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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

The King and I

Aka: Wangkwa Na

Directed by Lee Young Mook & Son Jae Sung

Written by Yoo Dong-yoon (Ladies of the Palace)

Produced by Kim Jae-hyung (Ladies of the Palace)

Originally aired in Korea on SBS television, from August 27, 2007 to April 1, 2008

 

 

 

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Cast:

• Oh Man-seok as Kim Chuh-sun (Shin Don)

• Ku Hye-sun as Yoon So-hwa (Ballad of Seo Dong Yo)

• Go Joo-won as King Sungjong (The Bizarre Bunch)

• Jeon Gwang-ryul as Jo Chi-gyum (Jumong)

• Ahn Jae-mo as Jung Han-soo (The Rustic Era)

• Jeon In-hwa as Queen Insoo (Ladies of the Palace)

• Jung Tae-woo as Prince Yunsan (Chihwaeseon)

 

Studio:

Television: SBS, Korea

DVD Distribution: YA Entertainment (USA)

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Region 1: NTSC

Feature: 480i / anamorphic

Supplements:

 

Audio:

Korean Dolby Digital 2.0

 

Subtitles:

Feature: English

Extras: n/a

 

Extras

29-page Series Guide in pdf (downloadable.)

Presentation

63 episodes, approx. 70 min/episode

Published in 3 box sets

Each box is in book format with 7 discs

Release Dates: October 28, November 25, 2008, and January 6, 2009

 

 

 

Introduction:

If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us. ~ Hermann Hesse

 

"Ambition" may be the operant word for this extraordinary series, since it clearly motivated the writer and producer as well as several of its principal characters.  The King and I, which runs well over 70 hours, is a fictionalized dramatization not only of a great many characters and events across the better part of a century, but the political struggles and cultural practices of a time now remote.  Moreover, the most important characters in the series are a class of people never before, to my knowledge, given pride of place in a popular well-funded television program from any country.

 

For us Westerners, this 63-part series comes with an unfortunate title. As you might expect and hoped, the story has nothing to do with the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical of the same name, nor is it a similar story placed elsewhere in a different time.  To put us further off the scent, there isn't one king here but several, two of which we get to know quite well; and there isn't one "I" but several, again two that command attention in specific relation to their king.

 

The kings of our story emanate from Korea’s early Josun Dynasty throughout roughly the fifteenth century.  King Sejo, whom we get to know largely by frequent reference by those who follow him, takes power in a coup, an event whose effects rattle on across three generations.  It is Sejo's successors, particularly Sungjong and Yunsan, on whom the present drama settles.  However the principal focus is not so much on the kings themselves nor on their policies or legacys, but on the political dynamics and intrigues between the eunuchs, led by Jo Chi-gyum and Kim Chuh-sun, and the kings, their royal families and the kings’ ministers.

 

Yes, eunuchs!  For it they who are the "I" in the title.  And believe me when I tell you that the story of their induction, castration and servitude is told explicitly, if not entirely graphically.  This is not a drama for children, though it is about children, many of whom never grow up – certainly not in the usual social and political sense.  Yet, some of them marry (sans sex, of course), many acquire wealth (skimming was a common practice among many who worked in the palace), and some obtain considerable political influence.  Many are filled with self-loathing, as we might expect; yet try to find some sense of pride in the work they do and with others of their unique species. Some, exquisitely, love women, who, for more reasons than are obvious, are out of reach – and it is this story that informs the emotional backdrop for The King and I.

 

DVD REVIEW

Image: 7/6

The score of 7 indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other standard definition DVDs on a 10-point scale for SD DVDs.  The second score represents a value for the image on a 10-point scale that accommodates both standard and high-definition video discs  – where any score above 7 for an SD is outstanding, since the large majority of high definition video discs are 8-10.

 

Originally broadcast in HD, the image offered by YAE is excellent: Colors are natural, vivid and well saturated, daytime or night.  The King and I is nothing, if not beautiful to look at, despite the occasional tendency for Korean dramas to overexpose the highs, especially in outdoor scenes.  There is a certain confusion of foreground and background when things get very busy, but this is the fault of the DP, not the transfer.  As usual, the image is non-progressive, but still looks very good unless paused on your computer where combing and jpg artifacts are made more apparent.  I've seen much worse examples of combing and edge enhancement from this company.

