Thursday, January 3, 2013

Drama Review: Jewel in the Palace (2003)

Grade: A

Girl-centered historical drama

What it’s about
A brilliant, hardworking young woman grows up while navigating the dangerous political waters of the palace, first in the kitchen and then as a physician lady working in the pharmacy.

First impression
It’s now or never: my long winter break starts next week, and I’ll have more time to devote to drama watching. So I’m finally going to visit uncharted drama territory: a long, straight-up sageuk. After shopping around a bit, I decided to settle on Jewel in the Palace, both because it’s a fondly remembered classic and presumably girl friendly. The down sides? It’s 54 episodes long—the equivalent of almost 3 seasons of an American show—and was filmed before Korea’s flower-boy craze. Not to be superficial or anything, but 54 hours of stringy-bearded old men? Not that appealing.

Final verdict
It’s hard to know where to begin with a show like this—the mammoth running time of Jewel in the Palace contains pretty much everything under the sun. It’s a microcosm of all that sageuks have to offer—both the good and the bad.

There’s the scrappy collection of good guys (girls?) who fight against a powerful, wily group of adversaries. There are honorable mentors and beautifully drawn, touching friendships. There’s an epic, seemingly star-crossed love story. There are laughs and tears and moments so wonderful you’ll think you need medical attention after watching them. Unfortunately, though, there are also endless scenes of talking heads plotting to gain political power, repetitive and predictable plot twists involving double- and triple-crosses, and poorly integrated clown characters that exist only to give the show occasional moments of lighthearted humor.

But even if it’s not quite perfect, Jewel in the Palace really is a jewel. Its production values are sky high, with lovely cinematography, gorgeous sets and costumes, and a sense of overall craftsmanship that’s incredibly rare. From the tiny details—like Sir Min’s beard growing more and more lush as he ages—to big ones—including the soundtrack and score, which evolve from clear and childlike to mature and haunting—this drama was clearly a labor of love.

For me, the first half was the most interesting. In my admittedly limited experience, sageuks (not unlike recorded history itself) tend to focus on men in the public sphere: they’re chess games starring government officials or action extravaganzas focusing on lone rebels fighting bravely for revenge. While Jewel in the Palace incorporates these elements, its true heart lies in the realm of women, the kitchen and the pharmacy where mothering and nurturing take place. Characters and struggles other sageuks would treat as wallpaper take center stage here. This stretch of Jewel in the Palace doesn’t so much pass the Bechdel test as explode it—it’s a workplace drama that’s devoted exclusively to the dynamics and learning process of the kitchen. Male characters are few and far between, and their presence in the drama is significant only as it impacts the concerns of their female counterparts.

The show’s plot is also at its finest early on. A series of Iron-Chef-style kitchen battles carry you from one episode to another, each closing with a cliffhanger that makes it almost impossible to stop watching. They marvelously prove that seeing a woman perfect a recipe can be every bit as exhilarating as the biggest budget, most intricately choreographed fight scene with a cast of thousands.

This structure of almost free-standing story cycles linked by an overarching plot continues until the end of the show. At the halfway point, though, the male characters start to take on greater importance as the drama’s focus broadens to include the standard-issue political wrangling between kings and officials. It was inevitable that this would happen—the very premise of the show is that its heroine would be the first woman to be the king’s personal physician, in an era where females were limited to nursing positions that often shared responsibilities with the gisaeng courtesans. I just wish that the girl-centered tone of the early episodes hadn’t been dimmed with so much cliché posturing.

That having been said, several of the later story cycles manage to escape the airless palace and will leave you biting your nails. The best of them is a sequence in a plague-ridden village, which manages not only to be a nifty medical mystery but also further the show’s compelling love story.

Although I enjoyed every episode, it’s almost a pity that Jewel in the Palace is so very long; it would have benefitted from the streamlining required for a shorter running time. And as it stands, its many lovely, lucid delights are made less accessible by that daunting episode count.

If you think you might like Jewel in the Palace, I can’t recommend enough that you give it a try—like the journey to success for its female lead, this show is a long voyage that is very much worth taking.

Random thoughts

Episode 1. It’s already easy to see the differences between this show and the shorter sageuks I’m used to. Its setup is playing out in a slow, measured pace that really lets each individual character shine, instead of just zipping through the backstory as time-filler before the real drama kicks in.

Episode 2. So old-timey Korean wrestling seems to have mostly involved atomic wedgies. These sageuks really are as informative as they are entertaining.

Episode 5. I love this drama. It’s the television equivalent of a big, fat historical romance. (Well, if historical romances didn’t have romance in them.) And speaking of “big, fat,” how is it that the king doesn’t weigh 2,000 pounds? All he seems to do is eat and be waited on hand and foot.

Episode 5. So graft these discussions about appointing a new head kitchen lady into 2012 and you’ve got a word-for-word explanation of how I got my current job. I worry things won’t turn out well for either of us.

Episode 9. Whatever happened to the son of her adoptive parents? Was he eaten by tigers between episodes or something? [Finale note: And it only took them 15 episodes to acknowledge his absence!]

Episode 11. I know this was before germ theory and all, but if I see one more person put a spoon in their mouth and then put it in a pot where something’s cooking, I’m going to barf. She just used the same spoon to taste bowls of ingredients, even. Not only is the rest of the day’s salt going to have her slobber in it, it will also taste like the soy sauce she tried right before.

