THE SHORT VERDICT:
Grand, lush, well-made, well-acted, well-written & well worth watching.
Every detail in this drama is thoughtfully put together, from the characters’ dialogue, to the themes & motifs, to cultural & historical references. Very tightly & seamlessly produced and executed, there is an excellent balance between the action in the story and the emotional development of the characters and their relationships.
Engaging, romantic and thought-provoking. And a gorgeous OST just ups the magic.
THE LONG VERDICT:
I know that there is sector of kdrama watchers who prefer their dramas modern, light and fluffy and therefore make it a general rule not to watch any sageuk whatsoever.
I am here to tell you that even if you fall into this category, The Princess’ Man is worth your time. Really.
There are several things about The Princess’ Man that might potentially turn this category of kdrama watcher off from watching it: it’s a sageuk; the plot has political machinations aplenty; it’s hyped as a Romeo and Juliet-esque story, so you know right away that there’s a strong potential for tragedy.
Allow me to address these concerns, to set your minds at ease.
BUT IT’S A SAGEUK
The Princess’ Man is a very special, unique brand of sageuk.
It’s not your typical long sageuk, because at 24 episodes, it is a lot shorter than the more usual 50+ or 60+ episode sageuk like Queen Seon Duk, which ran for 62 episodes.
Most sageuks spend a boat-load of time on political plotting and maneuvering, and romance takes a backseat and is often peripheral to the story.
Well, unless you’re a fusion sageuk, in which case all kinds of rules get thrown out the window (see Sungkyunkwan Scandal). Yet, The Princess’ Man doesn’t quite feel like a fusion sageuk either, even though it doesn’t adhere strictly to traditional sageuk rules.
More importantly, in The Princess’ Man, it is the romance that takes center stage. There is a lot of political goings-on, yes, but the politics and the love story are closely interwoven, so you always feel like things are interconnected. What happens in the political arena has far-reaching influence on the fate of our lovers, and that makes the politics much more interesting.
The writers take great pains in recreating actual historical events, while adding fictional characters and situations that could plausibly fit into history. In this way, it doesn’t feel like a fusion sageuk, but feels more like a peek into the parts of history that didn’t make it into the history books. We can actually believe that our characters were real people who existed in history, and I think that’s really cool.
As for the Romeo and Juliet bent of the story, yes, it’s true that there are a number of tragic characters and there are times when you are more than likely to shed a few tears. But this drama does not present you with tragedy for tragedy’s sake. Instead, there is a profound overarching emphasis on integrity, honor and righteousness, which I find very moving.
The cinematography in The Princess’ Man is nothing short of spectacular. If you liked Chuno‘s cinematography, you might be interested to know that the same fabulous Red One camera is employed in The Princess’ Man.
Everything is beautifully shot and the colors are intense, rich and vibrant. Additionally, the textures look luxurious, making this world feel opulent, fantastical, and yet at the same time, very real. We feel literally transported into a different world.
Scenes are regularly set in sweeping, breathtaking locales, and we get scenes that look like this:
Pure. Gorgeous. Magnificence.
To further bring this world to life, the OST is executed splendidly. The excellent, well-chosen OST has fusion touches, but again, it doesn’t make this feel like a fusion drama.
The music is gorgeous, beautifully scored and expertly employed to enhance the drama. Every track is perfectly selected in terms of lyrics, mood and tone, and is applied just so, at every juncture.
This plays a huge part in creating the atmosphere of the show, from sweet melodies to underscore the moments shared by our lovers, to pulsing arias to heighten suspenseful stretches.
I never felt like the music was intrusive, even though it was a significant presence in the show.
Both Park Shi Hoo and Moon Chae Won turned in excellent performances as our OTP Kim Seung Yoo and Lee Se Ryung.
Additionally, the writing around their relationship is believable and we get to see them fall in love in stages. I find that more believable than having the OTP fall head-over-heels, desperately in love at first sight.
Since a lot of the story in terms of plot development and character choices rests on the strength of this couple’s love for each other, I really appreciate the writers’ attention to detail in building up their relationship.
From the time they first meet each other when Se Ryung impersonates her cousin Princess Kyung Hae (Hong Soo Hyun), to the multiple times that Seung Yoo then spots her outside the palace, to the various instances where they end up saving each others’ lives, we can see the progression and development of their regard for each other.
