Origin myths can tell you a lot about a country. It's not the literal truth of the stories that's really important- rather, it's what people remember about their culture and have decided to pass along to their descendants. The heroes of our pasts are who we want future generations to emulate. In the United States, for example, the Founding Fathers are considered nigh immaculate philosopher kings who produced the Constitution through the sheer force of combined genius. This isn't even remotely true (and the Founding Fathers themselves would be quite disturbed if they knew we remembered them like this), but this simple fact in itself tells you a lot about the United States' current national character.
South Korea is no different in this regard. "Queen Seon-deok" is the story of Deokman, the woman who becomes the titular Queen, well-regarded today as the woman who prompted Silla's cultural, and eventual military domination of the Korean peninsula. Little is known about the historical personage save for her excellent reputation as a wise ruler- even Chinese texts regard her very favorably. It is known that she had a normal courtly life as a princess- so pretty much the entire first half of this drama is completely out there historically.
But that's the beauty of "Queen Seon-deok". Rather than attempt a literal retelling of events based on what seems the most likely, it instead examines Deokman as the kind of person who has the potential for greatness, and doesn't back down from achieving it. More importantly, it demonstrates in her the kind of personal conviction we only wish our leaders would show. Deokman is concerned above all else with doing the most possible good for the most possible people. Deokman has little reason to do this- save that she's a good person, and this is what good people should do if they ever have the opportunity.
It's a stark contrast to the serie's main antagonist, Misil, who's a large looming presence from the first episode (before Deokman's even born yet). She has the same amibition- but Misil's goals are...well, that's the funny part. We can't really call Misil selfish. Consistently throughout the series she demonstrates a great deal of regard for the importance of the state of Silla and its continued influence. Misil refuses to sacrifice possible ground in long term international politics for short term gains in Silla's domestic political situation. She wants to be Queen, absolutely, but is only willing to go so far to achieve this goal.
Of course, the means which she will go to are fairly telling. Misil consistently assists the aristocratic classes of Silla in whatever way is necessary to gain their support. Usually by trampling on the rights of peasants and common people- because they don't wield any power in Silla's politics, so Misil has nothing to lose by damaging their place in society.
But Deokman, our hero, is a different matter entirely. She recognizes that it is the common people on which Silla truly depends for its future, and that they represent the strength which can (and eventually does) lead to Silla's domination. While Misil plays the long game under the assumption that at some point in her lifetime she will lead to Silla to international glory, Deokman recognizes that this moment probably won't happen until some time after her reign as Queen is over- and she's fine with that.
This is the basic narrative appeal of "Queen Seon-deok" that's made it such a popular show. It's easy to think of politicians and slimy and only concerned with their own self-gratification- particularly when it was only twenty-five years ago that such a man was absolute dictator of this country. So it sets an excellent standard to aspire to when we see Queen Seondeok on-screen endeavoring to do what's best by her people and her country, personal consequences to her be darned.
Of course, neither side goes at their goals alone. Deokman is assisted by the supremely honorable Hwarang Kim Yusin (another legend in his own right), who takes his responsibilities as a steward of the Silla people so seriously that as a mere teenager he's already gained exceptional fighting and tactical abilities through sheer force of determination. Later on his appearance changes so dramatically during a timeskip it took me some time to realize he was the same person (the new Yusin is quite hunky). Her other allies have similarly intriguing determination (even if they have to work at it), though I'd rather not ruin their stories ahead of time.
Misil, likewise, has her own high council consisting of her two lovers, their children, and her brother, who all spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around a table scheming. They're all very well-connected people who seldom need to get their hands dirty. Where Deokman, Yusin and friends have to constantly make their own luck, and succeed through sheer force of will, Misil's company always remains just a little bit too detached from the situation for their own good. Indeed, the more we think about how their governing styles differ, the more obvious it is that Deokman's the one we're supposed to be rooting for.
That's enough for general themes- what about the rest of it? On every technical level, "Queen Seon-deok" is just as superb. The costumes and set designs are excellent, and even outside the pomp and circumstance of the palace the action scenes are just as well choreographed. And they come on plenty often enough to engage our attention. This is a show that gives us several characters who all hold their own meanly in a fight, make us beg the question of who would win one on one, and then gratifies us with intense martials art duels.
Even better, it always provides us the right context with which to really appreciate why they're fighting, so that every battle is an emotionally intense one. After a certain point in the series, you can probably guess that the climax is going to be a duel between two characters who for most of the series seem to be just on the edge of wanting to fight each other- except that there's never really any good reason to. And when this climax finally arrives, it's gut-wrenching- and not for any of the reasons we would have been expecting when this tension initially became obvious.
"Queen Seon-deok" is a fantastic show in its own right, but I find it especially well-suited to helping someone curious in Korea's culture understand what's valued in the abstract sense. There are heroes who define themselves, not by being inherently good or perfect, but by aspiring to that perfection and choosing it even when taking the dirty route might be the easier option. There are villains who make choices that might seem reasonable, but are still flawed. And who ultimately redeem themselves in the eyes of the audience through their basically tragic personage of at least acknowledging that other choices may have existed that would have been a better idea.
That's what makes this drama appeal to me so personally, anyway. There are no perfect people. But there are people who can keep trying, who can acknowledge that other people can have complex motivations. It may not be the easy answer we're looking for- but it's the kind of answer we can expect from a culture constantly overshadowed by its two more well-known and powerful neighbors. And if you can accept that kind of flaw in yourself, it's that much easier to love a series that treats its characters with the same multi-faceted reverence.
Review by William Schwartz. William Schwartz is an American currently living in Gyeongju, South Korea, where he studies Korean and themes in Korean media.
Available on DVD from YESASIA
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Drama Review] "The Great Queen Seondeok""
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