Due to the dearth of anything even close to good on American TV, my wife and I just finished watching yet another Korean historical drama--Yi San (also here). In 77 episodes, this series tells the story of a boy, Yi San, who grows up in the palace as the royal grandson, son of the crown prince. Unfortunately, his father is executed as a traitor and Yi San is thrust into the role of crown prince at the age of 11. However, the same court faction that demanded the death of his father is similarly hostile to Yi San, and the king, his grandfather, is an angry unforgiving taskmaster who is deeply suspicious of him. But the young crown prince finds unexpected help in the form of two orphan commoners--Park Dae Su, a boy about to become a eunuch, and Seong Song Yeong, a palace maid in training and budding artist. These two become secret companions of the crown prince and assist him as he navigates palace intrigues and deadly threats.
This was the forth Korean historical drama we've watched, and as good as the previous ones were, this one beat them hands down. It had more memorable music than Jumong, better acting than Dae Jo Yeong, and a more engaging plot-line than The Great King Sejong. The opening scene of Yi San is one of the most enticing pieces of film-making I've ever seen. Having now watched all the episodes and viewed the opening again, I realize that it contains all of the major themes and plot elements that are played out over entire series: art, military prowess, the majesty of the royal court, treachery, lust for power, and assassination. Watch it, and see if you can resist being drawn into the series:
I did a quick scan of the history after we finished and was happy to see that the series followed the facts pretty well. For me, this is one of the great bonuses of watching these dramas--learning about a civilization that is almost completely neglected in western education.
Yi San reigned as King Jeongjo from 1776 to 1800 which made this the most modern of the historical dramas that we've watched so far. This also meant that the subject of Christianity appeared in the series, and we were gladdened to see a positive portrayal of Catholicism. Upon reading the history, I was amazed to discover that Queen Dowager Jeongsun (portrayed as Yi San's main antagonist in the series), was responsible for the Catholic Persecution of 1801. (Here's a link to the "Beheading Mountain" Martyrs Museum and shrine in Seoul.) There was also an overtly pro-life theme that showed up toward the end of the series. Given this, I can recommend Yi San almost without reservation. I say "almost" because there are three parts of the series that may irk some Catholics:
1. There are several very frank and earthy scenes about how one is made into a eunuch, including a little boy who tries to do the job on himself. These scenes are mostly comic relief, though, and nothing gets shown. They also don't persist past the early episodes.
2. A couple of the artist characters are into creating and collecting illegal obscene art. Again, this is included as comic relief and these characters are treated as harmless buffoons. Glimpses of the obscene art are seen on occasion, and it is slightly amusing to see that "obscene" has a fairly Victorian interpretation in the show.
3. The marriage customs in Korea allowed for polygamy and that makes for some very un-Western relationships, particularly within the royal family where the marriages were nearly all arranged for the sole purpose of producing an heir to the throne.
These items aside, Yi San has a very high moral tone in the best Confucian sense, with an emphasis on benevolence in rule, filial piety, loyalty to family and patron, and equality of opportunity for all classes of society. I found it to be an enthralling and thoroughly enjoyable series. It certainly beats the heck out watching the latest unfunny, double-entendre-laden sitcom or cheesy, teachable-moment drama produced for American TV.