Haechi: Episodes 1-2
Jung Il-woo is back! I’ll be honest, he’s my primary reason for being excited about Haechi, but there are so many other reasons why this drama looks like it will be great. There’s a lot of history and politics to wade through, and so many characters that my head is swimming, but overall the plot isn’t so unwieldy that it can’t stop to have a little fun.
EPISODE 1: The lowly prince
It’s 1791, the final years of King Sukjong’s reign. Rumors are spreading that the crown prince is incapable of fathering a child. The Seoin party is in power, but they’re divided into the Norons and the Sorons, who each want to appoint a different prince as king. Only a few powerless people from the Namin party support the crown prince.
During this chaotic time, there exists a powerful judicial authority called Saheonbu. Their job is to investigate crimes and arrest criminals.
On a stormy night, the crown prince looks dejectedly over his half-clad concubines. Suddenly the royal physicians arrive and the crown prince’s eunuch checks under the crown prince’s robes, then shakes his head. The king arrives, and the eunuch reports to the court officials that the crown prince will never father an heir.
The old man, a Noron named MIN JIN-HEON (Lee Kyung-young), talks with a Saheonbu inspector, whom he knows is a successful man from a poor family. He tells him that because he’s from the Namin party, he’ll have a difficult time advancing in his career.
He notes that the inspector isn’t drinking his tea, aware that some inspectors are planning a night inspection. He says that Saheonbu officials are known as haechi – a legendary animal that looks like a lion with scales and a single horn, that can judge between good and evil. He asks if the inspector knows why haechi only exist in legends, and says that it’s because it’s impossible to judge good and evil in reality.
The inspector, HWI BYUNG-JOO (Han Sang-jin), goes to the place where the inspectors agreed to meet, though he looks shaken. They’re here, not for politics, but for justice and order. At dawn, they gather around a sign that reads: “Even the weakest arms become strong when they wield the sword of justice.”
On a boat to Hanyang, a man dresses early in the morning, preparing to disembark. His traveling companion, JO-HONG, declares that she’ll become a success in Hanyang despite being the daughter of a simple pottery merchant, and she asks the man if he’ll tell her who he is before the boat docks.
She guesses that he’s a rich merchant or the son of a great family, but he says he’s something much more useless. He gives her an address and tells her to hire some porters to take his belongings there, promising to join her soon. Jo-hong looks at the address and says incredulously that people will laugh at him if he’s seen with her, but he smirks that this is what’s expected of him.
After disembarking, the man we’ll come to know as YI GEUM (Jung Il-woo), test-rides a horses, surprised that the horse merchant (whom he seems to know) actually offered him a good animal. The merchant offers to give Yi Geum the horse in return for taking the civil service exam for a client.
Yi Geum quips that he only asked him to do it because he’s as good as dead already, but he agrees to do the job. The horse merchant advises him to avoid Gaedong, because the magistrate was inspected last night, and the streets are in turmoil.
The peasants in Gaedong are all atwitter with the news of Magistrate Kim’s inspection, and they gather to watch him scream insults at the inspectors. An amused gisaeng tells her maid that a night inspection is what the Saheonbu does to nobles to let the world know of their sins.
At the palace, the Chief Inspector of Saheonbu rants about the stupidity of inspecting Magistrate Kim, the leader of the Norons. Rumors say that there might be a new crown prince soon, and the Norons support Prince Mil-poong, whom he believes would be a more advantageous choice for the Saheonbu.
The inspectors are gathered together, where they find themselves on the receiving end of a stern lecture from their team leader. They’re informed that their job is to follow orders and catch petty criminals, not sneak around at night causing trouble with powerful nobles.
Byung-joo speaks up, saying that they tried to tell the team leader but he wouldn’t listen. The team leader accuses him of discriminating against the Noron leader because his preferred crown prince will be removed.
Another inspector, HAN JUNG-SEOK (Lee Pil-mo) tells the team leader not to make this a political issue, pointing out that Byung-joo is the only Namin among them. He says that Magistrate Kim pressured the Saheonbu to cover up a murder case that Jung-seok was investigating. He believes that it’s because Prince Mil-poong, the Noron candidate for crown prince, was involved, and adds that they did the night inspection because the team leader told him to let it go.
