The violent elegance of the brush, moving frenetically across the hanji, like a sword penetrating a river; the red paint flowing like an ocean of future tears and blood, drawing the most nefarious and tempting eleven strokes known to man: 殺, to kill. Add another three characters to that maxim, and you'll explain a good portion of history: 殺而求國, killing others to save your country. Emphasis on your country. It wasn't always a physical death, like sending an army to face your neighboring enemy, and protect your homeland; it could have been the invisible hands of censorship and their bastard, ugly offspring called self-censorship, strangling any dissenting voice; or maybe using culture as the flagbearer of your new age imperialism, starting from the disruption of local markets to the invasion of the fries. Whichever wild metaphor you wish to choose, history, particularly when it comes to Korea, has always been written by strife, by that dog-eat-dog mentality, by those who won those battles, shaping the future through their ruling ideology. But also indirectly enriched by those who lost, leaving us important lessons, and keeping that hope alive through their constant struggles.
Relics can tell us something about the difference between "them" back then and "us" now, but one thing which keeps that endless dialogue between past and present called history alive is exactly strife, among those peculiar animals called men. Check every single important even in the five thousand year history of the Korean peninsula, and you'll find it colored by a certain political diatribe. Internal strife, most likely dealing with the vestiges of tribal consciousness, was what led to Gojoseon's self-destruction, even before Emperor Han Wu attacked that dying prey in 108 BC; it was another political conflict, this time between "hawks" and "doves" and their diplomatic slant toward Tang China, which began the escalation leading to Goguryeo's downfall in the 7th century. And, most predictably, Joseon history is filled to the brim with genealogies of bickering between parties and clans, generally spending more time trying to kill each other, than worrying about the people they allegedly had to "protect" in the name of heaven. A lot of pundits waste torrents of inks on political symbolism, ethical matters and historical legacies when dealing with Korea's almost 45 year long love-hate story with sageuk. But those four characters explain those five thousand years of history a lot better, and it's quite ironic that one of the best Korean sageuk of all time, 한성별곡-正 (Conspiracy in the Court), started exactly with those words.
From its conception in 1964 with Kim Jae-Hyung's 토만리 (A Fay Away Country) up to the early to mid 80s, sageuk were in some ways similar to what you find today, although the principle at the core was completely different. You'd mostly be dealing with historical melodramas based on chronicles, simply because few people had the guts (or the time and knowledge) to go through hundreds of Annals written in Hanja. And, of course, because the large majority of viewers were women. For instance, Kim's 1964 drama itself was a sort of Korean equivalent of Romeo & Juliet, telling the story of Goguryeo prince Hodong and his impossible love, coming from the neighboring enemy Nakrang Commandery.
Just like what happened in Chungmuro (although the situation was much more serious on TV), sageuk going through an unprecedented boom didn't necessarily mean they were historically accurate. The fact most dramas up to the 70s were shot in a studio, live, would inevitably limit your options, not only in aesthetic terms but also for what concerned mise en scene. You can't shoot Eulji Mundeok's legendary battle at Salsu river in your living room, can you? You'd rather have old men with a fake mustache running inside the frame, screaming "General! General! We just won that huge battle down the river, killing 300,000 enemy troops or something!" And, then, there would be a war of the baritones, dealing with that battle's repercussions. Hell, maybe "bloodless coups" were born there. Because there was no fake blood to use, so they just scared the crap out of their foes with those gargantuan voices.
A lot of those early sageuk were similar to the erotic sageuk boom which hit Chungmuro in the 80s: escapist entertainment with a basic touch of history, but in essence having very little to do with what would become known as historical dramas in the following years. Sageuk they were, all right, but history wasn't always their utmost concern. The first sparks of a change which would divide the genre into two started emerging a few years later: dramas like KBS' 1966 version of 수양대군 (Prince Suyang) or TBC's 대원군 (Daewongun) would certainly leave a lot to be desired in terms of historical consciousness, but it was the kind of meaty historical drama which could appeal to history buffs, mostly male. And that's in contrast with the historical dramas which had been targeting female viewers before.
