WWATD?! Tree with Deep Roots
Ah, Hangul! You glorious icon of scientific discovery! Seriously, what are Koreans more proud of than their written language? Kimchi? Nope. The Korean-wave? Not even close. Tae! Kwan! Do!? Forget about it! Nothing stirs the Korean national pride like their alphabet. Hangul is renowned for being scientifically developed under the direction of King Sejong the great, the fourth king of Joseon.
This past summer, we actually visited the little museum in Seoul devoted to King Sejong, near his statue. But Hangul doesn’t just rock, it also has an interesting history as King Sejong released it for the betterment of his people but to the opposition of the ruling elite who saw it as a threat to their power. And thus, our latest drama, Tree with Deep Roots was born.
Tree with Deep Roots, based on the novel by Lee Jung-Myung, details the intrigue and violence surrounding Sejong’s (Lee Do, played by Han Suk-Kyu) development and release of the alphabet. The series begins with a youthful Lee Do, played by Song Joong-Ki, who is a puppet king set up by his tyrannical father who gave up the throne yet still rules Josun and who ruthlessly slaughters his enemies, their families, and pretty much anyone they’ve ever encountered. Lee Do is powerless to resist, but tries his best to save who he can, sending secret messages to no avail. Two young commoners, Ddol-Bok, a boisterous boy who is son to mentally handicapped father and defends him with his fists, and Dam-Yi, a girl who tries her best to learn Chinese characters, are caught in the aftermath of the violence as their families are seized for serving the wrong nobles. Ddol-Bok grows to be a deadly warrior, driven by the desire to kill Lee Do, who he believes ordered the violence, and Dam-Yi is rescued by the queen and becomes a lady of the royal court who serves the king but is left mute because of the guilt she feels for her role in the destruction of her village.
The drama obviously deals with historic events, but certainly doesn’t adhere too much to reality. Wire-fighting is used throughout the drama during the fight scenes, with warriors magically flying through the air as they fight. Honestly, this bugged me a little bit at first. I like history, and I felt like if they were going to do a drama based on actual events, they should try to be as realistic as possible, but that annoyance faded, and as Sunnie filled me in later on, there are some major characters figuring into the intrigue around Hangul who never actually existed and some other major events that were altered to heighten the tension in the plot. Ultimately, I ended up not caring and getting what history I could out of it which was significant.
One reason the timing of this drama was cool was that we just watched Princess’ Man, which details the rule of one of Lee Do’s sons. Tree with Deep Roots has a great deal of debate between Lee Do and his adversary, Jung Ki-Joon, the leader of Secret Roots, a secret (duh!) organization focused on ensuring the political of power of Joseon is shared and not under the direct control of the king.
The adult Lee Do, this giant of a historical figure in Korea (idolized as the beneficent, wise, and just king), is played by Han Suk-Kyu as an extremely smart, but short-tempered and occasionally foul-mouthed monarch. By giving him this mischievous and yet calculating and manipulative nature, the character is human. Sejong could so easily have been written as two-dimensional, supremely wonderful, and ultimately boring. Instead, the character is funny, relatable, but still very impressive in terms of both his will and his great intelligence, while still being flawed and sometimes filled with doubt. Han Suk-Kyu does an excellent job of capturing this complex character and bringing to life his wit and his mischief, and he stays interesting until the end.
Lee Do has two characters who act as his equalizer in this drama. His most direct opposition is Jung Ki-Joon, played wonderfully by Yoon Je-Moon. Jung Ki-Joon is in hiding as the leader of Secret Roots, so is often in disguise. Yoon Je-Moon must therefore play two characters, one the genius, supremely confident aristocrat, manipulating all and everything around him, and the other the commoner. At one point, you get to see him switch from character to character in seconds as he maintains his disguise and it is almost a scary moment as you marvel at his deceit. Jung-Ki Joon and Lee Do are both passionate and intelligent characters who you find yourself respecting and liking. They are in direct opposition with their ideas and debate each, directly and indirectly, as they move their pieces around the board.
Lee Do’s other foil in the series is Ddol-Bok, the commoner boy, now grown to be a man bent on assassinating the king to gain his revenge, played by Jang Hyuk. Disguised as a royal guard, he is the heart of the commoner and brings this perspective to the king, who ultimately cannot fully relate to his people, having been raised as a prince. Ddol-Bok is a much more over the top character than either Lee Do or Jung-Ki Joon, and is played as such by Jang Hyuk, who sneers, and rages, and weeps at turns. However, the dynamic works here. Ddol-Bok himself is no dummy, and yet ultimately it his heart which is his greatest gift and that despite his facade of violence, ultimately drives him.
The other main character in the piece is Dam-Yi, the mute woman of the court who is driven to help Lee Do complete his alphabet in order to try to prevent others from suffering as her family did, living the powerless life of the commoner. She is played by Shin Se-Kyung, who shot to prominence in High Kick 2! but doesn’t seem to connect to her character for much of this show. Dam-Yi is so single minded, and being mute, limited in her expression, that the character never develops much beyond that. She and Ddol-Bok are to marry and yet this is not a love story, and the decision seems almost perfunctory. You’re left wondering if they even really like each other or are just driven by their common ties of misery and loss. Ultimately, this almost works in a way by the end of the series, and despite being a largely uninteresting character for much of the show, Shin Se-Kyung does perform a powerful scene very well that is crucial to the success of the drama as a whole.
I hate spoilers, so I’m trying to be careful while describing a complicated plot, but the series is an interesting one. There is a lot of debate and philosophizing throughout. It is a large ensemble, with interesting characters played by solid actors. I wanted to also mention Jo Jin-Ung, who plays the great swordsman Moo Hyul, protector of Lee Do, and a large number of scheming, slimy aristocrats. Plus the ubiquitous Song Ok-Suk who is in every drama that comes out anymore, and certainly didn’t want to miss this one! The pacing while pretty steady does become plodding at times. A lot seems to happen but it doesn’t seem to happen quickly due to the great amount of debating and the amount of explanation required to reveal an at-times complicated plot.
When all is said and done, despite the sometimes grueling pace of the drama, we stuck with it throughout and were never in danger of losing interest. And unlike many dramas, it ended on a high note. I think the final episode was probably the best episode, and I don’t remember if there’s another drama I can say that of. It goes out with a bang, and all the threads are finally resolved, and all the complicated philosophizing is wrapped up with moments of raw emotion.
So we enjoyed the drama, and since this is a vegan blog, I want to conclude this review by sharing one final lesson that Sejong the Great taught us and which they allude to in a scene in this drama. Sejong loved his meat and was always being warned by his doctors to stop eating so much. He kept up with it and eventually died of diabetes. Don’t eat meat – it’ll kill ya!
So this concludes our final review of a 2011 drama. I hope everyone had a great Lunar New Year celebration this week. Sunnie and I broke out our hanbok that we hadn’t worn since our wedding! With the new year upon us, I’m a little late, but that means next WWATD?! post will be my K-drama 2011 year in review!