Seo Jang-geum / Played by Lee Young-Ae
Min Jung-ho / Played by Ji Jin-Hee
Choi Geum-young / Played by Hong Li-nav
King Jungjong / Played by Im Ho
Lady Han (Han Ae-jong) / Played by Yang Mi-gyeong
Lady Choi (Choi Seong-geum) / Played by Gyeon Mi-ri
As in my other reviews, I strongly believe that if one intends to watch the series then don't read the synopsis. If you are only reading this review to decide whether or not you should watch this then read on! I fervently recommend this well rounded series whether you are looking for a meaningful production, thought-provoking drama, emotional stimulation, culture shock, historical enrichment - or basically entertainment. But if you're an 'action' buff then no there are no explosions, death duels, or people running on top of bamboo shoots - except perhaps for a 'warm' (hee hee) fire scene. And it's also not for people who like to watch on fast forward mode or those with short fuses looking for lightning storylines. Make no mistake, this takes you through the whole long tedious hard work behind real success.
Since I don't believe in reading summaries before viewing I am very brief below with no specific events or details, and you would probably notice I hardly mention any other characters despite their importance to the story. This means even if you read the synopsis it is certainly no substitute for watching the real thing. Still despite its brevity it's still 3 pages long.
By all means just skip it.
This 70 episode long story is based on a real person who was the first (possibly only) woman to be recorded in Korean history as a King's personal physician. The scene is set in the Joseon Dynasty at a time when society had a distinct class hierarchy system dominated by adamant chauvinistic traditions. Despite being a relatively well off period in history the country suffered from political instability with internal power struggles within the royal family and a government saturated with corrupt officials at every turn. The nation faced constant raids from the Japanese and was subordinate to China. In the midst of the chaos is the life story of a girl who relied not on connections or power but generosity and an unyielding spirit to be bestowed the title of the "Great Jang-geum" (series title) by the King himself.
Jang-geum's (JG) parents were originally from the palace. JG's father was a King's officer given the task of carrying out the death sentence (poison) on the queen at the time. The event harrowed him so much that he resigned and left the capital. JG's mother was a gong nu (palace girl) who cooked but unfortunately witnessed a crime (by a girl I'll call Choi Shang Gong) which she reported. To ensure her silence the guilty parties attempted to murder her away from the palace. Her best friend (I'll call Han Shang Gong) was forced to participate but managed to tamper with the poison used beforehand. JG's mother was left for dead but was rescued and nursed back to health by JG's father. And surprise they get together. Meanwhile the prince (whose mother was poisoned) ascends the throne and the first thing he does is impose revenge on anyone involved in his mother's death. As a result, JG parents and JG lived on the run, constantly on the move - keeping their identities secret and dodging officials. Peaceful years go by until their past finally caught up to them and by then JG was about 6/7 yrs old. Because of her immaturity her father was arrested (and killed) which forced JG's mother to contact her past acquaintance (Han) for help. This alerted the Choi family that she was still alive and they sent assassins after them. JG's mother was fatally wounded from protecting JG and died in a cave. Her final wish was for her daughter, if she so chooses, to return to the palace as a gong nu and become the Highest Head Cook in order to gain access to the Head Cook's Record book and write down the injustice she suffered so that it would pass to future generations.
And so begins the journey of little orphan JG who comes under the care of a petty yet well-meaning couple and becomes her adopted family. When she was 8, JG manages to beg her way into the palace to be a gong nu and makes good friends (Lien Shen) as well as rivals (Ling Lo) with other girls. She also makes friends with Geum-young who is part of the Choi family. Training since a young age, Geum-young was talented in cooking, and was seen as a potential Highest Head Cook. This would carry on the five generational tradition of Head Cooks in the Choi family and preserve their power in the palace. Even at such a young age Geum-young struggled to accept the path mapped out for her and she bid a tearful farewell to a childhood crush (Min Jung-ho) - as gong nus were seen as the King's women and forbidden to marry.
