With two episodes of Gu Family Book, it left me wanting to throw things at the screen by the end. Conversely with two episodes of Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love, I wanted to give this drama a hug for doing the rare deed of actually exceeding all expectations and doing so in a refreshing way. It’s so well-made, not in the vaulted sense of being qualitatively a classic sageuk with intensity and historical accuracy, but rather that it’s a drama that confidently understands its story and how to present it. It’s so watchable its not even funny, and the fact that the ratings got surpassed by GFB is not a measure of how good those two dramas are vis-a-vis each other. My love for Lee Seung Gi easily surpasses any good will I have for the entire cast of JOJ combined, but it is JOJ that has defied all expectations and rocketed off to a solid start. There isn’t a wasted moment in introducing the main characters and setting the stage for the main conflicts to come.
I really enjoyed episode 1 but I freaking loved episode 2. The two child actors here put on their version of the childhood love story from The Moon that Embraces the Sun, but without it coming across as syrupy or lacking in narrative weight. In MoonSun, the entire drama revolved around the Lee Hwon and Yeon Woo’s thwarted love and no one did anything other than petty plotting and the King did no governing other than looking for his long lost fiancee. I worried JOJ would head down that path but it hasn’t – the childhood meet cute is symbolic and memorable, but its not critical to shaping the characters or dictating their actions. The first two episodes expertly set up the events that shape the leads (his political ambition to take down the court officials and her dream of gaining freedom from oppression for her and her mother) and foreshadow what is to come. The directing and cinematography is excellent but its the OST that really stands out. To be honest, I’m excited to see Lee Seung Gi in GFB when he shows up in episode 3, but JOJ is the drama I am looking forward to next week.
Episode 2 recap:
Crown Prince Lee Soon sneaks around the Palace to find a spot to misbehave. His big rebellion? Trying out smoking a pipe. His uncle Prince Dongpyung finds him and points out this is the behavior of a “crass man”. Lee Soon suggests a boy a twelve is ready to take steps to become a crass man and Dongpyong offers to show him even more crass behavior. OMG these two are too cute. Bromace alert!
Prince Dongpyung promptly leads Crown Prince Lee Soon in a battle of spitting. LOL, I can’t even. What’s so cute are all those maids and eunuchs enthusiastically watching and clapping. The battle ends with Lee Soon winning by a hairsbreadth and then he’s called away to meet with his father King Hyeonjong.
Minister Min’s is meeting privately with the King and urging him to just sign a document that gives him the authority over the market commerce in the capital. The King tries to demur by saying that just adds more work to Minister Min’s shoulders. Lee Soon arrives and senses some simmering conflict between King Hyeonjong and Minister Min. He asks his dad to sign on a piece of paper because he wants to learn his dad’s signature. He brings up how a King’s signature can’t just be placed on any document, pointedly giving Minister Min a look. He turns to Minister Min and asks why he’s still here. The Minister leaves and outside hears King Hyeonjung tell his son that Minister Min is a loyal servant. Lee Soon knows the Minister is outside eavesdropping and loudly says that he is young and immature so his rudeness ought to be forgiven by the Minister, who is considered Joseon’s number one gentlemen. Minister Min smirks that Lee Soon at least knows to call himself immature.
Ok Jung sits in the courtyard and broods and notices a bunch of young girls run into a room. She goes to peek and the girls try to shoo her away. The lady of the house Mrs. Kang who took her in turns out to be running a sewing school to train girls as well as a thriving cloth business. She welcomes Ok Jung to join and gives her a tour of the school to teach young girls the skills to be a seamstress.
Mrs. Kang meets with Ok Jung’s uncle Jang Hyun, who offers to take Ok Jung into his household and raise her. Mrs. Kang firmly rebuffs him and wants to keep Ok Jung under her wing. Ok Jung arrives and announces that she wants to stay with Mrs. Kang. Jang Hyun looks none too pleased.
Mrs. Kang mentions her older brother who was a merchant in the same group with Jang Hyun. Apparently he never returned after a buying trip. Jang Hyun flashbacks to him holding onto a man as he dangles over the cliff. He tells his lackey to find out more about Mrs. Kang and her business.
