Falling under Queen Seondeok’s spell

With its ratings surging past 20%, industry talk is that Queen Seondeok (2009) could become a major hit. And why not? It’s extremely well made and barrels of fun. The fourth episode, which aired this week, ended on a cliffhanger and I’ve been antsy ever since. Is it Monday yet?

While waiting for this week to quickly pass us by, allow me to share the reasons why this sageuk (period drama) has held me spellbound.


The Sire

In just four episodes we see five actors playing Shilla’s ruler. The first sire didn’t last long on screen, but he created and left behind a lasting legacy, the Siren.

If you’re impressed by Shilla’s grandeur, remember to thank Jinheung the Great. He’s credited with turning Shilla from a feeble nation into a fearsome one.

Alas, whatever our king’s achievements, he was a man of mixed foresight. He knew his concubine would be up to no good after his death, so he arranged for her to be slain. Unfortunately, he entrusted said task to the concubine’s lover, who promptly ran and ratted on the king to her.

How could you not see that coming, Sire? You could slay tigers, but you could not tame a mere maiden?

(No, he’s not that maiden, although he sure looks like one, doesn’t he? What kind of crown is that?)

The second sire was King Jinji (Im Ho). He’s best remembered in the first episode for being (way)laid by his father’s concubine, for wearing (way) too much bling-bling, and for being cast (away) most unceremoniously later in a bizarre and blood-curdling ritual.

Stepping into King Jinji’s vacated shoes is King Jinpyeong, played first by a timid and weepy lad, then by a towering Baek Jong-min (and you marvel at the potent potion he must have tanked to cause such growth in just four years), and finally by Jo Min-gi.

Nothing like a parade of sovereigns to stave off boredom, right? Especially when you see what they have to contend with, that power-crazed concubine.


The Siren

No doubt about it and even naysayers have to concur. Queen Seondeok’s rising ratings are largely due to one woman’s jaw-dropping performance in her first sageuk. Move aside, Sire. The Siren is here.

Go Hyun-jung is a revelation in the drama. She just eats up the screen, so commanding is her presence. At turns seductive and scary, her Mishil character is the main reason why I was so impressed with the first four episodes. It’s not just that the character is unique among sageuk female villains (multiple men have the pleasure of her company in bed, whoa!), it’s also that it’s incredibly layered and well written.

A leader of the Hwarang (Shilla’s youth corps), Mishil’s official title is Seju, bestowed by the king on royal concubines. But if you don’t mind, our sultry Seju would rather be called Her Majesty, thank you. Nothing is allowed to stand in the way of her ambition, neither kin nor kid. She will even abandon her own flesh and blood, if that would pave her path to the throne.

Considering how she commands both the court and the Hwarang, it tickles me that our siren is actually quite the child.

Notice how children often refer to themselves in the third person? For example, three-year-old Megan might say, “Megan wants dolly. Give dolly to Megan now!”

Well, what do you know, our almighty Mishil talks the same way! Thus: “These are my people. Not yours, but Mishil’s! It’s now Mishil’s time to rule!” Too funny.


The Sycophants

The sycophants comprise three suckers and one sorceress. Their calling on earth is to prostrate themselves before Mishil, to suck up to her big-time.

Our male sycophants have a theme song that they aren’t even cognizant of: Send in the Clowns. Put them together and they’re pretty comical (in a pathetic way). Just look at them in that image above. That’s their trademark wistful gaze… at Mishil, of course.

Feel free to replace “clowns” with “cuckolds” because that’s what they are, in spirit. In fact, one of the men is an official wittol; he’s wedded to Mishil but is totally cool about sharing her. I’ve watched many sageuks but never have I seen such open-minded generosity!

The sorceress is in charge of the royal shrine, but don’t let her fool you. Her god is none other than Mishil. Like a true sycophant, she keeps handy a stock of sweet lies, the better to ingratiate herself with a Mishil who may be power-mad, but who is still every inch a woman and partial to flattery such as: “Who could ever contend with your beauty in Seorabeol?” Hmm, let’s not be delusional here, Seju. Just wait a few more years and see if the lines do not start showing.


