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Jang Ok-jung, Live By Love: Episode 1

Jang Ok-Jung, Live By Love is well into its second week (and approaching its third), but nonetheless we’re taking a late peek into SBS’ newest history-rewriting sageuk, which promises to give a fresh take on the old story of one of history’s favorite scheming concubines and turn it into a rollicking tale of fashion and love. Maybe. Even if I’m not sure of the endgame, this first episode does prove intriguing, *if* you can swallow the alternaversion of history the show is presenting.

More than anything, I’m not really sure which side of the show I want to see more of and which side we’ll actually get more of, because when the pendulum swings from a runway walk-off to a harrowing suicide, my guess is that anything goes and everything’s game. Which could be really fun OR really terrible, depending on how you look at it.

This is just a one-time recap, and though premiere week has come and gone it’s worth noting that Jang Ok-jung was neck and neck with fellow competitor Gu Family Book for its first episode. It dropped in the second, and Episodes 3 and 4 have since dropped into single digits.

 
SMIDGEN O’ BACKGROUND

While the story of the infamous Lady Jang is somewhat well-known (since it’s been dramatized over and over and over again), it’s worth having a little background on a period in history this drama is attempting to subvert. And when I say little, I mean itty bitty and very bare bones. Here goes:

Our leads in this story are King Sukjong, who took to the throne at age fourteen in 1674, his second wife Queen In-hyun (his first wife died a year before, having married Sukjong when he was still Crown Prince at the ripe age of ), and Lady Jang, Sukjong’s royal concubine. She’s known in history for being sly and ambitious, so much so that history points the finger at her for the reason why King Sukjong deposed and exiled Queen In-hyun, only to have everything come full circle when Sukjong realized his wrongs and reinstated his queen at the cost of demoting Lady Jang.

The plot thickened when In-hyun suddenly fell ill and died, with the blame going to Lady Jang in a (still unproven) poisoning plot. In retaliation, Sukjong had Lady Jang executed by consuming – wait for it – poison. And they all didn’t live happily ever after.

 
EPISODE 1 RECAP

In a room filled with all different types of hanbok (ceremonial, wedding garments, everyday outfits), our heroine flits from item to item, straightening out a norigae here or a binyeo (ornamental women’s hairpins, you’ve seen them in every sageuk ever) there. It’s like a boutique, only Joseon style.

As history will know her, she’s the future Lady Jang (or Jang Heebin, the latter used to denote her high status as a concubine), but we’ll go with what the title says and call her by her name: JANG OK-JUNG (Kim Tae-hee).

She receives a visit from the future QUEEN IN-HYUN (Hong Soo-hyun), though she’s not queen yet. We meet her before the official selection process for crown princesses, which happens to be why she’s looking for a show-stopping outfit – she’s got a king to impress.

Then we get a rather jarring quick-cut to the future, when Ok-jung and In-hyun meet face to face in the palace – though by now, In-hyun is queen and Ok-jung has been bestowed the title of heebin.

It’s back to the Hanbok Boutique, as In-hyun clucks her tongue at the rather risqué selections. The thought of not being selected as queen hasn’t even crossed her mind, so she’d rather stay safe and go more traditional. She leaves without buying anything.

Meanwhile, In-hyun’s maidservant/slave knocks over a mannequin and tries to escape with a stolen norigae, but Ok-jung catches her in the act, displaying benevolence when she decides to gift her the stolen item instead. The maidservant is happy to not have been punished, and declares that she wants to be just like Ok-jung one day.

And we see that “one day” in another flash to the future, where that maidservant is introduced as CHOI SUKBIN (Han Seung-yeon), the sukbin being another title denoting her status as a royal concubine. For ease of use, we’ll call her Lady Choi.

Our hero has his fortune misread by an old blind man, who claims that he’s a beggar. With a scoff, our hero informs him that he couldn’t be more wrong – he’s actually YI SUN (Yoo Ah-in) Crown Prince of Joseon and future king.

Ok-jung fastidiously prepares for what looks to be a Joseon fashion show, which is invitation-only to try and deter knock-offs of her designs.

