This one completely and utterly took me surprise. Gu Family Book was the drama I was looking forward to, while Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love was the one to mock if it turned out to be a disaster or merely tolerate if it was simply serviceable. I never once imagined it would be good. And not just good, episode 1 was ridiculously good with all the hallmarks of being fantastic. This is how a sageuk ought to be done right, people. While there are tons of literary liberties taken with the source material of the real life political love triangle between King Sukjong, Queen In Hyun, and Jang Heebin, the pathos is rooted in historical conflict and the Joseon-era fixation with class structure and rigid hierarchy. There are no flying gumiho daddies and cackling murderous rapey villains here, but rather a spectrum of calculating people each trying to gain a further toehold in their life. A crown prince wants to cement his political power before he assumes the throne, a powerful minister wants to strengthen his factional alliance, a scheming merchant wants to sate his rage through power, and a budding seamstress fashion designer wants to earn enough money to leave this world behind. Episode 1 had a magnificent opening sequence that sets up the central conflict in this drama perfectly while being subtle but clever about it. I love how the historical figures are being expertly jostled about so good people might be bad and bad people may be good. I was riveted through every minute of JOJ and I’m actually giving it the edge over GFB as the better first episode all around. There is no way I’m going to recap both dramas, and my preferences remain to recap the drama I like better. Right now it’s equal so I may recap both for the time being until one drama owns my heart more and that’s the one I’ll stick with. Though with the number of recappers covering GFB, maybe I’ll do a better service by recapping JOJ? Decisions, decisions.
Episode 1 recap:
Jang Ok Jung prepares her atelier (forgive the modern language but not sure what to call it in Joseon terms) for an important customer. It is Lady Min, who is the eldest daughter of powerful Interior Minister Min Yoo Jung. She is here to shop for her trousseau to wear during the upcoming consort selection process.
The two ladies greet each other and the camera cuts away to sometime in the future. Queen In Hyun (formerly Lady Min) walks through the courtyard of the Palace trailed by her maids, while from the opposite side Jang Hee Bin (birth name Jang Ok Jung) walks through the same courtyard trailed by her set of maids. The two wives of King Sukjung stop in front of the chamber doors of Sukjong’s residence and stare off. Now this is what I call a Joseon-era gunslinger match without the actual guns. Nicely done, drama.
Back to the hanbok shopping some time earlier than the royal wife staredown, Lady Min wants the store closed off while she shops and then proceeds to eye all the colorful hanboks. She is surprised its so “gaudy” and Ok Jung explains she was going for a butterfly look and one that would attract a man’s eye. Lady Min sniffs that it’s crass and she’s looking for traditional and ladylike attire. None of this will do. She offers to pay Ok Jung for the lost business keeping the store closed but Ok Jung declines since there was no sale.
As Lady Min walks out, her little slave maid fingers a beautiful hanging jewel and is caught by Ok Jung. It is Dong Yi the future Choi Sukbin, who was maid to Queen In Hyun and later caught King Sukjong’s eye when he saw her praying for her mistress’s wellbeing. Dong Yi is pretty surly and snarks that it wasn’t stealing unless she was caught.
Ok Jung gives the item to her as a present and tells her never to do it again. She asks for her name and Dong Yi says she’s called dog shit or hey you and she doesn’t have a name since she’s just a slave, though she knows her last name is Choi. Dong Yi is taken aback and asks for her name and learns it is Jang Ok Jung. She smiles and says when she grows up, she wants to be just like Jang Ok Jung.
The camera pulls back and we see that while Queen In Hyun and Jang Heebin are facing off, and off to the other end stands Choi Sukbin, watching and smirking. Nice – so she’s not some perfect angel in this version of the story. I like it.
Crown Prince Lee Soon visits a blind fortune teller who gets his life all wrong. The fortune teller says Lee Soon is a beggar who has money fall on his lap. Lee Soon smirks and says just the opposite, he is the Crown Prince of Joseon. And he knows this fortune teller is no simple blind dude, he is the retired and in hiding master musician.
Jang Ok Jung prepares to hold a fashion show. She is meticulous and oversees every little detail.
An invitation is sent to her mother, who we learn is a slave and working in the household of a yanban. The Lord is nice to her but his wife is a total shrieking shew and rages at Ok Jung’s mother for daring to talk to her husband and think Jang Ok Jung is anything more than the daughter of a slave and a disgraced merchant son.
