Fiction, Film, ideology, korea, korean drama, TV

MR SUNSHINE (tvN, Netflix 2018) & Product Placement of 21st Century Brands in late 19th Century Choson/Korea

All Korean dramas rely on product placement. The concept of product placement, or PPL as they abbreviate in Korea, isn’t new, and of course, it doesn’t originate in Korea. Embedded marketing in media can be traced back to as early as the late 19th century starting with novels. In terms of visual media, the US (surprise surprise) included cars (Ford, Plymouth, Chevy, Packard), beverages (Coca-Cola) and cigarettes (Marlboro) in early studio films–some as early as 1916.

The tradition of conspicuous brand placement continued into television, of course. Entire shows would be sponsored by brands.

But this all changed with Sylvester (Pat) Weaver at NBC in 1949 (fun fact: Pat Weaver is Sigourney Weaver’s dad!). Weaver shifted the operation of network television by ensuring that programs get controlled by the network and ad time get purchased by companies through commercial breaks. BOOM. This turned the table completely. Companies were now at the mercy of networks and popular programs. This relationship continues to this day.

The difference in Korea is that commercial interruptions do not pervade the show as frequently as they do in American TV. An entire program can run without an ad break in the middle. (The downside is a prolonged series of ads in between separate programs; but this is also changing with the growth of cable in Korea.) Thus, product placement still plays a major role in a series production. And it’s not just one brand that owns the entire show. Multiple companies sponsor the show (percentages of how much screen time each product gets and the frequency of the product varies).

Writer Kim Eun-sook’s earliest major hit is Lovers in Paris (SBS, 2004). I can still remember the characters going to Baskin Robbins to eat a ton of ice cream and I recall the Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) telling the Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun) how many songs he has in his MP3 player. In Descendants of the Sun (KBS, 2016), they eat ton of Subway sandwiches and those ginseng squeeze packs; Song Hye-kyo wears a lot of Laneige lipstick and she keeps lighting that freaking 2S candle. We saw the same level of conspicuous product placement in Goblin. I watched that show multiple times already not so much because I think the storyline is the greatest thing since sliced bread but more so because the fashion, jewelry and makeup are such wonderful eye candy. Of course, Goblin had a lot of PPL from perfume to handbags, lipstick to Subway sandwiches to fried chicken to furniture to beverages. Both Descendants of the Sun and Goblin had a go-to meeting spot for emotionally draining meetings between lovers and it is Dal.komm Coffee.

Cafes become a natural PPL strategy because so many K-drama storylines include one-on-one meetings at cafes. It only makes sense that a cafe be included as part of the production so why not make it a sponsor? Makes sense in terms of business. All that is well and good but how do you cram in contemporary brands into a show that is set in  Choson the same year as the Gabo Reform?

Korean audiences are savvy, and they’re already talking about it. In fact, a number of them are saying that the PPL in Mr. Sunshine is non-disruptive. Viewers are expressing their appreciation for the slick embedded marketing that the show makers have worked into this period piece.

But product placement is never not noticeable. In fact, the beat that show takes when they are about to take a moment for their sponsors is very detectable. When Eugene Choi (Lee Byunghun) raises his Odense teacup in the middle of his quiet meditation looking out his window, he makes an observation that is out of character: “Is this style of teacup in fashion now?” Like, dude, you’re a former slave boy/orphan/Korean American military man. Since when do you give a shit about trending chinaware? Let’s be real.

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Paris Baguette is very obviously a sponsor. We know this because it is one of the first banner bumpers to appear when the end credits roll, but we also know this because in episode 2, its characteristic blue and white label appears where lady Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) makes a stop to enjoy some sweets. (The sign posts and lamps all read, “French Bakery.”) In fact, Paris Baguette is currently selling special Mr. Sunshine specialty goods. 

And what would a K-drama be without a cafe/coffee sponsor? Dal.komm makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive display in Mr. Sunshine. Not only do the characters really push this 가배/gabe (Choson lingo for “coffee”) stuff but the napkins and even background sign straight up reads “Dal.komm Coffee.”

