Chingus, I think I have found my new k-drama crack. And considering it’s NOT the drama I thought would be my crack, I’m alternating between consternation and bewilderment. How did Gu Family Book, my most anticipated drama of this Spring season, end up being so meh? How did Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love, the drama that was on track to be the biggest trainwreck turn out to not only be good, but so freaking good I’ve watched episode 3 three times now and actually want to watch it one more time after I finish this recap. Am I in an alternate universe where I would pick Kim Tae Hee over Lee Seung Gi? That is blasphemy I say, and yet that has happened. This harkens back to last Spring when Rooftop Prince went head-to-head with The King 2 Hearts. From the casting and promos, I was way more excited about RTP than TK2H and the order of my recaps proved it. Except RTP lost me with a terribly directed first episode and the most cringeworthy villainy since Dr. Evil in Austin Powers. When I checked out episode 1 TK2H for the heck of it, it it was surprisingly decent. As my interest in RTP waned conversely my interest in TK2H grew, until by the end of episode 4 I knew I was a goner for TK2H hook-line-and-sinker. I never looked back and that drama became my favorite K-drama bar none in 2012.
Drama watching is a subjective and fluid experience and I never let expectation dictate whether I eventually love a drama. In three episodes JOJ showed me a truly heady romance that is developing with patience and potential, characters that are complex and layered, and political intrigue that isn’t new but feels compelling. The world of JOJ feels alive and exciting to me, with a sense of dramatic realism that makes me think more about the characters and their story. Yoo Ah In is really shining as Crown Prince Lee Soon and his chemistry with Kim Tae Hee is lovely to behold. Her acting is still heaps below some of her critically acclaimed peers, but she’s trying hard and actually doing a good job. This reminds me of her My Princess performance, the charm of Kim Tae Hee shining through so that even if the acting isn’t qualitatively the best, she’s winning in the role nevertheless. I’m pretty sure tomorrow is judgment day where I’m picking one drama over the other for recap purposes, but if anyone wants a hint right now, check out episode 3 of JOJ and the answer will be pretty clear. The ratings for JOJ remain bottom of the competition but this drama is so exquisitely filmed and scored that it’s such a shame more people aren’t tuning in to be swept away.
Episode 3 recap:
Crown Prince Lee Soon is testing out all the weaponry intended for the army and finds every item lacking in strength, durability, and does not conform to specifications. He learns that the armor is now thinner than it used to be and soldiers are dying in battle because of it. He is predictably pissed.
Lee Soon reviews the books for the procurement of the army goods and is furious but not surprised to learn Minister Min is in charge. This is worse than simple skimming off the top, he’s putting the country’s security at risk and the lives of the soldiers in peril with purchasing the clearly inadequate goods.
Prince Dongpyung arrives with his usual smile and flourish and tries to get his nephew to chillax. He invites Lee Soon to his once-a-year matchmaking party at his estate, the one time a year where all the young and eligible nobleman and ladies in the capital meet and perhaps make future marriage unions. He tells Lee Soon that wanting to solve the Minister Min problem isn’t going to happen in one day so come join the fun. Lee Soon isn’t in the mood for fun so Dongpyung gets serious and reveals that the Queen pretty much threatened to take away his Palace access if he can’t get Lee Soon to that party. The Queen still wants Lee Soon to fall for Lady Min (first name In Hyun) naturally.
Lee Soon is still unmoved so Dongpyung pretends to give up only to switch tacks and reveal that he’s in possession of rare first edition Sung dynasty books on governance and warfare. Lee Soon’s eyes light up and Dongpyung knows he’s roped him in. He tells Lee Soon to come to the party and then head straight to his library to read to his heart’s content.
Ok Jung speaks with her friend Hyang Ah and asks if she has located to jealous girl from years ago who locked her in the storage. Ok Jung believes that girl must’ve seen who set the fire, but she’s nowhere to be found. Jang Hyun goes to pick up Ok Jung to deliver clothes to the family of Prince Dongpyung. Turns out his mother orders clothes from her. Ok Jung reluctantly goes with him.
Prince Dongpyung surveys his estate which is prepped for the party. He’s more excited that Ok Jung is coming. Oh, so he knows her? And obviously is interested. This is going to get goooood.
Ok Jung and Jang Hyun walk into the estate of Prince Dongpyung and the party is in full swing. Damn this drama is utterly breathtaking and the costumes are eye-popping.
