Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Romantic Screen: Dae Jang Geum (2003)

“I’ll tell you this: no one can ever persuade me to give up. I’ll never give up!”
Dae Jang Geum
, also known as Jewel in the Palace, is a Korean television drama of 54 one hour episodes that originally aired in 2003 and 2004. It tells the story of Jang Geum, a young orphan girl, who is an outcast even among the lower classes of Korean society, and her remarkable rise to become the personal physician of the King. It is a work of Romantic art of the top rank, well worth the attention of anyone who values Romantic art.

The screenplay was written by Kim Yeong-hyeon, and it was directed by Lee Byoung-hoon. The main characters are: the child Jang Geum, who becomes the adult Jang Geum after episode 5; Keum Young, Jang Geum’s greatest rival in the palace; Lady Han, Jang Geum’s mentor in the palace, and her mother in all but name; Sir Min Jeong-ho, Jang Geum’s love interest and versatile defender of the realm; Lady Choi, Keum Young’s aunt and enemy of Jang Geum; and Lady Jung, the Highest Kitchen Lady, who is not the puppet the Choi clan had hoped she would be.

Korean television dramas are not like American drama series, in which one episode generally has little connection with the one that came before, or the one that comes after, and which only end when the ratings get too low. Korean dramas are a single story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and every episode builds upon the one before. The producers of the drama know ahead of time how many episodes the story will be, and there it ends. The closest comparison on American television would be a mini-series, such as Roots. But Korean dramas are much longer and more in depth. They are what a novel would be like, if it were fully dramatized on film.

When I say Dae Jang Geum is Romanticism of the top rank, I am referring to Ayn Rand’s standard for that ranking:

“The distinguishing characteristic of this top rank . . . is their full commitment to the premise of volition in both of its fundamental areas: in regard to consciousness and to existence, in regard to man’s character and to his actions in the physical world. Maintaining a perfect integration of these two aspects, unmatched in the brilliant ingenuity of their plot structures, these writers are enormously concerned with man’s soul (i.e., his consciousness). They are moralists in the most profound sense of the word; their concern is not merely with values, but specifically with moral values and with the power of moral values in shaping human character. Their characters are ‘larger than life,’ i.e., they are abstract projections in terms of essentials . . . In their stories, one will never find action for action’s sake, unrelated to moral values. The events of their plots are shaped, determined and motivated by the characters’ values (or treason to values), by their struggle in pursuit of spiritual goals and by profound value-conflicts. Their themes are fundamental, universal, timeless issues of man’s existence---and they are the only consistent creators of the rarest attribute of literature: the perfect integration of theme and plot, which they achieve with superlative virtuosity.” [“What Is Romanticism?” p. 91-92, The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand]

Dae Jang Geum meets all of these criteria, and is therefore in a class with the works of Hugo, Rostand, and Dostoyevsky, and above the lesser Romanticists. There is not a trace of bootleg romanticism in the story, no cynicism, no mock-heroism, no apologizing for portraying heroic characters. The protagonists take themselves, their goals and ideas, seriously, and never laugh at themselves.

To begin, the title of the story is Dae Jang Geum, which means “The Great Jang Geum.” Clearly, it is not a story about the folks next door, but about a hero of Korean history. Little is known of the actual historical person, Jang Geum, which makes it easy for the author, Kim Yeong-hyeon, to make her into a heroine of her own devising. Jang Geum and the other major characters that are her allies all live life as it could be, and ought to be lived, in the context of sixteenth century Korea. When faced with moral dilemmas, each of them looks to their own hierarchy of values to determine what to do, then takes the proper action, regardless of risk.

Dae Jang Geum has been described as the story of Jang Geum’s persistence and curiosity. While she certainly exhibits both of those traits, a more accurate description of the theme of Dae Jang Geum is the same as Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three: man’s loyalty to values. Just as in Ninety-Three, this theme is dramatized in the subplots as well as the main plot, in the minor characters as well as the major characters.

One of Jang Geum’s values is using the scientific method to discover new knowledge, and she does this over and over again in the story. When this comes into conflict with the authorities, such as when she is trying to heal a member of the royal family, she insists on following her own methods, in spite of all threats or ridicule about not following the “accepted methods.” She has an independent mind.

