As I explained in Part 1 of this review, Jejoongwon recreates events in the late Joseon dynasty which led to the founding of the country’s first Western-style hospital. Many of its characters are based on people who lived through those events, whose names remain unchanged in the drama.
Despite sticking fairly close to the annals, Jejoongwon never feels dry or documentary-like. As you watch, you will find yourself immersed in the stories that it paints, transported to an era that feels foreign and yet intimately familiar, ancient and yet newly modern. You may even become curious about the hospital and desire to learn more about its history. Such is the power and poignancy of its storytelling.
For now, let us meet the three leads of the drama. Without giving away major spoilers, I would like to offer you a glimpse into their individual stories and show you how their shared destinies began. I will devote Part 3 to the supporting cast and characters.
Park Yong-woo as Little Dog/Hwang Jung
The first thing you notice when you enter Little Dog’s house, in that dingy room that he shares with his parents, is a wall lined with pages and pages of words.
If you’re not a neighbor (for what reason then did you come to this village of pariahs?), you might take a step back, your eyes widening at the last thing you would expect to see in a butcher’s home. Writing on the wall?
But if you’re a neighbor, you don’t even cast a second glance at the yellowing paper. Like everyone in the village, you know that Little Dog has always been different. You recall how years ago, a stranger had come to stay in the village, he an ailing scholar with little regard for hierarchical shackles. This man brought with him knowledge so enticing, a little boy would spend hours hunkered on the floor, meticulously copying the words that the stranger wrote down for him. This little boy, so sheltered by his loving mom he had no idea the world that existed beyond the confines of the village was far different from his own, grasped the lessons with such speed and ease the scholar was astonished.
Did the boy gloat to the other children that he was now more learned than they were? No. He taught them to read and write. He, so small in stature, became their teacher.
But what is the use of being schooled if your destiny is the same as your father’s, and your father’s father? Does being literate help you better slaughter a cow? Will it prevent you from being kicked and spat upon when you accidentally knock into a yangban while you are out delivering meat? Will it earn money that you need desperately now, because your mother is so ill she can barely stand?
Stop being foolish, Little Dog. Be the best butcher and forget everything else.
I have loved Park Yong-woo since watching him in For Horowitz and My Scary Girl some years ago. He made me laugh in those two movies with his self-effacing humor and an innocence that belied the ages and characters that he played so effortlessly. That mischievous twinkle in his eyes and that bashful smile… He was someone you could bring home to mom and not worry about getting an earful on your poor taste. In fact you might even have to fight mom for hey-Yong-woo-come-sit-next-to-me space.
In Jejoongwon Park Yong-woo plays a man born into the lowest rung of society, who then claws his way up to become a man with a new name bestowed by the king, and with a place in the history books. (“Little Dog” is merely a nickname; butchers were as good as animals and thus deemed undeserving of human names.)
The journey from butcher Little Dog to surgeon Hwang Jung, from abattoir to the king’s palace, spans more than twenty years.
In that long passage of time, the dilemmas and hardships he faces will wear even the most battle-scarred down. The obstacles often seem insurmountable, and why shouldn’t they be? He is a baekchong after all. He can’t possibly overturn centuries-old societal strictures and hope to emerge unscathed, alive even. Some of the most unforgettable scenes in the drama are of Hwang Jung so defeated and so despairing you want to reach into the screen and tell him, “Stop. That’s too much suffering for even one man.”
Because he doesn’t cry pretty, you reason, your love for him rushing to the fore in a protective embrace that can’t be realized because a damned TV screen separates you from him. No, his face crumbles, like a child who has looked forward to an outing for weeks and then arrives to find the amusement park shut for repairs. In one scene where his spirits are at their lowest, he screams till you think his lungs might burst, he thrashes on the ground like one having seizures, he is so racked with pain you think surely death is preferable to this.
Because the emotions are so raw, you see. When he is nervous it shows, in the trembling of his voice, in the way his shoulders shake, like one shivering in the cold. He has spent so much of his life with his eyes lowered in deference, it will take years for him to unlearn what has now become a reflex.