The Superman

Not every man in the court is putty in Mishil’s hands. Munno (Jung Ho-bin) won’t give her the time of day and why should he? He’s Superman!

Chief Marshal of the Hwarang, Munno’s unwavering loyalty is to the king, first to King Jinheung and later to King Jinpyeong. That makes him very much an outsider in the Mishil-controlled court, a fact the camera keeps reminding us. Thus Munno is often seen appearing from behind a pillar, or standing alone in the watchtower, or high up above a cliff ready to… FLY!

That is not Munno skipping rope or being crucified, although it looks like it. That’s Munno bungee jumping… without the bungee.

Just add flying to his list of superhuman feats, such as fighting off an army single-handedly, surviving underwater exploration without an oxygen tank, and possessing an internal GPS (global positioning system) which allows him to pop up whenever he’s most needed.

(Even though he is Superman, in every episode I’m petrified that something untoward will happen to Munno. Please keep him safe, ye gods!)


The Splendor

I remember when the first stills for Queen Seondeok were released. The costumes were so splendid I gasped.

Those costume stills were no fluke. The drama is grandeur and opulence on a sweeping scale. Everything about it looks expensive; many of the details are exquisite.

From the room-sized palanquin to the luxurious palace grounds, it’s evident that the makers of Queen Seondeok have taken extraordinary care with the production. Just look at Mishil’s clothes and compare them with the flea market castaways that the royal ladies were wearing in Kingdom of the Wind.

It isn’t just the costumes or the sets.

I love the spectacle of the dances, the Hwarang displays, the horses galloping in the blue-tinted night. Most of all, I love that stark desert scenery, so beautifully shot, so realistic, like watching an IMAX film. Truly impressive.


The Sideshow

(If you’re a fan of Park Soo-jin, please don’t hate me for what I’m about to say. Hear me out to the end.)

I found Episode 1 to be unexpectedly hysterical, thanks to Park Soo-jin.

Normally with bad acting I just cringe or curse, or roll my eyes. But Park Soo-jin made me howl. This was my first time watching her and I had no idea she could be this entertaining, albeit unintentionally. It wasn’t her acting, which was honestly passable, but her whisper-soft and stilted manner of speaking. I couldn’t help it; each time she opened her mouth to talk I just burst out laughing.

But that was the first episode. The Park Soo-jin in Episode 2 was wonderful. She spoke normally, she acted exceptionally. But alas, just as I was enjoying her turnaround performance, her Maya character aged and Park Soo-jin exited the drama. Bummer!

The Park Soo-jin sideshow might have been shortlived, but trust the drama to find speedy replacements.

What do we see in Episodes 3-4? Camels (love them!), fire-eating displays, a cacophony of languages and dialects both modern and ancient, both intelligible and completely alien-sounding. An otherworldly assortment of characters, some of whom looked like they had walked right out of a biblical scene. ‘Twas a delectable feast for the ears (unless you’re a finical linguist) and the eyes.


The Secret

And now for the final reason why Queen Seondeok has me hooked.

Aww, isn’t she adorable? And there are two of them!

But in the kingdom of Shilla, twins born to a king is an ominous omen, a no-no! The sacred bone male lineage will cease, future male royal heirs will die, there will be such tumult in heaven and on earth! (A really silly fuss, if you ask me, but what’s a drama without drama? Shouldn’t royal twins be occasion for double celebrations instead of being so abhored?)

To save his throne (a most selfish reason, seriously, or maybe I’m missing something here), the twins’ dad, our King Jinpyeong, thrusts the younger one into the startled arms of his scatterbrained servant and orders her to flee with the baby to a faraway place. (And I age ten years watching the escape, so tense is it, until Superman Munno arrives, and then all is calm again. Phew.)

Fifteen years pass and our fugitive princess has grown into Deokman.

A perfect kid who’s loved by everyone (except the assassin sent by Mishil fifteen long years ago, and who hasn’t given up looking), Deokman is a whiz in everything. She’s multilingual, multi-skilled, smart as a whip, and filial to a fault. She will become our Queen Seondeok.

