[Epic review] Sungkyunkwan Scandal

Thundie’s Prattle is thrilled to roll out our second epic review. (The inaugural one is here.)

This time we have invited six fans of a drama that’s officially known as Sungkyunkwan Scandal, but which most of us prefer to call Joseon Crack, or Micky-Yoochun-I-Love-You!, or Give-Hottie-Yoo-Ah-In-The-Girl-Dammit! (or, to a smaller extent, Gu-Yong-Ha-Take-Me!).

All six reviewers share a few things in common: They adored the drama (for the most part), they spent more hours on it than they care to admit, and they are fabulous writers. Their reviews are long (so make yourself comfy) and honest (exceedingly so, because love isn’t blind). In a nutshell, a wonderful read that everyone will enjoy.

blue1004, dramaok, Lei, miss_tofu, momosan and Softy, thank you so much for being part of this epic review. SKKS brought us close and for that I will always be grateful.

I must also thank the following: ^L4uRa^, who created the lovely wallpaper that you see above. Serendipity, who partnered me (most doggedly!) in bringing you the SKKS recaps (and we’re not done, so please don’t leave us; we have four episodes left!). All the patients of our SKKS AA Hospital, and everyone who has laughed and cried us with us on this unforgettable journey.

This epic 20,700-word review is dedicated to all of you.

Why is Sungkyunkwan Scandal your drama crack of the year?

 

When asked about why I like a particular drama, my usual answer has always been “because I just do.” Trying to give a more detailed why and how is something new to me and almost seems like a sacrilege to my drama-viewing experience.

When Thundie first asked me to write a review for Sungkyunkwan Scandal, I initially thought something along the following lines would do: “Look at those gorgeous actors, lovable characters, breathtaking cinematography, beautiful costumes, poignant dialogues. Any questions? SQUEEEEEE!”

Although these are all true, not only would this review have failed to do the drama the justice it deserves, but even more importantly, I realized that even these things cannot explain why I so madly fell in love with Sungkyunkwan Scandal. In fact, there have been other dramas in the past that had these traits and by all objective measures I should have fallen in love with. The only thing is, I did not.

I remember a quote by one of my favorite scriptwriters, Noh Hee-kyung, in an interview. “Can you really give an explanation on why one person falls in love with another? Isn’t it something that just happens?”

I think the same logic can also apply to how one person falls in love with a drama. (Yeah, yeah, please bear with me. I take my dramas pretty seriously!) How can I explain why Sungkyunkwan Scandal makes my heart flutter and brings a smile to my face whenever I think about it? Is it even possible for a logical reasoning to be given for why someone loves certain things?

I suspect the other reviewers will discuss all the qualities mentioned above (gorgeous actors, lovable characters, breathtaking cinematography, beautiful costumes, poignant dialogues) in greater detail and much more eloquently than I ever can. Perhaps some may also discuss the noticeable flaws (i.e., questionable editing in the latter episodes, rushed ending, underdeveloped characters, etc), and how despite these flaws, why Sungkyunkwan Scandal remained special to them and was so damn entertaining. And I’d probably nod in agreement with all of them.

So instead of explaining why Sungkyunkwan Scandal was my drama crack of the year, I’m going to talk about what made Sungkyunkwan Scandal work and what sets it apart from other dramas.

In fact, when it comes down to it, Sungkyunkwan Scandal does not have much of an original plot. A poor, cross-dressing girl enters a school campus with a bunch of (gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, did I mention gorgeous?) rich boys. First comes some bickering, then comes friendship, and finally comes love, with some challenges thrown into the mix for some good measure. By the end, the girl has changed the lives of the boys forever. It almost feels like a déjà vu of a number of recent trendy dramas. Don’t get me wrong. I love and enjoy addicting trendy dramas just as much as any other k-drama lovers out there. But what distinguishes Sungkyunkwan Scandal from all the rest?

Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a Social Commentary of Our Times.