The fashion show starts and all the models are gisaengs while all the attendees are the wives and daughters of yanban and merchants since Jang Ok Jung is now Joseon’s top designer.
Jang Ok Jung’s uncle, Jang Hyun, sits in his study and hears about the fashion show.
The shrewish wife crashes the fashion show and insults Jang Ok Jung, who stands her grand proudly and tells her to leave. She orders her thugs to trash the place and sends all the potential clients scurrying away in fear. Jang Ok Jung stares in horror at the disastrous turn of events.
The ministers of the court are holding a performance for the visiting Qing dynasty envoys, who are here to discuss an alliance pact. The envoys are annoyed since they came expecting to hear from Joseon’s top musician and instead they are being feted with kids dancing and other guys playing.
Cheerful Prince Dongpyung, Crown Prince Lee Soon’s uncle, is told to play for the Qing envoys and stall for time for Lee Soon can bring back the musician. He manages to play well enough to placate the guests. We see Minister Min does not want Lee Soon to bring the famed musician, he appears to be hoping any alliance with the Qing dynasty is scuttled.
Lee Soon shows the musician music sheets carved on wood that contain a song he wrote for his dead son, which was the reason the man went into hiding to nurse his broken heart at losing his son. Lee Soon urges him to play this tune and keep the memory of his son alive, and help Joseon remain peaceful with an alliance with the Qing dynasty so no more sons of Joseon will die in vain.
Lee Soon is traveling back to the Palace with the musician when his convoy is attacked by men in black. He manages to fend them off when it appears the musician is killed when the attackers spear the palanquin he’s riding in.
Prince Dongpyung is almost at wits end playing non-stop when finally Lee Soon walks into the party. He smirks at Minister Min before announcing he’s brought the main attraction of the night. The Qing envoys are happily placated. Turns out Lee Soon stuck two other guys in the palanquin with the musician and those men took the sword attacks for him.
Minister Min passes Lee Soon in the hallway of the Palace and warns him not to think he has easily won an alliance with the Qing, or that it is good for Joseon. Lee Soon says he’s preparing for his rule one day so he has to learn politics now. Minister Min points out that Lee Soon’s mother Queen Myungsung is always calling him in for discussions, so they really shouldn’t be at odds with each other.
Queen Myungsung is in the same faction as Minister Min and she brings up getting Lee Soon married soon to broaden their faction’s power base. She suggests it doesn’t matter who Lee Soon marries as one as its someone from their faction but Minister Min says he has been raising his daughter since her birth to become Queen one day so it has to be her. Queen Myungsung points out Lee Soon hates Minister Min so he’ll reject Lady Min knowing who she is. They devise a plan to have the Crown Prince meet Lady Min without knowing her identity so he can like her for who she is.
Lee Soon and Prince Dongpyung are practicing swords and chatting about how the elders are getting around to having them get married soon for political reasons. Prince Dongpyung is asked to go on a matseon today with the daughter of a high official. Two serving girls run in with envelopes for the two princes but bump into each other and the envelopes are accidentally switched. Prince Dongpyung is sent to the rendezvous with Lady Min that Lee Soon was supposed to go on, while Lee Soon is sent to the household of the girl being set up with Prince Dongpyung.
Jang Ok Jung tries to salvage the situation with her crashed fashion show and tries to get the completed garments to her existing clients before they all stop doing business with her. One particular lady accepts the hanbok and asks Ok Jung if she designs menswear. She does, so the lady asks her for a favor to make clothes for her future groom.
When Ok Jung steps aside, she overhears the maids worried that Ok Jung might seduce the lady’s future groom when she measures him for clothes, to which the snobby lady says Ok Jung is no more than a slave hussy and she needn’t worry about her.
Prince Dongpyung meets with Lady Min and saves her from pretend thugs.
Crown Prince Lee Soon arrives at the house of the lady and walks into a interior garden to find Jang Ok Jung waiting there. He thinks she is the intended fiancee to Prince Dongpyung, while Ok Jung thinks he’s Prince Dongpyung.
Ok Jung cuts to the chase and asks to take his measurements. Lee Soon thinks this lady is trying to show off her sewing skills as a future wife to impress the family. Ok Jung is very bossy and turns Lee Soon around to take his measurements, which brings them in close proximity with each other and both are keenly aware of the other’s presence.
