As promised because okay, I feel rather guilty at having abandoned the show for quite a bit while traveling – here’s an overall review because I’ve finally managed to finish Jang Ok-jung, Live in Love! Let’s jump right in.
1) The Storytelling
When I think of this show in perspective, I understand why the storytelling and plot were a hard sell to the show’s domestic viewers. If I’m Korean and knows very well about my nation’s history, I don’t know how cool I would be about the retelling, as creative as it sounds and especially more so if the historical figures were prominent, which is exactly the case here with the King, Queen In Hyun and Concubine Choi (or Dong Yi, according to my quick drama-facts) characters. What I mean to say is, I totally understand why this contributed to the show’s less-than-stellar ratings.
Having said the above however, because I’m an international audience who’s not familiar with Korean history and coincidentally also a writer who’s always intrigued by creative retelling of history, it’s unsurprising and inevitable really, that Jang Ok-jung, Live in Love lured me in. Speaking entirely from this point of view, here’s my take about the show writing-wise: for the most part, I really like it.
The first six or so episodes post-childhood version of the show were no doubt, the best of its entire run and while the show suffered some and dwindled somewhat in the middle parts, overall I still think that the writer – who’s the original writer of the novel that this show’s adapted from – did well in giving us a story that’s part intrigue, part philosophical and mostly romantic.
Of course when we speak about writing, there’s a need to mention the ending – was it properly written, was the ending satisfying and in-line with the overall tone? I’ll discuss this somewhere below because yes, I do think it’s worth discussing about.
2) The Acting
Hands down, my award for best acting in this show goes to… Yoo Ah In.
I’m all up to agree to disagree however, because I’ve realized it too – sometimes he does tend to overact and thus, over-emote. But where his acting chops are concerned in this show, it’s more pluses than minuses – he’s the reason why I tuned in in the first place yes, but more significantly he’s the sole reason as to why I stayed on. Playing the role of a king who’s not mere political puppet – rather the puppet master – Yoo Ah In truly commanded the screen with his presence, exuding charisma and a certain kind of force de jour in his performance as Lee Soon from beginning to end. Lee Soon was equal parts commanding, vulnerable and cunning, indirectly bringing forth the discussion on the measures of a man. A particular thought I had (and liked) about Lee Soon as both the King and lover is the fact that he’s richly layered and multi-faceted; he’s not an outright antagonist, but I wouldn’t immediately call him out as good either. Ultimately, the reason I said he brings forth this whole measure of a man thing is because that’s exactly what he portrayed here – the intricacies of being principled, decisive and walking his talk which are all part and parcel of what defines a man versus a boy.
As for our leading lady, Kim Tae Hee was alright. She was engaging in the first half but when Ok-jung went down the revenge/eye-popping conniving path in the middle for awhile there, I lost interest and thought that while she wasn’t ever outright terrible, she did overact at times. Nothing severe and definitely not deserving of the critics she’d apparently received for most of her career – not in this one at least, because she did succeed in portraying an alterna-version of Jang Ok-jung. Here she’s merely a woman who loves a man and wants so desperately to hold on to that love come hell or high water and colored inevitably by (flawed) human nature, primarily greed and jealousy. Her portrayal of this supposed circumstantial femme fatale is rather interesting and as a whole, she did a great job, I think.
To be honest, I seriously thought that Hong Soo Hyun who played Queen In Hyun would steal Kim Tae Hee‘s thunder as she’s most definitely the better actress between the two by thousands of miles, but unfortunately the former fell victim to inconsistent writing and was thus, underutilized. However, I will give props to her for being commanding, engaging and emotionally present in all her scenes despite how far and few they were because though her character was rather ineffective overall, Hong Soo Hyun acted her with such nuance by visually and emotionally conveying the frustration, loneliness, hidden resentment and even cowardice of the Queen towards the lovers and her royal role. There were a number of instances in the middle episodes which I kept wishing for her to grow a backbone and play a more active role when it comes to the palace internal affairs, but overall I never felt outright frustrated at her for falling short. Perhaps I’m biased and partial towards the actress, but I thought she conveyed the vulnerabilities of the Queen – that she’s aware of her own shortcomings and what they therefore cost to others – so convincingly that I couldn’t just fault her even if I wanted to.
If I were to fault the casting crew on a missed casting though, it would be none other than the idol-actress, KARA’s Han Seung Yeon who played Dong Yi. Seriously, uhm no. She was one of the obvious weak links about the final arc of the show and I’m justifying this statement by admitting that while I can get by this retelling claiming that Concubine Choi is actually a conniving little tiger, I can’t say I was impressed or sold by the idol-actress’ portrayal because face it, for the most part, all she did was smirk. I wanted to buy her acting truly I tried, but her acting was so mediocre and one-dimensional that I confess it wasn’t long before I started fast-forwarding whenever she appeared on my screen.
