Jang Ok Jung: Live for Love (the Review)

jangokjung photo jangposter1_zps6f1e4bb2.jpgJang Ok Jung: Live for Love
air date: 4.08.2013 through 6.25.2013
number of episodes: 24
I watched it: live, on the edge of my seat, breathlessly awaiting subs

In a nutshell: This is a hard drama to sum up. I adored it but, while it did not betray my love, there were some flaws and I cannot ignore them. Fortunately the flaws only appeared in the third act, were mainly swept away by the finale, and left the core love story alone. The drama may have stumbled but it remained true to itself, bringing a new twist to an old tale and introducing us to a woman with a heart strong enough to shake a kingdom and a man strong enough to love her.

The Lovers: The characters were the heart of this drama. They either pulled you into their world, tying you to their struggles and desires, or left you by the roadside picking at plot nits. smolder photo ScreenShot2013-04-11at33107PM_zps39dcfd48.pngThe bulk of the work rested on the shoulders of Kim Tae-hee and Yoo Ah-in as our main couple, Jang Ok-jung and Crown Prince Lee Soon (later King Sukjong).

It was their initial interest, growing into a palpable attraction, blossoming into a deeply rooted love that made the drama so compelling to watch. And both Kim Tae-hee and Yoo Ah-in did an amazing job creating two characters who were fascinating in their own right, but became something breathtaking together.

lsangry photo lsangry_zps74a43c6b.jpgThat Yoo Ah-in created such a watchable and interesting character was no surprise. He’s an intense actor and well able to show intelligence and sincerity on screen. So that his Lee Soon was believable as a calculating and powerful king, driven to free his throne from serving the nobility’s greed and instead serve the people was not unexpected.

pathos photo ScreenShot2013-04-19at115250AM_zpsc891402f.pngWhat was unexpected was how readily Kim Tae-hee matched him. She has the reputation of having more beauty than acting skill. This is my first time seeing her, so I can’t comment on that reputation’s accuracy. What I can say is that in this drama, she was a damn good actress. Ok-jung’s struggle against the strictures of her time period, her drive to protect her family and find a meaningful life for herself was made real by Kim Tae-hee. I believed in Ok-jung. Believed in her strongly. And I wanted her to succeed.

And when these two compelling characters came together… this is what the word “chemistry” was invented for. They understood each other and their similar dreams of a life better than the status quo around them. Finding someone equal to their own strength… they got how special that was. They also understood that their being together was a risk and they went into that risk with their eyes wide open. And what a story that made.

washroomcollage photo washroomcollage_zps8d0e9dda.jpg

The Queen and the Prince: Playing the supporting role for this consuming a love story could have been a thankless task. But again, we were given unexpectedly compelling characters breathed to life by the actors playing them.

Hong Soo-hyun played (eventual) Queen In-hyun. I’ve loved her since The Princess’ Man and she did not disappoint. Her In-hyun was both intelligent and naive, ambitious but also vulnerable. inhyun photo ScreenShot2013-04-11at24409PM1_zps8be0eb3a.pngEven at her worst moments it was hard to hate the character. You could see the fear that drove her to sometimes desperate acts of cruelty and that kept her sympathetic, kept her human.

There were also a lot of small yet powerful scenes between In-hyun and Ok-jung  — more actually, than between In-hyun and the king. They served to show the differences, but also the deep connection, between the two women. In the end, the greatest tragedy may have been that the two were never quite able to become friends. I suspect it would have been an epic friendship indeed — probably worthy of its very own drama.

Lee Sang-yeob as Prince Dong Pyung was the biggest acting surprise for me. I’d liked him well enough in Nice Guy, but when Dong Pyung first appeared he struck me as a poor man’s Song Joong-ki from his Sungkyungkwan Scandal days. smirk photo smirk_zpsff4d67c6.jpgI quickly learned, however, that I was selling both the actor and the character far, far too short.

