A Squee Party [of One]: Mandate of Heaven

It is not often these days that a drama comes along and offers an hour of enjoyment and continues to do so for the duration of its run. Ever since finishing Gaksital last year, I found it really hard to stay invested in the "currently-airing-dramas". Even the ones that received many love in dramaverse. Some of them might kept me interested during the good first-half but once they hit that dreaded second half, they mostly loose that sparks that got me hooked in the first place. If I ever finished any show I caught while it's running, it’s mostly because I don’t want to miss the squee party or just out of sheer obligation/loyalty. Oops, I think this should be written on another post *glances at the Martyr Awards post*.

Mandate of Heaven really came as a lovely surprise. I planned to watch this when I first heard of it and I thought that I would like it just based on the premise and the awesome trailer, but turned out I enjoyed watching it way more than I expected. It's just such a shame that KBS restricted the license and so it's hard to find readily available sub which, in most cases, could take away the enjoyment. So I also surprised myself for willing to wait for the subs to come out every single freaking week.

Granted it is not the best drama out there, being billed as a medical-thriller sageuk, I can name several dramas which might have done the political machination in sageuk and thriller part better, and as for medicine, I think Dr Jin did a lot more than what Choi Won (Lee Dong Wook) did here. It's pretty hard to beat that soft candlelight, romantic ballad cancer check scene, y'all.
Jury's still out on who did the best derp face though, and... crazy eyes...

But personally, Mandate of Heaven is just one of those dramas that is able to hit all of my drama sweet spots, it's funny, cute, heartwarming, heart-tugging, adorably romantic (seriously, I would have never expected to squee like a teenager because of this especially given the premise) but yet still remains gripping, moving, and keeps me in the edge of my seat every time.

So what's so good about it, you ask? Why would I be the only one squeeing about this drama here? Haha. I feel like a nerdy kid watching this while other cool kids are watching Heartless City (and haha I'm even assuming someone is reading this post). I'll just list several thing I like about this drama...

[DISCLAIMER: I wrote this based on how much I enjoyed the drama, so don't expect an in-depth, meaty analysis or anything like that. Basically this is me just squeeing in excitement. Also, since I'm squeeing expect this post to be spoilerific. I tried to block the spoilery parts, but I might forgot to do so in some other parts]

The Spectacle

I loved the way this drama is shot! And the color palette is just perfect for the tone of the drama. Dark and crisp in serious moments and soft muted colors in lighthearted moments. I know I just have to download every episode so that I can enjoy it in all its 720p high definition glory AND it maintains that look until the end! I also loved the way the camera moves, the use of slow motion and 180 degree rotation. All of those are combined together really well that it’s enough to give an extra thrill to the scene. Like these couple of shots below:
This brief action scene is probably my favorite from the drama, the choreography itself is cool, but the camera movement and angle and effective use ofslow motion really makes it way cooler. [I need to be more articulate, I can't keep using the word 'cool' all the time]
And I particularly liked how they use the color isolation for this scene. The drama itself is already pretty without fancy editing, but adding that touch really makes it stunning and more thrilling.
Plus, I also liked the scores used in this drama. The ominous Latin chanting helped elevate the tension, while the cute instrumental piece never failed to bring smile to my face.

Okaaay, I think I get tad too excited about the technical things. Now y'all know why I'm the nerdy kid.

Plot Twists, Reversals, and Smart Characters

This drama is chock-full of reversals and twists, the plot moves fast and is constantly coming up with new surprises that I kept going oh are we there already? Admittedly, the orthodox cat-and-mouse game became repetitive at some point especially towards the end. But again this drama is titled (alternatively) Fugitive of Joseon, you would expect some repetitive motives to happen just from the title. But thankfully, the twists (which give the bad guys the upper hand) were brought in with a carefully thought out planning, so I wasn't really bothered when it sneaked up on me again and again (but yeah they still frustrated me because the baddies won again)

And yet I have to say, the biggest plot twist this drama managed to pull is:

[SPOILER - block the text to see]