 

Audio & Music : 7/5

Like most Korean TV dramas, even those in broadcast in High Definition, the audio is front-directed stereo.  Music, effects and dialogue are nicely balanced and clear, with generous bass and clean treble when needed.  Unlike the music for Dae Jang Geum or Jumong, the music here is more varied in mood and style, which I did not always feel was appropriate for the scene scored. It is a common practice to simply copy and paste complete cues for a wide variety of scenes without so much as re-orchestrating them or altering the tempo.  Even though the audience would have been watching two episodes a week, not five or six as I did, they could not have helped but notice a certain degree of careless repetition.  Much to my surprise there wasn’t a single memorable song, nor any that vied for my attention or affection.

 

Translation & Subtitles : 5/9

Perhaps the most annoying thing about the subtitles is the pervasive practice throughout Volume One of indicating not only the name of the character speaking, but who they will eventually become (king, queen, eunuch, etc.)  So much for suspense!  Instances of misspelling are rare, but there is more than an occasional misuse of English words that try too hard where a simpler solution would work better: "overambition" instead of "ambition" for example.  But the more serious problems with the translation lie elsewhere.

 

I mentioned earlier that the chain of command is not clear in this series.  There are two problems: The first is that at any one time it is possible for there to be four different levels of queen (the king's grandmother, the king's mother, the king's wife, and the mother of his child).  The translation refers to all of them merely as "queen." Since the screenplay does not make it clear who has the power of decision, we are never clear as to the pecking order.  For example, there were times when I had the impression that a consensus needed to be reached before a proclamation could be issued; at other times I thought that the king had final authority but would not act without the blessing of one or both queen mothers simply out of respect.  In other cases, it was impossible to sort out who had the power to arrest or torture or execute someone or, more important, who could override such an order.  This makes questions of suspense impossible, since we don’t really know if a particular prisoner, whose fate we may care about, can be absolved by this or that official.  Koreans would no doubt have enough historical knowledge about these times and persons that they do not require the level of clarity non-Korean do.  All the more reason for the translation to be helpful.

 

Second, while it was evident that "ministers," "officials," "royals" and "eunuchs" all had their place and spheres of influence, it was not clear what that was or how it worked. While I did not expect that the screenplay or translation would place itself on pause and explain to the audience: "Now in 1476, the Korean system worked thus . . ." I did expect that such matters or the roles of the several queens would be addressed in the pdf booklet.  Except for the in-depth discussion about the history and roles of the eunuchs, we learn very little about the way the government actually works.

 

There are other problems with the translation (which, by the way, was not created by YA-Entertainment staff, even though the series is distributed in North America by them.)  The first is the frequent and entirely inappropriate use of western colloquialisms.  The action in the palace gets the worst of it.  For example, a person might be asking of an authority figure: "I know that so-an-so just tried to poison the queen but I'd like you to let is slide."  Not only is the expression "let it slide" out of time, but it makes light of the situation, don’t you think. My favorite, and laugh out loud example of the misuse of western expressions occurs numerous times about midway into the series when the king is engaged in a secret affair with a married woman in the village just outside the palace.  This is referred to by just about everyone as "dating."

 

Another problem is more pervasive: the translation, especially as regards the action in the palace, makes everyone appear less important and more impotent than they are, even the non-eunuchs – though they are the most frequent abusers.  People make threats and promises they don't keep, for it they did, the series would come to an end much sooner than it does.  For example, when it becomes clear that so-and-so is involved in a plot to frame the queen for what would be a capital offense, the good guy says to the bad guy: "I'll forgive you this time, but if you do this again, you'll pay," or "I'll never forgive you," or "I'll kill you."  But none of these things ever happen (except when Queen Insoo says it – she rarely misses an opportunity to torture or send someone away from the palace in disgrace).  This not only weakens the offended person and strengthens the offender, but brings attention to a serious weakness in the screenplay: that hardly anyone follows through on their promises, so we start to lose interest.

 

Operations & Box Design : 8/9

As we've been seeing more frequently from YAE, the names of the stars appear in English over the episode's credits as they and their characters are introduced. A nice trend.  The menu is uncomplicated, again in English (as is always the case with YAE), with animated thumbnails for chapters. 

