[I’m sure you’re just as thrilled as I am to see a new post from Michael. Whether you have watched Dong Yi or not, this is one review that’s going to have you smacking your lips in delight. Happy reading! —thundie]
I initially wrote about 90% of this almost 2 years ago, but as much as I loved Dong-Yi, I couldn’t help but drag, procrastinate, and rationalize to delay the inevitable because I generally don’t feel as comfortable watching or translating sah-guk (사극, historical drama). Why? Because it feels like writing about a foreign film when I don’t quite understand the foreign language fully. So what, you say, because that’s how most of you feel watching Korean dramas? Well, that’s because you don’t have to decipher old Korean language into English. I was, and still am, suffering from lack of confidence as to whether I’m correctly translating the old Korean into English. So do cut me some slack and let me down gently when you (you know who you are – a few of you out there who are sah-guk virtuoso – yes, dramaok, that means you, too) see any glaring mistakes.
I know for a lot of Giant fans out there in the kdrama world, Dong-Yi was nothing more than an annoying competition and yet another, yawn.., a historical boring epic like I also thought initially. But a family member extolled the virtue of Dong-Yi so much that just to appease her I watched it. And it took me only three weekends to watch the first 50 episodes which to me is like, as Jeff Goldblum said more eloquently in The Big Chill, finishing Tolstoy’s War and Peace in one bathroom sitting (bear with me as I’m usually not this crude). The last time I enjoyed a historical epic drama was Jumong, but I would actually rate Dong-Yi higher than even Jumong. I give Dong-Yi an 8, while I would have given Jumong 7 out of 10.
As much as I love to tell the whole storyline, summarizing 60 episodes that way in this short space may be neither feasible nor desirable, since the idea here is to whet the appetite, not eat until bloated. So, instead, I’m going to tell you a little bit about the important characters and what scenes stood out in my mind as worth remembering. This way, I’m hopefully letting the drama speak for itself, sort of speak, instead of asking you to take my word for it. And in the process of doing so, I hope you get some idea of what made this drama so great for me.
The story of Dong-Yi is not anything groundbreaking. It is based on a true story about a peasant girl who grows up to be a consort of a king and later becomes a mother of a king, despite having an illegal revolutionary renegade leader as a father. From a romanticist’s point of view, it is a sweet enduring love story spanning 60 episodes between a king and his consort. And it really is an endearing story if you can get past the (enviable?) fact that a king in those times could have as many wives as he wants or is necessary to beget a son. And this is also a story about friendships. First there is a friendship between Dong-yi’s father and the police chief, then an unyielding friendship lasting more than a generation between Dong-yi and her brother’s best friend Chun-soo, development of a deep bond between Dong-yi and the police chief, and a poignant special relationship between the original Joong-jun (title given to the first wife of a king) and Dong-yi, just to name a few.
In order to understand the story better, let me give you some background information before I go into the story itself. The king’s first wife is the original Joong-jun who turns out to be infertile. The second wife is Jang Ok-jung, who later attains the title Hi-bin, who also becomes Joong-jun after she kills the king’s mother and after she causes the premature death of the original Joong-jun. The third wife is Dong-yi, who is given the title, Sook-bin. Hi-bin is ordered by the king to die by drinking poison after she was caught trying to kill Dong-yi. But Dong-yi decides not to become Joong-jun to “save” both Jae-ha (Hi-bin’s son and successor to the throne) and Dong-yi’s son, Gum (which means gold in Korean). Gum is his given name, but I think his title is Yoon-in-goon. (People address crown prince as Jae-ha, while king is addressed as Jeon-ha). The king’s fourth wife then becomes the new Joong-jun which occurs toward the end of the drama.
The political make-up of this kingdom shares uncanny resemblance to the modern government of the United States. Contrary to what most people think when they think about kings, this king did not necessarily have the absolute power. He instead had to constantly fight to exert his authority and at the same time try to balance the two opposing political parties.
One party called themselves the Seo-in (the Westerners, the good guys, to put it simply) and the other the Nam-in (the Southerners, the bad guys). The Seo-in’s unofficial leader is the original Joong-jun (after the king’s mother died), while the Nam-in’s unofficial leader is Hi-bin, the second wife.
Then there is the legal branch, which is officially and historically headed by Joong-jun. Even the king has no official jurisdiction over the legal branch, although he can certainly influence and override the branch in certain extraordinary circumstances.
If that wasn’t complicated enough, there is the X factor, which is the king’s mother, who loves Joong-jun but hates Hi-bin, I presume because Hi-bin is half commoner blooded, and she finds her “arrogant and dangerous.” (Episode 5, time 35:12)
The king, Suk-jong, is played by Ji Jin-hee, who played a stiff, awkward guy in The Man Who Can’t Get Married (결혼 못하는 남자). However, he does a superb job here as the benevolent king, while Dong-yi is played by Han Hyo-joo, whom I loved in Brilliant Legacy (찬란한 유산). Because the king is known for his fairness, intelligence, and good heart, this political power struggle actually runs fairly smoothly until Hi-bin first and then Dong-yi later come in to his world.