Hey. It’s all good though. No need to get all worked up over how a show takes us “out of the moment.” That sort of thing is nonsense. The nature of TV is self-reflexivity. We as audiences couldn’t possibly believe that late 19th century Korea had a guy named Eugene Choi acting as a military representative of America. So eye-roll all you want. PPL in Korean dramas aren’t going anywhere. Not even in a period piece.

In fact, given how SVOD streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have commercial breaks as part of their distribution operation, product placement is now an integral part of their original episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.

Seeing as we TV lovers don’t simply rely on broadcast and cable television to receive our shows but also subscription to digital streaming, our lives will now be dictated by both commercial interruptions and embedded marketing in the programs. And that’s what I realized while working out at the gym yesterday. The absurdity of capitalism and our addiction to TV has turned us all into a bunch of suckers. Wait, I mean, “consumers.” 

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korean drama, TV

Netflix is Getting a Better Handle on Korean Dramas with its Latest Acquisition MR. SUNSHINE (미스터션샤인, 2018): ep. 1, July 7, 2018

Netflix and Korean TV have gotten close. Although I’ve been seeing Korean dramas on the site for some years now, I always relied on other sources like DramaFever, Viki and OnDemandKorea to keep up with all the shows I wanted to see. This mostly had to do with exclusivity rights that some of the sites had.

For instance, in the US, DramaFever has exclusive rights (for the time being) to Goblin (2016-2017). I recall signing up for Viki for a couple of months last year to catch Chicago Typewriter (2017). I keep my subscription to OnDemandKorea because it’s pretty reliable for watching most Korean variety shows the fastest since they show everything an hour after the air time of the program in Korea (but because of this, OnDemandKorea does not always have subtitles for their programs and their quality assurance is subpar; their site has a lot of bugs, even though relative to Viki and DramaFever, their subscription rate is $2 more expensive).

TVN’s latest big program written by Kim Eunsook is Mr. Sunshine (2018). It started airing in Korea on Saturday, July 7th, and will air as a weekend drama every Saturday and Sunday. It hits Netflix (in the US) 24 hours later. Kim Eunsook is the writer of beloved K-dramas such as Lovers in Paris (2004), Secret Garden (2010), A Gentlemen’s Dignity (2012) and, of course, the two mega hits of the last couple of years Descendants of the Sun (2016) and Goblin (2016-2017). Mr. Sunshine is getting international release around the world via Netflix.

Netflix has been releasing “original” dramas on its platform for about a year now, but their curation has been quite shoddy. Shows like Man to Man (2017) and Black (2017)–despite their star power–are extremely tedious (if not flat out bad). Both shows, which aired on cable channels in Korea, have struggled to make waves locally. Even the highly anticipated show Prison Playbook written by Lee Woo-jung, writer of the hugely successful Reply series, is extremely slow. Prison Playbook failed to impress Korean audiences as well, and did not reach the level of popularity that her earlier work achieved.

Notably, the trend is that Netflix is pushing to acquire content that airs on Korean cable channels. This has to do with the fact that cable channels in Korean television tend to push boundaries a bit further to include more violence (action) and vice (sex, cigarettes, and alcohol). While public broadcasters like KBS and MBC, and even commercial broadcaster SBS, are under greater scrutiny by the KCC, cable channels enjoy more leniency since the audience is smaller. Netflix, which isn’t bound by censorship regulation given its online status, is thus likely to go for more sensational content. Korean cable content finding a home on Netflix, thus, makes a lot of sense. Given the rising trend in stars signing up to participate in more cable television programs, narrowcast shows are starting to compete (if not outcompete) broadcast shows.

This is not to say that KBS, MBC and SBS do not have content on Netflix. In fact, a lot of the content from 2016 or prior are from those channels (Descendants of the Sun being one of them). But as Korea’s cable content is getting more demand among audiences, Netflix is making moves to acquire exclusive rights for content like Mr. Sunshine.

