Now THIS is a fusion sageuk. Queen In-hyun’s Man may be one of the lesser-buzzed-about time-travel dramas around these days, but so far it’s definitely the most stylish. Style can never compensate for a lack of story, but when it’s done as well as this you certainly give the story a huge boost when you’ve got such directorial flair.
SONG OF THE DAY
Casker – “잔혹한 여행” (Cruel Voyage) [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Scenes of modern Seoul. We have traffic, high-rises, the usual hustle and bustle…. which then shift into reverse, backward, backward, landing us in:
A scholar (Ji Hyun-woo) dresses in his hanbok finery. In the split-screen, an actress (Yoo Inna) takes off her hanbok finery, worn for a drama, and returns to her normal 21st-century appearance.
Our hero leaves his home on horseback like a man on a mission. Our heroine drives off in her car.
In her shot is a clock that tells us the hour and minute. On his side, a 24-style ticker zooms through the years, hurtling toward the future and toward, we presume, the heroine.
The hero arrives at a palace building, and it’s hostile territory: Armed men guard the perimeter, and he barrels right past them toward the gate. He’s surrounded.
He finds a gap and spurs his horse past the guards, who throw spears at his back. He jumps the palace wall… and encounters a force-field type of barrier. It allows him to pass through, only to land on the other side of the wall. Three centuries later.
The horse clomps onto modern pavement just as the heroine drives by, their clocks converging as they pull up alongside each other.
But there’s no surprise here. Just relief. They smile at each other and come face to face, like long-reunited lovers. And maybe they are.
But this is just a taste of what’s to come, because now we have to jump back to the Joseon-era past to establish our story: 1694 marks the twentieth year of King Sukjong’s reign, which is a popular bit of history lending itself to dramatizations.
Historically, Queen In-hyun was deposed and her family sent to exile through the machinations of an ambitious concubine, Lady Jang (also called Jang heebin, which denotes a concubine of high rank). Politically, the camps divided: Norons supported the restoration of the rightful queen, while Sorons backed Lady Jang. Years later, Sukjong felt remorse for his actions and reinstated Queen In-hyun, which led to the demotion of Jang. The queen mysteriously died (often said to be poisoned by Jang), and when Sukjong realized Jang’s plotting, she was executed for her crimes by poison. Juicy stuff, hm?
In this drama, our hero is in Queen In-hyun’s camp (as the title tells us right off the bat). We are five years into the queen’s dethronement and Jang has taken her place, but with wickedness running amok, King Sukjong is starting to harbor doubts. The minister of the right has sensed the king’s change of heart and swoops into action; as long as the queen is alive, she poses a threat to the scheming Lady Jang (and history would prove those fears well-founded).
Thus, the plot that now unfolds. Men are sent under cover of night to eliminate Queen In-hyun, and stealthily take down her men. Inside, she reads a letter by candlelight, sent from the king expressing his troubled mind and asking for her understanding.
The kind-hearted queen is in the midst of writing her reply when she hears a noise outside. Nobody responds to her call, so she immediately understands that she is about to meet her end. What match is she for warriors? Despite trembling in fear she forces herself to keep writing, expecting at any second to be attacked.
Her chamber door swings open and a tear falls as she awaits her fate—but it’s her attacker who falls. Our hero—KIM BOONG-DO (Ji Hyun-woo)—has arrived in the nick of time and kneels before her. Just as another attacker comes at him from behind.
A swordfight ensues. Those who’ve seen Vampire Prosecutor (this director’s prior series) will know what kind of stylized action to expect. Boong-do fights in close quarters with the assassin, then the clash moves outdoors where he’s joined by more. Boong-do fends them off successfully.
The crafty minister of the right, Min Am (or Minister Min) receives this news from one of his men, as does the concubine-turned-queen, Jang Ok-jung. She is most displeased that her plot failed, but worse, the interloper managed to intercept the minister’s letter—and if the king gets wind of that, they’re all doomed.