Jung-seok starts to storm out, but the team leader tells him to oversee the civil service exam. This is obviously insulting to Jung-seok’s abilities judging by his reaction, but the team leader bellows that he won’t tolerate his orders being ignored.
There appears to be quite a lot of cheating going on at the civil service exams, but Yi Geum is unconcerned about the danger. An annoyingly cheerful test-taker sits next to him and chatters that he looks terrible, even sniffing him to see if he stayed up drinking last night, ha.
When Yi Geum tells him to mind his own business, the test taker, PARK MOON-SOO (Kwon Yul) says sadly, “Ah, you’ve failed many times,” admitting that he’s failed the test ten times, ha. Yi Geum looks like he’d appreciate it if Moon-soo would kindly burst into flames.
When Moon-soo finishes his test, he takes a look around and notices Yi Geum’s paper, which says he’s Noh Tae-pyung, age 52. Oops. He calls out Yi Geum for substituting (taking the test for someone else), but Yi Geum pushes him down, shoves his test into the middle of the pile so the administrators can’t tell which one was substituted, and runs.
Moon-soo chases after him, and hee, Yi Geum actually stops to blow a kiss to his horse. Moon-soo eventually catches up to Yi Geum, but Yi Geum tells him to chill out because he peeked at Moon-soo’s test and he’s going to fail again anyway. Moon-soo lunges at Yi Geum, who neatly sidesteps and skips away again with a cheeky shrug.
Resuming the chase, Moon-soo gets his hands on a guard’s spear, which he throws at Yi Geum, nearly skewering him clean through the head. Suddenly they’re interrupted by a cry that PRINCE YOON-RYONG (Noh Young-hak) is passing by. Yi Geum accidentally looks up at the young prince and they lock eyes, but Yi Geum runs off again.
Still yelling about Yi Geum, Moon-soo finds Jang-dal and Ah-bong staring at him. They ask what’s going on and he stammers a confusing explanation, but they seem more alarmed by the fact that he took the civil service exam than that he saw someone cheating. Ha, apparently Moon-soo isn’t known for being very smart.
When Yi Geum finally runs out of breath, he’s joined by Prince Yoon-ryong, also called Yi Hwan, who says affectionately that he’s still a troublemaker. He calls Yi Geum by his title — Prince Yeoning.
At the palace, QUEEN INWON (Nam Ki-ae) and CROWN PRINCESS SEONUI (Song Ji-in) watch a sword-dancing performance led by Prince Mil-poong, otherwise known as YI TAN (Jung Moon-sung). The court praises the cocky young prince, but behind his back, Queen Inwon sighs and rolls her eyes.
She criticizes Yi Tan for making them all suffer in the weather, and he lashes out by mentioning the crown prince, who claims to be sick often lately and shouldn’t be leaving his place unoccupied. But Queen Inwon sneers back that she and the king are taking care of that place perfectly well, thank you.
Yi Hwan shows up in time to cut the tension, and Queen Inwon lights up, thrilled to see him. He says he brought a guest, and everyone is shocked to see the wayward Yi Geum walk in. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world.
Yi Tan threatens to kill one of the sword dancers for making a mistake during the performance. He screams, “I will be king, this will all be mine!” as he swings his sword, but Yi Geum’s calm voice stops him: “I see you still have a habit of committing violence. You’ll get in trouble one day.”
Yi Tan asks Yi Geum not to tell anyone what he just saw, and even calls him “hyung-nim.” He asks if Yi Geum is here to side with Prince Yoon-ryong, but Yi Geum says he doesn’t care what happens in the palace. Yi Tan chuckles that it’s not that he doesn’t care, but that he’s not qualified because of his lowlife mother.
He calls Yi Geum an embarrassment, and asks why he hangs out with Yi Hwan, the king’s legitimate son, when Yi Geum is just a neglected son. Yi Geum says that as long as they’re discussing royal blood, he doesn’t want Yi Tan calling him “hyung-nim” anymore, because he’s not even the king’s son.
Yi Tan retorts that he’s a direct heir of Prince Sohyun (son of King Injo, who lived a hundred and fifty years before their time), and that the throne rightfully belongs to him and his father. Yi Geum just laughs and tells him to stop whining.