Lee Soon thinks Ok Jung looks familiar and asks if they have met before, but she answers that she has a ordinary face. He chides her for ignoring propriety and touching a man, so Ok Jung explains that a fashion designer is like a doctor and there is no gender shyness with doing her job.
When the real lady arrives, she tells Ok Jung to make an entire wardrobe for her future groom which is when Lee Soon realizes his mistake.
Minister Min is upset the accidental meeting was messed up by crossed envelopes but his daughter Lady Min is okay with it. She believes a fated marriage may be hard to come by and she will earn it.
The two princes sit and discuss their mixed up rendezvous, with Lee Soon still unable to get over how familiar Ok Jung looked to him.
Ok Jung brings a box of money to the lady of the house that owns her mother and asks to buy her mother’s freedom. The lady refuses and Ok Jung demands to know why the lady refuses each time despite her bringing enough money. The lady finally tells Ok Jung to ask her uncle Jang Hyun, and we see Jang Hyun has been paying the lady off to keep Ok Jung’s mother a slave.
Ok Jung goes to confront her uncle, who claims he is trying to protect Ok Jung from the devastating fall from status were she to live with her slave mom. Ok Jung doesn’t care, she plans to move to Qing China with her mom once she buys her freedom, turns out her brother is there as a merchant now. But thanks to the ruined fashion show, Ok Jung doesn’t have the money for the move still.
Ok Jung demands to know what her uncle wants from her. Jang Hyun says he wants to devour all of Joseon, and he needs Ok Jung’s help. Him with his claws, her with her honeyed skirt, together they can control the country. Ok Jung is horrified and wants nothing to do with it. Jang Hyun says he needs Ok Jung, he needs her to take the place of his dead daughter Hong Joo.
Flashback to 7 years ago, a teenage Ok Jung talks with her cousin Hong Joo. They admire flowers and Hong Joo shares a sad folk story about those flowers and a maid who enjoyed one night with the King only to die of missing him when he never visited again. Hong Joo is now a maid in the Palace and her sadness about her own plight seeps into this story.
Hong Joo returns to the Palace and that night a man comes to visit her and she greets him happily. Another maid sees it and reports them to the officials, who catch Hong Joo in bed with Prince Boksun.
Queen Myungsung hears about this affair and wants to use it to cut the Soron faction down to size. Hong Joo is tortured by Minister Min for not only betraying the King by sleeping with another man (since all women in the Palace belong to the King), but conspiring with him or revealing confidential information. She cries that they just are in love with each other.
Prince Boksun arrives to try and save Hong Joo but Minister Min refuses to let this opportunity go to hurt the other faction and insists on torturing Hong Joo until she tells “the truth”.
Elsewhere in Seoul, Ok Jung and her family are on the run from slavehunters. Her father is the son of a merchant (and younger brother of Jang Hyun), but his status fell once he married her mother who is a slave. She also has an older brother. Her father goes to beg Jang Hyun to shelter them but he cruelly refuses and sends them away, he’s not interested an association with his brother’s slave-included family or slave-born children. Ok Jung stares at her uncle in silent rage and Jang Hyun returns her look.
As the Jang family runs from the slavehunters, Ok Jung’s brother leaves the family to divert the slavehunters.
Jang Hyun hears about his daughter’s arrest and goes to visit her in prison. He chides her for screwing up bad, but tells her to wait for him.
Jang Hyun brings money to visit Minister Min and begs for mercy for his daughter. Minister Min tosses the money aside and derides Jang Hyun as being a merchant and therefore below him as a noblemen, how dare he ask for mercy. He tells Jang Hyun to know his lowly place in this society.
Hong Joo sits in prison and rips her clothes into strips. Oh no. When Prince Boksun and Jang Hyun arrive to visit her, they find her hanging from the rafters, her clothes torn and shoeless. Jang Hyun reaches in and grabs his daughter’s legs and demands to know why she didn’t wait for him like he asked her! He looks utterly devastated.
Ok Jung’s father is sick and coughing up blood, and the family manages to make it to a nobleman’s residence where the lord is a friend to Ok Jung’s father. When they knock, the widow of the lord opens the door and reveals her husband is dead. She can see the family’s fear and desperation and allows them inside. Ok Jung drops a braided ornament which leads the slavehunters to that residence. The slavehunters forcibly drag her mother away but not before beating up her father.
