Merchant Kim Man Deok is an interesting blend of finance and romance. In both, it’s best to be on the up and up. The Kdrama gives a peek into Joseon-era business practices: the buying, the selling and the deals under the table. Corruption is rampant, and the most successful merchants are those who pay government officials to keep the competition down. On top of that, women are not viewed as savvy businesspeople, so they have an even harder time.
Man Deok isn’t a queen or an outlaw, but she is awesome in her own way. At first, you just think she’s a bratty urchin willing to pimp her fellow orphan-siblings just to make a buck, but gladly, she quickly realizes that being a merchant isn’t about the money: it’s about the people. Man Deok’s way of being a merchant is really different from the ways that other men make money in the series. One could say that it’s because Man Deok is a woman, who learns her craft from a woman, that makes this story unique. Man Deok’s adoptive grandmother, a successful merchant herself, teaches Man Deok to value people over money, to build relationships with her customers to ensure not just return business, but a sense of loyalty.
This way of doing business is very different from Kang Kye Man, a former protegé of Man Deok’s mentor and current troublemaker in the market. Kye Man is not above using extortion and violence to get his way. He doesn’t care about loyalty; he wants his benjamins now. While Man Deok learns her business acumen from a principled woman, Moon Seon, Deok Man’s childhood friend, learns her business sense from Kye Man. And enter the villaness! She’s mean, from a young age. Although she and Man Deok are both orphans, Moon Seon is driven by a sense of jealousy and uses survival as an excuse to get rid of anyone who gets in her way. She intends to get as much money as possible in order to be secure, but her pursuit of wealthy only makes her position more precarious.
The romantic entanglements revolve around the merchant world as well. Kang Yoo Ji, Kye Man’s son, is the spoiled merchant that’s been banished to Jeju Island to look after his family’s interests there, and because of his connections, is the Big Man on the Island. He is an instant mismatch for Man Deok’s righteous ways: the more he tries to force her to “be his woman,” the more she resists. It takes a traumatic event to make Yoo Ji change his ways. Adding spice to the pot is the conflict between shady Yoo Ji and upstanding Hong Soo, Man Deok’s love interest and son of one of the biggest and most corrupt government officials. Hong Soo is a law man whose pursuit of justice puts him at odds with his father.
The drama has some interesting twists and turns, along with the familiar “I can’t believe that happened” melodrama. It shows how life on Jeju island is different from life on the mainland. It pays a lot of attention to the local people who make their living off of selling things on Jeju. Everything from pearls to hats gets sold in this Kdrama.
The most compelling conflict is between Man Deok and Moon Seon. Moon Seon is gangster, let’s just be frank. She condones murder, extortion, and torture. She lies, cheats and steals. And while her shenanigans don’t rise to the level of Queen Seondeok’s Mishil (she is my gold standard for female villainy), she does make a strong showing. If she can’t have Hong Soo (and that ship sails WAY early, because what upstanding yangban would want Moon Seon after she’s manipulated Kye Man into making her his wife AND having his child), no one can. If she can’t sell the tribute to the court, no one will. If she can’t have a ship, no one can. Even when she’s a mother, she’s a nasty piece of work.
Man Deok, on the other hand, is a saint. When she’s down, she always finds a way to pick herself up. Although it gets a little annoying when she refuses to accept help from others, she always helps others, even when she ends up with nothing. And when she strikes it rich, she shares it with everyone. For instance, when she takes advantage of a tip about the king’s health, she pays her craft workers before doing the work AND after getting the work done.
It’s great to see Man Deok, though, get a little spunky when she realizes that Moon Seon is not her friend. Moon Seon’s comes off as pathetic when she insists on making decisions just to get back at Man Deok. Man Deok wins because she never gives into the desire to retaliate (although sometimes the viewer would want her to). Everyone who ever does Man Deok wrong, reaps what they sow.
Another great aspect of this Kdrama is the relationship between Man Deok and Hong Soo. Separated by class, their relationship ends up the way so many do in the historical Kdrama, but before that, they do actually agree to have a relationship, and nothing that anyone does damages their feelings for each other. It’s sweet! As children, Man Deok is the more outgoing one, while Hong Soo is the reserved, sheltered noble who becomes enchanted by her courage and outspokenness. Of course, Hong Soo’s father will not be having any of this, and constantly calls Man Deok names and accuses her of seducing his son. What surprises me is that Hong Soo’s parents do not take the drastic step of forcing him to marry into some well-placed family, although Moon Seon has a little bit to do with that.
There are also several other narratives that go on: Japanese merchants and their illegal trade, government gisaengs, famine, loan sharks, quarantine, and lots of contract hits for hire. I mean, you expect this type of thing in historical Kdramas that involve palace intrigue. But we are talking merchants, people!
Also, I have to say that there are some people who don’t get their due, and chief among them is MOON SEON! Why does she get to have self-reflection time? Not so much as a cut or scratch on her! While her uncle gets his comeuppance, what about her other henchman?
Sources: Kim Man Deok 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
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