Saturday, April 5, 2008

Dae Jang Geum

This review contains some spoilers.

I recently finished watching a wonderful Korean television drama called Dae Jang Geum, aka Jewel in the Palace. It is available on DVD, in the original Korean with English subtitles. In briefest summary, the drama tells the story of Jang Geum, an orphaned girl who rises from the lowest classes of Korean society to become the personal physician of the King.

The struggles Jang Geum faces along the way are enough to crush the spirit of a normal man or woman. But Jang Geum is an extraordinary woman. No opponent can overcome her indomitable spirit, no obstacle or setback can impede her progress for long. She sets her sights on the goals she wants to achieve, and she moves toward them with determination, intelligence, and passion, without ever compromising her integrity or honor. She is a true Heroine of Romantic art.

The series starts out with several episodes showing Jang Geum as a young girl, around 8 years old. From her first appearance on the screen, she conquers the viewer’s heart completely. Never have I seen such an adorable little girl. Her smile outshines the sun. But then she wins the viewer’s mind as well, when she displays her passionate intellectual curiosity, her stubborn determination, her courage and integrity.

With episode six, the story moves ahead in time. Jang Geum is a young woman of 20 or so. Under the tutelage of Lady Han, Jang Geum has become one of the most promising kitchen ladies of the palace. Her only rival is Keum Young, whose family has produced the last five Head Kitchen Ladies of the palace. One of Jang Geum’s goals is to become the Head Kitchen Lady. But Keum Young’s aunt, Lady Choi, will stop at nothing to keep that office in her family’s possession.

And so Jang Geum and Lady Han are subjected to repeated attempts by the Choi clan to discredit and defeat them, by fair means or foul. Neither Lady Han nor Jang Geum ever stoop to their level, regardless of consequence. Several times their lives hang in the balance. But they will achieve their goals with honor, or not at all.

One of the things which sets Jang Geum apart from all others is her intellectual curiosity. While others are content to follow whatever was done in the past, as passed down in books or by word of mouth, Jang Geum insists on determining for herself what is best through experimentation and logical thought, even if this goes against what others are doing, or have done in the past, or against the book authorities. Both in her cooking, and later in her medical practice, she uses the scientific method of testing ideas with experiments, and of gathering evidence out in the field, whether that meant studying all the herbs in the vicinity, or testing the water, or examining patients and their symptoms and observing their reactions to various medical prescriptions.

Another strand of the story involves a Royal Guard of the scholar-official class, Min Jeong Ho, who falls in love with Jang Geum. Like Jang Geum and Lady Han, Min Jeong Ho is a man of honor and integrity. His love for Jang Geum is a virtually hopeless romance, because court ladies such as Jang Geum are forbidden romantic relationships with anyone other than the King. If the King never shows any interest in them, then they will have to live their entire life without the love of a man. Jang Geum, however, does fall in love with Min Jeong Ho, and their struggle to resolve this dilemma is one of the major value conflicts of the story.

Complicating their relationship further, Jang Geum’s rival, Keum Young, is also in love with Min Jeong Ho. It is no light infatuation, but a love which will change the entire course of Keum Young’s life in ways that are heartbreaking to see unfold.

When Jang Geum transforms herself into a physician, she begins to have regular contact with the King. To the King’s credit, he too falls in love with Jang Geum. But to make Jang Geum his concubine - the King already has a Queen - would ruin her happiness, and the King discovers this. This is another of the dramatic value conflicts that must somehow be resolved.

Dae Jang Geum is so full of dramatic value conflicts I can’t begin to touch on them all. The contrast between Jang Geum’s way of resolving her conflicts, and the way others do, highlights her larger than life, heroic spirit and integrity. Some of the characters run away from conflicts; some are not strong enough and give in, and are weighed down with guilt; some resort to dishonorable methods to get their way; only Jang Geum and Min Jeong Ho never compromise their principles.

The antagonists of the story, especially Lady Choi and Keum Young, serve an important purpose by providing a contrast to Jang Geum’s heroism. Keum Young began as a highly skilled and precocious young lady, generous to her only rival in the kitchen, Jang Geum. But when her supreme value proved to be out of her reach, her spirit was broken, and she sadly became vindictive and dishonorable. Her aunt, Lady Choi, also started out as an innocent child with benevolent goals and dreams. Both of them could remember the time in their youth when so much had been possible. Their downfall is the all-too-common human tragedy of a great potential, given up on, never fulfilled.

Like the heroes of Victor Hugo’s Romantic novels, the heroes of Dae Jang Geum remain loyal to their values to the end, no matter the struggles they must endure to achieve them. In contemplating the lives of Jang Geum and Min Jeong Ho, of Lady Han and Lady Jung, we see life being lived as it could be, and ought to be. Their values may not be the same as ours, just as the values of Lantenac and Cimourdain (two of the central characters of Hugo's novel, Ninety-three) are not ours. But, as Ayn Rand wrote, referring to those characters: “What greatness men are capable of, when they fight for their values!”

It is such a sad, stark contrast to the flippancy, the vulgarity, the cynicism, the mock-heroism of contemporary American drama, whether on television or in movies. Seeing heroic characters who take their lives, their loves, their goals seriously, who do not laugh at themselves, is an inspiration not to be missed. I urge you to take a chance on this foreign production, an unexpected gift from a talented Korean writer to the world.

There is a website, aznVtv - The Best in Asian TV, at which you can watch every episode of Dae Jang Geum. You may need to download the Winamp player, which is free on the website. Here is the url:

For a brief sample of the show, you can view many clips on YouTube.