When I think back to the 1980s Korea, I distinctly remember the smell of tear gas and police units wearing gas masks. I was too young to comprehend what was going on, but I remember being puzzled by what all those college students were so unhappy about to be protesting day in and day out. Above all else, I considered them a minor nuisance for my mom and me on our occasional city outings, as they caused the roads to be barricaded and trips delayed.

It was not until I was much older that I realized that these young people were fighting for their rights and a true democracy for their beloved country. And in fact, these kinds of protests and demonstrations have been the building blocks for Korea throughout its modern history. Hence, even as I cringed at the recent candlelight vigil by misinformed South Koreans in protest of imported U.S. beefs, I couldn’t truly “blame” them.

Now Sungkyunkwan Scandal challenged me to think things I never thought before. What if these young, impassioned youths are not simply a phenomenon of the modern times? I always imagined the youths of Joseon to be accepting of the strict Confucian beliefs of those days. But what if youths at all times and places have always dared to challenge the established beliefs and to throw questions at the world? This was a premise of the show that I was ready to embrace.

In particular, Kim Yoon-hee’s comment to Lee Sun-joon in episode 2 really tugged at my heart. “I don’t believe that our country, Joseon, is that great of a nation.”

I liked that our female protagonist had such a jaded view of the world, and that this clashed with Sun-joon’s idealism. How many times have we seen the never-say-die Candy character teach a jaded male character a brighter perspective to life? In fact, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is one of the rare instances where the exact opposite happens, and where the female protagonist teaches the male lead of the cruelty of this world and along the way, she herself learns about hope.

Even the remaining half of the Jalgeum Quartet, Moon Jae-shin and Gu Yong-ha, have issues they have to deal with within the society they live in. These characters do not deal with love, friendship, and family in an isolated bubble as many characters in other dramas do. Instead, these things are shaped by who they are in the society. But this is exactly why the characters feel so real and perhaps even tangible to me.

Traditional sageuk lovers and history buffs may cringe at the historical liberties taken. (Then again, when was the last time we had a historically accurate sageuk drama?) But Sungkyunkwan Scandal never claims to be a historical documentary.

One of the best examples that shows where Sungkyunkwan Scandal stands is shown in the scene where Yong-ha asks Sun-joon whether he is happy. Some viewers complained, and rightfully so, that this question about pursuit of happiness is only a modern idea in Korea and never belonged in 18th century Joseon. But I think that’s the exact point of this drama. That perhaps the youths of that time also experienced the same dilemmas and questions about the world as we do today.

Whether you decide to call Sungkyunkwan Scandal a coming-of-age story or a historical fiction, at the core of it, I think the best way to describe Sungkyunkwan Scandal is as a commentary on, well… us. Thus, whatever victory, however small, by the Jalgeum Quartet members feels like our own.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a Great Love Story.

A “gender bending” motif is an entertaining plot device for a drama. However, the biggest issue I have with it is the exact purpose it serves. I always end up scratching my head in confusion. What do you mean the guy who falls in love with the cross-dressing girl is not homosexual? He must surely be at least bi! This defies everything I’ve learned in my Human Sexuality class, gosh darn it!

And further, if I was a gay rights activist advocating that homosexuality is a biological phenomenon and thus, should be accepted as is, I’d be pretty pissed by the lightness that gender bending stories handle this matter. Wouldn’t it be more convincing if the male protagonist was in fact a homosexual and attracted to males, but upon learning that his love-interest was indeed a woman, his love for her still never ceased?

I understand what the gender bending love stories attempt to do. They try to show that there is love so great that it even transcends gender. But was this what was in fact portrayed in other past gender-bending k-dramas (Coffee Prince, You’re Beautiful)?

The situation in which a supposedly straight man falls in love with another “man” is really a special one, and thus, I want a very plausible explanation be given. Instead, the other dramas attempted to explain away by focusing on how the male protagonist starts falling for some (feminine) physical traits of the cross-dressing female. I admit this results in some great fangirling moments, but convincing, it’s not.

