Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dae Jang Geum, My Hero

[Note: This review contains spoilers. For a shorter review, without spoilers, please look here.]

Dae Jang Geum ("Jang Geum the Great") is both a historical person and the title lead character in the Korean television drama series of the same name. Jang Geum was a historical figure about whom little is known in Korea during the 16th century reign of King Jungjong. What is known is that she was the first female royal court physician. She was the first -- and only -- woman to serve as the king's personal physician. She has been acknowledged in Korean history by a designation few get, and virtually no women: "The Great." With that title, she stands alongside such great Korean leaders as King Sejong the Great, who instigated the Korean Renaissance of the 15th century, and sponsored the creation of Hangul, the simplified alphabet that enabled literacy to become widespread in Korea.

Dae Jang Geum the television drama comprises 54 hour-long episodes. The author of the series, Yeong-hyeon Kim, draws on history and then fills in the gaps to tell the story of Jang Geum, who begins her life as the daughter of a noblewoman cast-out from the palace and the royal palace guard who gave up everything to be with her. They live in hiding, the father as a modest blacksmith, and the mother who keeps house and teaches young Jang Geum her secrets of cooking and medicine.

One of the early scenes in the series is of young 5-year old Jang Geum begging her parents to teach her to read. Her parents are afraid to do it, for fear that Jang Geum will give away their noble backgrounds, and put their lives in danger. But Jang Geum persists and her parents begin to teach her.

Jang Geum makes a mistake one day when some constables mistreat her father and she yells out proudly to them that her father is a royal guard and they have no right to touch him.

Her mistake sends her father to prison, and she and her mother must flee.

From this troubled beginning, young Jang Geum makes her way to the palace, where her mother once worked, and enters the court as a trainee in the royal kitchen. In the class society of ancient Korea, as an orphan Jang Geum is considered the lowliest. But despite the torments of some of her schoolmates and jealous teacher, Jang Geum persists, and she learns to cook in the top kitchen of the land.

The scenes of Jang Geum and the other "kitchen ladies" cooking are something of beauty in terms of the colors, smells (you can almost smell the food!), and the incredible dedication with which the food is made. Jang Geum is taught by her wise teacher, Lady Han, that the kitchen is not a place for palace intrigue. Nothing must compromise the integrity of the food and the meals that they prepare for the royal family.

Even as a young apprentice, Jang Geum shows a mind that works differently than her peers. She investigates everything in a methodical manner. She tests various ingredients, and even different types of water for their various food properties. She discovers the source of spoilage when vegetables mysteriously become bad. She learns how to "draw a taste," that is make tasty, healthy meals by mixing ingredients in ways that have never been tried.

Jang Geum must fight those who stand for tradition every step of the away. Yet she persists.

Eventually, through many plot twists, Jang Geum finds herself cast out of the palace. But even when she is banished to a a small island off of Korea's southern tip, she continues her pursuits with dedication.

Eventually, Jang Geum finds her way back to the palace and becomes a physician lady. The position has lower status than court kitchen lady, but it is her way back in. It is as physician lady that we see Jang Geum's mind fully at work. As a physician, she is a scientist. She conducts field trials and medical research to find out the truth. At every step of the way, she is pitted against the traditionalists, who insist on doing things a certain way because they were always done that way, or because that is how it is written down in some ancient Chinese medical texts. She is pitted against the nobles, who retained their titles by privilege. Yet she persists.

Although many oppose her, Jang Geum has loyal friends along the way, including the man she falls in love with. At the end, she defies all historical precedents and risks everything to save the life of the king.

There is so much to love in this series: Jang Geum the little girl who shows kitchen ladies decades older than her how to properly sterilize water. Jang Geum the apprentice kitchen lady who stands in for her kidnapped mentor and prepares dishes by herself for the king and queen in a food competition. Jang Geum the fighter who will not rest until she avenges those who killed her mother. Jang Geum who is loved so deeply by the court scholar who would kill an army if he had to to save her life. Jang Geum the "lowly" court physician who will risk not just her own life, but even the lives of everyone she loves, to save the king. Jang Geum the scientist (in a day when there were none) who relentlessly asks why, and looks to natural evidence for answers.

I love Jang Geum the hero, the scientist, the little girl and grown woman, in this series.

The supporting characters are also larger than life. Her buffoonish step-father, who secretly spies for her, at the risk of his life. Her fearless doctor-mentor on Jeju Island who was awed even at Jang Geum's courage. Min Jeong-Ho, the court scholar official, who cannot love her by law, and yet stands by her through every crisis. Lady Han, her mother-figure and mentor, whom Jang Geum supported and gave strength.

Even the evil characters are larger than life. Lady Choi, who will relentlessly fight to preserve her family's legacy of serving the royal kitchen. The merchant Choi, who seeks to preserve his business empire based on his monopoly of food trade with China. Choi Keum Yang, who is Jang Geum's equal in the kitchen, but tragically loves the same man Jang Geum does.

I highly recommend this series. You can watch it with English subtitles. Occasionally, the translations don't do full justice to the Korean, which is a beautiful, poetic language, although you can almost always figure out the meaning in context. If you have a Korean-speaking friend, corral him or her to watch it with you. But that is not necessary to thoroughly enjoy this Eastern treasure.