When her mentor, Lady Han, is put under house arrest for serving plain, healthy food to a Chinese epicure whose preference for more lavish fare is notorious, Jang Geum takes her place – and serves exactly the same plain, healthy food, at tremendous risk to herself. They both are determined to serve the envoy healthy food because he has diabetes, and needs the healthy food. Their principle is that one should only serve food that is appropriate to the one who will consume it, and they stick to that principle no matter who wants it done differently.

In another typical example, one of the minor characters, a seamstress, displays the same loyalty to values. She is assigned the task of making a new dress for Jang Geum, who is in the final cooking competition to become a court lady of the kitchen, or be sent out of the palace if she fails. Out of the blue, the seamstress steals the flour from the ingredients set aside for Jang Geum’s use in her competition, which cannot be replaced.

Jang Geum is dumbfounded by this seemingly inexplicable act. But we soon learn the reason for it. The seamstress intends to use the flour to make dumplings as part of a beau geste toward her mother, who she has just learned is leaving the palace the next day, never to return. She wants to serve a ceremonial dinner to her mother before she leaves to show her love. She only has this one chance to do so. This act is of such value to her that she is willing to ruin Jang Geum’s chances of becoming a court lady, and accept any consequence to herself, to carry it out. The seamstress is a very timid girl, but when her highest values are at stake, she becomes uncommonly bold and extraordinarily courageous. The author does a marvelous job of showing how the seemingly improper things the seamstress does are actually the proper things for her to do, given her hierarchy of values. And Jang Geum, once she understands the girl’s motivation for her act, actually helps the girl make the dumplings and present them to her mother.

A Romantic story, above all, requires a plot: “a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax,” (“What Is Romanticism? p. 82, The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand). Such a series of events, in a Romantic work, must be set in motion by the protagonist choosing a goal (final causation), and then taking the steps required to achieve it (efficient causation). Jang Geum does exactly that.

Early in the story, Jang Geum is an adorable, radiant young girl – Shirley Temple on the outside, an incipient Madame Curie on the inside. She sneaks off to school with her “betters” against her mother’s explicit orders. She is simply too eager to learn, for anything to hold her back. Then her parents’ past catches up with them, and Jang Geum is left alone to face the world as an eight year old orphan. She makes the conscious decision to vindicate her mother’s honor, which has been wrongly maligned. This is the goal toward which she directs herself. Then she methodically takes all the steps necessary to achieve it. It is a purposeful progression of logically connected events, which leads to the resolution of a climax.

Similarly, the subplots have various characters working purposefully toward their own goals. Lady Jung, for example, initially wanted to be a court lady because it seemed like a beautiful and glamorous life from outside the palace. Once inside, however, she realized that many people used their positions as court ladies of the kitchen to advance their political causes and to gain power. For example, some of them would poison the food of certain royals to help other royals gain power, thereby gaining a powerful ally. Lady Jung believed it was wrong to use food for such purposes, so she dedicated herself to eradicating the practice. Then she took the steps necessary to achieve that purpose.

Finally, as if to emphasize the purposeful nature of Jang Geum and her story, one of the episodes specifically dramatizes the value of purpose in man’s life. In the episode, Jang Geum has been exiled to the herb garden, in the farthest corner of the palace complex, for some alleged transgression. It is a place to which loafers, miscreants, drunks and criminals are sent, and no one expects to return to the palace proper from the herb garden. It is essentially a place of exile and abandonment.

At the herb garden, the workers are supposed to be growing herbs. But none of them do any gardening, or in fact any kind of work, at all. When Jang Geum arrives, she finds the workers - and even their supervisor - lying in the fields, asleep. When she asks them what she is supposed to do, the supervisor tells her not to do anything, unless she wants to drink. No one expects any work to be done in the herb garden, and all the people there are content to do nothing, wasting away their existence drinking, eating, and sleeping, without purpose. These men are clearly going to pot, their minds and bodies atrophying from lack of use. It is against this background that we are able to contrast the behavior of Jang Geum.

Jang Geum finds their behavior incomprehensible. She literally goes to bed weeping at the apparent purposelessness of life in the herb garden. Finally, she tells the supervisor she cannot "do nothing," as it would drive her crazy. So she begins collecting all the assorted herb seeds she can find in the storehouse, none of which have any identifying labels attached to them. Those she recognizes, she labels accordingly. For those she cannot identify, she bothers the supervisor until he identifies them for her. Soon she has them all identified, and she begins clearing some of the weed infested field and planting some of the herbs.