Ok Jung is a natural at the sewing arts and quickly makes friends in the school, except for this one pinchy-faced girl who is jealous of her talent.
During a history lesson on the evolution of the hanbok, Mrs. Kang suggests thinking about clothing as always evolving. Ok Jung bravely offers up her idea and sketches a one-piece hanbok that looks like a Chinese qipao.
The girls are titillated and awed by the forward design and Mrs. Kang is pleased that Ok Jung is thinking outside the box. The praising of Ok Jung gets the other girl even more jealous.
Lee Soon notices that his pet bird is on the verge of death and quickly orders the royal physician summoned to treat the bird. The doctor says he doesn’t know how to treat birds but manages to revive the bird. The doctor asks why save the bird and Lee Soon says its his only friend in the Palace other than Prince Dongpyung. Awwww.
Ok Jung finds her fellow students blushing over a raunchy book filled with illustrations of scantily clad women. Ok Jung is interested because the sketches of the clothing in the book show how skirts and jackets would look when people are sitting or laying down.
Ok Jung goes to the booksellers to find more such books. She and Lee Soon both reach for the same book at the same time, cue meet cute scene!
They stare at each other and then Ok Jung makes the first move and says her hand touched the book first so it’s hers. He wonders if a girl ought to be reading such books and Ok Jung candidly says all she sees are the beautiful lines of a woman’s body wearing clothes.
Ok Jung walks out with Lee Soon huffing after her, but then he turns into her protector when he sees some hooligans snatch her purse. Lee Soon puff up his chest to fight those boys but Ok Jung drags him away knowing he’s about to get his ass kicked.
As they run away, they are suddenly caught in the middle of a full blown market brawl. Apparently there are two groups battling over the right to sell fish. They end up doing a slow-mo dance and hug scene as they avoid the bats and fists landing all around them.
Ok Jung and Lee Soon dodge the battling masses and find themselves flailing about until they find shelter underneath an awning. Lee Soon sees hungry peasants there wanting to sell their wares but being prohibited by the rich merchant that holds the right to sell in this market.
Lee Soon vows to himself that his citizens will never go hungry under his rule. He suddenly pushes boxes of fish over and then gets on top to make a grand speech about why people resort to fighting to resolve conflict.
Too bad the fighting merchants don’t take kindly to this pontificating arrogant boy and Ok Jung needs to once again save his ass as she drags Lee Soon off and they run away from the market.
Ok Jung and Lee Soon find shelter in an abandoned farm. Lee Soon finds his attention captured by the slight peek at Ok Jung’s collarbone when her hanbok jacket gapes open. Awww, the stirrings of young male lust. It starts to rain so they stay there for the time being.
Jang Hyun is carried in a sedan chair to the market to look at the aftermath of the fighting. He’s the one who own the rights to sell. He encounters Minister Min who continues to look down on Jang Hyun. He claims that this market is under his jurisdiction.
He has his men drag Jang Hyun down on from sedan chair, reminding him that in Joseon only the class-1 ministers can ride in a sedan chair, who is Jang Hyun to do it since he is a lowly merchant. He takes Jang Hyun’s hat off which is an even further disrespectful gesture for a high class man to show his head in public.
When Jang Hyun claims to be an uneducated man, Minister Min tells him to burn the sedan chair then as penance for overreaching. Jang Hyun orders the sedan chair burned.
As Minister Min is carried off and Jang Hyun watches his sedan chair burn, his eyes narrow and he vows to destroy Minister Min one day. He will rip his intestines out and chop it into pieces to use as fertilizer on the grave of his Hong Joo. *shivers* It’s so on like Donkey Kong between these two.
Ok Jung and Lee Soon are about to part ways and they agree that he will read the book first and then meet later to hand it to her. Suddenly they find themselves in close proximity and both stare at each other without moving.