In the end, Prince Dong Pyung was the heart of the drama with his deep love for and selfless support of both Ok-jung and Lee Soon. It was Dong Pyung’s worry and sympathy for Lee Soon that helped me realize the weight of the crown Lee Soon carried. And it was Dong Pyung’s horror at finding Ok-jung inside the palace that helped me realize how dangerous that place was for a common girl like her. Ostensibly a frivolous playboy, he was Lee Soon’s best secret weapon and Ok-jung’s best secret support and by drama end, I loved him dearly.

The Villains Three: Two of the main villains were awesome. They were both master game players, both greedily ambitious and both incredibly well acted. In a nice twist, they spent most of their time fighting each other, spinning the plot in all kinds of fascinating ways and creating both obstacles and opportunities for Lee Soon and Ok-jung.

min photo ScreenShot2013-04-12at72721PM_zps04a90003.pngLord Min (Lee Hyo-jung), Queen In-hyun’s father, was a puppet master who felt the kingdom (and the king) should be his to control. He controlled the court, was willing to do anything to make his daughter queen, and preferred his kings docile and obedient — even if he had to beat them to a pulp to get them that way.

scaryhappy photo scaryhappy_zps4382e840.jpgMerchant Jang (Sung Dong-il), Ok-jung’s uncle, a cunning and ruthless manipulator in his own right, was a common man who’d clawed his way up to great wealth and influence. He had a blood grudge against Lord Min and was willing to do anything to pull Lord Min down and get his own blood (via his niece) mingling with the crown. (Sung Dong-il was amazing in this role. Never has a smile been more terrifying.)

They were each formidable foes for Lee Soon and Ok-jung to face off against — pushing   our lovers to use all their intelligence and wit to bend the board their way. And it made for a intriguing dance: the two villains sparring against each other while also trying to bring their respective would-be puppets under their control.

grrrqueen photo grrqueen_zps64f3e112.jpgAnd then came the third villain. The Queen Mother (Kim Sun-kyung) was, unfortunately, more a screamer than a schemer. The problem was less the actress and more the character as written. As Lee Soon’s bigoted, corrupt and short-sighted mother she had enough power to be dangerous without the need for intelligence. And that leads me to…

The Flaw: The plot was, for the most part, delightful. Intelligent characters taking part in great games of manipulations and conspiracies and intrigue. I adore this sort of setup — chess games of move and counter-move. And I adore the sort of characters needed to play that kind of game. (Tree with Deep Roots is an excellent example of what that type of plot can do.)

game photo game_zpsad8f28b4.jpg

Unfortunately, once we entered the inner-palace, the Queen Mother took over as our main foe. And that’s where the drama began to stumble. Her preferred method of attack was one of brute force. None of this was out of character, and her force really was formidable. But it did get boring. For a time there it felt like the drama was lost in the weeds. (If we had do-over button, I’d have loved for this section to have featured more of Queen In-hyun. She would have been more subtle in her attacks and therefore, more interesting. Especially if she kept her not-quite-a-villain status.)

relief2 photo relief2_zps0d3fdd4f.jpgFortunately, after a few episodes the drama succeeded in pulling itself out of the weeds by refocusing on what hooked the viewers in the first place — Ok-jung and Lee Soon. The plot never quite recaptured its previous levels of intrigue (though it did make an effort and came fairly close). But, by returning to the strong characters that made me care about the story in the first place, it managed to head into a strong and satisfying ending.

The Controversy: Writer Choi Jung-mi took on an incredibly ambitious project for a novice drama writer. (Yes, it was based on her novel, but writing a book and writing a drama script are two very different animals.) And, despite the mid-show stumble, she managed to end it well. I admire her for that.

I also admire her willingness to take on the oft-told story of Queen In-hyun, King Sukjong and concubine Jang Hee Bin (her rank, not her name; her name is lost from what I can tell), and turn it completely on its head. I’m always suspicious when a patriarchal society, which the Joseon period most certainly was, paints a controversial woman as a witch and a whore. Writer Choi shares those suspicions, apparently. And she’s written a story that reexamines the common legend. Reexamination is always a good thing in my book (truth can handle it, after all) as it encourages questioning which encourages thinking.

sacrifice1 photo sacrifice1_zpse6e6145e.jpg

I liked what it added to the drama in a storytelling vein as well.  The known history hung a gleaming, sharp sword over the action, adding tension to every scene. A tension that would have dulled if they’d gone the route of removing the love story entirely from its historic foundation.

