Hwajung / Splendid Politics (2015) KDrama First Impressions: Review of Episode 1~4


Hwajung / Splendid Politics (2015) KDrama First Impressions: 


Review of Episode 1~4: should have been Prince Gwanghae's story!

Hello. This is Prof. Akia and I am here to talk about my thoughts on the first 4 episodes of Hwajung / Splendid Politics (2015). I see new faces and returning faces in the class here. All welcome and take a seat.


#ChaSeungWon #LeeYeonHee #KimJaeWon #Hwajung #화정 #Saguk #사극 #광해군


Introduction
The Historical Korean dramas are a rather divisive genre for Korean drama fans overseas. Compared to the home market where they have been rather doing well and are generally liked, many foreign Korean drama fans simply get turned off by them.

I can get why!
Watching a show about a historical event that you have no prior knowledge about and from a culture you are not a member of is rather difficult.

Korean dramas set in modern times are less of a problem in this area since, even though there are cultural differences, there is a lot of overlap between cultural elements enough that foreigners can get by.

Thank God for Globalization!
What would we be without it!
Well in the case of Korea, we will be basically North Korea.

In addition to the lack of prior knowledge regarding the historical events that inspired the show, Historical Korean dramas do not put enough of an effort to help the viewers along with proper world building.

I mean even native… well somewhat native Koreans like me sometimes have a difficult time getting of sense of what the hell is going on.


The recent Korean dramas tendencies towards the overly elaborate and convoluted do not help with the matters either. This issue lies with a more complex problem that I would not go in-depth with other than saying that it is the result of writers trying to branch beyond the previously constructive story narratives with in the culture.

They try but fail!

Not being totally focused on the shenanigans of a cute couple also does not help. When a Historical Korean drama tries to go in that direction, you get “The Princess' Man” (2011).

I’ll talk about this later!

All of this tends to push foreign viewers away. So, you will be asking the question after my long introduction of how is “Hwajung / Splendid Politics화정(2015).

I’ll just refer to it as “Hwajung”

I would say that it is one of the more relatively “decipherable “ Historical Korean dramas out there. It is not as scary to get into.

The Setup
So. I’ll answer this question first.

What is “Hwajung” about?

My answer would be that “it is actually rather complicated mostly because the show makes it unnecessarily so “. The show does not clearly establish who the show’s protagonist is.

Whose story is this?

I have a historical background article up which you could read. Click to read if you want.


But, in a few words, it is set during the reign of Prince Gwanghae who is one of the only two Joseon Kings to be dethroned by a coup.  Considering you have this interesting historical figure to play with, I thought that the protagonist was Prince Gwanghae.

I went into the show rather blind and did not explore much of the promotion.

However, in fact, considering the pacing of the show, the show is Princess Jeongmyeong’s story who lived through 6 Joseon Kings’ reigns.  This character in itself could be interesting as she lived through much. However, this brings in some considerable long term story telling issues.


Long Term Story telling issues
Even though I tend to group Korean Historical dramas together, there are several types including what the industry calls “Fusion” one. It is just a fancy term for Historical fantasy.  

What Kind is “Hwajung”?

It is a straight drama about real … mostly historical events. It is also a 50 episode series. This means that the show will require more attention towards it overall narrative cohesiveness than 16 episodes shows. Hwajung has issues in this area.

In many historical/political narratives, it is true that females played either supporting or sideline characters. It is just how things are because of their social status during their time. This makes telling a story about them rather more complicated.

You can team them up with male characters either as another protagonist or even as an antagonist.  “The Princess' Man” (2011) used this approach to get around the nature of the female protagonist. And this created a lot of issues. As things heated up, the female protagonist became more inactive and the writers had to put the male lead in a “magic plot armor” to just keep the “dumb ass” from self-destructing.  

Even this teaming up approach only really works when the time frame of the story is rather focused around a self-enclosed event. In the case of “The Princess' Man” (2011), it was the female protagonist’s father’s play for the throne.

What about “Hwajung”?

The “Hwajung” starts when Princess Jeongmyeong was 5 years old.

This means Kid actors!
And not even only 1 kid actor playing the same role!
Up to episode 4, you see about 3 or 4 sets of actors playing the same character

For its first two episodes, Prince Gwanghae is definitely the protagonist! Princess Jeongmyeong is just a minor supporting character. Only in the 3rd episode that I guessed correctly that the show could not be Prince Gwanghae’s show. There was already a 5 year time jump skipping a lot of interesting stuff and this show is set for a 50 episode run.

He would be dethroned even before half of the show had aired.