In that sense, Sungkyunkwan Scandal was not much different. For instance, we’ve seen (over and over again) how Sun-joon became so mesmerized by Yoon-hee’s lips. However, unlike these other dramas, the circumstances in which Sun-joon fell for “Yoon-shik” was really an unusual one. Here was this character that has never had any friends, male or female, all his life until he met Yoon-hee. Further, he’s never known any other women, except for his own mother. He constantly found faults in others and worse, always pointed it out to them. In turn, others couldn’t stand his nature and turned their backs on him.

To this Sun-joon, “Yoon-shik” appeared before him. “He” was just as much of Sun-joon’s equal in intelligence and talent. “He” was the first person to ever take his side and defend him. “He” risked “his” own life to come rescue him. “He” was the first person Sun-joon ever wished to have as a friend and opened his heart to. To this friend, kindred spirit, and soul mate, it is not so far-fetched for Sunjoon to start developing feelings of love. Thus, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is the first gender-bending drama that I actual found the love to be both convincing and plausible.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a Story of Friendship.

First and foremost, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a story about the friendship between four very different people. How great is it that the Jalgeum Quartet did not start out as friends, but only developed their friendship over the course of the drama? In fact, we saw them grow in their friendship with our very eyes. And even then, Jae-shin explains that he still hasn’t properly started off (in his friendship) with Sun-joon. The friendship between the Jalgeum Quartet members is one that is constantly revolving.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal Has Lee Sun-joon.

Who am I trying to kid with this long spiel? Sungkyunkwan Scandal has this fantastic character, Lee Sun-joon, portrayed brilliantly by Micky Yoochun. That’s more than enough reason for me.

 

It is very fitting to call Sungkyunkwan Scandal my “drama crack” and like many who lived at this blog or the SKKS forum at Soompi.com for the last few months, I experienced all the signs of a true crack addict.

I had physical symptoms, such as my brain overdosing on euphoria on Mondays and Tuesdays, when new episodes would air, and slowly having those sensations turn into fidgeting, depression, and despair, from Wednesday to Sunday, when my only purpose in life, as it seemed, was to wait for my next dose of crack to be dispensed on Monday. The wait was often excruciating.

And, like many of my fellow addicts, I also experienced social symptoms.

My real life partner has not really confronted me about my addiction, probably because, I suspect, he knows I would’ve chosen the drama over him during the height of my euphoria, and like him, who intrinsically knew not to confront me, I also intrinsically understood this would forever change our relationship but it would be left unspoken.

My mother, my siblings and my friends have expressed their share of vexation at my indifference-turned-neglect toward them, and even my neighbor has been looking at me with that suspicious look, wondering why I’m looking so disheveled and erratic. My boss has yet to fire me, despite my missing so many days of work with no apparent reasons, but that is only because my skill-set is irreplaceable and he also secretly lusts for me (delusion is in fact a symptom of crack addiction).

But I have accepted these changing relationships as a fact of life, because truth be told, I was in awareness but I was content doing nothing about it. No, I couldn’t do anything about it, because I ceased to function normally. I’m a true addict, and Sungkyunkwan Scandal [성균관 스캔들] is my crack of choice. Or, maybe it chose me.

I was born in Korea and watching Korean dramas on the television was part of my everyday childhood life, but when I was in elementary school, my family immigrated to the United States and I suddenly had no access to Korean dramas. So I stopped.

Then years went on, and I started to watch Korean dramas again, around the time I was in college, because access to Korean dramas was once again available to me through the internet and cable television. Since this access was once lost to me, and for such a long time at that, I completely immersed myself in this newly reclaimed pleasure, and that is when I became an incurable drama addict.

Since then, I have had my share of addiction to many dramas (White Tower [하얀 거탑], Alone in Love [연애시대], Thank You [고맙습니다], Taewangsashingi the Legend [태왕사신기], and Conspiracy in Court [한성별곡], to name a few), but not since the 2003 Damo [다모] have I been this consumed by a drama to the point of being “paralyzed” by it. I would schedule my life around the drama broadcasting times, and basically halting everything in life, until the drama ended.

