It was with great excitement that I waited for the start of “Jang Yeong Sil” in early January. After the bitter ending to my 2015 Kdrama viewing, I needed a fresh start. This show looked like it would fill that need. Indeed, it was like an ice cold glass of water put in the hand of a thirsty Shamrockmom having a hot flash! I was starting to wonder if there would ever be another quality show I could really get behind, like MLED, HITTG, or “Awl”. I can tell you right now–this show has exceeded any previous expectations I might have had.
A bit of prologue…..when I was watching “Secret Love Affair”, there were so many moments that resonated with me. It was like the writer picked through the most emotional events of my life and incorporated them into the show in different ways. This line by Seon Jae was a direct hit to my heart:
Tears came to my eyes…how in the world did writer-nim know about my First Love?
He was the young man with the sexy brain who permanently stole my heart in High School. By any standard, he was not the kind of guy teenage girls typically swoon over. With his bald spot getting larger by the day at the ripe old age of 17, a thick Welsh/British accent, crooked teeth, and all of 5’5″, he was not on the ‘hottie’ list at my high school. Good. Shamrockmom found a gem, and was thrilled to have him for herself. A super smart guy like him did just enough schoolwork to get by, then spent the rest of his time teaching himself advanced calculus, physics, and chemistry–stuff he was really interested to learn more about. (Honors/AP classes were almost unknown back in the day.) He instinctively knew–just like Jang Yeong Sil did–that flaunting his knowledge would heap all kinds of teasing and bullying on his head. I would have never made it through Algebra 2 and Trigonometry without his patient tutoring. He explained math, physics, and chemistry concepts far better than any teacher I had in school. Had we stayed together I know I would have found the courage to tackle the upper division chemistry and physics classes in college–and I’d be a doctor today instead of a lowly and broke dental hygienist. His quick (and bone dry) sense of humor never failed to make me laugh. I joined Band and learned to play the flute in order to be closer to him; a life choice I have never regretted for a single minute. I always knew that his brain was the best (and sexiest) part of him. I thought I was the only person who understood this about another human being…until Seon Jae uttered those words to his Goddess Hye Won.
I know what my three readers are saying right now: “Shamrockmom, have you lost your last marble? You better take some more of those Chinese herbs from the acupuncture doctor. Do you need us to remind you about your track record with historical dramas? You’re beyond pitiful….you crashed and burned with “Six Flying Dragons” after 4 episodes, never completed “Iljimae” or “The Princess’s Man” and you barely finished “Maids”–while cursing roundly at the beatings, near-beatings, torture, and near-rape scenes. How are you ever gonna make it through another Sageuk?” So far, the answer to that set of questions is two-fold.
First, I am a big science geek. I go nuts for shows like the original “Cosmos-A Personal Voyage” with my all time favorite Ahjussi crush Carl Sagan–another man with a sexy brain. (Side note: The music soundtrack for that series is as close to perfect as it gets.) I loved that series so much…still do, even though 30+ years later it’s now quite dated in both information and technology. I think my boyfriend and I watched every episode multiple times–no easy feat in an age with no Video-on-demand or Internet. I think my folks didn’t even have a VCR in 1980, and I know cable tv was not in our neighborhood yet. Recently, the more modern and equally well-liked “Cosmos-A Space-Time Odyssey” with Neil DeGrasse Tyson was also on my must-watch list.
The second reason: Song Il Kook. I can’t seem to tear my eyes off his Jang Yeong Sil character while he’s onscreen. He seems to combine the humility of his servant status, the wonder of a child, and a heaping dose of outside-the-box thinking into a character I want to see in every scene. He sells this show ‘to the moon and back’ for me. Before “JYS”, all I knew of Song Il Kook was that he is the father of triplets. I’ve watched several cute video clips of him and the kids from the “Return Of Superman” show. I had never seen him in a drama, and only knew that he seemed like an amazingly patient and loving father to his little sons. His sons are so lucky to have a dad like that. Back when I was about five years old, I asked my Mom why she couldn’t have married Mister Rogers. He seemed like he would be great Dad material. My Mom thought that was the funniest thing ever…but I was serious!
“Jang Yeong Sil” begins with a fine bunch of child actors, which always seem to provide a jump start to the story. JYS is the illegitimate son of a slave/gisaeng and a nobleman who isn’t around too much because he’s so busy with his official job in the government. JYS is born a slave due to his mother’s status, and Dad can’t fix this. Dad seems to treat his son’s mother with a great deal of respect, which is nice to see. When Dad is around town for a while, he realizes that his son is a super-smart kid. JYS is interested in the astronomical data Dad collects as a hobby. Unable to raise his child as anything but a slave due to class constraints, Dad nonetheless teaches his son everything he knows about the sun, moon and stars, and their patterns of movement. JYS also learns how to read; a nearly unheard of skill for a slave in those days. The Hangul alphabet had not been invented yet–that came later with King Sejong. Learning the Chinese (hanja) characters would have been quite daunting with minimal instruction.
