Notes on 자명고 (Ja Myung Go)

JaMyungGo_02There is so much to say about Ja Myung Go, the first of which must be that it is beautifully complex… and also rather narratively intricate at the beginning. The complexity is wonderful: it is in the characters, in the political intrigue, in the lost history of Naklang, in the legend of Prince Hodong’s tragic love(s). But the initial narrative intricacy can be disorienting, especially since the significance of what happens in the first couple of episodes is only clear in hindsight, after about a dozen or so subsequent episodes. I confess I had to watch the first episode more than twice in order to get my bearings. I am very glad that I did because, as I said, the complexity of content and execution in the telling of this story proved quite rewarding.

Although the title of the drama points to Princess Ja Myung and her ill-fated role in the defense of Naklang, the story is really at its core about the tragedy of Prince Hodong. I am reminded of how Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is in reality “The Tragedy of Gaius Brutus.” Just as Brutus, despite his love for Caesar, betrayed the revered General and joined the conspirators in assassinating him— all the while believing that he was doing the right thing for the good of the Republic, thus Prince Hodong brings about the fall of Naklang in spite of his love for its priestess protector Princess Ja Myung, all for the good of his father’s kingdom, Goguryeo.

I started writing about Ja Myung Go when I started watching it back in May so I’ve just transferred those notes over here and I’ll develop this post gradually, hopeful that I can come up with something clear and consistent…

Here goes!

This entry was posted in (정경호) Jeong Kyeong Ho, ethics, KDrama, narrative, Notes on..., politics, romance sageuk, 사극 (Sageuk), 퓨전 사극 (fusion sageuk) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Notes on 자명고 (Ja Myung Go)

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  3. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 1

    Just started watching JaMyung Go (자명고) and it is revealing all kinds of understated awesomeness! It takes some talent to render a folk tale well on film. Arang and the Magistrate did it majestically and from what I’m seeing so far in chapter 1 of JaMyung Go, this may prove another fantastic retelling of a folk tale/legend.

    There is one significant downside in the narrative: the beginning is strangely slow and disjointed, trying to offer several important plot lines in medias res and therefore having to also provide tid bits of exposition along the way. The result is a story that always seems to be beginning without ever having really begun… if that makes sense.

    The epic convention of starting in medias res does not work very well for this story because the res in question is Goguryeo’s imminent invasion of the Naklang kingdom, the success of which is contingent upon Princess RaHee (LaHee in the subtitles) successfully destroying the JaMyung Go, the sacred drum that protects Naklang by summoning a phantom army to decimate approaching invaders. We learn that she is doing this because she cannot bear to see Prince Hodong die in the invasion Goguryeo is launching on Naklang. She loves him, you see, but he only loves her half sister, the Priestess JaMyung instead — although this is not really clear until the very end of the episode. Naturally LaHee is blindly jealous and when JaMyung, the true protector of Naklang, tries to stop her from destroying the giant sacred drum, the result is a beautifully choreographed battle. LaHee mortally wounds JaMyung twice; first with a poison-dagger that just cuts the skin and then later with a poison pin that she stabs directly into JaMyung’s heart.

    But all of this is in near-flashback and we know that JaMyung is not dead… The jumble of intrigue and exposition all shuffled up in this introductory chapter rob the story of much of its forward narrative momentum. I suppose we could wonder how JaMyung survives the poisoning and look forward to more exposition about the sisters’s history and how the fatal love triangle they form with Prince Hodong came about… Sure. Why not?

