Reviewed for the Korean Quarterly
Have you been looking for a drama that will satisfy everyone in the family? Well, look no further, because Sungkyunkwan Scandal is up to the challenge!
This drama is definitely a little charmer, mixing in some of the best features of stories like those in You’re Beautiful and Coffee Prince, only this one is pure Joseon fusion sageuk fun, based on a comic novel of the same name. With a similar premise of a young woman dressing as a man to function in a male environment in common, a lot depends on the ability of the actress in question to convince you not so much that she’s convincing as a man (though it might be more appropriate here to say “boy”), but rather that her character belongs in the world she’s inhabiting. Min-young Park as Kim Yoon-hee (and disguised as Scholar Kim Yoon-shik) is central to the success of the story. It is how those around her behave and treat her and how she responds in turn that make this drama the delight that it is. But more on Miss Park and the rest of the cast after a brief description of the story.
Mixing a dash of reality with a big dose of playful fiction, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is set during the reign of King Jeong-jo (played by sympathetically by Sung-ha Jo) and is populated by real characters (Yak-yong Jung, one of the leading philosophers of the era in which the drama is set, as played by Nae-sang Ahn) and fictional ones. It describes genuine historical issues, namely the geumdeungjisa and the search for this document. The geumdeungjisa was an historical document that was said to have described how one political faction, the Norons, manipulated King Yeong-jo into killing his son, the Crown Prince Sado (father to King Jeong-jo). Its significance is revealed during the course of the drama and the search for the document has consequences for the main heroes and heroine. It also includes entertaining fictional challenges to the success and/or safety of the protagonists, regularly placing one or more into jeopardy.
Into this world comes Yoon-hee Kim, who has been making her way in the world camouflaged as her brother, Yoon-shik Kim, in order to support her family and pay for her brother’s medicines. Her deceased father was a respected scholar but he has left the family with few resources. The most notable one is the education he provided his daughter. She’s used it in copying books and other documents for a local bookseller, but a situation arises that places Yoon-hee and her family’s wellbeing at risk. She makes the decision to sit the entrance exam illegally for Sungkyunkwan University. (Note: the drama is set in a fictionalized version of the real life Sungkyunkwan University, the original school founded in 1398 was the most important seat of learning in the Joseon era.) This is a decision that will radically change the course of her life (and, perhaps, history!)
She’s challenged in her mission by the exceedingly intelligent, highborn and well-connected (his father, played by the ever-excellent Gap-soo Kim, is Left State Minister Lee Jung Moo), handsome, and oh yes, exceptionally rigid-minded Lee Sun-joon, played by Micky Yoochun in his first major acting role. Whereas Yoon-hee is more cynical, expressive, and passionate about the world and how things are, up until this point Sun-joon has only thought about the “haves and have nots” in theoretical terms, but his fateful encounter and subsequent relationship with Yoon-hee will change his life forever as well. This drama is a perfect example of a couple who are clearly written as two individuals of strong mind and character who complement each other – to use the cliché, “complete each other” – in the fullest sense of the term. It’s a delight to watch them grow and develop a genuine friendship that is not contingent on a male/female relationship, but more as two intelligent and counterbalanced minds.
Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t a male/female relationship that blossoms in this tale – but it’s a twisted path to get there because our singularly straight-and-narrow-path Sun-joon hasn’t got a clue that his new fellow scholar is a girl. And yet, he feels compelled to defend this strange small-boned “lad” in a number of situations that range from the hilarious to tension-filled dangerous.
Descriptions of this drama make reference to the “Joseon F4,” a nod to the infamous F4 of Boys Over Flowers, the four famously handsome and charismatic young “flower” men of that drama. The writer tosses a wink and a nod to that concept with the addition of two other important characters: Joong-ki Song as the flamboyant provocateur and ladies man, Goo Yong-ha, and Ah-in Yoo as the surly radical with a cause, Moon Jae-shin. The popular Yong-ha goes by the nickname “Yeo-rim,” in tribute to his skill with women, and Jae-shin is known as “Guh-ro,” or Crazy Horse, for his wild and untamed behavior. These two are the first to discover Yoon-hee’s secret but, for their own reasons, undertake separately to protect her identity. And really, they’ve got enough to worry about!
Yong-ha is busy playing both sides of the political arena at Sungkyunkwan – when the story opens, he’s part of the coterie of the school’s president, Ha In-soo, son of the Minister of War (and the man who holds the threat of ruin over Yoon-hee’s family, amongst his other crimes), played by Tae-soo Jun. In-soo can give Sun-joon a run for his money when it comes to rigid, but he’s not blessed with the latter’s same sense of fair-play and fair-mindedness. Yong-ha tosses in his lot with Yoon-hee, Sun-joon, and Jae-shin, ostensibly because it amuses him, but he becomes a powerful ally in the process as he brings a clever mind to the table as well and is gifted in all manner of game playing and schmoozing.