JYS’s mom is killed by a nobleman as she won’t divulge the whereabouts of a fellow slave who ran off, and JYS undergoes several beatings, both as a child and young adult. The beatings are difficult to watch, but not gratuitously violent. His father becomes ill and dies as well. JYS tries repeatedly to escape to Ming and get to the Emperor’s group of astronomers, but he never quite makes it. He does finally attract the attention of the Crown Prince, the future King Sejong the Great. The future King gets his father Lee Bang Won aka King Taejong involved to save JYS. The show does a great job weaving in the historical details, plus now I’ve found a fantastic Six Flying Dragons blog to get all kinds of historical background on this era. Finally, Shamrockmom is getting the start of a proper education on Joseon era history that she missed in her Western culture-locked US based High School/College courses. We get to see King Taejong waiting through several ceremonies where a solar eclipse is predicted to occur, only to have it occur many hours later….or not at all. Side note: Watching LBW/King Taejong squirm as his ministers remind him during the eclipse ceremony to repent for killing his brothers is exceptionally satisfying.
The problem: Joseon astronomers are using maps and info from Ming (Beijing), which has a different latitude…and it’s not close enough for accurate use in Korea. Korean astronomers need to make their own maps, but they need a precise clock and a way to consistently measure star position in order to get the details right.
Another problem for JYS to overcome: other noblemen, especially Jang Hee Je, have the affliction known as “Brain Envy”. Hee Je knows darn well JYS is wayyyy smarter and vastly more creative than he is. So….in order to make himself, a member of the ruling class look better than a slave, he finds ways to throw JYS under the proverbial bus as often as possible. This nearly backfires on the entire Korean envoy sent to Ming by King Sejong, but the Emperor’s uncle and his daughter recognize JYS’s brilliance and end up saving him. In a particularly moving scene, JYS pleads for HJ’s release, and he is granted his wish. Is HJ grateful? Yeah, for about one minute. I wonder if he’s gonna betray JYS again? Chances of that happening–same as the sun coming up tomorrow!
Similar to “Six Flying Dragons”, I have to wonder if this show is also a big poke by the writers at the current sociological situation in SK. (reference link here) JYS is a slave, a member of the lowest class. He is never supposed to learn to read, write or do any kind of mathematics. However, JYS has both luck and skill on his side. Due to his good fortune in having a nobleman father who is open minded enough to encourage his son, he studies by himself and carefully documents his observations. JYS is an outside the box thinker and a creative genius; for that, he’s continuously threatened by the establishment. His life is imperiled and his inventions get destroyed. I wonder if the writers wanted to show that conformity is stifling, and class-ism is just as ugly today as it was back in the Joseon days. Even though JYS has plenty of helpers later on, it’s really about his observations and his attention to detail that make him different. In a society that values the group over the individual, JYS is a person who stands out from the crowd. It’s an intriguing thought. Leaders everywhere could rip a page out of King Sejong’s playbook: scientific discoveries benefit everyone in society. Side note–my Grandmother assembled engine components for the Apollo space rockets back in the ’60’s and early 70’s. It was a big party in my house when those Apollo rockets lifted off….and a bigger party when the astronauts all returned home in one piece! I fully believe all the research and study that went into the “getting a man on the moon” program led the development of technology we take for granted nearly 50 years later.
I am not sure this is a show I’d recommend for everyone. If you are a big science geek and/or love documentaries about scientific discoveries, you are definitely in the right place. If you are into Astronomy, this show is gonna be a interesting watch. If you are a huge fan of historical dramas, or a Song Il Kook fan, or want to learn more about Korean history in a fun way, this show might also be perfect for you. If you are looking for tons of romance, cute guys and gals, skinship, and lighthearted silliness, keep going–nothing to see here. The writing is uneven; sometimes it’s pretty good and sometimes it’s pretty lame. The dialogue between the characters can seem stilted and awkward at times, but that could be the translation by the subbers. Show’s pace is very slow, but since I’m enjoying it so much, I don’t care about that. The writers do seem to manage a good cliffhanger at the end of each episode–a real plus. I love the opening theme and most of the BG music is good, but once in a while the BG music gets slightly annoying and cheesy. The sets are amazing and detailed, as are the costumes–although not quite up to the level of “Maids” which I thought had extraordinarily detailed sets and colorful costumes. The plan is for 24 episodes. I hope it doesn’t get cut. Based on the 11 episodes I’ve seen so far, I think I could watch 50 episodes without a problem. The ratings look strong–a good sign. I feel like this show is gonna get buried due to the ongoing hype about “Cheese in the Trap” and “Descendants of the Sun”, and that’s a shame. Sometimes I think I should change the name of my blog to “Shamrockmom’s House: All about the under-rated and lesser known Kdramas”!