While Mr. Black, Man-to-Man and even Prison Playbook failed to impress, Mr. Sunshine is being strategized differently. Rob Roy–VP of Content Acquisition, Asia–mentioned the “pedigree of a title like Mr. Sunshine.” The pedigree mentioned here in refers to whether or not a show like this may be palatable to American viewers. Mr. Sunshine features Lee Byung-hun–one of Korea’s first major stars to impress Hollywood, and appearing in films like The Magnificent Seven (2016, Antoine Fuqua) and presenting at the Academy Awards in 2016. He is also one of the few Korean actors to have his handprint on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although not by any means mainstream, Lee is, at the very least, a Korean actor who has recognition in Hollywood. Lee’s opposite in this K-drama is Kim Tae-ri, who impressed international audiences with her performance in The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook). The film reached international audiences easily through AmazonVideo. In addition to this, Descendants of the Sun is available on Netflix in the US. Despite Netflix being notoriously secretive of its data, anyone can guess the popularity this show has on the platform considering its international success due to the star power of Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki.

Thus, the pedigree mentioned by Roy is not only in reference to Kim Eun-sook’s writing, which has consistently found success among K-drama lovers, but also the recognizable names of Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-ri among global audiences, and especially in the US.

[SPOILER ALERT] The first episode of Mr. Sunshine which dropped on Netflix today (July 7) was alright. It flaunted a lot of beautiful cinematography. Similar to the way Descendants and Goblin were shot, Mr. Sunshine attempts a level of camerawork that is comparable to an epic film, and it is successful particularly in the beauty shots taken in the mountains during sunset. Given this, the DPs on shows like this should be given name recognition. (In fact, K-drama DPs are probably the best ones to hire for any Hollywood film that features a lot of Asian faces like Crazy Rich Asians which is so poorly lit.)

The set designs and direction for scenes including American soldiers are interesting although not always convincing. I take issue with hallyu K-dramas and films that feature white actors as Americans; why do Americans they select always have a tinge of Australian or some unidentifiable accent? I understand that there are a lot of Aussies living in Korea that may be easy to hire, but they really should be given proper training to acquire an American accent to keep viewers convinced of the storyworld, especially viewers who have an ear for both languages and given the increasingly international player K-drama producers/distributors are becoming. This problem, of course, is rampant all over Hollywood, too. Whenever Hollywood films feature “Koreans” speaking “Korean” while butchering the language and so clearly cueing native ears that this person is not at all Korean (e.g. Black Panther [2018], Lost [2004-2010]), it becomes a major distraction (this phenomenon is applicable for all nationalities and languages in Hollywood films).

The part when American soldiers tell the Korean traitor to release the POWs because America is a “righteous country” made me laugh out loud. Anyone who’s read American war history would know why. Why does Kim’s writing make America appear so noble in this episode? Is this a form of political lip-service? Are Korean productions pledging some loyalty to American distributors?

Another thing I note in this show is the fetishization of violence; gunfire, knife wielding, explosions, death–all of these shots are given long takes and slowed down by FX and music. I don’t particularly care for these long shots romanticizing violent deaths. It’s a bit unsettling. The aesthetic is similar to what we get from Hollywood war movies like We Were Soldiers (2002) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). There’s nothing beautiful about war or death, and I take issue with this type of aestheticization over such images.

Lastly, the motif of dropping Korean bodies onto non-Korean soil in periods before the 21st century is consistent in Mr. Sunshine. As we’ve hilariously seen Kim Shin (Gong Yoo) buried in Canada in Goblin, we now see Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun) grow up as a Korean American soldier in New York ( DUMBO specifically) fighting in the American military. This is an example of “worlding” (eds. Roy and Ong, World Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global) as Korea aspires to situate itself in the global capitalist order as a worthy competitor, and a nation to be reckoned with. K-dramas are constructing Korea as an international player and rewriting history; no, it wasn’t Japanese colonization or the Korean War that began the nation’s international relations; in Goblin it’s centuries before that, and in Mr. Sunshine, assimilated Korean Americans existed long before boeings. Such is the trend. But it’s also a tendency of the writer. Kim Eun-sook’s first major hit is Lovers in Paris, and production did take place in Paris back in 2004 when this drama aired on SBS. It could simply be that Kim likes international travel.

