Background – King Jinpyeong rules over Silla while contending against the wiles of Mishil. His firstborns were twin girls – Cheonmyeong and Deokman. An ancient prophecy claims that when a king shall give birth to twins, the royal male line shall disappear. Jinpyeong, fearful of offering Mishil any ammunition against himself, bundles away Deokman (the future queen Seondeok) with his maid Sohwa. Mishil, aware of the twin birth, sends her trusted guard Chilsuk to bring Deokman back. He loses them but continues his search, ultimately wandering around mainland China.
Fifteen years later, he comes across Deokman living in an international trading post in the Taklamakan Desert, both unaware of her identity. In Silla, Cheonmyeong, married to Lord Yongsu, the deposed King Jinji’s son, tiptoes around the mighty Mishil.
We get to know our fascinating little heroine better who has grown up in a very unconventional setting. Which only adds more zing to her utterly enthralling character. But her halcyon days draw to an abrupt end when her long-hidden past finally catches up with her.
A feather touch of comedy, loads of heart, and edge-of-the-seat thrill blend together in a heady episode that moves ahead at a brisk clop. And when Nam Ji-hyun is on the screen, everything else just falls by the wayside.
In the market, the atmosphere is tense, with soldiers patrolling to enforce the ban placed on the tea trade. Deokman introduces Chilsuk to the Roman tea merchant Cartan, who agrees to hire him as his guard (and also cops a feel of his bottom while greeting him). The other tea traders join them, eager to know Deokman’s idea to smuggle tea. She leads them to her inn’s backyard and uncovers her ingenious solution – brick tea. Which amazingly look like plain bricks.
Out of the blue, soldiers raid the inn. Somebody has snitched on the traders. Deokman tries to set the tea bricks on fire with her magnifying glass, hoping to destroy the evidence while the soldiers rummage through the inn. Clever girl!
A worried Sohwa joins them in her search for Deokman, but at the very moment the captain lights upon the tea, the bricks catch fire, and she collapses at the sight of it. All of them are apprehended, including Chilsuk and taken to the feudal palace.
In the lock-up, Deokman desperately calls for a physician, as Sohwa’s condition worsens, and she begins gasping for air. Deokman explains to Cartan that a fire during her childhood damaged her mother’s lungs severely and the mere sight of it causes her breathlessness and panic. Chilsuk’s eyes narrow at this info.
The feudal lord Yang is furious that the evidence has been burnt. He gives the order to behead all of them, so first Cartan is dragged and secured to the guillotine. [NOTE: Lord Yang speaks Cantonese, whereas the rest of the populace speak Mandarin.]
Chilsuk gets ready to fight, but Deokman runs forward and fervently appeals to be punished alone, as she alone had connived the entire ruse. Cartan tries to stop her, and acting as an interpreter, asks Lord Yang to have mercy on her, taking into account her age.
A riled-up Lord Yang demands to know why she defied his order. Deokman falters, but gains conviction and states that the ban made no sense. She earnestly justifies her rationale:
“All traders travel for over a year to reach this place, but once they reach here, they find out they are forbidden from any trading. It makes no sense. All these traders will squander two years [with this ban in place]. They will lose their livelihood! Not to mention the difficulties they faced in crossing the desert, and then they will have to go back empty-handed.”
Cartan pleads with her to beg for mercy, instead, she impassionately quotes from her book of heroes to an utterly incredulous Lord Yang:
“A ruler who has no time for his people should have no time to ascend to the throne as well! I believe that any ruler who doesn’t cherish and shelter his people has no intention of living up to his crown’s legacy. Intimidation will dictate his policies, but he shall never become a hero for the ages.”
Lord Yang approaches her, full of derision. In his hands he holds two dice, both marked with the word “death”. It is his go-to solution for getting rid of anyone who annoys him. And now he holds them out to Deokman and asks her to choose one. Deokman, bless her astute mind, questions how can she trust that both dice are not the same? He leaves that to her destiny.
While Deokman deliberates which die to select, Sohwa in her delirium mumbles out loud “I’m sorry, Your Majesty” in Korean, which Chilsuk catches. Uh oh, he’s quite suspicious now. Deokman makes her choice, but when she’s asked to reveal her die, she swallows it! (It was so big) She asks Lord Yang to show his die instead, forcing him to reveal his Death die. Everybody rejoices in relief, Deokman immediately begs the lord’s forgiveness. He is impressed (as are we) and declares her to be blessed by the heavens, so everyone can go free.
Miles away in Silla, Jinpyeong wishes to abdicate in favour of his son-in-law Lord Yongsu. The courtiers and nobles protest, specially Mishil’s cronies. Though Lord Yongsu may be of royal blood, he is no longer a sacred bone (the only rank allowed to ascend the throne) because of his father’s deposition. Plus he has no meritorious achievements to his name, which make him lacking in royal virtue.
Mishil makes her grand entrance and ends the clamouring with her proclamation of the commencement of the Dano Festival – a show of skills by the Hwarang. At the festival, she has her way with Princess Cheonmyenong patronising, provoking and twisting her cowed replies, and disdainfully daring the intimidated girl to go against her might.
Back in the desert inn, the traders inquire about Chilsuk, and Deokman eagerly complies. She shares the particulars of how he chased after a maid and baby, followed them into a cave and smoked them out by lighting fire at the entrance.
The subject of her tale is currently acting on his suspicions and he searches through Sohwa and Deokman’s belongings. He finds the silk cloth that baby Deokman was wrapped in, and a letter with Munno’s name on it, which seals the deal. Sohwa too, having overheard Deokman’s story, figures out who Chilsuk is. She grabs Deokman and makes a run for their room.