The nobles are standing around flirting and chatting, with some discussing how Crown Prince Lee Soon is supposed to show up today. The ladies titter about the chance to become the Crown Princess in an upcoming selection but Lee Soon, incognito, tells them its pointless since the choice has already been pre-determined. He points to Min In Hyun (future Queen In Hyun) and Kim In Kyung (future Queen In Kyung) and says the future Crown Princess can only come from one of the two pillars of Joseon government power, the leader of the Soron faction Minister Min and the leader of the Noron faction Minister Kim.
In Kyung is chatting with In Hyun and we learn the former has asthma, is clumsy and shy, and isn’t interested in being Crown Princess at all since she heard the Crown Prince was an insensitive guy and she dreams of love with a man who will pick up her handkerchief and treat her like a lady.
Lee Soon walks past the two ladies and smirks.
Ok Jung and Jang Hyun meet with Prince Dongpyung and she hands him the clothes for his mother. He wants to spend more time with her so offers her a book on fashion he picked up at the Qing dynasty. Jang Hyun asks to speak with him privately so Ok Jung goes to the library alone to retrieve it. Jang Hyun makes note of Dongpyung’s interest in Ok Jung.
Jang Hyun gives Prince Dongpyung a box of gold as payment for the latest batch of court gossip and going on that was passed to him. Dongpyung says this is too much. Jang Hyun says its invaluable to him as a merchant and is worth the price.
Ok Jung goes to the library and grabs the book and is immediately engrossed in it. Lee Soon is there and notices her, staring because she’s so beautiful and he remembers her from before when she measured him. He wonders again why she looks familiar?
Ok Jung is so into her book on fashions that she doesn’t notice a couple running inside for a secret tryst. Before she can accidentally interrupt Lee Soon grabs her and pulls her into an alcove. He gestures for her to be silent and whispers that one needs to interrupt when there is an argument and stay silent when there is a romance.
Ok Jung and Lee Soon can hear the making out, which turns into a fight when the girl notices a different lipstick stain on the guy’s collar. She cries about how unfaithful he is and she’s even given him kisses and money and gifts. She huffs off and the man follows.
When Ok Jung and Lee Soon are alone, he jokes that the girl can give her kisses but it was stupid of her to waste money on that guy. Lee Soon reveals that he learned this wisdom from someone, and we see Prince Dongpyung scratching his ear wondering who is talking about him.
Ok Jung reveals that a man is like the Spring air when he’s pursuing a woman, and then like the frigid Winter chill after he marries her. That is why a woman should never expect anything from a man. She reveals a friend told her that, and we see Hyang Ah scratching her ear wondering who is talking about her. Cute. Lee Soon remarks that in this they are similar, neither are interested in love.
As Lee Soon and Ok Jung walk through the party, a girl comes running towards Lee Soon and calls him brother. It is Princess Myungan, Lee Soon’s older sister. He hugs her and is totally sweet with her.
Ok Jung watches and walks away, not quite sad but a bit somber. She is immediately accosted by three rude yangban, who ask for her name and introduce themselves first. Ok Jung says she is not the lady of any house and tries to leave but they keep blocking her. They think she is being hoity since she’s pretty so does she only have eyes for landing the Crown Prince? Three rude ladies join the men and also taunt Ok Jung for being a flirt. She loses her temper and chastises them for being rude and having no manners.
One guy raises his hand to slap her which is when Lee Soon arrives and stops him. The guy is belligerent and demands to know who he is? Lee Soon smiles and whispers something in his ear, which causes the guy to prostrate himself and topple over in shock. Lee Soon takes Ok Jung away. The others want to know who that guy was and the shocked guy stammers that it was Crown Prince Lee Soon.
Ok Jung shakes her hand free from Lee Soon and asks why he is also butting into her business and demands to know who he is? Lee Soon lies that he is a Palace guard and the yangban was scared because he is close with the Crown Prince. Ok Jung buys his crock of bull story. Jang Hyun walks by and notices the two of them conversing and stares intently.
Ok Jung tells Lee Soon to spend his time protecting another woman and he realizes she must be jealous and calls her out on it. She claims not to be and he explains that the girl back there was his beloved only sister. Lee Soon is taken aback by himself for even explaining and then asks again if they have never met before? Ok Jung claims they never have, which she told him already in that garden. They stand there staring at each other until Prince Dongpyung calls out to Lee Soon as “hey, Palace guard!” Clearly he heard about what happened with the yangban. Lee Soon turns to talk with Dongpyung and Ok Jung leaves.