The King’s First Love
The king has known Hi-bin for over 10 years, and apparently his mother was successful in kicking her out of the kingdom, but Nam-ins managed to bring her back to the palace when the story begins. The king, at least in the beginning, really loves Hi-bin. He loves her wit, warmth, and her company. And like most women who appear to have innate instinct about it, she feels and returns that love. It is in this peaceful and content state of mind that enables Hi-bin to sacrifice herself for the sake of a peasant (Dong-yi) in the earlier episode, because Hi-bin reasons that if she cannot take care of one person under her care, no one would want to be her underling. Hi-bin initially was more human than she would ever be, but her downfall proves to be her sibling emotional obligation to her rogue orabuny*, whom I will describe in more detail when I point out the differences between Dong-yi’s and Hi-bin’s orabuny. *(오라버니: the more formal and elevated way of saying oppa, 오빠)
One can make an argument that Hi-bin loved the king’s position more than the man himself. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, but as much as she loved him, I think she hungered for power more.
The Light and the Shadow
In the episode 3 (time 53:50 on 720p version), the monk who is known for his clairvoyance sets the stage for the whole drama when he tells Hi-bin of the prophecy. He tells her that there is one other person who is just as radiant and just as precious as she is. “I’m sure you would want to confront her head on, but if you can, I advise against it. … Light and shadow always go together, thus light will bring forth shadow. You have everything, and she has nothing. You have everything in your power, and she will lose everything and has to start over again.”
Hi-bin concludes, “Then are you saying that she is my shadow?” The monk replies, “No. The shadow is you.” He goes on to say, “If she (meaning Dong-yi) comes back alive (from outside of the palace after she was kicked out of the palace by Hi-bin’s devious scheme), you will not be able to overcome her radiance (“light”). Thus, if you can, try your best not to confront the child (Dong-yi) head on.”
But Hi-bin doesn’t realize the child he is referring to is Dong-yi until the episode 27 (time 06:33) after her brother tells her that Dong-yi, whom they thought they were successful in killing, is alive. Up until that point Hi-bin thought her main adversary was the original Joong-jun.
Of course Hi-bin becomes defiant when she remembers this conversation much later toward the end, and she tells herself that she’ll prove the monk wrong as to who the light is and who the shadow is. Well, suffice it to say that the title of the drama is “Dong-yi” and not “Ok-Jung.”
Geum Gae is a secret organization headed by Dong-yi’s father and is made up of the commoners (Cheon-min) including Dong-yi’s brother and her “orabuny” Chun-soo. The mission of Geum Gae is to protect the commoners from unfair treatment from the nobles, but never to harm or kill nobles. But the story starts its wheel when a certain elderman (Oh Tae-suk played by Jeong Dong-hwan who appears to play notoriously bad guy role more so than not) from the Nam-in group kills off influential nobles from the same Nam-ins who have different ideology from him and then successfully frames Geum Gae for the deaths of the nobles. In the framing process, Dong-yi’s father and brother get killed, and Dong-yi is hunted down as an offspring of a criminal. It’s Dong-yi’s burning desire to prove her father and brother’s innocence that propels her to the royal palace looking for the noble woman (no other than Hi-bin herself) whom Dong-yi secretly saw giving the same hand signals as one of the noblemen who gets killed in the beginning episode. That’s because Hi-bin is in cohorts with the elderman from the Nam-in group.
The King and I
I have always loved reading about a prince or a king disguising himself as a commoner so that he can see for himself how his people really lived, and it is on one of those excursions that the king runs into grown-up Dong-Yi.
They first meet in the episode 6 (time 43:29) when they accidentally find themselves behind some heap of hays in a shed away from the goons who were hired by the rotund nobleman from the Seo-in party in the musical debacle incident which was orchestrated by the king’s mother in her ill-fated scheme to oust Hi-bin from the palace. The king’s there thanks to the police chief’s hypothesis that someone took the dead body from the shed before it became an evidence, while Dong-yi was there because she’s the one who had witnessed the dead body initially before its disappearance and … well, because she’s a busybody.
As they relax momentarily since the goons appeared to have left the shed, they finally notice each other’s presence.
Dong-yi: “Who exactly are you, Na-uh-ri (a generic term used by a commoner to address any nobleman or anyone above their own social status)?”
King, somewhat taken back at her effrontery: “What?”
DY: “Why are you snooping around here at this hour of the night?”
King: “Who gave you monopoly on snooping?”
Dong-yi doesn’t say anything as she gives the king a haughty look-over to which the king expresses his displeasure by making guttural sounds.
The king is actually Dong-Yi’s ideal match in terms of intelligence, tolerance, empathy, and heart. And in due time I’ll try to show that to you, but he is far from perfect. For one, he is terribly out of shape. In the episode 6 (time 44:55), when Dong-yi and the king are running away from the would-be killers in their accidental run-in with each other in their independent attempts to get to the bottom of the musical debacle incident, he tells Dong-yi while completely out of breath that he “has never run like this before.” Dong-yi is dumbfounded that he could be so out of shape even if she takes into consideration that he is a nobleman and probably hasn’t had to do anything manual in his life. But she ain’t seen nothing yet.
