The Moon that Embraces the Sun
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I finally had the chance to watch MBC’s The Moon that Embraces the Sun, which aired from January, 2012 to March, 2012. The drama starred Kim Soo Hyun as Lee Hwon, a fictional king/crown prince of Joseon, who falls in love at a young age with an aristocratic girl, Heo Yeon Woo. Han Ga In plays the grown up version of Yeon Woo, the shaman girl Wol. Jung Il Woo plays Prince Yang Myung, half brother to Lee Hwon. Finally, we have Kim Min Seo playing Yoon Bo Kyung, the girl who becomes Queen.
The drama begins with Prince Ui Seong, the current king’s half-brother, being assassinated by Yoon Dae Hyung, on the orders of the Queen Mother. After the fact, Ui Seong is labeled a traitor and his death is justified. The murder is witnessed by a lone shaman, who is then caught by the Queen Mother’s men. She is tortured and ripped apart, so that they can hide their secrets. Before the shaman dies, she makes a psychic connection with our heroine, who is still in her mother’s womb. She urges her best friend, Jang Nok Young, who is also a shaman, to protect the child.
Years later, Lee Hwon, the crown prince, accidentally meets Heo Yeon Woo, our heroine. He is affected by her wise words and beauty, and quickly falls in love. Because of her, he appreciates the wise words his teacher seeks to teach him. His teacher is Heo Yeom, Yeon Woo’s brother. Heo Yeom is the top scholar of that year, and has a bright future ahead of him. Heo Yeom is best friends with Prince Yang Myung. Yang Myung is the king’s son from a concubine. Due to the political implications of having another son who could be king, Yang Myung is made unwelcome in the palace, forbidden from doing anything with his life, and left to wander the countryside, frittering his life away. Yang Myung is in love with Yeon Woo, but she does not take him seriously. Rounding out the third part of that friendly triangle, we have Woon, the top warrior of that year.
When it comes time to select the new crown princess, strings immediately begin to be pulled behind the scenes by Lee Hwon’s grandmother (referred to as the Dowager Queen Mother in the drama) to get her relative, Yoon Bo Kyung, on the future throne. Bo Kyung is Yoon Dae Hyung’s daughter, the man who is chief councilor in court. Lee Hwon refuses to bow to this and manipulates the situation to have a fair selection for the crown princess. Heo Yeon Woo wins hands down. Rather than accepting her defeat, the Dowager Queen Mother orders a shaman, Jang Nok Young, to kill Yeon Woo. Shaman Jang keeps her promise to her friend and curses Yeon Woo to suffer only, not die. For the ceremony, they use a young virgin, and this young virgin turns out to be Lee Hwon’s sister, Min Hwa. Shaman Jang then convinces Yeon Woo’s father to feed her what he believes to be poison, so that Yeon Woo may die in peace. Once Yeon Woo is buried, Shaman Jang has her dug up and races off with her to parts unknown to protect the child. Yeon Woo remembers nothing of her past life and believes herself to be a shaman, newly born into her power. Shaman Jang also takes Seol, Yeon Woo’s faithful slave, and Jan Shil, a shaman child with her on their flight.
Lee Hwon is left heart-broken by the loss of his crown princess. Yoon Bo Kyung takes Yeon Woo’s place without a further selection. Lee Hwon is guilted by his grandmother into believing that it was all his fault that Yeon Woo died. She warns him indirectly from ever interfering in things that he does not know. The King also tells him that he was at fault, and that he should not have tried to get what he wanted. He tells Lee Hwon that due to his selfishness, the Heo family will lose everything. Lee Hwon is heartbroken once more, realizing that he can do nothing to protect his in-laws, as well. Yeon Woo’s father is to be exiled, losing his esteemed position in court. The Heo family is saved when the princess steps in to marry Heo Yeom. While the family is saved, this also means that they can NEVER participate in court politics. Which was another aim of the villains from the beginning.
Eight years later, Lee Hwon is still pining for his lost love and refusing to consummate his marriage to the queen. He has a sickly nature, which we find to be the result of magical spells. Lee Hwon also has a bad relationship with his council. He knows that they are corrupt, but will not . . . fire them. He catches them in their acts, and then tells them to wise up, but it’s a game of cat and mouse. More often than not, he is on the losing end of the political machinations of his council and his grandmother. He is sent on journeys when he does not want to go. He is forced to consummate his marriage, when he does not want to. He cannot protect his people when he wants to. Bad relationship over all, with the position of power held by the council/Dowager Queen Mother.
