The Moon That Embraces the Sun: Episode 1
Premieres abound today, and heading the pack is The Moon That Embraces the Sun, aka soon to be MBC’s great white hope.
I had a feeling this drama would come out on top in the ratings, but I had no idea it would be such a clear-cut victory. The Moon That Embraces the Sun drew an impressive 18% premiere rating, while Take Care of Us, Captain brought home a 9.2% on SBS, and Wild Romance a 7.1% over on KBS.
SONG OF THE DAY
10cm – “Beautiful Moon” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A woman narrates:
“It is said that in the beginning, there were two suns and two moons. But day was too hot, and night too cold. All of creation was thrown into chaos, and the people in misery. It was then that a hero appeared and shot one sun and one moon out of the sky with arrows, and brought peace to the world.”
This story is told by the queen dowager (Kim Young-ae) to one of her vassals, Lord Yoon Dae-hyung. She is the mother to King Seongjo, the current (and fictional) king. We are somewhere in the middle of the Joseon era, though since this drama is not based on real history, we aren’t given an exact date.
The story about the two suns and moons is an illustration of the need for hero in times of trouble, and the queen dowager says meaningfully that they cannot just wait for a hero to appear. A veiled reference, then, to solving their own problems through their own means. She tells Lord Yoon to be the hero, because there can only be one sun in the sky; one must be eliminated.
Nighttime. A group of masked men dart through the woods and to a residential neighborhood, dispersing to fulfill separate tasks: One man sticks a yellow paper to a wall — a talisman, it looks like — and another buries a yellow pouch in a house’s yard. A frame job, perhaps?
One masked intruder readies to assassinate his target in bed, but finds it empty. He’s surprised by a sword to the throat; the victim was prepared. He is identified as Uiseong-gun, or Prince Uiseong, the younger half-brother to King Seongjo. Ah. So here’s the threat the queen dowager needed eliminated, to protect her son’s interests. She had mentioned that the brothers had a good relationship, but in her mind the younger is dangerous, just by virtue of being close to the throne.
Someplace else, a woman named Ahri — a shaman — wakes up with a gasp, filled with an ominous feeling. She knows “he” is in danger, and runs off to find him, ignoring the warnings of her shaman friend.
Prince Uiseong fights back, although it’s only one of him against four assassins. He fends them off well, but is eventually felled and disarmed. Enter Lord Yoon, who faces him smugly.
Uiseong is full of righteous anger, knowing full well that the king, his brother, will believe him over the shifty Lord Yoon. But there’s a solution for that, since Lord Yoon plans to kill him before he gets the chance to say anything. He adds that Uiseong’s good friend will be joining him on the other side, and we see that another nobleman is hanged in his home, a falsified suicide note left on his desk.
Uiseong charges, Lord Yoon slices his throat, and the terrified shaman Ahri witnesses this all from just over the wall. She’s spotted and chased through the woods, finding herself cornered at the edge of a cliff. She slips and falls far below.
The assassins check the base of the ravine and only find her official red hair sash. Ah, so she’s a palace shaman, part of the department called Seongsucheong. When the others are assembled, the head shaman notes that Ahri is missing, which identifies the runaway.
Lord Yoon reports to the queen dowager and assures her that they’ll find Ahri. The queen dowager, oddly, is pleased, saying this is a stroke of fortune. Ahri was formerly a slave to Prince Uiseong’s household, so it’s possible they were involved. What if that woman desired her lover to become king? And what if she was manipulating him through some sort of magical power? It doesn’t matter that it’s not true, since the queen dowager can make all this true with her planted evidence. Furthermore, the head shaman is firmly under the queen’s thumb, and can be trusted to act for them.
Uiseong and his murdered friend are labeled traitors, confirmed by the forged letter left at the friend’s house. The deaths are painted as suicides by guilt-stricken conspirators, and King Seongjo (Ahn Nae-sang) receives this report in disbelief.
The head shaman is brought forth to read the symbols on the talisman. She’s been coached to lie, so she tells the king that it’s a call for the sun’s power, which is a poetic way of saying that they aspired to the throne. (King = sun.) Furthermore, she identifies the charm as Ahri’s handiwork.
After wandering the woods, Ahri stumbles onto a path and crumples in the path of a traveling noblewoman’s entourage. The pregnant woman, Lady Shin, hurries to help her and orders Ahri put into the sedan chair.
When they approach the city walls, they’re stopped by police officers on the lookout for the escaped traitor. The servant woman recognizes the drawing of Ahri, but the women sense she’s a good person in trouble and feign ignorance. Lady Shin hides Ahri in her skirts and refuses to exit by saying she’s about to give birth any day now and can’t manage. The officer lets them pass.