In the episode 6 (time 52:01), Dong-yi endears herself with the king when she tells him the origin of her nickname, Poong-san, which is a Korean hunting dog. She tells him that she is called that because like the dog, she is tenacious; once she bites, she never lets go. She tells him the story to reassure him that she would be okay outside the suspects’ lair while he gets help. But he comes back a short time later, having given a bystander the royal emblem to get help. Of course, the king doesn’t tell her that he gave the emblem to give to the head of the royal police and that the emblem is used only by kings specifically to gather military soldiers. Dong-yi is dumbfounded again at his seemingly naïve assertion that asking a bystander to seek police or military help is a wise course of action.
But that issue aside, this leads to the second reason why the king is not perfect: he has no backbone (or more accurately not a particularly strong one). Let me explain. In the episode 6 (time 53:41), Dong-yi expects the king to climb the wall of the suspects’ lair, so she tells him, “This appears to be the lowest section of the wall.” The king readily agrees to that fact but stands there just smiling at her. She looks at him expectantly, and he finally looks back at her questioningly. She asks him why he is not climbing the wall.
He asks her incredulously, “You are asking me to climb this wall?”
She just as incredulously asks him back, “Then who else is going to climb the wall?”
He tells her, “I have never climbed a wall before in my life.”
“What?” She asks him in total disbelief, “I’ve heard that many noblemen have secretly climbed walls to get away from studying. What exactly have you been doing all your life?”
He tells her, “Where I live, the walls are too high to climb.”
Now positively dripping with sarcasm, Dong-yi tells him, “Yes, I’m sure that’s the case.”
But she quickly recovers and tells him, “I will climb the wall if you can just kneel for a moment.”
“What? You want me to kneel? You dare to ask me?” the king replies.
When Dong-yi is speechless with disbelief again, he reiterates that he has never climbed a wall before. Dong-yi’s had enough. She gives him an ultimatum while pointing, “Is it this wall or the dirt (bottom)? You’d have to decide on one or the other, Na-uh-ri!”
The king begins, “Listen here. I am…” Dong-yi doesn’t let him finish, “At this rate, we are going to lose all the evidences. With the criminals right in front of us, how can a police officer try to avoid getting little dirty.” (He told her that he was a police officer earlier)
She makes perfect sense to him, but he looks around unable to make up his mind. She barks at him, “Na-uh-ri!” The king looks back at her with a tinge of calmed annoyance at all the ballyhoo, “Alright. I will do it already.” But he still looks around some more, and Dong-yi is exasperated, “Since you’ve finally decided to do it, maybe you could do it a little faster while you are at it?” He looks at her defiantly, “Okay, I’ve got it.”
When he finally bends and kneels, of course he moans and groans when she steps on his back in her attempt to climb the wall. When she asks him to raise her, “Na-uh,ri! Higher. Higher,” his face becomes even more contorted in pain.
I love the slow and natural development of love between the king and Dong-yi. It’s uber cute how everyone else close to the king such as his right-hand man and Hi-bin could readily see, but in the beginng the king’s completely oblivious of his romantic feelings toward Dong-yi.
The king, not her type?
In the episode 11 (time 46:40), the king shows his wacky sense of humor when he tells Dong-yi that he, instead of the king, who he thinks might not bestow any gifts like he did before for a job well done, will give Dong-yi a reward. Earlier, Dong-yi told him that everyone she works with now expects such a gift. To surprised but happy Dong-yi, he tells her that “it’s essentially the same whether I give you the reward or Jun-ha (the king) does.”
Yet, despite the king’s obvious charm, the fair lass proves to be more than an easy picking. In the episode 11 (time 51:00), we get a first glimpse of the king’s developing feelings for Dong-yi when she tells him she prefers rotund kind of guy over handsome suave type like the king.
When Dong-Yi and the two guys (the older guy took Dong-yi in under his wings as a child, and the other younger guy has befriended Dong-yi in the musical bureau where she works), who are clueless that they are talking to the king himself, are having chummy get-together over food and alcohol, Dong-yi mentions that he, pointing to the king, might get in trouble because of his tendency to talk as if he’s a king.
The older guy says, “Come to think of it, Na-uh-ri resembles Jeon-ha (the king) a little bit.” The king becomes uncomfortable and stammers a little, “You think so?” The older guy replies, “Yes. I once saw His Majesty from a distance.” Turning to the younger guy, “What do you think, Young-dal?”
Young-dal breaks out into a guffaw and tells him, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Do you know how incredibly handsome His Majesty is? How can you compare him…” Young-dal can’t finish the sentence, because by the time he turns around he’s looking squarely into the king’s face, who looks back at him amusingly.
Young-dal, now with a more serious expression, “Ah, what I mean is, I’m not saying that you’re not handsome…” The king laughs out loud and tells Young-dal, “That’s alright. I’m actually greatly pleased to hear that the king is handsomer than me.” Young-dal smiles sheepishly in relief.
But Dong-yi is curious and asks the king, “Is the king really that handsome? I mean, I have yet to see him even from a distance.” The king roars into laughter and tells her, “How can I say that with my own lips?” Puzzled, Dong¬-yi can only ask, “What?” before she gets interrupted.
