Co-posted at Still Just Alison
TV series, 18 episodes
A historical entry in the “I fell in love with my eunuch” category, lifted above the ordinary by the quality of the whole cast. Kim Yoo-Jeong plays Hong Ra-on (or Hong Sam-nom, as a male), the young woman who ends up working in the palace as a eunuch (long story), while Park Bo-gum plays crown prince Lee Yeong, heir to the Joseon throne, who becomes intrigued with Hong Sam-nom while still unaware she’s a woman. Both young actors are charming, and their early scenes together have a will-they-won’t-they tension.
This young love is complicated by Kim Yoon-sung, a childhood friend of the crown prince who, as grandson of the Prime Minister, the chief villain of this piece, has fallen out of favour. The role of Yoon-sung is brought to life by Jinyoung (not to be confused with Park Jinyoung of GOT7, or veteran actor Jung Jin-young), who possesses the ethereal beauty of the late Leslie Cheung, as well as some of Leslie’s awesome subtle talent. Jinyoung, ex-singer/songwriter of K-pop group B1A4, glides through the series like a stalking panther, always enigmatic. Yoon-sung offers friendship to Ra-on, and would like to offer more, but is biding his time (see me raising one quizzical eyebrow). The friendship here is surprisingly gentle – Ra-on has spent her life pretending to be a boy, and although Yoon-sung spots the deception immediately (unlike the crown prince), he opts to reveal his knowledge to her in the most delicate and supportive way possible.
Given that this is a Joseon royal drama, there are of course more political intrigues than you can shake a stick at – there’s the Queen’s faction, the Prime Minister’s faction, the King’s faction, the rebels’ faction, the pretending-to-be-the-rebels-but-really-someone-else faction, and several factions within the eunuchs, plus of course the ordinary people, who are just trying to live their lives but always end up getting the rough end of the pineapple.
And of course almost every character has secrets in their past, so there’s plenty of meat to keep the scriptwriters busy, and keep the JOME (Just One More Episode) index up. After a while, though, all the secrets have come out, the cutesy staring into each others’ eyes becomes tiresome, and you just want Ra-on to succumb to Yoon-sung’s inestimable charms and run off with him to the Maldives, leaving the toxic Joseon court behind. Alas, rather like a pantomime heroine, she ignores the warning signs and all our shouts of “Get out now, you stupid girl!” and so the story proceeds in rather predictable fashion.
Adding to the predictability is the fact that Jinyoung, despite having a face that should raise the pulse of every creature with a pulse, had already established a solid reputation for Second Lead Syndrome, even going so far as to lose the girl not once but twice in one particular series (rather careless of him, IMNSHO). So any viewer familiar with the K-drama milieu knows that this probably won’t end well for Yoon-sung.
The second female lead is Chae Soo-bin as Cho Ha-yeon, who’s being groomed as crown princess. She’s unsatisfying, oscillating between coy semi-seduction and straightforward statement of her desire not to marry – it doesn’t seem to matter, she still trails after the prince like a puppy, despite her character purportedly being a strong independent woman. Sorry, sister, I’m just not buying it – Ha Ji-won could do better and repel a foreign invasion to boot, I have no doubt. I know she’s constrained by the script, but she still comes across as vacuous or pert, much of the time – someone needs to tell her that it takes more than wide eyes to convey intelligence.
On the crown prince’s side we get Byung-yeon, the crown prince’s most trusted friend and martial ally, played by Kwak Dong-yeon. Byung-yeon, like everyone else in the series, has a secret, and it’s to the credit of the writers and the actors that this particular thread in the story is handled well – at times it actually eclipses the main romance/drama, or it did for me. Perhaps that’s just because there’s only so much drama that can be wrung out of an on-again, off-again prince-and-his-eunuch romance.
Another shout out goes to Lee Joon-hyuk, who plays the crown prince’s chief eunuch. Lee is apparently omnipresent in the K-drama world, and imbues his characters with warmth, credibility and a gentle humour, and generally takes over the screen whenever he appears.
Lee can also be seen in the dance video with Park Bo-gum that was released as a teaser for the series, wearing a rather fetching artificial dog on his shoulder, apparently this year’s hottest accessory. So if you want to see a crown prince dancing with some eunuchs, don’t say we don’t look after you – you can find the promotional teaser at my blog here, along with two songs from the soundtrack.
Overall, not perfect, but a very watchable series, with a host of good actors in roles large and small.
Alison blogs at Still Just Alison, where she writes about Korean drama, movies, music, and, very occasionally, things that aren’t Korean. But only occasionally.