Dae Jang Geum (aka Jewel in the Palace), directed by Lee Byoung-hoon. Written by Kim Yeong-hyeon. Released on September 15, 2003 (South Korea)
Rarely does one encounter a work of art that profoundly affects one’s life. Even less frequently does one find such a work in the form of a television series. So what are the odds of finding such a work in the form of a subtitled Korean television series? Well, here is a reminder that the highly improbable is not impossible.
Dae Jang Geum is a 54-hour television series about an orphaned girl in 15th-century Korea who rises from her servant-class beginnings to become the first woman physician to the king. Her journey is laced with heroes and villains, achievements and setbacks, twists and turns from beginning to end. And the story is driven from start to finish by the various characters’ choices and values—primarily by those of the passionate, persistent, and principled Jang Geum (acted by Lee Yeong-ae and Jo Jung-eun).
From the moment she appears onscreen as a seven-year-old, Jang Geum (who is loosely based on an actual historic figure) acts on her own judgment for her own purposes irrespective of what others say or do. When her values are at stake, she routinely disregards social conventions and even disobeys her parents, whom she loves. For instance, as a member of the lowly servant class she is prohibited by custom, and consequently by her mother, from learning to read or write. As a girl, she is also prohibited from learning to hunt, an activity deemed appropriate only for boys. Nonetheless, Jang Geum sneaks off to the local school to learn the written characters and goes hunting for rabbits with the boys. When reprimanded by her mother for breaking these rules, Jang Geum demands to know the reasons behind them: “Why can’t I learn to read and write and hunt when I love it and am so much better at it than the [higher-class] boys?” Such early scenes set the stage for Jang Geum’s character and choices throughout the series.
After losing her parents, Jang Geum sets her sights on the long-range goal of entering the Royal Palace and becoming the highest kitchen lady. She pursues this goal in part out of personal passion, and, in part, to record in an official logbook an injustice committed against her mother, who had once been a kitchen lady. After gaining admittance to the training program for kitchen ladies—a feat in itself for a servant-class girl—Jang Geum works tenaciously to learn everything she can and to perfect her skills. But in the Palace, obstacles abound—especially for a girl whose intelligence, skill, character, and achievements bring out the worst in the envy-ridden, power-lusting family of the Chois. . . .