Later on, Young-dal asks Dong-yi, “What do you think? You being a girl and all, you prefer handsome guy, too, right?” Dong-yi deadpans, “No, not at all. I prefer a guy who’s somewhat darkish and wide set.” The king takes offense, “What?” The king stares at Dong-yi miffed while the other two guys give him more drink and food, and Dong-yi is either clueless or coy about his temporary petulance.
The courtship between the king and Dong-yi develop slowly and surely, and it’s precious to see budding feelings building up over time.
The following few episodes are precious because the king and Dong-yi are going through innocent and carefree dates, and they both develop deep and binding feelings for each other. And it’s cute when those closer to the king can see it, but the king himself is totally oblivious of what he really feels about Dong-yi. However, the king can’t seem to avoid putting himself in Dong-yi’s vicinity somehow.
On one of their impromptu, seemingly accidental encounters in the episode 13 (time 27:30), the king, still in his lowly nobleman guise, says to himself that just four days to master the book may be too much, offers to teach Dong-yi some of the more important questions that he thinks “may just appear in the judiciary test.” When Dong-yi politely declines because she doesn’t want to be a trouble to him, he reminds her that she has been a trouble in all of their previous encounters, so why should this be any different.
Hi-bin first gets to see the signs of the king’s infatuation with Dong-yi in the episode 14 (time 37:25) when the king confesses to Hi-bin of his predicament. At first, Hi-bin thought it was cute that he seems to know Dong-yi’s nickname. But when he tells her how worried he is about Dong-yi’s reaction when she would eventually find out his true identity. The way he goes on and on about how it wasn’t his intention to deceive her, perhaps she might become too shocked, and that maybe she might wrongfully think he was playing a practical joke on her, or she might become hopping angry at him for deceiving her, Hi-bin doesn’t realize that the writings on the wall has begun for her demise.
The man who is the king
In the episode 15 (time 28:00), when Dong-yi finally finds out the king’s identity, she is worried sick as to how he will react to her previous insolence, while the king is worried how Dong-yi would react to his deceiving her. Later on, the king calls Dong-yi to his private quarters to talk to her. What ensues is so cute and comical that any attempts to describe the scene wouldn’t do justice, although I’ll try.
Finally face to face, she suddenly kneels down in front of him, calling him all variations of exalted proper titles to address the king, and she begs him to forgive her and to spare her life. Relieved that she is not angry with him for deceiving her, he cannot help but erupt into hearty laughter.
He tells her that he was worried that she might spank him for playing such a practical joke on her. When she tells him how could she even think about spanking him, he impishly tells her, “For someone who had no qualms about stepping on the king’s back, I’m sure there is nothing you wouldn’t do.” She tells him that’s because she didn’t know he was the king.
He then tells her, “How can I punish you when it was me who deceived you… So, it’s quite understandable if your feelings are hurt, but try to be understanding.” He then tells her that more than once he wanted to tell her, but he was afraid that she’s going to be “just like now, treating me with difficulty.” He tells her that he knows it would be difficult for her, but he asks her to treat him just as she did before. “Because, for some reason, at least when I’m with you, I want to be, not a king, but just a regular man. So just like I’ll continue to call you Poong-san, I want you to treat me like you did before.”
Shocked, she can only say, “But your majesty, how can I dare…” Assuredly, he tells her, “I want you to dare. No, you have to do it. In fact, this is a royal command. Do you understand?” And he takes the sting out of the command by smiling fondly at her.
His sentiment rings no greater when he tries in the episode 43 (time 44:00) to convince Dong-yi to lie to protect herself. Third War Minister, Jang Moo-yuel, who is actually more evil than the elder noble from the Nam-in party Oh Tae-suk and Hi-bin combined, schemes to trap Dong-yi when she tries to aid her childhood friend who grew up to be the new head of the Geum Gae, the revolutionary renegade group made up of commoners. Despite the obvious and unavoidable trap Dong-yi falls into, the king is willing to whitewash the whole thing.
When Dong-yi refuses to lie, telling him that she cannot besmirch the name and reputation of her king in order to save herself, he almost shouts at her, “I don’t care about being a king.” Dong-yi is completely taken back. He tells her, “Can’t you see? I don’t care about things like that. If I can keep you safe, I don’t care if I’m the worst king in the history… I can’t lose you, Dong-yi.”
And the king proves this near the end of the drama when he concocts an elaborate plan to relinquish the throne to his first born so that he can be with the woman he loves.
Love Dong-yi Style
The older Dong-yi inspires love in people from all walks of life. In the episode 12 (time 20:25), after she becomes a member of the royal judiciary court, the fellow commoners are even happier than she could ever be. One of them says to her, “I have never imagined that a day like this would come. Once born a commoner, I’ve thought forever a commoner, but look what happened to us.” He doesn’t say, “… look what happened to you,” he says, “… look what happened to us.”
In the episode 4, we see a glimpse of how her orabuny, Chun-soo, really feels about Dong-yi. The critical background item for this scene is the musical instrument (since I’m not very musically oriented or talented, let’s call it the Korean harp) her brother played, and the same one that she plays nostalgically later that haunts the king initially with its beauty and much later aids the king to find Dong-yi outside the castle when Hi-bin’s forces were barricading the castle to block Dong-yi’s entrance.