The other workers, and the supervisor, watch her and laugh at the "futility" of her actions. They begin taking bets on how soon she will give up - or worse. The last court lady sent to the herb garden had committed suicide. But Jang Geum persists in her methodical categorizing and gardening.One day she comes to the workers and asks them for better gardening techniques. One of them mentions a particular herb that no one has succeeded in growing, though they had been trying for 20 years. Immediately, Jang Geum's face brightens, and she says: "Good! I will use that!" When they ask what she means, she explains that she will use that as her goal, as a purpose toward which to strive while in the herb garden. But why that particular goal? "Because you said it was hard!"

After a methodical trial and error period, Jang Geum succeeds in growing the rare herb - and finally the other workers, and the supervisor, begin to admire Jang Geum, and to want to bring some purpose back into their own lives, as well. They all recognize, once they have seen it again, the ennobling, uplifting value of purpose.Jang Geum taught them that, though it was not her intention. She simply wanted purpose in her own life. But her good example had a salutary effect on all those around her.

And not coincidentally, Jang Geum's success in growing the rare herb brings about a longer range goal: she is allowed to return to the palace as a court lady in training, her status fully restored. Thus did the writer of Dae Jang Geum - Kim Yeong-hyeon - dramatize the value of purpose in man's life.

The author’s characterization skills are everywhere apparent. The characters are constantly shown deliberating with themselves on what course of action to take, consciously weighing the alternatives, completely in focus. When they do something immoral according to their own values, they know it, and suffer a blow to their self-esteem as a consequence.

In one scene, for example, Keum Young sets in motion an evil plot, knowing it is immoral – but doing it anyway. Then in a voiceover, she says to herself:

“So this is how I’m going to live. I’m going to console myself like this . . . “

Lady Han is a character in whom love for her friends is extremely important, as well as integrity in her profession. In her early years at the palace, she saw her best friend forced to take poison after being falsely accused of some transgression. It left her alone and friendless in the palace, until Jang Geum came along and was like a daughter to her.

(Lady Han comforting Jang Geum.)

Then a situation arises in which Lady Jung has a chance to expose some of the wrongdoers among the court ladies of the kitchen. Due to complicated circumstances, however, it would also lead to the execution of Jang Geum, despite her complete innocence. Lady Han supports Lady Jung in her efforts to drive the vipers out of the kitchen. But she simply cannot accept losing Jang Geum into the bargain. She goes to plead with Lady Jung – who also does not want to lose Jang Geum, but sees no way around it – in a scene of amazing emotional intensity. Lady Han reiterates her support for Lady Jung’s policies, but begs desperately for her to use some other occasion to carry it out. Not this time, when it will take Jang Geum away from her: “Next time! Next time!” It is perfectly in character for Lady Han to act this way, given her love for Jang Geum, and her fear of losing her best friend to an unjust death - twice.

And in a scene remarkable for its moral clarity, Jang Geum forces Keum Young to examine herself more deeply than ever before:

Jang Geum: Keum Young, please turn yourself in. Please, help me forgive you. For you, self-respect is more important than the safety of your family.

Keum Young: What do you think you know about me that you speak of me like this?

JG: No? Am I wrong then? Then why are you teaching all the ladies in the same way that Lady Han taught me? Please put into action what you feel in your heart. Keum Young, I don’t like hating you. Because hating someone is as difficult as loving someone.

KY: I had to both hate and love, which was so difficult. Because of you, because of Sir Min . . . You’re the one who has hurt my self-respect.

JG: That’s just an excuse . . .

KY: Get out.

JG: Self-respect isn’t hurt by someone else but only by oneself.

KY: Get out, get out!

If there are flaws in the story, they are few and minor. The very first episode has characters who are fatalists, and these are Jang Geum’s own parents. But this is simply a character flaw in these people, and Jang Geum herself exhibits no belief in that doctrine.

Later in the story, Keum Young explicitly rejects fatalism. Her aunt, Lady Choi, exerts enormous pressure on Keum Young to perform some criminal act as part of her “training” to continue the family’s power by hook or by crook. Lady Choi says it is their family’s fate to have to do these things. Keum Young strives mightily to refuse this act, but finally the pressure gets to her, and she agrees to do it. At the same time, however, she rebukes Lady Choi and rejects the idea of fatalism:

“I’m doing this because you say it’s our fate. But this kind of fate shall end in my generation. I’ll certainly make it so.”