How the heck did this pretty-flower-boy-han-ga-in-lookalike assassin managed to beat all of the macho men in this drama?! I would have thought that they could have kicked his ass just with their badass moustache and beard alone! I guess it's true when they say that it's the pretty ones you have to watch out for. 
I'm a flower boy and I have a tattoo to prove it
It also helps that there are some smart characters in here as well. Won might be quite boring as the main lead, but I do appreciate his character for being the smart guy on turbo drive who always comes up with plans  to counter-attack the baddies. He figured out the clues at the right time, not too soon that I was still kept at the edge of my seat, but just right, so it didn't feel too draggy. 
Thank goodness he runs differently once he's a fugitive
The same can be said for other characters too. I also liked Lee Ho, who is portrayed as a weak character at first because he is so filial, but then chooses to grow a spine and go head-to-head against the Queen. The moment he chose to address the Queen as Queen Majesty instead of Queen Mother, I couldn't help but did a fist-pump, that moment was just so satisfying. And I commend Im Seul Ong who did a good job portraying the character, he managed to settle in into his groove and did his character justice
Strong Female Characters

Can we get a cheer for a drama with a group of strong female characters like this one? I loved how strong-willed and brave these women are and the fact that their personality traits remained consistent all the way until the end. Phew. So Baek is badass on her own. Da In is strong-willed, smart, brave, and a bit rash. Woo Young might come across as vain and shallow at first but then when situation calls for it, you can see that she truly cares for her family and would stand up for them, despite consequences. And Rang who grows stronger as her health took a turn for the worse.
Also even though I hated her with a passion of thousands sun, I have to say that the Queen really makes an effective vilain who plots all manners of nastiness behind the scene. Props to the actress for pulling this role so well.

Btw, Jang Geum is here as well! I love the fact that this drama takes a main character from well-known sageuk and turn her into a tertiary character to fit the story (AND history). Although admittedly, I still feel cheated since she's not the best doctor in that era. I've believed this for the last 8 years (blame it on Dae Jang Geum), this is like being told that Santa doesn't exist all over again!
The Rugged Men.... Rated M for Manly
The Manly 4 a.k.a M4, sageuk answer to F4, maybe?
I didn't know I like rugged man this much.... Pfffttt... Okay, okay, you got me there. I love Aragorn. His perma stubble is just a harbinger of badassery and these guys do take a level in badassery with sporting this look that just scream "If I hit you, you will hit the ground!" [Er, maybe except Won, once you see him in motion].

On a less shallow, beardy, ruggedly note though, I liked the dynamics between the four guys and Lee Ho the crown prince. Jung-hwan and his rivalry dynamics with Joseon Aragorn, ehem, er.. I mean.. Do Moon, I just know that I'm in for some great fighting scene whenever these two are together in one scene. The grudging bromance between Won and Keok Jung. The change in dynamics between Won and Jung Hwan, from the chased and the chaser to buddy cop duo to best friends and then  in-laws :D. I enjoyed watching the shift in relationship between Lee Ho and Won as well, which started from grudging respect and gradually shifted towards a mutual trust and brotherhood, and with the way the show ends, I feel like their story is actually the crux of the drama.

Lighthearted Moments

Did I mention that the reason I like this drama is because they have smart characters? Well... Technically not all of them are that gifted really, for example So Baek and her chief bandit dad. But what they lack in the brain department they make up for it in the brawn and funny bone departments. Not to mention that they're just such a good natured and sweet people. They remind me of people from Tamna the Island. And every scene with them at the Banditsville is just so… heartwarming! Watching their scene makes my heart feel like a warm butter sliding down toast. So Baek and her dad is the funniest father-daughter combo I've seen in a while and she always poses some, uh, very thought-provoking questions. Like the one below. Anyone care to answer?

Cuteness Overload: Rang

My gawd, this girl is the cutest, most ah-DOOO-rable thing EVAH! I love watching her every scene, I either cried with her, laughed with her, or went awww over her scenes. And she's such a strong-willed, smart and sharp kid as well, and I just loved it when she starts playing matchmaker. I particularly liked how she was able to break the tough, gruff Red Demon and call out Keok Jung on his feelings toward So Baek, her interaction with Geo-chil, and the teasing rapport between her and Won. Plus her scenes with Prince Gwangyoung is just too adorable! Chubby Cheeks Unite! And props to both child actors as well. They held their own really well against the adult actors. They obviously raised the cuteness level of this drama, but they also successfully managed to pull at my heartstrings in poignant moments.