Her mother, Lady Yun, beams with pride when she finds one of the invitations. The lord of the house and younger brother of the Queen Dowager, is kind to her despite her status as a slave, arousing the ire of his jealous wife, who doesn’t hesitate to slap Lady Yun once they’re out of his sight.

She reminds Lady Yun that her daughter Ok-jung is as much a slave as she is, despite receiving favor from her husband. After threatening to make Ok-jung perform traditional slave labor (rather than designing hanbok), she snatches the invitation and leaves.

Backstage at the fashion show, Ok-jung prepares her gisaeng models to walk the runway. I do have to give the show props, since this really does seem like a realistic Joseon adaptation of a modern runway, down to the makeup and hair details, plus the hustle and bustle of a live show.

Ok-jung knows her stuff, and changes this or that before sending models out on the runway, instructing them to accentuate a certain accessory or feature. The final show-stopping number is an ornate wedding gown (hwarot), which has all the young maidens squealing: “I want that for my wedding!”

Reports of the fashion show’s success reach JANG HYUN (Sung Dong-il), a cousin of Ok-jung’s father. Is that his happy face or his mad face?

Ok-jung walks out after the show like we see fashion designers do today, only the big difference comes when her mother’s snarly mistress dumps a pail of water on her in front of the attendees.

Needless to say, she’s pissed that her husband displayed favor for Ok-jung’s mother and has decided to take it out on Ok-jung, outing her as nothing more than a slave to the crowd (where previously Ok-jung could claim that she was a respectable niece of her rich uncle, Jang Hyun).

When that’s not enough, she has men chase away the spectators in order to wreck the show.

Meanwhile, King Hyeonjong (Yi Sun’s father) frets over how to please the Qing emissaries in attendance of a festival he’s thrown for them, though they only want to see the most famous geomungo (the traditional Korean black zither) player perform.

To that end, Hyeonjong has entrusted Yi Sun with the task of recruiting him, putting Yi Sun’s visit to the old fortune teller from the start of the episode in perspective, since he’d outed the old man as the famous artist.

One of the palace eunuchs tracks down PRINCE DONGPYUNG (Lee Sang-yeob), Yi Sun’s once-removed cousin, and begs him to play the geomungo for the Qing emissaries to help buy time while Yi Sun brings back the old master.

Dongpyung huffs and puffs at playing on such a cheap instrument, though he relents in the end. The emissaries take this as an insult since they didn’t sign up to see Dongpyung play, though Dongpyung ends up impressing them by speaking in their native tongue.

Meanwhile, Yi Sun urges the reluctant elder to play even if he can’t play like he used to because so much is riding on his performance – if it all goes well, Joseon can settle her border disputes with Qing.

There’s a malicious minister in attendance (isn’t there always?) who realizes how important the elder is to good relations with Qing, even though he seems to have a contingency plan in case Yi Sun were to convince him to play…

And lo and behold, Yi Sun and his caravan (carrying the elder in a palanquin) are attacked while en route to the festival by masked men. Yi Sun is fast on his feet and impales one of the attackers with his sword just in time to save the elder from a bloody demise, and soon it’s an all-out battle. (And no, I’m not really sure why we keep cutting to black and white.)

Yi Sun cuts his way through a line of attackers skillfully, but he’s not the target, and he finds himself too far to save the elder.

One of Prince Dongpyung’s geomungo strings snaps in foreboding as the elder is stabbed in the palanquin. The attackers fade into the forest, leaving a devastated Yi Sun as the last man standing.

Dongpyung recovers smoothly, while the scheming minister receives the secret word he wanted to hear – probably that the elder has died.

Ah, but it looks like Yi Sun out-schemed the minister when he shows up to the festival in his Crown Prince regalia… with the elder, alive and in tact, there to celebrate the alliance between Qing and Joseon. He seems to know which minister was behind the scheme and offers him a victorious smirk.

We see exactly how Yi Sun saved the elder in flashback, but it isn’t a pretty sight – two guards had packed themselves into the palanquin with the elder to act as human shields, so they were the ones who got stabbed and killed. All for a good cause though, right?