Why the situation in the 60s feels similar to today's sageuk environment is exactly because you have two sub-genres, more or less targeted at different demographics, but overall with a similar slant and shortcomings. On one hand, you have the so called "fusion" sageuk, essentially trendy dramas wearing hanbok a la 쾌도 홍길동 (Hong Gil Dong) and 일지매 (Il Ji Mae). On the other, "authentic" sageuk allegedly focusing on history, like 대왕세종 (Sejong the Great) and 이산 (Yi San). The difference I mentioned? The 60s couldn't do much more than that with what they had, even if they wanted. Today, they're just doing that for the money. But I digress (surprise surprise).
The reason why the history of sageuk is important, not only in Korea but also in China (Japan's taiga doramas on NHK have been a little more independent over the years, at least on paper), is because it often lets the political atmosphere of the time transpire on the screen. Just take something like 貞觀長歌 (The Zhenguan Era), CCTV's 2007 ode to Emperor Tang Taizong, at face value, and you're going to lose much more macroscopic cultural and political nuances which directed the starting point of that drama. Of course the job of an artist is to turn that into material that stands on its own, and speaks something to you, regardless of what the government wants from it. But you know CCTV-1 is not just going to air any historical drama, it needs to speak about current issues through events of the past; what better canvas than the rule of Chinese history's most lauded emperor, then? It would take a few years for this kind of "partisan" thematic consciousness to emerge in Korea, but you could already smell it starting from the late 60s. Dramas about two very strong rulers, TBC's 이성계 (Lee Seong-Gye) and KBS' 세조대왕 (Sejo the Great) were aired in 1967, which just happened to coincide with the start of Park Jung-Hee's second "election." Coincidence, yeah. Society is a mess, people's rights are being trampled on, but we're selling cheap imitation toasters overseas and the GNP is up! Long live His Majesty. And stuff.
The biggest, most controversial case of obvious intervention from the government would happen a good 15 years later, with KBS' 1983 drama 개국 (The Foundation). KBS had been focusing on a "classics" series during most of the 70s, featuring some important historical texts or memoirs like the 한중록 (The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong), and even started shooting war-oriented sageuk like 임진왜란 (The Seven Year War), setting the foundations for what would become their weekend sageuk tradition. But the early 80s were truly the Golden Age of sageuk, even more so than the mid to late 60s. MBC started its tremendously popular series 암행어사 (Secret Royal Inspector), and also the "women series," which would feature some of the most important women in Joseon history, starting from Lady Jang played by Lee Mi-Sook in 1981's 장희빈 (Jang Heebin). Perhaps KBS' most famous sageuk from the time was 풍운 (Whirlwind), with a famously excellent performance by Lee Soon-Jae as the Daewongun, father of King Gojong. Yet, at the beginning of 1983, something really strange happened. It wasn't certainly a first, and wouldn't be the last time, but the timing was... peculiar.
With TBC out of contention (thanks to the jolly old junta) and competition moving to a two horse race, both KBS and MBC were preparing a sageuk about the same exact historical period, the transition between the fall of Goryeo and the founding of the Joseon dynasty. This is quite a controversial matter, which had been dealt with countless times, and is still quite touchy today. But The Foundation made things a lot easier, painting Lee Seong-Gye (played by Im Dong-Jin), the future founder of Joseon, as some kind of charismatic savior who rightfully had to regain the mandate of heaven, from the scummy (?) Goryeo ruffians who enriched themselves at the people's expense. If you know how a certain Jeon Doo-Hwan came to power, then a historical drama suddenly trying to legitimize a controversial and bloody coup d'etat from the past will sound a lot more than just fishy. It would feel like downright propaganda. Quite likely a lot more fun than the majority of what's on TV these days, but still shameless propaganda it was.
