Living up to its tagline ‘Joseon youth fairy tale’, Mirror of the Witch leaves people in awe of its first outing this week, despite the strong competition it had in Dear My Friends, tvn’s rival drama on the same time slot. I try not to set my anticipation too high in case it falters halfway into the story, but at least the pilot left a deep impression on me. As a scaredy cat myself (who can’t even watch any horror movies/dramas with ghosts alone), I can attest that the first two episodes are dark and eerie but with a sad, beautiful undertone in the shots.
The title might sound familiar to some, because the phrase 마녀보감 is a play on the famous book Mirror of the Eastern Medicine, Donguibogam (동의보감). It was written by a royal physician named Heo Joon, who is also one of the characters in this drama. Yes, Mirror of the Witch is portraying Heo Joon (Yoon Si-yoon) in his teens, way before his appearance in royal records as Seonjo’s physician later in his life. Interestingly, the historical figure was said to have a keen interest in the leading thoughts in East, namely Neo-Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. I guess that is one of the reasons for his character to be included here, apart from the fascinating events unraveling at the court at that time.
The drama opens with a lingering premonition that is carried throughout the first episode. Folklore and fairy tale meets in this narrative set in the 16th century Joseon, where shamanistic rituals and Taoist gurus were popular choices of seeking help among women, apart from Buddhism. Whether it is intentional or not, the drama feels (in a good way) like Arang and the Magistrate, The Moon that Embraces the Sun, and Records of the Night Watchman combined into one. Plus, the darker first episode brings back the good memories of Secret Investigation Records (aka Joseon X-Files) and at the same being the watered down (read = watchable horror) version of the palace horror piece, Shadows in the Palace.
Two institutions related to shamanism and Taoism are pitted against each other in the effort to produce an heir to the waning royal power: National Shaman Agency Seongsucheong (성수청) and National Taoist Agency Sogyeokseo (소격서). Instigated by the Dowager (Queen Munjeong), the queen consort (later known as Queen Insun) seeks help from Sogyeokseo leader Choi Hyun-seo (Lee Sung-jae) to pray for a heir but fails, hence the state shaman Hong-joo (Yum Jung-ah) is summoned to the palace to help. Thus, the queen enters a dangerous ‘contract’ with the shaman to bear an heir, but with the help of the black magic. Little was known about the queen in history but the queen dowager was known to be a devout Buddhism, to the point of lifting the ban on the practice while she was a regent for her young son, King Myeongjong. Although these two institutions were last mentioned in the annals during her husband, Jungjong’s reign and subsequently abolished, the drama takes liberty in tying black magic as the reason for Injong’s fall (and eventual death) from the throne before Myeongjong took over. Despite that, there was possibility having both institutions revived in short instances by the inner chambers of the royal palaces, namely by the queens and concubines.
Back to the story, a shaman with a strong ability, Hae-ran (portrayed by the amazing Jung In-sun, another promising actress to look forward to) is chosen discreetly to carry the heir temporarily from the king before it is extracted painfully using black magic. The queen gets pregnant and the young, unfortunate shaman has to be taken care of quietly, but not before giving a bone-chilling foreboding:
“Congratulations, Your Highness! You are pregnant a pair of good-looking twins. However, your pretty children will die on their seventeenth birthday. Even if they manage to escape the death, they will live a life that is more painful than the death itself. All the people who love them will die, and so are the people they love!”
That sounds like something out of a common fairy tale but in this case, it is just the beginning of ill-fated lives of the children, while highlighting the negative connotation of twins in ancient Korea. The palace attendants assisting the queen during the childbirth are visibly uncomfortable, or rather spooked, when another baby pops out after the first boy. To make it worse, it is a baby girl.
Although identical (same gender) twins were acceptable in Joseon (despite having low survival rate), it was a whole different story with fraternal (different gender) twins. It was believed that fraternal twins were husband and wife in their past life whose feelings for each other still lingered, causing them to be born as twin brother and sister in this lifetime. Thus, these twins, despite being related by blood, was thought to be inappropriate to be raised together. The idea of incest was already known in Confucian culture at that time, so it is not difficult to imagine their reaction on having the twins together once they grow out of their childhood, with the strong belief that they were married in previous life. Hence, it was deemed acceptable to give up on one of them. Since Joseon emphasized on patriarchal system, most of the time, the baby girls were given up. The cruelest way was by not cutting the umbilical cord right after the birth and covering the baby with its own placenta and straw, leaving it to stop breathing by itself. Of course, that was not the only way possible because many took other options, like abandoning the baby at a place so that someone would take it in, or giving it to other people to be raised as their own.
The princess has it worse because her brother, the future Crown Prince Sunhwe, is at stake; plus, both of them are born with curse. So, it is decided that she will borne the curse and get killed to get rid of it. Thank God there is Choi Guru to save the baby by the secret order of the king, because the princess will be the key to end Hong-joo’s witchcraft. Thus, she is ‘locked’ deep in the mountains, protected by spells and mythical tiger around the perimeter of her house. Yeon-hee (Kim Sae-ron) is, in a way, a reverse fairy tale princess. She is cursed but it seems that the curse will only take place after her seventeenth birthday; plus with her crossing the talisman gate made by Choi Guru (who is posing as her father) in the upcoming episode, she will surely appear on Hong-joo’s danger radar very, very soon. So, a reverse Rapunzel-Sleeping Beauty hybrid?
I’m looking forward to upcoming episodes, eager to see how they will spin the tale further by incorporating both history and fairy tale into one story. Although I am slightly disappointed that the love line is inevitable between Yeon-hee, Joon, and Pung-yeon (Kwak Si-yang), the royal family plot is actually engrossing this time, offering a different outlook on the lifestyle of these people at that time. Looks like more deaths are coming up soon because of the current year in the drama, but that will bring Joon one step closer to his fate as dictated in the history, and Yeon-hee to the secret behind her birth.