Their initial mild curiosity about each other grows into a bigger and stronger fascination, and we actually witness the moment they fall in love.
The writers don’t stop there, though. We see how this young love then gets tested, and subsequently, how it blossoms into something more mature, substantial and profound.
Kudos to the writers for detailing our OTP’s development in a manner that allows us as viewers to share in the deepening of their relationship.
PARK SHI HOO AS KIM SEUNG YOO
Park Shi Hoo’s delivery as Kim Seung Yoo was very impressive.
Although I wouldn’t say he’s the most brilliant actor of them all, he’s come a long way & seems to be making consistently big strides in the right direction.
He had a wide range of scenes in The Princess’ Man, many of which were difficult, and he delivered admirably.
From the midly comic:
To the charming & suave:
To the angry, angst-ridden & tortured:
One of the scenes where I was most impressed with Park Shi Hoo’s performance is when Seung Yoo is in jail and Se Ryung goes to see him. At this point, he has lost everything. He’s also found out Se Ryung’s true identity, that she is the daughter of the man who’s brought about the demise of his entire family.
In the scene, he catches Se Ryung’s neck in a strangle-hold and his gaze goes from empty, to recognition, to incredulity, to rage, to pretty much crazed, all in a matter of seconds.
We literally see the progression in his eyes and every twitch of his facial muscles. Very impressive indeed.
Park Shi Hoo’s clearly drawing from a much deeper place than he ever did before, which is awesome.
Now, if he could progress onto layered and nuanced delivery, he would be a complete force to be reckoned with.
Through the span of the drama, Seung Yoo goes through several style seasons, each one commensurate with his circumstances, and Park Shi Hoo rocks each style with aplomb.
First, we get Handsome Hanbok:
And then we get Shirtless Sexy:
And then we get my favorite – No-Nonsense Ninja:
Park Shi Hoo as Kim Seung Yoo is so strong, so passionate and yet so cool. Kudos to the stylists for effectively helping to bring out the awesomeness of Kim Seung Yoo.
I especially love that Park Shi Hoo uses the lower registers of his voice a lot as Kim Seung Yoo, particularly in the later episodes. He’s already got a very nice, low voice. But when he deliberately uses the lower registers of his voice, it’s quite gorgeous on the ears, like deep, slightly rough velvet.
Mmm. Very sexy indeed. ♥
MOON CHAE WON AS LEE SE RYUNG
Se Ryung as a character goes through a great deal of growth over the course of the show and Moon Chae Won did an excellent job bringing Se Ryung to life in a way that was believable and moving.
Yes, there were rumblings in the drama-verse that Moon Chae Won’s sageuk diction left a lot to be desired. I’m not good enough at Korean to make an informed comment about that, though I do concede that she often sounded like she was curling her tongue way too much, like she had a tiny marble in her mouth that she wasn’t aware of.
Still, Moon Chae Won definitely made up for it with her sensitive and convincing portrayal of Se Ryung.
When we first meet her, Se Ryung is feisty & curious in general, something that we don’t often encounter in our sageuk heroines. She loves horses and has a deep desire to ride one, and steals about stealthily to get herself on a horse, despite her parents’ disapproval (& everyone else’s for that matter).
From the get-go, we get the sense that she’s a brave lass, sometimes to a foolhardy extent. She throws caution to the wind for what matters to her and for what she believes in, thereby landing herself in some life-threatening situations.
Over the course of the drama, though, Se Ryung’s character undergoes major growth, and she eventually convinces us that she’s made of better, more selfless, more noble and more steely stuff.
Early in the show, her foolhardy stealth riding goes awry when the horse that she’s on has a scare and takes off racing towards the edge of a cliff. Seung Yoo happens to see her, and risks his life to save her, all the while still thinking that she is the Princess.
While this does give our OTP some opportunities for encounters of the close kind, I did feel conflicted about Se Ryung lying to Seung Yoo.
When Seung Yoo eventually gets thrown in jail for allegedly consorting with “Princess Kyung Hae,” he comes to realize that Se Ryung is not who he thought she was. Yet, Se Ryung still does not reveal her true identity. Instead, she uses her maid’s name as her own and lies that she is a maid.
It didn’t sit well with me, that Se Ryung was lying to Seung Yoo about so many things, including her name and station in life. Granted, she tried to tell him the truth several times and was interrupted. But still. Lies aren’t ever the best foundation on which to build your love. Especially if your lies threaten the very survival of the man you profess to love.