Yeon Woo comes back into the King’s life as the Shaman Wol. She is first used as a Human Talisman, there to absorb all the misfortune and negative energy around the king. The King and Wol have a connection, and he sees hints of his Yeon Woo in her. But Wol is adamant that she is not Yeon Woo. She believes any memories that she recovers as a result of her Shamanic powers, and attributes them as coming from those around her. Lee Hwon fights his attraction to her, but he comes to like her more and more.
Yang Myung also sees Wol and believes her to be Yeon Woo. He comes to know her and appreciate her as a woman in her own right, and asks her to be with him. He promises that he is willing to give everything up for her, if only she will take his hand and run away with him. This is a moment exactly identical to the words he said to Yeon Woo the night before she was chosen as the Crown Princess. Just as Yeon Woo refused, Wol refuses, as well. She has fallen in love with the King once more, and she cannot turn her back on him.
Wol, in the course of her talisman duties, touches the king to calm him. For some reason, I don’t remember what, she is locked up and almost branded with a hot iron for her temerity. The king’s eunuch comes to stop that. She goes back to her duties. Due to some more political machinations, the councilors seeks to discredit the king and grab Wol as a means to that end. They want her to confess that she either did some sort of magic on him or that he has fallen in love with her, a shaman. Wol is tortured, but she refuses to break. Yang Myung comes and saves her, even though the King is unable to do so. She is then exiled to the sick ward, there to live out her days helping the sick. On her way there, the Dowager Queen Mother has her caught and used as a talisman in the Eunwol Pavilion, where the cries of the crown princess’ ghost are said to be heard. This is when Yeon Woo gets her memories back.
Once she is in the sick ward, Wol and Yang Myung become closer, but even so, she tells him that she cannot love him. He saves her from an assassination attempt, but the King is the one who carries her off. While she has already discovered the truth about her past, it takes a while for the King to realize that his grandmother and his sister conspired to kill off Yeon Woo. He is torn between protecting his family and getting justice. This was the exact same position his father was in eight years ago. He orders his grandmother to leave the palace, where she is poisoned by the chief councilor.
In order to protect themselves from punishment for the cursing eight years ago, the chief councilor and other members of the council begin a rebellion, intending to seat Yang Myung on the throne. Yang Myung plays along and gets the names of all involved. In the battle, he chooses to give up his life, not wanting to live any longer. All the councilors are also conveniently killed during the rebellion. Princess Min Hwa, for her part in the cursing ceremony, is sentenced to become a slave. Shaman Jang also dies, choosing to take inside of her all the demons/bad spirits floating around. The Queen hangs herself, choosing to die a Queen rather than live as a normal woman.
Lee Hwon and Yeon Woo live happily ever after. Heo Yeom becomes involved in politics once more. In the end, he forgives Min Hwa and gets his own happily ever after.
This drama was cringe worthy in many parts, and I skimmed through some of it because I could not stand the banality of the story line. I had a lot of issues with the drama, and that is why I can only give it a 3.5/10. I will discuss some of those issues below.
Before anything, I had the biggest problem with the casting. The casting team must have been on crack when they were choosing the main cast of this drama. I mean, it might have been a coup for them to get actors like Kim Soo Hyun, Jung Il Woo, Han Ga In and Kim Min Seo. But did they ever think how these actors would look together and what characters they were actually playing?
I cringed every time Kim Soo Hyun and Jung Il Woo called Han Ga In a child! Or when Kim Soo Hyun, this kid, was being all manly with his Queen, it was like a child playing dress up. Kim Min Seo swooning at his behavior was laughable. Kim Soo Hyun, as king, was supposed to bring gravitas to his role, but I felt that he was just too young. An older actor would have fit the role much better in most parts.
Additionally, after the eight year gap, it was a slap in the face to see the differences in the actors. We had the women aging 15 and 17 years, while the guys just aged 6 and 9 years? The other cast around them didn’t help either. The actors who played Woon and Yeom might have aged a bit too much, but the actresses who played Seol, I felt like they only had a couple of years between them.