He belatedly sees blood dripping from the back of the chair and orders them to stop. Lady Shin is quick-witted, though, and pretends she’s having baby trouble, and her servant reliably plays along, urging the lady to hurry home. Upon hearing who the lady’s family is, the officer is intimidated into compliance.
Ahri is deeply grateful to the lady, and says that her baby girl is as beautiful as the moon. Lady Shin is pleased to hear that she’ll be having the daughter she wished for. As Ahri speaks, she sees visions in her mind’s eye of the child’s future: glimpses of the girl being adorned in royal finery, of a moon, of a grave.
Ahri is unsettled by the images, but doesn’t share what she saw. But she does fervently promise that she will do whatever she can to protect Lady Shin’s child.
Ahri parts ways with the lady, but is soon captured and brought back to the palace, where she is tortured. Lord Yoon asks who the talisman was meant for, but of course she has no clue. She insists she didn’t write it, and when she is called a traitor, she grows righteous in her rage. She tells Lord Shin that if anybody is a traitor, it’s him for conjuring up false crimes.
She addresses him so ferociously that Lord Shin is unnerved.
Ahri: “You think I am the only one who saw, don’t you? You think it will end if you just get rid of me, don’t you? You’re wrong, you villain — Heaven’s Moon was watching you. That man’s blood is not the only thing that soaked into your blade that night. The moonlight of that night seeped inside, too. Wait and see! One day your wicked deeds will be revealed under the moonlight! One day that moonlight will cut your own lifeline!”
Ahri is tossed into prison to await execution. Her shaman friend, Nok-young, cries that she was foolish to let love drive her to Uiseong’s house that night. Ahri says neither one of them ever aspired to the throne, and entrusts Nok-young to protect a child in her stead. Being too close to the sun will result in disaster for the child’s entire family, so she must be protected from the sun. She urges Nok-young to protect her, but doesn’t give her a name.
The next day, Ahri is taken to be drawn and quartered for her supposed crime. As she lies on the mat, she sees the sun in the sky, diverging into two. Another vision comes to her: A smiling boy, a friendly brother, the girl again. She thinks, “Two suns, and one moon. I pray you all will remain safe.”
As she dies, a baby is born. Lady Shin gives birth to her second child, named Heo Yeon-woo (future Han Ga-in), and coos over the baby with the girl’s older brother, Yeom.
Nok-young visits her friend’s grave, remembering her last wish. She looks up at the moon, which morphs into the sun, and when we pan down again, we are years later.
At the palace, lavish festivities are prepared. A ceremony is being held today for the young scholars who have passed the civil service examination, who will give their bows to the king and receive a gift from him.
Crown Prince Hwon is called to join the proceedings, but he’s not in his room. In a room far from the hubbub, we find a table — set with foods swiped from the main event — where the young crown prince studies a drawing of the palace grounds. He finds Eunwolgak, aka the Silver Moon Building, and sets out with his royal knapsack. Aw, he’s so cute, playing hooky.
Lady Shin arrives at the palace with Yeon-woo in tow, her nose buried in a book. Not only is her father, Lord Heo, a high-ranking official who will be present at the ceremony, her brother Yeom is among those being honored. We see that nefarious Lord Yoon has now advanced in position as minister of the interior.
There are two friends in particular among the scholars who merit our notice: Yeom and Woon (which, by the way, means Cloud. Get it?). They have a third friend, Yang-myung (future Jung Il-woo), who isn’t here, but together the trio of buddies studied literature under her father.
With Prince Hwon missing, one of his guardians sends palace guards to find him quickly. It seems this isn’t the first time Hwon has caused his guards trouble, and they’re eager to find the prince before the king discovers the escapade and has a fit.
Meanwhile, the ceremony proceeds, and Lady Shin belatedly realizes that Yeon-woo has wandered off, distracted by a butterfly.
Prince Hwon emerges from his hiding place and prepares for his escape over the palace wall. Just as he’s about to jump, though, he sees Yeon-woo wander into the courtyard and is struck dumb, slack-jawed. Ah, puppy love.
Hwon falls off his ladder, knocking Yeon-woo to the ground with him. They lay sprawled together for a moment. The moment is marked by a shower of flower petals, and the wind blows away his parasol.
They get up and look away awkwardly. Hwon demands, in his best I’m-a-man-(almost) voice, how she came to be here and is suspicious of her answer. She finds him equally suspicious and intends to call the guards on him — he’s stealing palace goods and trying to escape over the wall.
Hwon stops her, stuttering a lame excuse about just looking for an exit. When he grabs his bag, though, everything comes tumbling out — teacup, sweets, calligraphy brush.