The actress, 
Lee Yeon-Hee, who is 27 years old had been cast as the Princess Jeongmyeong. However, Prince Gwanghae was dethroned when the princess was 20 years old. Even if you play the actress as young, there are massive issues with the timeline.

This mean more kid actors!

So, if I were to piece together the information, is this show just going to go through the major events of Princess Jeongmyeong’s lifetime and telling separate self-enclosed stories with her as a supporting character?  

I mean something like an anthology format?

At this point of the show, I have no idea. I have been negative on the whole “opening flash forwarding” - Sunset Boulevard type narrative framing device that Korean dramas tend to overuse. However, “Hwajung” really needs a story telling framing device like that. In the long term, I am not sure that the show will be able to handle this issue. Korean dramas have had a bad track record in this area.

Since I got the whole long term concerns out of the way, what about the immediate concerns. How are the first 4 episodes?

The First 4 episodes
There is a definite advantage of having the protagonist of these episodes be Prince Gwanghae and not Princess Jeongmyeong. The show can open right into the action as the first two episodes cover a single event in an already fully matured political figure’s career. It is Prince Gwanghae’s ascension to the throne.

This is a rather strong start that is actually quite streamlined and complied that the audience does not need to know much beforehand. It also helps that Prince Gwanghae is an interesting character and played by a mature TV icon like Cha Seung-Won.

Can you believe he is 45 years old!

I have been googling Prince Gwanghae and I stumbled on to an interpretation of him as the prince “Hamlet” of Joseon. While I cannot totally agree with that interpretation of the character, it is interesting and the show “Hwajung” has a lot of that view in the character.

Cha Seung-Won does do much with it in the first 2 episodes.

The first two episodes feel like a first chapter of a book that is designed to capture the audience with the human emotion, the pain, and the suspense regarding the succession. In a lot of ways, it feels like a first movie in a movie trilogy about Prince Gwanghae. Princess Jeongmyeong, age 5, is just an okay supporting character.

Most of the first two episodes including some interesting cinematography are good. One of the minor issues I had is that it had many supporting characters just pop in without properly introducing them. I expect they will be given more time in latter episodes but the show needed to put a little more effort into it. The show does not even bother with giving us their names and government titles as subtitles. Oddly enough this is continued until the 4th episode when they suddenly start to do it.

Why?
Got some complaints?

Another issue I had is that I did not totally buy the character interpretation of Prince Gwanghae. While he was a complex character, there seems to be little too much Hamlet in him for me and for Cha Seung-Won’s acting style that is more dynamic than the role. He does his best but “Emo” mopy is not 100% his bag!

So, a week passes with high hopes for the next episode! And it was a letdown.

Prince Gwanghae becomes king at the end of the 2nd episode and there is the 5 year time jump in-between it and the 3rd episode. The show jumps over a lot of interesting historical events and now we have Princess Jeongmyeong, now age 10, and a new kid actress playing her.

The actress change is not the issue with this episode. She is decent for the role. The problem is that her character and the two boy actors the show is setting up as a future love triangle get more screen time. We have them running around a lot getting into shenanigans in the episode that just warrants me to push the fast forward button.

I really dislike kid actors only storylines in Korean dramas!
They mostly do not work.

More screen time for the kids do not mean that they had become the protagonist of the episode yet. It is still Prince Gwanghae’s story but you can feel the shift happening and the character has gotten more broody and static which is not a good role for Cha Seung-Won. You can already see the character become less of an interesting role for him.

However, things do pick up in the 4th episodes as thing ramp again with political events starts to escalate. I am losing interest in Prince Gwanghae as a character but Cha Seung-Won does do his best to keep the character afloat.

Minor issues
There are some fictional elements to the 4 episodes that I do not care for. First, there are actually a lot of superstitions and related issues driving the series of events that is rather overblown. Second, the episodes oddly enough focus a lot on money in the form of coinage or silver bars. Not only does this stick out like a sore thumb within the narrative, coinage was only really in wide use about a century from this time period of the show. Joseon did not have a wide scale use of coinage until the early 17th century.

They were that primitive!

Third, there are some weird insertions of recent real life Korean political tidbits that are very heavy handed.

Conclusion
The first 4 episodes are better than they deserved to be. It is not difficult to follow the narrative and there are some strong character work done in these episodes. At the same time, I am not confident that the show will be able to maintain this quality because of structural issues regarding the basic concept of the show and the execution of the long term narrative. However, the show may pull it off.

Fingers Crossed!

I do not regret watching the first 4 episodes. Well maybe I can go without episode 3 though.

I give this show an initial grade of A-. Give it a chance!




Score: A- or 8.25/10

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