Boong-do explains to Queen In-hyun that he’d been watching Lady Jang closely, because something seemed suspicious. He is the son of the previous minister of the left, which explains his natural wariness of the other camp, and he names Jang and Minister Min as the masterminds behind today’s assassination attempt.
He shows her the letter he took as proof of his claims, and understands that he’s in danger because of it. As is she. He urges her to make haste—they must move her to the palace immediately, show the letter to the king, and unseat the queen.
The queen resists, because dethroning a queen is hardly something to be attempted lightly. One can see why her careful, gentle spirit was so easily trampled by Lady Jang; she rather reminds me of angelic Melanie of Gone With the Wind, no match for the opportunistic Scarlett O’Hara.
But Boong-do stops her short with the declaration, “This is not my will, but the king’s. And the people’s.” He leaves his men to protect her, then heads off.
His next stop is a gisaeng establishment, where a party is under way. One gisaeng perks up at the sight of him—we’ll come to know her as Yoon-wol—and she finds a way to excuse herself to meet him outside. Clearly she has some feelings for him, but he seems to look upon her as a fond sister, warm but platonic.
He leaves the letter in her care, and she understands that this is important stuff, although she’s more worried for his safety than anything else. Yoon-wol presses him to accept a talisman to keep him safe, which he laughs at. She points out that he’s entrusting his safety into a gisaeng’s care, and he concedes, taking it.
On he rides. He’s chased by more assassins who shoot arrows at his back, but manages to evade them long enough to escape.
Boong-do arrives at the palace to demand immediate audience with the king. His attackers watch from the shadows, biding their time for an opening while Boong-do is allowed entry, though he has to give up his sword in exchange.
He instructs the king’s attendant to tell the king he’s here, knowing he will be admitted right away. Clearly he is in the king’s confidence, and the latter is expecting him. The eunuch/attendant advises him to await in private to escape prying eyes, though there’s something shifty in the way he suggests this.
That’s explained as Boong-do is ambushed in the library. He’s unarmed but not entirely surprised, having suspected a mole within the palace. Now he knows who.
Skillfully Boong-do parries, using the books and shelves as weapons, taking out one attacker. But they’ve saved the best for last, since Minister Min’s leader red-clad assassin makes his appearance. Red charges him with his sword, while Boong-do grabs a fucking scroll to block, which is just fantastic given the whole pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword analogy and Boong-do’s status as a scholar.
But Boong-do is slashed in the arm and sent crashing to the ground. Red drives his sword down, just as Boong-do blocks the thrust with a stack of books. Lordy, I just love this metaphor. (Books save lives, kiddos! Stay in school!)
Still, it’s just paper, and the book starts to give way, and the sword starts to pierce all those layers…
Naturally, this is where the drama skips ahead to 2012. Such a tease.
We pick up with CHOI HEE-JIN (Yoo Inna), who races into a building, through hallways, and fights with closed doors. She can’t find her audition, until she’s told she’s in the wrong building. Next door, honey.
Hee-jin twists a heel, snaps a shoe strap, and gives up. She’s already an hour late, thanks to a photo shoot that ran long. She sighs over the phone to her friend that it’s over… until her friend tells her she’s got the wrong time. Hee-jin is wearing her friend’s watch, which is an hour fast, so she’s still got time.
She arrives with plenty of time and scopes out a spot to change her clothes. Just as she’s standing there in her underthings, someone starts to draw up the shade from the other side of the window.
Just her luck, he recognizes her—and enjoys her consternation, pulling up all the shades to expose her to the rest of his office. Thankfully, they’re inattentive.
Hee-jin finishes dressing and heads out, but he catches up to her to catch up on old times. This is HAN DONG-MIN (Kim Jin-woo), a Hallyu star, famous playboy, and her ex.
Dong-min talks to her teasingly, but she’s prickly and sarcastic. He says they broke up by mutual decision, but that seems a bit revisionist, even if she retorts that yeah, it was mutual.
She snaps at him to not bother talking with a no-name actress like herself who’ll just bring down his celebrity standing. With a sour smile she leaves, flicking him off.
