to have become invaluable to mine owner Murano for her tactical thinking. Along with Ja Gyung and Murano’s Japanese right-hand man, she helps Murano manage his sulfur-smuggling business. Again, it’s shocking to see how completely she’s embraced this life as a man, and as a smuggler. I see no trace in “Hwa Yi” of the old princess.
Nevertheless, she’s perceptive, capable and willing to take risks. She should become a likable heroine. With Murano tolerating her, she has had the opportunity to stay alive longer than she might otherwise. And Ja Gyung and her younger Korean friend (who somehow gained weight on slave rations) have grown up into friends and supporters. She’s in a better strategic position now than she was in episode 7, and it looks like she won’t be in the sulfur mine for long.
Ja Gyung is particularly likable now that he’s grown. Now played by Gong Myung, he still has a bit of darkness in him, as he did when portrayed by young actor Kang Chan-Hee. But his loyalty to Hwa Yi, and concern for her, is a major development. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more of this character.
Slaves, Sulfur and Statecraft
Grown-up Joo-Won, played by Seo Kang-Joon (Cunning Single Lady, What Happens to My Family?), also remains a bit of a mystery while the actor is finding his footing in episode 8. He sometimes appears painfully bland compared to Yoon Chan-Young’s teenaged version of Joo-Won. But the narrative quickly brings him into a promising conflict with King Gwanghae.
Cha Seung-Won is more fun to watch now that Gwanghae has embraced his cynical side. In a private conversation between the king and Joo-Won, the king recalls that Joo-Won once denounced him in the streets. He observes that even now, Joo-Won keeps “forgetting” to call him “sire.”
Joo-Won also doesn’t hide the fact that he thinks Gwanghae is wasting valuable gunpowder by having a fireworks display for a group of government officials. Joo-Won thinks they could better use that gunpowder to protect Joseon from Manchurian raids up north.
Gwanghae answers wryly. He values Joo-Won’s dedication, he says. Joo-Won wants to make gunpowder so much that he declined more prestigious jobs. Since Joo-Won believes in this job so much, Gwanghae can be confident in him. Joo-Won will surely do whatever it takes to secure gunpowder for Joseon.
“Whatever it takes” will lead Joo-Won straight to Princess Jeongmyeong and the Japanese sulfur mines.
But what’s so important about gunpowder and weapons anyway?
Here’s the situation in the Korea of Gwanghae’s era (he reigned 1608-1623): the Ming dynasty controls much of the Chinese mainland, but their empire is weakening. The Manchurians have a kingdom in northern China and along Korea’s northern border. The Manchurians (sometimes called the Jin in my subtitles) are growing in power and enemies of the Ming. (They subsequently conquer the Ming and establish China’s Qing dynasty.)
The Joseon kings of this era were enemies of the Manchu and allies with the Ming. As in much of Korean history, Korean kings were essentially subjects of the Ming emperor. The Ming took a large role in Joseon politics—for instance, in episode 1, the Ming declared that Gwanghae couldn’t be the Crown Prince. The Ming also control the trade of guns, cannons and gunpowder to Joseon kings.
By developing a Weapons Bureau, Gwanghae is showing a little independence and standing up to the Ming emperor. The weapons will help him resist Manchurian invasions on the northern border. But more importantly, the weapons send a message to Ming that perhaps Joseon doesn’t need them. Gwanghae doesn’t want to be enemies with the Ming emperor, but he wants to be more of an equal partner. Too often, Korean kings had no choice but to follow Ming’s orders.
In the middle of all this, Councillor Kang (above), former mayor of the Joseon capital, is secretly working in alliance with the Ming ambassador. The Ming fear they’ll lose influence if Gwanghae develops his own supply of weapons.
Although Kang failed to topple Gwanghae from the throne in episode 7, he has other schemes. The most important one for our plot here is that Kang is secretly intercepting the sulfur smuggling operations between Japan and Korea. One of his officials buys sulfur from mine owners like Murano, under the pretense of smuggling it to Korea. But instead of transporting the sulfur to Gwanghae, they throw it overboard at sea.
