Shin Myun, played here by Song Jong Ho, is the second male lead in The Princess’s Man, and he rounds out our love triangle. He is the head of the Joseon-era police and a noble, and as such he spends most of his time enforcing the law, which basically consists of protecting the king, finding and locking up those labelled as criminals, and being in charge of executions. When we first meet him he is introduced as part of another threesome, as the third best friend of our male lead, Kim Seung Yoo, and of Jung Jong. I think it’s significant that we first meet Shin Myun in relation to other people because it emphasizes the enormity of his betrayal. After he betrays his friends we see Shin Myun in the singular, always alone, never with someone who is his equal in standing, always looking for someone who will reaffirm his decision to side with the usurping king while simultaneously digging himself deeper and deeper into his betrayal as a way of underscoring the justifications he claims he has.
The narrative presents Shin Myun as a foil to Seung Yoo: they are best friends, both have fathers in politics whose actions test their friendship, both work for the government, and both eventually end up being engaged to the same woman. But while Seung Yoo is willing to put aside his father’s decisions and maintain his friendship, Shin Myun is not. At the beginning of the series Seung Yoo’s identity is not defined by his father: he is something of a playboy and, while not exactly a black sheep in his family, does get in trouble and embarrass his father and older brother. He hangs out with gisaengs and comes home drunk all the time. It is not until later on in the narrative, when he is trying to avenge his dad’s murder, that his identity becomes heavily dependent on his memory or imagining of his father. Shin Myun, on the other hand, is obedient right from the start. He never does anything wrong and always keeps himself in check, so much so that I find it surprising that his two closest friends consist of a borderline alcoholic and a pretty boy (and Park Shi Hoo is very pretty, yum) ladies’ man. As the story progresses and the paths these two men take become more and more divergent, these oppositional aspects become clearer and more definite: Shin Myun is an official of the state while Seung Yoo is a rebel criminal; Shin Myun’s father lives while Seung Yoo’s is murdered; Shin Myun’s identity remains consistent throughout while Seung Yoo transforms drastically; etc.
But I think that looking at Shin this way is wrong, or at least very limiting. I’d rather compare him to our heroine, Lee Se Ryung, than to Seung Yoo. I see them as much better foils to each other that the two men, because they both are in the exact same situations but they make vastly differing decisions. And I find that fascinating. Shin Myun sees himself as having to choose between his father and his friends, between his family—bonds he has no control over, and friendship—bonds he created himself. I think it’s rather revealing that he explains his situation in these terms and never as “having power” or “not having power”; that is essentially what he chooses between, and he chooses the former. Se Ryung also has to choose between her father, the usurping king and the man directly responsible for so much death and destruction including Seung Yoo’s father’s murder, and her relationship with Seung Yoo. But somehow Se Ryung is able to avoid the trap Shin Myun falls into and maintains a kind of middle ground, ultimately choosing her love for Seung Yoo over her love for her father, but never actually betraying her father, never wishing for his death, or ever even wishing for something bad to happen to him. She has this ability to love them both without directly hurting either. She is level-headed and passionate, loyal and opinionated, but most importantly, she has an imagination. It’s her imagination that enables her to conceive of a reality radically different from the one in which she exists, a reality in which she can live happily with Seung Yoo without having to have her father be killed, and it’s her faith in her desires, which are brought about by her imagination, that enables her to withstand both her father’s immense power and her lover’s (initial) rejection. Shin Myun has a crisis of imagination, and so in perceiving that he only has two decisions which he can make, commits a fallacy of bifurcation or a false dichotomy, whereby he argues that there are only two alternatives for something (side with my father and against my friends, or with my friends and against my father), when there might be more than two—and Se Ryung is the one who finds that third alternative, which is defy her father’s decisions and oppose his actions without ever being against the man. It isn’t until she cuts her hair that she finally and definitively cuts herself from her father, and even then she still insists that she loves him and wants the best for him. Why doesn’t Shin Myun ever think that he could be a double agent? Why doesn’t he ever think that he could convince his father to go against Prince Suyang? Notice that the narrative supports Se Ryung: her imagination triumphs in the end and she gets to live with Seung Yoo and raise a family, unburdened by her father’s treachery. But more important is that the understanding that Shin Myun is always looking for in others (always asking Jong to understand his situation, to appreciate how hard his circumstances are) is something that Se Ryung gets instead. No one can forgive Shin Myun for his decisions, but everyone can forgive Se Ryung for being her father’s daughter.