 

The King and I is packaged in three hefty volumes of seven easily removable discs, one disc per page. What is unusual is the thickness of each page: about 6 mm.  This makes for a heavier, more luxurious box than anything YAE has previously offered, or most anyone else for that matter.

 

Extras : 7

The Extra Features consist entirely of a nicely produced 29-p­age Series Reference Guide as a downloadable pdf.  This makes it harder to misplace, but less handy if you want to thumb through it while watching your program.  Of course you can always print it out.  For what it does cover – a look at ancient Josun history, its kings and the cultural value of the eunuchs, it is an excellent resource – as far as it goes.  It also briefly sketches out a half dozen of its major characters.  However there are questions that come up for Westerners that are not addressed in either the translation or the booklet: for example the political lines of authority and job descriptions, so to speak, of the ministers and officials and the simultaneously serving queens.  Nor do we ever get to find out what exactly are the "3 virtues and 3 flaws" that make Chuh-sun the "perfect eunuch."

 

Recommendation: 6

At last, a Korean drama that doesn't center on food. The King and I is a historical drama whose main characters are eunuchs and the political, ethical and marital crises they face.  The series is much longer than it needs to be and doesn't take advantage of the time it allots itself.  It is marred by repetitious situations and cliffhangers and a clumsy translation that starts off well enough but gets lazier as it goes along.  The series is photographed in luscious color, with high production values, especially as concerns the extravagant and varied costumes.  It is filled with affecting performances from everyone except one of the leads.  Unlike most Korean dramas I’ve seen, the score is not memorable, with nary a single song to stir the heart. Recommended especially for a Korean speaking audience or English-speaking if they can be forgiving of basic translation problems.

 

DRAMA SERIES REVIEW

The Series : 7 (of 10)

Story:

The political drama is always front and center, especially once the eunuchs we have been following since childhood take their places in the palace pecking order.  The political conflict for them is the tension between loyalty to their oath – to serve and protect the king – on the one hand, and loyalty to a patriot's sense of right, wrong, justice and country on the other.  A eunuch who has risen through the ranks is in a sensitive and influential position in relation to the king, and if such a king were to step over a line, from simple courtesy to despotism, a eunuch finds himself in a difficult situation, for they are forbidden to be involved in politics – a rule that cries out to be broken.  Such crises of loyalty compel them to make ethical compromises that they must forever rationalize – sooner or later to their peril.

 

As in any good drama, the "bad" guys are far more interesting than the "good" guys.  I think it's no exaggeration to say that the balance is laughable at times.  The bad guys, for example, conspire in whispers and have spies everywhere. The good guys, and anyone else who is vulnerable, speak publicly and have no spies. They never look over their shoulder to see if anyone is following them, for if they did, the series would rapidly come to an end.  This is a strategy common to Korean dramas, however odd it will seem to western audiences.

 

 

And if you think that the western judicial system is too lenient on criminals, wait until you get eyeful of how it once was: In those days, all one had to do was present circumstantial evidence to the right person to have the accused tortured - guilty or not - until they confessed – a confession whose only relief is a quicker execution.  No one would dare speak for the accused since guilt was assumed, and defense would imply complicity.  Worse still, if competing hypotheses were advanced to explain how the accused committed the crime, the one that supported the accusation was always favored, as was the rank of the accuser, leaving the accused to prove a negative: How for instance does someone prove that they did NOT poison so-and-so without finding the culprit and securing a confession, and how could they do that while being tortured or imprisoned.  In those days, the concubines were always vying for power against each other and against whatever wife of the king is currently on the throne.  Their object: deposition. It makes for a delicious concoction of exquisitely executed framings, exorbitant extortions and ready-to-eat poisons.

 

It doesn’t help that the writer for this series has made well-meaning investigators unbelievably stupid, often ignoring obvious leads.  Chuh-sun, for example, has the annoying habit of asking someone he suspects (his intuitions are generally correct) if they know anything about the crime, fully convinced that he would get an honest answer simply because HE would give an honest answer.  Though the "suspect" may look as guilty as hell, after 60 episodes Chuh-sun never acquires the wisdom of a seven year old in such matters – yet he feels he is the right person to head up a secret investigation simply because no one has more loyalty to the accused than he.  In such matters, the man is an idiot.