For that reason and what its main competitor meant to the industry, 1983 might just be one of the four most important years in the history of sageuk (along with 1964, 1999 and 2007). That's because its rival, delving into the same historical period, was none other than 추동궁마마 (Chudong Palace), the first installment of the legendary 조선왕조 500년 (500 Years of Joseon Dynasty). It's hard to even fathom how huge a project like this was, even when today's dramas are spending insane amounts of money, like 태왕사신기 (The Legend)'s 53 billion won. What we're dealing with is a complete retelling of Joseon's entire history, focusing on its 27 reigns through eleven dramas aired from 1983 to 1990, for over 800 hours of some of the best television you'll see (or, well, won't. MBC archivists are keeping the goods all to themselves). As we said, most past dramas focused on chronicles because of the lack of historical documents translated from hanja, Chinese characters. But writer Shin Bong-Seung went one step ahead, read all those hundreds of volumes, and synthesized them into a cohesive unit, putting the spotlight on some of the most important events in Joseon history. Shin was one of the leading lights, which often would turn to shadows, of this 40 year-plus long legacy called sageuk.
Imagine a visual history textbook, acted by some of the biggest stars in the business, with innovative camera techniques and completely breaking from tradition. Perhaps one of the most ironic episodes about this series was that, in 1986's 임진왜란 (The Seven Year War), the miniature boats used for the impressive battle scenes came from Japan's public broadcaster NHK, producing boats for the re-enactment of a bloody and long war between Japan and Joseon. The show is also remembered for the late, great Kim Mu-Saeng's portrayal of Admiral Lee Soon-Shin, and the legendary Jeong Jin playing Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This achievement was never topped by Shin, who decided to abandon the drama industry to focus on writing historical novels in the mid 90s, but its legacy was so important, it influenced how "authentic" sageuk would develop in the following twenty years.
Although he did have his innovative views, such as his portrayal of King Sejo's right hand man Han Myung-Hwe, the real charm of Shin's dramas was their ability to re-enact history and make it dramatic, while at the same time sticking faithfully to the records. That was both his biggest strength, and perhaps also his major shortcoming. Compare, for instance, his 1995 work 찬란한 여명 (Glorious Dawn) with 2001's 명성황후 (The Last Empress) by Jung Ha-Yeon: both focus on the same exact period, but are completely different. The latter is like the Shakespeare version of an old school family drama wearing hanbok, with some killer political and historical commentary thrown in the middle, and scary performances from Yoo Dong-Geun and the rest of the cast. The former is a lot more traditional in its approach to the matter, almost to a fault, but has a sort of corny charm you can't resist. It's not very dramatic, it would be a complete mess to follow unless you have some background knowledge, and doesn't certainly move at a brisk pace, but it's that stubborn refusal to dumb itself down and stick to history that will still win over fans of the genre.
Although other writers like Lee Hwan-Kyung and Im Choong deserve the spotlight just as much, to explain the decline of sageuk in the mid-to-late 90s, one needs to look exactly at Shin Bong-Seung. That is, the kind of sageuk Shin was writing had run its course already by the time 500 Years of Joseon Dynasty) was nearing its completion. After the advent of trendy dramas and the explosive popularity of miniseries, the TV viewership was being dominated by an increasingly younger audience, a generation who put a lot more emphasis on image than content. Would a bunch of old men with fake mustaches appeal to a twenty-something woman, then? The same stubbornly traditional slant, which made Shin Bong-Seung or Im Choong's dramas so fascinating to sageuk fans, meant near death for the genre, whose ratings were hitting the bottom of the barrel by the mid 90s. This is why Jung Ha-Yeon became important.
