Oh, where to begin?
Once or twice a year, a magical drama comes along that reaffirms why I became a k-drama addict in the first place. As I navigate through a myriad array of mediocre dramas every year and wonder, “what’s the point”, I remind myself to remain patient and the next “it” drama to steal my heart will surely come along again. They always have and they always will, although the intervals between the dramas may vary. I just never expected Jejoongwon to turn out to be one of these dramas.
If I had been blogging early 2010 and did a “Looking ahead” post, I’d have probably given Jejoongwon a half-hearted recommendation as a drama that might be worth checking out, but skip it myself.
Jejoongwon comes from director Hong Chang Wook who directed the 2008 SBS drama The Scale of Providence, and is penned by scriptwriter Lee Ki Won of White Tower (MBC, 2007) and Spotlight (MBC, 2008). Although I haven’t watched The Scale of Providence or White Tower myself to form my own opinion, I did read gleaming reviews of the two where they were touted as that rare breed of “well-made” Korean dramas. But most importantly, my most trusted source, Mama Blue, gave them her nod of approval. Despite so, my sole experience with writer Lee Ki Won had already been tainted by the disappointing and lackluster drama, Spotlight, and I remained a skeptic of his.
Further, I confess that I did not care too much for the cast. My initial reaction at hearing that Park Yong Woo was cast as the lead actor was surprise that he even became considered a “lead material.” It wasn’t even a matter of whether I doubted his talent or abilities, but that I never cared or bother to give much thought to him – that twilight zone of indifference. I remembered him as the actor who played the friend or the junior colleague of the main characters in rather forgettable 90s dramas, and who has since disappeared from the small screen to work mostly on films that met with little or mediocre commercial success.
Then there’s Yeon Jung Hoon (a.k.a. Mr. Han Ga In), whom I encountered through three of his earlier family/daily dramas (A Problem at My Younger Brother’s House, Yellow Handkerchief, and Love is All Around). I had no idea how much he improved since then or how his two year hiatus during his military service affected him. My impression of him from at least back then was that he was someone who still needed to hone his craft, but who lacked the charisma and the exceptional good looks for me to overlook this acting deficiency and patiently wait for him to improve.
As for Han Hye Jin in the role of the female lead, I considered her to be one of the more talented actresses from those in that same age category. But here my shallow nature will seep through, and I will further admit that I never liked her because I’ve always been bothered by the shape of her lips and thought them to be quite unattractive. (*lowers head in shame*)
And finally, I laughed a little when I first saw the promo posters of Sean Richard as Dr. Allen. Who were they trying to kid by casting someone who was obviously half-Asian to play a Caucasian doctor?
True, I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of two cultures posed by introducing Western medicine during the Joseon era. I have also enjoyed most of the past medical sageuk dramas, including Dongui Bogam (MBC, 1991), Heo Joon (MBC, 1999-2000), and Dae Jang Geum (MBC, 2003-2004). However, the premise of the show in which two men – one a genius and another a jealous, less-talented rival – fighting over prestige and one woman gave me that “been there, done that” feel.
You may wonder why I bother to go through such an extent to discuss why I initially dismissed this drama, when it’s probably apparent by now that the purpose of this post is to praise Jejoongwon. I wanted to make it clear my early prejudice against it and explain this was not a drama I would have normally gravitated toward, especially for those folks who may dismiss Jejoongwon like I first did as not a drama for them. In fact, I would have never bothered going back to give Jejoongwon a chance if it wasn’t for Thundie’s heart-felt recommendation in her End-of-the-Year Review. But oh, how stubborn I can be! I was still reluctant to give it a go, the 36 episodes serving as a deterrent. After all, at the start of this year, I was kept busy with all the new 2011 dramas, many of which I found better than I expected (although I went in with low expectations). It was not until these dramas turned downhill, and I needed a drama to distract me in the level of “I love you so much I could spontaneously combust” that I finally decided to give Jejoongwon a try.