Yi Sun has a less-than-amicable meeting with the scheming minister, whom we find out is MIN YU-JUNG, In-hyun’s father. He chides Yi Sun on being too young to understand politics.

Yi Sun holds his own, but backs down a little when Minister Min alludes to a painful past event with the warning that Yi Sun should have already learned how dangerous authority without humility can be. He ends their conversation with an aside on how Yi Sun’s mother, Queen Myeongseong, keeps asking for his input in regards to royal family affairs.

We find Myeongseong with Minister Min as she discusses her son’s future marriage, and she makes it clear that she wants a bride from her Western (seo-in) political faction. To that end, Minister Min suggests his own daughter (future Queen In-hyun) since he’s groomed her to become queen all her life.

Yi Sun’s mother worries about the match because her son is no fan of Minister Min, so the sly politician suggests that they hide In-hyun’s identity as his daughter until she’s safely married to Yi Sun.

Meanwhile, Yi Sun and Dongpyung practice sword fighting, with the ever-chipper Dongpyung announcing that he’ll soon be wed to his favorite type of girl – a rich heiress. Hah.

Two court maidens come bearing letters for the two princes with regard to their matches, but they get mixed up along the way, so that Yi Sun gets Dongpyung’s letter and vice versa. (Translation: Shenanigans!)

Ok-jung tries to pick up the pieces from her ruined event, and in her quest to push sales through before everyone starts to cancel on her, she ends up signing on to deliver a message for one of her spoiled clients who slyly notes to her friends that Ok-jung is a slave, and therefore doesn’t count as a human being.

We find In-hyun being carried in a palanquin through the mountains as part of a plan organized by Queen Myeongseong to have In-hyun and Yi Sun “coincidentally” meet so he’ll think it’s fate. Unbeknownst to them, because the letters were switched, Prince Dongpyung is the one waiting for her instead of Yi Sun.

Her caravan is attacked by thieves (not sure whether this was also part of the plan), but Dongpyung sweeps to the rescue by using a cherry blossom branch to beat the attackers into submission. Service with a smile. D’aww, he’s adorable.

In-hyun and her maid don’t seem too shocked, which makes me think the attack was part of the plan. Dongpyung happily introduces himself to the fair maiden and mistakes her shock for her associating his name with his womanizing reputation, unaware that she thought she was meeting Yi Sun.

Yi Sun heads off to the date Dongpyung was set to have, though he meets Ok-jung instead. She wasn’t the intended date for Dongpyung, but was instead sent by her spoiled client to measure him for clothing, so all the misunderstandings add up to Yi Sun thinking that she’s his intended.

Ok-jung interrupts him before he can introduce himself, and his hard expression melts slightly as he asks, “Have we met before? You look very familiar…” He doesn’t mean it as a pick-up line, but it sure sounds like one.

She’s very direct, and instructs him to assume the position for measuring. Yi Sun thinks his mother ordered her to make clothing for him to see how well her future daughter-in-law could sew and acquiesces, leading to a moment that reminds me of the intimate clothes-measuring scene in Arang and the Magistrate.

Ok-jung’s client finally arrives to break the mood, and Yi Sun watches as Ok-jung acts subservient to her mistress before she’s off to make clothing.

Queen Myeongseong throws a fit when she realizes that Yi Sun went to the wrong place, but In-hyun is much more collected as she just shrugs it off. What’s meant to be will be.

Yi Sun and Dongpyung joke over the mixed messages that landed them in the wrong places, but Yi Sun is troubled Ok-jung – he knows he’s seen her before, but he can’t remember the details.

Ok-jung takes a chest of money to her mistress, providing the agreed-upon amount to buy her mother’s freedom from slavery. She’s taken aback when the mistress refuses it with a sneer, pointing to Ok-jung’s uncle, Jang Hyun, as the reason why her mother is still a slave.

So she goes straight to her uncle to demand an answer. She already guessed that he was responsible for ruining her fashion show, but she didn’t know he was paying her mistress off in order to keep her mother enslaved. So the big question is: Why?

