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Written by Bridget Au

"A strong acting foundation is crucial to a series of this length, and I’m happy report that in general the acting is up to par."

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!





Korean Title
Dae Jang Geum (translates to “The Great Jang Geum”)

Chinese Title
Dai Cheung Kam (with the same meaning)

No of episodes
71

Theme Song
Cantonese version is sung by Kelly Chen
(to download the song, check out Downloads > Media > TV Series > Jewel In The Palace )

Producer
MBC

Cast (with Cantonese names in brackets)
Lee Young-Ae as Seo Jang Geum (Chui Cheung Kam)
Ji Jin-Hee as Min Jung-Ho (Man Jun Ho)
Hong Ri-Na as Choi Keum-Young (Chui Kam Ying)
Gyeon Mi-Ri as Lady Choi (Chui Seung Kung)
Yang Mi-Kyeong as Lady Han (Hon Seung Kung)
Ho Im as King Jungjong
Park Jeong-Su as Queen Munjeong
Yeo Woon-Gye as Lady Jeong (Cheng Seung Kung)
Park Eun-hye as Lee Yeong-Saeng (Lin Sang)
Im Hyeon-Shik as Kang Deok-Gu (Keung Tak Gau)
Geum Bo-Ra as Na Ju Daek (Mrs. Kang)
Park Chan-Hwan as Seo Cheon-Soo (Jang Geum’s father)
Kim Hye-Seon as Park Myeong-Hee (Bak Ming Yee, Jang Geum’s mother)
Lee Hie-do as Choi Pan-Sul (Choi Fan Sau)
Kim Yeo-Jin as Dr. Jang-Deok (Cheung Dak)
Jo Jung-Eun as Young Seo Jang Geum

*Thanks to point2e.com for the cast information

Foreword
The hype around this Korean series is more than that of Korea’s Endless Love, TVB’s Triumph in the Skies and War & Beauty combined. I’ve seen many Korean series, but this is the first ancient one that I have watched, and to my knowledge probably the only ancient Korean series that has attracted so much attention in recent Korean TV. So, is it really that good? It is good in the sense that the characters are strong, the plot is focused, and the acting is solid. It is bad in the sense that it the plot is too focused (after about 40 episodes, you really don’t care about Jang Geum anymore), there are too many flashbacks and the length is for those who really have a lot of time in their hands. However, precisely because of the length, this series, its story, and its characters, end up drawing you in, making this a recommended Korean series from me.

Plot Summary
I’m going to try to offer a relatively compact plot summary of this series because too much happens in 71 episodes to retell every detail. The series basically traces the trials and tribulations of the accomplished Seo Jang Geum, who grows up working in the palace with the ultimate goal of regaining her family’s honour, clearing the names of her parents (who both worked in the palace and were framed) and avenging their deaths. First she is trained to work as a palace kitchen servant, her goal being to become Chief of Kitchen. Here, she excels under the mentorship of Lady Han (her mother’s best friend). Lady Han and Lady Choi compete for the post of Chief of Kitchen, the former with Jang Geum’s help and the latter with help from her niece, Keum-Young, a talented young girl who also works as a palace kitchen servant.

Lady Han becomes Chief of Kitchen, but their joy is brief when she and Jang Geum are accused and framed of attempting to harm the Emperor by the Choi family, who has always held the post through cruel means and palace politics. Lady Han ends up dying from torture while Jang Geum is banished to a land that houses palace criminals. There she meets the accomplished but tough female doctor Jang-Deok, who takes Jang Geum under her wing after discovering her talent for cooking and for recognizing medicinal herbs. Jang Geum becomes determined to work as a female doctor, since this is the only way in which she can re-enter the palace to avenge the deaths of her parents and of her mentor Lady Han. However, an older man who once cured Jang Geum when she lost her sense of taste, gives her a few words of wisdom: “Someone who is full of hate and vengeance cannot become a great doctor”. Alas, Jang Geum decides to become one anyway and finds her way back into the palace.