Could this be because of gender, because Shin Myun, as a man, inhabits a world of violence, while Se Ryung, as a woman, inhabits a much more private world? I reject this idea, firstly because the women in this story are just as involved with the violence and war as the men. They may not be the direct perpetrators, but they are killed and thrown in jail alongside their husbands and sons. (Although this is never shown, just referred to.) Secondly, I noticed that Shin Myun never once tried to convince his father that he was wrong. He asked him once why he chose to side with Prince Suyang/King Sejo, and he simply accepted his father’s answer. Se Ryung, on the other hand, confronts her father again and again, refusing to become a princess, asking him if he isn’t tired of shedding so much blood, finally leaving her father’s household and even choosing to be a slave rather than her father’s daughter. And here it is, the crucial difference between these two: the truth is, even if she weren’t in love with Seung Yoo, Se Ryung would still have defied her father because she was legitimately disturbed by his actions. Maybe she would not have become a slave, but she certainly would have questioned her father, and I believe she never would have lived in the palace, especially since she had such a close relationship to Princess Kyung Hye. Shin Myun, on the other hand, seems to be tortured by the decisions he makes, but he actively continues the treachery Prince Seyang orders him to perpetrate. So it isn’t a question of choosing family over friendship, its a question of choosing right over wrong. And again and again Shin Myun chooses wrong. And what’s worse, he chooses wrong and then wants people to sympathize with him. Ugh. He isn’t a misunderstood second lead, he’s one of the bad guys.
Even when it becomes clear that Prince Seyang is perfectly willing to kill him if he doesn’t manage to catch Seung Yoo, hestill chooses to be against Seung Yoo. AND he identifies the root of all his problems to be Seung Yoo, which is a lie: the root of all his problems is the root of everyone’s problems, which is Prince Seyang’s lust for power. His inability to see this, or rather, his unwillingness to see this, is another aspect of his lack of imagination. Shin Myun is blind: he has an inability to see the reality before him, which is why he mislabels Seung Yoo as the root of all his problems and why he characterizes his decisions in the light of “family over friends” as opposed to “right over wrong.” He just takes things as they are handed to him and doesn’t think for himself. And so, when he is killed by the side for which he is fighting, it isn’t even a sacrifice on his part, but mere collateral damage.
For these reasons, his cowardice in siding with corrupt power and his narrow-mindedness, I really disliked Shin Myun and wanted him to die straight away. Every episode I would wonder what his purpose in still existing was, and I increasingly began to feel that his character was simply a tool, another obstacle to keep Se Ryung and Seung Yoo apart. And I could not forgive him for that. What I hated most about him was that I never believed in his love for Se Ryung. I couldn’t understand his need to marry her (possess her, more like) and it bothered me that the narrative seemed to be saying that he was in love with her when clearly he was not. But then my sister suggested that perhaps his need to marry her isn’t because he loves her, but because he equates her with Seung Yoo, and he wants her affections and her acceptance and most of all, her approval. He did, after all, know the truth about their relationship before even Seung Yoo did, and he sees how he and Se Ryung admire and respect one another, and after his betrayal he wants Se Ryung by his side as a way to justify his actions. She, of course, never gives him this satisfaction (“I don’t want to hear my husband’s name coming from your lips”) and this just sends him spiraling deeper into his self-made hell. And Se Ryung doesn’t reject him only because she is in love with Seung Yoo, but because she understands that he chooses the wrong side. She’s as disgusted with his actions as she is with her father’s.
And finally, Shin Myun’s metaphorical blindness highlights Seung Yoo’s actual, physical blindness. In the end our hero is blind and has failed to achieve his revenge against King Sejo, but as he had told the king, “Others will rise up in [his] stead to fight [him]” (which reminds me of the end of one of my favorite films, Chocolat, in which the heroine chooses love and community over her nomadic obligations to her mother and passes on the tradition with these words: “But still the clever north wind was not satisfied. It spoke to Vianne of towns yet to be visited, friends in need yet to be discovered, battles yet to be fought… By someone else, next time”) and he gets to live in happiness with Se Ryung, showing us that his blindness is not at all debilitating, unlike Shin Myun’s, which was fatal.
I love this show.