He abruptly drops his smile and steps close to Yi Tan to say that he heard Magistrate Kim was inspected last night. He accuses Yi Tan of being the reason — he probably got himself in trouble, and the Norons needed to keep it quiet, hence the night inspection. He asks if Yi Tan killed someone, and the prince tells him to shut his mouth, guilt written all over his face.
Yi Geum says that Yi Tan doesn’t deserve to be king, and that Yoon-ryong is next in line anyway so he should save his energy. He tells Yi Tan not to be scared, because Yoon-ryong is a nice guy who will let him live. He turns away, and Yi Tan screams and levels his sword at Yi Geum’s neck, but Yi Geum just smirks for him to put the sword away before he hurts himself.
One of Yi Tan’s followers runs over, gasping that the king is about to make an announcement related to him.
KING SUKJONG (Kim Gap-soo) pardons Yi Tan’s great-grandmother, Prince Sohyun’s wife (who was killed for treason), and posthumously restores her status as crown princess. This gives Yi Tan a strong claim to the throne, and he drops to his knees in abject gratitude.
Queen Inwon asks if this means King Sukjong intends to remove Crown Prince Yoon-ryong and make Yi Tan the new crown prince. The king barks that it’s none of her business, but that they can’t just watch the country crumble.
The Noron ministers congratulate Yi Tan, Yi Hwan is advised to leave the palace and let the ministers handle this, and Yi Geum travels home to Jeongdong. When he arrives, he witnesses Lady Seo, his wife, verbally and physically abusing Jo-hong for daring to enter her house. Yi Geum stops Lady Seo’s tirade, saying that if she’s going to call anyone lowly it should be him. She snaps that at least he should play with gisaengs or concubines instead of lowlifes.
Jo-hong finally guesses that Yi Geum is a prince, and he asks her to be understanding of Lady Seo — was forced to marry him, which broke her heart. He says he’s only half a prince, and that his mother was a “lowlife,” and Jo-hong says she’s heard the story of how King Sukjong fell in love with a water maid, who aren’t allowed to become concubines (which would have made Yi Geum’s birth legitimate).
Jo-hong says that she’s heard that the prince who resulted from the affair isn’t welcome among nobles or commoners, because he’s neither. Yi Geum manages to smile and joke that he’s pretty famous, and Jo-hong says she’s glad he’s a bit of an outcast because he’ll always take care of her.
Moon-soo greets Jung-seok excitedly when he finally emerges from the palace. LOL, he’s so dorky. He’s fixated on catching Yi Geum, sure that he makes a career out of taking the exams for other people, especially after seeing him take off on his obviously expensive horse.
He’s filed a report with Saheonbu, and he argues that waiting until tomorrow to investigate will be too late, so he wants to go after Yi Geum himself right now. Jung-seok says that Moon-soo is very enthusiastic, but that he can’t go chasing people until after he passes the exams and becomes a Saheonbu inspector.
Jung-seok goes home to his wife, and Jang-dal, the third member of Jung-seok’s little trio along with Ah-bong, tells Moon-soo that the Saheonbu is already working on an important case. Moon-soo gets an idea — to find someone named Yeo-ji, who he knows will jump all over his case.
Yi Geum has taken himself to a gibang to get drunk, and he accidentally witnesses a gisaeng arguing with herself about whether her breasts are big enough “to get into that room.” She sees Yi Geum, who swears he was just drinking, not staring, then he stares some more when she wonders out loud where she can find some tangerines.
A few minutes later she’s carrying four tangerines (LOL, why four??) when she overhears a noble saying that Lord Min sent the gisaengs out of his room to discuss private matters.
Lord Min is discussing Magistrate Kim’s night inspection with him, and Magistrate Kim is worried that it’s a bad sign for Prince Mil-poong’s hopeful installation as crown prince. In particular, they’re concerned about Jung-seok, who considers Yi Tan a suspect in a murder he’s investigating.
The Saheonbu chief inspector is there too, and he says there’s only so much he can do to rein in the Saheonbu, but Lord Min isn’t concerned since there’s no evidence. He admits that Yi Tan is flawed, but he says those flaws will make him a king they can deal with.
The chief inspector says he doesn’t believe Yi Tan is guilty, but the situation does seem a bit strange. Lord Min tells him to appoint Byung-joo as the team leader on the case where Yi Tan is a suspect.