Young Dong-yi is not only refreshingly cute but acts her character meticulously well. She is gentle, considerate to others, and appears to have enveloping love for all. She also seems to have uncanny intelligence and observational prowess not to mention mental toughness, the traits that she apparently inherited from her father and nourished by abundance of love from her father, her older brother, and her “orabuny” who is her brother’s best friend. This orabuny, Cha Chun-soo played by Bae Soo-bin, played a similar second fiddle role in Brilliant Legacy, but they look good together and complement each other well.
In the episode 4 (time 58.53), while fondly touching the harp, the young Dong-yi remembers the time when her brother playfully needled her because she played the harp so badly. Her brother in jest tells Dong-yi, sighing because despite his coaching she continues to sound terrible, “You’re hopeless.” He turns to their father sitting next to Dong-yi, “Father, are you sure you didn’t adopt her? Whom could she have inherited her non-musical talent from?”
Her doting father just smiles: “Why? She sounds pretty good to me.” Her brother, while smiling at Dong-yi: “No, she’s not. She is really, really bad. She’s downright atrocious.” Their father feigns scolding his son. Chun-soo chides her brother: “Hey, will you stop tormenting my bride?”
The brother is completely taken aback: “Hey! How is she your bride? And furthermore, when did I say you could marry Dong-yi?” Chun-soo just smiles at him, while Dong-yi chimes in: “Oh? Can’t I? No matter what anybody says, I’m going to marry Chun-soo orabuny.” And then she realizes what she has said, and she covers her mouth in acute embarrassment for being so forward.
Both her father and her brother act playfully aghast, while her orabuny is beside himself with glee, “Hear that? (to her brother) Did you hear her, Elder? She said she will marry me.” Chun-soo points out to her brother, “She is 100 times better than you.” He then tells Dong-yi, “You play very well.”
Many episodes later, someone tells Chun-soo that he should hide his feelings for Dong-yi better, because the desire shows in his eyes. Regardless of his more than sibling feelings, he tells the king later when asked that he protects her not as a man but as her orabuny.
He is also the one who makes the police chief realize how deep and loyal his best friend (Dong-yi’s father) was to him in the episode 35 (time 19:40). The chief has just told Chun-soo that he found out Dong-yi’s true identity as the original Gum-gae leader’s daughter. Then the chief cites the laws of the land and laws of the heart as his reasons for wanting to prosecute Dong-yi.
The chief tells Chun-soo, “Do you know how it feels to lose faith in trust? Do you know what it feels like to be betrayed by one you trusted the most? Choi Hyi-won (Dong-yi’s father) is the one who taught me that.”
As the chief is leaving, Chun-soo blurts it out: “That was not something Soo-jang elder (Dong-yi’s father) did!” That outburst stops the chief. Chun-soo turns around to face the chief, “What happened 12 years ago was not Gum-gae’s doing. We did not assassinate those noblemen, and we certainly did not kill your father.”
“Do you really believe that such an excuse would work now?”
“No, I’m not talking about excuses. I’m talking about the truth.”
The chief finally turns his head and looks at Chun-soo in the eyes. Emotional Chun-soo tells him, “Did you say you lost faith in trust? No, you are wrong. The one who betrayed Soo-jang elder’s trust was you.” The chief is now genuinely perplexed and asks him softly, “What?”
“It was you who were swayed by the false testimonies. Wasn’t it you who suspected the elder so easily?”
“I wanted to trust him. I was ready to believe whatever he told me. But he couldn’t even deny the accusation.”
“That’s because that was the only way he thought he could keep you safe!”
The chief seems completely bewildered, “What did you say?”
“That way, you wouldn’t want to investigate the Gum-gae’s involvement any further. That was the only way he thought he could protect you.”
The chief looks at Chun-soo with an eerie calm. Tearful Chun-soo goes on, “That was the depth of the elder’s faith in you. Because he believed that you’ll eventually find the truth. That’s why, for his most treasured friend, he gladly… gladly stood in front of you and confessed as the criminal who killed your father.” The chief stands a long time in one place, and when he finally decides to walk, he staggers a little as if dazed.
Dong-yi’s father knew his friend well. He knew that once even a possibility of his friend’s innocence existed, he wouldn’t have stopped investigating come hell or high water without an ounce of regard to his own self-preservation. And Dong-yi’s father did not want that happening to his best friend, perhaps sensing that the real culprit was someone too powerful but also knowing that wouldn’t stop his friend which in turn would put his friend in mortal danger as well.
Chun-soo, Dong-yi’s orabuny, is one constant and most dependable rock behind Dong-yi’s ascent to the Sook-bin position.
And remembering that harp scene with her family and orabuny tearfully, the young Dong-yi starts to play the harp, and this is where the transition between the young and the older Dong-yi occurs. And while the older Dong-yi plays the Korean harp, the 19th king of Korea happens to hear the haunting music for the first time.
The music from the Korean harp beguiles the king the first time he hears it, and its haunting sound is instrumental in allowing the king to find Dong-yi outside the castle (the episode 28, time 59:30) when her oppositions have basically barricaded the castle preventing her from telling the king the truth as to who really killed his mother. The king could not tell which of his two wives (the original Joong-jun and Hi-bin) were telling the truth.