    Another significant point of contention for me is the portrayal of King Daemushin as a rather unattractive antagonist. It just so happens that in Kingdom of the Wind, a very patriotic portrayal of Guguryeo, Daemushin, son of Yuri and grandson of Jumong, is the hero upon whose fate the fortunes of Korea of yore hangs. Note that this makes Hodong Jumong’s great-grandson. Now, it also just so happens that none other than the universally beloved bona fide hero-portrayer Song Il Guk plays Daemushin’s iconic grandfather Jumong in the the heartwarmingly patriotic eponymous drama which is all about his fateful founding of Goguryeo, aka Korea of yore! Song Il Guk is also the face of Daemushin as a young man in Kingdom of the Wind (which also tells us the love story of which Prince Hodong was the fruit). See where I’m going with this…? I guess that I should be big enough to appreciate that JaMyung Go is Naklang’s story and that Goguryeo is just the antagonist in it. But having followed Song Il Guk through three generations of heroic Goguryeo monarchs, suddenly seeing one of his iconic characters turn into a somewhat despotic curmudgeon takes some getting used to.

    I had to watch chapter 1 more than twice in order to gather the logic of the narratives and appreciate the significance of the characters’ relationships to one another. The first time I watched it I dropped it halfway because it did not really engage my sensibilities — it is just a tad too fragmented. The second time I watched it, now several months later, I had decided that I would watch it because of Jung Ryeo Won, an actor with whom I found myself falling hopelessly in love in the film Castaway on the Moon and the dramas History of a Salaryman and The King of Dramas, to say nothing of the strange strange strange What Planet Are You From? Am glad that I did. I had to view the first chapter a third time as I was writing this note because I just had to clear up some things. So the problem appears to be in the sequence editing — once I got past that and rearranged the story in my head, I found that I would look forward to whatever comes next.

    Here’s to patiently appreciating JaMyung Go for the next few weeks.

  4. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 2-6

    Keeping this up is actually proving to be a labor of love… Now that I’m six chapters into it and the narrative is firmly anchored in telling us about the origins of LaHee and JaMyung, it is actually pretty cool. The characters are well drawn out, the story’s various components (political intrigue and human relationships et al) actually make sense (yay!) and are rather intriguing — once you get past chapter 4 (and especially into chapter 6).

    That disjointed beginning cost it some momentum, but I can safely say that it only takes a bit of application to stay with it. Now that we are in chapter 6, I am happy to say that infant JaMyung seems to have found safe harbor – albeit with her step-mother’s murderous pin still impaling her tiny tiny heart. There is a lot of magic at work in this drama full of remarkably resilient infants: suffocated, impaled or drowned, life clings to them regardless.

    I look forward to seeing how this all develops.

  5. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 7-27

    Has it really been that long? Oh’ I’m luuuuving this drama. So engaging, so epic, so cool. It was rather difficult to get into, but once things got going, the story has been developing in beautifully complex and unexpected ways.

    I must say that now I am actually glad it started with all those disjointed ‘spoilers’ about the actions and motivations of the players. The three principals, JaMyung (aka Puku), Crown Princess LaHee and Prince Hodong have not yet arrived at the crisis point we found them in at the beginning of the series, but it is sooo much fun to see the unexpected path that is so inexorably getting them to that place.

    This series is managing to give us a folk tale that feels like a novel – a good novel. *Happy sigh*…!

    PS. There was an unexpected nugget of sweetness in the middle of chapter 27 when Prince Hodong went out looking for and found Puku… the whole interlude, right up to Puku’s departure the following morning, had me a little light-headed with happiness.

    • Just sayin says:

      I’m a history teacher so I love watching period pieces. I originally watched JaMyung Go to see how the writer would interpret and manipulate a little history to make this drama work. I’m not much of a romantic and could do without it in a good story..but I was surprisingly invested in their love story. Jung Ryeo Won’s bit of dialogue before she left the prince in this episode…made me seriously doubt myself. I was like…ugh maybe I do like that love stuff ;/

      Regardless…love them both…they are great at their craft and extremely versatile.

      • I can completely relate! I specialize in Medieval and Classical literature of the romance languages (specifically poetry) and I love period pieces exactly for the same reasons you describe: to wit, how do writers turn histories into poetry; how do they take the particular and transform it into the universal so that an individual’s story potentially reflects everyone’s experience?

