This is a drama that is very well constructed. You can see the effort and thought that goes into every aspect of it’s production. From the direction to the writing, from the set design to the music, everything works in tandem to create something wonderful. And it pulls off the whole time-travel-fusion-sageuk-philosophical-romance thing and makes it look easy. One of the best things about the show, I think, is that you can watch it causally and get a great amount of enjoyment from it, but you can also watch it critically, and it doesn’t fall apart. In fact, watching it closely doesn’t reveal glaring plot holes or ridiculous lengths taken to keep the main couple apart–it makes the drama stronger, shows us how everything fits together, and makes our viewing of it that much more enjoyable.
For example, Queen In Hyun’s Man has a way of using objects as extensions of it’s characters’ identities. The objects don’t simply work as symbols that stand in and represent the character so much as they are used to allow us to understand the characters and their actions better. Other dramas tend to use objects as plot devices: in Scent of a Woman, when Yeon Jae is in (the pianist) Wilson’s hotel room, the camera lingers on his ring, and we immediately know that something bad is going to happen involving it. Sure enough, the ring is lost and everyone thinks that Yeon Jae stole it. It’s more than a visual cue; it’s a direction explicitly telling us something. It’s blatant, and you don’t have to think about it. The ring isn’t really a symbol of anything rather than it is a plot device. It’s this shorthand that dramas tend to use to tell their stories, this thing they do where they “show” instead of “tell,” in it’s most basic manifestation.
Objects in this drama don’t just show us things, they actually help to tell the story. Let’s begin with the most obvious thing: the talisman. It’s a pretty visually striking object. It’s bright yellow with hanja characters going down it’s middle, characters that can either mean “When you’re about to die, you live,” or “Those willing to die will live, and those willing to live will die.” It’s soaked in Boong Do’s blood, marking it unquestionably as his and reminding us how vulnerable he is, how many times he’s almost been killed, how many times he’s been willing to be killed, and how it’s this flimsy little piece of parchment that has allowed him to do so much. In episode 9 it’s cut in half by a sword, causing Boong Do to lose his memories of the past two months. Hee Jin, meanwhile, gains memories without losing any of the ones she’d made with Boong Do, essentially living two realities at once. With Boong Do’s memories gone, the Queen re-instated, and Hee Jin living in a re-imagined universe, the world is re-set, almost bringing everything back to normal. The talisman’s being cut almost brings the universe back together, almost wipes the slate clean so that everything can proceed as usual. So something being undone is the impetus for something being put back together. It’s like unzipping a zipper to zip up your pants. It mirrors the way flashbacks are used in the show, the way going back (even sometimes using a flashback within the past, or using multiple flashbacks at once) is what drives the story forward.
But what’s really interesting about the talisman is how it works within Hee Jin and Boong Do’s romance. First of all, the talisman is given to Boong Do by Yoon Wol, who harbors an unrequited love for him. As we learn in episode 10, the talisman works only for Boong Do because of her feelings for him. It’s the love Yoon Wol has for him that allows Boong Do to pursue a love with Hee Jin. But what if those feelings change? Will it stop working for him?
When the talisman is cut, all of Boong Do’s political goals have already been realized. The reason the world is only almost put back together and not entirely repaired is because of the human connection he’s made in 2012–mainly, the romance. So for Boong Do the talisman changes from being a tool used to help him avenge his family and return the Queen to her throne, to being a tool that helps him advance his romance with Hee Jin. It’s always been a source of power for him that has allowed him to escape death and beat his enemies, but now it has a different kind of power, one that allows him to fulfill his emotional desires. For Hee Jin, meanwhile, the talisman represents the instability of her romance with Boong Do. It’s what allows Boong Do to disappear, and not just to another place, but to another time. There is no way for her to reach him. When Boong Do hands the talisman over to her in episode 11, then, he’s handing over and immense amount of power. When it’s in his hands it’s an active kind of power (he travels through time) and when she has it it’s a passive kind of power (she keeps him from traveling through time). It shows how much trust there is between these two, for him to be able to give her an object that controls so much of his life, and for her to be able to hand it back to him when he asks for it. But Hee Jin knows what the talisman means for Boong Do, and it makes it all the more poignant that in episode 12 she hands it back to him without his asking, even with all the doubts and lack of power the talisman gives her. In their relationship it’s an object of extreme doubt, but also one of trust.
I love this car. I love it. Cars have always been important in this drama: Hee Jin waits for Boong Do in the rain in one, taxis allow Boong Do outwit Min-am, and they have their first significant skinship moment in one. In episode 8 Boong Do sells his father’s heirloom sword in order to be able to buy the car for Hee Jin. It’s a present to thank her for all that she’s done for him, all she’s taught him. It’s in this car that Boong Do makes the definitive decision to continue returning to 2012 for no other purpose than of seeing Hee Jin. It’s in this car that he is the one who waits for her. It’s in this car that he promises to return, in this car that they promise to try to work out some kind of relationship together. But the car is more than just a place where they build their relationship (and make out!).
If the talisman is an object of power for Boong Do, then the car is an object of power for Hee Jin. As is explained in this post (which also explains another symbol, Boong Do’s sword), when Hee Jin gets in the car in episode 8 and starts circling around Boong Do, it shows that she is “in the driver’s seat both literally and figuratively.” As with when Boong Do hands over the talisman, his giving her the car invests her with more power. But it’s a power she already had. Driving is the one area where Hee Jin clearly outshines Boong Do. It’s one of the first things she has to teach him about–how to open a door, how to put on a seatbelt. In episode 3 she weaves in and out of traffic and flips off a man who cut her off, giving us one of the first times where Boong Do gets to witness her “shameless charm.” And in episode 12, Boong Do learns how to ride a bike and they going for a scenic bike ride, not a scenic drive.
