The Princess’s Man- Reviewing Sageuk Greatness

Princess's Man  

“I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing”

~Anaïs Nin

The Princess’s Man is an epic tale of loss, suffering, revenge, love, and the ties that bind. A Romeo and Juliet story (and more, defining this only as a love story is just wrong) set in the Joseon era, this drama does almost everything right. The cinematography is superb, the directing is spot on, the writing and plot pacing meshes with the production to create a story that is engaging and stunning in its impact. Not to mention this drama is super addicting- I watched 24 episodes in 5 days- with a full time job.

The Princess’s Man is a love story between the children of bitter political rivals. The Romeo character, Kim Seung Yoo (Park Shi Hoo) is the son of Kim Jeong Seo, an ultimately super-important figure in the Joseon era. Our Juliet, Lee Se Ryung (Moon Chae Won) is the daughter of Grand Prince Su Yang, the brother of King Munjong. Both Se Ryung and Seung Yoo’s fathers are locked in a political tug of war, fixated on the monarchy and who can be the best Joseon Karl Rove of them all (and potentially the Joseon King depending on how the deck stacks). Nevertheless their children are deeply attracted to eachother (it helps that their love story is founded on the fact they are unaware of their father’s bitter rivalry-at least in the beginning).

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Our love story starts with Se Ryung impersonating her cousin and BFF, the royal princess, in order to get a feel for the man that her father has tried to join her in marriage with, our Romeo Seung Yoo. Pretending to be the titular princess Se Ryung arrives at the lecture set aside for the royal and finds herself face to face with her maybe spouse- but within days her potential marriage is called off. After several chance encounters Se Ryung and her teacher, Seung Yoo, start to fall in love. Unfortunately Seung Yoo has no idea that Se Ryung is not the actual princess, therefore he gladly goes along with his father’s plan to marry him to the daughter of the ruling monarch (who he assumes he has been teaching all along). Before any kind of happy ending the real princess reveals to Seung Yoo her identity, encourages their marriage and tells Seung Yoo that the woman he has been seeing is little more than a palace maid- even though Se Ryung is actually the daughter of a Royal Prince.

Princess's Man 1

Fast forward a little bit and we find a dire circumstances- Se Ryung’s father will not let Seung Yoo marry the “real” princess (that would lead to Seung Yoo’s father gaining too much political power) so he devises a scheme to stop the potential marriage at all costs. His scheming leads to Sueng Yoo’s imprisonment; an event that finds Seung Yoo faithfully tightlipped on who he actually thought was the princess (he is afraid it will end in his true loves death), and his family’s downfall. Before long Seung Yoo is exiled by his family-for a short getaway till it dies down sort of way and Se Ryung is left to cry, watch candles burning long into the night, and be hated by everyone.

With Seung Yoo out of the running for the Prince consort role the Princess weds Jong (the best friend of Seung Yoo and the magistrate Shin Myeon). The day of the Princess’s wedding the King’s long hidden poor health reaches its climax, leaving him critically ill- precipitating Seung Yoo’s return. The King passes away and leaves his young son to take the throne. Our Juliet’s father, the greedy Su Yang tries to seize this opportunity to control the young King however his plan is ended by our Romeo’s father, Jeong Seo, who is appointed as the protector of the young monarch. Su Yang, rearing his evil and manipulative personality that will become a constant theme in this drama, is furious over his thwarted plot to control the young monarch and vows revenge against Jeong Seo.

Before long Yu Sang leads a bloody, disturbing coup against Jeong Soo. Se Ryung attempts to save Seung Yoo from death (after overhearing her father’s plan to kill Seung Yoo’s entire family) but is imprisoned by her father so she cannot warn her lover of his fate. Finally, after much pleading, Seung Yoo’s maid brings a vague message (written in blood mind you) to Seung Yoo and manages to save him from the slaughter that befalls his father and brother.

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As the coup continues into the night the ministers that have continuously resisted Su Yang are assassinated. Our Juliet’s father gains total control over the young King with his wholesale slaughter- all in the name of “justice”- at least his warped lies that accuse all of those he killed of plotting against the throne. With the death of our Romeo’s family and his own serious injuries we are left with a story that becomes progressively darker.

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Seung Yoo lives through the violent attack that kills his father only to stumble bloody and filled with rage into the capitol city. After finding his father’s head mounted on a stake Seung Yoo’s anger drives him towards a poorly planned attack on Su Yang. As Su Yang returns home to celebrate his victorious coup he is greeted by his family, including his daughter Se Ryung (who is less than happy to greet him). It is at that moment that Seung Yoo attacks, and at that moment he sees the truth- his love is the daughter of the man who had planned the death of his family. Weak from his injuries Seung Yoo collapses and his taken into custody- only to face an execution sentence (which is commuted to exile due to Se Ryung’s valiant defiance against her father) and a brutal plot to kill him on the journey to his point of exile.