I never claimed Damo to be the most perfect drama ever written or the acting best ever delivered, but Damo touched me like no other, because it convicted my soul. I believed in its tragedy, set forth by love’s madness. I knew in the depth of my heart that such tragedy could exist, and therefore it was real to me, and I could not escape from the curse of knowing it. The tragedy of Damo was immensely personal to me and paralyzed me, it did.

This year, Sungkyunkwan Scandal did what Damo did to me, in terms of hijacking my mind and my heart; however, unlike Damo, which shattered my heart, and permanently tear-stained my eyes, Sungkyunkwan Scandal did the opposite. It made my heart burst with glee. I am still smiling as I type this.

This became the drama I wanted to live in, and soon I found myself thinking that I actually did (add hallucination to the list of my symptoms). The characters were relatable and believable to me, and the lines they spoke gave me adrenaline. I am not a devoted believer of fate and destiny, per se, but I can’t help but wonder if indeed this was a drama that was meant for me to watch. Not just to heal my wounded Damo heart, but also to remind me about where I come from and how I define myself, as well as all the things I am thankful for in life.

As soon as I watched the very first episode of Sungkyunkwan Scandal, I realized this was the drama that I had missed all my life. Can you ever miss a drama that didn’t exist yet? Yes, the same way us hopeless romantics know you could live your life and miss a person, or a love, that you may never encounter. But knowing it could exist, even if only in a parallel universe, is already more than enough.

So for me, to have found this drama, in this life, in my current world, words cannot express the rush I felt. My heart doubled in size when Sungkyunkwan Scandal aired and my giant heart became so full of glee I felt like it could burst. But what is it about this drama that some might actually barb as some childish teen romance that kept me so enchanted?

I’ll be the first to admit it’s not the best drama script ever written. The script was beautifully poetic and poignant, but I can’t even compare it to the likes of Conspiracy in Court which to me was flawless. Is it the best acting one could ever witness? No, not really. It’s not even close to something like White Tower or Alone in Love. Is it the music? No on that again. They basically played the same song from start to finish with a little variation here and there. Furthermore, the directing and editing were confusing and choppy at times and the fight scenes were sometimes unintentionally comical.

But despite not having the best script, or the best acting or the best music, or the best anything really, it did have something unparalleled by any other drama. It had a soul that fed my soul. I know this may sound overly dramatic to some, but I know some people will understand what I say here.

At its core, Sungkyunkwan Scandal embraces a spirit of fun that celebrates hope and love. Tragedy is commonplace in Sageuk (historical drama), because history is often viewed as overwhelmingly tragic, but Sungkyunkwan Scandal begged to differ. It showed us the hope, and the love that could exist in a world that could just as easily be viewed as full of despair and angst. It showed us the power of hope and the power of being honest to the heart, two truths that are also in history, but are often lost to the viewer. Watching this, I was reminded of what I always knew, but was often too jaded to acknowledge. It convicted me with the truth that the power of honoring one’s heart is the highest power and honor there is. What a jubilance to see that somebody else believed this to be true. This drama is a crack that seized me, but in truth it also nourished me.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a story about the lives of Neo-Confucius scholars near the end of the 18th century, and the dreams of a Joseon king stifled by the tumultuous political landscape often associated with latter-day Joseon. While the intricacies of their stories are intriguing on their own, the real story of Sungkyunkwan Scandal is about self-understanding and how that understanding can help us choose what is in essence, love for ourselves, which is in turn manifested through our love for our friends, our love for our ruler, our love for our teachers and parents, and our love for our nation.

When the story opens, it is clear that the writer did her homework and set up a captivating landscape that pulled us in. An institution like Sungkyunkwan has its unique traditions and rules that are fascinating on their own. A king like Jeongjo whose life and dreams came to an abrupt halt is also a captivating story on its own. There’s a reason why so many dramas and movies have been made about him. So these were clever historical narratives to include, and it pleased the Sageuk-admirer in me. The Sogwa [小科] exam, the archery competition, the king’s mock trial assignment, and the king’s secret mission to find the Geumdeungjisa [금등지사], were all examples of great story-telling that had me completely invested and intrigued.