In Conclusion: The drama wasn’t perfect. But, unlike dramas that fade away to a whimpering, unsatisfying, or just plain mystifying ending, this one stuck to the story it was trying to tell. ep13love photo ep13love_zps2086f202.jpgJang Ok-jung very much lived for love and she and Lee Soon fought to build their love despite the odds, and enemies, against them. I grew to love the characters and that carried me through to the end. Not perfect, but very much beloved.

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33 thoughts on “Jang Ok Jung: Live for Love (the Review)

  1. I absolutely need to share this with the Korean folks on their Cafe Daum forum. Never mind that it probably needs to be translated to Korean ^^. Please, please let me have your permission to share it with them,

    • Yay! And of course I’ll eagerly (and patiently) await your thoughts. 😀

      Though it seriously was hard to write the review. Because I did adore it and wanted to encourage people to see it… just… be aware it’s not perfect. There are stumbles. But I still loves it! (Oh, the confusion. ;))

      • Well you did a fabulous job, from what I can tell! Y’know, since I skimmed it with just the one eye, always ready to look quickly away at anything that resembled a spoiler, Lol! XD

        • Phew! 😀 And I do get skimming. I do the same thing with haven’t-seen-it-yet reviews. I mean, I try to not spoil, and have obvious big spoiler warnings if I do but… better safe than sorry!

  2. I’ve shared it on my facebook. It’s a well written post with heart and sincerity. Thank you and keep up the good writing!

        • I always wanted a rabid chain smoking agent in my corner! 😉

          I followed the link and I can see it’s there — which is awesome! — but it looks like there’s a sign-in or something? (I am totally guessing at which links to hit when it becomes Hangul.) But that’s totally fine! I’m just happy it’s out there. 😀

      • Totally makes sense and seriouslyyyy, I’m just in awe and nodding my head nonstop as I read (reread!) your review. You totally did the show justice, both the good and bad 🙂 Definitely thorough and so much better than mine, which is just awesome cos this will prolly equal to more people on the JOJ viewership wagon!

  3. You really have the knack of bringing forth the good stuff, the things that stand out and make sense and yet, you don’t shy away from pointing at the flaws. Good job! 🙂

    I’m quite sad that the midpoint makjang madness spoiled the drama for me. I’ve now got SUCH a low tolerance for shouty, high density makjang that I shy away of dramas with any hint of it.

    Btw, if you like palace politics and intrigue done right with acting to match, you should give Cruel Palace a go. It is all about the ladies of the palace and the epic ‘battle’ between the Crown Princess and the King’s Concubine Lady Jo with the Queen stuck in the middle. 😉 It’s a 50 ep drama but as far as I can tell, it’s still doing great at ep 36. I’m waiting for it to finish because I want to be sure it doesn’t nosedive at the end stretch. I’m not going to dedicate that much time for something that goes to pot in the end.

    • Thank you! 😀 I really, really wanted to both share why I loved the drama, warts and all — but also not ignore the fact that there were some warts. So I’m glad to hear I managed it!

      Yeah, the shouty bits did get a leeetle too much play. (If you wanted to bypass all that and see how it ended, I’d advise picking it back up in ep. 21.)

      And I’m keeping my ear to the ground with Cruel Palace. Like you, I’m not prepared to go into a 50 ep drama without assurances that it won’t all go pear-shaped in the end. (Well… not prepared now anyway. Still smarting from my You’re the Best Lee Soon Shin lesson. ;)) I clocked the happy reports when it began and it’s definitely on my list.