As Ok Jung walks out, she runs into In Hyun who asks why she is here? Ok Jung reveals she makes clothes for the lady of the house and was making a delivery. Suddenly the light show and fireworks start and both ladies turn to look.
Lee Soon and Dongpyung also stand and admire the thousand of fireflies released into the air, followed up bursts of fireworks. Seriously, this drama is gorgeous.
In Hyun sees the fireworks and her reaction is one of melancholy since its so fleeting. Ok Jung feels differently, she would rather be a firework since a person only has one lifetime to live and she would rather be eye-catching even if it means flaming out quickly. Oh god, such thick foreshadowing. I can’t even.
The Queen talks with Princess Myungan and both are anxious about the upcoming Crown Princess selection. The Princess tells the Queen to call the front runner ladies to the Palace under the guise of keeping her company so they can run into Lee Soon.
Thugs come to Ok Jung’s studio and ransack it, claiming they are owed money. Hyang Ah reveals she borrowed money from loan sharks to put on the fashion show, which was ruined by that mean witch. The thugs threaten to burn down the place which triggers Ok Jung’s greatest fear so she gives them the deed to the studio and all the goods inside to pay off the debt.
Lee Soon is daydreaming in a meeting with the ministers about selecting Palace guards, since that reminds him of the lie he told Ok Jung. He’s called out for not paying attention and he ends the meeting claiming he didn’t have a good night sleep.
He stops Minister Min and shows him stacks of complaint letters about him. Minister Min claims those are all spurious allegations intended to blacken his reputation. Lee Soon cuts to the chase and says Minister Min is as corrupt as they come, and they both know it. But he doesn’t care about the past or digging into it, he cares about the future. Lee Soon wants to start with the army procurement – he’s going to open up the bid for the supply contract. Minister Min accepts the decision.
Minister Min brings a box of gold and jewels to the Queen, clearly making his usual offering bribe. He reveals the Crown Prince is taking over army procurement and learning more governance. As the Queen admires the jewels, Minister Min cuts to the chase and reminds the Queen they are on the same boat. Its fine to open up the bid as long as they win it again.
Ok Jung and Hyang Ah walk through town and notice the announcement for an open bid to design uniforms for the soldiers. Ok Jung decides to go for it because they have nothing left to lose.
Ok Jung goes to her uncle to ask for a loan and he wonders why he should help her? She says they can share the profits – she designs the soldier uniforms and he bids, if his merchant group wins the bid, her profit can be used to pay back the loan. Jang Hyun thinks that is too troublesome and asks what Ok Jung will do if they don’t win the bid. Ok Jung agrees to do as her uncle wants and take the hand of the powerful person her uncle wants to make an alliance with. No, don’t do it!
Jang Hyun has Ok Jung brought to meet with Prince Boksun at a gisaeng house. Prince Boksun stares at Ok Jung and candidly admits that Jang Hyun was right, she is a beauty to topple an empire. He reminds Ok Jung that if she is willing to do what Jang Hyun wants, that means she needs to align with him. Ok Jung says if her heart isn’t in it, then she won’t do it. Prince Boksun says the heart and fate sometimes makes things happen and she’s here right now.
Ok Jung says that will never happen and turns to leave. Prince Boksun tells her that when a person turns the back to another, that person will end up coming back. Ok Jung walks out regardless and Jang Hyun emerges from another room. Prince Boksun asks what Jang Hyun wants – revenge or become the father-in-law to the Crown Prince.
Jang Hyun says father-in-law, of course. Once he becomes that, then he will have his revenge. In a country like Joseon where anything other than a noble is considered as lowly as a dog and cat, that is the only way.
Ok Jung chats with Hyang Ah and designing soldiers uniforms and she wants to see soldiers in action to understand how they move and their needs. She wonders if there is a military training facility nearby.
Prince Dongpyung is bringing back a load of weapons to his estate and knows he is being followed. The weapons are intended for the royal family’s personal guards so they have the power to battle the Soron faction.
Ok Jung goes to Prince Dongpyung and asks for a favor, she wants to visit a military training facility. Dongpyung teases that a girl needn’t see that but when she begs because he’s the only connection she has, he’s clearly putty in her hands. He reveals that they are like god brother-sister anyways, and he got a lot of help when he was in the Qing dynasty last time. Oh, don’t tell me Dongpyung knows Chi Soo? And where is Chi Soo, by the way?