But when he is happy (and such scenes are many, because Jejoongwon is an uplifting drama after all, rather than one that leaves you depressed), the joy just radiates from his face. When he throws his head back and laughs out loud, you laugh along with him. It does not matter whether his laughter is natural or forced (because sometimes he laughs to hide his discomfiture in front of the girl he loves). What matters is that it is too contagious to ignore, and that it makes your own spirits leap.
Last year I watched a drama where the lead actor’s acting could be best summed up in one word: Pure.
It was acting so sublime I wanted to cry. I thought surely it would be a few years before I chanced upon acting of that same caliber. Little did I realize that it would take just one year for another actor to come along and equal, if not surpass, Hwang Jung-min’s. Park Yong-woo’s turn as Hwang Jung is one of the top three best (ever) performance by an actor (male or female) in a drama.
It’s not just because there’s such purity in his acting it doesn’t feel like acting at all. Time and again while watching Jejoongwon, I catch myself thinking thus of Park Yong-woo: “The guy is in his late thirties, but his acting has such an unsullied and untainted quality about it I feel as though I’m watching a child! Not childishness but childlikeness. He comes across as being so earnest, heartfelt and sincere.”
I know. I sound like I’m unleashing a thesaurus of praise words, repeating what is essentially the same thing. I can’t help it! Fabulous acting always makes me squeal. Fabulous acting by a favorite actor in a superb drama reduces me to an incoherent mess.
Yeon Jung-hoon as Baek Do-yang
Much as I love the Hwang Jung character, it is enigmatic Baek Do-yang that I find endlessly fascinating.
Imagine being born into nobility. Then imagine being born above nobility, to the Justice Minister himself. Not only that, he is the latter’s only son. His future all but assured, the only thing left for Do-yang to do is to pass the civil exams and find himself a beautiful bride.
He will accomplish both easily, of course. Isn’t he already the top student in the royal academy? Isn’t it a foregone conclusion that the most beautiful girl in all of Hanseong will be his wife? Still, there is the tiny matter of is-it-signed-sealed-delivered-yet? Even though they have known each other since they were children, he will still need to formally ask for her hand. He will still need to tell her how he feels.
But neither marriage nor the upcoming exam is the most important thing to Do-yang right now. His immediate goal is to become a doctor trained in Western medicine. Everything else can wait.
For that reason he has been secretly reading all the medical books that he can lay his hands on. (His father is adamant that Do-yang enter the civil service.) He has been a frequent visitor to his beloved’s house, for her father is an interpreter and speaks English fluently. The American medical missionaries are all friends of the interpreter, thus giving Do-yang the opportunity to talk to them and learn the latest advancements in modern medicine.
Everything seems to be going Do-yang’s way, until one night when a reckless (and most unthinkable) decision leads him to Little Dog.
Two men together in one room. One of them a minister’s son, the other a butcher’s. The former orders the latter to perform a most horrifying act of desecration. Thus their paths cross, for the first time. And will cross again and again, until both find themselves in a place called Jejoongwon.
For the first time in his life, Do-yang learns that no matter how hard he tries, someone else will seemingly be always better than him. Someone else will hog the limelight that he, Do-yang, seeks. This someone will even threaten his long-cherished relationship with the girl that he had been so sure he would marry.
This upstart, this competition… Now nothing else ceases to matter except defeating this man called Hwang Jung. This new mission will rock Do-yang to the very depths of his moral being and force him onto paths he could never imagine taking.
I’ve only watched Yeon Jung-hoon in one previous work: Daddy-Long-Legs. The impression he left on me following the movie is akin to two ships passing each other in the dark. In other words, no recollection of the event whatsoever.
If he was bad in that movie I would have remembered him (and vowed never to touch anything else he did). If he was good I would have dashed out and bought me a roomful of everything he did. Alas, he was just… forgettable.
Watching the first episode of Jejoongwon (and when I wasn’t gazing entranced at Park Yong-woo, palms cupping my chin), I thought, “Hmm, Yeon Jung-hoon’s acting is pretty awful here.” He sneered too much. He smirked too much. He swaggered like he owned the world, which didn’t sit at all well with me, especially not when my poor Hwang Jung was getting his hide (his own, not the cow’s) beaten to a pulp.