With that said, we do note that her dramas aren’t exactly taking place with non-white nations. Considering the preferences of European or North American countries these dramas have, Kim Eun-sook’s dramas do play a political role in the nation’s first-worlding process through serialized television. The political move here is to associate Korea with first world nations through televisual display.

**As I’m sure fans have already noted, the intertext of Kim Ji-won and Jin Goo reappearing as a couple (parents to Ko Ae-shin [Kim Taeri]) and Ji Seung-hyun as a comrade to the couple is a wink to the audience/fans of Kim Eun-sook’s earlier drama Descendants of the Sun. Given this, can we expect a cameo appearance from Goblin? Perhaps Lee Dong-wook + Yoo In-na? 🤷🏻‍♀️

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Art, cinema and media studies

“Answer Me 1988” (응답하라 1988, Reply 1988): A Transmedia Text & Manual to Navigate Another Era’s Fandom

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According to Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture, “the emerging convergence paradigm assumes that old and new media will interact in ever more complex ways” (6). Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the show Answer Me 1988 where several forms of media converge in one medium—television. The show includes cinema, video games, music, style (fashion, hair, makeup), internet chat rooms, comic books—even food package designs (iconic brands that are recognizable at a glance)—all of which are set in the 1980s. The main vehicle that Answer Me 1988 utilizes for its transmedia reception is the spectators’ nostalgia: “Convergence occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with each other” (3). Similar to The Matrix example explored by Jenkins, by blending various forms of old school pop culture items into one program, Answer Me 1988 becomes a transmedia text containing the 80s memory belonging to generation x but also one that works to clue in the later generations on the fandom of the past. As Jenkins defines in “Interactive Audiences?”: “Transmedia promotion presumes a more active spectator who can and will follow these media flows” (165). Answer Me 1988 assumes the kind of audience that is willing and able to follow its media flows regardless of the viewer’s age or background. This is evident in the show’s casting choices, music and the show’s ability to function as a manual to guide contemporary viewers through the nostalgia of a different era and culture.

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Answer Me 1988 (2015-2016), written by Lee Woo-jung and directed by Shin Won-ho, is an hour long, twenty-episode Korean dramedy series that aired on the cable network tvN, owned by media conglomerates CJ Media and Fox International Channels. The show’s finale had an AGB Nielson rating of 18.8%, and a TNmS rating of 18.4%–both of which are considerably high numbers for a cable channel.[1] It is notable that although tvN is a pay cable channel, it does not contain any violence, nudity, sex or profanity, which encourages a family viewing experience. What this further suggests is that although viewers under the age of 30 may not recognize the tunes, films, commercial jingles and other media texts played on the show, the parents or older viewers who are watching alongside them might. The show creators bank on this type of audience interaction where convergence spreads across generations by reaching for a wider demographic: “…franchises depend on hypersociability, that is, they encourage various forms of participation and social interactions between consumers” (Convergence Culture, 112). This reach for a broader audience is apparent in the show’s casting.

Lee Hye-ri who plays the lead role—Deok-seon—is a K-pop star from the girl group Girl’s Day. She’s a recognizable face whose singing career spans 5 years with a budding acting career since 2014. The very act of crossing over one’s recognition as a singer to an actor is a form of transmediation; fans who are plugged into the pop world can be led into the drama world via Lee Hye-ri’s career transition. Furthermore, the show adds another dimension to Lee Hye-ri’s initial doll-like pop star image with her character image of Deok-seon, which is that of a normal neighborhood teenager with plain black cropped hair who doesn’t perform well in school but has a kind heart and a goofy personality thus humanizing her appearance. The manner in which a star’s image changes in the spectator’s mind is also a form of transmediation as it moves from singer to actor, but also from unreachable to accessible.