 

Which leads me to say a few words about the king – or one of the kings: Sungjong.  We should call him “King of Rationalizers!” The way he excuses himself for carrying on a secret affair with a married woman, all the while claiming to his wife, who knows about the affair, that he is loyal to her and that she (his wife and queen) is, always has been and always will be the “love of his life” makes you want to take this guy around back and beat the crap out of him.  If this weren’t enough, he is told by his trusted friends who know about the affair that once the ministers find out about it they will use the information to blackmail him, which would further weaken his authority. He would become a king in name only.  And if this still weren’t enough, if he were to continue to continue this affair, he is told that sooner or later both she and his queen would find themselves in mortal peril.  So, with his own authority, the authority of the royal family and the lives of the two women he claims he loves in jeopardy, he has the chutzpah to indulge himself with sighs of remorse as his world falls apart.  And then, to top it all off, he decrees that the matter is not be discussed or investigated for 100 years, leaving his son in ignorance and his teachers helpless to guide him.  Talk about political inbreading!

 

Performances:

A few words about the actors in this drama.  With one important exception, all the roles are well cast and characterized, save that some of the younger actors (especially Go Joo-won before he adopts a small beard) look too modern.  I mentioned earlier that Chuh-sun was good at keeping secrets.  The actor who plays him, Oh Man-seok, makes certain that the audience knows as little as possible about the inner struggles he must certainly entertain, for he is the most uncharismatic Korean actor I've come across.  Oh makes it clear what charisma is about since he affects none, except that he has an unfortunate half-smile that makes his character look like a simpleton.  It is not until the final episodes that Chuh-sun finally admits to himself the Truth and pays the price – or becomes a hero, depending on how you see it.  But until then, he does not let on.  I suspect that the actor has been directed to remain stone-faced, but whenever he is on screen I hold my breath, as he seems to.  (My Korean sources tell me that my feeling about this performance is not typical of Koreans.)

 

Fortunately there are many other characters, great and small, to distract us from Oh's mind-numbing performance.  At the head of this class is Jeon In-hwa, who plays Queen Insoo, the real power behind the throne – a woman who seeks control and fears the loss of it like alternating current.  Jeon’s performance allows us to feel the strength of Insoo’s conviction as well as the tenuousness of her hold on circumstances within and without the palace.

 

Then there’s Jun Hye Bin who plays the quietly scheming Sul-young, a woman who could wither you with a glance.  And there are two men who remain faithful to their cause forever, and we admire them for it:  Gae Do Chi, the castrator, played with great subtly of feeling by Ahn Kil Kang, a man racked with the guilt of stealing future generations from children who are hardly old enough to give informed consent.  And Han Jung Soo as Do Geum Pyo, Chi-gyum’s formidable bodyguard: skillful, watchful and silently devoted.  Speaking of formidable, age is no object to Shin Goo, nor his character, Noh Nae Si, a hoarding, spiteful man, despite and because he requires the help of a young woman just to stand and move about.  On the other hand he has perhaps the clearest notion of what's always at stake, as he advises Chi-Gyum who is considering whether to join the coup, "You will become a hero or a traitor. It's a very thin line. " It's a question asked repeatedly throughout the series.  Noh adds, "Though dynasties may change and kings will come and go, our testicles will never grow back."

 

There are many interesting characters and fine performances, but I shall single out one more: Yoon Yoo Sun as Wol Hwa.  We’ve seen her before as the resolute queen in the contemporary young adult comedy/romance “Palace”, but here she is most touching as a self-effacing, childless shaman who finds an infant child in the forest and raises him as her own.  She is chronically frightened that the boy will discover she is not his mother and the identity of his real parents are – not that she knows.  When he decides to become a eunuch and when it becomes clear to her who his mother really is, a woman she has the most tender regard for, she still refuses to reveal the truth to him.  The irony is that his birth mother is actually his nurse, but because of her amnesia does not know recognize her own child.  There is enough material in this triad alone for an entire series, and Yoon Yoo Sun does an admirable job of gradually withering away before our eyes as she watches Chuh-sun’s fate unfold.