Dongpyung offers to take her personally but they need to leave in 3 days time. A servant announces an important person is here so Ok Jung takes her leave. As Ok Jung walks out, we see Lee Soon walk in.
Lee Soon and Dongpyung inspect the weapons which are all quality product. The issue now is how to get it to the royal army? The first Crown Princess selection is in 2 days and he needs to be there. He suggests claiming he needs to go hunting the day after to clear his head. When he asks Dongpyung to travel with him, Dongpyung says they should split up to confuse the people following them. Plus he has to do a favor for someone. They agree this is the best approach.
In Hyun and In Kyung are in the Palace to meet with the Queen and Princess Myungan. In Kyung is so nervous she keeps drinking tea, which causes her to have to go pee when the royals arrive. The Queen lets her go but looks peeved, and the smiles at the well mannered In Hyun.
As In Kyung walks back through the Palace, she drops her handkerchief and Lee Soon picks it up. She learns that he is the Crown Prince and unlike the rumors, Lee Soon is very polite and gentleman-like with her.
In Kyung goes to find Ok Jung and begs her to be her handmaiden at the first Crown Princess selection. She heard Ok Jung works wonders and turned the ugliest woman into a raving beauty. Initially she didn’t want to win, but she’s fallen in love with the Crown Prince so she wants to try her best. Ok Jung smiles and agrees to do it, encouraging In Kyung as having a good shot since her heart is true.
Hyang Ah worries about Ok Jung going to the Palace but she’s assures her its all for fashion research since the best dressed are either in the Palace or a gisaeng house.
The day of the first Crown Princess selection arrives and the ladies and their maids pull up to the Palace gates. In Hyun is surprised to see Ok Jung here, and even more surprised to learn she’s the maid for In Kyung. The ladies walk over a symbolic stump and enter the Palace. Ok Jung follows In Kyung into the Palace and sketches clothing of the serving ladies, the guards, and even the little kids. When she sees the Queen, she notices every detail on her outfit and hair.
Lee Soon is walking through the Palace when his father King Hyeonjung approaches. Father and son walk hand-in-hand and talk (OMG, this is like the sweetest thing EVER), with the King concerned about his son’s future happiness. Lee Soon laughs about his father being the only Joseon King without a harem and King Hyeonjung sighs that its his little secret why and looks wistful.
Lee Soon reveals that he’s planning to take a hunting trip tomorrow to clear his mind and the King agrees its a good idea. His servants immediately perk up to eavesdrop, and both the King and Lee Soon know this conversation will be told to the ministers. The King uses code to tell Lee Soon to visit a master fisherman who lives out there and we see its a hidden leader of the Noron faction.
All the ladies are getting fixed up and Ok Jung assures In Kyung that she looks beautiful and even her freckles are beautiful and shouldn’t be covered up with too much power. Ok Jung remembers the Queen wearing a very elaborate hair ornament so she selects a bright one for In Kyung.
As the Queen gets ready to greet the ladies, sudden the Dowager Queen arrives. She clearly has seniority but she talks frankly with the Queen about how she has no power and really this thing is all rigged anyways since the Queen is here to ensure the Soron faction stays in the Queen spot. The Queen claims nothing is decided and this will be a fair selection. The Dowager Queen smiles and says if this is fair, then the Queen has created a new definition for the word. Ha, I think I love her.
The ladies are tested on dining etiquette and as a tray of food is placed before In Kyung, the serving lady purposely spills it all over her skirt. In Hyun realizes in dismay that this woman is acting on orders of her dad since the woman turns to give In Hyun a smile. When Ok Jung asks for time to get In Kyung a new skirt, In Hyun stands up and voices her support. Awww, she’s not all bad and clearly doesn’t like playing unfairly.
Ok Jung rushes off to find cloth and asks her friend in the Palace where to go. The friend suggests the laundry building and as Ok Jung runs towards that direction, she bumps into Lee Soon. Or rather, Lee Soon spots her and pulls her over.
Lee Soon is amused to see her here and asks if she’s here for Crown Princess selection. Ha, you wish! Ok Jung reveals she is the maid to one of the ladies and needs to find cloth to make a new skirt. She asks Lee Soon to lead her to the laundry building since he is a Palace guard and Lee Soon has to quickly ask his eunuch for help on directions.