JG's curiosity and persistence constantly landed her in trouble with her superiors. By coincidence she becomes apprentice to Han (her mother's best friend) neither knowing their connection. Although Han took a liking to JG it turned cold when JG asked her how she could become the Highest Head Cook. The murder of JG's mother hardened Han's heart for those with a desire for power and she misunderstood JG's ambition, keeping a strict attitude towards her. Over years of stringent standards and discipline JG actually came out on top of the other girls in creativity and dedication of her culinary skills. A series of events occurs showing Han and JG as the greatest potential rivals to Choi and Gum Ying for the position of highest power in the imperial kitchen. In particular, the mutual respect between JG and Gum Ying is severed when Gum Ying was forced to make JG the scapegoat of her crime. Their relationship further soured after Gum Ying found out the closeness between JG and Min Jung-ho.
JG and Han comes out on top and Han is made the Highest Head Cook of the imperial kitchen despite facing impossible odds. However none of the success could compare to Han's true joy when she finally discovered the close bond between her and JG - and through many years of regret and pining for JG's mother, her best friend had 'brought' her daughter to be by her side all this time. They soon realize the Choi clan had been behind JG's parents deaths. Unfortunately Choi Shang Gong and Gum Ying also find out their bond and desperately think of ways to rid them in order bury the past forever (to cover up the unauthorized killing of a gong nu). Their opportunity comes as the King falls seriously ill after eating a duck dish made by Han and JG on one of his trips outside the palace. Han and JG are wrongly accused of trying to poison the King and is charged with high treason. With Min Jung-ho's help their death penalty is wavered but they are sentenced as servants on a remote island.
Due to the harsh interrogation process they suffered and the grueling journey to the island Han Shang Gong dies on the way. Overcome by grief, JG attempts multiple times to escape not wanting to spend the rest of her life virtually as a prisoner. Feeling guilty at his own uselessness Min Jung-ho quits his position to find JG at the island. He convinces her to stay and look for a way. She finds the way by becoming a doctor, only as a recognized physician can she hope to return to the palace. And so with Min Jung-ho cheering her all the way, support from her adopted parents and the guidance of new friends she battles her way back into the palace and confronts her nemeses. However, in the years she had left, Choi Shang Gong and Geum-young had become powerful whilst the friends she left had been ostracized because of their connection. The storyline becomes further complicated by power struggles within the royal family and the break out of plagues and diseases. The bond between JG and Min Jung-ho clearly blossoms into something more than mutual admiration. JG manages to bring justice by restoring her mother's and Han Shang Gong's names whilst ending the Choi family's hold on power and demolishing the corrupt power network within the palace. The Choi family is scattered, Choi Shang Gong dies (arguably suicide) and Geum-young banished from the capital.
Peace does not last long and soon JG's status makes her a useful pawn in the deadly game for power. JG decides she wants to be a doctor who helps people and would not waver from it even if it meant certain death. Upon hearing this King placed his personal trust in JG and found comfort talking to her as a confidante. He wished to appoint her as his personal doctor (unheard of in those days) but faced strenuous opposition. The controversy escalated till there was strong pressure for JG to be made the King's concubine. By this time the King had truly fallen in love with her and is upset to find the reciprocated feelings between JG and Min Jung-ho. In the end the King spares JG from becoming one of his wives but keeps her by his side as his physician and is forced to put Min Jung-ho in exile. Painful years go by as JG looks after the King under the ever disapproving eyes of the court officials. Sadly due to hereditary weaknesses and old age the King's health steadily deteriorates and despite JG's best efforts he dies. Before he died, the King had JG sent to where Min Jung-ho was as he knew he had no power to protect her after he was gone.
Just like her parents, JG and Min Jung-ho become fugitives as JG continues to heal the sick around her and they too had a little girl. Then one day they are called back to the palace by the Queen where they are reunited with their friends and restored to their former status. However, both of them decide they prefer simple and happy lives outside of politics where JG had free will to help the needy and finally they leave the palace.
A closer look
A big round of applause to Kim Yeong-hyeon for creating the backbone to such a successful production. The plot is skillfully and cleverly interwoven from past, present, and future, and ties in all the characters with one another. An important element in maintaining viewers' intrigue is how each development continually builds upon each other so that the consequences and stakes are raised even higher for the next test. For instance, the viewer will feel elated when Han Shang Gong snatches the title of Head Cook from Choi Shang Gong in the cooking competition whilst worrying at the same time she had placed herself on top of Choi clan's hit list; or feel victorious when Jang-geum was appointed to the imperial physician department but knowing she had thrown herself back into danger.
