Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.
Bursting with the triumph of the goodness in man. It’s the answer to a particular monarch’s gamble at sharing responsibilities with the common everyday folk.
It’s a 24-episode South Korean historical drama (sageuk) based on King Sejong the Great’s “invention” of the Korean writing symbols, han-gul. In one of the scenes it is explained that the ministers are like the roots. Hence the title symbolizes the balance of and struggle for power among the participants in the kingdom’s governance as guided by Confucianism.
The king depicted here is a lovely person. He is so sincere I’ve easily fallen in love with him. How I wish all of us in the world have purposes as pure as his, of whatever ‘kind’ or size or leaning or ‘significance’, so that only the hopeful, hence life, comes out through all the faults that a human may have. King Lee Do (his personal name) faces his fears, he wrestles with the foes in his head and in his heart, he comes out very bruised but stays on his feet and goes on with living. How I admire him.
The king has to do these battles alone but it’s very fortunate that he has friends around him. First there was the queen in his younger days. Then now there’s his son the handsome prince who has no problems with his father, his bodyguard Moohyul, the baby-faced soft-spoken very-steady chief scholar who is as much a support to the king as Moohyul is, the head of the palace maids together with the four younger ones who are like extensions of the king’s brain, the two young scholars who are the smartest in the Hall of Worthies, then finally Ddol Bok a.k.a Kang Chae Yoon. I should also mention Garion, although he doesn’t belong to the group because he has other motives.
Instead of the peacock feathers on the military men’s hats there are strips of cloth or yarn. The king does not wear dragon-design shoes but one that is similar to the ministers’. His main hang-out is his high-ceilinged wooden study hall. His four girl attendants have jewels on their hair ribbons. There are no evil queens, palace maids, and concubines here. The king is amused of the effect it has on his attendants whenever he speaks swear words. He is an expert on sudoku, having solved a 33 x 33 game when he was yet an insecure young king overpowered by his father — his attendants and computers then were all palace maids (yes!!). And these are the best: the king casually quasi-sunbathes (because he still has clothes on), and himself applies watered fecal matter as fertilizer to experimental plants, and he gladly pours a drink to the butcher (the lowest ranking person in his society).
There are 7 martial arts masters in here: Moohyul (very handsome and proper), Chae Yoon, Lee Bang Ji (the best for me), the half-masked pale face (Yeon Pyung, who has a blue ribbon on his hair, respectable as a warrior but is scared of Moohyul), a high-rank Confucian scholar in the court who went to the dark side of the force, a legendary Chinese mercenary (Kareupeyi/Kareulpae, who’s a little girl’s best friend), and a female Chinese agent who’s understandably terrified of the latter.
The subplots emerge, interweave and synchronize like a Jabbawockeez dance. There is humor interspersed all-throughout. The contrast between sleekness and bulkiness, the suave and the coarse, weakness and strength, simplicity and complexity blend in harmony so that it has the same effect as the OST’s subtle playing — they are well integrated and do not get in the way of where the focus is.
The focus is on the story itself — on how the king could go on with his plans. It is a story not of personalities but of a big dream, a wonderful dream that solicits horror from the opposing ‘brains’. Even the charm of the Ddol Bok–Dahmi sub-story pales beside this dream. This dream is bigger than the king — aside that it is not his will alone that feeds it, he knows that its fruition is precarious. It’s like a seedling that must be protected from the elements until it waxes and its roots have taken depth. Each speaking scene is essential, no dialogues are superfluous, at times the words themselves serve as swords. Some dialogues are picked up from where they were left off as if the participants are engaged in a continuing board game. The next time I watch it I intend to take note of the dialogues the king is in. He’s very good at saying things indirectly that he manages to confuse the Confucian scholars.
The viewer will find himself steadily hoping for goodness to win out, that Ddol Bok and Dahm meet without a mishap, that the king comes out of his lone battles sane, that Bonwon must have blind spots, that Lee Bang Ji dies with honor and happy, that somebody can defeat the Chinese mercenary, that the four girls and Chae Yoon’s buddies stay unharmed, that the prince keeps faith with his father, that the half-masked man doesn’t harm So Yi, that Chae Yoon doesn’t kill the king, that Bonwon doesn’t kill the king, that Moohyul doesn’t get ahead of the king, that the king doesn’t kill himself with overwork, that the han-gul characters finally gets known to the common people.
The fights makes the drama unfit for children to watch. Aside from that this work of art is solid food for the heart and the brain. It does not sugar-coat the reality of human struggles, though I am thankful that grime isn’t graphically depicted — I carry with me the consciousness of this condition of the majority in the world that it’s quite easy for me to disbelieve the ‘clean-ness’ of drama sets. I appreciate that the palace decorations are toned down and they do not steal attention. Even the grand study hall’s impact is neutralized by the gravity of the dark wood interior. It looks so lived in that I can almost smell the fine dust that could have collected through the years within its tiny crevices.
This drama doesn’t glorify the king, in fact a bit of going on the other extreme of making King Sejong a ‘human’ whom everybody could love. There are no doll-like females — yes they’re as pretty as dolls alright but they don’t invest on dreamy-gazes intended for frames, and hence even the crybaby visual artist didn’t jar my nerves. Soyi and her 3 friends look delicate but they are made of stuff such that they are the king’s strength: his database, processor, and memory bank.
Jang Hyuk as Dae Gil in Chuno I’d think as theatrics, whereas here Chae Yoon is just brimming with contained potential, a dynamo held in check. Chae Yoon’s life parallels that of the king’s. He is a reflection of the king and So Yi is the mirror with which they see themselves.
Lee Bang Ji and Ddol Bok/Chae Yoon are the perfect teacher and disciple, warm and open to each other — what I wished for Munno and Bidam had Munno been not too wrapped up in his ideals. There is a host of interesting characters here but Lee Bang Ji fascinates me the most: he is ephemeral, lowly (by his own description), fatal, and also utterly tragic had it not been for Chae Yoon’s need of him. Chae Yoon is very fortunate to have had two very loving fathers. The place where Lee Bang Ji went to die helped the story obtain a full circle.
What’s saddest for me is that the king had to pay so much in exchange for his people’s sake. What’s happiest for me is how the king finally emerges with the conviction of the depth of his love for the common people. The scenes of common folks’ singing at their work lifts the spirit. Ddol Bok’s vision of his and Dahm’s father is like a glimpse of heaven. A beautiful facet of the story is in the showing of how the relationship between parents and children is a foundation for a person’s major decisions.
The drama Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree depicts the yin and yang of life on earth: interacting, fluid, flowing, hardly ‘happily-ever-after’ nor one-directional. Yet it insists on goodness, it insists on the worth of persons both individual and collective, and it denigrates the greed for power in its varied forms. It is a jewel of an expression of the humbled human soul.