A case in point about Hi-bin’s feelings for the king: Hi-bin has been successful in her scheme to kick Dong-yi out of the castle. Actually it’s more like Hi-bin and her brother hired hit men to kill Dong-yi, and in the process she has been chased out of the palace and mortally wounded. And the king suspects Hi-bin, because as he tells Hi-bin in the episode 23 (time 44:59) “I have known you longer than anyone. Nobody knows you better than me, and nobody knows me better than you. That’s what I’ve believed. However, it’s also hard for me to believe that Dong-yi would just concoct this plan to frame you without a good reason.”
This as a background, the king has been pretending to be affectionate with Hi-bin, but behind her back he has been working hard to find Dong-yi and bring her back. When Hi-bin finds out, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her when she tells her mother in the episode 26 (time 18:30) with tears in her eyes, “This must be what human nature is all about. All the wrong things I did to Jeon-ha (the king), I can’t seem to remember any of them, but when he deceives me it hurts so deeply that I can’t help but feel resentful.”
Her heart aches even more when she, in the episode 43 (time 48:10), finds out that the normally upright king doesn’t hesitate to break the law to protect Dong-yi. Hi-bin, obviously in pain, says to herself, “For someone who has always been a king (meaning he has always acted properly, befitting a king), Sook-in (Dong-yi) means this much to you, Jeon-ha, for you to go to this length?” In her own way, Hi-bin loves the king, but she doesn’t seem to realize that her poor judgments and choices, not Dong-yi, are the reasons as to why the king begins to distance himself from her.
In the earlier episode, after the king went on and on to Hi-bin about how great Dong-yi is, he later realizes what he has done. And he seeks to rectify the situation by throwing Hi-bin a surprise birthday party and further delight her with the Jae-ha-ship (crown prince entitlement) to Hi-bin’s son. So even though the king is not yet aware of his true feelings for Dong-yi yet, he obviously cares a great deal about Hi-bin. But Hi-bin makes him trust her less and less over time. And even after all her treacherous deeds, he still cares enough about her to grant her dying wish, which is for the king to witness her death drinking the poison in the episode 55, time 19:00 (very psychotic of Hi-bin to do that, by the way). And the king keeps his promise, and he watches the whole ordeal from a distance while suffering in a gut-wrenching fashion as the woman he had once loved die from the poison per his order.
“If I can only trust her,” laments the king talking about Hi-bin, when he is at an emotional crossroads after the original Joong-jun dies because he knows Dong-yi doesn’t want to become Joong-jun, but the original Joong-jun’s dying wish was for Dong-yi to become the next Joong-jun. And he knows the Nam-ins are going to fight him nail and tooth to prevent Dong-yi from becoming the next Joong-jun.
It is obvious that Hi-bin and her orabuny are close, and that she looks up to him. For example, in one of the very early episodes, she’s very curious as to what his reaction would be after meeting Dong-yi, as he apparently is known to possess a little bit of clairvoyant talent as well, and to his credit and demise, he is also diabolically clever. But like their mother, he is shallow and greedy, and they, her orabuny and her mother, are the major reasons, beside Hi-bin herself of course, behind Hi-bin’s downfall.
In the episode 18 (time 09:15), Hi-bin confronts her brother when she learns that he is behind the sinister plot to kill the king’s mother. He tells her that even though she doesn’t say it, she wants this. He tells her that behind all great powers there is someone who does the dirty deeds, and he tells her that for her he’ll be that guy. He says he’ll dispose of Dong-yi who somehow found out about his plan. She cries to him, “Orabuny! You cannot do this. I cannot do this, orabuny.” He tells her, “If you cannot do this, then you would have to abandon this orabuny. And you’ll also have to give up your dream. Is that what you want? Can you do that?”
She was placed in this unenviable position of having to choose between doing something decent and watch your brother whom you have idolized die or be a part of something horrible but by doing so you get to save your brother’s life.
It does take her at least an hour or two of crying and soul-searching before she decides to become evil. And, boy, does she become evil.
In the episode 19, time 45:00, the original Joong-jun makes a sad but very insightful description of Hi-bin, after she gets framed for the death of the king’s mother by Hi-bin when Hi-bin is the real culprit. Hi-bin has refused Joong-jun’s request to stop what she’s doing in order to save lives of many innocent people.
Hi-bin has just told Joong-jun that she doesn’t know what she is talking about and that Joong-jun is the only one who can resolve this matter (by admitting her guilt). Joong-jun tells Hi-bin both wearily and sardonically, “It must be very difficult for you … to utter something like that out of your own mouth, don’t you think? Because you know better than anyone what you’re saying is not true. (You know,) there were times when I was very envious of you. You were so proud and radiant that I was jealous almost to the point of hating you. Many nights I slept fitfully because I believed that the only thing I had was just my empty title. But now I realize that I have been a fool. You… are not that great a person for me to agonize and to lose sleep over.”
Showing all the damning evidences against Hi-bin, Dong-yi offers her peace for the sake of both of their sons. And as intuitive and smart Hi-bin is, she acknowledges as much to Dong-yi’s true intentions, but Hi-bin decides not to accept the peace offer, although certain misleading circumstance causes her to misjudge.
