Bloody Heart, the first sageuk (historical k-drama) offering from Disney Plus, tells a Romeo-and-Juliet tale of two complicated lovers and the politics that threaten to tear them apart.
In fair Joseon where we lay our scene, a fictional emperor Lee Tae (Lee Joon of The Silent Sea) is determined to become an absolute monarch. However, he comes up against his own minister Park Gye-won (Jang Hyuk of Voice), who counters his every move. Complicating matters is Yoo-jung (Kang Han-na of Start-up), a noblewoman whom Lee Tae desires and eventually marries, but soon proves to be of a bloodline that could be his undoing.
Truly, civil blood makes civil hands very unclean.
These violent delights have violent ends, indeed. Bloody Heart is as classic as a sageuk can get—Shakespearean in form and Dostoevskian in passion and plotting. In only the first few episodes, you can check off all the tragic elements that make up hardcore Korean historicals: murders, usurpers, dead parents, conspiracies, backstabbing, torture, treason, and all the scheming that seems to be Joseon’s main pastime. Also, poison. Lots and lots of poison.
There IS a lot of sitting around and talking politics, but don’t let that dissuade you. Bloody Heart does a fine job in externalizing their thinking and plotting so we aren’t forced to listen to long conversations. Flashbacks abound and visual metaphors such as a long-running baduk game (a Korean board game used to practice strategic thinking) that the emperor plays by himself prove helpful when the realpolitik gets a bit too confusing. All these generous storytelling cues make Bloody Heart such a visual treat. From wide shots of farmland to beautiful lanterns lighting up a lovers’ meeting, the drama certainly has enough visual ammunition to keep you watching.
This is a political drama, after all, and politics makes very strange bedfellows—sometimes, literally. Everyone from the king to the chambermaids have divided loyalties and shamelessly pivot when the opportunity calls for it. Bloody Heart harbors no illusions when it comes to choosing between the state and self-interest. Ministers who at first seem duplicitous and untrustworthy turn out to have the best interest of the nation at heart. Docile noblewomen who seem meek and obedient turn out to be puppet masters and enablers of the regime. Naïve chambermaids taken as pawns turn out to be ruthless rooks when it serves their purposes. All the plotting and the frequency of turncoats in the drama is enough to keep one interested, even if only to see who makes it out alive in this episode and who doesn't. It's not "bloody" for nothing—the drama also does pack a serious body count and some drawn-out violence.
The characters in Bloody Heart are also thankfully more fleshed-out and layered than the regular caricatures that we often see in historicals. True to its classical sageuk roots, the language is hefty and the performances are painstakingly slow and deliberate, almost as if you were watching it all unravel onstage. Emperor Lee Tae, played with a searing intensity by Lee Joon, is almost always on the verge of a breakdown, while Yoo-jung (Kang Han-na) provides the much needed calm to his roiling frustration and pain. Their chemistry works more when they are allies than when they are lovers because traditional drama dictates the "skinship" here be kept to a minimum (and we suffer along with them).
But it is Park Gye-won, the cunning minister played flawlessly by veteran Jang Hyuk, that truly takes the performance cake. Many sageuk villains suffer the bane of being too simple and predictable, but Park is so unreadable and stone-faced that you never really know if he is a friend or a foe or both at once. Park is probably one of the better-written villains in recent historicals, not only because he has the calm malevolence to draw us in, but like Black Panther’s villain Killmonger, Gye-won’s reasons for chaos actually makes a ton of sense. That in itself is frightening.
Another notable strength of the drama is the refreshing way the female characters assert their power and agency without pushing an overtly feminist agenda that might seem out of context. Yoo-jung is a strong and stable female lead largely because she uses her sharpness and entrepreneurial savvy to survive both the outside world and the viper pit of palace politics. She can even go against a master plotter like minister Park by herself without needing the king's intervention. Even the Dowager Queen, a character that is usually treated in other dramas as a manipulative figurehead that cannot scheme as well as men do, is frighteningly strong in her own quiet way—even going as far as crowning herself as regent in one scene. Subsequently, we also see the handmaids and other court ladies afford themselves a modicum of agency against the eunuchs and soldiers of the palace. The female characters in Bloody Heart can go toe-to-toe against and with the men in court, and do not suffer fools. After all, the name of the game is survival, and these women will use all their wits and wiles to play it as ruthlessly as everyone else.
Bloody Heart did quite well for its time slot and its run, but it remains to be seen if it can take its place along the greats. For now, it does complete the checklist of what a tragic historical and a doomed romance ought to be. With its beautiful cinematography, a grand Shakespearean vibe, hefty politicking, and some outstanding performances across the board, Bloody Heart certainly makes sure it's worth the very grand, bloody watch, indeed.
Can’t get enough of scheming and politicking? Check out these other shows and movies!
The Crowned Clown (series, 2019)
It’s hard to believe that this bloody, fast-paced sageuk thriller was written by Shin Ha-eun, the same woman responsible for crafting the delicious romcom, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha. A loose interpretation of the old king and pauper tale, The Crowned Clown sees Yoo Jin-goo deliver his finest performance yet, as both mad king and clueless theater performer. When difficulties force the ministers of court to turn a clown into a “king,” the clown quickly realizes just how heavy a crown is on the head that wears it.
The Red Sleeve (series, 2021)
“The king loved the court lady, but did the court lady love the king?”
Based on the true story of King Jeongjo of Joseon and court lady Sung Deok-im, and the eponymous novel by Kang Mi-kang, The Red Sleeve explores the answer to this question over the course of 17 cinematic episodes. In doing so, this drama, written and directed by women, tackles the harsh realities of 18th century palace life as seen from the perspective of its women—from court ladies whose stories we almost never hear, to members of the royal family. Palpable chemistry between its leads (Lee Se-young and 2PM's Lee Jun-ho), a solid cast of veteran actors, top-tier production values, seamless storytelling, and incredible attention to details make The Red Sleeve arguably the best sageuk of 2021.
Shadow (movie, 2018)
A "shadow" is someone's doppelganger who is usually hired to impersonate high officials so they are shielded from assassinations or harm. In the Pei court, the Commander and the cowardly King spar over a lost territory that the former wants to reclaim. Unbeknownst to everyone, the Commander they so revere is Jing Zhu, a commoner trained to play the shadow of the great commander Ziyu who has been wounded and now hides in seclusion.
After some time, the shadow grows dissatisfied at playing a mere shadow, and slowly, Jing Zhu begins to take control of his own destiny. But can a commoner truly become a real commander simply by looking like him and enjoying his privileges? Or will reality slam him back to the lowly place where he belongs?
The Throne (movie, 2015)
What the sins of the father can do to the son.
Based on a true story, The Throne is a heavy drama based on the painful relationship between King Yeongjo and his son, the Crown Prince Sado, during the Joseon Dynasty. At only 27, the prince was deemed “unfit” to rule, and was condemned by the king to die a macabre death by being starved inside a rice chest. Director Lee Jon-ik is back with this harrowing period piece, 10 years after his much-talked-about The King and Clown was nominated to represent South Korea in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category back in 2005.
Which historical drama is your favorite?