The arrival of SBS‘s Jang Ok Jeong, Live for Love will mark the ninth, yes ninth, adaptation of the story of Joseon’s infamous Jang Hee-bin. With that in mind, what should we be expecting out of Kim Tae-hee’s representation of the famous concubine? Should we even bother to watch yet another version of the story?
For those who don’t know, Jang Hee-bin may be the most recognized villainess in Korea both historically and in popular culture; a greedy, narcissistic woman who knows exactly what she wants and precisely how to get it. Here is a summary of her royal life:
The real Jang Ok Jeong, oft cited as the most beautiful woman in Joseon, started out as a lady-in-waiting for the Queen Dowager at the time. King Sukjong, immediately entranced by her, makes Lady Jang his concubine with the title Suk-won. She later is elevated to the title Jang Hee-bin (Royal Noble Consort) with the birth of her son, the future King Gyeongjong. Soon afterwards, Hee-bin becomes Queen Consort after Sukjong deposes Queen Inhyeon. This occurs because the Noron faction (a subset of the Western faction, who supports Inhyeon) disapproved of making Lady Jang’s son the crown prince and Lady Jang, supported by the Southern faction, Hee-bin.
Sukjong, angry and influenced by Hee-bin, removes Queen Inhyeon and elevates Hee-bin to Queen Bu Ok. However, just as rapidly as he took down Inhyeon (six years to be exact,) Sukjong repents his actions (right when he begins to favor Choi Suk-bin) and has Queen Inhyeon reinstated. Inhyeon soon dies of an unknown disease, and concurrently Sukjong discovers Hee-bin and her brother praying with a shaman for said death. Hee-bin is indicted for treason against the Queen/poisoning the Queen and is sentenced to death by poison in 1701. In the aftermath, Sukjong decrees that no concubine can ever become Queen of Joseon again.
If this is sounding like an episode of The Tudors to you, I quite agree—the similarities are rather starling. In drama adaptations of this famous story, Jang Hee-bin is normally either a femme fatale (Jang Hui-bin,) or the main antagonist, when the drama is from the perspective of Queen Inhyeon (500 Years of Joseon: Queen Inhyeon) or Choi Suk-bin, another Royal Concubine and mother of King Yeongjo (Dong Yi.) Her character is said to be so cruel, that she supposedly beat her own son till he became developmentally challenged. So most would agree that “antagonist” and “femme fatale” are apt descriptors for her.
That said, these are my top five reasons why Jang Hee-bin’s story is timeless:
1. The blatant personal flaws lead to an engaging (real!) story.
If that’s not a reason to watch a show/movie, I don’t know what is. Jang Hee-bin is the apex of femme fatale. Who else gets rumors about essentially voodoo dolling the Queen just to re-gain her power? That right there beats every crazy on every K-drama ever. No matter how many times we watch her, she never gets old with her brand of deranged.
2. The universal romantic conflict draws in the audience despite the unattainable characters with un-relatable lives. Well, unattainable if you’re not Kate Middleton.
Few people would ever watch 16 hours of councilmen going over political policy, and if you do, props to you. To those of that select bunch, I recommend you watch some CSPAN instead, as I highly doubt that this royal infighting can top the U.S. Congress. For the rest of us, I think we’d much rather watch the trio of women fight over one man, because that kind of stuff happens everyday.
3. People Girls like Harem in all forms.
Do I really need to explain this one?
4. Catfights are way more entertaining than actual battles.
I would take backhanded manipulation, verbal sparring, hair pulling, and dress ripping over bloodshed any day. Swords and armor are for wimps.
5. Costumes, Costumes, Costumes.
A royal saeguk requires plenty of beautiful royal hanboks. And with all those concubines/queens of Sukjong’s, we might as well have a fashion show while we’re at it.
So what does this mean for Jang Ok Jeong, Live for Love?
Jang Ok Jeong, Live for Love separates itself from the pack by attempting to turn Jang Hee-bin into the malfortuned true princess—a la Anne Boleyn—stuck between the cunning Inhyeon and the young Suk-bin/Suk-won. However, based on the K-dramas I’ve seen, in all likelihood, we’re not going to get the influence of Anne Boleyn’s character, but a shell of the woman who was Jang Hee-bin—who happens to be a Joseon fashion designer. I have nothing against historical fashion designers, but I’m just not feeling it here.
…and there goes my number one reason to watch any form of Jang Hee-bin. I’ll miss you.
Jokes aside, I’m certainly feeling some trepidation (not including the fact that no one actually knows anything about the story apart from the initial overview and some uninformative trailers) about this drama. First of all, Kim Tae-hee taking on such a large role for her first saeguk on top of being a mediocre actress is not the best news. Jang Hee-bin of yore had flaws, believed in herself and her views, and was willing to take the consequences of being ambitious. She’s certainly a villainess, but she had gravitas. In short, Hee-bin is a dense character, and I’m wary of Kim Tae-hee, given her history, taking on that kind of role. Additonally, the drama getting rid of everything that makes Jang Hee Bin, Jang Hee Bin, defeats the whole purpose of the alterna-universe. Why let Jang Hee-bin tell her own story in the first place if she’s not really Jang Hee-bin?
On the other hand, the femme fatale version of Jang Hee-bin compromises the majority of the nine portrayals of her, and asking for yet another one just seems rather useless. What I would find to be the ideal drama is seeing Jang Hee-bin as a party as equally wronged as Inhyeon. I would love to have Hee-bin fighting for her love of Sukjong as a woman for once as opposed to within the confines of a specific trope. Maintaining some of the key components of the historical Hee-bin’s character including her steadfast and rather crafty nature will give this Hee-bin some depth. I don’t mind changing history and letting Jang Hee-bin get her man. The only thing I ask is that the journey be worthwhile.
So Seoulmates, time to answer the ultimate question: “To watch, or not to watch?”