It's what Jung set in motion during the mid 90s that helped pave the way for the changes we saw a decade later with 신돈 (Shin Don). Unlike Shin Bong-Seung or 용의 눈물 (Tears of the Dragon)'s Lee Hwan-Kyung, Jung didn't focus on historical details, but tried to legitimize every character's struggle, humanizing them and creating a realistic world without surefire villains and heroes. He took a much more macroscopic and humanistic view of those historical periods, often reading between the lines of ambiguous historical texts, and blurring the lines between "traitors" and "heroes" which old sageuk loved so much. 장녹수 (Jang Nok-Su) was the first drama to ever look at Prince Yeonsan in a modern context, for instance. That is, taking a page from the new slant of historians' book, the ones who painted him as a victim who faked his madness to achieve his political goals, before he crossed a line that would seal his fate.
The vibrant, innovative commentary offered by Jung was a joy to watch, for those who essentially experienced twenty years of the same old stories, repackaged with more panache and frills but saying the same. And, thanks to Park Ji-Young and Yoo Dong-Geun's charisma, the drama was even successful, one of 1995's highlights. Jung would continue on the same path a year later with 조광조 (Jo Gwang-Jo), another one of his "failed reformer" stories, before he finally hit the jackpot in 1998 with 왕과 비 (The King and the Queen). Whereas Jung's new historical vibes were important for the genre per se, it would take 1999's revolution to see sageuk on everyone's mouth, once again. Lee Byung-Hoon, who created 500 Years of Joseon Dynasty) with Shin Bong-Seung and had become one of the big suits at MBC, decided to redraw the playing field from scratch, creating the fusion sageuk craze.
He found pretty quickly what was wrong with the genre, at least in terms of popularity - its limited appeal and lack of accessibility, the obsession with figures of power people couldn't easily identify with, and narrative cliches which accompanied sageuk for over 30 years - and pretty much changed it all. For once, 허준 (Hur Joon) wasn't about the king, but people outside the palace, specifically the future Royal physician who created the dongeui bogam, one of the pillars of Korean traditional medicine. In retrospect, what Lee did with Hur Joon and its follow-up 상도 (Sang Do) was remarkable, using well known novels as the foundation of a complete U-turn. Yet, by gaining something new he abandoned other elements which made sageuk great. Like, hmmm.... history?
Hur Joon and particularly Sang Do have a decent amount of historical detail thrown in the mix, but you always get the feeling it's merely salad dressing of what is essentially a success story. Sang Do worked even better than Hur Joon, because of the great cast, music and Choi In-Ho's original story filling the drama with realism and authenticity. But by 대장금 (Dae Jang Geum), the cracks were starting to show already. When Lee used Choi Wan-Gyu for both his first two works after his comeback, he did have novels as a foundation, and all he needed was to edit off anything too long-winded or hard to represent visually. Choi did an admirable job adapting very complicated and multi-layered novels, but once the source disappeared, things got quite rough.
It's hard to run against the current when it comes to something like Dae Jang Geum, but for a sageuk fan or anyone knowing even a tiny bit about the period, turning King Jungjong into a glorified sommelier, and essentially limiting the history to very superficial snippets every few episodes or so wasn't so kosher. Of course it's not a bad drama, as Lee Young-Ae's passionate acting and some of the veterans are very watchable. But it's not going to age very well, particularly as Lee has been repeating the same formulae for the last 5-6 years through his works, last in line the simply ridiculous Yi San. An even worse "betrayal" came from Choi Wan-Gyu, who in a matter of years has turned from a promising young writer to a sort of nefarious Jerry Bruckheimer-type, stinking up the entire industry with his superficial cash cow ideas, the most prominent of them being turning a 40 year tradition like sageuk into a soap opera with pretty costumes and ridiculously redundant plots.