The other great part was how the story 'implies' rather than spell out what the viewer should be feeling or thinking. Every time I considered the story development I find something new, such as by running the King and Lien Shen's relationship next to that of Min Jung-ho and Jang-geum's it emphasized how much better the latter was.
DJG has been called a tragedy, a comedy at times, a biography, commentary on social prejudices and issues, a tale of self discovery, conspiracy and romance - just to name a few. Adding my two cents (I hate to write this) I'd say it's also a love story of Jang-geum. It is about family love, between her and her parents that made them protect her at the cost of their lives and remained with her all her life. The love between teacher and student, comical love with her adopted parents and the love of true friendship with Lien Shen. Who can forget her and Min Jung Ho? Above all it was self-love, and I'm not talking about the "I'll do whatever I want" attitude (of today). It is how she never gave up on herself. She would cry a lot but then work even harder afterwards and not for one moment procrastinate in self-pity. She never tried to dodge around her problems or allow herself to take the easy way out. And as a consequence, unlike other stories of vengeance, she emerges truly the winner â free from bitterness, no lesser in generosity but with an even bigger heart.
Overall it was very well cast and very well acted out. There wasn't one role of substandard performance that wrecked the experience and I was quite impressed as usually there is someone I can't stand (okay perhaps the 'know-it-all' smirk on JG's daughter's face).
Not knowing what the story was about I originally thought JG's mother was the main lead (JG) for she was quite pretty and familiar-looking. They made a very good mother and daughter pair. JG's dad was convincing as the simple doting father. Although their screen time was not long they did well to create a permanent image of loving parents and good role models for the rest of the series.
I never really click with child actors but this one was grudgingly good. First impression was a wide-eyed smart little girl but her crying scenes were most memorable.
I was waiting to be disappointed. This was thanks to all the media hype in Hong Kong on how good this foreign series was, especially on the female lead (Lee young-ae) being so attractive blah, blah, blah. So with such high expectations, disappoint was sure to follow as I watched to see how pretty she really was with much skepticism. My first impression "I guess she's okay..." and then she smiled which made me smile. For someone to be able to almost single handedly carry such a long ancient cultural drama from beginning to end without viewers getting tired of them (let alone rush home just to watch) certainly says something for their acting skills. The character truly belongs to young-ae now.
I was slightly disappointed as I realized he was probably going to be the best looking guy in the series and I didn't find him THAT attractive - that was at first. He really grew on me and now I personally prefer him with facial hair than the real life him. Ji Jin Hee successfully portrays the courageous and sentimental Min Jung-ho.
Not really having much acting space till towards the end I felt more could be done to shows his character's weak stance and personality in the face of pressure, though he did make me feel sad when he died.
Lady Han and Lady Choi
Han's character was probably most diverse of all as she needed to maintain a cold exterior but at the same time show the audience she had a weaker and softer side which she rarely showed to outsiders. Her success at doing so obvious in scenes where despite being harsh with Jang-geum the audience's fondness of her continued to grow or the atmosphere of serenity when Han and JG are together even when they were in the dungeon.
The actress for Choi was apparently going to be Lady Han instead and I'm glad the original line up didn't prevail. Although Choi mastered those piercing glares and annoyed rolling eyes it seemed all she had. It left her character shallower than I thought Lady Choi really was.
The other girls
Apparently the actress for Lien Shen was going to be Jang-geum had Lee young-ae not taken the role. I was glad that didn't happen as she made Lien Shen lovable as the dependent but very adorable best friend. Geum-young did the 'pained guilty look' well but it seemed to be the dominant expression, at times it was hard to decipher whether she was meant to be angry, troubled or just scheming. Ling Lo was great as the classic 'little person' arrogant and power hungry but lacking the capability of ever doing something big. The other girls were commendable but not outstanding.