They arrive at the laundry building and Ok Jung asks for permission to use a cloth to make a skirt. Lee Soon says go ahead and as she goes to select the right color red cloth, Lee Soon follows behind her and admires her profile in the billowing clothes. Ok Jung notices him staring and they lock eyes for a moment before she finds the right red cloth.
As Ok Jung gets to work sewing a skirt, she tells Lee Soon to hurry along because she needs to get down to business. Lee Soon is all like “are you asking me to leave?” but then realizes Ok Jung is engrossed in her sewing already so he quietly slips out.
Ok Jung finishes the skirt and arrives in time to put on on In Kyung before her one-on-one meeting with the Queens. Both In Hyun and In Kyung manage to make good impressions. The Queen likes In Kyung’s hair accessory and asks for one for Princess Myungan.
Lee Soon leaves the Palace the next day for his “hunting trip” and Ministers Min and Kim stand on the Palace walls and watch his departure. Minister Min suggests the Prince ought to go find women rather than go hunting. Minister Kim chides Minister Min for saying this as a prospective father-in-law. They discuss how Prince Dongpyung meets often with Lee Soon and Minister Min says he has been keeping tabs on them both.
Ok Jung is dressed in male attire and rides beside Prince Dongpyung as they head towards the military training ground.
Suddenly they are attacked by masked men and most of the guards are taken down by arrows. Dongpyung fights off the attackers and tells Ok Jung to run away to safely.
Two attackers chase Ok Jung to the edge of a cliff but Dongpyung arrives into to fight with them. Ok Jung sees one attacker about to strike Dongpyung and she grabs his sword arm. In the tussle Ok Jung loses her footing and falls over the cliff into the water below.
Prince Dongpyung kills the last attacker and leans over the cliff screaming for Ok Jung, who we see is sinking underwater.
Thoughts of Mine:
I never would have imagined that a re-imaging of the tale of King Sukjong and his two wives Queen In Hyun and Jang Heebin would be so fun to watch. The ratings for this drama have been low and its the last of the Mon-Tues dramas, and I’m not sure if the reason is that Korean ahjummas (who control remotes) are not eager to try out a different version of a historical record. Imagine asking the French to watch a new version of Joan of Arc where she is actually an alien in the employ of France and England burned her because she was in fact evil. Not sure that would have any appeal even if the audience knows its just taking dramatic license. People sometimes love clinging onto history because it provides a sense of security. I remember scoffing that Bu Bu Jing Xin could ever succeed in painting Emperor Yongzheng as anything other than his historical reputation, and boy was I was wrong then and am I wrong here. Jang Ok Jung has cemented herself as the heroine of this story without any caveats. I adore her, her levelheadedness, her pride and resilient nature, and above all else I love how she’s totally not interested in love and wants to be a career woman. The fashion designer bit takes a stretch of the imagination but it quickly settles on her and actually plays an integral part of the story. Her teenage and now adult interactions with Crown Prince Lee Soon are beyond perfect, there is this unspoken attraction they both can sense but neither is obsessed with it nor does it dictate their decisions. This is a romance that I can see develop into something truly epic, and I appreciate the drama doesn’t foist it on us.
Will I be chastised for saying that I actually like all the villains of this story? I feel like no one has an upperhand and this will become truly a chess match for the ages, between the royal family trying to regain its power, the Sorons and the Norons battling each other but uniting to keep the royal family from getting stronger, with Jang Hyun and Prince Boksun off to the side and gaining traction – there are so many layers at work and my intelligence is not insulted by a single cackling villain or one sole conflict. The side characters are also wonderfully fleshed out in limited screentime, from the friendship of Lee Soon-Prince Dongpyung to the sisterhood of Ok Jung-Hyang Ah. I can also see Ok Jung getting close with In Kyung and perhaps being instrumental in In Kyung becoming Lee Soon’s first wife. I initially worried that Lee Soon having so many women in his life would make it hard to buy his love story with Jang Ok Jung in this version, but that isn’t the case. The drama creates so many political pressures that I can see how Lee Soon would be marrying for political reasons while his true love is Ok Jung, and how they will have to truly walk new paths for her to enter the Palace as his concubine. I’m pretty much sold on this OTP, the pairing of a smart and sensible Prince with a sassy and stunning woman who captures his heart and mind.