So the car is a symbol of Hee Jin’s power. In episode 9, when the talisman is cut, Hee Jin is driving the car. It’s while she’s driving that the effects of the talisman’s being cut hit her: her head starts to hurt, her vision blurs, and she and veers off the road into a lamp post. She literally looses control. Her mind is violated, which correlates to her loosing power. It’s indicative of what’s going to happen to her after the accident: she’s forced to be in a relationship with Dong Min that she has no desire to be in; her beliefs are constantly questioned by her closest friend; she’s told that her memories are of no consequence, that they are mere fabrications of her upset mind; she’s made out to be mentally unstable (and therefore easily dismissed) and has to go see a psychiatrist who just tells her what her friends have been telling her; every source she looks to to confirm what she believes–from Soo Kyung to the internet–tell her the exact opposite, leading to a profound sense of illusion and unreality (“But how come these dreams seem more real than real life?”); and she starts to question herself, making her be wary of one of her most recognizable traits, her impulsiveness. And to add insult to injury, the car crash happens right when she’s thinking about Boong Do and how happy she is when she’s with him.
But there’s something about the car crash that gives us pause: even though she crashes into the sidewalk, she does maintain a minimum amount of control. She sees a car in front of her and realizes she’s about to hit it and she turns the wheel so that she doesn’t. So even when she’s at her most vulnerable she’s still got some self possession and control. It’s mirrored, I think, in how even though she’s forced to date Dong Min she still avoids him and makes it clear that she’s pretty disgusted with him. She still has the power to resist, even if she’s living in this world that negates everything she’s experienced.
But then comes the moment in episode 11 when her resistance becomes outright rebellion. It’s after she’s been to her psychiatrist and has listed for her everything that is “real” (what Soo Kyung and Dong Min tell her) and everything that is a “dream” (her time with Boong Do). She’s in a car. She’s driving. Boong Do’s expression about man proposing and god disposing comes to her and she questions how it is that she can know something she’s never learned. And in a bit of gender reversal she swings her car around and goes to the park to wait for Boong Do, despite the fact that her psychiatrist told her that it would just prove that her dreams are just dreams.
And in episode 12, when Boong Do says he wanted to buy another car for her, Hee Jin answers that she doesn’t want to have something that can just disappear. She’s talking about Boong Do himself disappearing whenever he wants because of the talisman, but also about how their relationship just disappeared when the talisman was cut in half, (which happened while she was in the car).
Communication (And Phones)
The problems for these two don’t come from an inability to communicate. They want to talk to each other and they do talk to each other. They tell each other their fears, like when Hee Jin tells Boong Do she wishes he were a conman or when she tells him she wants to hold on to the talisman, and they keep their promises. I think it’s interesting that the way they speak to each other is mainly by telephone. When Hee Jin faints and is rushed to the hospital in episode 3, her phone is left on the ground and it’s Boong Do who picks it up. It’s the first object he picks up in 2012. And it’s an object that is switched for the talisman: while he gets her phone, she gets the talisman. And like Boong Do is a bit powerless without it, Hee Jin is a bit powerless without her phone. She uses it to stay in touch with Soo Kyung and everyone else she knows, and it’s also a source of information for her because she confirms and negates facts by going online to search for pictures and articles (and search the Joseon annals). So the phone is a tricky object in this drama because it gives Hee Jin information, but the information doesn’t always help her in her romance. Sometimes it works against it. Another example is when Dong Min is the one who comes for Hee Jin when she’s waiting for Boong Do in the phone booth at the end of episode 9 (which contrasts nicely with the end of 12 and how instead of walking out of the booth like with Dong Min, they stay inside the booth together). Also, in episode 10 Soo Kyung is able to keep them apart because she controls Hee Jin’s phone.
What they do with telephones is, of course, speak, but it’s important because it’s their speaking to each other that binds them so much. It’s what the other says that leaves an imprint strong enough on the other to urge them to act. When they are separated it’s language that is their strongest tie. It’s language that seeps through Boong Do’s 1694 consciousness to pepper his speech and make him incomprehensible to those around him. Language, more than anything else, urges him to search for the talisman, and even more than that, I’d argue it’s language that gets him to make the decision that yes, Queen In Hyun is worth risking his life for. Of course, he’s risking his life for Hee Jin, the person he loves, but also because “Queen In Hyun” is such a time warp of a title in itself, what with not being able to exist until after the Queen is dead and yet somehow still being in his mind. So it’s the object they use to talk to each other when they’ve been separated that links them.
I think the ambiguous nature of the phone is best seen in towards the end of episode 12. Boong Do calls Hee Jin to tell her he’s decided that staying in 2012 is the best idea. Hee Jin is in her car when she gets the call, and then she gets out of her car with her phone and approaches Boong Do who doesn’t see her at first. When he does notice her, they are directly facing each other, but they have the glass of the phone booth between them. And they can’t actually hear each other, they have to use phones to speak to each other. They don’t speak directly to have this important and wonderful conversation. That one moment, when Boong Do puts down the phone right after he realizes she’s standing right there, that he can see her, and right when Hee Jin is telling him, “It’s an extremely good conclusion,” and he sees her lips move but doesn’t hear her and he has to bring the phone back up to his ear…it just shows how hard these two work to be together and how there always seems to be something they have to work against, even when they are together.
*Notice in the last picture how we have a shot of the car and the phone booth with both of them inside!*