I can’t recall exactly when it happened, but somewhere in the early episodes Yeon Jung-hoon’s acting stopped looking like a year’s worth of posturing and became… good. And actually got better and better. His eyes were on fire when they had to be; they were tender and soft in scenes that demanded restraint; he became a Baek Do-yang that I came to care for. When he ditched his old hairstyle in so very dramatic a manner, I didn’t snicker. I nodded in approval and said, “Yes, that is so you, Baek Do-yang. Bravo!”
Some of the most memorable scenes in the drama are of Do-yang startling us, because his actions run contrary to the man that we think he is. Then we realize that we can’t pin him down; the guy is an enigma. Brilliance can do that to you.
In a drama where Park Yong-woo gave a Daesang-worthy performance (he’d better garner some year-end awards or else I’m going to break some windows), Yeon Jung-hoon held his own despite an uneven start. I bet many viewers rooted for his Do-yang character because of its layers of complexity, and sympathized with him in spite of his arrogance. After all, he just wanted to excel, to be the very best doctor in Joseon. What’s so wrong with that?
Han Hye-jin as Yoo Seok-ran
Expect a certain monster to rear its head when you watch Yoo Seok-ran. Specifically a monster with green eyes.
Not only is Seok-ran beautiful, she is the only daughter of parents who believe in bequeathing confidence, freedom and as much education as she desires. She speaks English, she sings in English, she holds her own among the foreigners who come to visit her father at their house. And speaking of house, take a look at her room and its modern fittings, with a bed and quilted covers so soft and inviting your insomnia instantly vanishes, and with a dressing table that comes complete with a large mirror, even!
Now take a peek inside her wardrobe and tell me if you do not faint to see the number of exquisite hanboks that she owns, many of them refashioned in a modern style.
Despite the obvious material comforts, Seok-ran remains humble and kind to everyone she meets. To the butcher Yard Dog, who delivers meat regularly to her house, she is gracious and gentle. Little does she know he will turn out to be… Hwang Jung’s dad.
Ah, Hwang Jung. The man she saved. This shy man. Why does Do-yang seem to hate him so? Wherefore the rivalry between the two men, so particularly intense on Do-yang’s part?
She and Do-yang have known each other for years, even though he is a yangban and she is of the chungin (middle) caste. Their families are close, since her father is both a court interpreter and a merchant with widespread contacts. Her mother’s greatest hope is to see her and Do-yang married, the sooner the better. Her father, the one who taught her English, just wants her to be happy, with whomever she desires (although one of noble birth would be preferable, of course).
Raised thus with her parents’ twin hopes, Seok-ran finds herself nevertheless drawn to Hwang Jung. His nervousness around her. His gentleness around others. His dogged determination to gain acceptance into Jejoongwon. The happiness she feels with him.
I first watched Han Hye-jin in 1% of Anything and thought she was exceptionally pretty and rather promising, acting-wise. Next was Be Strong Geum Soon, which I watched bits of when it aired on a local station. Third was Terroir which I paid good money for, all because of Kim Ju-hyuk (who wowed me in awesome Blue Swallow).
Because of the money, and KJH, and a misguided belief that I should watch at least two episodes of anything before I could share credible first impressions with my blog readers, I plodded on, growing more agitated by the minute. The plot made no sense! But worse than that was the lead actress’s over-the-top overacting. Yes, I deliberately mentioned “over” twice. I cursed and swore and vowed never to watch a Han Hye-jin drama again.
Never make such sweeping vows, dear readers. I stand before you today as one eating humble pie, grateful to be proven WRONG.
My biggest surprise watching Jejoongwon was Han Hye-jin. What a complete turnaround role from terrifying Terroir. Appropriately reined-in here, her appearance is both luminous and elegant. But what struck me the most was the gentleness with which she interpreted her role. Not a glimpse of overacting at all.
Since finishing Jejoongwon, I have replayed (too many times to count) a particular scene.
Seok-ran has just discovered Hwang Jung’s past as a butcher and is grappling with the enormity of that realization. Her eyes fill with tears as she recollects their encounters and how he had given away too many clues which she failed to grasp, until now. It is a scene that I can’t get enough of, because of the flashbacks and the plaintive song that plays, and because of Seok-ran’s sorrow and Han Hye-jin’s quiet acting. In fact, I think I’ll go and replay it now. Part 3 of this review will be up as soon as I can tear myself away from that scene.