A New Favorite from an Old Story: Sungkyunkwan Scandal Review

Dear Sungkyunkwan Scandal,

Thank you.

You might not be the perfect drama, but you were the perfect drama for me.

Much love,
Vivi

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The Cast

I feel like I'm the last person in all of drama-dom to get on the SKKS train, but in spite of my late arrival (fueled by uncertainty about historical dramas), I'm glad I made the leap.  

The only word I can think of to describe why I loved it so much is balance.  First of all, the cast was excellent all around. I put Park Min Young's portrayal of Kim Yoon Hee onto my list of smart kdrama female leads when I was only halfway through the series, and I never regretted my choice.  Her character was smart and capable without being a monster.  The men in the show did step in to physically save her quite a few times, but she also pulled through at enough key moments to prove that relationships are a two-way street.

I know that a lot of people initially gravitated towards this drama for Micky Yoochun's role as Lee Sun Joon, but this isn't one of those dramas that relies on the male lead by any means.  Let's face it: his role as a morally rigid scholar basically requires a wooden performance 90% of the time.  It fits his character, but it wouldn't be enough to pull the show through a full 20 episodes. I did, however, appreciate that his character was a decent person from the beginning of the show, much like the lead in Queen In Hyun's Man.

Fortunately, the writers balance his stoic nature by offering us the most dynamic duo in bromance history: Moon Jae Shin ("Geol Oh") and Gu Yong Ha ("Yeorim"), played by Yoo Ah In and Song Joong Ki, respectively. (For more on Song Joong Ki, head over to Crazy for Kdrama's Khottie of the Week post.)  These two add humor, friendship, and depth to the series.  Every time the two of them were on the screen, I was enthralled.

Can we please have a sequel to this drama entitled
The Adventures of Yeorim and Geol Oh? Pretty pretty please?
Given how much I loved these two, it would have been really easy to fall into second (or third) male lead syndrome, clutching my heart and wishing that the female lead would choose the guy in the background instead.  While I wanted ALL of them to find love (hence our "Which Sungkyunkwan Scholar Is Your Ideal Match" quiz), the two primary leads actually matched each other really well, and the romance grew on me quite a bit in the last few episodes.  Love notes hidden in library books?  Be still my nerdy heart!  
Reading books and holding hands?  True love!

The Plot

With a few exceptions (which I will get to in a moment), I felt like the pacing in this series was pretty smart. The tone was balanced between lighthearted and serious throughout the entire series as opposed to starting out fun and ending with a cryfest. They plotted out the big moments in the drama so that it felt pretty constantly engaging without becoming ridiculous--for the most part.  I did have a hearty chuckle every time they tried to identify the Red Bandit using that drawing.  ("Have you seen the Red Bandit?  He has eyes.") I have heard some reviewers complain that Yoon Hee becomes less interesting towards the end of the series, but I actually felt like that was one of the show's biggest strengths.  The first two-thirds of the series are really heavily focused on Yoon Hee's character development and the concerns she faces as a woman hiding in a man's world.  In the last third, however, the focus shifts to the other three members of the Jalgeum Quartet.  We get to learn more about each one of them as we see their progress towards the series finale.  That's part of what made me feel invested in the characters--it was episode 18, and I was still getting to know Yeorim and Geol Oh a little bit better.

Having stunningly beautiful backdrops to even the silliest of scenes doesn't hurt the interest level, either.
As I said, there are some exceptions to this rule.  The two or three episodes leading up to the finale draaaaaaaaaaaagged along, and then the last five minutes of episode 20 zoomed ahead at warp speed in an attempt to wrap everything up with a nice neat bow.  As a result, I had some problems with the conclusion of the show.  

(Spoiler) I was happy to see Yoon Hee teaching, but it seemed a little too tidy for the problems raised in the earlier episodes.  Based on the way the scholars reacted to her, it seemed like she was teaching as a woman.  That's great from an empowerment perspective, but it undermines the depth of discrimination that she faced.  So in the space of maybe a couple of years, women are suddenly accepted not only as scholars, but also as professors?  That solution is both anachronistic and simplistic. 

The other option is that she's actually teaching as a man, which is supported by the headmaster calling her "Kim Yoon Shik."  If this is the case, then how is she pulling off leading a double life married to another professor?  Nobody noticed her?  What happens when they use that little red book a little too efficiently and she ends up pregnant?  Either way, this drama deserves better.

The Message

As I mentioned earlier, Kim Yoon Hee is pretty progressive in terms of gender portrayals in kdramas.  This is why I appreciate most gender-bending dramas.  The relationships are built off of mutual respect and friendship before physical attraction even enters the equation.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal doesn't stop at feminism, though. It's filled with commentary on sexuality, politics, and socioeconomic status, which is interesting considering that it's set hundreds of years ago.  As I watched, I was reminded of an article I once read that compared Clueless to Emma (with Gwyneth Paltrow). Both films were adaptations of Jane Austen's work, but Emma was actually more progressive in terms of gender representations.  The author suggested that modern films don't feel the need to push boundaries as much as period pieces do.

I think that's what's happening here.  Maybe viewers (and producers) enjoy seeing Yoon Hee talk about the capability of women because they can recognize the oppression in her society, but they're less comfortable raising those same issues in a modern-day setting, where they resort to wrist grabs and floods of tears instead.  Just a thought.
She wouldn't be smiling so much if she got stuck with a million wrist grabs.

And Now for Some History

The major reason it took me so long to get to this drama was the historical setting.  I wasn't sure if I would be interested in a series that takes place in Korea's Joseon era, so I stayed away for far too long.  What eventually helped was that I eased into historical dramas with two time-travel dramas: Rooftop Prince and Queen In Hyun's Man. The combination of the two helped me get used to some of the costuming and customs before I watched a full series set in the past.