Sageuk, or the "genre formerly known as sageuk" is now just a brand name, its sole purpose to make a buck with ad revenues, banking on huge stars, easy to follow plots and not even a zilch of historical consciousness. It's no surprise, then, if things like Yi San did incredibly well: the historical content you find in the show could be easily written by an elementary school student, as it reaches new levels of superficiality. This allows pretty much everyone from 6 to 90 to watch without any burden. There's no complicated notions about political strife and historical philosophy to decipher; no background knowledge needed, and when the plot amounts to a trendy drama skeleton narrated at snail pace to milk the ratings cow, then you kill two birds with a stone. You please the simpletons, who couldn't care less about history and just want something pretty, loud, full of action and romance. And... mais oui, you get all the money you want. In Yi San's case, 400 million won per episode on ad revenue alone.
This is very likely to be the future for sageuk, as sad as it sounds. New blood who could fulfill their potential through this meaningful genre is not given the chance, simply because straying from the proven formula means risking low ratings. That is, Korean dramas could be much, much better than they currently are, but the establishment is not allowing that potential to emerge, or simply doesn't care. Although dramas like Yi San and Iljimae certainly have every right in the world to exist, the fact nothing else is allowed is killing a once proud legacy, a powerful cultural symbol which speaks about a lot more than just the period it's portraying. It's then another case of sageuk showing perfectly the production environment that dominates dramas at any particular moment. Just like The Foundation in the 80s symbolized government intervention, the endless array of hanbok-wearing "soap operas" (and I mean that in the most derogatory way) without a zilch of history is the very best indicator of the lack of respect the current drama world has for its cultural legacy, or that it's too obsessed with ratings and blinded by money to care. This is the reason why Conspiracy in the Court became the last cry of hope of a dying genre, while at the same time opening the doors to the future.
Along with its other two "acolytes" in the sageuk renaissance of 2006~7, 정조암살미스타리 - 8일 (Eight Days) and Shin Don, Conspiracy represented everything this genre had to give, in a much slicker, smarter and rewarding way. If you can think of Shin Don as the equivalent of a Buddhist sutra told by a slightly mad Shakespeare, and Eight Days as a more charismatic version of The Name of the Rose in Joseon, Conspiracy is a much more complicated beast to explain. Action, politics, mystery, romance, philosophical lessons are mixed in this potboiler of insane creativity, oozing one of the very few things sageuk have a hard time conveying: the power of life. Lee Byung-Hoon tried, but his heroes were too perfect, devoid of those flaws who made them human; the old traditional sageuk were limited by their context, unable to go beyond a certain glass ceiling (after all, even if you humanize and legitimize Yeonsan's struggles, he's still a despotic ruler whose decisions have the kind of gravity you can understand, yes, but rarely sympathize with). Even the nearly perfect Shin Don can't escape from the reality of the time it portrays. It also speaks with tremendous power to us, yes, but it oozes late Goryeo all over the place, and removed from that context, things would be a lot harder to connect.
But Conspiracy does it, brilliantly. I've seen over 200 sageuk from China, Japan and Korea over the last 15 years, but something getting to the real core of what history means (a dialogue between past and present) as strongly as this one is a first. And that really goes all back to producer Kwak Jung-Hwan's obsession with thematic consciousness. That is, the message coming first, pulsating on every single frame captured by those HD cameras; an obsession with realism, but not the one you make up reading a few historical books. These are real people, with real flaws, real problems, and human solutions to them. It's a circus of wonderful beasts, struggling against their fate, living, breathing, crying, smelling of the era they lived in. That this era happened to be the last few days of Jeongjo's rule is not a surprise.
Perhaps the most famous "happening" regarding this drama took place before it even started airing, when a teaser trailer of the show started circulating online. In it, King Jeongjo (Ahn Nae-Sang) "scolds" his subjects for complaining about his decision to bring a controversial minister back to the palace. The reason they complain, of course, is that he might actually help the king, unlike the smoke and mirrors they had been playing for years. He utters that infamous phrase, "이쯤 되면 막 가자는 게로구나," which is nearly impossible to convey in English, but means something to the extent of "do you really need to keep up this farce?" That is almost word for word what a certain Roh Moo-Hyun had to say, just months earlier, in front of his colleagues during a famous speech. Complaints that the drama was trying to compare Jeongjo's achievements with those of Roh Moo-Hyun, those nasty streaks of regionalism which invade way too many political debates in Korea inflamed the situation, and a sort of label was attached to the show. Some people even went ahead, and thought of the lone reformist Jeongjo as Roh; the daughter of a "treacherous" minister Lee Na-Young to be Park Eun-Hye (Park Jung-Hee's daughter) and Yang Man-Oh, mixing his ideology with business, as the man currently residing at the Blue House. It was the first and only mistake this drama would make.