All along her little journey, she falls in love with one of the palace’s only morally upright officials, the dashing Min Jung-Ho. He also happens to be the long-admired object of affection of Keum-Young. This doesn’t exactly make life easier for Jang Geum when Keum-Young realizes that she is the one that Jung-Ho loves. However, Keum-Young is the Choi family member with the strongest conscience, who refuses to turn Jung-Ho in when the rest of her family discovers that he is on their tracks for their history of corruption and cruelty. In fact, Keum-Young ends up channeling all her hate onto Jang Geum while threatening to sacrifice her family shall they try to harm Jung-Ho in any way. Of course, this pisses her family off, especially Lady Choi whose butt still isn’t warm in the seat of Chief of Kitchen.

So what happens in the end? Jang Geum gets noticed by the Emperor for her intelligence and accomplishments, which is not good news for her and Jung-Ho. After all, all the women who work in the palace are considered to be the Emperor’s property (this is different from the Chinese imperial system). However, the Emperor, though he is in love with Jang Geum, only asks her to remain by his side but he does not make her his concubine. Through the influence of the palace scholars, he also banishes Jung-Ho. Jang Geum becomes the first woman to be recognized as an official, personal physician to the Emperor no less. The Emperor’s officials aren’t too happy with this and continue to attempt to get the Emperor to change his mind. However, with his ailing health, the Emperor realizes he can no longer protect Jang Geum from the rest of the officials (useless King, really… he ends up dying), and Jang Geum and Jung-Ho end up escaping from the palace, eloping and having a daughter together.

Evaluation of Cast and Characters
A strong acting foundation is crucial to a series of this length, and I’m happy report that in general the acting is up to par. Of course, there is always the bland, wooden, overacting bunch, but overall Jewel in the Palace delivers in the acting department.

Gyeon Mi-Ri / Lady Choi
An impressive performance as the gray figure of the series. Many may mistake her as a villain, but I personally believe that she has a conscience. After all, she never wanted to harm Myeong-Yi but felt she had to for the interests of her family. Anyways, this photogenic actress performed from beginning to end. Her hatred towards Jang Geum/Lady Han, egotistical demeanor, cold personality and self-satisfying smiles were portrayed wonderfully. A charismatic, natural actress who gave Lady Choi a depth that pulled her away from being mistaken as “The Ultimate Villain”.

Hong Ri-Na / Keum-Young
An actress with an exotically beautiful face who portrayed the complex Keum-Young very competently. In fact, I would describe her performance as “grace under fire”. Keum-Young is a complex character in the sense that she hates Jang Geum for her talent and for being the one who ‘stole’ Jung-Ho away, but she also admires Jang Geum for the same reasons. As well, though she is very devoted to her family, she is prepared to sacrifice them for the man she has loved since childhood, even though she knows that her love is unreturned. She works hard to perfect her talent, but refuses to betray her conscience to protect her family and attain her goal. Hong Ri-Na’s acting spoke volumes about these inner conflicts, and I believe that she turns in one the series’ strongest performances. Keum-Young is also my favourite character of the series for her complexity, intelligence, ultimate conscience and compassionate nature.

Yang Mi-Kyeong / Lady Han
She appears wooden for most of the series, but that’s just her character. Lady Han is a stoic, strict, and almost boring woman as she keeps her feelings from everyone else until she meets Jang Geum, the daughter of her deceased best friend. Though she seems stiff for the most part, Yang acts well in the dramatic parts of the series, as in when she discovers that Jang Geum is Myeong-Hee’s daughter. Her role as mentor towards Jang Geum was also portrayed naturally. A very adequate performance and I’m satisfied.

Ji Jin-Hee / Min Jung-Ho
This very handsome and dashing actor showed promise in the beginning but falls flat towards the end. Though his romantic scenes as the gallant knight-in-shining armour to Lee were wonderful to watch, his scenes as the morally upright, accomplished young man thirsty to defend righteousness are boring, if not badly acted. The spirit just isn’t there. I see Jung-Ho as a scrupulous and virtuous man who will stop at nothing to render justice for others, but Ji’s performance is sorely lacking in this aspect. Most of the time he comes off as a narrow-minded official who seeks to protect only Jang Geum’s interests. Though this protection is very romantic on his part, Ji’s acting makes Jung-Ho only seems interested in promoting justice where Jang Geum is concerned, and that is simply not the case. If one thing is missing from his performance, it’s spirit.