Later on, though, Se Ryung saves Seung Yoo’s life multiple times, often at the risk of her own life. That was what redeemed her in my mind.
From being a thoughtless young girl, Se Ryung became a young woman who stood by her beliefs with such fierce determination that she would literally put her very life on the line.
She is fearless and unrelenting in her efforts to protect Seung Yoo, always running off to inform him of danger, even if it means putting herself in danger. Eventually, she even takes an arrow for him.
What a moving journey of growth she charted, and Moon Chae Won brought that journey admirably to life.
EXPRESSIONS OF LOVE [SPOILERY!]
Our OTP expressed their love for each other in multiple ways – not least in the regular saving of each others’ lives.
In terms of less life-threatening sorts of expressions of love, however, there were also plenty of goodies for us.
There were more than a few hugs and kisses that our OTP shared, and there were several scenes surrounding the consummating of their relationship which definitely pushed the envelope in regular-saguek-land.
Here’s just a taste of those scenes:
Even more than these scenes, though, I found the silent communication through their hands most quietly poetic.
In the later episodes, our OTP’s hands meet and linger often. The way their hands intertwine are full of meaning, and there are many scenes where their hands speak volumes in terms of love, tenderness, affection, assurance and promise.
Behold some of the lovely conversations between their hands:
So. Very. Lovely.
As the show progresses, we come to realize more and more, that the love between Seung Yoo and Se Ryung is indeed marked by scars and suffering.
Yet, the purity and depth of their love is profound and moving to behold, and we cannot help but root for this couple.
THE OTHER OTP
Aside from Seung Yoo and Se Ryung, there is another compelling OTP in Princess Kyung Hae and her Prince Consort, Jong (Lee Min Woo).
Princess Kyung Hae had married Jong purely out of duty, and treated him as only a husband in name. From this point of being married merely by description, the show brings us on a sweet progression of how Jong eventually won his wife’s heart.
Theirs is a love that is bittersweet and hard-won, for it is a love that blossomed while in the grip of fear and uncertainty.
The political upheaval and accompanying fear was the catalyst that caused Princess Kyung Hae to see the truth and extent of Jong’s love for her. Paradoxically, this same catalyst that helped their love to blossom, was at the very same time, the very thing that threatened to drive them apart.
It was heartbreaking & moving to see them finally come together as true husband and wife, only to then fear never being able to see each other again.
In the end, I found their marriage and relationship equal parts tragic and poignant.
Although it was Jong’s devotion that carried their marriage to a point of mutuality, it was Princess Kyung Hae’s love and loyalty to her husband which remained beyond his death.
Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. So beautiful and so tragic, all in one.
HONG SOO HYUN AS PRINCESS KYUNG HAE
Hong Soo Hyun put in a completely masterful performance as Princess Kyung Hae.
From the very beginning of the show, Princess Kyung Hae is fiercely elegant and has a demeanor of steel. As the show progresses, however, and as her fortunes become more and more bleak and uncertain, she speaks with a commanding authority that barely conceals her fragile vulnerability.
Her choices made under pressure reveal her strength of character and it is her courage even when she is most scared that is most moving.
One of the most arresting scenes, in my mind, was around Princess Kyung Hae’s response to her husband’s choice to die.
She desperately tried to persuade him to change his mind, for her sake and for the sake of their unborn child. Her distress is palpable as she weeps without attempting to restrain her tears.
When Jong explains resolutely his reasons for choosing to die, she complies with his wishes even in the midst of her anguish. She steels herself to do the necessary, and then collapses in tormented, muffled cries behind closed doors.
My heart couldn’t help but ache for her.
Hong Soo Hyun’s delivery was subtle, restrained, yet spot-on. Simply amazing.
LEE MIN WOO AS JONG
Lee Min Woo put in a fantastic performance as Jong.
Jong is idealistic, loyal and pure-hearted, and he stands by his beliefs in an unwavering manner, whether it’s to do with love, friendship or national ideals. The fact that he stands unmoved despite being pretty terrified on the inside just makes him all the more awesome.
One of the things I loved about him was his steadfast desire to uphold the friendship between him, Seung Yoo and Myun (Song Jong Ho) despite the enormous political pressure surrounding them.
