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WWATD?! Tree with Deep Roots

January 27, 2012

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.

Statue of King Sejong in Seoul

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.

Tree with Deep Roots

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.

Tree with Deep Roots poster

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!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbwirecowgirl permalink
    February 19, 2012 5:53 pm

    I loved this drama as well! I was able to hold out until all the episodes were out too! So I watched it all in one swoop! Now I am watching again with my brother, he loves it too. My favorite episodes were fifteen and twenty. The final episode was a humdinger too, but for some reason I just knew everyone was going to die . . .

    • Bill permalink*
      February 21, 2012 5:48 pm

      You know, I thought some wouldn’t make it through the finale, but it was impressive. I thought up a new k-drama award category for my increasingly late 2011 K-drama awards post based on this drama’s finale.

      We’re finally getting caught up on our drama watching, trying out four different dramas right now to see what we want to stick with. 🙂

  2. Barbwirecowgirl permalink
    March 3, 2012 2:27 am

    Have you tried Kimchi Family? Good gravy that one was awesome, it also made me hungry . . .
    It had Song Il Gook which I really like him in Crime Squad.
    I tried to see if the Korean market in town had any of the different kinds of kimchi like on the show but sadly no. I must test my skills and try to make some myself!

    • Bill permalink*
      March 3, 2012 10:40 am

      We are in the midst of Kimchi Family and loving it. You are right, we are eating so much late night kimchi because of that show! And Sunnie has been making kimchi like crazy lately, so there’s going to be a number of new blog posts about that because of the show so you should give them a try! We’re also watching Moon Embracing the Sun which we like too. We started Bachelor Vegetable Store for a couple of episodes, but have been too busy lately to keep up with it in addition to the other shows. But we’ll likely try picking it up again later when we have more time if you think it was good. We also tried Salary Man but gave up on it pretty quickly. Haven’t seen any of Me Too Flower or Wild Romance yet. Do you recommend them?

    • Sunnie permalink*
      March 15, 2012 9:25 am

      Kimchi family is becoming one of my all time favorite dramas… I’ve never seen Song Il Gook in anything and had low expectations, but he is fantastic. Park Jin Hee has found her best role ever, I think, too! 😉

  3. Barbwirecowgirl permalink
    March 3, 2012 2:35 am

    What dramas are you guys testing? I finished Kimchi Family and Wild Romance, still on Bachelor Vegetable Store and Me too Flower. Best part of WR was Mr Robot (the manager) and his inability for emotional presence was hilarious.

  4. Barbwirecowgirl permalink
    March 19, 2012 6:02 am

    Haven’t tried Salary Man, it didn’t quite appeal to me for some reason. Bachelor Veggie Store I have three episodes left but put it on hold to finish out with others. It was totally not what you would expect! And it sort of makes you have to like it, starts kinda slow and keeps a nice steady pace throughout, but definitely not your normal romance like it appears. Wild Romance was a combo of love and hate and the romance scene was practically nonexistent contrary to its title, and Me too Flower is almost to the end. I really like Me Too, but it is a more slow pace setter for me, I don’t feel like whipping through it so fast. For some reason I started watching Warrior Baek Dong Soo and could not stop, great action! Almost as good as Chuno! Have you tried Vampire Prosecutor? Loved that one.
    Last month I tried out I’m Sorry I love You and A Love to Kill, wow, I must’ve been on some sort of sad trend because both were so drama filled and depressingly sad endings. but for some reason I liked them. weird I know. lol After both of those I went immediately to the happier side 🙂

    mmm Kimchi . . . . . . . .

    • Sunnie permalink*
      March 19, 2012 8:21 pm

      My goodness, you have watched a lot of recent dramas! 😉 We tried a couple of episodes of Veggie shop, Salaryman and Me too flower, but didn’t really follow through. We are finishing up Moon Sun now and then we will find another one. We will keep your recommendations in mind, thanks!!

  5. Erin permalink
    May 6, 2013 5:18 pm

    That sucking sound you may have heard this past week was not Ross Perot’s view of the 1990’s economy but rather by getting pulled into Tree with Deep Roots! Being a fan of Tears of the Dragon which I watched on late night cable TV years ago (still sad that it’s not out on DVD!), I bought TWDR on Amazon. Loved, loved, loved it!

    Footnote: Sadly the station I saw TOTD on went from Episode 2 to just about when Taejong’s brother was begging to abdicate, so I misssed out on all the Sambong drama save flashbacks. 😦 So I was delighted that I got some of that (albeit through another generation) in TWDR!

    • Bill permalink*
      May 6, 2013 8:59 pm

      Hi, Erin. Thanks for visiting! So glad you liked Tree with Deep Roots. The biggest thing with that drama for me is so many dramas seem unable to end as strongly as they began, but TWDR really ended so strongly!

      Are you in the US? If so, you might consider dramafever.com which is where we watch the vast majority of our dramas – much faster access than waiting for the dvd! We never caught Tears of the Dragon, sounds like it was good. We’ll have to add it to our ever-growing list of dramas to catch up on. So many dramas, so little time…. 😦

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