I’m in sageuk heaven. First, there was The Princess’s Man, a story that got me reading into the night about King Munjong and his brother the Grand Prince Suyang.
Now there’s Tree With Deep Roots, a new and promising drama about Munjong and Suyang’s father, King Sejong the Great. Eight minutes into the opening episode and I immediately feel at home, the words “General Kim Jong-seo” and “Jiphyeonjeon” (Hall of Worthies) rekindling images from my beloved The Princess’s Man.
As double icing on the cake, guess who are the two actors playing the young Sejong and his father King Taejong, respectively?
Yes, my heart somersaulted when Song Joong-ki and Baek Yoon-shik appeared. At the same time, I’m despondent thinking that they are not going to be sticking around for very long. At least let them stay for two or three more episodes, dear writer?
Not that I’m not looking forward to Han Suk-kyu playing the older King Sejong. But when I look at how Song Joong-ki is burning up the screen with his intensity and presence, I just can’t bear the thought of him leaving.
So stay away for a while more, Han Suk-kyu. And Jang Hyuk, too. Not that I dislike the guy, not at all. But the opening scenes, oh dear. Are we channeling Chuno or what? It’s the same Dae-gil swagger. The same “don’t be pissing me off” death glare. The only thing missing to complete the slave hunter flashbacks is the bad hair.
Okay, I kid. Kang Chae-yoon is similar to Dae-gil only in rage. They are otherwise really quite different.
For one thing, Chae-yoon likes to talk to himself. A lot. He’s also into counting. 1, 2, 3… up to 107. He counts really well, even in the dark. Must have spent much time practicing in the day, although how he managed to do that without arousing the suspicions of the palace guards is open to debate. Wait. I forgot. He is a palace guard himself! Haha.
And whereas Dae-gil’s imagination is mostly limited to one missing slave girl, Chae-yoon’s takes flights of fancy that are positively gravity-defying. And full of drama.
There’s smoke. And arrows. Not one, not two, but three arrows finding their mark on his body. Shit, that hurts, even if he’s making it up in his head. But at least he lands one (footprint, not arrow) on the face of his imaginary opponent. As he soars into the air amidst all that smoke, I can’t believe my eyes. Someone pinch me.
It’s not just Chuno come back to haunt me. It’s Strongest Chil-woo resurrecting itself three years later. Just throw in the cannons and chickens and we are good to go.
So what is going on with all that pretend fighting and dying? Well, it seems Chae-yoon wants to kill the king. Not that he calls him King, no siree. As far as Chae-yoon is concerned, King Sejong is simply Yi Do. Which just happens to be the king’s name before he ascended to the throne in 1418.
Why Chae-yoon likes the king as much as he likes arrows striking his body is a bit of a mystery at first, but by the end of Episode 1 we can venture a guess why he might harbor murderous intents toward the fourth king of Joseon.
Speaking of our king, it’s rather incredulous how different he looks as a young adult (he was 21 when he began his reign) and as someone approaching middle age. Maybe he should ask his bodyguard, Moo-hyul (Jo Jin-woong), for that magic elixir that Moo-hyul is obviously tanking behind the king’s back.
(No, this is not a Chuno reunion. Whatever gave you that idea?)
As someone who is into numbers, Chae-yoon calculates the odds of killing the king and decides he stands a better chance if Moo-hyul is out of the picture. Then, without any warning, and in what is the most in-your-face back-to-the-past transition ever, Chae-yoon becomes Ddol Bok. Fearsome slave boy Ddol Bok who beats up anyone who dares to miff him, their age and rank of no concern to him.
I know, that is not a flattering picture at all. The lad is actually not bad-looking, when he’s not sneering, that is.
He’s sweet with his father, the slow-witted and guileless Suk Sam, and even sweeter with a girl called Da Ma. See how the two youngsters exchange stolen gifts, she making a pouch for him with golden thread that she snitched, and he giving her Joseon-style lipstick that belongs to the chief state councilor’s wife, no less. Of course the two (Ddol Bok and Da Ma, not Ddol Bok and Milady) proceed to apply lipstick on each other and then run away, giggling.
Like I say, it’s all so sweet. He even piggybacks her. (And no, it totally does not resemble a certain piggyback scene in Chuno. Give that poor 2010 drama a break!)
That idyllic life will soon become a thing of the past for the two young sweethearts. Things are afoot. There is trouble in the land.
Ddol Bok’s father and Da Ma’s father are both slaves in Chief State Councilor Shim On’s household. Shim On also happens to be the father of Queen Soheon. That makes him father-in-law to the king. Alas, that vaunted position is powerless against a former king who daily grows more suspicious of the very officials he himself appointed and who are now serving his son.
Although he abdicated in 1418, King Taejong continues to wield absolute power. Sejong may sit on the throne, but make no mistake who is the one still calling the shots. As long as there is the slimmest indication that his authority is being challenged, said culprit will not live to see another month.
Thus Queen Soheon comes to the king one day and pleads with him to help save her father’s life. Not just her father but also her uncle, Shim Jeong – the younger brother of Shim On.
As he listens to his royal consort, her tears streaming down her face, tears well up in his own eyes. What can he say to comfort her? What can he do against the might of the former king? Nothing.
