From rewatching Sungkyngkwan Scandal this week I dipped my toes into a little Korean History, I studied the history of the Sageuk, I learned a little about ancient Korean fashion. The thing I'm most proud of? I can now spell Sungkyngkwan. I may still have trouble saying it but I can spell the hell out of it. And in my books I call that a win.
I really enjoyed Sungkyngkwan Scandal the first time I watched it. I loved the characters, I didn't think much of our hero, and I absolutely thought it was the cutest ending ever.
Then I got past the squee new drama moment, thought about it, and was like, what the...? I still love the characters--even more now. I'm now a big fan of our hero and his journey. But that ending... Now, I know I'm not the only one who’s said this, and as much as I hate to be on a bandwagon (unless that bandwagon is of the Kdrama variety) but this one I have no choice but to agree. This writer was amazing throughout the drama. Almost everyone had crunchy layer goodness, the main characters grew and changed, the love triangle was amazing and well done, and it had a bromance to end all bromances.
So what happened at the end? Not even the whole last episode, lets even just say the last five minutes?
Usually I say a show could be cut down--as much as I like it--there is sometimes the scramble at the end to fill the last couple of episodes with...anything. In Sungkyngkwan Scandal though, I think it needs, or deserves at least, one last episode rather than the epilogue we get tacked onto the end. Don't get me wrong. I love a good epilogue. In my writing days we had debates on whether prologues and epilogues are ever actually necessary. While I'm not a huge prologue fan, I am a staunch epilogue supporter. If I love the characters (and if I've spent that long with them, I'd better) I want to spend every last minute I can with them in their world. In this though, the ending didn't solve anything, it just brought up more questions.
I've decided to leave this point to the end of the review where it deserves to be. For now I'm going to focus on all that is awesome about this show.
First and foremost are the characters. I love all these characters, individually, and how they interact with each other. Let’s introduce our main characters:
Kim Yoon Hee: Our brilliant, plucky heroine comes from an impoverished middle class family. Her father is dead and her brother is very sick. To pay the bills she disguises herself as a man and uses the identity of her brother Kim Yoon Shik by taking copying books and doing homework for scholars at the local university. When a loan comes due and it comes down to being sold as a bride to a government official or breaking her own principals, she becomes a substitute test taker for the Sungkyngkwan entrance exam. While she is very smart, she is pragmatic, knowing her place in society, knowing that realistically her position is never going to get better. And that's the sad thing about this show. You and she know that while she may enjoy school now, she's not going to have the same future as everyone else at Sungkyunkwan. The school's sole purpose is to prepare its students for the civil exams so they can take government jobs. There isn't going to be a government job for Yoon Hee. Once she graduates from school, she’s going to have to continue doing the exact same thing she did before she entered the school. As a woman in this society, a society which, if you're in a pinch, you can sell your wife and daughter into slavery to clear your debts, there is literally no place for her and her giant brain. Unlike other girl hiding as a boy shows, in this case, she literally can't tell anyone she's a woman. Not because she's afraid of what they'd say but because if word gets out she's a woman, not only will she be put to death, but so will her family. Now there's an incentive to keep your mouth shut.
Lee Sun Joon: Our hero. Where Yoon Hee is a pragmatic, Sun Joon is idealistic. He is rigid and prides himself on always doing the just, right, and legal thing. As his father is the leader of the Noron faction in the government, he gets a lot of attention and a lot of people expect him to just use his father's influence to get him anywhere in life, but he's just not that sort of guy. Why does the word priggish come to mind? Anyway, also due to his family’s position in life, Sun Joon is very sheltered. He's incredibly smart so he knows that there is suffering in the world but only in a book-y way, he's never actually seen it, or understood what it means to live like that.
Moon Jae Shin: (swoon) Oh man do I love this guy. He is exactly what a traditional hero should be. Of anyone he has the most layers.
Crunchy, delicious layers.
Everyone in the school is afraid of him. He's rough and tumble in both looks and temperament. The very first time you see him he fights off a band of street thugs who steal Yoon Hee's purse and clearly intend worse. First swoon of the show? Hands down, is when after the fight someone charges him. With one hand he picks up a piece of wood from the ground his other hand covers Yoon Hee's eyes so she doesn't see him beat the crap out of the guy with the stick.
Am I going to stop swooning about him yet? Nope. I'm almost done, so hold your horses.
He's a devoted friend and protector. Once he falls for Yoon Hee (we all knew it was going to happen), he is always the one there in the background ready to help or save her whichever necessary. When he realizes he's never going to get the girl, it's heartbreaking (again and again) but he's still very supportive of Yoon Hee, just wanting what's best for her.