While time-travel dramas helped a bit, this drama can be hard to follow if you don't know much about Korean history.  Once the political intrigue began, I was very, very confused until I did some research to figure out what on earth was happening. (Dear Subtitlers: I love you very much, but when you translate "Geum-deung-ji-sa" differently in every scene, you aren't helping.)  In order to help others who may want to watch the show but are too lazy to use Google, here's a quick overview:

King Yeongjo had a son, Crown Prince Sado, who may or may not have been insane.  Rumor on the streets had it that Sado was going around killing random people in the palace, so, thinking that murderers don't make good kings, Yeongjo ordered his son to sit in a hot rice basket until he suffocated to death (eight days later--shudder).  Some people later argued that the prince's death was mostly a plot by the Noron faction, but Sado's wife (Lady Hyegyong) wrote some memoirs suggesting that her husband really was both mentally ill and violent.   

So how does this all relate to the events of SKKS?  Well, there were rumors of some scrolls (called the Geum-deung-ji-sa) that Yeongjo wrote at the end of his life, lamenting his decision to kill his son and explaining that it really was just a Noron play for power.  Sado's son Jeongjo (the king who appears in SKKS) really did spend his life looking for those scrolls and trying to clear his father's name (though they were never found).  He also moved the capital to Suwon and tried to open government positions to lower classes, though many of those reforms didn't totally stick.
The short version? These guys = bad.  Everyone else = good.

Got it?  Yeah, history is crazy.  Even though I tend to agree with Yoo Ah In's drunken tweets on the subject of historical accuracy in fictional stories, my nerdy side loved sorting out which events actually happened in real life. I also really, really want to read Lady Hyegong's memoirs now.

The other confusing historical part is some of the costuming.  Maybe it's just me, but  it was really hard to tell all of the government officials apart at first.  This isn't some  "all Asians look the same" statement.  It's more of a "When all of these middle-aged Korean men wear identical outfits and have identical facial hair, they look the same" statement.

With all of the Mickey Mouse hats and goatees wandering around the set, I ended up rewinding a lot and thinking, "Wait, is Long Face the Minister of War?  Or was that White Beard? I'm so confuuuuuuuuuuuuused!"  I ended up getting it all straight in the end, but it took a while.

In Conclusion

This series was just what I was looking for at this stage in my drama-watching life.
So long and thanks for all of the good times, Jalgeum Quartet!

Comments

  1. I love Sungkyunkwan Scandal and just finished rewatching it for the 3rd time last night. I enjoyed your excellent review, thanks for the quick history fill-in, and for letting me know I'm not the only person who though "mouseketeer" with those hats!

    I agree that the ending was rushed and somewhat contradictory in terms of her status, but I still like it on an OTP level because it fitted with the romance overall. Sungkyunkwan was the first of 4 Park Min Young series I watched last month, and the ONLY one with a truly satisfying romance. I don't just mean the climax, but the development too - the notes in the library, the holding hands while studying and the changing location of her ring all contributed to making the romance the heart (sorry!) of the story, and the ending made sense in that narrow context, even though it was disappointingly superficial from a plot development/political point of view.

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  2. I love sungkyunkwan scandal, it was the first drama where I fell for the second lead, but the romance of the main leads convinced me enough that they were perfect for each other, as far I recall Moon jae shin never confessed his love to her, he watched over her like a big brother. Besides I wanted Geol oh for myself :)

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  3. And now after reading this, I totally want to watch Sungkyunkwan Scandal--also because I adore Park Min Young. She was awesome and kick ass in City Hunter, my first Kdrama! So hard to decide what to watch next--this or Coffee Prince (because of your review, too). :D

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    1. Oooooh now THAT is a tough choice! But really, you can't go wrong either way.

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  4. I love your review, and completely agree about the ending. I read somewhere that the original manwha wrapped up with all four of them working at the palace library, which seems more logical. Stacks of books are great for hiding baby bumps, as television often reminds us.

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    1. I would have loved to see all of them still working together as friends! Besides, I'm pretty sure that half of the people in the palace already knew that she was a girl, so the baby bump would come as no surprise.

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  5. You are not the last one to see this drama, 2 and a half years of fandom later I still haven't gotten to watching this one. The reason for it might be that I read the recaps for it on Dramabeans. But the more I think about it, the more I think I need to see an intelligent female lead in Korean dramas, so I guess I'll be watching this one soon. Plus I love Song Joong Ki, don't like Yoochun much though.

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  6. I finally finished this one, too - and absolutely loved it!

    I'm not sure I understand the ending either. It did seem to me that women were allowed as pupils and teachers. When Moon Jae Shin met that girl on the roof he said something like "what does Sungkyunkwan teach its pupils today", so that sounded as if girls were allowed, too. But yeah, then calling her Kim Yoon Shik doesn't make any sense...
    I also wonder what happened with Cho Sun. She was a pretty cool character, too. Am I the only one who wanted her to end up with Moon Jae Shin?
    And isn't it weird where Moon Jae Shin and Gu Yong Ha ended up? I mean, ok selling clothes to gisaengs seems like the perfect job for Gu Yong Ha, but he did study at the university... And is Moon Jae Shin a simple soldier? A script, the son of the Minister of Justice and protégé of the king?

    PS: Great review, I referenced it in mine.

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  7. Celyn van der VeerMarch 6, 2015 at 10:01 PM

    I love Sungkyunkwan Scandal, and i'm addicted to the Jalgeum Quartet!yohooo

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