Months after the first sneak peek was released during the KBS Drama Awards 2021, Bloody Heart (붉은 단심) premiered on Monday. I thought that I would only have the chance to check out the episodes once I return home, but luck seems to be on my side and I have already caught up with both episodes of the pilot week. I was itching to write this first impression after finishing the first episode but decided to wait for the second one, just to see how it will fare. Gosh, how do I wait for next Monday and next next Monday to come?
Bloody Heart opens with a cold scene against a snowy background: the ministers openly pleading for the King to depose the Crown Prince. Even when the Crown Prince, Lee Tae (Lee Joon) walks on the path towards the Throne Hall, no one pays respect to him. Even the king admits that he no longer possesses the power to protect his own son and asks the Crown Prince to survive on his own. Only one person bows to Lee Tae: Park Gye-won (Jang Hyuk), and to this person Lee Tae kneels, seeking the protection of the man who wields the real power in the government and the whole Joseon.
That was 3 years ago, when Lee Tae adamantly refused to move from his decision not to take in a new legal wife after losing his Crown Princess. Despite being a king himself, he is always asking for guidance from his saviour, the Left State Minister Park Gye-won. Everything seems to revolve around Minister Park, who controls even the smallest information going around in the palace. Even when the Queen is dying, everyone is scrambling to plot something for themselves instead of reporting it to the king. Lee Tae somehow finds a crack through the wall built by Park, and this is where he finally shows his real self to the Queen: he isn’t really the goody two shoes, loyal king everyone thinks he is.
It turns out that there is a bigger crack unknown to people: a secret passageway where Lee Tae walks in and out of the palace without attracting attention. We rewind back further back to 7 years ago, when Lee Tae was a teenager (Park Ji-bin) going out and about on a secret outing. He runs into a young lady (Shin Eun-soo) who seems to be lying to kids about eggs hatching into chickens (so this is where Lee Joon’s egg joke comes from lol), but the lady insists that she is not lying, and Lee Tae finds out through a hard way that she is indeed telling the truth. Before they part, he declares that he will marry her.
Young Lee Tae was not joking when he said that, because the next thing we know, he expresses that very intention of his to his parents. He has found out who the young lady is: Yoo Jung, daughter of Sarim Scholar Yoo Hak-soo. Expressing that she will be a better candidate even in political view in order to curb the growing power of the nobles who seek to extend their influence through a royal matrimony with one of the daughters of the ministers, Lee Tae leaves the king and the queen to make their decision.
Yoo Jung learns from her father that she is to join the selection for the Crown Princess, which is just a formality when the real candidate is already decided. Lee Tae decides not to show himself in front of her until their wedding night, where he wants to see her shocked face upon learning about his real identity. Unfortunately, Minister Park is already plotting in the background after their foiled attempt to secure the future Queen’s seat, but the background of Yoo Jung’s father might serve as an even better justification to kill two birds with one stone.
Scholar Yoo’s family is implicated for the reason being linked to the officials in service of the previous tyrant king overthrown by Park, and even the current Queen is accused of plotting to secure the Crown Princess’ seat in cahoot with Yoo. Refusing to back off, the Queen sacrifices herself in order to protect her son Lee Tae and her husband the King, but it is for naught when Park Gye-won escapes unscathed. Lee Tae is presented with a chance to protect the person he cherishes, unlike his father who fails to do so, but for him to do so, he has to hide his real identity from Yoo Jung.
Back to the present, all eyes are on the empty Queen’s seat after the death of Queen Yoo, as Minister Park makes a declaration of making his own niece the Queen for the sake of preventing another tyrant to be born in the future. His reasoning? By placing someone from their side in the Queen’s position, they will be able to control the future Crown Prince and the future King as well. Even the Queen Dowager seems to be on Park’s side with his every decision, to the point of visiting his secret rendezvous spot to declare her stance in front of his supporters.
Lee Tae learns belatedly about the arrangement of his new Queen from Yoo Jung (Kang Hanna), and he singles out someone in his plan: Minister of War Jo Won-Pyo (Heo Sung-tae) and his daughter Jo Yeon-hee (Choi Ri), who happens to harbour feelings for him. It seems that he has found a perfect candidate to fend off the growing influence of Park Gye-won, but Lee Tae does not realize that Park has found out about his secret outings and the woman he meets on those meetings. Between Yoo Jung’s growing affection towards him and his intention to protect her from people around him, what will Lee Tae do?