Yi Hwan meets Yi Geum at the gibang and informs him that the person who hired him to substitute the civil service test was none other than Yi Tan, though he doesn’t know who he was testing for. He’s scared that Yi Tan will find out that Yi Geum took the test and be angry, because people tend to die around Yi Tan at an alarming rate.
The coincidences surrounding the deaths are concerning. A man who managed Yi Tan’s land died right after alerting the Saheonbu of irregularities in Yi Tan’s accounting. Yi Tan’s bodyguard and his wife died, and the lead investigator in the case hanged himself. A young widow who was raped by Yi Tan was found dead after she learned she was pregnant. And the military official who tried to discover why these people all died, mysteriously fell off a cliff to his own death.
At the moment, Yi Tan finds himself recording yet another murder in his infamous “death ledger,” in which he writes down his victims’ names and reasons for killing them. He’s just killed Noh Tae-pyung, who asked him to hire someone to take his civil service exam in exchange for looking the other way regarding what Yi Tan did to his niece (the widow that Yi Tan raped), then changed his mind and demanded compensation.
Byung-joo runs into the woman from the gibang, who’s now dressed in the uniform she wears for her real job — she’s a damo (female inspector) named YEO-JI (Go Ara). She’s still wearing the wig from her gibang outfit, which she admits she just thought was pretty, and she offers him a tangerine and asks him not to tell anyone, hee.
Curious as to why Yi Tan would hire someone to take an exam for a nobleman, and what he might be planning next, Yi Geum decides to participate in a hunting contest that Yi Tan is hosting the next day. Jung-seok sends Yeo-ji to the hunting contest for much the same reason.
She tells him that she overheard a conversation last night that proved to her that even the Norons who support Yi Tan are aware of his dangerous proclivities. She’s as determined to stop Yi Tan from becoming king as Jung-seok, and to do that, she plans to steal his death ledger.
Moon-soo somehow convinces Ah-bong to give him the information he wants to investigate Yi Geum himself, and he puts Ah-bong in a headlock when he tries to refuse at the last second. Ah-bong quips that Moon-soo should use this passion to study harder and pass the exam, HAHA, but Moon-soo is too excited to listen.
Yi Tan’s sycophants praise him for organizing the biggest hunting contest ever, but Yi Geum calmly refuses to participate in their fawning. Yi Tan offers a golden toad statue (with his name engraved on it, naturally) to the hunter who brings back the biggest animal.
Moon-soo sneaks into the home of Noh Tae-pyung, the man that Yi Geum substituted for, but he’s confused by its shabbiness (Moon-soo: “Did he sell his wife??”). The home is empty, and Moon-soo assumes that Noh Tae-pyung got scared and ran, but he needs to catch him if he wants to find Yi Geum.
Yeo-ji makes her way surreptitiously through the hunting camp, trying to reach Yi Tan’s tent and hopefully his death ledger. She bumps into Yi Geum, and she freezes as she recognizes him from the gibang last night. Luckily he doesn’t recognize her and continues on his way.
Moon-soo sees a crowd hurrying towards a posted notice… it’s the results of the civil service exam. He nervously checks for his test score, but instead he sees the name Noh Tae-pyung with the top score.
Managing to sneak into Yi Tan’s tent, Yeo-ji rifles through his things looking for the death ledger. Yi Geum joins her and says coolly that the prince may be a fool, but he’s not that stupid. Yeo-ji has a locked box under her arm, and Yi Geum says he also wants to know what’s inside.
He offers her money to leave it behind, but Yeo-ji stops him mid-sentence with a well-placed knee to his manhood, ha. He slowly sinks to the floor, and she tells him to be thankful she went easy on him.
She leaves the tent with the box, but she finds herself facing Yi Tan and several of his followers. She takes off at a dead run, stopping to shove the box under another tent then leading her pursuers away. They catch up, and she fights several of them bare-handed, holding her own pretty well, but eventually they manage to catch her.
Yi Tan croons that he feels bad capturing such a pretty little boy, but Yi Geum, who’s recovered and caught up, tells him to let Yeo-ji go because she’s not a boy. He invites Yi Tan to fight him instead, making Yi Tan hiss angrily at his arrogant smirk.