In the episode 54 (time 35:05), Dong-yi confronts Hi-bin to ask her why she attempted to kill her and her son, Geum, when she had earlier promised Hi-bin earnestly that she and Geum will not stand in Hi-bin’s son’s ascent to the throne. Hi-bin replies that the reason is politics. The political powers to be will eventually exerts its will upon even Dong-yi to try to oust her son from the throne, so what Dong-yi says means nothing to her. In fact, Hi-bin tells Dong-yi, “I’ll just be forever regretful that I couldn’t kill you and your son.”
Shocked at her venomous reply, Dong-yi laments the present situation that could’ve been prevented. Collecting herself, Dong-yi tells Hi-bin in the episode 54 (time 37:37), “When you last looked for me, you talked of fate. That fate where only one of us was to be the light, and the other fated to be but a shadow. You are wrong. There is no such thing as fate in this world. All this was nothing but your own choice. So don’t blame the royal palace, the fate, or the political powers to be. If you had made different choices, it wouldn’t have to come to this. It was you. You had the chance to make the right choice, but you’ve decided to choose this path.”
The original Joong-jun
The one of my most favorite characters, and I have many in this drama, is the original Joong-jun, the king’s first wife. It helps that she’s easy on the eyes, but most of all she is the epitome of refinement and class. She exudes grace even in disgrace (when she was framed … etc). She is not eerily smart as Dong-yi nor deviously clever as Hi-bin, nonetheless she is wise on her own right and most of all she is forthright. But the main attraction is her goodness. Her heart rivals that of Dong-yi. Even when the king exiles her to a rural nowhere for a crime even he could not refute due to planted but “obvious” evidences, she in episode 21 (10:05), asks Dong-yi to “look after the king because right now he is the one who is in most pain and anguish.” No wonder she and Dong-yi made the best of friends despite differences in their social status.
The friendship between the original Joong-jun and Dong-yi actually develops even before they meet.
In episode 12, when Hi-bin convinces the king to reward Dong-yi by becoming a member of the royal judiciary court for saving her from false accusation from the other political party, Hi-bin realizes that Joong-jun, given her title as the head of the judiciary branch, could overturn even the king’s appointment. But as a testament to her good relationship with the king (king asked her in private to grant this) and to her good judgment and fairness, she supports Dong-yi wholeheartedly despite vigorous opposition from the king’s mother and from the director of the judiciary branch. While Hi-bin did this to add her voice and extend her power to the judiciary branch, Joong-jun did it only because she reasoned that Dong-yi deserved it by the virtue of her brilliant deed.
But in Joong-jun’s heart, their relationship becomes cemented for good when Dong-yi unravels the devious scheme of Hi-bin to exonerate the Joong-jun, enabling her to return to the palace. The king’s greeting of the Joong-jun on her return is a moving scene, but that’s for another time.
In the episode 49 (time 54:00), the original Joong-jun on her deathbed asks for and gets Dong-yi’s promise that Dong-yi will try her best to keep her and her son alive (from Hi-bin and from all the Nam-ins). Joong-jun thanks her and goes on to say with halting breaths, “Don’t forget, Sook-yi (more intimate version of Sook-bin), how so glad I was to have known you… how happy I was to have such a close friend* like you.” *(벗- but – means a pal, chum, kindred spirit)
Dong-yi is immensely touched later in the episode 50 (time 08:10) remembering this. Dong-yi tells her as she puts the wreath on her while crying “how extremely happy and grateful I was to serve you who considered me such a close friend. I will not forget you, Mama (a term used to address female of higher rank in palace). I will never ever forget your warm fond feelings for me.”
And back to the episode 49, unbeknownst to Dong-yi, when she went out to get the doctor, Joong-jun with her last breaths asks the king to make Dong-yi the next Joong-jun, because she tells him that Dong-yi is the only one who can keep both of his sons safe.
The relationship between Dong-yi and Joong-jun is really beautiful to see. Even when Dong-yi was a protege of Hi-bin, Joong-jun’s arch enemy, Joong-jun is the one who helps Dong-yi because Joong-jun recongnized and acknowledged Dong-yi’s investigative brilliance. Their friendship and mutal admiration develops slowly but their bond burns deep over time, and it really touches your heart to see their love for each other.
A very good guy
The police chief considered Dong-yi’s father to be his very good friend despite the social differences. In the episode 1(time 26:22), when he asks Dong-yi’s father why he disappeared like that without telling him five years ago, Dong-yi’s father tells him that associating with a commoner like him is only going to sully his good social reputation. The chief reminds him that he never cared about things like social reputation. The chief concedes, “Yes, you are a commoner. But before that you were my mentor first.” (Dong-yi’s father had a job of inspecting corpses to help the chief figure out crimes, sort of like medical pathologist, but somehow I got the feeling that the chief wasn’t just talking about the occupation.)
Later on, it breaks his heart to think that Dong-yi’s father killed his father, and even though he believed that to be the case at the time he lets young Dong-yi go when she was being hunted down as a criminal’s daughter in the episode 4, time 33:30. Dong-yi’s orabuny convinces him much later that Dong-yi’s father did not kill his father, and even knowing Dong-yi’s true identity later, he stands behind her through thick and thin.
