‘Bloody Heart’ review: a visual treat and masterful tale – is this the historical K-drama of the year?

In its first few episodes, ‘Bloody Heart’ sets up a near-Shakespearean tale of love, revenge and the absolute corruption absolute power brings about

Utter, infuriating helplessness sets the stage for Bloody Heart. In the yards of the stately palace of Joseon, ministers cry out for the Crown Prince Lee Tae (Lee Joon) to be deposed. Inside the palace, said Prince and the King sit talking, their hands proverbially tied by destiny and conspiracy. King Seonjeong (Ahn Nae-sang) has spent his reign as a pawn, and his last moments as the monarch aren’t any different. Staggering and shaking, all he can do is apologise to his son for no longer being able to protect him.

Like a shroud, Lee Tae carries his father’s helplessness outside, where minister Park Gye-won (Jang Hyuk) and his supporters stand. Just like his father had done to him, the Crown Prince goes to his knees and begs. Gritting his teeth and cursing his fate, he pleads with the ministers to not depose him, promises not to be a despot and saves his skin at the cost of everything else. He ascends to the throne a puppet – devoid of life, burning with rage and desperately waiting for an escape – dancing to the tune of Gye-won and his sly catchphrase: “A subject can only advise.”

But Lee Tae wasn’t always a husk of a man. Years ago, his beating heart lay with the “ugly, cheeky, proud and even vicious” Yoo-jung (Kang Han-na). Madly in love, he declares he will marry no one else, and in naming her Crown Princess, dooms her. Yoo-jung’s existence is a slight to Gye-won, however, who interprets her father’s connections with a rival faction as the king’s quest to gain power. Gye-won – bolstered by the support of the nobles and other ministers – stages a protest.

Desperate to save their son, Lee Tae’s mother (Woo Mi-hwa) orchestrates a scheme, making it look like someone tried to poison her and the Crown Prince. It costs her her life, and the King – despite acknowledging her well-intended actions and out of his own helplessness – blames Yoo-jung’s family for it. Yoo-jung’s parents are beheaded, and she is only saved due to a last kindness by the King: with Lee Tae’s help, the King sneaks her out and makes it look like she died in a fire, “burnt beyond recognition.”

Now, Yoo-jung lives in a famed Bamboo forest, running a basket-weaving business. The only escape Lee Tae and Yoo-jung have is their monthly rendezvous at the bridge they had walked upon as teenagers – but even that is tainted by Lee Tae’s secret. As teens, Yoo-jung’s parents were murdered before Lee Tae could reveal his identity as Crown Prince. As King himself, he can’t bear to reveal that his own father was responsible for the decimation of her family – with her, he is a scholar, escaping from his life and into her arms for one night every month.

In its first few episodes, Bloody Heart sets up a near-Shakespearean tale of love, revenge, and the absolute corruption absolute power brings about. Amplifying this is the show’s stunning visual treatment – there is no doubt that Bloody Heart is a visual treat. Sweeping shots of crops swaying in fields mirror the freedom of young love. Dull, dim lighting inside Lee Tae’s palace makes an otherwise grand compound stifling.

In some shots, visual language adds an unspoken truth to the situation – as Gye-won ambles in front of the throne and faces the nobles, the focus shifts from Lee Tae to him, showing you exactly who runs the show in the palace. Dare we say, the last time a K-drama excited this author with visual language was 2018’s Mr. Sunshine, so the production crew on Bloody Heart should pat themselves for a job well done.

Completing this trifecta is the masterful craft of words. Emotions – even those of apathy and despair – run deep, and poetic lines are delivered with a heart-wrenching, scorching intensity. Case in point, the scene where Lee Tae looks his dying wife in the eye and tells her he never loved her; or, when his stepmother makes a cruel joke about his tea being poisoned, knowing full well it’s how his mother had died; or even Park Gye-won’s serpentine eyes every time he relishes in his position as a “subject”.

bloody heart review lee joon kang han na k-drama kbs2 disney plus
Kang Han-na in ‘Bloody Heart’. Credit: Disney+

Part of the reason why Bloody Heart also seems so grand, in fact, is the stellar cast, who bring effortless gravitas and surprising layers to the characters. With how his hands shake while drinking a simple cup of tea, Lee Joon’s Lee Tae almost dupes us into thinking he’s a powerless figurehead. That is, until he ruthlessly, shrewdly manipulates his Minister of War into giving up his only daughter to him in marriage.

Similarly, Kang Han-na – always a delight on screen, but particularly in historical dramas – as Yoo-jung flits seamlessly between the blushing beauty who’s only waiting for Lee Tae to confess to her and the woman of steel who voluntarily steps into the lion’s den to save her loved ones. Her dynamic with Lee is shaping up to be one of the most riveting points in the show – clearly, what started off as clandestine meetings is going to turn into the story of two people torn asunder by deceit, cruel fate and the machinations of a malicious few.

But perhaps the most delightful piece in this board game is Jang-hyuk’s Park Gye-won. Villains in historical dramas perennially suffer from a case of unidimensionality, but Gye-won does an excellent job of terrifying and intriguing us at the same time. His eyes look dead, yet calculating; his words tempered, yet conniving. His motives are clearly malevolent, yet presented as sound logic. Come for the romance, stay for the game of cat-and-mouse between veteran villain Gye-won and the lion cub finally baring his fangs, Lee Tae.

bloody heart review lee joon kang han na k-drama kbs2 disney plus
Jang Hyuk in ‘Bloody Heart’. Credit: Disney+

Of course, K-dramas – particularly historical ones – are guilty of cannibalising themselves with overused tropes. At times, Bloody Heart itself reminds us of another historical show with similar plot elements. Years ago, The Moon Embracing The Sun also gave us a crown prince who falls for a noblewoman and is all set to marry her, only to have her wrenched from his hands due to political conspiracy. Years later, he is disillusioned and quietly plotting revenge as King, only to have a wrench thrown in his plans when he comes face to face with his long-lost love.

Don’t let that deter you from watching Bloody Heart, though. Right off the gate, it’s clear that the show isn’t trying to compete with the classics, instead weaving a story that is as compelling as it is visually stunning. Whether this fades into the background or becomes a league of its own, however, is yet to be seen.

‘Bloody Heart’ airs on KBS2 every Monday and Tuesday at 9:30pm, and is also available to stream on Disney+ in select regions.

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