Ok Jung’s father is brought into the house but the doctor who is summoned cannot save him. He takes his last breath and begs Ok Jung to live.
Jang Hyun sits down with Prince Boksun and discuss planning their revenge. He wants to bring down those in power and install Prince Boksun in power. All he asks for is that once it happens, Prince Boksun has a child with a girl from his family. Prince Boksun points out that there are no girls left in his family, but Jang Hyun says there is a girl alive who carries the Jang family blood. Prince Boksun asks who she is and Jang Hyun smiles.
Ok Jung cries and spends the night sewing a burial outfit for her father in the darkness. When morning comes, the lady of the house is astonished that Ok Jung sewed a traditional burial outfit from memory, and is saddened that the first item she ever sewed was her father’s burial clothes.
Ok Jung is dressed in mourning and prepares to take her father to be buried. Jang Hyun is waiting outside the front door and he walks up to Ok Jung and asks “Are you Jang Ok Jung?”
Thoughts of Mine:
I actually had to take a deep breath when I finished episode 1 of JOJ. Good lord the amount of narrative crammed into one measly hour, yet without sacrificing character development or resulting in awkward transitions. The directing was fluid and confident, the cinematography captivating without coming across as too picture perfect. It was a sageuk with equal part sheen and grit, which is exactly how I like my sageuks. I worried that the Palace intrigue would be boring since everyone knows the story by now, yet from the first scene onward it did feel different and interesting. Queen In Hyun is portrayed as a born and raised snob with a power hungry father. Jang Heebin is a darn great heroine to root for in this version, coming from the daughter of a slave mother and a merchant father and suffering from the loss of both parents and her only sibling in one night. She comes across as resourceful and practical, dreamy when it comes to her fashions but steely when it comes to saving her mother. And the normally angelic and perfectly kind Dong Yi shows her sneaky colors though we learn through the exploitation and degradation of slaves in episode 1 alone what she must have suffered being of such ignominious birth. Who are we to root for? The rightful Queen In Hyun? The upstart Jang Heebin? Or the waiting in the wings for her rivals to take each other out Choi Sukbin?
I thought the acting was rock solid, ranging from so-good-it-made-my-toes-curl Song Dong Il as Jang Hyun, to back in fine sageuk form Yoo Ah In, to pitch-perfect Hong Soo Hyun, and a jolly playful Lee Sang Yeob. Of course everyone wants to hear how Kim Tae Hee did, and I’ll be honest and admit that I thought she did just fine. Not great, but not bad. Much better than I expected, and really a very warm and engaging performance. It harkens back to her My Princess days but without the over-acting and energetic chirpiness. Jang Ok Jung is immediately cemented as the bona fide heroine in this story with a combination of her backstory and how Kim Tae Hee presents her adult personality. She’s not a caricature and is still opaque enough that I look forward to the drama fleshing her out. I am on pins and needles with the upcoming interactions between her and Song Dong Il. Rather than him eating her alive with his acting, she actually parried well with him and held her own. Kudos to her. Same thing with Yoo Ah In, who pretty much washed the stink of Fashion King right off with just a few minutes of screen time here. He really is made for sageuks and wears the clothes and dialogue like second skin. His chemistry with Kim Tae Hee is present but not totally overwhelming, which makes for lots of room to build on it going forward.
I found myself really gasping in sorrow at some of the backstory surrounding Jang Hyun’s daughter Hong Joo and her ill-fated romance with Prince Boksun, and how Ok Jung had her loving family destroyed and torn apart just because her mother was a slave. This whole “slaves are lower than trash” mentality that pervades this drama isn’t exaggerated in the least, Joseon Korea was indeed tightly regimented among the classes and slaves were wholly untouchable. For Ok Jung’s dad to marry her slave mom was like watching Dae Gil and Un Nyun from Chuno get together and then suffer in companionship for their choice. I love how Jang Hyun is written as smart and vicious, but also someone who suffered a great loss himself in the death of Hong Joo at the hands of even more powerful and vicious people who treat those below them as dispensable. I’m already excited to watch the love lines develop and the political intrigue and conflicts start to emerge, because right now I’m sensing no one is all good or all bad, and it’ll be lots of inevitable situations which will drive the pathos. And those are always some of the most compelling narrative drivers in any stirring drama. It’s bound to tear me apart watching JOJ and GFB duke it out for ratings supremacy for the next 9 weeks.