Adorably, he fumbles for yet another excuse, but Yeon-woo calls out, “Thief!” Palace guards head over toward them, so Hwon grabs her hand and runs, giving us one of the flashes from Ahri’s vision.
They escape the guards and stop running. Yeon-woo still intends to report him to the guards, which forces Hwon to tell her the truth to prove he’s not a thief. With a heavy sigh, he confides that he was actually leaving the palace to meet his hyung.
Hwon explains that his hyung was born of a different mother, and a warm-hearted person, while in flashback we see two young boys playing in the palace. The brother excelled in his both his studies and martial arts, but because he was the child of a concubine and therefore illegitimate, he was unable to participate in the civil service examination, or advance in career, or even receive his father’s love.
Hwon concludes, “The reason he has to live like this is because of me.” He explains that his hyung hasn’t sought him out in a long time, perhaps fearing their father’s anger. So he was on his way to find him himself.
Yeon-woo asks why he blames himself, since his brother’s illegitimacy is nothing he could control. She quotes Confucius, and assures him that if his brother is as warm-hearted as he says, he won’t blame him either.
Yeon-woo gets a little carried away complaining about the things in Joseon law that don’t make sense, showing a thoroughly egalitarian mindset as she wonders why slaves and aristocrats must be treated so differently. He prods, “Are you saying that the king’s politics are all wrong?” He teases, saying he’s the one who’d better call for authorities. They’re adorable.
Yeon-woo pesters him to explain who he is and how he isn’t a thief, but he’s not willing to give up his identity. He almost blurts, “I am Joseon’s…!” but cuts himself off before finishing that thought.
Lady Shin has been worried sick, so when she spots Yeon-woo, she grabs her in a relieved hug. Hwon hurries to the guard who’s with her and quietly instructs him not to say a thing, before he can call him “Highness” or otherwise blow his cover. Cute.
As she’s leaving, a court lady gives Yeon-woo a note from the “Silver Moon Building’s young master.” Hwon has added the grumpy message that he’s angry and upset and she’d better watch her step when walking around at night. Oh, so cute.
Hwon is soundly scolded by the king for his repeated attempts to leave the palace. He explains that all he wanted to do was meet “Yang-myung hyungnim.” He wants to study together while discussing things with his brother, rather than being told not to question anything. The king reacts angrily and punishes him with additional restrictions.
The queen dowager meets with Minister Yoon, and the metaphor of the day is bonsai. She indicates the little tree she’s working on, saying that it’s harder than it looks, because if you miss your chance to cultivate a certain form, it becomes increasingly difficult to get the result you want. Hint, hint.
Minister Yoon alludes to massive change in their future, i.e., a power shift. The queen dowager states that they need to find a proper instructor for the crown prince, because that person will be shaping the future of the nation. Minister Yoon has just the person for the job.
The queen, Hwon’s mother, entreats the king to understand the prince and allow Yang-myung to be allowed to move into the palace. The king refuses, and the queen sadly tells Yang-myung’s mother (a concubine) that the answer was no and offers a few words of consolation.
Yang-myung has been traveling and now returns to the capital. In the village, Yang-myung trades some fowl for money (to buy his buddies presents) and hears of someone selling a cure-all drug, which piques his curiosity.
Another figure notes this with interest– it’s Nok-young, who receives the report that the medicine merchants are quacks. As she approaches the crowd, she is struck with Yang-myung’s appearance — for some reason, he reminds of the “two suns” description.
Yang-myung sits in the crowd while a girl spouts all sorts of psychic predictions, as though she can tell what ails everybody. It helps that con men signal to each other surreptitiously and give her clues.
Yang-myung tells the man next to him that he suffered a leg accident while hunting a boar (quite probably lying in order to test out his hunch). Sure enough, when he gets to the front, the supposedly psychic girl (prompted by signals) declares that he has injured his leg.
But then the girl adds, curiously, “I see a light in you.” Nok-young is startled — is this for real, then? The girl describes a beautiful yellow-red light.
The quack medicine-dealer continues with the show, but now Yang-myung’s easy demeanor hardens and he accuses them of running a con, and abusing the child. It’s enough to convince the onlookers; they accuse the con artists of a scam and a fight breaks out.
Yang-myung grabs the girl, advising Nok-young on his way out to call the palace guards here.
Yang-myung runs away with the girl, but soon he’s surrounded by the con artists. The girl is grabbed out of his arms and taken away by the boss — who is then challenged by Nok-young, who demands the child be handed over. Behind her are palace guards.
