The Summer of the sageuk is fully underway now that The Princess’s Man premiered this week on KBS Wed-Thurs, with Gye Bak joining the party next Mon-Tues for MBC opposite Warrior Baek Dong Soo on SBS. I’m a bit conflicted about TPM after watching two episodes, so I might as well share some first impressions at this point.
I’ll probably keep watching, but it’s doesn’t suck me in the same way Chuno and The Duo did after two episodes. TPM has plenty for everyone, and with a solid 10% premiere ratings, it’ll probably own the Wed-Thurs slot in a few weeks after City Hunter wraps up. That’s great news for Park Shi Hoo and Moon Chae Won, this being their first time headlining a sageuk.
My biggest expectation going into this drama was for the breathtaking visuals. TPM is using the same high-tech Red One Camera that was first used in Chuno, but sadly the visuals don’t have the same lustre and impressive field of range. PD Kim Jung Min simply doesn’t have the technical bravado as PD Kwang Jung Hwan of Chuno, so the camera isn’t used to its full advantage. The sets and costume design in TPM are gorgeous, but in two episodes haven’t come alive yet.
Except for the glorious and dramatic opening scene in episode 1, the rest of the time PD Kim films the drama like he’s doing a court intrigue sageuk. When the action moves outside the walls and corridors of the palace, it doesn’t take flight the way it could and should. I’m hoping the PD’s vision expands as the drama story takes off.
The opening score is also too florid for my tastes. We don’t need swirling opera to tell me this is an epic love of Shakespearean proportions, even if it is. To be fair, in the quieter scenes, the music calms the heck down and is just lovely. I heard complaints that the score is too modern for a sageuk, which I do concur with, but find that it could work if used judiciously and not bombastically.
The acting is decent all around, without any actor making too much of an impression on me either way. The veterans are solid (not surprising), and the four younger leads are just getting comfortable into their characters. I think Park Shi Hoo and Moon Chae Won have good chemistry off-the-bat, which bodes well since their star-crossed love story will anchor this drama.
After two episodes, I finally understand what the title means. The Princess’s Man actually refers to Park Shi Hoo’s Kim Seung Yoo character in relation to both female leads. Hong Soo Hyun plays Princess Kyung Hye, the daughter of King Munjung. Moon Chae Won is Lee Se Ryung, Princess Kyung Hye’s cousin. Se Ryung’s father is Grand Prince Suyang, the younger brother of the current King Munjung. So in the beginning of the drama, Kyung Hye is the titular Princess while Se Ryung is simply an aristocratic noble lady and first cousin to the Princess.
One day, Se Ryung is told by her maid that her father is looking to affiance her to Kim Seung Yoo, the youngest son of Kim Jong Seo, the Right Minister and the most power official in court. This would be a great strategic alliance keeping two factions in line, making the most powerful noble (Se Ryung’s father) into family with the most powerful official (Kim Seung Yoo’s father).
Se Ryung goes to visit her cousin the Princess in the palace. When Princess Kyung Hye chafes at yet another day listening to laborious princess education lessons and Se Ryung overhears that Kim Seung Yoo will be Princess Kyung Hye’s new tutor, Se Ryung offers to change places with Princess Kyung Hye. The Princess can sneak outside the palace for a change and avoid boring lessons, while Se Ryung confesses that Kim Seung Yoo is her fiancée and she would like to secretly meet him.
The two cousins change places and therein set in motion their intertwined fates with Kim Seung Yoo. Both Kim Seung Yoo and Se Ryung are intrigued by each other during the lesson, but while Se Ryung knows his real identity, Kim Seung Yoo believes Se Ryung to be Princess Kyung Hye. During this time, the nobles and the court officials are angling for power in deciding who shall select Princess Kyung Hye’s groom (i.e. the Prince Consort).
King Munjung happens to meet Kim Seung Yoo while he is tutoring the princess, while Se Ryung hides behind a screen hoping the deception will not be discovered by the King. The King takes a fancy to Kim Seung Yoo and announces before a shocked gathering of all the nobles and officials that he has decided who Princess Kyung Hye shall wed.
He decrees that it shall be Kim Seung Yoo, the second son of Right Minister Kim Jong Seo. The entire court freezes in shock – Grand Prince Suyang looks at the Right Minister like he just stabbed him in the back, while the Right Minister is as confused as everyone as to why the King suddenly is bestowing such honor on his flaky second son.
All this happens by the end of the first episode, as does Kim Seung Yoo performing an act of derring do and saving Se Ryung from a runaway horse that is about to fly off a cliff. It’s clear that Se Ryung likes Kim Seung Yoo, who she thinks is her fiancée. Kim Seung Yoo thinks the girl before him is Princess Kyung Hye, and he’s about to be told that he’s going to marry the real Princess Kyung Hye. The Princess is about to find out that her fiancée is Kim Seung Yoo, and she knows her cousin Se Ryung thinks he’s her fiancée and has been meeting with him in secret. Oh what a tangled web of complications before the first episode is even done.
I foresee that before the drama hits the midway mark, based on real Korean history, King Mujung will die from illness leaving a very young prince to take the throne. This will allow Grand Prince Suyang to organize a coup and become King Sejo. This means Se Ryung will become Princess Se Ryung for real in the latter half of the drama, while Princess Kyung Hye will lose her title. At which point, The Princess’s Man will refer to Kim Seung Yoo’s relation to now-Princess Se Ryung, whose father will have had to order the death of the Right Minister and his faction (who are loyalists to King Munjung’s line) in order to gain power.
So the Romeo and Juliet bent to the story is that Se Ryung’s father will have ordered the death of Kim Seung Yoo’s father in order to gain the throne. It’s not really a spoiler to say that the drama starts with the death of Kim Jong Seo and the escape of Kim Seung Yoo from certain death. Kim Seung Yoo will find himself an outlaw, having been affianced to one Princess but in love with another woman, who will then become a real Princess. So how will the lovebirds reconcile their forbidden love? I foresee lots and lots of tears, sweat, and blood before it all ends.
I found the first two episodes of TPM rather slick and a bit soulless, like a well-oiled drama machine but lacking in sincerity of storytelling. The only scene that was impressive was the opening five minutes before the flashback to one year earlier. Everything after that felt orchestrated, unfurling at a steady stream of plot A to B to C. I found some of the contrivances a bit unbelievable, such as how does Se Ryung, a noble daughter of the Grand Prince, keep sneaking out of the house to go horseback riding or exploring and how she and Kim Seung Yoo keep running into each other.
But these are really minor quibbles, because if TPM can quickly get to the meat of the story, I foresee this drama to be a potentially solid sageuk, with rich political intrigue, heavy emotional stakes, and thrilling confrontations. At 24-episodes, TPM is just the perfect sageuk length I like, just long enough to develop the story with patience but not so long as to drag out all the conflicts or manufacture more. I like TPM enough to keep watching, but it’s not a home run right out of the gate. Nevertheless, it has potential, and that’s always a reassuring sign for any drama.