A really bad guy
His official title is Byung Jo Chan Pan, (Third War Minister) and his name is Jang Moo-yuel.
In the role of ultra-bad guy, this guy pretends to be righteous and bipartisan, but he is really self-righteous, petty, and unscrupulous. He initially sides with Hi-bin, but when Hi-bin and her orabuny try to hide from him the fact that her son cannot be a king because he has a disease that renders him sterile (the episode 49, time 51:30), he gets his feelings hurt and tries to side with Dong-yi. But when Dong-yi wouldn’t cooperate by refusing to become Joong-jun, he helps the king choose the next Joong-jun whom he thought he could control.
Speaking of the new Joong-jun, initially she comes across as the bad witch of the South (you know, the Nam-in) with her cold countenance and arrogance to match, but she surprises us all in the end. And what a sweet moment it is (the episode 58, time 54:35). I haven’t felt that emotionally gratified and content watching a drama finale in a long time. I’ve debated with myself somewhat as to whether to go into detail about what exactly happened here, but since Dong-yi is also a riveting detective tale, I’ve decided not to spoil the sweet ending. Suffice it to say that Jang Moo-yuel gets his just fate and that Dong-yi garners yet another friend in high places.
The Happily Ever After
The drama Dong-yi draws near the end on a happy note as our love birds spend her birthday on a shopping spree in the episode 60 (time 50:24). His Majesty is miffed that Dong-yi wouldn’t let him buy anything other than one measly pendant.
His Highness grumbles, “You know, I’m beginning to realize that you really have no clue about how guys think. If a guy loves a gal, then naturally he wants to do everything for her, and who am I?” He lowers his voice, so that nearby merchants can’t hear him, “I am the king. And the king is the highest person, right? And this highest person wants to treat you in the highest way, but no, you tell me, I don’t need this, I don’t need that…”
She tells him, “But you’ve already given me the highest present, Jeon-ha.”
“What?” The king is puzzled.
“These rings. A long ago you gave me these twin rings at the same time you gave me your heart, so I really don’t have anything else I desire.”
“Dong-yi!” The king is still not satisfied about her explanation as to why he cannot give her more for her birthday.
She consoles him, “Therefore, don’t be so disappointed at my suggestion that we don’t do anything special for my birthday this year. This year’s harvest wasn’t good, so I don’t want to waste royal fund for a banquet.”
The king is still not in a conciliatory mood. Dong-yi goes on, “Besides, it’s not like today’s the only day we can celebrate. There is always the next year and the year after that. And ten years, twenty years from now, I’ll always be by your side like this. You can throw me banquets and give me presents then.”
The future that she is promising him mollifies him. The king finally smiles and tells her, “Okay, you win. But then come to think of it, when did I ever win with you.” She laughs somewhat self-consciously. “In return,” he tells her, “You have to keep that promise no matter what.” She looks at him questioningly.
“The promise that you’ll stay by my side next year, the year after that, twenty years from now, and for many years to come afterward.” She looks at him, touched, and can only say, “Jeon-ha.”
He fondly smiles back at her, “Yes, that’s all I need. Because that is the only thing I want from you.” She smiles and looks down, becoming somewhat bashful. His mood suddenly turns playful, “Ah, my Dong-yi. Let me take a look at you.” He grabs her shoulders and as he turns from one side of her to the other, “You look pretty this way, that way, any way…”
Dong-yi gets all embarrassed and starts to look around, but then she happens to witness a group of thugs carrying what appears to be a body bag looking mighty suspicious, and thus yet another crusade for the royal detective couple begins anew…
The Man trumps the King
The drama ends where it began for the royal couple, yes, you’ve guessed it, at the wall. Despite the fact that the king has ordered the cavalry help, Dong-yi suspects that the bad guys are in the process of burning all the evidences so she wants to climb the wall again in the episode 60, time 53:38.
Dong-yi asks her king if he can do it just one more time – kneel, so that she can climb the wall again. Indignant, he reminds her that he is the king. She didn’t know it before, but now that she knows, how can she ask him to do that, he tells her.
She calmly reminds him, “Not so long ago, you’ve told me that you are a man before a king.” He is so right. He will never win with her. She gives him an ultimatum, “You have to decide on one or the other. Right now, are you a man or a king?”
You can guess who won, but he doesn’t take it lying… uh, kneeling down either. While groaning in pain, he tells her, “Somehow, you’ve gotten heavier than before.”
Be that as it may, the legacy of Dong-yi ~ “whatever your birth status, you only require noble thoughts to become a noble person” ~ lives on throughout the nation.
Even though the drama, Dong-Yi, lacks war battles and international conflicts as compared to Jumong, one constant theme as I watched all 60 episodes was that it never felt stagnant or drawn out. There always was some sort of action and drama that kept you on the edge of your seat even to the very happy ending. And I feel that Dong-Yi elaborated on the character development and expounded on human relationships in much more detail than Jumong did. This drama reminds me of a saying, “Behind every great man, there is an even greater woman.” Yes, I know, I tweaked it a little to suit this tale. I wish you the same happy and exciting journey as I’ve had watching this drama.