I don’t know. I love Deokman (and Nam Ji-hyun is awesome playing her, a teeny bit of overacting notwithstanding). She’s so free-spirited, so spunky, so full of life. I can’t imagine her growing up and becoming… Lee Yo-won.

I’ve watched Lee Yo-won in two dramas and a movie and she just does not strike me as an actress with strong screen presence. Moreover, she’s so different from young Deokman, so completely different.

But then again, I didn’t expect to like Queen Seondeok (the drama) and I do. So maybe the adult Deokman will surprise me and I hope she will. She must, if the drama is to continue being as promising as its first four episodes.

Don’t break the spell, please.

19 thoughts on “Falling under Queen Seondeok’s spell

  1. You used all the right images (I especially loved the ones for the sycophants and Munno) haha. I was all giggly reading this.. I didn’t like Baek Jong-min’s face but his acting in this drama turned me into his fan. What a performance..
    I wish this drama was shorter, maybe about 24 episodes so I can see the story develop fast but I guess they would need to milk this and stretch it out to 50 episodes considering their huge investment.

  2. Hi amy

    I thought Baek Jong-min acted really well in the scene with the twins. He started off rather listless, but pulled it off when it mattered. So did Park Soo-jin. Kinda sad to see them both go.

    I actually had ten reasons, all beginning with ‘S’ (^^) and with accompanying screencaps. But the heat was unbearable that night and my mind just wasn’t working properly. In the end I ran out of steam and listed just seven reasons. One of the three reasons that I threw away was The Supernatural. Didn’t you love our levitating egg? I thought it was hysterical. Hehe…

  3. Right, that egg of course… I was like what the… when I saw it and not to mention all those horrible CGs haha. I’m glad we probably won’t see them anymore. Nam Ji-hyun was really good in ep 6.. she even made my eyes all teary in one scene.

  4. This is the best synopsis I have read so far.

    Well done.

    I have also enjoyed the series so far and look forward to it being a blockbuster sageuk, which the other 2 heroine series have failed to achieve. (You know the ones I’m talking about.)

  5. Hahaha I love your synopsis too. Munno as superman. Yep, definitely love him as being the only man who stood up to Mishil. Mishil drew me in in the first 3 eps. But I now I’m starting to focus on Chunmyung and Deokman more in ep 5. They really stole the show with their sadness and anguish. I’m so on the twins’ side now.

  6. Hi holly and aoiyuki

    THANK YOU. 🙂

    I wrote this with a lot of trepidation because I know so little about the history behind the story. So I thought I’ll camouflage my ignorance with a light-hearted review. Thanks for not minding!

  7. Dear

    I’m watching this now. But I kind hard to understand it fully. IT was a historic story so I have to watch tentatively.

  8. I love your synopsis! I’m at work and nearly died trying not to laugh out loud, esp. at the Superman section (and his screencap).

    From what I gathered, the main reason King Jinpyeong sent away one of the babies was because he was trying to save Lady Maya from Mishil (I recall him saying, “I won’t let Mishil separate us a second time.”) Still a rather selfish reason, but I liked how they’d flashback to him giving up the baby, reflecting on sadness and regret.

    But it’s interesting: the antagonists don’t age. One of ’em grows a beard, although I don’t know how that’s supposed to show how he aged 15 years… I wanna know their secret.

  9. give u my quick thought: i love it and it won’t break the spell….:)
    well…..for me this historical drama is awesome and best i ever watched….even you watched till the end….you still want to watch it over and over (I DID). It has an ending that you will not forget anytime soon 🙂
    anyway…..i’m still under bidam’s spell though i’ve already finished watch 2days ago….hehehehe