Later that night, Lee Soon lays in bed tossing and turning, upset about his reaction to Ok Jung this afternoon. He claims the Spring rain must’ve aroused him but then realizes he was affected even before it started to rain. He suddenly bolts upright and realizes his trusty eunuch has been sitting there the entire time and Lee Soon is totally embarrassed to be overheard.
Ok Jung and the other students go shopping in town with Chi Soo accompanying them. The jealous girl notices Chi Soo is very solicitous of Ok Jung and that makes her even more jealous. Ok Jung sees a beggar boy being beaten up and thinks it might be her brother. She goes to help and gets injured, the boy is not her brother and is dragged away.
Chi Soo carries Ok Jung back home and patches up her scraped knee. Sigh, this oppa is never getting the girl, is he? The jealous girl takes a pair of scissors and shreds the new agey hanbok Ok Jung designed.
Lee Soon seeks out an older and wiser boy for advice and Prince Dongpyong the budding ladies man is all too happy to give pointers. Lee Soon feels like he wasn’t a gentleman because he was attracted to the girl he met, to which Prince Dongpyung points out there are very few true gentlemen in Joseon who can claim to be unaffected in that situation. He leans in and Lee Soon quickly covers his mouth worried that his uncle was going to give a hands on lesson on kissing to take it to the new level.
Lee Soon begs Dongyong to pretend to be him for the day so he can go meet Ok Jung. Prince Dongpyong agrees and gets a kiss on the cheek from the grateful Lee Soon, which adorably makes him whimper in distress.
Ok Jung and Lee Soon meet back at the barn and he hands her the book. She sits down and reads it, completely engrossed in the fashions and ignoring him, while he watches her with interest. He interrupts and hands her his torn robe from their last encounter and demands she patch it like she promised.
Ok Jung has a hard time threading the needle in the dim light so Lee Soon gets impatient and sits down to do it for her. Their faces are close together and they pause for a moment, only for Lee Soon to get startled by flapping chickens and jolt forward to plant a kiss on Ok Jung. Awww, so cute.
The young lovebirds run outside and sit down to talk. Lee Soon asks what her wish is and Ok Jung wants a special outfit that she believe can wash away the lowly status of a person. Lee Soon says she can marry him and he will elevate her birth. He can be symbolically be her clothes that she believes can raise her up.
Lee Soon suddenly realizes how late it is and has to quickly leave. He asks Ok Jung to meet him here in 3 days time under the tree. He runs off to relieve Prince Dongpyung while Ok Jung stares, likely wondering if she’s dreaming because this boy can’t be real.
The King is presiding over a bickering court with the Noron and Soron factions insisting he make a decision to break the impasse. The King refuses because either way one side will be upset. The King coughs violently and collapses.
Lee Soon runs inside to help his father and breaches protocol saying no one can enter during a court session. He claims that he is doing his filial duty as a son but Minister Min says Lee Soon cannot be a good ruler if he ignores protocol as he pleases.
Lee Soon argues that the King is the highest authority in the land and authority comes from the King! Minister Min frowns and asks if Prince Lee Soon truly believes power comes from the King? Lee Soon says yes. Oh boy, I know your heart is in the right place, but this is going to be one hard lesson to learn.
The day dawns on the ceremony to make Lee Soon Crown Prince. To teach the royal family a lesson, every single court official has refused to attend the ceremony, with the Noron and Soron factions in alignment in this instance. Minister Min smirks that Lee Soon will realize after this where the real power lies. Lee Soon walks through the empty Palace grand courtyard where all the arrangements are made but not a single person there.
Later on Crown Prince Lee Soon stands before all the court officials and apologizes for his incorrect presumption that all the power lies with the King. The court officials all laugh in mock glee, able to forgive the Crown Prince because he’s still so young.
Later Lee Soon stands in the courtyard screaming his frustrations out in the rain while Prince Dongpyung tries to comfort him.
Ok Jung has waited for Lee Soon all day and all night under that tree and he’s never shown up. When Chi Soo finds her, she’s passed out from exhaustion.
The King goes to visit his sick son and feels terrible that Lee Soon had to endure such humiliation when he’s still so young. But this is the reality – the power that the royal family wields is but an illusion. Lee Soon awakens from his fever to hear this and sheds tears of anger.