As for Jae-shin, school is the perfect place for hiding a little open rebellion. He’s busy masquerading as a leafleting ‘terrorist’ known as the Red Messenger. One of his red paper leaflets, in fact, points fingers at the government for burying the truth about the geumdeungjisa and starts the hunt in seriousness for both the perpetrator known as the Red Messenger and the geumdeungjisa. He too is drawn to the fierce intelligence and determination in Yoon-hee to excel, no matter the task, and as well to her sense of right and wrong which marches firmly in step with his own. His knowledge of her gender gives him a different perspective than that of Sun-joon’s and the reactions of both young men to this “cuckoo in the nest” lead to many laughter-filled moments.
Many of you will discover, in watching Sungkyunkwan Scandal, a newfound (or heightened) appreciation for the introspective, observant, not highly verbal, men of minimalist facial expressions, repressed, but still manly types – namely Micky Yoochun – and Ah-in Yoo. Micky especially looks well suited to the school uniform, the top-knot and headband – even in the gat (the wide-brimmed horsehair hat worn by the scholars and most highborn men) that often suits no one well! Yoo is equally charismatic in those robes, but sporting a wild and unruly mane of long locks, restrained only for official school functions. If you find yourself wishing that somehow both young men could win the girl, you will not be alone!
And about that girl… One of the stumbling blocks for many in a cross-dressing drama is the complaint, “Well anyone can see she’s a girl!” Yes, this is true enough when you just look at Min-young Park. She’s slight, has large, expressive eyes, fair skin, and to our eyes she’s a girl, but she’s not wimpy when it counts. Her Yoon-shik remembers that “he” is a young man at most times and behaves with the natural freedom that a young man would enjoy (though occasionally she’s hesitant the way a young woman might be in the era when women are the bottom of the totem pole). She has, after all, been playing her brother for a while now in order to support the family. She’s also a character you can root for. In particular, while there are several well-done subplots through the series, one in particular highlights the character growth of “Yoon-shik” and Sun-joon. The sequence of events dealing with the archery competition (episodes 4-7) is a terrific little story arc.
These kids aren’t just there playing school, there are some serious life-and-death types of things happening to them and the loveliness of the surroundings and the attractiveness of the cast doesn’t mask the fact that if Yoon-hee is found out she can be killed, or that ‘Crazy Horse’ is playing a dangerous game, and even Sun-joon has a lot at risk. He’s got that family connection to live up to/down, and doing things that challenge his ideals of right and wrong really pull him out of his comfort zone and also place him at risk.
Arguably, the most charismatic performance of the drama is that of Ah-in Yoo, as well as the showy role of Yong-ha by Joong-ki Song, but truthfully, this drama belongs to Micky Yoochun’s Sun-joon. He came in for criticism for his characterization of Sun-joon during the early episodes of the drama, but he worked for this viewer completely from the very beginning. His facial movements in many scenes are limited but it works with his feelings, even any nerves he might have had also play right into his role. He’s asked to play someone who could be a prig but his eyes always convey a wider range of emotions. Perhaps his life in the intense spotlight as a member of DBSK and subsequent highly publicized split from the group contributed to his ability to mask his outward expression. If you want to know what he’s feeling, you have to read it in his eyes. How Sun-joon grows from the stalwart, self-controlled young man who learns to act with his heart instead of his head, and to trust in doing the right thing for the right reasons and accept consequences is one of the great delights in this drama.
There are many entertaining sequences in this drama but it doesn’t forget the romance. I never knew that removing hats could be so intense! Without giving away the pleasure in watching the scene for the first time viewer, this scene involving the simple removal of a hat is absolutely one of the sexiest scenes I’ve seen in a while and it yet it was so chaste and pure. There are also a number of other “ill-advised” love stories in the drama that could be seen as ripped from the pages of a Shakespeare comedy; In-soo’s sister (played Heo-rim Seo) does her best to marry Sun-joon, a noted gisaeng has a passion for the considerate Yoon-shik, whereas In-soo is driven mad by his jealousy and unrequited love for the gisaeng.
It’s also worth noting that both the setting of the drama and how it was filmed makes it as lovely to look at as it is entertaining. It also features a number of melodic songs (some performed by Micky Yoochun and other members of his new group, JYJ) as part of the soundtrack. Sungkyunkwan Scandal was served well by its youthful leads but the contributions by more senior members of the cast are exceptional as well. King Jeong-jo (Ha) is represented as fair-minded and attentive to his peoples; his close ally and friend, Professor Jung (Ahn) is a friend and guide to the young scholars, and protector to the daughter of his friend; Minister Lee (Kim) is a principled man who appears to have made terrible choices for the good of the kingdom, even if it means sacrificing others.
What I think it did particularly well was to build on the tension in the drama, with the plot and the characters. Is Sun-joon’s dad a bad guy? Will he have to choose between father and lover? I think they did a great job of subtly exploring that angle. The awesome Gap-soo Kim’s rectitude is something that could be seen as repellant and standoffish, the way Sun-joon was heading at the start of the drama. And yet he was close to his wife (and son to mother) so you sense that there’s love in that household.
The many other characters that round out the cast play their parts equally well. Indeed, this drama can and should appeal to all ages. By including a few modern principles to the traditional setting, it creates a sense of timelessness; the acting was entertaining, the characters well rounded, and there were personalities for everyone. Spunky heroine who deserves the man who wins her…? Check. Heroic young man who demonstrates his love…? Check (times two)! Great supporting character stories…? Check!
I will enjoy seeing this one again.