My Country: The New Age

나의 나라
JTBC (2019) 16 Episodes
Genre: Historical, Revenge, Romance
Grade: A-
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA
(Some Spoilers)

The Two Prettiest OST Songs:
Because It's You (Jung Seung Hwan)
Flavor of Life (Instrumental)

An absolutely beautifully filmed historical Korean drama from 2019, My Country: The New Age started very strongly in the first half of the sixteen episodes, with gorgeous camerawork that looked like the cinematographers were making a first run movie that would be shown in cinemas, superb acting by a great ensemble cast, and a compelling story taking place in the late 14th century in Korea, as it transitioned from the Goryeo dynasty to the Joseon era.

The main thrust of the drama was about two close male friends who were torn apart by personal ambitions, political differences, and by love for the same girl. From an upbeat friendship since childhood, these two friends were often pitted against each other by crafty family members, or by royal competitions to achieve certain ambitious economic / military goals they both sought to attain, even if it meant turning their swords on each other in time. This drama in essence became an historical revenge drama, as the two friends alternated between love and hate for one another, at turns caring for each other, and then wanting to destroy each other. This keeps the audience hooked, wondering if love or revenge will win in the end.

I loved the cast: Yang Se Jong (who played the young version of actor Seung Hun Song's romantic character in Saimdang Light's Diary), Woo Do Hwan (Dramaworld), the great Jang Hyuk (Thank You, Chuno, Beautiful Mind), Kim Seol Hyun (film Memoir Of A Murderer) as the young men's romantic interest, and a great supporting cast including veteran actor Ahn Nae Sang (May Queen, Radiant), Park Ye Jin (My Princess, Rebirth: Next) playing Queen Sindeok, Yu Oh Seong (who played the unforgettable villain Ki Cheol in Faith), Ji Seung Hyun (also unforgettable as the North Korean soldier in Descendants of the Sun), and veteran actress Jang Young Nam (The Crowned Clown, film A Werewolf Boy), as well as veteran actor Kim Yung Cheol (IRIS, The Princess' Man). All these wonderful actors delivered brilliant performances - the only drawback to this production that made it slip a bit in my estimation is that the writing became more frazzled and repetitive and cliched as the drama went on. The writer Chae Seung Dae, had been more cohesive and original in writing other dramas I've liked, such as Master Of Revenge, and The Memory In My Old Wallet. I hope this writer improves as time goes on and doesn't fall back on too many typical K-drama cliches. 


The Story:

Strong and brave Seo Hwi (Yang Se Jong), the son of a famed swordsman named Seo Geom (Yu Oh Seong), who was forced into an honorable suicide as penance for a perceived crime, lives with his pretty but epileptic younger sister Seo Yeon (Cho Yi Hyun in a sweet ingenue performance) in the shadow of their father's disgrace. A young boy who had befriended him, named Nam Sun Ho (Woo Do Hwan), is the illegitimate son of a high-ranking military official named Nam Jeon (Ah Nae Sang in a chilling performance). Sun Ho has always longed for his father's approval but rarely achieves it, and it almost always comes with strings attached. These two boys bond over the fact that both their fathers have let them down in many ways. Pretty Yeon has a bit of a crush on her older brother's friend, and he seems to care for her in his own way.

Kite Flying:
A Rare Happy Moment They Never Forget

Both Hwi and Sun Ho look with favor on a lovely gisaeng (female entertainer) named Han Hui Jae (Seol Hyun), who sometimes boldly dresses as a boy in order to put up political posters criticizing the current King (and who tears down royal posters trying to identify him/her), and who likes both young men as friends (she had also witnessed Seo Geom's forced suicide and sympathized with his son Hwi), but with perhaps a little extra feeling for Hwi, which sometimes bothers Sun Ho, although he is patient and doesn't let on that it particularly bothers him.

In the early years it's their friendship that means the most to them (and through the entire drama we sometimes see flashbacks to these happier times). One day Hui Jae gets to meet Hwi's epileptic sister Yeon and becomes like an older sister to her, showing her how to put on makeup the right way, and taking her and the two male friends on a flying kite expedition. This happy day is often remembered by all of them as their lives become more complicated over the next ten years that the story-line covers.

As they enter their early twenties both young men endeavor to pass the state military exam, a test which Hwi finds out to his chagrin that he is ineligible for, thanks to his lowly status as the son of a man forced into suicide. Sun Ho is also initially given a hard time about trying out for the exam too, because of his illegitimacy, but both friends eventually finagle a way to be accepted.

However, horror of horrors, they are ordered to display their sword talents and martial arts talents on each other! From this moment on their relationship becomes estranged, as both are determined to win and attain status in the royal army: Hwi to improve his economic lot in life so he can take care of his sister better, and Sun Ho to impress his overly critical and cold father. Although their match up initially appears to show Hwi as the winner, with Sun Ho knocked out on the ground, Sun Ho suddenly revives and hits his long time friend over his head with his sword!

