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.
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.
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 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.
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!)
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.
(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.
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.