궁중잔혹사 – 꽃들의 전쟁 (Cruel Palace – War of Flowers)

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.

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Crown Princess Min Hwe (민회빈 강씨) (left) and the unholy trinity:
Royal Concubine Soyong Jo (폐귀인 조씨), King Injo (조선 인조), and Kim Ja Jeom (김자점)

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.

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Crown Prince Sohyeon (소현세자)

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?

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Queen Jangryeol Jo (장렬왕후 조씨)

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:

CP_00For 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.

This entry was posted in history, KDrama, narrative, Notes on..., politics, sophistry, 대하 사극 (taeha sageuk), 사극 (Sageuk) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to 궁중잔혹사 – 꽃들의 전쟁 (Cruel Palace – War of Flowers)

  1. Pingback: Curio in KDramaland… (or, Through the Sageuk Lens) | SPQ&R

  2. Yes, thank you for this post! I hope you won’t mind seeing me around here more often after this 😉

    Stopped in the middle of ep 4 last night because it was too late to continue but I couldn’t stop thinking about Yam-jun. Through her eyes, it’s no wonder the lower class hated the different social class system: the lower class citizens were viewed as worthless human beings. I dislike the behaviour of Hyuk’s mother and her way of dissing Yam-jun each time the poor girl comes to her house, but it’s the nature of yangban to set a barrier between them and the people below their status. Kim Ja-jeom is another yangban who doesn’t hide the fact that he intends to use Yam-jum as his marionette but to hear Yam-jun calling him father? Priceless. At least, he’s giving her the chance to call someone father, unlike the man who only went to her mother when he feels like it.

    At this rate I’m going to root for Yam-jun and her evil deeds later. Hopefully not!

    Kim Ja-jeom and Injo’s silent war is so entertaining to watch. Both of them know the opponent’s feelings, yet they act like they’re so into each other and dance to the tune. Their game is dangerous since it will cause many repercussions for others beside them and the most pitiful person if Crown Prince Sohyun, who doesn’t even know that he’s being treated as a harmful entity to his own father’s reign.

    My internet connection is not being a good boy these days so I expect to indulge myself in more episodes..

    • Curio Serand says:

      Mimi, it is absolutely my pleasure to have you here as often as you like! I look forward to your comments about the drama and welcome them wholeheartedly. It will be like watching the drama together – from opposite sides of the world! How cool is that!

      I like what you say about Kin Ja Jeom and Injo’s cat-n-mouse dynamic. They are both as transparent as cellophane and yet they both do such elaborate summersaults to “play” their part in the game of “the king and his vassal.”

      My heart, too, really breaks for Prince Sohyeon and Princess Min Hwe because of the game these two old men and the concubine are playing with one another… SO tragic, yet so compelling…!

      • What’s better than having a watching buddy even if we’re in different continents? 😉

        Finished episode 6 and it’s like watching everyone is either manipulating or being manipulated by other people. It’s sad to see someone like Yam-jun who had to give in to her innermost desire to step on the people who dissed her low status and chose revenge over love. Not to mention Prince Sohyun and Princess Minhwe, who don’t even realize that they’re regarded as threats when they’re working so hard on the foreign land. There are lots of people to be blamed but each of them is just looking for ways to survive the harsh reality, in which they have to kill or get killed.

        Oh, Yam-jun is so evil. I do pity her but when she’s in her plotting mode, she’s so cunning! Sometimes I’m left wondering about her true feelings, especially towards Nam Hyuk. Hyuk’s sad eyes are killing me….

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  4. Curio Serand says:

    Notes on 궁중잔혹사 – 꽃들의 전쟁 (Cruel Palace – War of Flowers): O Misery!

    [Ep. 24-36] O heavens! King Injo’s court is a den of pure misery! I cannot find any way to empathize with the three figures of the unholy trinity. All they do is crush people underfoot, destroy hope and trust, and even kill at will when it suits their purpose.

    I started out really compelled by this drama, even awarding my highest rating, 3 stars, when I was just at episode 16. However, by episode 25 the bloom of my fascination had wilted. The miserable murder of Crown Prince Sohyeon whose spirit had already been utterly demolished was just the last straw. Mind you, it wasn’t the death itself, but rather how it came about by the willful machination of the Lady Soyong Jo’s whispering in the King’s ear and the miserable King’s own susceptibility and consent to the murder of his son. I have heard Soyong Jo described as brilliant in some circles but I find that her simple ignorance and small-minded greed for control is becoming only more transparent with every new manipulation, her voice getting increasingly shrill and strident. I cannot intellectually sympathize with a protagonist whose means of getting what she wants is to perpetrate every deception and poison people at will left and right. If I cannot have a peacemaker, at least give me a mindful strategist who sees the bigger picture and is motivated by a greater cause that mere self-aggrandizement. Ugh!

