The Mini-Series, Volume 1
The South Korean television series Dae Jang Geum, which is also known as The Great Jang Geum and Jewel In The Palace, is a historical Korean drama (K-drama) based on the real life events of a historical figure from the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty. This figure was the first woman in Korean history to become the King's personal physician. Set in the 16th century, Dae Jang Geum follows the trials of Suh Jang-Geum, a sweet and brilliant woman who strives to restore her family's honor. This series has been released on DVD in the United States in three volumes, which each have eighteen episodes (there are a total of fifty-four episodes). This review covers the first volume. For additional information, refer to DVD Talk's reviews of volume 1, volume 2, and volume 3.
The story begins with a glimpse into the life and culture of 16th century Korea. It was a time when kings and queens ruled the land and their word was law. Under this hierarchical society, those who were not of noble birth could rarely rise above their casts. However, stations existed for the lower class to achieve positions that gave them power and ultimately, put them as close to nobility as one of their birth could reach. These stations were high positions within royal service. One such division for females was the kitchen. To be in such a position was an honor, and some would do almost anything to keep it.
In the midst of a political game, a hardworking apprentice in the royal kitchen, Park Myeong-Hee (Kim Hye-Seon), was witness to something she was not supposed to see. Myeong-Hee detected that something was wrong with the food prepared for a member of the royal family. When she reported it to Lady Choi, she did not realize it was Choi's doing. Myeong-Hee was then falsely accused of the act. Her fellows took her in the middle of the night and forced her to drink poison. It was purely politics and an attempt to further the Choi family's agenda. The next morning, Seo Cheon-Soo (Park Chan-Hwan) came upon Myeong-Hee, who was barely alive. He took her to a priest who was able to save her life. Cheon-Soo is a former military officer with a clouded past. While following the king's orders, he was involved in the murder of crown prince Yeonsan-Gun's mother. For his participation in the act, he became a marked man when crown prince came into adulthood.
Many years after Cheon-Soo and Myeong-Hee's initial meeting, they were still together. They fell in love, married, and had a beautiful girl named Jang-Geum. They lived as nobodies as members of the lowest cast of society, despite being members of the royal court. Since they were both accused of being involved in murderous plots, they could never reveal their true histories. One day, however, an overzealous Jang-Geum shouted out the truth while trying to defend her father. From that moment on, it was apparent he was a marked man. Soon after, Jang-Geum's parents were both dead. Upon her mother's death, Jang-Geum swore to become the Highest Lady of the Royal Kitchen and restore her mother's honor.
After the loss of her parents, Jang-Geum stumbled into a poor village on the outskirts of the palace and found a loving (yet kooky) family who took her in. They were Duk-Gu (Im Hyeon-Sik) and Joo-Daek (Kang Sook-Soo). Duk-Gu is a silly man who works as a chef at the palace. His wife is Joo-Daek. She pretends to not care about Jang-Geum and acts rather cold, but really cares about her as her own child. Two years after Jang-Geum met her foster parents, she finally got the chance to begin the long journey to becoming the Highest Lady. She is admitted into the court as a lady in training.
As the story progresses, a couple episodes are dedicated on Jang-Geum as a very young girl trying to become an official lady of the court. The process is long and hard. Many young girls are admitted and they must learn many recipes, styles of cooking, etiquette and mannerisms, herbs, and so on. Throughout the training, many fail and even less become official ladies of the court. As Jang-Geum grows older, she faces even more hardships. The problems that Jang-Geum deals with mostly come from two fronts. First, there is a lot of jealousy. Jang-Geum has a natural knack and many of the other girls take a personal affront to it. Second, the politics come into play on several occasions. The Choi family (Keum-Young, Lady Choi, and Pan-Sul) wants to keep the high position of the Highest Lady of the Royal Kitchen, because this way they can choose to purchase food and ingredients from the Choi family business. This family, from the old to the young, will do anything to keep the job within the family. And Jang-Geum poses a threat.
What works for Dae Jang Geum is two-fold. First, the main character Jang-Geum is simply a sweet girl. In her early life, actress Jo Jung-Eun provided the perfect childhood character. Jo was priceless and gave her character a very sweet and innocent personality. By the time the character entered her early adult years, played by Lee Young-Ae, it was hard not to love her. She continued to be a delicate, likeable character that you just wanted to see come out on top. Second, Dae Jang Geum is filled to the brim with drama.
One of the major dramatic aspects of the show involves the various plot twists surrounding the political intrigue. For instance, members of the Choi family are willing to do almost anything to stay in power. This willingless from the family makes them dark characters and from young to old they are do devious things. These plot twists are handled very well and reflect the show's topnotch writing. Another strong dramatic aspect was a growing love affair. From a young age, Keum-Young had eyes on Min Jeung-Ho (Ji Jin-Hee). But years later, Jeung-Ho and Jang-Geum started to develop a relationship. What was good about this relationship is how it impacted Keum-Young and drove her to become more devious.
Overall, I thought Dae Jang Geum, Volume 1 was fantastic. When I first sat down with it, I was not sure what to expect. The general premise sounded a bit fluffy and I did not image it would have enough drama to be interesting. How interesting can eighteen hours of cooking be? As it turns out, there is a lot more to the show and it is on par with the high levels of drama found in K-dramas. The best part is that the drama rarely feels soapy or over-the-top. Instead, it comes off very rich and it is easy to get in lost in. The series also has great acting performances. The characters, whether lead or supporting, are handled well and fit into the story without fault. In the end, Dae Jang Geum, Volume 1 is a great story and it should not be missed.
For non-spoken language options, there are subtitles in English and Chinese. The English subtitles have a few grammatical errors and odd word usages, but for the most part they provided dialogue that was very easy to follow.