      • Um… Just wanted to clarify — I was happy to watch all the episodes! You do get some cool bits amongst the screaming and there’s character development and all. Just… if you’re highly sensitive but still want to see how it all winds up… yeah — ep. 21. (Overly explaining explanation… done.)

        • LOL! I got it the first time around but thanks for the clarification anyway. 😀 If I didn’t have so many dramas to watch I might give it a go. I read quite many of the re-caps so I sorta know how it went anyway. I do sometimes check back on some of the dramas I dropped to see what’s what. If the re-caps don’t make me go ‘OMG! that is SO stupidddddd! Why am I wasting time on this?!!!’ that is.

          • Hee! Yeah…sometimes I err on the side of over explaining. 😉

            I always like having dramas in the back of my mind to try out someday when either the mood hits or the drama-well is dry.

  4. You know, I’m totally not in the mood for something like this, but this review….. Damzzit Betsy, I don’t need another drama on my already too-long must-watch list!! *sigh*

  5. This isn’t my usual style of show, but I’ve been tempted to try it out, and your review isn’t helping at all! That said, it’s on my TBW, but I think I’ll have to be in just the right mood to watch it, so we’ll see when that happens. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Jang Ok-jung, Live In Love: An Overall Review. | you don't know me.

  7. Dear Betsy. Dear, dear Betsy!

    I’m a re-born K-drama fan boy (well man…all 50+ years old!!! Practically one foot in the grave already.)

    I have read many, many K-drama reviews before committing to watch a 16- or 24-hour episode – usually the so-called classic ones.

    And usually of the rom-com variety. Okay, bottom line…what I wish to tell you is yours is among the best of the best reviews I have ever read (so far anyway and I have only read just this one of yours…so you are oh-so excellent).

    Please carry on! ‘Fighting” as the cliche goes.

    A confession here: sometimes I even watch the final episode! So spoilers? Bring them on. Not exactly your normal K-drama addict then ha ha. But it helps pass the time.

    P. S. And I have never ever commented on blogs before. This is my second. My first was at your fellow blogger Jandae – she pointed me here. So, yeah…

    • Yay! Thank you and welcome, Diamond Koo! I’m all over blushing and pleased at your kind words. 🙂

      I’m especially pleased because, with a 16 to 24 hour commitment, I hoped to give readers a sense of whether or not a drama would be worth their time — so I’m pleased that someone who reads reviews for just that reason is happy with what I’ve written. Thank you, again. 😀

      It’s been a progressive thing, but I eventually decided to try and make my actual reviews as spoiler-free as possible. (Some of my earlier reviews do have spoilers.) However! If spoilers are your thing, I also do “reaction” posts where I share my initial, emotional reaction to episodes and finales. Those are spoiler-filled. (The one for JOJ is here. And it does spoil everything.)

      Thanks so much for commenting! 🙂

  8. Hi

    I just recently discovered Kim Tae Hee’s 2011 drama “My Princess”. It was a rerun in my country.
    I heard one of the OST playing on tv a week ago and it was on the last episode of “My Princess” though I did not know it at that time! I looked for the song on the internet, discovered the drama series and now I’m hooked on everything Korean! haha! Amazing how just a single song opened my eyes to a whole new world of Korean dramas!
    After finishing My Princess, like an addict searching for the next fix, somehow KTH left a deep impression in My Princess so I searched for her dramas and landed at this blog! Really nice review of Jang Ok Jung: Live for Love!

    Thanks for helping make my decision to watch Jang Ok Jung that much easier!

    • Hi Irza! And welcome to the blog. 🙂

      It’s very cool, the many various ways we discover k-dramas. And yes, once you watch one it’s very hard to stop! 😉 I hope you enjoy (or enjoyed! my response is a tiny bit late) Jang Ok Jung: Live for Love. At the very least, I think Kim Tae-hee did an amazing job in it.

      Also, I’ve just realized I’ve never actually seen My Princess! I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. I should seriously check it out.

  9. Pingback: Secret Love Affair : Episodes 1-2 (ooh, this is good!) | Creating Volumes

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