The next day, Lee Soon finds his bird almost death again. When asked if the physician shall be brought, Lee Soon says to let it pass peacefully since it wasn’t strong enough to survive in the long term.
Mrs. Kang is taking care of Ok Jung and asks why she was out there for so long? Ok Jung cries that someone gave her hope, a promise that she could rise above her station in life. A promise of clothes that will protect her. But it turned out to be a fantasy.
Mrs. Kang embraces Ok Jung and tells her to use her own hands to change her fate. What Ok Jung needs is money, and her skills at sewing will be the tool to help her earn money.
Mrs. Kang is opening up a new cloth boutique in town and there is a celebration to draw crowds for the opening. The jealous girl has eyes only for Chi Soo, who has eyes only for Ok Jung, as they all watch the performance.
Jang Hyun is ready to strike and he orders his lackey to set a fire to Mrs. Kang’s place. He remembers back to the death of Mrs. Kang’s older brother on that buying trip, when the man fell over a cliff and initially Jang Hyun tried to save him but when push came to shove, Jang Hyun let go of this hand and the man fell to his death.
When the jealous girl offers to accompany Chi Soo somewhere, he declines and then warns her never to hurt Ok Jung again. He knows she cut up Ok Jung’s clothes and if she ever does it again, he will not let it go. The jealous girl snaps and goes to trick Ok Jung into the storage room and locks the door.
She sits outside when she notices a man sneaking away. Suddenly the storage room bursts into flames. The jealous girl runs away but Mrs. Kang and the other students arrive. She finally confesses Ok Jung is inside.
Ok Jung pounds the locked door begging to be let out as the flames and smoke swirl around her. Mrs. Kang rushes inside to save her and dies in the process. Chi Soo and the rest of the rescuers arrive too late to save his mom.
An adult Ok Jung suddenly wakes up in bed and calls out for her teacher, Mrs. Kang.
Elsewhere, Lady Min is having her portrait drawn.
Crown Prince Lee Soon sits at his desk and goes through a booklet containing the official portraits of all the ladies in the running to be the Crown Princess. He stops at the picture of Lady Min and snarls that she is free to make a go at becoming the Crown Princess……if she can.
Thoughts of Mine:
JOJ is shaping up to be primarily a romance sageuk. Don’t expect realistic political intrigue and expect that the focus on the more emotional side of things may drive the narrative more than historical accuracy. Keeping that in mind, I find JOJ balancing the two sides really well so far. It’s not like MoonSun, which I keep referencing because its the drama that most resembles JOJ so far, where the romance obliterated everything else and no one did anything other than pine for someone else. I was clapping like a trained seal with Lee Soon stood up to Minister Min and his cronies, and when he actually was so distraught over the power play by the court officials that he dang forgot about his promised date with Jang Ok Jung. How awesome is it that we have a male lead in a position of power and importance actually not forget he has a day job when he bumps into love unexpectedly. Lee Soon transformed from a innocent boy into a man in this episode, in both the first stirrings of sexual attraction as well as the painful lesson of his future career that he may one day be the ruler over all but he won’t actually have real power.
Because this drama doesn’t focus on the love to the detriment of telling a compelling story, the childhood love story portion actually becomes even more poignant. By stripping away the usual K-drama focus on fated love and show both Lee Soon and Ok Jung having greater considerations in their life outside of finding true love, I am now quite onboard them getting another go at it after the meet as adults. I’ve seen enough to realize Lee Soon is not likely to let love addle his brain, and Ok Jung is feisty and endured enough not to believe in dreamy fairy tales such that she can marry a King and wash away her birth ignominy of having a slave mother. Because the main leads barely show up in episode 2, there is no chance to critique acting ability other than to applaud the fine job done by the kids and the other adult actors. I’m looking forward the most to seeing how Ok Jung and Lee Soon fall in love (for real) and then find a way for her to become his consort, as well as the sure to be thrilling battle of wits between Minister Hong and Jang Hyun.