I really liked this premiere, although some of the political maneuverings are confusing — I’m only slightly familiar with the problems faced by the monarchy at this point in history. I’ll do my best to give a broad explanation of where we are right now, in King Sukjong’s final year as king: Yi Geum is Sukjong’s acknowledged son by a water maid, and while he’s intelligent and by all historical accounts a good person, his birth status leaves him out of the line of succession. Prince Yoon-ryong (Yi Hwan) is Sukjong’s legitimate son by a former wife – Queen Inwon is his stepmother – and Prince Mil-poong (Yi Tan) is a direct descendent of King Injo through his son Prince Sohyeon. Injo had disapproved of Sohyeon’s attempts to modernize Korea and after Sohyeon’s death, had his sons banished and his wife executed for treason.
Crown Prince Yoon-ryong has proven unable to father an heir (due to an injury accidentally caused by his own mother), and the Norons and Sorons are fighting over whether to install Prince Yoon-ryong or Prince Mil-poong (Yi Tan) as the new crown prince. King Sukjong has retroactively pardoned Yi Tan’s ancestor, Crown Prince Sohyeon’s wife, which has restored Yi Tan’s claim for the throne. This seems to indicate King Sukjong’s tacit support of Prince Mil-poong as a candidate for the throne, and all that stands in Yi Tan’s way now is the pesky Saheonbu, who believe he’s a serial murderer.
I feel like I always say this, but the thing that has me most excited about Haechi is the casting — it’s like they deliberately put all my favorite character actors in one show. Lee Pil-mo, Kwon Yul, Nam Ki-ae, Ahn Seung-kyun, Park Hoon… I could go on and on. I’m particularly gleeful about Kwon Yul’s character Moon-soo, who isn’t that bright but whom history tells us will become one of Yi Geum’s closest advisers. Kwon Yul portrays Moon-soo with this air of playfulness that I haven’t seen in him before, as every show I’ve seen him in, he’s either been serious and sad, or downright evil. Knowing Jung Il-woo’s tendency to give his characters a bit of snarky, deadpan humor (and Yi Geum looks to be no different), I can’t wait to see Yi Geum and Moon-soo get into all kinds of trouble together.
Which brings me to the elephant in the room… as a recapper, my opinion on Go Ara is a complicated one. She’s undeniably beautiful and can be quite charismatic, but her acting ability is… unstable? I’ve seen her in roles where she blew me away with her cheeky persona and ability to tug at my heartstrings (for example, Answer Me 1994), and I’ve seen her play characters that did her no justice whatsoever (giving you the side-eye, Hwarang). I really believe that she has potential given the right role, script, and director, and I believe that this show could be one that showcases her well. I think she’s at her best when allowed to play spunky, independent women who give as good as they get (and her gisaeng getup with the aggressive eyebrows and four tangerines made me laugh like a loon!). So I hope that her role in Haechi is one that plays to her strengths, and that we get to see more of the funny, kick-ass side of Go Ara, because when everything lines up just right, I think she’s a lot of fun to watch.
I’m happy to report that, despite the vast amount of political background I had to arm myself with just to begin to understand this first episode, it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the show at all, and there were several places where I was laughing out loud and thinking to myself that the set of this show must be a fun place to work. Jung-Il-woo is one of my favorite k-drama actors (Flower Boy Ramyun Shop was my first drama ever, and I watched 49 Days next to see more of him, and by then I was good and hooked) and I’m so excited to finally get a chance to recap one of his shows. I can already tell that Yi Geum is going to be a great character that suits his strengths perfectly. Haechi takes place during a turbulent time in Korean history, and it’s a good five years before Yi Geum takes the throne, which means we have a lot more political scheming in store for us. But it can also be very funny, and the production value is quite high, so I think that we have a lot to look forward to as an audience.
- Premiere Watch: Haechi, Item, The Light in Your Eyes, The Fiery Priest
- Jung Il-woo defies all odds to become king in SBS’s Haechi
- Haechi stars Jung Il-woo as a problematic Prince Yeongjo on quest for justice
- Haechi as the judge of good and evil in SBS fusion sageuk
- Jung Il-woo confirms comeback in drama Haechi with Go Ara and Kwon Yul