Not a review, but a tribute
Let’s be clear on the purpose of this post. This is not a review of Jejoongwon. If it had been a review, it could have been accomplished with just the following three words: Blue loved Jejoongwon. No, this is not a review, but a tribute (a celebration, if you will) to it. For the past week since finishing Jejoongwon, I have been watching and re-watching certain scenes, episodes, and music videos over and over again. For my own health and sanity, I needed to have a catharsis to pour out everything I could say about the drama so that I can then move on with my life.
Before embarking on this tribute, I did a quick search online to see what has been written about Jejoongwon so far, so as to not repeat what has already been said by others. I couldn’t help but smile to see that Thundie’s blog was the first to show up in my search. (Every road to and from Jejoongwon leads to Thundie, huh?) She presented a thorough and comprehensive guide to the historical background behind the drama, and a detailed analysis of the lead and supporting characters (I & II). I strongly encourage you to read them before you continue here, and I will proceed assuming that you have done so.
Above all else, a love story
As I prepared for this entry, I thought long about how best to present Jejoongwon. Should I introduce it as a story of one man’s life journey, emerging from the deepest pit of life as the son of a butcher to become a doctor who comes to heal a nation? Or should I introduce it as a story of a rivalry between two men, and how they come to learn of the joy and value of working together? Or perhaps it can be summarized as a story of the establishment and acceptance of Western medicine in Korea? Or how about this – a story of people at the brink of having their lives turned upside down with the introduction of a new and unfamiliar culture and set of beliefs, all while under the constant threat of a foreign takeover?
All these things are true, and by themselves may have been sufficient to create a compelling drama. But instead, as cliche as it may sound, Jejoongwon is so powerful because it is above all else a love story.
It is a story about how one man loved a woman, the first person who ever treated him as Hwang Jung, a human being, and not as Lightweight Dog, a butcher. It is a story about how that man loved his country and his people, the same country and the same people that desecrated him and his family as that cursed entity somewhere between a beast and a human. It is a story about how a small group of people (American missionary doctors) came thousands of miles away to a foreign land of which they had no relations whatsoever, and showed deep love for its people and the lasting legacy of their love. I think it is best represented by what Dr. Heron (played by Ricky Kim) tells his student, Baek Do Yang. “I just wanted to love the Korean people even more deeply.”
I wondered to myself whether I was simply moved by the fact that there was an actual person named Dr. John William Heron (along with Dr. Horace Newton Allen, Lilias Horton, and Dr. Oliver R. Avison) who once walked this earth and dedicated their lives to serving my ancestors. And the conclusion that I came to is that their stories are so inspirational because regardless of who these people were, what religion or ethnicity they belonged to, and who these people served, this was a group of people who showed love to others, not only in their beliefs but in actual practice. And whoever doubts the influence of this love need look no further than at the hospitals and the schools that they helped start still standing to this day. I say that’s a pretty darn powerful message!
Park Seo Yang, the real-life Hwang Jung
At the center of Jejoongwon stands Hwang Jung, a fictional figure whose life gets closely intertwined with actual historical events that took place in Korea between 1874 and 1910. But did you know that writer Lee Ki Won had in fact modeled Hwang Jung after a real-life figure named Park Seo Yang?
According to the dissertation published by Professor Park Hyung Woo of Yonsei University College of Medicine, Park Seo Yang was born on September 30, 1885 as a son of a butcher. When Park Seo Yang’s father, Park Sung Choon, got afflicted with typhoid fever, it was Dr. Avison (the fourth director of Jejoongwon) who treated him. Deeply moved by the care shown by the foreign doctor in treating him without regards to his low social status, Park senior converted to Christianity and looked towards Dr. Avison as his mentor.
When a cholera epidemic broke out in June 1895, the Joseon government assigned Dr. Avison to take charge in the fight against cholera. When his efforts helped subside the cholera oubreak, the Joseon government thanked him, and Dr. Avison took this opportunity to plead for the freedom for the butcher class. In February of 1896, the social caste system was abolished and all butchers were granted equal status as others, thus opening the door for Park Seo Yang to become a doctor.
