‘Poong, The Joseon Psychiatrist’ review: a disgraced physician finds new purpose in this affecting period K-drama

Kim Min-jae, Kim Sang-kyung and Kim Hyang-gi’s on-screen chemistry charges what could become one of the best period pieces in Korean TV this year

In Poong, The Joseon Psychiatrist, we follow a man bouncing back after a fall from grace. We don’t meet protagonist Yoo Se-yeop (or Yoo Se-poong) (Kim Min-jae) as a psychiatrist, per the series’ title – instead, we first encounter him as a royal acupuncturist, who sailed through scholarly trials as a child prodigy and became a brilliant young nobleman and a repository of knowledge on all the medical texts of the era.

In his time serving the king and his retinue, Se-yeop has built a formidable reputation within the royal court as an acupuncturist with a 100 per cent cure rate, second only to the royal physician among the king’s entourage of medical personnel. Se-yeop is extremely confident in his abilities, backed his miraculous talent to save anybody in a matter of seconds with only a few precisely placed needles – not unlike the leads of the numerous contemporary medical procedurals in South Korean entertainment.

His downfall, however, begins the moment he’s brought to the king, whose face is flushed with pulsating boils. In spite of the monarch’s cries for help and unsightly demeanour, Se-yeop hesitates to intervene – per Joseon-era laws, the royal physician is the only person sanctioned to treat the king. But Se-yeop’s confidence begins to rise – it he has the ability to save the king from his pain, why shouldn’t he help? – and he takes matters into his own hands by perforating the boils. But when he punctures the last one, volumes of blood spurt out, and the monarch suffers a slow and painful death.

The once-esteemed nobleman is now banished from the palace. Traumatised and forced to trek across the country, Se-yeop is unable to continue his medical practice. Kim Min-jae’s performance as the disgraced acupuncturist is immensely layered – he portrays the rollercoaster of emotions Se-yeop experiences, from his unrelenting arrogance to the devastation and bleakness after losing his career. Kim makes sympathising with Se-yeop easy; the fluidity with which his character grows with the challenges he’s presented is only possible due to Kim’s ostensibly deep understanding of the character.

Se-yeop stumbles upon the humble Gyesu Village a year into his banishment, where he goes head-to-head with local physician Gye Ji-han (Kim Sang-kyung) and crosses paths with suicidal widow Seo Eun-woo (Kim Hyang-gi). They form an unlikely trio as they each battle their own demons, Se-yeop beginning to find meaning in his medical work for the village, and by extension his own life and values.

Poong, The Joseon Psychiatrist is notable for its depiction of archaic, misogynistic laws of the Joseon era regarding women and widows, and its refreshing humour. Also remarkable is the sincerity in the show’s underlying message. Mr. Gye spells it out for Se-yeop: he can use his intelligence for another purpose besides acupuncture. Se-yeop’s life is far from ruined or over; he can make peace with his past while looking towards his future. It’s a refreshingly unpretentious and earnest sentiment that transcends the era the show is set in.

Poong the Joseon Psychiatrist
Kim Min-Jae and Kim Sang-kyung in ‘Poong, The Joseon Psychiatrist’. Credit: Viu

The chemistry between Poong, The Joseon Psychiatrist’s three main leads is also what makes this period piece entertaining. The thespian trio of Kim Min-jae, Kim Sang-kyung and Kim Hyang-gi effortlessly bounce off each other’s energy on-screen, and aren’t just confined to comedic scenes for cheap laughs; there are heartfelt moments and low points shared too. They are complex characters who are almost destined to be together to help each other grow – if the plot isn’t enough to hold your interest, you’d still be tuning in every week just to witness their shenanigans.

As with most Korean dramas, Poong, The Joseon Psychiatrist suffers from inconsistent pacing. With 12 episodes in this season clocking in at over an hour each, there are a handful of moments where events are being drawn out more than necessary for the sake of the plot’s progression. A third of the way through this show, though, and Poong, The Joseon Psychiatrist is shaping up to be one of the year’s most watchable and well-executed period dramas.

New episodes of Poong, The Joseon Psychiatrist air every Monday and Tuesday on South Korean cable network tVN, and is available to stream on Viu in select countries.

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