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The creators of Answer Me 1988 as well as the other Answer Me series (arguably a franchise), e.g. Answer Me 1997 (2012), Answer Me 1994 (2013), distance themselves from assumptions that the subsequent shows are sequels or prequels. However, the franchise does play with the series timeline as defined by Jenkins in Textual Poachers dropping in cameo appearances of actors from the earlier series to suggest a link or connection to one another (163). For instance, Sung Shi-won played by girl group K-pop star Jung Eun-ji in Answer Me 1997 appears in Answer Me 1994 alongside Jung Woo who plays Kim Jae-joon in Answer Me 1994. Kim Jae-joon then makes a cameo appearance in Answer Me 1988. This method of expanding the series timeline to keep Answer Me fans invested in the reality of the story world is a method of attracting viewers through a transmedia engagement (163). The creators’ strategy relies on casting and recasting. However, the recasting strategy also complicates the viewing experience as the protagonist’s parents played by Lee Il-hwa and Sung Dong-il are always the same throughout the series by retaining their dialects, persona, and names. This forces viewers to accept each series as its own text via “cross overs” of the protagonists’ parent figures; the protagonist’s character and actor changes whereas the parents do not (170). What may be comforting to viewers about this is knowing that there’s a through line connecting all three shows, and in that regard, the previous series’ storyline never really ended with the finale episode, thus indulging fans emotionally.

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K-pop star images aside, Answer Me 1988 has an original soundtrack album available on iTunes as well as in the form of a music video DVD produced and distributed by CJ Media. The soundtrack includes throwbacks like “Youth,” originally sung by the band Sanulrim in 1981 but covered by Kim Feel—a contemporary artist signed with the record label CJ E&M (a record company owned by CJ Media of tvN network). This is another example of the show’s function as a transmedia text, drawing a “common ground” between the old and new generations through a single song (Convergence Culture, 97). The song works as both a “cultural activator” and a “cultural attractor” through its ability to appeal to a younger crowd that recognizes Kim Feel the artist but also to the older generation that recognizes the tune that brings them back to 1981—the year that Sanulrim released the hit song “Youth” (97). The show transmediates through time, fame and fandom via a single song. While attracting and activating cultural significances for multiple groups, it operates through the older generation’s nostalgia while also creating a nostalgic sensation for the younger generation with songs that have a dated feel but are sung by recognizable artists today.

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As Jenkins states, “Our lives, relationships, memories, fantasies, desires also flow across media channels” (Convergence Culture, 17). In Answer Me 1988, the show’s creators allow viewers to have a transmedia experience through a visual flashback across media channels experiencing everything from old music via cassette tapes that get visibly inserted into a cassette player, followed by a long montage of the characters’ faces simply listening as the song plays out in its entirety, to live concert shows on TV that the characters watch excitedly as a group. What makes Answer Me 1988 a unique transmedia text is its ability to work also as a fandom instruction manual in the form of a show. The indulgent scenes illustrated earlier inform younger spectators on the fandom culture that existed before their time. In this particular story world, fandom itself converges across generations.[2] The enthusiastic reception of the characters watching these shows informs a younger spectator of the fan culture back when those shows, tunes, and films were at their peak. Fandom gets instructed to younger viewers via this transmedia text, where witnesses (characters) respond with joy to the movie, song or TV show playing inside the show. The show creators consciously designed a story world where multiple generations could learn to appreciate the various forms of transmediated texts throughout. Jenkins states that our society is “increasingly fragmented and multicultural,” however this show’s ability to draw a diverse viewership through a period piece that exploits a recent past and its nostalgic elements is striking (Convergence Culture, 125).[3]

There is a considerable number of articles and research indicating Korean dramas’ global fan base reaching beyond South Korea. K-drama streaming sites such as Viki and DramaFever report higher percentages of non-Korean viewers than Korean viewers tuning in. In the case with transnational fandom for Answer Me 1988, how does a nation’s specific cultural nostalgia translate, especially when “not all participants are created equal,” meaning, when not all participants share the same memory and cultural experience (3)? What makes Answer Me 1988 a transmediated text is that it is accessible beyond just generation X Koreans. There are multiple entry points for viewers to interact with the text: familiar voices, faces, products, and the creators’ signature. Fans who’ve seen the previous Answer Me shows presumably have an appreciation for this one as well, and notice patterns throughout. The show successfully establishes a sense of “common experience” or ground where audiences across generations and cultures can find ways to engage with the text. As Jenkins illustrates, the internet has made fan experience global, and fans on the margins may now partake in that collective “knowledge space” or realm (“Interactive Audience?,”158). Beyond space, transmedia also breaks boundaries across time (generation gaps) as evidenced by Answer Me 1988.