At his son’s wedding, Park Sung Choon asked Dr. Avison to take his son under his wings. Nevertheless, Dr. Avison refused to admit Park Seo Yang to Jejoongwon Medical School, and instead, ordered him to do manual work around the hospital. Later, it was revealed that Dr. Avison was in fact testing Park Seo Yang’s character during this time period. When Park Seo Yang passed the test by handling all his assigned tasks without complaints, he was finally admitted to the medical college, and in 1908, Park Seo Yang was one of the seven graduates of the first ever graduating class to receive medical licensure in Korea.
The first seven graduates of Jejoongwon Medical School sitting with their professor (left); A photo of Park Seo Yang (right).
After graduation, Park Seo Yang remained at Jejoongwon as a professor and a doctor. However, not content with his life as merely a doctor, he eventually moved to Gando (a.k.a Jiandao) where he opened up a hospital and a school, and started actively participating in the Korean independence movement. During this time, he served as an army surgeon for the independence activists and also as a newspaper reporter.
In 1936, Park Seo Yang returned to Korea, and four years later, he passed away at his home at the age of 55 – five years before seeing Korea receive its independence. (Source: Weekly DongA)
All hail to Lee Ki Won
Thinking about it, Park Seo Yang was a fascinating figure whose story just begs to be made into a drama. However, writer Lee Ki Won opted to create a fictional figure named Hwang Jung, and although there are similarities between the two men, there is no mistake that Hwang Jung is not Park Seo Yang; Hwang Jung is simply Hwang Jung. And in his life, he comes across other fictional figures- Yu Suk Ran, Baek Do Yang, Lee Kwak, Mong Chong, Go Jang Geun, and many others. As I watched their stories unfold before my eyes, there was one sentence I kept repeating after every episode: “Damn, this drama is so well-written.”
The question of what makes a well-written drama has been something that I have been pondering over a lot lately. For instance, I can think of the distinct writing styles of various scriptwriters. The godmother of Korean dramas, Kim Soo Hyun (Life is Beautiful), often makes her characters throw out smart-alecky rhetorical questions to each other that results in me screaming out loud, “Dang, she bur~~ned you!” Makjang writer Im Sung Han (New Gisaeng Story) chooses to have her characters speak in present indicative tense when thinking aloud to themselves, using phrases like “저 사람 참 괜찮다” (but seriously, how many people really speak like that, especially when talking to themselves!). Hong sisters (My Girlfriend is a Gumiho) come up with a new catchphrase for every one of their dramas and have their characters repeat it throughout. Kim Eun Sook (Secret Garden) is known for her use of word plays and analogies. Kim Tae Hee (Sungkyunkwan Scandal) has a pretty sing-song like way of phrasing her sentences.
I can’t say one style is superior to another (although I have my own preference), and it’s probably worthwhile that these writers have developed their own distinctive style. However, when it comes to Lee Ki Won, I’m stuck. I can’t pinpoint anything specific about his writing that would help me identify his dramas as his own. But despite so, there was no mistake that Jejoongwon had a tightly-written script. And specifically, he did three things right that I hope all future scriptwriters take note.
1. He planned ahead – The various revelations made by the characters and the circumstances surrounding them had perfect timing and were done cleverly. Lee Ki Won knew exactly how he wanted his story to unfold.
2. He didn’t leave any plot holes – Any uncompleted subplots or characters were returned to at some point in the drama, and he gave closure to them. (Thank you, Lee Ki Won!) Seems obvious enough, but it’s rarely done right by other scriptwriters.
3. Multidimensional characters – No matter how “good” or “evil” they appear to be outwardly, Lee Ki Won showed how his characters struggled and felt conflicted with the opposite, ulterior option. Whether it be Yu Suk Ran’s initial response to finding out about Hwang Jung’s true identity or Baek Do Yang’s reaction to his teacher’s last words, even if I didn’t always agree with it, I was always able to understand how they may have come to that conclusion. I think that’s a marking of a skilled craftsman.