To maintain that win without contention Sun Ho sells his soul to the devil and arranges (with dastardly help from his cold father) to have Hwi forcibly removed to a slave war on the front lines, in the hope that he will be killed. (Other web sites in their pathetic synopsis of this part of the drama say this duplicity was the result of a "misunderstanding". Bah humbug! It was an outright betrayal of friendship, one that will take years for them all to try and recover from).

Hwi is torn away from his epileptic sister and Sun Ho at least has the decency to force his father to take care of her. Yeon also suffers from amnesia after an especially severe epileptic fit after her brother was torn away from her by force, and later when her brother returns she no longer recognizes him. (The story really could have done without that plot twist - amnesia is just too overused in K-dramas!). Meanwhile, Hwi is going through hell on earth on the battlefield, but somehow manages to avoid being killed while thousands of others are not so blessed.

Meanwhile, the royals of that time period are having their own squabbles (but of course!), and their petty arguments about royal lineage will have long lasting consequences on the aristocracy, the military, the poor, and the slaves. Queen Mother Sindeok (Park Ye Jin), who had been married first to King Taejo (the first King of the Joseon era), has been anxious to have her younger son, who is still a minor child, be declared Crown Prince, over her older step-son Yi Bang Won (Jang Hyuk), whom she has never gotten along with nor trusted, since he always seems to be out for Numero Uno, no matter what is happening at court or in the country at large. Although Bang Won is not a warm person he is crafty and smart and patient - and will do anything -- and use anyone -- in an effort to be King someday. (Boy, was Jang Hyuk cool as a cucumber playing this Prince - I couldn't help but smile whenever he was in a scene).

Jang Hyuk in another masterful
performance as Prince Bang Won:
Does this man ever age?

After Hwi manages to survive the war and return home, he has two objectives: find out what happened to his beloved sister, and to take revenge on his childhood friend Sun Ho. He also has never forgotten his one true love, Hui Jae, and wonders what has happened to her. She had been told he had died on the battlefield and she grieves in her own way by sailing a lighted toy boat over a lake -- however, it happens to float in the very direction of Hwi, who is standing on the other side of the lake unseen and quietly watching her grieve and pray for him. He wants to reach out to her, to tell her the truth, that he is still alive, but as much as he wants to he has other important objectives to accomplish first, including taking revenge on Sun Ho. However, this also proves to be difficult since he discovers that Sun Ho had forced his father to take care of his amnesiac sister Yeon, who, thanks to their care, no longer has epileptic fits. However, he doesn't immediately realize that Sun Ho's father has an eventual goal of killing Yeon, to get her away permanently from his son. He would prefer his son marry into the aristocracy, not some poor nobody.

Through some significantly fateful turn of events Hwi, and his talents at swordsmanship, have garnered the interest and support of the ambitious Prince Bang Won. He promises him a good life if Hwi will align himself with his own princely goals to obtain sovereignty, no matter what the cost to the nation or to his extended royal family. He also promises that he will make sure Sun Ho pays for his duplicity toward Hwi in the past. However, you know what they say about bad company corrupting good character: Bang Won will eventually turn on Hwi, too, as soon as it looks likely his ambitious goal to become King appears to be on the verge of coming true. It turns out Queen Sindeok had been right all along: Bang Won is NOT to be trusted. Ever.

Through many twists and turns we see Hwi and Sun Ho wrestling with past hurts, trying to forgive each other, failing and fighting each other again, then reuniting all over again with a goal to keep Bang Won from becoming King. Fate turns against them, because no matter what their faults royals always have the most power over the people, both aristocracy and commoners. Will Hwi and Sun Ho be able to accomplish a miracle and join forces once and for all to save Joseon from a future tyrannical King?

There are many fight and battle scenes in this drama, and the romance is pretty platonic, so be prepared going in to accept those realities. I have to confess there were times I fast forwarded through most of those battle scenes because I can only take seeing so much killing, even in a television drama! Also, the fact that both Hwi and Sun Ho experience multiple stabbings that would have killed anyone centuries ago, before the days of antibiotics and expert surgeons, but yet they somehow always revive and live on to fight again, was very annoying to me, even though I liked both of them in different ways. It was just not realistic at all.

Yang Se Jong in Saimdang (left)
Yang Se Jong in My Country (right)
Long Hair Becomes Him! :)

Still, if you love a well acted sageuk, with magnificent cinematography, and one about the best of friends becoming the most passionate of enemies, then somehow being able to forgive each other and move on, then you will probably simply love this one, and that's fine. This drama has mostly received rave reviews. Check it out for yourself and see if you like it. My favorite character was always Hwi (Yang Se Jong), since I had loved the actor in Saimdang. He looked quite different in this sageuk, the makeup and hair team gave him a sexier, more smouldering appearance here. I thought him VERY attractive. :)

Photo Gallery for My Country