To be honest, I did not expect the plot to move this fast, but I did a quick search on the episode count and I understand why they have to hurry. 16 episodes are quite short when it comes to historical dramas, but the recent sageuk offerings make do with short number of episodes and in return, the plot is tight enough to keep people glued to their screen until the end of the run.
The pilot week of Bloody Heart focuses on the court politics – befitting the drama marketing point being political romance – and the people directly involved with the machinations. While Yoo Jung seems to be a bit loosely tied to the heart of the story so far, I bet we will soon have her learning the real identity of Lee Tae and her joining the political game. Although I wish we will get to see more of Kang Hanna’s bright smile and her twinkling eyes (plus her dimples!!), I also want to see how Yoo Jung’s dynamics with her family foe Park Gye-won will turn out to be.
I think it has to do with Jang Hyuk’s aura, but at times, he feels more like a king than a kingmaker. The way he commands people and the way he carries himself, Park Gye-won knows that he is powerful. One might wonder how he is able to secure his position without being toppled down by anyone, but he shows how smart he is. I bet everyone loves a smart villain, right? I am so ready for Park Gye-won and Lee Tae’s attempts to outsmart each other.
Maybe it’s too early to say this, but I’m already in love with Lee Tae’s duality. He appears to be almost lifeless when he is in his dragon robe, but once in a while, he has the fire in his eyes that he has kept hidden well over the years. Good to know that the young Lee Tae’s spirit is still alive! What I find interesting is how different he is in front of women around him: triumphant and cold with Queen Yoo, alluring and seductive with Yeon-hee, and apologetic and peaceful with Yoo Jung. He is dangerous around women when he needs to be lol
If you need another reason to start Bloody Heart, then the cinematography might be it. Lovely. Even the cold and dark moments turn out to be mesmerizing. Your eyes will definitely enjoy all the scenes. The director does not hesitate to use long shots and utilize the background to draw the emotions instead of just relying on the characters. Here’s hoping that the quality remains until the end because I want to see more of the beautiful shots even when the plot enters the angsty territory!
Some extra tidbits: The story is billed as fictional sageuk, but the story seems to be loosely based on King Jungjong’s rise to the throne. Lee Tae’s father King Seonjong (Ahn Nae-sang) states that he sits in the throne after his older brother was overthrown. From the background of Lee Tae’s mother Queen Inyeong (Woo Mi-hwa), whose family of Shin clan was exterminated due to their involvement with the late tyrant king, she might be inspired by Jungjong’s first wife Queen Dankyeong, who was driven out from her rightful position because her father Shin Su-geun served in Yeonsangun’s court and also the brother of Yeonsan’s wife Deposed Queen Shin. In the universe of Bloody Heart, Seonjong protected Queen Inyeong from his court’s attempt to remove her, and Lee Tae is the son from their blissful marriage life. So, this can be viewed as a fictional take of what could be if Queen Dankyeong continued to be Jungjong’s queen consort.
(Even Park Gye-won might be inspired by historical figure Park Won-jong, who was the key figure in overthrowing Yeonsan and putting Jungjong on the throne)
Yoo Jung and Lee Tae’s broken engagement reminds me of the history of Crown Prince Sohyeon and his first engagement which ended up tragically. Two years before Sohyeon married Crown Princess Minhoe (or Crown Princess Kang), he was arranged to marry the youngest daughter of Yoon Eui-rip, and Sohyeon was said to have fallen love at first sight with Lady Yoon. The marriage received Sohyeon’s father, King Injo’s blessing, but the court was against the union because: (i) the meritorious subjects forming the majority of the court were Westerners and Yoon was a Southerner; and (ii) his nephew was said to be involved in the Yi Gwal’s Rebellion. King Injo also rose to the throne after overthrowing Gwanghaegun with the help of the Westerners, which put him in similar situation with King Jungjong. Pressured by the courtiers, Injo eventually broke off the engagement between Sohyeon and Lady Yoon. It was said that Lady Yoon took her own life after that, but there was no way of confirming whether it was true or not. Later, Crown Prince Sohyeon married Lady Kang, the daughter of his Royal Lecturer Kang Seok-gi.