Side Note–It’s only fitting that in a blog post about technology circa 1416, I achieve my own technological goal–making little video clips! Only took me four days and a few dozen Anglo-Saxon swear words! My tech level has moved from “Halmoni” to “Advanced Halmoni”! They’re barely passable–I promise the clips will get better.
More awesome details in this show: check out the way JYS (right) swings the ax to cut down a tree in Episode 4. His buddy Seok Gu (left) struggles :
That’s not too shabby. It isn’t easy to chop down a tree. He’s got a nice fluid swing with that ax. My Canadian genetic material gets all a-twitter seeing a guy chop down a tree like that. I also have a hunch that SIK is not hiding a “Dad Bod” under all those bulky slave clothes either. He looks like a big strong guy who eats three homecooked meals a day.
Here’s another scene to check out–look how comfortable he looks on horseback! Very cool…..
He sure looks a lot better in the saddle than the girl in the “Gangnam Style” horseback ride scene from “Splash Splash Love”:
*gif credit to zzzzzzy-.tumblr.com. That’s a very cute short drama, BTW. Well worth your time.
The things that JYS builds are amazing. This guy built everything by hand. No Craftsman power tools, no Home Depot to run to when something breaks, no textbook or YouTube video to consult if things don’t work out. It blows me away that not only was JYS smart, but he was talented enough to build and/or repair the things he did. A guy like that is a keeper for sure. No wonder Princess So Hyeon is impressed with JYS and hangs around him, helping him out. In RL, the set crew must have had a field day recreating the water clock and the armillary sphere. I gotta wonder if they simply relocated or recreated The New Yankee Workshop in SK to make things easier for themselves.
A random bonus included at the end of some episodes is a little 1-2 minute fully translated tourism advertisement for museums or parks highlighting places or characters in the drama. Daebak! If I ever get over to SK, I could easily spend weeks and weeks checking everything out on my growing must-see list. I have been watching this show on Dramacool.to and Newasiantv.com. It’s also available with English subs on KBS’s Youtube channel. None of the big sites aka Dramafever or Viki are subbing this show, which is a pity. I bet the Viki subbers could make the dialogue seem more flowing, and maybe even add in a little explanation here and there, like they did in the Jung Do Jeong speech in Episode 2 of SFD. Side note–one of my patients (who is Korean) said her dad is watching this show, and gives it “two thumbs up”!
One thing I always like to see in a show is when the writers take a trope and turn it upside down or put a huge twist on it. Here in “JYS” we don’t have the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. This time around, the ladies save JYS’s backside again and again! Princess So Hyeon consistently protects JYS as a child, and later on as an adult, she nurses him back to health after yet another beating by TPTB. The Chinese Emperor’s uncle (Lord Ju Tae Gang) has a daughter (Ju Bu Ryeong) who fights as fiercely as any man and also protects JYS from enemies who want to drastically shorten his life span. I am sure these two ladies know that JYS is The Man with the Sexy Brain. They shoot him some of the hawttest and sexiest looks I’ve seen a woman give to a guy in a Kdrama! Joo Eun from “Oh My Venus” should take notes–this is how you give a dude the smokin’ hawt gaze!
Ha! Poor Joo Eun–she only had the physical beauty of Trainer John Kim/Young Ho on which to lay her eyes. It can’t possibly match up to checking out a guy with a sexy brain like JYS!
I also like how reticent JYS is around the Princess. I’d guess he’s been in love with her since they were kids. He knows that if he even put a micron-sized move on the Princess, his head and neck would be permanently separated by a nobleman. It’s not that he’s a hopeless and nerdy dork as many scientists and brainy men are portrayed…but he’s smart enough to know the wrong move–or any move–could end tragically for him and for her. So when Princess So Hyeon takes JYS’s hands in hers at the end of Episode 11, I squeal like the sixteen year old girl I am inside. I love that she took the initiative, and then he didn’t want to let go. This scene makes my heart race just like when my guy with the sexy brain took my hands in his all those years ago:
Oh my! ***fans self*** I bet I know what she’s thinking. Those strong hands of his, so big and warm. How would it feel to have those talented hands holding her close…perhaps on a cold and snowy evening in her living quarters at the palace compound. Her maid and JYS’s trusty wingman Seok Gu would need to keep a lookout for any meddling busybodies who’d rat them out. The soft light from the candles illuminate the skillful hands of JYS holding her head for a scorching hot kiss. And then…heh. I’d better be careful here. I don’t want one of the King’s ministers to find out about my little side story!
At just over 50 minutes per episode, I can often watch most or all of one episode during my lunch hour. Today as my coworkers talk about the latest disgusting Kanye/Amber Rose/Wiz Khalifa NSFW tweet, and who likes whose hands and fingers where, I quietly retreat back to my office. I feel the need to rewatch a hand-holding scene between two 40 year olds while I sigh and put my hand up to my fluttering heart. I am incredibly thankful once again to be watching a show like “JYS”. It feeds my mind, raises my spirit, and brings back happy memories of my own Man with a Sexy Brain.