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Fast forward to more heartache and death and we end up in a situation that has Seung Yoo alive, thought dead, and bent on revenge. His former carefree self crushed by his family’s death, Seung Yoo becomes a man who trusts no one and has a singular purpose of revenge. At the same time we find Se Ryung, convinced Seung Yoo is dead, living a desperately heartbreaking existence as the daughter of an evil man. Yet in the face of her father’s evil acts she stands up to him, at the same time aiding those that he has wronged.

I will not go any further with the plot- I think I have given enough of the setup away to understand that the story packs an emotionally charged punch. As I have watched this drama I have had a tough time pinpointing the most powerful theme. At times it is love; at times it is sacrifice and loss, at times it is the equality and justice that stand in the face of greed and heartlessness. And in my opinion that is what The Princess’s Man does well, it has a solid plot that brings more than a doomed love story, more than a politically charged fictional imagining of history, more than a tale of betrayal.

One of the strongest themes of this story that hit the drama sweet spot for me is the recurring plot choices that revolve around the ties that bind – whether those ties are due to love, family, or friendship- and at times even hatred. The Princess’s man tells a story of the bonds people make and the bonds people break, in the name of justice and the name of love. This story can be ugly at times, brutal, bloody. However each scene of desperation, of death and loss is made relevant by the other person, the other person that is the critical path to those who suffer, the bond they feel, the bond that makes the suffering that much more terrible and the bond that makes all of that suffering have cause and meaning.

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The central bond in The Princess’s Man is between Se Ryung and the two men in her life, her father and her lover. The choices that face Se Ryung are dependent on what her bond to these two men mean, how strong they are in the face of what is right and what is good. Se Ryung’s loyalty and principals are central parts of her character. As a sheltered daughter of a royal prince we first witness this character as a carefree girl, we end up with a woman that is fiercely dedicated and willing to stand strong in the face of opposition few of us can imagine. And the question that follows her throughout her story- are blood ties stronger than anything else, makes us question how we would face a gradual understanding that we are the child of an evil and heartless man.

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Seung Yoo also faces such tests of the bonds he has formed- is his true path in life to revenge his family and his family’s honor, or is it something more dynamic, more dependent on current circumstance and his love towards Se Ryung. I will admit that this character ripped my heart out, the emotions or lack there of that haunted this man after his family was killed made my heartache. In the end of the story (don’t worry, I will not spoil it) the motivation this man felt and why he felt it- how much it dominated his life in relation to others gave us a conclusion, in my opinion, quite fitting.

3 Friends

Another bond that made this story for me was that between the three best friends, the magistrate Shin Myeon, our Romeo Seung Yoo, and the happy go lucky Jung Jong. At the beginning of our story we find the three men lifelong friends, each man’s personality complimenting eachother. As the story progresses the political rivalries, royal feuds, and rebellious plots lead to the three men becoming locked in a game of life and death, at eachother hands. Jung Jong, by far the most sympathetic of the three, is hard to watch as fate rears its ugly head and creates situations that prey upon his good natured character. Shin Myeon, on the other hand, turns into a mini villain, yet a man that despite everything evokes feelings of pity. Seung Yoo becomes our vengeful man on a mission, our hero. The three former friends, forever linked by circumstance, again and again find that they must face the bond they used to have, the bonds they may have broken, and at the end the bond that leads to their own small acts of mercy in the face of greater evil.

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The romantic element of the Princess’s Man was satisfying- while I love me a good doomed love story I was as equally fascinated by the secondary characters. From Jung Jong and the dethroned princess, to the one-sided obsession of Shin Myeon, and the life of the gisaengs and Romeo’s hyungnims this drama did not disappoint in the romance department. This story did not shy away from the tragic, indeed many things ended up that way, but it also gave us an equal dose of the happy. This drama also gave a satisfying foundation and execution to the romantic plotlines- it did not drag but it did not go too fast to make the relationships seem unbelievable. And better yet, among all of the heart wrenching plot points the relationships portrayed were portrayed with meaning and a well thought out story that was clearly paced from the beginning of the drama to the end (thankfully we were not faced with live shoot surprises, you could tell the things that happened were planned, not ad hoc).

The Princess’s Man is the best sageuk I have had the pleasure to watch. It hit on the elements that I love in a historical drama while keeping me beyond engaged (edge of my seat addicted I should say). It was hard to finish watching this, even though the story had to end, I hated thinking about the fact it was over. I came to care about the characters and their story in a way that may have led to a few tears at the ending (okay, Kleenex is still beside me). Beyond how it made me feel, it was visually stunning, technically well executed, wonderfully acted, and superbly directed. I will miss you Princess‘s Man, but you had to end at some point. And your ending was as satisfying as your beginning. A solid drama through and through.

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