 

Characters

Instead of continuing to summarize pieces of this complex plot, I thought it might be more interesting to describe the essential dilemma or ambition of each of the important characters:

 

Kim Chuh-sun: From his youth he had borne a crush for So-hwa whose affections lie instead with another childhood friend, a boy who eventually becomes King Sungjong. Chuh-sun is a man who keeps secrets so well he even keeps them from himself, and refuses to admit his true feelings. He becomes a eunuch in order to serve and protect So-hwa, who has since been selected as a royal concubine.  He is helped in his endeavors by Palace Head Eunuch, Jo Chi-gyum, who adopts Chuh-sun as his son.  Chuh-sun's dilemma is that he cannot reconcile the needs of state with the uncompromising ethical system of rules he has chosen to live by, doubtless in order to keep his longing for So-hwa suppressed.  He serves two masters: the heart and the head, and though he suffers from the weight of his dilemma, he is painfully impotent to fully act on behalf of either.

 

 

Yoon So-hwa: So-hwa's father has been, like so many others in this story, framed for crimes he did not commit, and is eventually disposed of, leaving his family disgraced.  But when the man she loves becomes king, he is determined to bring her into the palace, if only as a concubine, regardless of the target of treachery she will necessarily become.

 

King Sungjong: When Sungjong bring So-hwa into the palace against the objections of the royal family and just about everyone else, it represents one of the few times this spineless, mama's boy gets his way.  Unfortunately he is a weak king who never gets the hang of the chain of command any more than we do, resulting in considerable and tragic outcomes for those he loves.

 

Jo Chi-gyum: It is with this eunuch that The King and I gets under way, long before Songjong is enthroned.  Jo betrays his friend, who has attempted to lead a coup against the king.  His friend's wife, for whom Jo always had more than a passing interest, escapes with her infant child whom she hides in the mountains before she falls off a cliff and becomes amnesiac for the next couple of decades.  When Jo, already married, finds her, he cares for her indirectly, and tries to locate her missing son (this much she remembers).  The irony is that this son is none other than Chuh-sun who was found by a shaman and raised in the shadow of a school for eunuchs.

 

Jung Han-soo:  One of the more interesting figures in this drama, Han-soo is not of low birth, and is sold to the eunuch school to help keep his family from being thrown into the street.  He is a boy of rare intelligence, who grows up with a passionate jealousy of the interest paid to another boy by people in power and, like Lex Luthor, applies his skills to anarchistic ends.  His overwhelming interest is in the accumulation of power to wield against those he feels were responsible for placing his family in such straits as would necessitate his becoming a eunuch. Han-soo is a vivid portrait of self-hatred and utterly unconscious of it, except in moments of intense passion.

 

Queen Insoo: The woman we love to hate.  Insoo is Sungjong's mother and guides her son-king with an iron fist, even after he is old enough to no longer require his mother and grandmother as regents.  Her prejudices fail to allow her see the truth, but she is always guided by her keen political understanding.  She, more than anyone, even the king, understands that the king can do nothing without the ministers; and if they want someone removed from the palace or arrested, or tortured, or even deposed, their wish must be her judgment.

 

Lord Noh: Jo Chi-Gyum's adoptive father, and the most powerful of the eunuchs, now retired, but always at work in the background to ensure his sphere of influence.  He is not averse to a little extortion or murder to achieve his ends.

 

Sul-young: One of the most beautiful vipers ever to grace the soap box, Jun Hye Bin plays Seol-young, who spends most of her hours in silence, pouring tea and helping the elderly Lord Noh move from this posture to that.  She uses her beauty and not inconsiderable, persuasive intellect to affect some of the more spectacular murders in the palace.

 

Eulwoodong: The Other Woman: Beautiful and talented. Resentful and tragic.  One of the few completely honest figures in this drama, not that it gets her anything but our sympathies.

 

King Yunsan: Truly a despot for the ages, though he doesn’t start out that way.  Rather, he is a victim of never having been told the truth of the circumstances regarding his mother’s death.  And so when it finally emerges, as it must, he is totally unprepared, and the self-fulfilling prophesy of reprisals that the ministers feared all along happens, big time.

 

 

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

 

Leonard Norwitz

LensViews

June 6th, 2009

 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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