As for our other side characters namely Jae Hee as oraboeni Chi Soo – again, so underutilized and as a result, ineffective. When he finally appeared at episode 13 it felt too little too late and unfortunately, his character left no lasting impression throughout the show and even his final scene was just blah. As for cutie pie Lee Sang Yeob, he was cute and sympathetic as the lovelorn Prince Dongyup and was significant as a plot plodder and King supporter, but truthfully I don’t think he shone as much as I thought he would and could’ve. Between this and Nice Guy, I think he showed us more in the latter but I liked his character here because Dongyup was the singular character who was earnest towards the King from start to end.
3) The Complements – Visuals, Directing, Tone et cetera
Overall, I greatly enjoyed and liked the directing. In fact, I created my new section Pimp That Scene thanks to this show and the many beautiful scenes it gave me – bright colors and dramatically dark at times, but always with nuance and depth.
Soundtrack-wise, I enjoyed it! Dramatic, moving and appropriately inserted. I especially liked Lee Jung‘s Voiceless, which you can give a listen to below; he’s supposed to be singing from the King’s point of view and ah, how fitting.
For all my seemingly endless compliments about the show, I am aware of its shortcomings and flaws like the mediocre acting, the dwindling plot midway through the show, the late-entry (and consequential negative effect) of Jae Hee‘s character and more. For instance, I agree that the show could’ve been shorter by either 16 or 20 episodes – it would have given us a much tighter plot – and that the lovers sometimes did come off as too much especially in the early teen episodes, which might have cost it some of its viewers. In addition, I’ll agree with Koala to a degree about the fact that the show lost its nuance and pathos as it progressed beyond episode six, but I strongly disagree that the show’s an entirely lost cause.
Overall, in my opinion, it’s still a solid show because the thematic message it wanted to send was successfully relayed. Plus and perhaps more importantly, the retelling truly is a creative feat worth applauding, despite how controversial this must’ve been. I really like the fact that the writer looked at this piece of history and retained the results but tweaked and recreated the details – I think she did a fine job overall, despite the ending which yes… I would like to discuss so spoilers in the following paragraph, which you’re welcome to skip if you’ve yet to watch the show.
To those who watched it to completion, were you surprised at the outcome? Were you surprised that the show didn’t cop out and give us a happy ending? Ultimately, were you satisfied with how the ending was played out? Personally, I’m still quite on the fence about it. I’ve no qualms that she died because we knew it was to happen, but I do feel like the way it was written could be fine-tuned to pack more punch both emotionally and tonally. In the end it’s about the unbreakable and pure love between the King and his lover, Jang Ok-jung, who died a wronged woman as a trade off to protect her lover’s honor. This is all fine and dandy on paper but once it’s executed visually, it could be looked at as either heartrendingly romantic or… too much. I’m not sure which camp I’m on still but again – I don’t hate the ending, just I wish it was written to be more impactful. The issue isn’t her death and how it came about – again, these are facts and it’s really the details that count, especially when it comes to this show – rather the final scene of the King, broken and left with only her memories to live by. I guess my point is that I would much rather he left me with a commanding, lasting impression as opposed to his lovelorn puppy ‘tude because hot damn was he engaging and fierce as the ruler of the nation.
5) In A (Long) Nutshell
I am most impressed by the first six episodes that is, the first arc of the show’s premise featuring the adult cast (the kids were just alright, in my opinion). The middle episodes lost me quite a bit in all that revenge, Queen Mother-antics and cattiness, followed by Ok-jung’s own rise to evilness but thankfully, it saved itself in the late-teen episodes – about episode 17 or so – and continued this momentum for me until the end. Once I made it through episode 20, I found myself unable to put it down – always a good sign.
What I loved most, took away and hope to remember about this show is the following: perspectives on a woman’s role in Joseon-era, easily translated and could be related back to my own cultural setting in which these gender-biased views still dominate, more or less. There’s also an interesting viewpoint I had, one about slipping slopes as evident through Jang Ok-jung – are we driven by circumstances or autonomy? How much are we the product of other people’s ploy or life’s outcomes versus our own desires and decisions?
Thinking specifically of Ok-jung, the King and Queen In Hyun, how much are we to be blamed for our actions and decisions even if they’re the result of other people’s evil deeds, words and the like? Ultimately our decisions whether good, bad or controversial like choosing to seek revenge because we’ve been burned one too many times – how far and how much are we responsible for them? For instance, in the case of the King – does it make him an evil king, using people as he pleases because he’s the highest authority in the pyramid of his society and nation, or simply a cunning and intelligent mastermind who knows how to attain what he wants, or neither? Looking at him as a person – could we still stand by him and his decisions, looking at them as necessary evils governed by moral principles and beliefs familiar to us?
Jang Ok-jung, Live in Love has been an enjoyable, thought-provoking and definitely such a feast for the eyes. It’s an unconventional fusion sageuk and I won’t deny that plenty others out there have done and executed this genre much better but if you’ve the time, interest and an open mind… My take is why not, give this one a shot!
Final Verdict: 8/10.
Note: I highly recommend the much, much better and more insightful review of the show which can be found here by the wonderful Betsy!