Chilsuk confronts them and asks Sohwa if Deokman is the child she ran away with. Sohwa denies it, but Chilsuk affirms it when it dawns on Deokman that she’s the child from his story. He makes a grab for them, but they fend him off and lock themselves in a room. Chilsuk is composed as he follows them and breaks down the door with ease. He is glad that after 15 years of wandering, he can finally return home.
He subdues them in moments and then takes a candle to peer at Sohwa’s face. Deokman spies the gasoline-filled wineskin and splashes it on the candle and Chilsuk catches fire. Mother and daughter escape as he rolls about to put out the flames. Sohwa beelines to first pack Munno’s letter and the king’s belongings (which prove Deokman’s identity).
They make a run for it from the trap door, but Chilsuk doggedly pursues them, ultimately managing to corner Deokman. By now, the fire has spread throughout the inn, but Sohwa overcomes her panic and attacks and stabs Chilsuk with a fire iron. Finally, they manage to make their escape into the desert on a camel.
By morning, Sohwa’s breathing has worsened again, and the camel collapses from exhaustion. When it refuses to get up, Deokman screams at it in frustration and helps her mother walk. But by noon, Sohwa is exhausted and unable to walk further. Deokman piggybacks her to a cave in the mountains.
Chilsuk wakes up with his eyes bandaged because of the fire. Cartan informs him that he is at risk of losing his eyesight if he doesn’t rest them, but he insists on following Deokman. Cartan says it is too dangerous as a sandstorm is approaching. But Chilsuk, who clearly hasn’t learnt to give up, sets off after them, stab wound notwithstanding.
In the cave, Sohwa implores Deokman to leave her and depart for Rome, where she will be safe. Deokman wishes to go to Silla instead to meet her father. Sohwa says it’s her father’s wish that she not return to Silla. Deokman lashes out at this abandonment and throws the seohyeopdo (the jewel-encrusted dagger given by her father) in her fit. Sohwa mollifies her that she wasn’t abandoned, she had, in fact, saved her father. Deokman disputes what sort of parent sacrifices a child to save himself when it should be the other way round. Like Sohwa who always saved her, no matter how dire her situation was. At this realisation, she dissolves into guilty sobs, feeling small for making empty boasts about taking care of her mother, but needing her protection in reality. She ardently vows to protect her mother. Sohwa comforts the remorseful girl.
Chilsuk tracks down their cave, but it is empty. Sohwa having heard his approach, makes a run for Deokman, who is at the oasis, with their pack of belongings. He gives chase, persisting through the pain.
Sohwa reaches her daughter and gasps at her to run away. But she slips down the dune and falls into a quicksand, getting sucked in waist-deep. Oh no! Deokman throws a rope around her and pulls in vain. Realising that Deokman is also in danger of falling in, Sohwa throws their pack and begins to cut at the rope with the seohyeopdo. An overwrought Deokman screams at her to stop. But as Chilsuk appears and approaches them, Sohwa cuts away more frantically while a horrified Deokman stares.
Oh Sohwa, you beautiful soul. From the scatterbrained maid whose impulse was to pass on Deokman to the first person she came across, she has grown into such a tigress of a mother. She is still clumsy and fearful, but when it comes to Deokman, she rises to risk everything. If Chilsuk was determined to catch Deokman despite his injury, Sohwa was equally desperate to save her no matter her weakened state. The moment she resolved to be Deokman’s mother, she embraced her as her real daughter wholeheartedly. Watching them live only for each other, you appreciate that Sohwa is Deokman’s rock, and Deokman her heart.
I’m curious to know Chilsuk’s backstory – why is he so skittish around people? He is gruff and on guard with everyone he meets. And why is he so loyal to Mishil? His determination to capture Deokman cannot be chalked to only his wish to return home. Fifteen years is a long time to remember a quest. When he goes after Deokman, it is the instinct of a soldier fulfilling his duty. He chooses to be insensible to all the help Deokman has given him. But we are aware he is not vicious by nature, but a man of his code whose fealty to Mishil supersedes everything. Even his own life.
We get to contrast the two sisters when they face figures of authority. Cheonmyeong cowers and speaks meekly with Mishil. She and her father think of themselves as victims at Mishil’s mercy. She is shackled by her fears and essentially powerless despite her royal position, which further binds her to the rules of conduct for life in a palace.
Deokman, on the other hand, speaks her mind plainly to Lord Yang. Bound by no strictures, she has experienced and lived life freely. This freedom to act has helped her develop inner strength and trust in herself which makes her decisive and fearless in her actions. As a commoner, she bows to authority, but her freedom to act as she deems right is intact. Instead of acting when it is favourable, she makes the situation favourable for herself. Even her abandonment by her father doesn’t bog her down. Deokman is hurt and angry, but she doesn’t let it define her. If she does lose her mother (God forbid!) we can be assured that she will not fail at life. She will be guided by her wisdom and good sense, and her courage will take care of her. Jinpyeong, in abandoning Deokman, set her free. And though she may lack qualifications, we know that she is more than qualified to rule and shake things up in Silla.
This episode (or show) hands down belongs to Deokman. Or is it Nam Ji-hyun? I cannot differentiate between the two. It is delightful when an actor becomes a character, but how often do we confuse the actor for the character itself or vice-versa?
The writers have created a rare, golden character in Deokman. A fearless, quick-witted child with a generous heart, who is excitable and emotional as any 15 year old. Her hurt at her abandonment, confusion at the sudden danger she finds herself in and her disappointment in herself for being unable to protect her mother – Nam Ji-hyun’s touch makes the fire in Deokman shine more brightly and keenly while keeping her real and grounded. We adore her
gaiety, are impressed with her courage, feel for her when she is down, and wonder, ‘What will she do next when life throws her a curveball?’
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