Hee-jin is called for her audition, tamping down her Dong-min-inspired temper. Her lack of screen experience is a sticking point, and she glibly explains her long hiatus as time spent studying the craft of acting. Just then, the proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of a few executives, here to watch the audition. Including Dong-min. The drama’s star.
The director tells her that Dong-min will play King Sukjong, meriting a shrill, “WHAT?” from Hee-jin. Oh, horrors.
Dong-min’s a saucy bastard and he’s loving every moment of this, sneaking her the finger while he’s at it. He proposes that since the drama’s titled New Jang Heebin, perhaps they should adopt a fresh concept for In-hyun as well. Rather than the naive, weak queen, how about someone who fights back?
Afterward, Hee-jin drinks beer with dinner while sighing to her roommate and manager Soo-kyung over the phone about her lousy luck. She’s convinced the audition flopped, since every time she saw Dong-min’s cackling face she forgot her lines.
She takes a taxi home and gets a call from Dong-min, who tells her oh-so-generously that she should come out and meet him if she wants that role. She hangs up on him mid-smirk.
The phone rings again as she’s sighing to the wind, but this time it’s the director. But the car hits a bump in the road and the phone goes flying to the road, slipping through a grate. She curses Dong-min for this terrible luck, just as the director’s voice calls out, “Hello?” Ha—at least Hee-jin managed to answer the call before the phone dropped, so she can talk to him through the metal bars.
So it is that she’s kneeling in the middle of the road, head to grate, butt in air, when the director declares that she’s got the job. She thanks him profusely and bows over and over to the ground.
Back to our Joseon-era sword-in-book nail-biter. Yay!
Boong-do holds Red at bay, but he can see his time running out. He kicks the ground, sending the candle toppling to the floor; the flame sputters out and the room goes dark. The sword pushes through more paper, inching closer to his heart—which is covered by Yoon-wol’s talisman. The assassin musters his strength for the mortal blow…
And then, poof—Boong-do disappears. Literally just vanishes into thin air. The sword clunks to the floor.
Red whirls around, confused. The king’s treacherous attendant joins him to ask if Kim Boong-do has been killed. They literally have no idea if he has.
Boong-do awakens to find himself lying on the ground in an empty room, understanding that something fishy has just happened. He’s somewhere in the palace, but everyone else has disappeared. Lantern light shines through the paper walls, sending him ducking for cover. A voice calls out, “Yo, not over there, do it the other way.”
Boong-do steps out of the building, making his way out into the courtyard… and then stops. What he sees, he can’t comprehend.
Cameras, lights, and men wearing Joseon-era hanbok, surrounded by men wearing modern clothing. He struggles to make sense of this but it’s such an overload of strange stimuli that he can hardly hear: sound is muffled, as woolly and incomprehensible to his ears as this information is to his brain.
A tap on the shoulder sends him whirling. There stands Hee-jin, asking politely, “Excuse me, who are you playing?” She introduces herself and giggles, “I’m playing Queen In-hyun!” She’s so excited she can hardly contain herself, while Boong-do stands there unblinkingly, almost catatonic.
She offers him a snack and now registers his strange reaction, asking if he’s okay. Finally he finds his voice, and asks if he’s dead or dreaming.
Hee-jin asks if he’s asking because he truly doesn’t know, and he says he is. Her voiceover explains, “This is the way I remember our first meeting. He hadn’t jumped 3, or even 30, but 300 years—but what did I know of that? I just answered his question honestly.”
Hee-jin tells him cheerily, “Don’t get angry, since I’m just answering your question. To me, it doesn’t seem like you’re dead or dreaming—just a little crazy!”
First off, about recaps: I like this drama, and hope it continues to blend its genres as skillfully as it did here. I want to keep recapping it. But in consideration for schedules both current and upcoming, Queen In-hyun’s Man falls squarely into that no-man’s-land between drama cycles where it’s difficult to commit to. So we may end up taking a different tack with this show, possibly recapping as a once-a-week deal, delivered on a fixed schedule. We realize this may feel slow to some of you, especially if you’re used to the twice-a-week grind. But we’re trying to run the marathon here, not run out of gas in the sprint, so we’re playing with ideas.