        I especially love it when different dramas about the same person or about a particular region in a specific era tell you dramatically differing stories, suggesting that even history itself allows a lot of license for interpretation…

        I’ve noticed for example, stories about or set during the time of King Gwanghae (1574-1641, r. 1608–1623) and his successor, King Injo (1595-1649, r. 1623–1649) seem to be all the rage recently. A couple of years ago the vogue was all about King Sejong the Great (1368-1444) and King Jeongjo (1752-1800) and these trends offer an interesting glimpse into how Korean storytellers use their history. I hope I can learn enough to get a clear picture of why the writers and producers make the choices they make when they decide to use a specific history for their story.

  6. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Prince Hodong – a Profile

    Most notable characteristics: brilliant strategist + traumatized childhood = conflicted master manipulator.

    The first glimpses we get of the adult Prince Hodong in chapter 1 are not terribly flattering: he seems like a heartless brat, the product of easily the most dysfunctional royal court I’ve ever seen on screen (although, I have to add that the royal court of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is pretty horrific).

    We slowly discover that the unfortunate Hodong craves the love of not only the stepmother who wants nothing more than to kill him every day of his life – the discovery of which psychologically and emotionally terrorizes the young prince from about age 4 on; he also craves the love and approval of an abusive, power-hungry, randy goat of a father who only cares about his own needs and appetites.

    That Hodong does not grow up to be either a sociopath or, worse, a psychopath, is a testament, I think, to the greater strength of his better nature. Yet, he is just a man, subject to the ambient pressures of his insane political situation and therefore susceptible to the inevitable psychic cleavages wrought by those pressures. Among his coping mechanisms: he trains to be the greatest swordsman in the land and sleeps with a sword in hand; he cultivates a heartless charm that is all form and no warmth; he learns strategic arts from the finest minds in the court. All this for the purpose of avenging and defending himself, and controlling and manipulating the people around him in order to expand the Kingdom of Goguryeo so that he might win his father’s love.

    There is so much that is troubling and unappealing about this character, yet he is eminently attractive and shockingly sympathetic. Credit for this unexpected and entrancing turn must go to the writers of JaMyung Go and the actor who brings Prince Hodong to life, Jeong Kyeong Ho. The latter, in particular, attests to the unique virtue Korean actors possess of being able to create uncommonly engaging and unforgettable characters.

  7. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Crown Princess LaHee – a Profile

    Most notable characteristics: vain and resentful.

    From an early age, LaHee is told that she is destined to be the greatest beauty in Naklang, just like her mother. As the sole heir to the crown, she also holds authority over everyone in the Palace and even in the land and she grows up expecting to have her every wish fulfilled.

    Her birth mother, the Second Queen who is purportedly the greatest beauty in the land, is a scheming manipulator who sees enemies and rivals at every corner and is constantly plotting to poison someone somewhere. Everything she does is to advance and secure her daughter’s place as the Crown Princess, including getting the First Queen’s daughter condemned to death in infancy, stabbing her with her own coral pin to ensure her demise, and then paying mercenaries to track down the boat in which the dying infant was set afloat in order to make sure it really did die… Oh, and she later kills her brother (by laboriously suffocating with her own hand in a prolonged sequence punctuated by panicked laughter) in a preemptive assassination that puts her husband on the throne. Little Princess LaHee witnesses this last atrocity and needless to say, it leaves her traumatized and catatonic for a while. Now, if you are thinking “Lady Macbeth,” don’t even: note that at least Lady Macbeth had a conscience that bested her in the end.

    The First Queen, the sweet and patient maternal figure, spoils LaHee with absolute love. However the little girl, probably taking after her own mother, is not even satisfied with that when she discovers that the First Queen once had a daughter of her own whom she lost and still dreams of finding someday.