Finally, Han Ga In was just plain dead in this drama. Her acting was so passive that it made me want to shake her and tell her to wake up and put some passion into it. I don’t know how much of that was the character and how much it was her, but either way, she did not stir my interest in any way. I just ended up wondering why these two men were so in love with her after she came back.
My personal biases made it impossible for me to accept this casting.
The Fictional Kings and Joseon:
The thing that I don’t understand about this drama was that it has a fictional king and we have magic, and yet the drama couldn’t move beyond the boundaries that we see in other sageuks? Why not be a little creative? Why not give the good guys a bit more leeway and a bit more cynicism? It was as if the writer thought of all these different ways to hamstring the good guys, and then realized at the last minute that there had to be a happy ending. We were then given this overly simplistic little ending that killed off all of the obstacles the King and his precious Yeon Woo had and allowed them to live happily ever after.
This was what drove me crazy about The Princess’s Man, as well. In that drama, we had the hero make multiple attempts to get his revenge, but he failed almost every single time. I get that was a true historical drama, but how the hell can I root for someone who couldn’t win? Additionally, despite everything they threw at him, he survived. Was he some sort of superman?
In this Joseon, with its fictional kings, I hoped for something better. Maybe a different sort of monarchy. How can you be an all powerful ruler of a country, and, yet, have no power? The councilors made these kings their puppets, and the kings fell in line. Additonally, what kind of stupid rule was it that direct kin to the King, counting in-laws, could not participate in politics. Because seriously, these kings had no one on their side. They were so tied down by tradition, culture, filial piety, and laws that it made me wonder what good were they? They couldn’t protect one person, let alone a nation. But suddenly, at the end it was okay for Lee Hwon to move along the rebellion, with the help of his brother, and then quash it. Where was that king in the 18 previous episodes of the drama?! Where was that ability to root out all the evil and start with a clean slate? Where was that ability to change and to change the laws that bound him so tightly? That bound his brother and brother-in-law so tightly. Where was the King who should have changed his reality much earlier so that a man like Yang Myung didn’t have to kill himself to get some sort of freedom.
King Sung Jo:
What drove me crazy about this man was that he was weak. And I had a huge problem with the writer that made him so. He knew that his crazy mother had his brother killed off, but he did nothing to punish her. He protected her. Did he ever think that a woman who could do that once would do it multiple times? His weakness, and yeah I’m calling it weakness, gave her leeway to “kill” the crown princess, embroil the princess in her machinations, poison pretty much every atmosphere she breathed in.
He left open the possibility of this woman hurting his children. I blame her for being the cause of Yang Myung’s death. The woman wouldn’t even let her grandson visit the palace. And it was the King’s fault. A king who could not do his duty.
King Lee Hwon:
This King learned from his father. He spent most of his life being useless and crying over his lost love. I mean, seriously. A man who is responsible for a nation, spends most of a drama mourning over his moon, and trying to control his corrupt politicians and failing miserably. And he cried like a baby so many times that I began to cringe every time he did so. Did the writer forget that he was a king? He was so overly sensitive, that I thought it was no wonder that he couldn’t carry out his kingly duties. He did nothing to change his world either, until the last two episodes. At that point I had already lost all respect for this king. And a drama where one kind of has contempt for the main character, is not a drama that I can end up liking.
The Crime and the Punishment:
Finally, the end lesson we got from this drama. The people that actually did the crime of cursing the crown princess got an easy punishment, while another suffered so much. And I don’t get it. Dying is easy, it’s the living that is hard.
The Dowager Queen Mother got moved to another palace and was barred from politics. Wow. Yes, the Chief Councilor stepped in and poisoned her, but she still got a relatively easy death.
The councilors were all killed during the rebellion. No suffering at all.
Yet, Princess Min Hwa, who as a young child was brought into something by her own grandmother, gets the harshest punishment. She did not understand it. She did not think it was real. And if the previous king got away with hiding the truth, why should she get punished for the same crime. Especially, when telling her powerless brother would have gotten her and him nothing? Yet, she gets sentenced and suffers through years of slavery. Kind of doesn’t fit the crime. I did not agree with her punishment.
Finally, the Queen killing herself. That I thought was justified. This was a woman who tried to curse Yeon Woo to death once more, and got her just reward.
This drama was a huge disappointment. There was a grandiose setting, lush costumes, a pretty cast and a ridiculous story line. I don’t have a problem with just watching a romance, but not when it comes at the expense of good storytelling and logic.