On to the drama. Despite the overcrowding of fusion sageuks and time-travelers, I actually enjoy watching Queen In-hyun’s Man alongside Rooftop Prince, because it proves that two similar concepts can be worlds apart in execution. Both dramas play with a dramatic, intrigue-laden Joseon background, then lighten up to bring on the cute in the modern day. But whoa, do they feel like different beasts.
Rooftop is definitely the zanier comedy, and gives us hilarious moments juxtaposing the prince’s dignified airs with the indignity of his circumstances. It’s a little too early to decide what Queen In-hyun’s Man will do with its fish out of water, but based on the characterization of Boong-do, Ji Hyun-woo’s mannerisms, and pure hunch, I anticipate that the hero here will get to keep a little more of his dignity intact. I’m sure there’ll be comedy, but it feels like this drama is going more for a dramedy feel, rather than outright wackiness.
Note: I know I’m comparing the two, but note that I’m not reducing the comparison to ”A is better than B”—mostly ’cause I like both, and the two shows feed my drama cravings in different ways. Just to make that clear.
The first part of the show was so strongly done that I missed that dark, suspenseful vibe once we hit modernity. That’s partly because I’ve seen a lot of great romantic comedies, compared to the fewer number of great suspense thrillers, that my appetite is whetted more for the latter. Plus, you’re working with such a juicy story in actual history that there’s plenty to build on just in that time period—although, I suppose, that’s why we have dramas like Dong Yi, which was about the same historical figures. (Though not a thriller, and not very dark.)
Then the show introduced the present-day characters and zipped right along, and I was okay with it. I found myself enjoying the bastard ex-boyfriend—so full of himself, so aggravating, but in an entertaining way—and the setup of Hee-jin being a nobody trying to get her break. I’m a little fatigued about dramas about dramaland, but I’m hopeful that with all the other elements in this show, the showbiz aspect won’t be the focus.
I will say that I find the sageuk characters more compelling, right off the bat. Maybe they’ve got genre in their favor, because when you’re dealing with outrageous villains (the brief but punchy introduction to Lady Jang makes no bones about her perfidy) and life-and-death circumstances with the highest stakes, your emotions are already on a heightened plane. Compared to the actress trying to get hired, for instance.
But that caveat aside, I thought the gisaeng Yoon-wol was a lovely touch; her character description explains that she was the former household slave/maid to Boong-do’s wife, who is now dead. (There’s another similarity to Rooftop—dead wife, possibly at the hands of enemies—that almost slipped my notice, because they feel so different tonally.) Apparently she’ll see Boong-do falling more in love with Hee-jin, only she can only see it from her time period; how painful to know you have a rival and be utterly in the dark about who she is.
It’s little threads like that that make me think this drama has the potential to stir a sense of pathos, and that’s what will ground the emotion. Ji Hyun-woo plays Boong-do with this really nice touch of stillness; he’s not just deliberate in manner, but in being.
Speaking of whom, I’m glad to see Ji back headlining a drama that looks promising. He’s by no means unknown, but I feel like he’s rather underrated compared to what he can do. That’s partly due to some of his choices, but when he’s on, he can be wonderful—warm, sweet, but also intense.
Yoo Inna can be hit or miss, but I don’t hold Best Love too much against her since the Hong sisters are pretty blatantly terrible about second lead characters, particularly the ladies. It could be that she’s better in small doses (Secret Garden), or that she hasn’t had a good chance yet to show what she can do in a larger role. I like her well enough to be fine with her casting here, and I always like a heroine with a little sass. And anyone who flips off a Hallyu star for being an ass gets some points for sass.
So I’d say the show is off to a promising start. I’m approaching cautiously—I’ve been burned by many a promising beginning—but here’s to hoping the series continues to dish up constant servings of intrigue, heart, and style.