The idea was, of course, to provoke people and lead them to reflect about that dialogue between past and present. That is, the political environment causing Jeongjo's reforms to fail, and the way Roh Moo-Hyun's government went up in flames are eerily similar, as is the way the country turned after the "mandate of heaven" was "restored" by their followers. Both lacked political support, and couldn't convince the masses, still swayed by today's problems while ignoring tomorrow's opportunities. Of course they were two different animals, it was a different environment all right, but the choice of period was particularly successful. Right as Jeongjo's rule was coming to an end, Neo-Confucian values had just become an excuse used by powerful clans to legitimize their status; not only because the social caste system was slowly eroding, this was the first time in Joseon history people, even at grass roots level, started thinking of themselves as individuals, and started confronting their existence outside the rigid glass ceiling of the caste. If you think about it, it's rather peculiar how much history really repeated itself, both at the end of Goryeo and near the end of the Joseon Dynasty.
Shin Don focuses on eroding Buddhist values, the social structure set up by the early Goryeo royalty falling into pieces, a weak ruler without any real support, and powerful clans trying to hold up all the power through convenient associations and land. And, sure enough, by the end of the 18th century Joseon had mostly forgotten what Neo-Confucianism meant, the lines between yangban and commoners were getting more and more blurry, and Jeongjo was staring at the people who essentially killed his father from that throne up high. No real support, everyone struggling for himself, trying their damnedest to put obstacles in the king's road, since that could have meant revenge. If it starts to sound a lot like what is happening in Korea right now, or before the sharks took over, don't blame me. C'est la vie, particularly when it comes to history repeating itself.
Why the fact that comparison was a single starting point becomes obvious when you check how the characters are named. There's no Jeongjo, Queen Mother Jeongsun, Chae Je-Gong, Shim Hwan-Ji and Hong Guk-Young, but just a king, a queen mother and all the subjects, with invented names. This, essentially, took care of two things: one would be to stick to fusion sageuk tropes, that is taking a more liberal approach to history, and thanks to the freedom allowed by that make a much more explicit connection between past and present. The other to skip all the complaints about historical authenticity (sometimes quite pedantic, and missing the point) that pop up whenever a sageuk starts. That it is really Jeongjo, anyone with even basic knowledge of the period will understand, but by not telling us, it creates a strangely universal feeling. It could be Roh Moo-Hyun up there, or any other ruler having to deal with his own shortcomings, with his burning desire to "kill" everything that does harm to the world he lives in, the society he cherishes, be it a country or whichever less obsolete social commune it might be (once an anarchist, always...).
But really, how did this, well, miracle happen? Because, if you think about it, the fact Shin Don became a masterpiece is not that surprising. It was written by a forty year veteran, one of the best writers in Asia; produced by Kim Jin-Min, one of the top talents in Korea; the cast was filled to the brim with sageuk veterans, super-talented youngsters like Seo Ji-Hye, and it had the immense musical charisma of Hwang Sang-Joon. Even if they phoned it in for the entire duration of the shoot, it would at least have been very good. But the road to Conspiracy's legend was a little bit different. Just to make a comparison, Shin Don cost 17 billion won for 61 episodes, about 280 million won per episode (but that includes the partial investment for the building of the Yongin Goryeo set); last year's The Legend, after all the marketing and CG expenses and the cost of the set were all factored in cost about 53 billion for 24 episodes, a staggering 2.2 billion won average. The currently airing 에덴의 동쪽 (East of Eden) cost 25 billion for (in theory) 50 episodes, which cuts it nicely at 500 million per episode. How much did Conspiracy in the Court cost? 800 million won. No, not per episode. The entire eight episode drama cost 800 million won.