The last of the Joseon Quartet is Gu Yong Ha. Gu Yong Ha or Yeo-Rim (his nickname meaning forest of ladies i.e. ladies man) is just a fun character. He is the ultimate fashionista wearing flamboyant and ornate outfits. On the surface he seems like a bored aristocrat stirring up trouble in order to entertain himself. But he is so much more than that. He is just as supportive and loyal as Jae Shin. He is really the glue or the heart that keeps the group of four together throughout the story. He is also the only one who suspects that Yoon Shik is actually a girl and right from the beginning as well. He spends most of his time or plots from then on, trying to confirm his suspicions. The one thing we, as the story goes on, love most about Yong Ha is his deep an unashamed love for Jae Shin. Like I said, this is the bromance to end all bromances. He will do anything in his power to protect Jae Shin, even if it's from himself. On the outside, Gu Yong Ha is played as a wuss, afraid of things, not wanting to get involved. It seems backwards but he's always seems to be in the middle of things, but if you look closely, he always stays on the outer edges, never actually getting involved.
So these are the main players of the J4. Are there other characters? Sure. Do I care as much? Nope, this group and their dynamics together are enough for me. This group grew and changed because of their interactions with each other. Everyone became the best person they could (once again we're ignoring the ending for now) because of their relationships. I just wish there had been more scenes in the middle with them being awesome together. It seemed like they no more than realized how awesome they were as a group when they started to be torn apart. Mainly due to Sun Joon's evolving feelings for Yoon Hee and him trying to distance himself from said feelings and what they meant.
If this were a different story, I would totally want Jae Shin and Yoon Hee to get together. Okay, I'll admit it, the first watching, I totally rooted for Jae Shin. Okay, and parts of the second viewing too. But I'm rational enough to realize what a perfect couple Yoon Hee and Sun Joon are together. Yoon Hee and Sun Joon made had the cutest case of nerd love I've ever seen in Kdrama. They both push each other and force each other to reevaluate the world around them. At the beginning of the show, Sun Joon is so unyielding to others around him. He has no gray areas. Everything is either black or white and if you think differently, you are obviously wrong. But by the end of the show, he still stands up for what he thinks is right, but what is right to him has grown. I loved that scene with the king at the end of the show. Legally what the king is saying is right, Yoon Hee should pay the price for breaking the law. But now Sun Joon knows that there are bigger ideas and ideals at stake.
It wasn't an easy road for them to get together, but then again, what fun would that be? This writer certainly knew how to torture her characters. Sun Joon was put through the ringer because of his love for who he knew as Yoon Shik. This is where his character starts to get really interesting. Being live out loud gay just didn't happen back then. But for Sun Joon it wasn't just a matter of him bucking society because of his love, he had to fight himself. To him, the love he felt for Yoon Shik was wrong. Both legally and morally. And Sun Joon not only followed the law, but had his own strict code of conduct which he just couldn't cross. He did everything in his power to fight the feelings he had growing for his friend, but once he crossed that line (when he almost kissed her on the island) he knew he had to do something to stop it. He started quickly stripping Yoon Shik from his life (as much as he could as they were still roommates) in that one single instance their friendship was gone, and he put between them an icy wall.
Another scene of note is when he asks Ha Hyo Eun to marry him after the sport match. I steadfastly tried to hold my heartbreak for Jae Shin, but there were times where Sun Joon would just yank and yank at me. This is one of those scenes. He lays out to her the type of person he is and asks her to accept him. You know it's the wrong thing for him, he's just hurting everyone around him. We don't really like Ha Hyo Eun, but she's not a terrible character and she legitimately loves him. But when he asks her to please hold him—oh man—my heart says "Alright, I give—these tears are for you". He's clearly lost. He's fighting his principals and his love, and just wants a hug.
Come on. How can we not root for him?
Once he realizes he can't go through with the marriage and leaves town it's just as sad. Not just for Yoon Hee, but because we know he's not doing this for himself, he's doing this for her (or Yoon Shik). He's separating himself from society, from all his goals in life because he knows he can't stay away from his love. Which usually would be a good thing, but in this case, his love for Yoon Shik would not only bring scorn upon himself but also to Yoon Shik. And Sun Joon just can't do that to the person he loves.
It's soon after this that he finds out Yoon Hee's secret. Now throughout the show, I was expecting a huge fight of the Coffee Prince variety, but he takes it remarkably well. He seemed a little more concerned about getting her out of the school than her actually being a woman. On the one hand, it was more time we had with them being cute together, but on the other hand, you'd think we'd have at least one scene where he freaks out a little bit. He tortured himself thinking he was in love with a man. He almost married someone else thinking she was a man. He banished himself away from society thinking he was in love with a man. I don't know. You think once he found out she'd been lying to him all this time; he'd have some words to say to her.