    The effect of Crown Prince Sohyeon’s death is devastating to Crown Princess Min Hwe and to their 10-year old son Suk Chul. A strong, loving woman cut down so shamefully, a devoted son weighed down with unaccountable guilt — it’s all just too much.

    It does not help that after the Crown Prince’s death, the young Queen who had originally seemed so full of the possibility of redemption also gets inexorably tainted by the iniquitous influence of Soyong Jo and King Injo and she, too, begins to see betrayal everywhere; begins to conjure machinations of her own to put the Crown princess “in her place.”

    Am now on episode 36 and the misery just won’t let up. The small-minded, greedy, vengeful antiheroes keep triumphing, hope keeps getting trodden underfoot, and all possibilities of growth and progress keep getting trampled.

    Needless to say, I am finding it all just a little breathlessly depressing… 14 more episodes to go and it will be over. My only consolation at this point is to downgrade my rating to 1 star and remove this soul-crusher from my ‘must-see’ list because I really would not wish this horrible emotional experience I am having in response to the foetid court of King Injo on anyone.

  5. Curio Serand says:

    Notes on 궁중잔혹사 – 꽃들의 전쟁 (Cruel Palace – War of Flowers): Animosity!

    [Ep. 36-38] There is so much hatred amongst the women on King Injo’s court, so much loathing and distrust among its officers, from ministers to eunuchs to maids, that it is a wonder these people don’t just drop dead from stress due to bile poisoning…

    Holy hell, is all she wrote!

  6. Curio Serand says:

    Notes on 궁중잔혹사 – 꽃들의 전쟁 (Cruel Palace – War of Flowers): Putrification!

    [Ep 39 ff.] You know that saying about the rotten apple spoiling the whole barrel? Well, Cruel Palace – War of Flowers is all about the effect of rotten apples. The bad people in this story are just so toxic that nothing good can thrive.

    • Crown Prince Sohyeon, the idealist who dreamed of a better world, is murdered in the most pitiable way by his father’s concubine with his father’s consent.
    • Crown Princess Min Hwe, his inspiration and pillar of strength, is repeatedly terrorized and beaten down so thoroughly that her spirit just gets worn down.
    • Young Prince Suk Chul, their bright-eyed, brilliant little boy, is alienated and terrorized in the palace, denied his birthright as Crown Prince after his father’s death, stripped of all his royal titles and ejected from the palace. He is a responsible eldest son who sees to the continued education of his younger brothers, assuming the role of protector his father can no longer fulfill and proves to be his mother’s joy and comfort. I want his fate to end here, but history tells a forebodingly different story…
    • The young Queen Jangryeol for whom I harbored so much hope has become so psychologically entangled in the web wrought of Soyong Jo and Injo’s psychopathy that she appears to have lost all the equanimity of her youth. Now, since the story is leaving a little bit of room for ambiguity, the jury is still out on her. I still find myself hoping that she finds her way back from such overwhelming material concern. We shall see.
    • Heartbroken, rejected and fatally betrayed – not once, but twice by the girl he loved all his life — the girl who bore his child and then tried to pass it off as the king’s first born, yes, none other than Soyong Jo herself! — the embittered lover Nam Hyuk is back again, and this time with cold, hard vengeance in his heart. His heartbreak still shows behind the icy rage in his eyes, and it is an altered state Eunuch Kim In has apparently known to use well to keep Soyong Jo in line.

    No, indeed. All that is good falls prey to the toxic foetor emanating from the relentless unholy trinity. Not even friendship, however mercenary, manages to survive this pit of vipers. Young Queen Jangryeol is learning the hard, hard way just how awful ‘fair weather friends’ can be.

  7. Curio Serand says:

    An earnest comment from a fellow blogger who thought I hated Cruel Palace compels me to repost my response clarifying why the content and tone of my notes about this drama are as they are:
    _____________________________________________________________________
    I do not “hate” Cruel Palace by any means, I just wrote candidly about what I observed.

    I actually think, based on the consistency and quality of the show, that the feelings of revulsion I describe are exactly the ones the story is designed to evoke. It’s actually a testament to the drama’s narrative sophistication that it can be so candid about the pervasive toxicity of King Injo’s court and still keep the viewer engaged, albeit unrelentingly repulsed. Seriously, antiheroes and psychopaths never enjoy center stage and Cruel Palace appears designed to rectify that particular lacuna in the universe of storytelling.

    I decided to write about it just as candidly so that the tender-hearted might be warned that this is not a tale for the fragile constitution. This means that there may well be an audience out there that enjoys the sort of iniquity Cruel Palace dramatizes. In any case, the story’s title is a significant clue of what lies ahead for whomever decides to hear this story.

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