Yang-myung gets beat up for his interference, and the thugs laugh at his claim that he learned swordfighting from an expert. He gets knocked down, and suddenly his wimpy demeanor changes. Getting up easily, he flies at them and takes down the whole crew in a flurry of punches and flying kicks.
That night, dressed in nobleman’s clothes, Yang-myung looks over the skyline and mentally addresses the king, telling him he’s returned from his travels safely. He asks for forgiveness, and wonders after the crown prince.
Inside the palace, Hwon finds his every step dogged by a whole gaggle of guards, assigned to keep a close watch on him. As he looks up, a shower of flower petals rains down on him, which makes him think of the flowers that fell when he was with Yeon-woo.
He muses, “If you knew I was the prince, I’d hear a lot more nagging. Although I suppose I won’t have reason to see you again.”
But just then, he sees the flyaway parasol hovering up above in the air. A message? A sign?
At home, Yeon-woo rereads the note from Hwon. There are two sayings written there, and while Yeon-woo understands what they mean literally, she puzzles over the actual message. One saying says, “If you draw it, it’s round. If you write it, it’s sharp.” The other one says, “The rabbit lives, the rooster dies.”
Yeon-woo is served by a young slave named Seol (future Yoon Seung-ah), whose name means Snow. Yeon-woo asks Seol about the rabbit-rooster riddle, and Seol’s prosaic answer is no help: “If the rooster dies, who’ll wake us in the mornings?”
Outside, Yang-myung comes to Yeon-woo’s house and leaps up onto the wall, where he sits. In the distance he sees Yeon-woo emerging from the house into the courtyard. She holds up the message cloth in the air, then sighs — she’d hoped the moonlight might reveal some hidden characters.
But now she starts to put the clues together, excited. It’s not rabbit/rooster, but “Born in the morning, dies in the evening.” And the other clue — what’s round in a drawing, but sharp-edged when you write it? It’s what Hwon had started to say before cutting himself off. He’d declared, “I am this nation’s…”
She realizes the answer: “…sun.” Ergo, he is the prince.
In the palace, Hwon wonders, with hope, if they might be able to meet again after all. At the same time, Yeon-woo sits down in shock and thinks how relieved she is that they won’t have to. And sitting on the wall, Yang-myung thinks, “Good to see you again, Heo Yeon-woo.”
All in all, a solid opening. The drama is definitely well-made, with strong acting, wonderful child actors, and gorgeous visual appeal. I can see why it shot to first-place standings off the bat.
It wasn’t the most exciting first episode ever, though, and to be honest I found myself thinking that this all seemed very familiar. The players are different, but the political conspiracy, the framed traitors, the illegitimate half-brother, the childhood sweethearts, the birth prophecy — it’s all been done before. And all in fairly recent shows, no less. You can argue that all historical dramas have some configuration of these elements, but the good ones find a way to make them fresh; Moon/Sun’s handling isn’t quite there yet.
What makes this drama potentially different (rather than Sageuk Remix 2012) is the fantasy aspect, as well as making a young king its focus. Neither has happened yet since Episode 1 was about establishing the world, so I’m definitely eager to see how things unfold from here. I’m still not sure how the fantasy aspect will play into the story, and while it makes me wary, it’s also something I want more of. If you’re going to do it, might as well really go for it. It doesn’t have to be quite as blatant as in Legend, but I think it’s got to be more than just a simple moon-sun symbology, invoked ad infinitum. (That could get tiresome.)
I’m not gonna lie, I was (and am) a little disappointed that we have to wait for so long — weeks! plural! — to get our adult cast in place, even though I understand why that must be so in sageukland. And if we must have child actors, at least we’re working with some pros, who have accumulated quite a bit of experience in the genre.
To wit: Playing Hwon is Yeo Jin-gu (who has grown up so much! His voice has dropped!), always wonderful in everything he’s done, which includes Tree With Deep Roots, Warrior Baek Dong-soo, Giant, Iljimae, and Ja Myung Go. As Yeon-woo, there’s Kim Yoo-jung who may even have him beat in number of sageuk projects with Kye Baek, Iljimae, Gumiho: Tale of the Fox’s Child, Dong Yi, Tamra the Island, and Painter of the Wind on her resumé. And Yang-myung is played by Lee Min-ho — he might want to think about a stage name — who’s done Kye Baek, Thorn Birds and Sungkyunkwan Scandal.
I’m sort of trusting that this drama is going to be great once the story really gets going and the adults take over, based on the quality of the execution, the reputation of the novel and its writer, and the strength of its cast. The plot, however, doesn’t have me hooked yet. Taken alone, this episode wasn’t that exciting, but it doesn’t diminish my excitement for the series as a whole. I’m definitely still onboard and looking forward to future episodes.
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