Usually amiable and unassuming, I loved how he even raised his fist toward his friend Myun, whom he perceived as losing sight of his morals.
Even more than this, I loved how he loved Princess Kyung Hae and won her over with his simple sincerity.
Even though Princess Kyung Hae barely acknowledged his existence from the beginning of their marriage, he never once reproached her for it. Instead, he simply continued to love her in every way that she needed. I found that incredibly sweet.
I loved that he tried to surprise her with rings from his mother for her birthday despite her cool treatment of him.
I loved that he stepped up to reassure her and her brother the young king when intruders led by Myun barged into their compound.
I loved that he took it upon himself to be the Prince Consort even though his wife did not treat him as such.
It was this very choice of his, to simply love his wife and be who she needed – despite her not granting him permission to do so – that ultimately won her heart.
When Princess Kyung Hae acknowledged him and addressed him as “husband,” I found that one of the most sweetly satisfying moments of the entire show. I was just so happy for Jong, that his love was finally requited.
Hands-down, the most tragically captivating part of Lee Min Woo’s performance, was Jong’s decision to die.
He’d been captured for treason and was scheduled to be executed. Princess Kyung Hae desperately pleaded with him to allow her to tell Seung Yoo, who would be able to break him out of prison.
His terrified yet stoic decision to meet his death righteously – so as not to endanger Seung Yoo, and also, so that his decision to die for a worthy cause along with other patriots would speak to future generations of what is right, from the history books – was admirable and heart-rending all in one.
And just when I thought Jong had gotten me completely in the heart, he went one further: he gathered all his fatherly love and instincts into one significant, deliberate act; he chose a name for his unborn child.
When he pressed the piece of paper into Princess Kyung Hae’s hands and said his final words to her, so full of love, gratitude and longing, my heart wept for him.
This was without a doubt the best performance I have ever seen from Lee Min Woo. He was understated, quiet awesomeness personified.
A FANTASTIC SUPPORTING CAST
The supporting cast was all-around fantastic, and provided a rich context and acted as great foils for our main characters.
Here, I’m giving a shout-out to just a few of them.
Song Jong Ho was very good as Myun, and provided a point of contrast to Seung Yoo and Jong, both in terms of his treatment of the woman he loved, and his response to political pressure. He believed that he was forced to make the choices that he made, but ultimately, it was his weakness of character that moved his hand.
Kim Young Chul was chillingly convincing as Prince Su Yang, a man so driven by his thirst for power that he did not hesitate to shed an ocean of blood.
Kim Roe Ha was very good as Jo Suk Joo, Seung Yoo’s fellow-fugitive turned comrade. I loved how he started off being the random stranger thrown together with Seung Yoo, and eventually became Seung Yoo’s confidante and right hand man.
Kim Yoo Bin was adorable as Seung Yoo’s niece Ah Kang. She was cute as a button, yet managed to handle difficult crying scenes convincingly and with pathos. What a talented little lady she is! ♥
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
MY THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
In the end, The Princess’ Man was not just about a love of epic proportions, but more than that, it was about love born out of an alignment of ideals.
This was true for both our OTPs, and both couples believed in and stood for the same ideals, to the extent of literally putting their lives on the line for what they believed in.
It is why Princess Kyung Hae could understand and honor her husband even in his death, and it is why Se Ryung could empathize with Seung Yoo’s dangerous quest to seek justice.
In Seung Yoo’s “death scene” this is clearly demonstrated, as Se Ryung understands and honors Seung Yoo’s need to stand for what he believes in rather than bow to pressure and renounce his beliefs.
In terms of the writers’ decision to allow Seung Yoo to lose his sight and live, instead of letting him die, I believe it was a response to the audience’s overwhelming desire for some sort of happy ending for our OTP.
Ultimately, though, I liked the ending. It was rather bittersweet, since Seung Yoo became blind and never did succeed in his quest for justice. I understand, though, from a narrative point of view why they wrote it that way.
It was the only plausible way to stop his quest for revenge.
I also found it quite poetic, that Seung Yoo’s closing words to Se Ryung were: I may have lost my sight, but I regained my heart. I lost my revenge, and regained you.
In the end, Seung Yoo regained his perspective on what was even more important than justice: love.
And that, to me, is a lesson that we could all benefit from.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
So intense, but so good. This one lingered with me.
FINAL GRADE: A