Red Heart: Episodes 1-2
Red Heart premieres with gorgeous camerawork and a slow, haunting tale about a young king whose crown is little more than a symbol. Politics is a dangerous enough game for those who pull the strings – let alone those who get caught in the crossfire.
EPISODES 1-2 WEECAP
Right off the bat, this show is visually STUNNING. Many of the scenes build to a singular image, where the characters freeze in place – almost like actors in a stage play waiting for the lights to fade – and then the camera takes us away to the next scene. It makes for an incredibly grandiose atmosphere on top of the already gorgeous visuals.
As for the story, it centers on a young, fictional king names LEE TAE (Lee Joon), who’s little more than a puppet king for the first vice-premier, PARK GYE-WON (Jang Hyuk). Although Gye-won frames all his words as “advice” to the king, it’s clear that what he says goes, no matter what.
Gye-won’s influence originates from his role in leading a bloody takeover to set Tae’s father on the throne. Then, just before Tae’s father died, Gye-won manipulated Tae into essentially swearing allegiance to him on threat of being deposed.
At the start of our story proper, Tae’s queen dies of (presumably) an illness. But, as we soon learn, she’s not the first partner he’s lost.
Years ago, as crown prince, Tae met a young girl name YOO JUNG (adult version played by Kang Hanna) and instantly fell for her spirit and quick wit (after making a fool out of himself by underestimating her, that is).
He practically begged his father to have her selected as his future wife, even though her family had ties to a rival political faction. Meaning appointing Jung as crown princess would be seen as trying to gather power against Gye-won.
Sure enough, Gye-won staged an almost immediate protest, demonstrating that crossing him would lose the king any and all support from the rest of the officials and nobles.
Tae’s mother, desperate to protect her son, took matters into her own hands. She (mildly) poisoned Tae, then very calmly but sadly explained what was happening as she drank a fatal amount of poison herself – making it appear as though someone tried to assassinate them both.
Though Tae’s father knew exactly what she’d done, he had little choice except to let Gye-won place the blame on the party Jung’s family belonged to. Jung’s parents were beheaded, and she was also set for execution, but the king helped Tae sneak out of the palace through a secret tunnel in the royal library to rescue her. They set a fire to cover her escape, and it was presumed that she met her fate in said fire, burned beyond recognition.
Now Jung lives in a village deep in a bamboo forest, where she runs a massively successful basket-weaving business. So successful, in fact, that one young man tries to marry her to get his hands on it. Jung, however, knows exactly what he’s up to, and she and the villagers soundly humiliate him for his scheming.
And, surprisingly, she’s still in touch with Tae, though he’s still never told her who he really is. On the 15th of every month, they meet at the bridge where they parted years ago to spend the evening together. Those rendezvous are some of the few times we see Tae smile, though his smile always fades any time there’s mention of the palace, politics, or he’s reminded of what happened back then.
In addition to the breathtaking visuals, Red Heart does a fantastic job with atmosphere. By which I mean you can feel the difference in where the characters are at any given time. Scenes in the palace or dealing with political positioning are tense, dark, and almost stifling. Scenes in the bamboo forest or village are fresh and airy. And the secret meetings between Tae and Jung are soft and sweet, but with a delicate surface tension that’s ready to break at a moment’s notice.
The thing about Tae is that he loves Jung desperately, but his very existence is a deadly game of strategy and careful calculations. Thus, when the queen dies, and major players scramble behind the scenes to replace her with someone of their own faction, Tae sets plans of his own.
Throughout these episodes, we see him staring down at the pieces on a game board, knowing all of those “pieces” (which, in transition from one scene to the next, morph into actual people within the palace) belong to Gye-won and not to him. But he finally identifies one who might be turned: the Minister of War, JO WON-PYO (Heo Sung-tae) – who happens to have an unmarried daughter.
It’s necessary for his survival and for any hope of freeing the kingdom from Gye-won’s grasp, but Tae is frighteningly manipulative in how he approaches the daughter, JO YEON-HEE (Choi Ri). He saves her from a band of thugs, acting as though they met by coincidence and asking her to keep it a secret, all with a charming smile and sweet compliments.
Then he orchestrates for Yeon-hee’s father to find the two of them alone together, making it appear as though they’ve been secret lovers for some time now, and informs her father that he wants to make her his queen.
Meanwhile, the young nobleman who tried to romance his way into Jung’s fortune plots revenge for his humiliation. Tae overhears him hiring thugs to kidnap her and take the business by force, and when he realizes who they’re talking about, he can’t just let it happen.
He successfully draws them away before Jung is even fully aware they were following her and fights them off, but is stopped by a volley of arrows. When Jung, alerted by the commotion, comes running to him, he shields her with his body and earns a deep wound in his arm.
They’re both equally angered that the other is in danger, and Jung finally comes right out with her feelings for him. This whole time, she’s been dropping hints and hoping he’ll confess, but now she outright asks him to marry her. Stunned and dismayed, Tae stammers that he’s already betrothed.
And elsewhere, Gye-won learns all about their monthly trysts.