    In the end, LaHee’s vanity and resentful nature are her undoing. Prince Hodong knows to appeal to this vanity time and again to slowly ensnare her in a willfully blind devotion to him. They both know that he is manipulating her — yet she goes along because it stokes her vanity and eventually hooks her through her resentful nature: she will not let go of the illusion of love. Of course she has a slow, steady, inexorable meltdown when she discovers that Prince Hodong’s true love is in fact JaMyung. The Crown Princess decides to cultivate a mortal hatred for JaMyung so that she can nurture her fatal obsession with Hodong. It’s all a recipe for disaster…

    Will it sound strange to conclude with the confession that, despite all her personal failings and her ultimate betrayal, Princess Naklang is nevertheless deeply deserving of great pity? Her story is told with such open-eyed, blatant candor that you actually get to see where she took a wrong turn and how, because of that, she would continue to take wrong turns, even willfully so, until in the end, she surrenders herself (again, as an act of will) to bringing down her father’s kingdom in a kamikaze move that she can actually rationalize without fudging. Her’s is a deeply heartbreaking cautionary tale. Nobody would want to be her — and yet we all see how we could be. Ah, there but for the grace of God… All rather brilliantly done!

  8. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Puku / JaMyung – a Profile

    Curiously, the least interesting of the principal trio although also the most lovable. She is by no means perfect, but she is also protected by a powerful magic that ensures her survival through some very thorny circumstances.

    I was rooting for her, of course, and I wanted to feel her pain and the weight of her sacrifice, but the way the story was told made that difficult. In fact, whatever real sympathy I harbored for her, whatever empathy I experienced, was always in the context of her profound yet doomed love with Prince Hodong. I would go even as far as to say that, both as Puku and as JaMyung, this character only really developed and showed depth vis-à-vis the tragic Prince who loved her so…

  9. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 27-30

    OMG! JaMyung Go is just killing it with all its epic fabulousness! Since Prince Hodong and Puku ‘wed’; since Ilpum reunited with his battered aunt; and oh! since JaMyung reunited with her mother Queen Mo Ha So in that impossible to repress flood of tears…

    …and now the Great General has received permission to marry JaMyung and Prince Hodong has braved the perils of infiltrating Naklang just to see her and Crown Princess LaHee (who still does not know that Puku is her long lost sister JaMyung) is racing in just around the bend, elated in the belief that Prince Hodong has come to see her

    Oh, I can just feel the impending collision…! I had to stop and make myself write this just to get my adrenaline rush in check before proceeding to chapter 31.

    Heere weee goooo!

  10. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 31

    WOW! 15 minutes into chapter 31 and we have the most beautifully dramatic and fortuitous near-miss/misunderstanding I have ever seen in KDrama! It is so perfectly structured and executed that it flows without a hitch, while at the same time setting the stage for geometrically more catastrophic repercussions.

    One more note on Prince Hodong: the look on his face as he listened to Puku sever ties with him – incredulity, confusion, shock, anger, and the heartbreak and pain all wrapped up in a speechless wave of visual responses… wow!

    As this story has been developing, I am in awe of the writer’s ability to draw such rich and complex characters across such a wide spectrum of personalities. This is proving to be, by far, the most deeply engaging and satisfying psychograph of people I remember ever seeing in KDrama – even on film. I now regret that KBS apparently ended it 11 chapters short of the proposed 50 because of ratings woes when it aired on tv. But I hear that it just could not compete with the ratings phenome The Great Queen Seon Deok which left everyone in the dust. Have not seen The Great Queen Seon Deok and so all I can say is that JaMyung Go is quite a gem and it’s a real pity it had difficulties finding an audience. More on that later.

    PS. DUH-YAM! Chapter 31 is amazing! The Great General just had to make a devastating executive decision in a split second and, man. wow. stunned and amazed… what a story!

  11. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 32

    He’s back, y’all! Ahn Seok-Hwan, that bundle of awesome that comes wrapped in a different package in every – and I do mean every other (well, almost) KDrama I’ve seen – or at least he seems ubiquitous. Yes, the besotted prophet, Jamuk, returns in all his hoarse, hobbling glory!

    I found Ahn Seok-Hwan in nearly a dozen of the titles on my list in choice roles including the hypochondriac collaborator Count in Gaksital, Sin Yun Bok’s unscrupulous father in Painter of the Wind, a flip-flopping minister in Deep Rooted Tree, the rugged sexy artist in My Girl, Geum Jan Di’s hyperexuberant father in Boys Over Flowers, the I don’t remember who in Chuno etc. He’s like the wind: everywhere. And he makes his presence felt!

