The King's Affection (2021) When the male lead rocks
It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a sageuk but I happened upon the trailers and found out that it was showing on Netflix. Out of curiosity I started the first couple of episodes last week and this week with Episodes 3 and 4 it gets a thumbs up from moi. So far so good…
While the focal point of this drama seems to be the cross-dressing female crown prince, among the youngsters the most outstanding creature in this parade of pretty has got to be Jung Ji-un, confucian scholar and physician to the masses. He also happens to be the crown prince’s first love in a messy mistaken identity twist of fate that contains whispers of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The backdrop is some time during the 14th to 17th century and fraternal twins of different sex in the line of succession are a taboo. It then follows that female infanticide is par for the course at the whim of the king.
Eschewing his father’s ruthless way of doing things, Jung Ji-un takes off to Ming (China) to get an education and then returns as a lowly acupuncturist-herbalist assisted by a couple of peasants that he’s befriended along the way. Despite his pedigree, he’s really not that keen in rubbing shoulders with the nobles, the crown prince’s maternal grandfather in particular but a man of his calibre is inevitably dragged kicking and screaming into the political limelight after being emotionally blackmailed by his own father, Jung Seok-jo. To save his friends, he allows himself to be appointed to the role of Royal Tutor to the crown prince who has already discovered that the charming Jung Ji-un is that nice boy from all those years ago who seemed to like her. Unfortunately for him, the crown prince goes through tutors like the Bank family children go through nannies. While Ji-un isn’t exactly Mary Poppins, he’s practically perfect in just about every way. It’s up to Ji-un to persevere his way out of this predicament.
She doesn’t want him near her but he can’t leave her side. Try as she might to remove him from his position, nothing goes her way. Being the shrewd fellow that he is, he senses outright antagonism and throws down the gauntlet. If she manages to pass an exam question set by him, he will go quietly and willingly. Piqued by this unexpected display of courage, she relents.
During the exam, Ji-un proves himself both a man of virtue and a scholar of depth. Passing the state exam at age 15 was no fluke. He gives Lee Hwi a lotus seed to ponder its significance and application to life in Joseon court. The crown prince comes close to the answer he seeks but it’s no cigar. The lotus, a symbol of purity in that part of the world, thrives in dirty muddy water and yet none of the mud sticks. It’s the perfect analogy to counter her grandfather’s admonishments about everyone needing to play in the mud ie. the nasty dirty game of politics. Ji-un reminds Hwi that the lotus blossom rises above the mud untainted.
"Someone once said that the palace can be as dirty as the mud. Lotus flowers bloom in mud but cleanse their surroundings. And the leaves have the ability to shake of murky water. There's no trace of any dirt of them. Just like the lotus flower that stays virtuous despite its dirty environment, I hope that you will become a strong king. That's why I gave you the seed. And some hurt innocent people under the premise of a greater cause. However no matter how great the cause is, it cannot be greater than people's lives"
For a man of his time, it’s a radical way of perceiving the world and his place in it. No one can accuse him of not practising what he preaches. He’s been consistent since he was a boy on this point – all lives matter whether they be nobles or peasants or an inconvenience to the political structure. Individuals are the foundation for the country’s moral structure. It is the individual that makes a difference regardless of the system in which he/she becomes embroiled in. Of course, the individual who can make the most difference is the reigning monarch and it behoves him to act for the good of the people rather than to maintain the status quo. It’s a repudiation of the current state of palace politics in which expediency trumps virtue. The individual should not and cannot act against his/her conscience because that too has long-ranging ramifications. It’s almost revolutionary in its prosecution for human rights.
At this point, Jung Ji-un (despite his youth) epitomizes the role of the royal tutor. He is the exemplar: The Royal Tutor. His lecture isn’t just for the crown prince but for the left state minister Han Ki-jae as well. For it was he who declared that getting dirtied by mud was inevitable. Even the current king who is largely the observer can see that he is no ordinary man. But there’s no doubt that Ji-un is an inherently dangerous figure for the status quo and for the crown prince because she will fall in love with him again and compromise her safety.