Greed, betrayal, vengeance — all this and the casual brutality wrought in their service — are at the raw, bloody heart of 궁중잔혹사 – 꽃들의 전쟁 (Cruel Palace: War of the Flowers), where a veritable Pandemonium of malignant narcissists —essentially functional psychopaths, the lot of them!— has the run of King Injo of Joseon’s court. Joseon era sageuk are generally replete with a particularly acrid flavor of palace intrigue, but none more so than those set during the reign of Injo (1595-1649, r. 1623–1649), a man from whom Fortune seems to have withheld every favor. Cruel Palace sets out to tell his story from within the palace walls and what a story it has to tell! The psychopaths in this tale fit the description to a tee: each a predator who takes advantage of others using charm, deceit, violence and other methods to get what they want. Among the ethically rotten majority in Cruel Palace, however, there are still a few righteous souls, but both history and the universal rules of drama tell us that these few are doomed to become victims of the predators in the midst of whom they live.
No, indeed. Cruel Palace is not the place to go for an affirmation of the triumph of good over evil; of love over hatred; of courage over cowardice; of virtue over vice. At least not in its first forty episodes. Yet the story somehow does not read like a celebration of bad behavior. From the beginning, as we watch the players, one by one, embrace the very worst angels of their nature with gusto to not only survive, but also get ahead in their viciously predatory world, we are also aware that it is a world all of their own making. Heading the ruthless pack of hyeanas is the unholy trinity of the cowardly, paranoid and entitled King Injo, his primary agent-cum-nemesis Kim Ja Jeom, and the heartless, manipulative Royal Concubine Soyong Jo. Curiously, these antiheroes are nonetheless irresistibly charming. Creating an atmosphere of rampant distrust and fear around them, these three generate a black hole of iniquity into which the will of the entire royal court – from ministers to concubines to eunuchs and maids – are all inexorably drawn. It takes considerable skill on the part of the storytellers to allow the audience so frank a window into their brazen world without also damning us as well simply through guilt by association.
Among the very few with enough ethical integrity to both recognize and resist this impropriety are the Crown Princess Min Hwe of the Kang Clan along with her husband, Injo’s son, the Crown Prince Sohyeon. Were it not for the relentless plotting in Injo’s court to frame the Crown Prince for libel and sedition, it may be considered a great fortune that they are both sent from Injo’s pit of vipers to the Qing court as hostages together with the young Prince Bongrim as a condition of Injo’s humiliating surrender after the Manchu invasion of 1636. Even as hostages, this young couple embodies nobleness and nobility, using their power and influence to help liberate citizens of Joseon held in captivity and sold to slavery by the conquering barbarians.
But the schemers in Injo’s court, led by Kim Ja Jeom and seconded by Soyong Jo, instead take news of the Crown Prince and Princess’s ethically laudable efforts and use them to stoke the flames of Injo’s insecurities of sedition from those closest to him. To see the success of this conspiracy materialize is heartbreaking and it is impossible for me to watch this drama without Yeats’s “The Second Coming” echoing in my ear:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
There may be hope of some measure of redemption for this court in the person of Injo’s precocious, self-posessed Queen Jangryeol Jo. As of this writing I have reached chapter 16 where the young queen who is now 19 years old has just returned to the palace to reclaim her authority and her place by the king’s side after a four-year exile slyly engineered by Soyong Jo. I am curious to see how she navigates the palace minefield and whether she has enough integrity to not surrender to the pull of the unholy trinity’s iniquitous singularity.
A very great deal takes place in Cruel Palace and as usual, I will not recapitulate the plot but rather analyze the ethical issues that arise from the story that is being told. So far, I have already sketched an outline to examine the different ways in which the drama addresses the political and social strife rampant in Injo’s time.
Of the seven titles in my sageuk timeline whose stories occur during the period of King Injo’s reign, I have already seen five and am now watching the sixth. True to type, the titles listed in this group all underscore the social and political turbulence of Injo’s time in the context of both international and domestic affairs:
For it’s unblinking and often witty, yet chilling approach to the details of this unhappy king’s reign, Cruel Palace is proving a real pleasure to watch. Because it is so very dense —rich with political, social, cultural and artistic details, especially in the way it uses the fine arts of dance and music as metaphors, to say nothing of it’s razor sharp, clever dialogue — I think the drama also requires a considerable degree of concentration to be properly appreciated. This means that I think I will only be able to take in but an hour a day, if I can find the time! I will take notes in the comments as my viewing progresses and I look forward to a thoroughly engaging adventure.