    Here are the titles from my list. I even put together a little picture book to celebrate Actor Ahn based on this list.

    But this is all just a fraction of the filmography listed on AsianWiki which for some reason does not even include JaMyung Go!

    Check out the filmography on AsianWiki (which I suspect is not exhaustive) and see how many of those titles you’ve seen him in.

    Okay, back to the marathon!

  12. Hello! ^^v
    I can’t recall if I have commented on your site before, but I really enjoy reading through your thoughts, especially those on sageuk.

    I’ve started watching Ja Myung Go recently and it’s partly because of your notes about the series 🙂 I admit that it’s hard to get through the first few episodes (I blame the slightly choppy and confusing editing) and fast forwarding several scenes, but it gets better..and now I can’t take my eyes off the leads: Puku/Ja Myung, Hodong, Ra Hee, and Wang Hol. The main couple reminds me of Seolnan and Myungnong, the pairing I really love in King’s Daughter, Soo Baek Hyang. Well, maybe I’m romantic at heart, because I’m completely in love with Puku and Hodong.

    I just finished episode 24 and I used to think that Hodong really liked Ra Hee…but it turns out that he’s just using her. I like them together, but Kdramas would never let their leads love more than one person at a time. I didn’t expect Hol to like Puku since he’s kinda cute with his wife/sister-in-law Mo Yanghae.

    So far, the story is engaging and the side characters are fun to love and hate. I detest Daemushin at fact most of the time, and Wang Jasil comes close in second place. I’ve been spoiled with the ending but I am convinced to watch until the end. I find it interesting that the drama is promoted as a tale of two sisters but just like you said, the sad fate of Hodong somehow becomes more prominent and more interesting at times.

  13. Hello there, muchadoaboutlove!

    I cam completely relate to your feelings about Ja Myung Go! It’s true that once you get into it the various relationships really take root in the audience’s heart, Those willing to get through the first three or four episodes have a lot of beautiful storytelling to look forward to.

    If you are right now on ep. 24, I’m excited for you because the section from chapters 27-32 is truly delightful: moving, engaging, suspenseful, sweet, heartbreaking, shocking — I still remember being in a perpetual “Omo! Omo! Omo!” mode during this part!

    So whatever its shortcomings, Ja Myung Go delivers. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! And thank you for visiting. Do come again!

  14. Dream lover says:

    Hi, I really enjoyed reading your notes and hope you can continue writing them until chapter 39. Now I just finished Ja Myung Go and my heart was totally broken with its ending. I haven’ really recovered.

    • Curio Serand says:

      Hello to you, too! And thank you. I’m glad you have enjoyed what you found here.

      I know exactly what you mean about the ending! I remember feeling the wind rather knocked out of me and I shed not a few tears during the entire finale…

      I will definitely write about it and let you know when I do. So many other obligations keep me constantly occupied, and I have long contemplated the end of this tragic, enthraling story so I will happily share (hopefully soon).

  15. My first intro to Jeong Kyeong Ho was in the drama “Falling In Love With Innocence” “King 2 Hearts” and a couple of others. Currently watching “Jealousy Incarnate”…..So expressive without saying a word…..As Prince Hodong and his tragically complex plans of land grabbing and matrimony….I’m nearing the end… 5 epis to go, but it was a drama I’ll remember for a long time.

    • It’s actually only 9:00 p.m. in the evening here…..don’t know why it would say 12:55 a.m.
      the show has two names…”Falling for Innocence” or “Falling In Love With Sung Joon”

      • Curio Serand says:

        I really enjoyed “Falling for Innocence” and I second what you say about Jeong Kyeong Ho – there is something timeless about him, about the way he brings his characters to life..

        PS. I’m glad you noticed the time stamp – the blog is / was set on Greenwich Mean Time.

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