Turns out dear old uncle Jang Hyun has been subverting Ok-jung’s attempts to buy her mother’s freedom in order to keep her from escaping to Qing with her mother, because he wants to keep her close in order to fulfill his own ambitions.

“Would you like to take over Joseon with me?” he asks, a gleam in his eye. She’s the only one capable of replacing his dead daughter, and he figures that her girlish wiles and his silver tongue will open any and every obstacle they’ll come across.

Ok-jung knows how her uncle works, especially since he made his late daughter into a palace maid, and firmly denounces him. She won’t become another pawn for him and makes that stance clear, though something tells me Jang Hyun doesn’t take “no” for an answer very often.

The sight of flowers outside her uncle’s house sends Ok-jung into a flashback, where his daughter, Hong-joo, told a young Ok-jung about the flower’s legend: A lovesick court lady, neglected by the king she dearly loved, died of neglect. The flowers grew in her place on the wall, where she would always wait to catch a glimpse of the one she loved.

Hong-joo tells the story with longing, sighing that such is the fate of a palace maid – if the king doesn’t like you, you die alone. Ok-jung asks if this is her fate as a court lady, only for Hong-joo to whisper a secret: She’s in love with a man, but not the king – and for court ladies, that was forbidden. Even if the king didn’t like you, you had to like the king. Forever.

Before she goes to meet her lover, Hong-joo gifts Ok-jung with a handmade norigae. Unfortunately, Hong-joo is later caught in her illicit affair with a palace prince, and it’s Queen Myeongseong who orders her to be made an example of.

And who should be the officer in charge of her interrogation but Minister Min, who even looks bored as Hong-joo is tortured. While her royal lover is free, she protects him by claiming that she was the one who did the seducing. And aww, her prince truly did love her, but any attempt to try and shoulder his fair share of the blame is rebuked by an all-too-eager Minister Min.

Jang Hyun scrambles to get enough money to bribe Minister Min for his daughter’s life, though his efforts are interrupted when his cousin (Ok-jung’s father) comes begging for Jang Hyun to free his wife from slavery now that they’ve got slave hunters on their tail. Jang Hyun is unmoved, since he blames his cousin for marrying a slave when everyone knows that any children he’d have would also be considered slaves.

A young Ok-jung looks Jang Hyun straight in the eye, and maybe he sees something there as he shows not-quite-kindness by letting them escape out the back door. It doesn’t get them far, but when Ok-jung and her family are cornered, her older brother chooses to sacrifice for the family in order to lead their pursuers away.

Jang Hyun visits his daughter in prison, and chides her for being caught – he sent her to the palace to get into the king’s bed. Despite his anger he promises that he’ll set her free, and brings his hefty bribe to Minister Min, who literally throws it back at him.

Not only is he angry with Jang Hyun for funding the Southern (nam-in) faction, he’s angry that Jang Hyun parades about like a noble when he isn’t one. Jang Hyun endures the degradation because his daughter’s life is on the line, but Minister Min is unyielding in his belief that class status comes before personhood. And Hong-joo isn’t a human being.

In jail, Hong-joo hangs herself. Her dad finds her while her body is still swaying, and holds her feet close through the bars. His grief ranges from near-hysterical laughter to agonizing screams.

Ok-jung’s father leads his family to the doorstep of his last remaining friend, only for his wife, Madam Kang, to answer the door since her husband is deceased. She sees their sorry state and invites them in as the slave hunters close in. Her son, HYUN CHI-SOO (future Jae Hee) helps.

The slave hunters break in anyway, and her father pulls out a last-ditch effort to stop them from dragging Ok-jung away – he used every penny he had to buy his own daughter and produces the bill of sale, which means that she’s not eligible to be taken since she’s already someone’s property.

This is a sobering moment for Mom, and we see it in her face. Her husband technically bought her daughter’s freedom but not hers, so in the end it’s she who’s dragged away while her husband and Ok-jung stay behind.

Ok-jung’s father is coughing up blood from being beaten, and Ok-jung stays dutifully at his side as he convulses, before he ekes out that she must find her mother and brother. He dies.