The discovery of actor Park Yong Woo
Despite my initial misgivings, the cast blew me away. I fell in love with how Han Hye Jin portrayed her Yu Suk Ran to be firm, but feminine; high-spirited, but tender. Those lips that I once called unattractive actually contributed to giving her character a resolute air. (It’s all in the perspective, people!) And besides, there’s no denying that the woman is beautiful.
The weakest link of the chain, Yeon Jung Hoon, was actually far from being “weak”. Although his expressions still looked awkward at times, I’m happy to report that he is on his way to becoming a “true” actor and trust that there are greater things to come from him in the future.
And Park Yong Woo. Oh, my Park Yong Woo! Take responsibility for what you did to my heart! Jejoongwon was the breeding ground for Park Yong Woo to shine, and boy, did he take that chance and run with it!
I don’t recall when it happened, but thinking back, it must have been from the very first episode. Not even for one moment did I see actor Park Yong Woo, but only his character, Hwang Jung.
His slight accent that comes out every so often, lest we forget his humble beginning…
How he stutters when nervous…
The look of complete and utter adoration he gives to the love of his life… (oh, those eyes! kyahhhhh!)
The occasional “I’m so confused” expression in response to Suk Ran’s words and actions…
And then I started to reflect on the man behind Hwang Jung – Park Yong Woo. Sure, he could be considered good-looking, but he’s far from being the conventional “hot” actor. But despite so, I found myself thinking, “Park Yong Woo has aged very well. He’s simply become so much more charismatic as he grew older.” And then my ever so rational mom responded, “You’re just thinking that way because he’s playing his role very well.”
Then I retorted back, “But as an actor, his eyes are… ALIVE!” (For the full effect, flail your two arms in the air à la Dr. Frankenstein.) Again, my ever so cool-headed mom responded, “You’re just thinking that way because he’s a good actor.”
Blue: “But… but, his eyes look so tender and kind.”
Mama Blue: “Hmm, yeah, they give that effect because his eyes droop downward. Similar to Jo Hyun Jae, but Jo Hyun Jae’s acting is not as fine-tuned as Park Yong Woo’s.”
Bleh, what a killjoy!
But quite simply, Park Yong Woo has gained one irrational fan girl and hard-earned respect from another. Two for two. I can only advise you to see (experience) him in action for yourself.
I debated whether to include this portion, especially since I wanted this blog to be nothing more and nothing less than a simple entertainment blog. However, while watching Jejoongwon, I suspected that this issue would be brought up by some, and sure enough, I read several comments on it on the site where I streamed the show. Thus, I felt compelled to share my thought on it.
Yes, I’m referring to the anti-Japanese criticisms. It’s not only particular to Jejoongwon, but many other k-dramas that take place leading up to and during the period of Japanese occupation of Korea (ex. Eyes of Dawn, Freedom Fighter Lee Hoe Young, and Son of a General) have also received criticisms for being “anti-Japanese”.
Of course passing down hatred or racism towards any group of people is disturbing and should have no place in this world. However, I find it equally alarming that whenever Koreans give an account of what happened during this time, there are some people who raise their eyebrows, roll their eyes, and merely dismiss it as being “anti-Japanese.” Imagine folks accusing books or films taking place during the Holocaust to be anti-German. Not only is it a silly idea, but in fact, I’ve never seen it happen.
Whenever I watch works that feature this time period, I am reminded of not only the heinous acts committed by the Japanese, but also by other ethnic Koreans against their own people. Instead of using this depiction to vilify one or the other, wouldn’t it be better if:
1. People can discuss about it and be educated on what actually happened in history, so as not to repeat the same mistakes;
2. It leads to the Japanese government owning up to and sincerely apologizing (not mere lip service) for their past wrongdoings; and
3. The two sides can truly reconcile?