The Adopted Parents
Normally these characters bug me but I guess they were necessary as comic relief when the drama gets heavy. They were loud and funny but at times over exaggerated. Like when the guy falls all over himself on a perfectly straight path for no apparent reason or starts snorting and shooting saliva each time he spoke. However admittedly they came rightly across as simple good people with many earthly flaws like an eye for cheap bargains.
Nothing fundamental enough to wreck the story but there are minor ailments. Why was little Jang-geum sitting next to her future daughter? Didn't Jang-geum leave the contaminated village to get medicine so how come she got trapped in it when she returned? Remember Min Jung-ho had to knock out guards to sneak out to go and try getting medicine from the place she had gone before.
They also made some mistakes in their reference to Chinese historical facts. Such as the 'Mun Han full banquet' Choi Shang Gong prepared for the Chinese ambassador wasn't invented until the Qing dynasty, which follows the Ming dynasty in whose time this story took place.
The slow pace (like many Korean productions) may make it tedious to some viewers especially those like me who are used to quick scenarios with instantaneous consequences. Here intensity slowly but surely builds up and I was proud to say I needn't touch my remote once except when switching audio to Korean.
With the props and costumes a bit short in diversity and detail it is perhaps another compliment to the script writer and actors that the series still captured the attention of so many. Some more mistakes were like characters wearing heels (the female doctors towards the end) and the plump hands that cooked on behalf of BOTH JG and Han Shang Gong were a little too obvious. There is also some erratic snow falling shots but more than enough beautiful sceneries to make up for it. Understandably the lack of furniture and decor in all the rooms or variety in clothing or ornaments was due to the cultural and historical context. However being used to the extravagance of palace settings in Chinese ancient dramas this took a bit of getting use to and the metal hinged sliding doors didn't help either.
What to watch for
- Jang-geum's smile
- The numerous Jang-geum crying scenes each of which is different even if only in a small way. Be it the 'quivering lip', the 'single tear streak', 'eyes brimming with tears of joy' or the painfully screwed up face as she watched Lien Shen cook for her.
- Lady Han dying on Jang-geum's back
- When Jang-geum reunites with Lien Shen in the palace
- Jang-geum and Min Jung-ho's definitive embrace
- The food and medical cases and facts used - the producers spent a whole year researching to get it right and accurate
- Scenes you can see the actors' breathing and snow falling around because they almost froze to death making those.
This will be remembered. Looking DJG alongside other recent popular series like "Huan Zhu Ge Ge" (only the first one) and "Meteor Garden" (only the first one - see a pattern?) I've been trying to figure what it takes to make a classic. So far I see three things. Firstly a well prepared and thought-out script/story is foremost. In all three productions despite many subplots there was a simple core storyline or goal made clear at the beginning. In "Huan Zhu" it was restoring a princess without causing bloodshed. In "Meteor Garden" it was a rich guy winning over a poor girl. In DJG it's about an orphaned girl's path to becoming the King's doctor and thus making history. Then you need the right cast, matching actors to characters. In addition, the main characters at least must be appealing to the eye - yes in realist terms that means physically attractive. Third is the soundtrack, although I'm not sure whether it's the series that makes the soundtrack agreeable or the other way around.
It would also be amiss of me not to mention the love story between Min Jung-ho and Jang-geum. True romantics will adore these soul mates. Don't get me wrong, in the series they don't slit their wrists in fits of passion and scream everlasting love even if the heavens come crashing down. In fact they didn't even tell each other they loved the other directly. But whilst in "Huan Zhu" it was cute puppy love and in "Meteor Garden" it was sweet possessiveness, DJG was the only one where I could believe they would live happily ever after.
Doubt anyone read everything I've written above but hopefully you can guess I liked this series quite a bit (plus the 5 stars). I would have had serious doubts in funding such a risky project; not just a long series it's a long ancient drama series. And not just that, its success depended predominantly on the appeal of one character. I'm glad someone did. Basically if you don't watch it then it's your loss.
I wonder whether the real Jang-geum ever thought in her wildest dreams that hundreds of years after her tragic death she would be acted out by an Asian beauty and that there would be hordes of people screaming her name at shopping malls in Hong Kong. The making of this in itself fulfilled the story's own themes of justice and hope. Although a bit late Dae Jang-geum finally got her day.