Jang Hyun plots revenge for his daughter with her lover, Prince Boksun, who’ll be next in line for the throne if Yi Sun disappears – which, of course, means treason.

He claims he’ll need seven years to raise an army, and asks for only one thing in return – Boksun’s promise that Jang Hyun’s last remaining kin will produce an heir to the throne. Now that his daughter’s dead, he’s got one eligible family member in Ok-jung.

Ok-jung stays up all night to sew her father’s funeral garb out of scraps of fabric she found in the room. Madam Kang marvels over her sewing skill in the morning, and while I get that this is setting up Ok-jung for her life in fashion, all I can think is that this kind of discussion is really inappropriately timed. Her dead father is lying right there, and you want to admire the girl’s needlework? Priorities, lady!

Her father’s funeral is the next day, but Ok-jung finds dearest uncle Jang Hyun waiting outside the threshold.

“Are you Jang Ok-jung?” he asks.

 
COMMENTS

When the promotional materials for this show came out, claiming that they’d turn a figure commonly known in history as a villain into a heroine, I was half intrigued, half ambivalent. Artistic license is the lifeblood of the fusion sageuk (and I love me some fusion sageuk), but by taking such an (in)famous historical character and giving her a job in the Joseon fashion industry, this show is asking us to reconsider a lot. To that end, I can’t help but wonder… Why?

That sounds more existential than intended, but really it boils down to me not really understanding the aim of this re-imagining, since I found myself thinking that this sort of story would have found a better foothold if it had gone the completely fabricated historical route of a show like The Moon That Embraces The Sun rather than this middle ground that seems to have one foot in Sungkyunkwan Scandal‘s level of fun historical irreverence and the other in The Princess’ Man, which told a fictional story fully embedded in the backdrop of real history.

Namely, we seem to be going down a route where In-hyun is the true villain, all while making Ok-jung an innocent and maligned victim, though time will tell whether the show’s aim is to make a point that history did Ok-jung wrong, or whether this is all just fiction for the sake of fiction. Which is fine in its own right, but then why use such well-known historical characters to weave such a bizarrely different tale? (I suppose the opposing argument could be: Why not?)

Granted, this first outing makes for a difficult barometer when the plot really didn’t move forward, instead putting us in the present, fast-forwarding to the future, rewinding back to the present, then rewinding to the not-so-distant past before we chose to settle there. While this episode was a technical achievement that surpasses its time slot competitors (which is almost a given when the network overlord is SBS), in the scope of setting up an entire series, it wasn’t a structurally ideal first outing. At no point did it seem like this show was unsure of the story it wanted to tell, but it almost felt like there was some overconfidence going on behind the scenes – either the man behind the curtain was very sure that his audience would stick around while we trudged through narrative backstories for characters we haven’t yet been given a reason to really root for, or they just had a lot of backstory that needed telling and they didn’t know of any better way to do it than to just put it all out there.

It’s an unusual dilemma because drawn-out childhood backstories are ridiculously common in dramaland (and childhood backstories comprise my top vote for drama tropes I wish would disappear), and many dramas build their audiences solely on child actor labor before revealing the headlining stars. Here we were even shown the stars before delving into the backstory, as if the show wanted to reassure us that beautiful faces would be waiting for us at the end of it all. The problem is, as is a problem with many dramas that have childhood phases, the story was more compelling in the past than it was in the present, coupled with telling a very different tale tonally than its present counterpart.

The change in tone between the time shifts was handled well, but they still had a jarring effect, which is kind of how I find myself reacting to the first half of the episode. I can maybe buy Jang Heebin being reworked as a heroine. I can maybe buy King Sukjong as a swashbuckling, ass-kicking youth. I can maybe buy that a character like Prince Dongpyung even exists. But if fashion is such an important part of Ok-jung’s life that a little reminder had to be inserted even at the scene of her father’s death (“Your dad is dead, but boy, can you sew!”), I find myself feeling a little lost as to what this show wants to tell me about her. Right now I’m a stuck between two extremes: Is she a girl with strong moral fiber, or is she just really good at using fibers to make pretty outfits?

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