Lee Young Ae / Jang Geum
Her acting is inconsistent in the sense that sometimes it’s really good (when she discovers that Lady Han is her mother’s best friend) and sometimes it’s really bad (as in when she’s reciting cooking ingredients or the names of medicinal herbs). Though she should be applauded for not making me hate her towards the end of the series, I have to admit that she really isn’t that great of an actress. While Lee’s chubby face makes her cute but not pretty, sometimes she just seems confused and even empty as an actress. This is especially the case when she’s reciting long lists of medicines or cooking ingredients, Lee literally seems to be reading off the script. And really, Jang Geum’s holier-than-thou attitude and the fact that she knows basically everything get pretty annoying after hitting episode 40. But her love story with Jung-Ho was very touching, since Lee shares an unspoken kind of romantic chemistry with Ji Jin-Hee. Although neither are amazing actors, and although there is no lust and almost no physical contact between the two, their love was still portrayed as very warm, very tender, and very romantic. In any case, I can’t decide whether Lee is a good or bad actress, I can only say she is very inconsistent. But she must be admired for generally carrying through all 71 episodes. After all, one can only imagine the disaster if Song Hye-Kyo were cast in this role. I shudder at the thought.

Other Characters
Park Jeong-Su was great as the Empress, this actress has a regal and royal presence and her performance was commendable, topped by yet another face with unique character. Ho Im hit the nail with his portrayal of the ‘useless King’ part of his character, but his dramatic scenes fail to move the audience. Im Hyeong-Shik and Geum Bo-Ra were equally funny as the bickering elder couple. However, though they provided some comic relief, they get irritating when we near the end. Both Park Chan-Hwan and Kim Hye-Son turn in disappointing, forgettable performances as Jang Geum’s parents, a true pity because their characters set the drama. Park Eun-Hye is cute enough as the wide-eyed, innocent, and childish Yeong-Saeng in the beginning, but after she became a concubine Park ended up overacting and at times her cuteness/innocence comes off as fake (Gigi Lai from War and Beauty). Lee Hie-Do has one expression: worried. Except that look is exactly the way Choi Pan-Sul is supposed to be and Lee honed that look to perfection, so an ok performance. Notable performances were delivered by Kim Yeo-Jin, who did the fiery, tough doctor Jang-Deok justice and by the actresses who played the Emperor’s mother and Lady Min. However, one of the best performances of the series comes from child actress Jo Jung-eun, who, like many other child actors, reigns supreme over many of the adult, even so-called veteran actors. Jo is cute, perceptive, bright and an absolute joy to watch. Most importantly, she gives the young Jang Geum the spirit and tongue-in-cheek intelligence that she’s supposed to have, something Lee Young-Ae fails at conveying.

In General
The costumes are absolutely gorgeous, although the Han-Boks (the traditional Korean dress) are huge and make all the women look bottom-heavy. The hairstyles of the higher-status women are also very bothersome; apparently in history they were constructed by wrapping the hair around some kind of wood frame; the entire thing weighed up to 14 pounds each! Imagine having that on your head for the entire day. The palace, however, is much less grand than I thought it would be… perhaps I am too used to the Forbidden City in TVB ancient series. And I was surprised at how physically close the Emperor and his officials were when they spoke. In TVB series, the Emperor sits on a throne and his officials all stand when they discuss something. In Jewel in the Palace, however, they all sit on the floor with only a few feet between them. The theme song is easy on the ears, as is Kelly Chen’s voice. The food looked good too…until I noticed that the producers started using the same clips of food being prepared. For example, I kept seeing the same soup pot and the same tofu being chopped up. I also find it hard to believe that women in ancient Korean society were so powerful. In its patriarchial society (that is still the case today), how could women have held such high positions? How could they have gone in and out of the palace with such ease? Even after 71 episodes, I remain completely unconvinced that this was reflects history. However, Jang Geum actually existed!

To Watch or Not to Watch, That is the Question
A recommended series, provided you have the time and energy to be dragged through. There is something for everyone in here, I believe, whether you want to explore the ancient Korean series genre, identify with one of the series’ many characters, or just want to look at some good food.

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