Everytime she shows up, I just want to squish her cheeks like what Song Ji Hyo does.
Da cute widdle thing you are, you... *devolves into gibberish*

Red Demon a.k.a Lee Jung Hwan

I luff him.
Oh, do I need a reason? But, it will be a bit spoilery as well?
Okay then. In another parallel dramaverse he would be a main character. Smart, badass, brave, proud, righteous. He talks tough, but you just know that he's one big softy deep inside. I enjoyed watching the transition in his character and eagerly waited for the girls to break his tough exterior bit by bit. I didn't always like him all the time, there were moments where I just wanted to hit him over the head and told him to look properly at the evidence, but when he turns to the good side, I just... luff him. Brave tough guy turns into shy, easily awkward boy. How can I not? And I gotta say, Song Jong Ho did a pretty damn good job portraying him as well. It was his charisma and charm that carries the scene. When I saw him, I didn't see the actor, all I saw was the smexy Lee Jung Hwan, who got me all giddy inside when he showed up on my screen.
Y’all can have Baksa and Gumihot, but I’mma keep 
Red Demon for myself and have him stare at me 
all day long with that piercing eyes 
Secondary Couple [Okay this is spoilery as well, but I don't care]

How I miss squeeing this much over a couple in a drama! Some dramas might come close, but they never got me to squee to that level of Princess Hours again! [and yes, I loved that drama, although I stuck through until the end only for the main leads]  And it came as another lovely surprise since I didn't expect to be buoyed by the romance part from this drama. I don't know why this pairing works so well for me. I guess it's because their story is a story full of delightful reversals as well, blinding hate turns to love, and filled with so much feeling both good and bad. Not to mention that Song Jong Ho and Kang Byul shared pretty damn fine chemistry as well. I could feel sparks flying in their too brief moment per episode. Every week I would tune in to watch the raw and scan the episode to see whether they have a scene together. And then just hit rewind and replay all the time. Yeap, it's crazy, and it's hard to describe how it felt watching them together, but try this:  imagine the feeling of watching your favorite OTP scene.  Imagine your phone just rang. Now imagine that it’s er.. Oprah telling you in her Oprah's voice that "You get a car! You get a car!". That’s how it felt watching their scene together. In a nutshell, this pairing reminds me why I craved dramaland in the first place, all those years ago.

I wish someone would cast these two in a rom-com. I would definitely be the first to tune in.. :D

This post was started before I watched episode 17 onwards. It took me this long to finish it because I was so nervous that show is going to kill my favorite characters, and I don't know how I will survive that. Slapping a tragic ending on a heartwarming drama is just so wrong, you know. Watching this while knowing what happened in the history did make me wonder how the writer is going to end this properly, but I'm happy to report that I find the ending very satisfying. The story of each character comes to a full close. Even though I would like to see the Queen being punished severaly, I know that the story couldn't go against the history. So in a way I'm also relieved that it kept me in a bubble where I can imagine that all the characters I come to love do live happily ever after and maybe Lee Ho did live longer than what history told us.  
Plus the ending scene with Rang calling Jung Hwan "uncle", Jung Hwan calling Won "hyung-nim", and him being "ill-treated" by everyone just make my year :)

Overall, I found this drama a very enjoyable one, and it will definitely hold a bigger place in my heart out of all currently running at the moment [Granted, I dropped more than I watched, and those I finished... Sigh]. It's a Good vs Evil heartwarming drama that is beautifully filmed and contains enough emotional strength to hold my attention for all of its twenty-episode running time. Plus it delivers enough warmth to tide me over until this year ends. This is definitely going to my all-time great, curl-up-on-the-sofa-with-a-cup-of-coffee dramas list!

To wrap up this post, let me leave you with this awesome fanvid MV of Mandate of Heaven which I think captures the intense moments of the first 10 episodes really well.

credit to: the lovely TheBelovedVampire - it was a pleasure spazzing together with you about this show!