I know some people had some disappointments about how the Geumdeungjisa plot was ultimately treated, but I thought it was cleverly done. The drama is about the spirit of love and the spirit of hope.

I loved how the writer allowed King Jeongjo to use the Geumdeungjisa, not as a weapon of more strife, but as a tool for compassion and forgiveness. This is an interpretation that echoed well with me, because like the writer, I also want to believe that King Jeongjo could extend his love for his people to the very people who pained him. Jeongjo loved his people, and it was touching for me to see that the Norons were not excluded.

I never believed Jeongjo needed to move the capital to Hwaseong to complete his dream of reform. I always believed the Geumdeungjisa was to Jeongjo a tangible link he needed to forgive his grandfather, to acquit his father, and to remove that hatred in him, which was his biggest obstacle in reaching the aspirations he so dearly dreamed. In the end, he didn’t accomplish the reform he set out to do, but he found peace and his hope was no longer dimmed by the trace of grievance in his heart.

In Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Jeongjo was not the same tragic and pitiful king I had grown used to see in dramas. This was a king who teased his subjects, who challenged his students, and his compassion and his trust for his people made him so approachable and charming, like a father one could lean on. I was happy to see him true to his heart from start to finish.

The theme of following one’s heart and finding joy in such was also seen through the younger generation. Yoonhee didn’t choose to be born a woman or a Namin, just as Seonjoon and Jaeshin had no say in their births as nobles and Noron and Soron respectively. Yongha, also never chose to be of a lesser Joongin birth, but as the story opens, we see them as individuals limited by their labels. However, these four soon realize the truth that people are not really born with an identity. We actually have the will and the freedom to question, to deny, and to change the boundaries set-forth by the labels put upon us.

I love how the story is about what we have in common instead. Male or female, the Noron heart breathes the same air as the Soron heart, and the Namin and Joongin hearts.

What I witnessed was Yoonhee finally nurturing both her femininity and her mind, and it was no longer something mutually exclusive. What I witnessed was Seonjoon’s complete transformation, from a man who was living a robotic life guided by reason and logic, to a man who no longer suppressed his heart and soul, and in doing so, he was able to fully experience the goodness of life. What I witnessed was Jaeshin coming in terms with his father, his brother, and himself, and gaining the freedom to live life for him, and not in the shadow of anyone else. What I witnessed also was Yongha finding the courage and the conviction within his soul to love himself and to stand up for himself. It was a sight that made me exhale. Was I the only one who felt so liberated?

As I watched these truths unveiling, I was reminded of my own life experience, as someone who struggled gravely with identity issues. On a good day, being Korean and American is having two identities, but on a bad day, it is having neither.

This drama reminded me about the days when I used to pretend I was a mute, because I thought that was an identity I didn’t have to explain or defend. Hence, I felt incredibly triumphant when the Jalgeum Quartet helped King Jeongjo pass the act of Sinhae Tonggong [신해통공] for free trade, for which they were invited to meet the king at the palace where they were each given a special gift by the king. Not only did they not have to defend, lie or explain their births, they were awarded for their act and that alone, for which they had control over. I cheered for them, like I cheered for myself the day I finally understood and believed I was capable of more than any label anyone could put on me.

The only gripe I have about this drama is how short it is. Twenty episodes were not enough. There was definitely a sense of rush toward the last few episodes, and like many viewers, I also felt there were some plots that did not get their justice. I found myself wanting to know more about what really happened to Jaeshin’s brother and Yoonhee’s father, and more about the background of Chosun and Insoo. Even the story about Jeong Yak-Yong was barely touched upon by the time the drama ended.

But all in all, I was very pleased with the ending. I loved the way it fully embraced the fun spirit of the drama and it left me giddy, just as I was giddy in episode one, when Yoonhee wrote out her sarcasm on Seonjoon’s robe and this seemingly childish act was something straight from her heart and I loved it.