Episode 13. By a weird twist of fate, the last drama I watched repeated a scene from this episode almost verbatim. The two shows originally aired nine years apart—Jewel in the Palace in 2003 and The Thousandth Man in 2012. I guess the moment is so iconic that it’s still being referenced by in-jokes all these years later. (Either that or somebody’s getting away with some pretty serious plagiarism?)

Episode 16. According to other period dramas, a woman starts wearing her hair up once she’s lost her virginity. It’s interesting that all these court ladies have put their hair up, even though it has been explicitly stated that they belong to the King and the King alone—there’s no hanky panky with other men or even getting married, because their whole lives are supposed to be devoted to service. On the other hand, the show has acknowledged that the King can have his way with the court ladies if he wants—does their raised hair mean he’s hooked up with all of them? Or is it because they’ve become his ritual brides, in the same way Catholic nuns are married to God?

Episode 21. Is it really possible that any human being has enough hair to make the huge, complicated braids women always wear in sageuks? Clearly they’re wigs nowadays, but were they always fake, even back in the real Joseon era? [Finale note: They were wigs, after all! Thanks to Arawn for pointing this out. Read more here. ] 

Episode 21. Well, that’s a first—the preview at the end of this episode just made me cry.

Episode 22. So it turns out that political currents in the palace kitchen are virtually indistinguishable from those in your average junior high. I would have been begging for poison by day two.

Episode 25. As if the chubby hands doing all this kitchen work belong to that skinny actress. Ha!

Episode 27. When I first started watching Korean dramas, it was impossible to do anything else at the same time without completely losing the plot. Now I can do practically anything—for example, wrap a year’s worth of Christmas presents during a single episode. Admittedly, this show’s dialogue is pretty slow (and I’m a pretty lousy wrapper under the best of circumstances), but I still think it’s an impressive feat.

Episode 32. You’d think this exam would have included the question “Have you ever been convicted of treason and banished?” Guess not, though.

Episode 32. Dramafever should have a new tag for dramas: “No kissing.” This would allow us to skip over shows that don’ shall I say...put out. Thirty-two episodes without even a peck? Really? [Finale note: Don’t hold your breath.]

Episode 37. This drama manages to squeeze in a truly jaw-dropping number of reaction shots. Every time something significant is said, we get a 20 second close-up of each character’s response—even if there are ten people in the room and this means the action freezes for five or six different shots. To me this seems like charming evidence of how devoted Kdramas are to the emotional journeys of their characters, but all those stunned expressions must have taken forever to film. (And come up with.)

Episode 37. This episode focuses on my two least-favorite sageuk tropes: decisive victories for the bad guys thanks to the stupidity of the good guys, and political mumbo jumbo. A rule of thumb, Drama Overlords: As soon as a battle for power between the left and right prime ministers comes up, I check out.

Episode 38. You know a drama really has you emotionally involved when you start crying because somebody cooks the favorite dish of a character who’s been off the show for fifteen episodes. ::sniffle::

Episode 40. Here’s something I never thought I’d write: that plague was just what the doctor ordered—it’s one of the tightest, most compelling segments in this drama so far.

Episode 41. These sageuks kill me. I know that wide-eyed naiveté is considered desirable in a Korean heroine, but the historical dramas take it to an intolerable extreme. It’s like those old Peanuts comic strips when Lucy volunteers to hold a football for Charlie Brown to kick, only to yank it out of the way at the last minute to make him fall. How many times must these people wipe out before they figure out the bad guys aren’t to be trusted?

Episode 43. Too bad the female lead often verges on Mary Sue sageuk territory with her unfailing optimism and earnest good intentions. She’s ultimately redeemed by her self-doubt, though, unlike the male lead. He’s so super-human in his nobility and kindness that he never grows beyond a cardboard cut-out with a nice smile.

Episode 45. Why is it that the bars of jail cells are always so incredibly far apart in sageuks? I think I could drive my car through this set.

Episode 53. That wasn’t the most spoilerific preview of all time or anything—I don’t speak Korean, but even I could read the little girl’s lips. She called him Dad!

Episode 54. Next on Jewel in the Palace, Jang Geum invents Kpop and explores the practical uses of nuclear fusion! Just kidding...there is no next on Jewel in the Palace. After more than two weeks of obsessive watching, I’ve finally, finally finished it. Hallelujah!  

Watch it

You might also like
Sungkyunkwan Scandal, for gender-bending fun and commentary on gender in Joseon Korea
Tamra, the Island, for its goofy travels through Joseon Jeju


  1. I think I caught myself sniffing again.. Remembering all of this drama's best moments. :) See, I knew I didn't need to write a review for this one. You've done it so perfectly.

    Did I ever mention that I bought Korean bamboo steaming baskets?? I'm so gonna steam something.. whenever I get them out of the plastic wrapping.. And develop those beautiful pudgy hands that clearly did not belong to the main actress :D

  2. I have passed over this one a lot when looking for a drama to watch and always decided against it because it's so long. Maybe I will invest some time into watching it over the summer when I am off work. As of right now I am already watching Rascal Sons, which when I first started watching it I did not realize it was going to be 50 episodes lol. It's good to know that I can add Jewel in the Palace to my possibility list though.

  3. I've heard quite a lot about this drama,but i never picked it up coz of the number of episodes.I remember reading some weeks back about the possibility of a remake of this drama(not sure thou).I realli hope they make a shorter version keeping the main plot lines intact.
    Also,Have you watched "The Princess' Man"? If not,then i would reccomend u watch it.Perfect cast,epic romance,beautiful costumes,gorgeous cinematography and most importantly a very intresting political struggle(Yes,its possible).

  4. I just finished it and I want to restart it. It is one of favorites!

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