And in any case, all of the main characters act on the premise of volition, from first to last.

Although Jang Geum strives to achieve her own goals, there is certainly an undercurrent of altruism throughout the story. But this is common to most Romantic literature outside of Ayn Rand. While we may not have the same values, we can say, as Ayn Rand said about Hugo:

“The emphasis he projects is not: ‘What great values men are fighting for!’ but: ‘What greatness men are capable of, when they fight for their values!’” (Introduction to Ninety-Three, p. xii).

There is not a lot of Romantic art in the modern world. Nevertheless, we all need the inspirational fuel that Romantic art provides. Dae Jang Geum is a new and magnificent addition to the world’s library of Romantic art.


AlanAtLarge said...

An excellent review. Worthy of the subject and that's saying a lot.

There is no value greater in art than the projection of the supreme importance of the pursuit of values and the spiritual fuel that this provides. Dae Jang Geum is jet fuel for the soul. Or, more appropriately, Haute Cuisine for the soul. ^_^

Chuck said...

Thanks, Alan. I've yet to see a single negative reaction to Dae Jang Geum among the growing list of its viewers.

Beatrice said...

Wow, this is a very thorough, comprehensive review. But DJG's definitely the kind of drama to merit this level of in-depth discussion and reflection. I actually just finished watching it for the first time myself, and actually one of the things I loved most about it was the beautiful music. Plus, everything else as well.

Chuck said...

The music was indeed very beautiful - I'm listening to it right now, on the soundtrack cd. I especially like the young kitchen maids' song, Onara.

Dae Jang Geum is just a thoroughly inspiring story, any way you look at it.

Thanks for your comment, Beatrice.

Anonymous said...

I just finished Dae Jang Geum and it was WONDERFUL!!! i wish it never ended. I want the story to continue :(

Chuck said...

That's how I felt, too. At least we can watch it all over again. It bears repeated viewings.

Anonymous said...

DJG is indeed a series worth watching umpteenth times. I have lost count how many times i am watching it. Watching it in the original language is the best. Really enjoy the plot and also the story line.

The gentle caring ways of Min Jung-ho towards Jang-geum and the support he gives her regardless of conditions.

Notice how Jang-geum who has never utter a single word of love or direct confession of love to Min Jung-ho and finally the one person Jang-geum confessed her love for Min Jung-ho was to the King Jung-jong.

Goes to show how courageous Jang-geum is and also how strong her love for Min Jung-ho is that she would dare to admit so directly regardless of consequence.

Likewise you see how Min Jung-ho who stands by Jang-geum all thru many trials even at the gamble of his own life has not directly confess his love for Jang-geum directly. Yet it is also directly to King Jung-jong that Min Jung-ho admitted his love for Jang-geum.

In the storyline...both Jang-geum and Min Jung-ho has actually use their own life as gamble for each other.

Jang-geum gambled her life with Debimama (the king's mother) who refused to have medical treatment and is taking it out on her son the King and Jang-geum actually asked Debi-mama not to gamble with the King but instead gamble with her (Jang-geum) instead. Because Jang-geum knows Sir Oh is the culprit behind debi-mama anger with the King over the King supporting to bring back the Shilak confucians scholar (MJH was busy recalling all of them back to support the King). So you see debi-mama knows once the King knows the reason for her refusal of treatment, the King would stop the recalling of those scholars. And that would means negative or danger to Min Jung-ho and Sir Kim and Supervisor Pak. So in a way can say Jang-geum is helping MJH in this sense by gambling her life with debi-mama.

Min Jung-ho gambles his life with the Queen for Jang-geum to heal the King of his blindness and also of his illness which apparently was similar to the same illness years ago whereby Sir Oh & the chois took advantage and pushed the blame on lady han and Jang-geum.

Ouch...DJG is a series that can have many discussions and each brings up the strength and beauty of the series.

Anonymous said...

Note to above entry: error...Shilak should be sarim faction. thanks

Edwin Xiao said...

what an excellent review... i didn't think non-asian noticed this drama... :)

Edwin Xiao said...

Can you do a review of Empresses_in_the_Palace too? It is the most intricate piece of work from China so far. It took me three viewings to catch so much of what they say in between the lines, in earlier plots which foreshadow the later plots etc.