And, oh mama, these are not signs of cheapness. I call it "장인 정신 (artisan spirit)." Just like a few years ago the original 별순검 (Byeol Sun Geom) -- a sort of CSI in Joseon but much more fun - did wonders with a ridiculous 50 million won per episode, when you know what you're doing, have the talent and creativity to use your environment to the best of your possibility, then money is a non-issue. Will you be surprised if I tell you this looks much better than The Legend? Its wire-less, extremely realistic action handled by 화산고 (Volcano High)'s Lee Eung-Joon with tremendous panache, just like a classic chanbara with a more Korean tempo; the weirdly balanced (Western sounds mixed with traditional Korean ones, melodic hip hop, soul and Choi Cheol-Ho's powerful score) yet incredibly charming soundtrack; the natural lighting and those "breathing" production sets. You'll never see the Joseon Royal Palace in the same light, literally, after all those creative low-angle shots and wide takes. This is like an open book on how to break every single rule of the sageuk canon, while at the same time creating a sum that speaks to you.
And then, there's the writing. Park Jin-Woo and Kwak Jung-Hwan had been preparing this drama for over three years, as it started as a 4-episode project, which was canned because... guess what, it was too innovative for the time. Park only wrote a few very interesting Dramacity episodes, one being his first collaboration with PD Kwak Jung-Hwa in the thriller 그들의 진실 (Their Truth), but nobody other than the people involved in this drama could possibly expect this quality. The really shocking, and somewhat puzzling thing about this script is how it manages to add details about the period with almost cruel nonchalance, fill dialogue with lines that read like poetry, and at the same time keep the realism intact, in a silky smooth crescendo. Some of the discussions characters make in the show will feel like a debate on TV you might have watched. It's not just some no-name writer doing his or her homework, going to the library, picking a few historical books (or those "for dummies" versions), and throw a few historical details at the screen. This is an organic world, full of real people who bring up real issues. And if you want that to transpire, what could you possibly need, if not a perfect cast?
There is something you cannot do these days, and that is ignore the star system. If you're a third-party company, the only way you'll get a spot in the lineup of a broadcaster is if you fill the show with stars, promising ratings with their name value. And, if you're a broadcaster producing a show in house, even if it's a sageuk, it's the big names you're after. But Conspiracy completely, utterly ignored all that. Of course it didn't have the money to cast those big names to begin with, but that was a strategy as well. In an interview with Dramatique, PD Kwak commented he did want to cast just one star, but then again paying the yearly salary of the average city worker to an actor for just a week of work felt a tad funny. But this was not a case of beggars can't be choosers. They chose wisely, and only people who fit perfectly the characters they were going to portray. Think of Bae Sung-Woo, who dabbled in theater before debuting here, and brings a new meaning to the word "poker face;" think of people like Han Jung-Soo, or Do Ji-Won - not the one from 여인천하 (Ladies of the Palace) -- and "little" Kim Young-Ae. Think of Kim Eung-Soo, who plays irascible conservative Park In-Bin with the pathos of a father who hates the jungle but will never drop the knife that protects him and his family. Think of young Kim Ha-Eun, who mixes cuteness with inner strength in impressive ways, or Jin Yi-Han's charming "everyday hero." Think of Lee Cheon-Hee, who exploded with the kind of power which was lying dormant for his entire career, and couldn't help but emerge through the role of his life.