Grace Jung
May 13, 2016

Bibliography

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. 2002. “Interactive Audiences?” The New Media Book, edited by Dan Harries. 157-170. London: BFI.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.

 

[1]Reply 1988: Episode Ratings,” All About Korean Drama, http://www.koreandrama.org/reply-1988/, May 5, 2016.

[2] See also “Analogue Nostalgia and the Aesthetics of Digital Remediation” by Dominik Schrey.

[3] The high reception of the Answer Me series that utilizes nostalgia (created or triggered) as its hallmark influenced MBC’s variety/reality show Infinite Challenge to take on similar tasks by reuniting old K-pop groups that disbanded in the 90s or early 2000s and putting on live concerts which then influenced the music charts around the time those shows aired; 90s hits became the most requested songs on radios or the most downloaded songs at those times. A K-drama’s approach influencing a variety/reality show’s unscripted production is also, arguably, a form of transmedia, where different genres of television share (borrow or steal) a similar concept that eventually impacts yet another industry’s variable—the music charts.

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cinema and media studies, Film, Gender Studies, ideology, korea, korean drama

quick thoughts on 사도/The Throne (2015)

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I needed another fix of Yoo Ah-in starring in yet another dramatic period piece, and this time by filmmaker Yi Joon-ik with Sado (2015). It stars Song Kang-ho who plays King Yeongjo, a father with mountain high expectations of his second son, Jang-jo (posthumously named Crown Prince Sado) who history writes as an insane and troubled soul that went around raping and killing people randomly throughout the palace due to his mental illness largely attributed to the deep anxiety caused by his strict father. Yeongjo’s constant disapproval and disdain for his son’s actions drove Jang-jo mad with rage.

One day, after an attempted murder of the King, Sado is captured and forced into a wooden rice crate and left inside of it for eight days straight until he dies of dehydration and starvation. It’s a dramatic epic, and pretty awesome one at that. Just listen to this music. Beautifully crafted imagery, and truly idiosyncratic performance given by Song Kang-ho. I’ve never seen an actor play a period epic blending cool and casual wit with cruelty, sorrow and passion in such balanced synchrony.

The film is ultimately a family drama. The women in the film, again, don’t have it easy. There’s tension between concubines, and among the queens, although in general, the women seem to look after one another a little better than in the Hui Bin drama…

Yoo Ah-in, in Sado, plays the grandson of King Sukjong, which he himself played in Jang Ok-Jung (2013). Yoo’s performance is excellent as well albeit I feel like I’ve seen his range already in Jang Ok-Jung. Also, great cameo appearance by heartthrob So Ji-sub.

For more info on the film, please refer to this great review on The Hollywood Reporter. 

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cinema and media studies, Gender Studies, korea, korean drama, TV

rewriting a woman’s history with JANG OK-JUNG (2013): (Yoo Ah-in just like Leonardo DiCaprio in my heart)

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I haven’t felt this kind of depression after watching a Korean drama series since Autumn in My Heart (2000)/가을동화.

Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love  (2013) is a period piece from SBS. It is based on the historical novel work of the same title written by Choi Jung-mi, and is directed by Boo Sung-chul. The series is set during the Joseon Dynasty in the late 1600s.

The show centers on a young, aspiring fashion designer Jang Ok-jung (Kim Tae-hee) who is born of a middle-class rank (중인) but falls in love with King Suk-jong/Yi Soo (Yoo Ah-in) and becomes his favorite concubine. It starts off as a lovey-dovey tale simply about a young woman and man whose affections for each other seem pure and eternal, then of course shit hits the fan when every single person around each character has a political problem with their getting together. Drama ensues.

Jang Ok-Jung is not only an intense political drama, but also an interesting critique on Joseon’s classism stemming from a caste system that damns a person’s life according to who s/he is born from and what the parents’ ranking is according to Joseon’s societal standards. This is the show’s primary critique–the rigidity of a society that make class mobility near impossible. But the protagonist Ok-jung makes it up the ranks (4 to 1) as a consort, eventually even taking over the dethroned Queen In-hyeon’s place as Queen herself for a short term reign. But In-hyeon returns and Ok-jung is demoted back to the place of consort Hui Bin. She eventually is framed for having placed a curse on the queen and is forced to kill herself, ordered by her beloved King.