  10. Still watching this drama. It has paled a little now that Mishil has gone. Such a dignified leavetaking for such a ferocious beauty.
    I am in love with Kim Nam Gil. I don’t care if he is turning bad. He is gorgeous. His eyes and his smile. He can act a scene without saying one word. I feel sure he will die but I hope not yet. I am getting a little bored with Queen Seondeok now. She was more interesting when she played against Mishil. Now she is dealing with harsh problems by staring off into space and then uttering maybe one word such as ..’Tonight’ to Chun Chun. Not good enough dialogue really, considering that she has made detailed plans with him for a coup and a battle to follow. However it is still eyeboggling with the setting and costumes. The only quibble I have is with the lighting. In those days they did not have electric light. Just oil lamps and candles. Even with lots of those around it would be a much softer light and more believable. Ypu would still see all the details but it would be quite beautiful.
    I am in love with Bidam aka Kim Nam Gil. If I were the Queen…….Oh well.


  11. yaknow kingdom of the winds was set around the time 0AD a good 600 years before Queen SeonDuk and during the birth years of Gogoryeo so its understandable that the court ladies didnt have such refined clothes as those of Shilla courtiers just before Shilla reached its peak..:P

    one thing I was most impressed about was the fact that they actually found 2 actresses that look so much alike to play the part of Queen SeonDuk unlike a lot of other dramas where your left dazed and confused after the main characters grow up.. the later SeonDuk adopts the same mannerisms as the younger one which makes the transition even more convincing..

    kudos goes to mishil though for looking pretty much the same some 30 years after she tries to dispose of the baby seonduk.

  12. Nice! I finished Queen Seondeok, and I love it! Lee Yo Won, Go Hyun Jung and Lee Seung Hyo are absolutely AMAZING.

  13. Hi Thundie! I have recently discovered your site here and want to thank you for sharing your reviews and love of korean dramas. I would love to share my thoughts on the drama here as well with you and anyone who cares to read this.

    In general, I found the Queen Seondeok series very addicting. There were a lot of exciting parts that kept me hooked, despite some flaws and parts to the storyline I really did not like. I am Vietnamese-American, so there are enough similarities to my asian culture that I was able to understand and relate to this movie as a whole. But, my preferences in terms of characters always seems to differ from what Koreans seem to like. So, here are some things I liked and disliked.

    Things I LIKED – I think I am the only one who’s favorite character is Deokman/The (eventual) Queen. I especially liked her during the period of being princess and showing her cunning and wit to outsmart and outmaneuver Mishil. I agree with you that the young Deokman’s free spirit and smarts were fun to watch. I also liked Mishil, who I though was a great villain. I wanted Deokman to triumph over Mishil, but I still sympathized with Mishil at times.

    Things I DIDN’T like – I am probably the only person who hated Bidam. I found his character irritating. And he’s a terrible person. Bidam is selfish, ruthless, untrustworthy, and untrusting. Plus, he’s incredibly unbalanced. Some people may like the ‘flawed’ aspect of his character, but I hated him. I found him completely unsuited with Queen Seondeok. I felt like her great love is the Yusin warrior character, and Bidam was a second choice, because she was lonely, tired, and was dying (which cheapened her strong character imo). All Bidam did for her, besides loving her, was use that love as an excuse to cause chaos and anguish for her and the kingdom. And, I believe he did all this because he is ultimately selfish and wanted to take the thrown from her, despite all the hard work SHE put into getting it. His love is a destructive one, and frankly, I could’ve done with the Queen just seeing him as a friend she loved, nothing more. He facilitated the death of his teacher/Munno, and made the Queen’s last days more tiresome before her death. Bidam bothered me so much, I had to fast-forward through him a lot, despite the actor’s good job at acting.

    Summary: I liked the movie in general, because it was very exciting, with good writing, good war scenes, and several very good characters.

    Recommendation: I think Dong Yi is better. Dong Yi is still the best historical drama I’ve ever scene. Dong Yi has great writing, direction, acting, characters, and love story. I loved how the character of Dong Yi was always strong in face of adversity, her love with the king was pure and whole, and how she loved her people, especially the poor.

  14. What an enormous undertaking you’ve built to assist the demographic of
    today. Thiis article certainly helps those in grasping modern terms and the outlook of
    such a traditional theory. Well-Done!

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