The above image shows you two of my most-loved characters in Jejoongwon.
One of them should be instantly familiar to many of you; the other you might not have seen before, because he’s newly arrived in Korea and this is his first time on Korean TV. Together they form part of what is undeniably one of the best kdrama ensembles of the year.
This ensemble is huge, given the drama’s length and scope, so let’s take a look at just twenty of the supporting actors and their roles. Whether they kindle in you love or loathing, you will not soon forget them.
Kim Gab-soo as Yoo Hee-seo (Seok-ran’s father)
Fluent in English, Yoo is the official interpreter and go-between for the palace when it needs to communicate with the American medical missionaries who have come to the country at the king and queen’s invitation. His role isn’t just that of court interpreter, however; he also procures medical and other supplies from across the border. As you watch him in the drama (and Kim Gab-soo plays Yoo the way he has played everything I’ve seen of him: masterfully), you will soon envy Seok-ran for her good fortune. Surely she has the coolest dad in all of Joseon.
Geum Bo-ra as Seok-ran’s mother
She strikes you at first as just another typical mother from a higher Joseon caste. She worries about her daughter’s marriage prospects, she faints at the sight of blood, she is happiest when her husband and daughter are safe and sound around her, instead of wandering the streets on yet another goodness-knows-what mission. But peel away the trappings of wealth and comfort and you find beneath a woman who is stronger and more open-minded than she seems. Plus… she thinks nothing of hugging her husband in public, much to his chagrin!
Cha Hwa-yun as Hwang Jung’s mother
Her lot in life not much better than the animals that her husband slaughters for a living, Hwang Jung’s mother (and we are never told her name) is nevertheless content. The little boy playing (or reading) by her side fills her days with his chatter and endless questions, such as this one today: “Mother, where do cows go after they die?” She smiles indulgently, her hands busy with another piece of sewing, and tells him, “To heaven, Little Dog. That’s where they go, and that’s where butchers go, too.” Her answer satisfies him for now, and he falls asleep, dreaming of cows frolicking in a faraway place.
Jang Hang-seon as Yard Dog (Hwang Jung’s father)
At turns gruff and gentle, Yard Dog has spent his entire life as an outcast in an outcaste village. A tavern where he regularly delivers meat sells a most mouth-watering beef soup, but he dares not ask for a bowl of it, even if he has the money to pay. Baekchong like him can’t sit and eat with even the base chonmin folks, of course. And even if chungin (middle-caste people) like Interpreter Yoo and his daughter treat him with courtesy, an unbridgeable gulf separates their two worlds. But try telling that to his son…
Seo In-seok as Baek Tae-hyun (Baek Do-yang’s father)
As Justice Minister, Baek Tae-hyun does not have much else that he needs to aspire for. His bright and ambitious son is expected to ace the coming civil examinations and to take a bride befitting his high station; that the boy’s mother (whom he had banished for her Western ideas) will not be around to see their son’s fait accompli is merely a small blight best shoved under a decaying pile of leaves. But another matter has troubled him of late: pressure from the reformists for a Japan-led modernization of Joseon, which would include the building of a Japanese hospital in Hanseong. How unthinkable and unacceptable!
Sean Richard as Dr. Horace Newton Allen
Founding director of the Jejoongwon hospital, Dr. Allen is first introduced to us when we see him on a boat, his face flushed with excitement as he arrives in Hanseong. By the time he leaves (the capital and the drama), he would have wormed his way into your heart and become your favorite doctor, in any kdrama genre. We love him for owning the kindest eyes and warmest smile. But most of all we love him for believing in a man called Hwang Jung. Look out for the scene where he accepts Hwang as his medical assistant and see if you are not giggling through your tears. Played superbly by Sean Richard, you can’t wait to see this unassuming theater-trained actor in his next role.
Ricky Lee Neely as Dr. John William Heron
If you love Dr. Allen as much as I do, you will greet Dr. Heron’s arrival with dismay. Sent to replace the former, he is all cold rules and regulations at first, with nary a smile on that grim face. But soon we see a doctor (and hospital director) who is just as caring as his predecessor, who is governed by principle, yes, but who wants only to save the ill and to build a Jejoongwon that will outlast him, staffed by doctors and nurses who will put their patients above themselves. Ricky Lee Neely, who looks uncannily like the real Dr. Heron, is a revelation here with his controlled and nuanced acting. And yes, he does smile!
Catherine Baillie as Dr. Lilias Horton
The first female doctor in Jejoongwon, Dr. Horton never feels like a fish out of water despite being surrounded by Dr. Allen and the first batch of 16 medical students, all of them male. She can be firm one moment, and giggly-girly the next; no wonder she and Seok-ran become fast friends. The latter will become the first in a long line of female students that she will train (and Horton teaches not just medicine but ice-skating and dancing, among other things!). Where she comes from, women doctors aren’t a novelty anymore, but here in Joseon Horton must overcome centuries of discrimination and old-world practices. Still, this country owns her heart now.
Kang Nam-gil as Dr. Watanabe
Dubbed the Hippocrates of Japan, Dr. Watanabe has come to Joseon purportedly to start a hospital that would be modeled after the best in Japan. On the surface benign albeit a tad klutzy, the doctor is more malignant than we give him credit for, with a basement hiding some of his darkest secrets. Intent on impressing his government back home, Watanabe’s plans are thwarted repeatedly by a man that he first saw one long night ago, whose ill mother he had treated half-heartedly. He does not recognize Hwang Jung at first, and who can blame him?
