This has to be the fastest first impression I have ever written since I started this blog. If that doesn’t show how impatient I am for the premiere of The Red Sleeve (옷소매 붉은 끝동), well, I don’t know what will be the proof! Ever since the official news was first announced about the drama, I was over the moon, to be able to see another retelling of the historical figures during the era of King Yeongjo and King Jeongjo, this time being a drama adaptation of the popular novel 옷소매 붉은 끝동. I haven’t had the chance to read the original novel myself, but from what I’ve seen of the snippets posted here and there, it seems like a beautiful story, albeit a heartwrenching one, of King Jeongjo and his one and only royal concubine from a humble origin, Lady Seong Uibin.
The opening starts out light and cheery with a tinge of horror, until both younger counterparts of our main leads, San and Deok-im, are hit with the news of a death in the royal palace; it is of Lady Yi Yeongbin, King Yeongjo’s royal concubine and San’s birth grandmother. I was wondering why did they choose Lady Yi’s passing to be the point where the fate of our leads began intertwining with each other, but the revelation is truly a meaningful and sad one. As if it is a premonition to what Deok-im will later face in her own life, she listens to how people around Lady Yi reminisce and view the royal concubine’s life from a third-person point of view.
Aside from San, who sneaks into Lady Yi’s room with Deok-im. she meets with King Yeongjo, who defies the custom to visit his dead concubine. This is also a very nice introduction to Yeongjo (Lee Deok-hwa), the king who was known in history as the father who locked his own son in the rice chest and left him to die. He was known to be stern in the court, yet he was also kind towards palace maids, like how he treats Deok-im. I can’t help but to think that the ‘great thing Lady Yi did for him and the country’ was Lady Yi’s report about her son Crown Prince Sado’s erratic behaviour, which led to the Crown Prince’s execution. Yeongjo mentions about Lady Yi’s origin as a court maid, just like Deok-im, and laments about his life from a Prince until he becomes the King. But then, when he hears that Deok-im is a maid from the Eastern Palace (where the Heir aka San resides), he muses absent-mindedly, saying that who knows, Deok-im’s fate might turn out to be like Lady Yi. Ah, is that a well-wish, or is that a curse?
Deok-im also hears from Court Lady Jo (Park Ji-young) the reason why she is sent to Lady Yi’s room by herself, and Court Lady Jo’s view of Lady Yi is something I can’t help but see as another foreboding for Deok-im’s future life. Sure, Lady Yi was a court maid who received the King’s grace, which guaranteed her position as a member of the royal family and allows her to die inside the palace, different from the fate of a mere court maid who would have to leave the palace if she falls sick or grows old; still, only Lady Yi herself could vouch for what she had to endure while she was alive just to be granted the so-called exception at the end of her life.
Perhaps, it is a relief that Deok-im has a very reliable teacher in Court Lady Seo (Jang Hye-jin), who tells Deok-im to take pride in her job as a court maid. Maybe it’s because she’s aware of the reason why Deok-im is so adamant in earning 100 nyang? She is the sweetest teacher who nags at her pupil but at the same time will stop at nothing to protect Deok-im from danger. Will we get to see how Court Lady Seo and Court Lady Jo’s different values clashing against each other?
Another scene which made me bawl is when Yeongjo finds out that San is reading a banned book. You just can’t show Yeongjo in a drama without his temper and complex regarding his birth mother’s status, but we also get to see how fragile San’s position in the court despite being the only feasible candidate as a successor to the throne at the moment. There are people who want to see him demoted (I assume that the scheming concubine shown in the episode is Lady Moon sukui) and dare to invoke Yeongjo’s wrath. Despite being young, San is after all a child who has witnessed his own father, Crown Prince Sado, left to die, and he has to work hard to become the perfect heir and live up to his grandfather’s expectation. It is interesting though to see more of the inner workings of San’s mind, like the reason he deliberately leaves the banned book in his library as if he’s waiting for it to be discovered.
As much as I’m curious to how Deok-im manages to evade San’s attention all those years since she’s always running around here and there, I’m so looking forward to how she will realize that the boy she talked down to back then is actually her master. Or maybe, San will be playing the role of Deok-ro in front of Deok-im for a while? I assume that we will get to see lighthearted moments before we delve into darker territories of history…including Deok-im rejecting San twice.
Ah, I forgot to say how I like that they are using the courtesy name for the male characters, for instance Deok-ro. His given name is Hong Guk-young, but he’s being called by his courtesy name. Plus, they are also referring to Lady Yi using the style jaga (자가) unlike the usual (but wrong) style of mama (마마). Yeay for correct details used in dramas, no matter how small it is! But then, I still think that the English title is a bit misleading, considering that the only part of the sleeve that is red is the cuff…