The Sejong that we see portrayed (exquisitely) by Song Joong-ki is a Sejong who is on the surface a man preoccupied with solving mathematical puzzles, but who is deep down acutely aware of his father’s ruthlessness. Every innocent life taken by Taejong in his attempts to consolidate power is like a personal blow to Sejong, a reminder of his own powerlessness. See how he grits his teeth as he is forced to approve yet another trumped-up charge of treason, death being the fruit of that approval. See how his shoulders slump in defeat, his unsteady gait like one who is unwell.
Returning to that sanctuary where he has spent many an hour contemplating the mysteries of science, he finds his father waiting there for him.
“What is all this?” the older man asks, a hint of mockery in his voice as he surveys the room with its hundreds of wooden blocks, each one engraved with a number. “You mean to say you can’t solve so easy a puzzle? It’s all really simple. Take this number or this number, any combination of numbers. In the end it all boils down to one number – the number One.”
He then tells his son what is for him the essential truth: there can only be one power in the land. Anything hindering that power must be eradicated. Consolidation is key.
The son is silent as he listens. (And I don’t blame him because I am spellbound by Baek Yoon-shik in this scene. If villains come in this form, I’ll take two!)
But the distress is evident on his face. And not just distress, but a loathing. A palpable sense of hatred. Toward this father whose actions are giving him, Sejong, nightmares even when he is awake, the cries of despair from the ones being executed or bereaved ringing in his ears. He only has to close his eyes to hear and see them.
But this can’t go on any longer. Surely he, as ruler of the land, isn’t as weak as his father perceives him to be. How can he stand aside, like some unconcerned spectator, while his father-in-law’s life is under threat? He will save him.
So King Sejong prepares a secret missive and entrusts it to a palace maidservant. She will then give it to someone in the chief state councilor’s household, who will in turn rush toward the border and intercept Shim On, now on his way back from China.
I must pause here and make a confession so that you can see how perverted your blogger’s mind is. Blame it on all that digging into the history of Munjong and Suyang.
When Sejong summoned the maidservant, the first thing that popped into my
dirty mind is that he wanted to enjoy her. You know, in a kingly way. Because history records for us that King Sejong had many children. Which means he was pretty busy begetting. And begetting.
For questioning your motive in a time of crisis, just banish me to a shark-infested land, Your Majesty. I totally deserve it!
The maidservant sneaks out of the palace and arrives at Shim On’s house, just in time to witness a commotion. Palace guards are dragging away Shim Jeong and other members of the household. Just as Suk Sam and Ddol Bok are about to jump into the fray in a foolhardy attempt to save Lord Shim Jeong, the palace maidservant tells them to run. They must quickly get away because she has an important mission to entrust to them. Chief State Councilor Shim On’s life is at stake if they fail.
Ddol Bok takes the letter and shows it to Da Ma. “Does this really state that the king wants to save Lord Shim On? Da Ma, you can read. Tell us what it says!” A look of fear crosses Da Ma’s face, but she nods.
“I’ll go,” says Ddol Bok, but his father stops him. “No, you stay put. It’s a father’s duty to protect his son.”
When Ddol Bok insists, Suk Sam bares his teeth and clenches his fist like how his son had taught him – a stance meant to dispel the bullies who liked picking on the gentle man who had years ago fallen off a mountain and hurt his head while trying to save his son. “You want to get beaten?” he growls in mock anger. And then he runs off, leaving Ddol Bok and Da Ma.
(And my heart breaks just seeing him go. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, making all these unrelated connections, but Suk Sam reminds me of another father in another 2011 drama. A father also simple of mind but so strong in devotion toward his son.)
But the letter that the maidservant hands to Ddol Bok is fake. Instead of telling Shim On to turn around and flee to China, it spells out a call to arms. A plan, purportedly by Sejong, to raise an army in order to strengthen his power.
Before Shim On can digest the contents of the letter, he is surrounded by police bureau officers. Refusing to implicate Sejong, Shim On is arrested, and Suk Sam with him. The latter, exhausted from running many miles to find his employer, is savagely beaten because he naively admits that he is carrier of the secret missive.
“I switched the letter as you instructed,” reports the maidservant to Taejong’s lackey, one of the ministers. He in turn reports Mission Accomplished to the former king and also hands him the original letter, the one that Sejong wrote.
(Why is it that every time I see Baek Yoon-shik’s face I want to giggle? Get out of my head, you Harvest Villa flashbacks!)
Moo-hyul conveys the bad news about Shim On’s arrest to King Sejong. He adds that the maidservant has also disappeared. No need to second-guess. It is all his father’s doing.
Just before he is killed, Shim On accedes to the barely alive Suk Sam’s request and pens a note for Ddol Bok on Suk Sam’s behalf. Shim On is then administered poison (and I shudder just watching this scene, it being so reminiscent of certain scenes in The Princess’s Man).
Dragged back to jail, where Ddol Bok and the other slaves in Shim On’s household await, all of them arrested previously in quick fashion, Suk Sam clutches the note and struggles to call his son’s name. A jail warden tells Ddol Bok that the note is meant for him – a sort of last will from his father. But before Ddol Bok can ask further, Suk Sam passes away.
“Who did this to you, Father? Which bastard did this to you?” screams Ddol Bok as he shakes his father’s body.
In the palace, a grief-stricken Queen Soheon is likewise questioning the king. “Who do you think my father did this for, dying without a word? He did it for you. You, Your Majesty, are responsible for all of this.”
Oh, Song Joong-ki. I can’t wait to watch Episode 2 for you.