What did I do after I watched Conspiracy in the Court (a.k.a. Hansungbyulgok a.k.a. Seoul’s Sad Song, 2007)? Went down on my knees and whispered, “Thank you, KBS, for the DVD.”
Because to own this, to be able to look at and hold it, somehow makes it all tangible. Because I can’t tell you how many times I pinched myself, disbelieving that I had watched the most exquisite of sageuks (period dramas). I thought surely something so underrated (6% average ratings) would not see a DVD release. And with English subtitles, too!
Only eight episodes and yet more intense and complex than sageuks five times its length, Conspiracy in the Court is a thrilling whodunit, a compelling love story, a political duel, a social commentary.
The first episode left me breathless. Characters flit in and out of buildings, a murder takes place and then another, darkness veils the perpetrators, events unfold so fast I could barely keep up. In fact I was so lost I had to pause the video midway so that I could go on the Internet to find a (spoiler-free) synopsis of the drama.
After that bewildering first episode, Episode 2 took me completely by surprise.
In flashbacks powerful and moving, the scenes recall the suffering of the drama’s female protagonist, Lee Na-young (Kim Ha-eun). Few words are spoken and few are needed. Soon I could barely see through my tears.
Her charmed life overturned in an instant when her aristocrat father is accused of treason, Na-young is dragged from her home and thrown into what is best described as hell on earth. Pain (literally) marks her every step and the once spirited Na-young is now a zombie-like slave. Salvation comes in an unexpected form, but her new fate is just as despicable. Once schooled in the humanities (literature, culture and history), she now learns medicine (acupuncture and herbs, particularly poisonous herbs). Once committed to changing lives, she now takes them.
Na-young’s joy and despair, the abyss that she unexpectedly finds herself in, the path now chosen for her that will entail so much bloodshed, her relationship with the two men who love her and who will protect her with their lives…
Kim Ha-eun had to convey a myriad of emotions and she did it with such fortitude and heart. Even now, thinking about her acting, I get goose bumps. Funny how I didn’t think she was pretty at first, but with each episode she became more and more beautiful. In the end I swear her face was glowing; there was such luminosity about her! It was truly a treat to watch acting of such quality.
But it wasn’t just Kim Ha-eun’s acting that astonished. The other three leads, two relative unknowns and one veteran, were a joy to watch.
The man Na-young loves is Park Sang-gyu (Jin Yi-han).
Born to a minister father and a servant mother, Sang-gyu is in that unhappy and ambiguous place where he is not legitimate enough to be true nobility and not illegitimate enough to be a peasant outcast. His relationship with his father is distant; both seem unsure of what to do with the other. Giving birth to him hasn’t altered his mother’s lot one bit; she will always be a servant.
As naturally as laughter from children at play, Sang-gyu and Na-young fall in love. Their fathers are noblemen, after all, and it is not unusual for their paths to cross. Like the peasant children who come to Na-young’s house to be tutored by her, Sang-gyu becomes in a sense Na-young’s student. It’s obvious that good-natured Na-young is the more mature of the two; she takes the lead in their relationship and he follows willingly.
The two spend many joyful days together, studying and taking long walks. (Their interactions are really sweet, and all the more poignant when we consider what will take place later.) On those walks did they talk, among many other things, about a shared future? Undoubtedly. At her urging he agrees to leave for China so that he can pursue a formal education. They can start their lives anew together when he returns. The future has never been more anticipated.
But when Sang-gyu returns from China four years later, Na-young and her family are nowhere to be found.
Sang-gyu’s return means two men are now searching for the missing Na-young. In fact the other man, Yang Man-oh (Lee Cheon-hee), has been looking for her longer. Raised in the Lee household because his father is a servant there, Man-oh has been in love with Na-young for years.
Unlike Sang-gyu, who is resigned to his mixed status, Man-oh is determined to fight for a new social order. He will not be a servant forever, like his father. He will be powerful, like the nobility, and he will empower the poor. With his idealism Man-oh joins a rebel group but learns from bitter experience that violence not only will not oust the nobility, it provides them with a just cause to suppress the people even more. So, with Na-young’s encouragement, he studies and sets his heart on gaining wealth. He will defeat the nobles at their own game.
But even as Man-oh rises to become leading merchant, his overpowering desire is not for a new world order (although that remains important) but a future with Na-young. He is determined to find her first, before Sang-gyu. Also, unknown to Sang-gyu, Man-oh is leading a double life, one that will shock Sang-gyu because of its connection with his father, Minister Park.
The first time I watched Conspiracy in the Court, I was mesmerized by Lee Cheon-hee. He was by far my most-loved character. It wasn’t just the fire in his eyes, which was riveting enough, but his utter adulation for Na-young which I found immensely moving. He was so devoted to her and so committed to her well-being! I cried when he said his foolish love for Na-young empowered him more than anything else in the world.
Although Lee Cheon-hee was best actor for me, Jin Yi-han acquitted himself more than admirably. On my second watch I found myself just as transfixed by him. Witness the way he portrays grief and you’ll have chills down your back. I especially loved the early scenes, before the tragedy that befell Na-young’s family, where he was so playful with Na-young. How I wanted that innocence to return in the later episodes!
Similar to what happened after I watched Eyes of Dawn and The Sandglass, Conspiracy in the Court made me scour the Net for Korean history. This time it was to learn more about the life of King Jeong-jo (played with virtuosity by the amazing Ahn Nae-sang), the central figure in the drama.
I thought a lot about the king and the plight of the commoners during the Joseon era.
In the drama King Jeong-jo is intent on sweeping reforms that would improve the life of his people, particularly the lower class. I felt sad and perturbed to see how the aristocracy (his ministers and others with their own agendas) opposed his plans. The drama is sobering because you realize human decency isn’t such a common trait after all. People can be so callous and cruel if it suits their goals. Yet, in the midst of the darkness, there is still hope and beauty, and love and loyalty.
Because the drama was so complex with its high-stakes intrigues and suspense, I tried to keep things simple in my mind.
As far as I could tell, there were two opposing sides: the king and his pro-reform movement and the conservative keep-things-as-they-are faction. Progressive thinking versus stick-in-the-mud obstinacy. Of course the divide wasn’t so clear-cut and I was confused about many things the first time. Still, the confusion and breakneck speed only made the drama more gripping and fascinating. It was like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that kept shifting!
Conspiracy in the Court is a drama that gets better with each rewatch because you learn more and more; your knowledge and appreciation keep deepening.
But you can’t watch this while ironing or doing the dishes. You need to concentrate, so the calmer the setting the better. And speaking of settings, the ones in the drama are take-your-breath-away stunning; they are so beautiful and so perfectly shot and framed.
Just like Duelist, Conspiracy in the Court is pretty much perfect. And addictive. Be warned, though, that it’ll raise the bar for all sageuks to come.