Choi Jong-hwan as King Gojong
I had to do a double take when I saw the scene during a rewatch (because I totally missed it the first time). Was that the king’s hand on the queen’s? Yes! How wonderful to witness that act of open affection between His Majesty and his consort, so rare in the period dramas I’ve seen. But it isn’t so extraordinary when we consider how forward-looking this king is. He openly embraces change, and even travels incognito to the opening of the hospital that he commissioned. But as the annals show, this is a dynasty on the wane. Soon King Gojong will find himself powerless against the foreign powers so eager for a lion’s share of the Joseon spoils.
Seo Yi-sook as Queen Min/Empress Myeongseong
At first appearance a fierce and formidable-looking woman (she towers over the other females in the palace), the queen is a bundle of surprises. She is traditional yet modern, submissive yet spirited. When her personal physician, Dr. Horton, tells her about ice-skating, the queen is immediately intrigued and asks for a demonstration. Yet she will not herself take to the ice, preferring to observe the happy going-ons from afar. It is she who gives the king the inspiration for Jejoongwon’s name, and it is her support that will allow one young woman’s dream to come true.
Jang Hyun-sung as Min Young-ik
As Queen Min’s nephew, Min Young-ik has travelled to places as far as San Francisco. But it is back home that his life takes a dangerous turn when he is stabbed during the Gapsin Coup. After he is saved by Dr. Allen, Min will be instrumental in spearheading the establishment of Jejoongwon. Time and again, it is his personal intervention that allows the hospital to ride out the many storms it faces. Despite his power, the man isn’t the least bit overbearing or obnoxious. His scenes are mostly quiet and even occasionally comical. If only more court officials were like him!
Jung Suk-yong as Lee Gwak/Jak Dae
My favorite line in the whole drama could possibly be this one: “If you die, I will kill you.” Uttered by a frightened and exasperated Jak Dae to the Hwang Jung with nine lives, the words underline the unbreakable bond between the two men. Born a baekchong just like his friend, Jak Dae unexpectedly finds himself with a ticket out of the outcaste village, at a price too heavy to pay. Little can he imagine he will land up in a hospital, not as a patient but as its first doorkeeper! Jung Suk-yong is a joy to watch; his character makes me laugh so hard.
Seo Hye-rin as Mak Saeng
A widow with two children who have passed on, Mak Saeng is not only Seok-ran’s maid but also her confidante, protector and an extra pair of eyes. It is she who first spies Hwang Jung and gasps out, “What a fine-looking man!” (And I instantly love her for that, and more.) It is she who realizes, even before Seok-ran does, that sparks are crackling between her Young Miss and that handsome specimen of a man. A terrific cook, Mak Saeng is expected to spend the rest of her days waiting on Seok-ran, but fate throws her a curveball and flips everything out of sync…
Wong Ki-joon as Officer Jung
If Baek Do-yang is to be believed, Officer Jung owes him a lifetime of debt and more. That’s why this police bureau officer has become Baek’s most devoted underling. If Baek orders something to be done, even if it violates Jung’s every sense of propriety, the latter will ensure the order is carried out to the last itty-bitty detail. Thus Jung hunts Hwang down… until a startling act gobsmacks him into behavior that makes me want to pat his head and say, “Officer Jung, I always knew you had it in you to do this…”
Do Ki-suk as Mong Chong
When we first see him in the drama, Mong Chong is this unkempt beggar with hair that hasn’t been washed in years. A bachelor who is father to half a dozen or more street urchins (none of them his flesh and blood), he leads his merry brood from village to village, dancing and singing their way to a meal. It is on one such outing that he chances upon a man lying half-dead on the road. Although he manages to nurse Hwang Jung back to life, one thing remains nigh impossible. He will never be able to get Hwang to sing in tune!
Shin Ji-soo as Nang Nang
A gisaeng’s maid, Nang Nang abruptly finds herself in Jejoongwon when the king orders several gisaeng to be rounded up and sent to the hospital to be trained as its first (reluctant) nurses. Unlike them, Nang Nang is fascinated and unfazed by the medical treatments. Although acknowledging that she is mad to even contemplate thus, she dreams of one day becoming a nurse herself. In a cast of extraordinary thespian talents (Park Yong-woo, Kim Gab-soo, etc.), Shin Ji-soo possesses a natural vibrancy that tells me this young actress is going to go places.
Kwon Hae-hyo as Administrator Oh Chung-hwan
An actor long overdue for a leading role, Kwon Hae-hyo’s part is decidedly small here, to my disappointment. Still, he plays his character with a detached and disdainful hauteur (with his nose in the air half the time) that is funny to watch. Originally a tutor at the royal academy, Oh becomes an administrator at Jejoongwon thanks to some strong pulling of strings by Baek Do-yang, his former student. Will he always remain obligated to Baek? Only time will tell.
Lee Hyo-jung as Administrator Baek Gyu-hyun
If Watanabe is the foreign villain in the drama, then Baek Gyu-hyun must be his Joseon counterpart. The uncle of Baek Do-yang, the older Baek’s mission in life is twinfold: To protect his nephew, and to harm Hwang Jung. He will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, and if he is enriched (money, what else?) in the process, all the better. Your blood boils as you watch him subvert justice repeatedly. No wonder you wish rabies, cholera and dysentery on him!
Yoon Gi-won as Yoon Jae-wook
Has this actor ever played a winsome character? Or is he being typecast as the perennial jerk with scruples as large as an invisible dot? In Jejoongwon he is the one always taunting Hwang Jung, and not just because he is Baek Do-yang’s BFF (best friend forever). No, it’s because he knows he possesses the intellect of a dead worm and is in Jejoongwon despite being totally unqualified. But since redemption is one of the drama’s themes, is it possible that a sliver of grace might fall on Yoon and perchance change him? Don’t bank on it.