Because of these interruptions in supply, Joo-Won’s job is getting harder. He has a dwindling stock of sulfur for making gunpowder. And Gwanghae can’t buy sulfur openly, because it would anger the Ming Empire. The only way to get high-quality sulfur for gunpowder is to re-establish reliable smuggling from Japan.
When Gwanghae tells Joo-Won the young man will have to do “whatever it takes,” he has in mind a specific mission. Joo-Won is to go to the Japanese capital, Edo (old Tokyo), and establish new contacts for sulfur smuggling. Joo-Won is briefly shocked that Gwanghae wants him to do something illegal. Smuggling?!? The new, more cynical Gwanghae relishes Joo-Won’s discomfort.
Councillor Kang is currently based in Edo, though it’s unclear why. At least I can finally recognize him: the key is that he’s the only Man with a Beard who smiles. He has a distinct, jovial smile. When he isn’t smiling, I still confuse him with everyone else. But I’m keeping my eye on that smile. (Photo above provided for your reference.)
Hong Joo-Won travels to Edo as a Joseon diplomat (above). When he talks to Councillor Kang, we learn something interesting: Joo-Won and his father had a fight because Joo-Won went to work for Gwanghae. The two are currently estranged. This is sad, since Joo-Won wants justice just as much as Chief Hong. But Chief Hong believes his son should refuse to serve the king as he now does.
As Joo-Won is on his way to Edo, so is Jeongmyeong. She’s accompanying Murano, who wants to make trading contacts with the Koreans. She barely makes it into Edo, because no one believes for a second that she’s male. (I would have lost some respect for Hwajung if they pretended she looks androgynous. Fortunately, they acknowledge the thinness of her disguise a few times.)
Jeongmyeong and Ja Gyung are tasked with keeping an eye out for prospective sulfur buyers. As Jeongmyeong watches one of the visiting Joseon officials, he gets into an argument with a drunk local. She helps him escape, bringing us to the wonderful moment when he introduces himself to her—and he’s the same Hong Joo-Won who helped make her escape possible when she was thirteen. Episode 8 ends here.
Episode 8 brings Joo-Won and Jeongmyeong together efficiently, far faster than I expected. The scene of their reunion is low-key, because I find the two less charismatic than the young actors they replaced.
But the situation is full of possibilities for conflict and cooperation. He needs sulfur and she works for a sulfur mine. He needs to understand the business of smuggling, and she has spent a few years learning the ins and outs.
And of course, he maintains the hope that the princess is still alive. He got this notion from the police report he found in his father’s office, which stated Jeongmyeong’s body was unaccounted for after the munitions explosion. (I was wondering if someone would think of this. This script really covers all the bases.) I suspect the princess, however, has learned not to trust people. When will she tell him who she is?
And is it poetic that they meet again now, or overly convenient? I like that it isn’t merely a coincidence, but a coincidence driven by Joseon’s need for gunpowder. The truly lucky coincidence for Jeongmyeong is that she found herself working at a sulfur mine.
Hopefully, Seo Kang-Joon and Lee Yeon-Hee will adjust to these parts as quickly as the younger actors did. If they do, I’ll soon like them.
Only one thing really annoyed me this week, a ridiculous anachronism that bugs me specifically because few people will notice it. When King Gwanghae is demonstrating his new cannons and guns, he fires a musket at a target and hits the bulls eye. It makes for a macho statement.
Unfortunately, an accurate gun requires a barrel that’s “rifled,” or carved with spiraling grooves. Though gunpowder was invented in East Asia, rifling was invented in Germany, and not until the late 1500s. Even in Europe it wasn’t commonplace until the mid-1800s.
Did a brilliant, innovative German gunsmith make a surprise visit to the Joseon court in the early 1600s and give King Gwanghae a high-tech rifled gun? Hard to believe.
More likely, it’s just embarrassing for the scriptwriter to admit that the guns and cannons of the 1600s were noisy and deadly, but completely inaccurate. King Gwanghae will be more politically powerful with his own guns, but he still won’t be able to hit the bull’s-eye. His fantasy of military power is indeed “splendid politics,” without much to back it up. ♥