Let me just say…I love any drama that pits Choi Min Soo and Kwon Jeon Ryeol against each other. So of course, I had to check out The Royal Gambler (also known as Jackpot or Daebak). I’ve seen Yeo Jin Goo play the younger version of characters in many a sageuk, so I was excited to see that he’d be taking on a lead role this time around. I’ve never seen any of Jang Geun Seuk’s work so it will be interesting to see what he brings to the table. Here are my thoughts and a rough recap of episodes one through four. [Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].
This drama starts off quite nicely. So far, it’s a pretty dark narrative, which I appreciate. There are definitely comedic elements strung throughout to keep things less morbid, but they don’t over-do it, which is nice.
We begin with a palace court lady, Sookbin Choi (Yoon Jin Seo) whose husband, Baek Man Geum (Lee Moon Shik), gambles away every one of their last possessions, until he finally gambles her away in a set up planned by the King Sookjong (Choi Min Soo). What the King doesn’t realize, is that Lee In Jwa (Kwon Jeon Ryeol) has planned this whole scenario, taking advantage of Sookbin’s shitty living conditions and counseling her on how to win the King’s affection. Once she achieves her new social status as the King’s second wife, she faces several obstacles, which force her to denounce her former husband, hide her baby, fake its death, and fear for her life as the object of Queen Ok Jung‘s wrath. There is a lot of back and forth action of capturing and recapturing the baby, attempts to kill the baby, attempts to out the baby’s identity, etc. but we eventually fast forward 20 years to see that both Baek Man Geum and the baby Dae Gil have survived.
Choi Min Soo and Kwon Jeon Ryeol are killing their roles, as usual. I’d expect nothing less from these two veterans, who both play chilling characters in this realm dictated by money, chance, and ruthless politics. I’ll start by giving major props to Choi Min Soo who plays an ominous and hair-raising King Sookjong. Whenever he comes on screen, my bones are rattling in fear for anyone who’s in his line of vision. He’s a man without fear, he knows what he wants, and he doesn’t seem to feel an ounce of remorse for any of the brutal punishments he decrees, justified or not. It’s clear that he isn’t liked by many, but because his reign is one of terror, few have dared to voice their opposition. Lee In Jwa, is one of these few. He’s a man with a mission. Kill the king, and replace him with a pawn until he can secure the throne for himself. We find out the reasoning for his mission in episode four. In Jwa’s grandparents had significant political standing within the palace, but were barbarously wiped out by King Sookjong. However, he is just as villainous as the King, and doesn’t mind stepping on those who hinder his path either.
There were already a few deaths, and I’m not really sure how I feel about them. Kim Yi Soo’s (Song Jong Ho) death felt a bit sudden and early, but once I realized we’d be doing a time jump I became more reconciled with the fact that it was a necessary event that explains his daughter, Dam Seo’s (Lim Ji Yeon), entire existence. Aside from this death being a motivating factor for her revenge, her character seems pretty useless and only serves as a potential romance factor for later on. Then we have Baek Man Geum‘s, death which I was also quite startled at. It’s only episode four and I felt like we barely got to see him develop aside from his change from gambling vagabond husband to responsible, good-natured father. And that all took place within four small episodes. I feel like we see two seconds of his turn-around before they knock him off and shift the narrative toward Dae Gil‘s soon-to-be transition process. I guess this was also necessary since something has to be the catalyst to convert him into a grieving, justice seeking warrior. I just think it was a bit sloppy.
I’m content with Jang Geun Seuk’s acting thus far as Baek Dae Gil. His plays the stereotypical naive fool, but I’m assuming this will change over the course of the story. By the end of episode four, he already develops a reason to become a well trained fighter who seeks revenge for his father, Baek Man Geum’s, tragic death. We don’t see much of Yeongjo (Yeo Jin Goo) in these first four episodes. I believe he’s only in two of them, but he’s the son of Choi Sookbin and spends his time gambling and womanizing rather than participating in his expected duties as future king. He’s not as worthless as he comes across though, you can tell he’s intelligent, but chooses not to make this an outward fact. Instead, it feels as though his behaviors are just an act, to protect himself possibly from being seen as a threat in the future. I’m grateful for Yeo Jin Goo’s portrayal of this character so far. He knows how to do things just right which is not surprising considering he’s also a seasoned sageuk actor as well.
There are a few characters in this drama so far that make me pull out my hair and question life, because they seem so backwards and out of place in the narrative. Hong Mae (Yoon Ji Hye) would be one of these creatures that sticks out like a sore thumb and makes me go “wtf?” I really don’t think she was necessary in this whole saga. Not only is she annoying, they could have totally made this work without her, which makes her even more frustrating. Then we have the other prince Gyeongjong (Hyun Woo) who so far has had maybe four seconds of screen time total and not to mention has literally no presence whatsoever when he’s actually on screen. Then there are clusters of characters that just lurk in the background, have no story, probably won’t ever have a story, and are just there to pop in and out for whenever the drama needs them. I don’t even know their names, which is quite sad.
Finally I come to Dam Seo, whom I mentioned briefly earlier. I’m just baffled at the atrocious storyline they’ve put in place for her. Everyone in the drama so far is seeking revenge and Dam Seo is included in this bunch. However, they literally have her going from stoic wannabe badass female archer, to weak-minded lovestruck softie in a matter of minutes. No…seriously. She strongly thwarts Dae Gil’s advances in the beginning of episode four, but about fifteen minutes later, she’s already starting to fall for him. Then, by the end of the episode, it’s quite clear that he’s already affected her deeply. I’m not even going to comment on how he literally falls in love with her for no reason in the street and decides from that moment forward that she’s going to be his wife. Anyway, it’s time for me to announce that this drama does suffer an acting hole and that perpetrator is Lim Ji Yeon. She has to be one of the most tragic acting cases I’ve seen to date. Not only is she far from compelling, she looks like she’s constipated half the time she show’s up on screen. And if it’s not constipation, it’s a permanent scowl that doesn’t exactly …deliver and isn’t appropriate for the respective scene that she’s shooting. But I’m going to stay positive since having only one bad actress among the cast is considerably lucky and she doesn’t seem to show up that much anyway.
A few positive notes as I wrap up this post. The cinematography in this drama has to be some of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s real quality stuff, and I think that it’s actually worth watching the drama for the visuals alone. There are several exquisitely shot scenes, but one of my favorites has to be Baek Man Geum’s death scene. That sounds so heartless of me, but hear me out. He dies at night and his body eventually sinks into the river, which is so beautifully lit and shot on camera that it’s absolutely dazzling .You kind of forget that someone is dying. Also, I have major appreciation for the music in this drama, which is very dramatic and moving and it does an excellent job of capturing the angsty mood that this drama is gunning for.
I’m going to stick with this one, even if only for Yeo Jin Goo, Choi Min Soo, and Kwon Jeon Ryeol. Hopefully things will only go up from here. I’ll either recap or post my impressions on the next cluster of episodes when I get to them, so stay tuned if you’re interested.
Have you watched the Royal Gambler? What did you think? If you haven’t, you can check out the six minute extended preview with english subs here.