Nope? Um... well, okay then.
We'll just get back to the plot then. The plot seems to be broken up into three sections. First part includes introductions, misunderstandings, prickly attitudes, and Gu Young Ha generally causing trouble. The group is forced to work together and begin to begrudgingly like each other. Second part. Characters fall in love; Sun Joon starts to distance himself from the group, and ends with him coming back to Sungkyunkwan after finding out Yoon Shik is actually Yoon Hee. Third part. Now that the hero and heroine are in luv the political intrigue which has been dancing around the plot the whole show comes into play. Once again the J4 are working together, being awesome, and are trying to figure out the puzzle of where the dead kings writings are being hidden. Even this is well written as everyone has a stake in it and everyone of the J4 has the opportunity to show just how much they have changed.
First they work together to free Sun Joon from prison after he, in an effort to save Jae Shin, cops to being the Red Messenger. Then once he's free, just as quickly, they need to get Yoon Hee released from the king after he snatches her once it becomes known she's a woman. During these moments not only do each of the main characters get a chance to shine, also the smaller characters and bad guys get chances to redeem themselves.
It's a case of "You get a happy ending, and you get a happy ending, and you...". (Even Ha In Soo, who you spend most of the show hating) In Ha in Soo’s last scene, another one of my favorites, he is totally kick ass. Thought out the show, he has three goals. 1. Break up the J4. 2. Put Sun Joon and Yoon Shik in their place. And 3. Possess Cho Sun. You don't really think he loves her; he just wants to have her, especially when she won't have anything to do with him. He's the ultimate "Do you know who I am?" sort of guy (unlike Sun Joon) but it doesn't matter to her. It's not until that very last scene, where he runs between her and a sword, not allowing his father's men to kill her, that you believe it may be something more. From the look in Cho Sun's eyes you can tell that this crosses her mind as well, and she's forced to reevaluate him. I'd like to think that, in the future, these two wacky kids get together.
Thought the last of the political machination plots the writer does not forget the main romance. While most of the high angst is gone from them, it's okay for me. There are lots of other plots going along around them--and I like the chance to see my couple be together. It’s so cute to see Sun Joon happy and almost liberated. They have some of my favorite cutsy scenes in Kdrama--a cute will they hand hold scene (which I'm a sucker for), to the scene in the library where he, in the nerdyest way possible (leaving her notes in books) tells her he loves her. And finally one of the best kiss scenes in Kdrama. When he slowly unties her hat and then his, the anticipation made me literally melt in my seat.
So now that were at the end (story wise) we need to get back to the terrible ending. The writer spent almost the entire hour wrapping everything into little bows. Then blows it. I think it's because they held off Yoon Hee being caught as a woman until the very, very end. There just wasn't enough space to wrap it up properly. We didn't get to see what happened at the end when she went back to school. Sadly, in the epilogue she's still living as a man--but that doesn't make sense. At that point too many people knew she was a woman for the news to still be kept a secret. But was she still living as a man?
Or is she?
During the epilogue you find out that both she and Sun Joon became teachers at Sungkyunkwan. Well, that's a little disappointing. Didn't Sun Joon have loftier ideals than that? You first see Yoon Hee being hounded by obviously smitten students. This led me to believe that they knew she was a woman and all had crushes on her.
Sun Joon comes over looking all jealous and stern and lectures the students about finding the information themselves and not spend their time looking at their teacher. This says to me, he's jealous and is protecting his woman against her adoring fans. They start to bicker between each other. Um. Okay. Yes, they argued before, but they were never like this, antagonistic and irritated. The principal comes over to lecture them. He clearly calls Yoon Hee, Yoon Shik.
Is she still living as a man? How can that be? Or is it that everyone knows she's a woman but she's just using her brother's name? Umm... doesn't he need that? It doesn't make sense. Then next scene, you learn that Yoon Hee and Sun Joon are married. Well if it's not known she's a woman how did that happen? Isn't someone going to notice that the two teachers live together and that one of them dresses like a woman after hours? If being gay isn't accepted, something tells me being a cross dresser isn't going to go over any better.
In general I'm sad about everyone's epilogue but most especially Ga Young Ha. Seriously, he goes through all that and goes back to being a merchant? Come on! Yes, he had amazing fashion sense, but he had a lot of other things going for him as well. Did he just give up after everyone found out he wasn't actually part of the aristocracy? He did say he had everything that he needed with just the J4 believing in him, but I wanted a better ending for him.