Ok-jung in her early appearances takes a fascination to Joseon days’ erotic illustrated novels, which are essentially just some softcore sketches of men and women caressing. Ok-jung takes a liking to the way the women’s dresses flow depending on their sensual positions. The drawings inspire her vision. Sexuality is where Ok-jung sees beauty, and the show has plenty of coded sex talk throughout that compares women to flowers and men to bees.

The drama relies heavily on the female characters’ catty tension throughout, mostly rooted in jealousy over things like beauty and male attention. There’s really just one man who all the women desire, and that is the King. Around Ok-jung, however, there are men galore. She has three different pursuers but the King is the one she wants and eventually gets.

The women on this show all must rely on their only agent of power and that is their body. The women must be beautiful. Her face is the main selling point. After that, she must know how to dress well.  If the King desires her, then she has found “favor” by him, meaning that he sleeps with her. Her vagina is the access to bringing her status and power–it is her only agency towards class mobility. From there, she can move up by becoming pregnant but her status upgrade is only a possibility if she births a son–a potential heir to the throne. Ok-jung accomplishes all of this. She even maintains her favor with the King until the end of her days.

Throughout the series, Ok-jung and Lee Soo’s romantic theme is their little promise to each other that they would never let go of each other’s hands. (Ring a Titanic bell much? Yoo Ah-in is the Korean doppelgänger of Leonardo DiCaprio. They remind me of each other so much that I can hardly contain myself; they have the same nose, the same voice, the same trembling mannerisms that have a danger of appearing trite/overused at times; a tendency towards frequent explosions in their performance that oozes thick passion.)

What depressed me at the end of the series is that ultimately the King does not overcome the political powers that be and allows his beloved consort to be put to death by poison. Her crime is breaking the palace rules of having no shamans make an offering on site; at the desperate situation of possibly losing her son to smallpox, she brings the shaman in, gets caught and is blamed for the death of Queen In-hyeon by placing a curse or some bullshit…

What then added to my depression is how after Ok-jung dies, the King mourns her at Chwi Seon Dang (Ok-jung’s place of residence and the King’s gift), and the drama immediately cuts to King Sukjong’s grave site,  calling him one of the greatest reformers of Joseon history. Be that as it may, the namesake of the show seems almost completely forgotten at this point. Later, another title card appears, explaining that Ok-jung’s damnation was lifted in 1965 and that her grave was moved to be placed beside Sukjong’s.

Anyway, what made me so sad was how awful, limited, and impossible a woman’s life was back then. What the hell’s even the point of rewriting the history of Hui Bin this way? Even if there’s the mediated, dramatized effort to make her appear a little less evil, and make the relationship with her and the King more meaningful, it doesn’t change the fact that she was a victim of rigid circumstances and was ultimately killed by the man who was supposedly in love with her.

The rules back then were insane. Truly, truly insane.

Now, I have to refer to the Wikipedia page because it’s just so fascinating how it writes about her (FYI, Wikipedia’s citations link back to website descriptions written by museums, government sites, cultural sites, etc.), and the general consensus is simply that she was an awful woman. Historical references even blame her son King Gyeongjong’s illness and infertility on her (Gyeongjong’s illness, according to these records, made him an unsuited King, and he was replaced by his half-brother Yeongjo, who held a very long tenure on the throne). This type of blatant misogyny on a lower status historical figure is just more evidence of patriarchal sexism and bias. In a lot of ways, the drama rationalizes some of those accusations of evil that is frequently placed on her while also moving against the grain of patriarchal injustice. Some of the best dialogues are the ones shared by Queen Inhyeon and Ok-jung when they discuss the King’s flaw which is being male.

Anyway, what a great show. The costumes were utterly beautiful. Color coordination, head pieces, lipstick shades–all of it–utterly beautiful. (Think Marie Antoinette (2006) level of costume beauty.)

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