With many thanks to Rev. Martin Lee, I had the great good fortune to be able to watch the Korean television series The King & I. The series is loosely based on the life of one of the great court eunuchs of the Jusong Dynasty. We follow young Kim Chun-Dong, left at a Buddhist Shrine by his desperate mother, discovered by a shaman-in-training just as she’s about to commit suicide, as he grows up in a Eunuch School in the Jusong capital. He becomes friends with the boy who, through court machinations we also see, will become King SeongJong. He shares a love for the beautiful, forthright and upright Yoon So-wha, who first becomes a concubine to the king, then becomes queen, only to be deposed and forced to commit suicide, again through court machinations. Chun-dong, learning that So-wha has been called to the palace to become a concubine, actually castrates himself to becomes a eunuch. Adopted by the Head of the Eunuch Department, he spends most of his time trying to protect the Queen from the inevitable.
The son to whom So-wha gives birth grows up with only dim memories of his mother. As king, he falls under the influence of conniving eunuchs and ministers who manipulate his feelings about his dead mother, leading him to insanity, tyranny, and in the penultimate episode, the murder of Chun-dong, who has taken the name Kim Cheo-seon. The mad king is deposed, spending his life haunted by the ghosts of those he murdered, reminding him that he could have been a great king.
Now, I went in to this knowing nothing about Korean television. The fact that there’s a website KoreanDrama.org doesn’t surprise me, but it wasn’t that much help in terms of judging the quality of the acting, the popularity of the series, or the production values. To my jaded American eyes, it had the look and feel of a soap opera – shot on video, the acting (especially reaction shots) stylized to the point that for some characters they could have just edited in the same reaction shot from one episode throughout the entire series, an enormous cast of characters, some of whom are more caricature than character – but there was also depth to it.
What makes this particular series stand out, at least for me, is the fact that all the characters, save three, are morally compromised in one way or another. Not only does this create drama; it is offers, when these particular characters are in a scene, opportunities for a kind of Greek Chorus effect, allowing a moral overview of goings-on. Of course, part of knowing nothing about Korean television is knowing nothing about Korean mores and values well enough to judge if my own reaction to particular characters is “correct” or not. Still, the drunk Dr. Yang, the castrator Gaedochi, and most of all the Queen, Yoon So-wha, who everyone suspects is a conniving shrew but actually has not a single ounce of guile in her whole existence, each provide opportunities to reflect upon what’s going on with clarity and honesty, something sorely lacking in the rest of the characters to one degree or another. Indeed, this is the reason for her being deposed: she cannot fathom the lengths to which people will go to manipulate others, including inciting murder. Every one of her actions is rooted in her love for the king and desire for him to be great, up to and including voluntarily drinking the poison that kills her.
I have to admit I liked the show a great deal. Like most soap operas it sucks you in; like most soap operas, it drags some story lines out a bit too far; like most period costume dramas, the production values are actually surprisingly good, especially the exterior set for the palace. Most of all, all the main characters are people about whom you come to care, and for whom, at different times, you either root or shake your head. Like most dramas dealing with conniving people, the connivers all end up at bad ends, one way or another, although some not nearly as early as they deserve.
Finally, this was an interesting, entertaining introduction to relatively current Korean popular culture (the show ran two nights a week from the summer of 2007 through the spring of 2008), as well as an interesting take on how another society views its own history. Especially the last 18 or so episodes, during the reign of the young, mad, tyrant king, I was wondering how much of what was portrayed was rooted in the conflict between South Korea and North Korea, with the young mad king a stand-in for the recent succession of North Korean leaders whose propensity for violence and personal immorality (at least as rumored) is legendary. In any event, I really enjoyed watching this show, and as it’s available to stream online through various sources (just Google The King & I Korean TV and follow the results that pop up), I’d encourage you to check it out, if watching entertaining television drama, in a period costume setting, from another country and culture, is your thing.
Oh, and obviously, it’s subtitled. I think the English subtitles were done by a Korean for whom English is a second language because the dialogue was just a bit more stilted and even awkward as read than what I could hear. Of course, perhaps the writing for Korean TV is that bad, and the actors have to make do with what they’re given!