Jae Shin becomes a guard or a police officer, which I guess is okay, but I kind of expected a cooler end for him as well. Or at least a girl. Oh well, maybe he can get together with the Blue Messenger.
The dissatisfaction with the individual endings wasn't the only problem I had with the epilogue. It was the fact we didn't get a final closure with the J4. This wasn't just Yoon Hee's and Sun Joons story. It was the story of this group together. I feel cheated by not having another glimpse of them all together after the last challenge.
Actually did anyone else hope they’d become a band of crime-fighting detectives? No? Just me then?
With such a good story being told, all these strings being woven throughout the story up until the end so beautifully and skillfully only to blow it on the ending is just disappointing and casts a shadow on what would have otherwise have been an excellent drama.
Ye gads. There is so much I want to say. Funny, I thought I had a lot to say about Pasta and as much as I love it, I realized how much more involved this show is. Both dramas are the same lengths but this show jammed stuff into every inch.
As much as I hate to, as I think I'm missing so much, I need to move on and focus on other points of the show.
The acting in this was really well done. On the first viewing of this I didn't really think much of Park Yoo Chun as Sun Joon, but then again, I didn't think much of Sun Joon. However, on this viewing, I have to give him much more credit for his acting. He did the stoic stick up his butt thing really well, I loved his little smirk and hidden grins, but as the show progressed I totally bought the pain and angst his character was in. There were a few scenes where Sun Joon actually made me tear up. Park Yoo Chun is a good crier. Unlike some other singers turned actors I'm not going to name *Cough*KimHyunJoong*Cough*. I look forward now to watching him in Rooftop Prince.
Park Min Young is very serviceable in this role. She juggled the serious and impish parts of Yoon Hee's personality. I'm going to hold my judgment on her acting until I see her in something else (besides the MV for BigBang's Haru Haru)
But not surprisingly, my favorites are Yoo Ah In as Jae Shin and Song Joong Ki as Gu Yong Ha. These guys are so good and really brought these characters to life. So much of this drama hinged on these two characters. In a drama you are set up to believe and root for the main couple—it has to go really wrong for you to not—but side characters? Well, there side for a reason. If we didn't believe so much in these two guys I don't think this show would have been as good as it was.
Now moving past the story and the acting, I'd like to take some time to talk about the technical stuff behind this show--which was also awesome. Please bear with me. I'm not as good with the correct words or lingo for knowing how to take this apart as I am with story. I've never really felt the need with other shows to go into this part of the drama, but in the case of Sungkyunkwan Scandal, the style, direction and music really set the tone of the whole show in a really good way.
From the very beginning you new this wasn't going to be your usual Sageuk. The people behind the show directed and shot this drama in such a slick way. The cinematography was very well done many of the shots were just beautiful. I just loved the whole style of this show. It makes me think of that movie A Knights Tale. I haven't actually seen it, but I had a roommate who was obsessed with it for a while, so I've seen bits. It's a historical with a modern sensibility. This drama is done in the same way. Parts of it are highly stylized.
For example the archery competition. Not so much the competition itself, but the hubbub around it. The fact the whole thing was "broadcast" around the entire country. (Although I giggled to myself thinking it was like a giant game of telephone and who knows what story the people further away were getting.) In the book shop the dealer was selling it like a prize fight. When he introduced the players, you saw a clip of the character and as he ran though his schpeel, the picture became a drawing. It’s things like that which holds this show up higher than some of the others I've seen.
I also enjoyed the decision they made to have the actual Chinese characters flow onto the screen when a character was making a Confucius point. There are several times where the characters actually "write" the letters in the air and the script appears. Ooh, fancy.
My last point is the music. Not so much the standard OST, which is primarily ballads from the members of JYJ, but the instrumentals. They fit well with the style of the story. I haven't been able to find it, but during a few times, during the vampy scenes, you would get this instrumental with somebody going ooooohhh in a sexy way. Periodically there were also some hard rock instrumentals thrown in. It just bumped up the enjoyment level of the whole show while cementing the tone.
See? That was painful; I don't know any of the technical jargon. My words don't flow pretty there. But it was such a good part of the show; I just couldn't leave it out. If you've made it this far, I thank you for sticking with me.
So I can't believe I'm saying in closing because I feel like there is so much left to say! But in closing, this is a really great show. If it weren't for that ending, it would probably make it to my top 5 shows. But since we do have that ending, it gets bumped down a star. Should you see it? Heck yeah! It’s a really nice way to tip your toe into the Sageuk without actually watching one.