And then, think of the men sitting on the throne. I always thought Ahn Nae-Sang was a good, sometimes great actor, with immense range and plenty of ad-lib prowess, but his performance here would bring to tears anyone who even remotely knows who King Jeongjo is. If the great Jung Bo-Seok drew King Gongmin as an artist trying to rule over land owners masked as court officials in Shin Don, Ahn paints Jeongjo (or, well, the king) as an intellectual among shark-like businessmen dressed as politicians. Jung was immense in all his explosive, Shakespearean pathos, but Ahn's king is different. This is the first time a sageuk has been able to completely strip that royal robe and the crown, and show us the man. Other dramas showed the many faces of a ruler, the dualism between the mask (king) and what is beyond that. But here there's no mask. It's Yi San, Jeongjo himself, who breathes fire on the screen. You can feel him, trapped by his position, as the most powerful man in his world, but one who is not able to do anything to change it, one who is not treated as a human being even by his mother (in Palace terms).
He's so human, so vulnerable yet so stubborn in his determination. It's like the king you always imagined, but could never get, because you'd always have to face up with the limitations of historical consciousness - compare it with the saint-like portrayal of the king in 대왕세종 (Sejong the Great), and you'll see how astronomical the difference is. Some of the lines he utters would have sounded really nice on most good actors' tongue, such as that wonderful "my ideology is being laughed at" tirade. But it becomes lyrical in Ahn Nae-Sang's hands. PD Kwak tried to cast people who would psychologically embed the same traits as the characters they were going to portray, and Ahn, who was a former student activist who turned to acting to escape from depression, seems to have found the role of his life. Really, I can run the entire thesaurus throwing hundreds of compliments at him, but his performance here is monumental.
I really could go on and on and on for days about this drama. It was a special experience for all those involved, as the tone of all the interviews, and the fact the cast and crew just completed a 1 year anniversary meeting with the DC Inside guys show. It wasn't just a masterpiece, or something you put on your DVD shelves and smile at anytime you glare at it. It was something almost spiritual, one of those shows, just like Shin Don, that change your outlook on dramas in general, and leave you something positive, like a good friend's advice. But, you know what's really funny? That, at the end of the day, this Citizen Kane of Korean dramas contradicted itself. How? It focused all its power on showing people's shortcomings and imperfections, and forgot about one little detail.
That it was just that. Perfect.....
한성별곡-正 (Conspiracy in the Court)
KBS 월화드라마 - Mon/Tue Drama
8 Episodes - Aired from July 9~31, 2007 [KBS2]
PD: 곽정환 (Kwak Jung-Hwan) / WRITER: 박진우 (Park Jin-Woo)
RATINGS: 6.00% Average [Peak 7.5% - Low 5.1%]
이천희 (Lee Cheon-Hee) as Yang Man-Oh, 진이한 (Jin Yi-Han) as Park Sang-Gyu, 김하은 (Kim Ha-Eun) as Lee Na-Young, 안내상 (Ahn Nae-Sang) as the King, 정애리 (Jung Ae-Ri) as the Queen Mother, 도지원 (Do Ji-Won) as Wolhyang, 김응수 (Kim Eung-Soo) as Park In-Bin, 한정수 (Han Jung-Soo) as Seo Ju-Pil, 박선영 (Park Sun-Young) as Lady Jo, 김기현 (Kim Gi-Hyun) as Shim Min-Gu, 남일우 (Nam Il-Woo) as Chae Seung-Hwan, 장현성 (Jang Hyun-Sung) as Lee Jae-Han, 김명수 (Kim Myung-Soo) as Butler Park, 전현 (Jeon Hyeon) as Minister of Personnel, 박수현 (Park Su-Hyeon) as Choi Il-Woo, 배성우 (Bae Sung-Woo) as Kang Do-Sul, 조성일 (Jo Sung-Il) as Do Sang-Cheon, 박철민 (Park Cheol-Min) as the Commander of the Capital Police, 이미지 (Lee Mi-Ji) as Lady Eom, 이성 (Lee Seong) as Na-Young's father
[Director's Cut DVD] (English Subs)