In watching this drama, I was not just a drama watcher, or a drama addict. The drama actually seized me, like crack seizes a person. It owned me, and in the process, it helped me reclaim my inner passion for learning (all those Confucius lines and references to history had me searching and reading excerpts in phraseology dictionary and the Korean encyclopedia), as well remind me the simple truth about the simple act of following my heart, and it gave me a chance to revive the youthful glee I abandoned when I finished college and started paying bills for my car, for gas, for groceries, and so on.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal made me realize I could still dream even if I am living as a responsible adult doing those seemingly mundane tasks day in and day out, because this drama made me realize my dreams and jubilance of yesteryears were still in me, and what a joy it is to see myself so giddy again. For that, I am eternally grateful. In 2003, Damo unleashed a tragic truth to me, and in 2010, Sungkyunkwan Scandal overwhelmed me with a joy equally compelling.

 

I’m easy to please when it comes to dramas. Make me laugh, even if it’s toilet humor I’ll take it. Give me feel good stories with cute characters, I would watch even if I have to check my brain at the door.

My brain cells (or the two that’s left) resent that.

Brain Cell #1: Can’t you watch the Discovery Channel instead?

Brain Cell #2: We’re gonna die if we don’t exercise!

So I was glad when I found a drama even my two brain cells can enjoy without tearing each other’s mitochondria apart. Sungkyunkwan Scandal has a nicely woven story with endearing characters and a little more depth than usual. Lee Sun Joon, who’s such a stickler for the rules, inadvertently gets Kim Yoon Hee to violate the law by getting her into Sungkyunkwan where women are not allowed. So steadfast is his belief in all things right and good he ends up rooming with Moon Jae Shin, the one Soron who hates Norons like him with a passion. Such a situation could only attract the attention of Jae Shin’s closest friend, The Gu Yong Ha, who finds entertainment in all things ridiculous.

Not that I didn’t hear any bickering.

Brain Cell #1: Historical drama, eh? I bet they’ll twist the facts so much King Jeong Jo will be rolling in his grave.

Brain Cell #2: What part of the word fiction do you not understand? You want facts, go to the library.

So one brain cell almost walked out. Thankfully, common sense got the better of her. There’s no cross walk on Route 130. She’d be run over on the way to the library.

Brain Cell #1: A girl pretending to be a boy? That is sooooooo original.

Brain Cell #2: Hey, this is a bit different. It’s set more than two hundred years ago, when women have only two options: be a wife or be a gisaeng. And it’s not like she’s only gonna get a slap on the wrist if she’s found out.

Brain Cell #1: Apart from the flamboyant one, none of them can tell she is a girl?

Brain Cell #2: These scholars likely have extremely limited knowledge of women. If Choi Han Kyul took that long to figure out Eun Chan was a girl, there’s no hope for these guys.

Brain Cell #1: Is the Red Messenger a mutant?

Brain Cell #2: He could be. The only guy to heal faster is Wolverine.

Brain Cell #1: Hang on. It was daylight one minute, the next it’s completely dark?

Me: Alright, STOP! If you can’t keep yourself from nitpicking, go to the library. Alone. I am so not dropping you off.

Yes, Sungkyunkwan Scandal isn’t perfect. Kim Yoon Hee isn’t the first cross-dressing female lead, and it isn’t even the first set during historical times. But there is something about it that just grabbed me right off the bat.

Brain Cell #1: Maybe it’s the pace. The first episode sets the tone quite nicely. We are introduced to just about every character while moving the plot along. And each episode seemed better than the one before it.

Brain Cell #2: Well, she is a sucker for smart female leads with a ton of self-respect.

Brain Cell #1: It’s gotta be the eye candy. How can the school dork be so cute? They never made them like Lee Sun Joon when she was in school.

Brain Cell #2: Is it Moon Jae Shin’s lips, the hair, or just the attitude? And if Gu Yong Ha were a gisaeng, he’d give Chosun some serious competition.

Oh God, even my brain cells are fangirling.

Eye candy aside, it’s the well-written dialogue that made me fall in love with Sungkyunkwan Scandal. Just how engaging are those arguments between the idealistic Sun Joon and the jaded Yoon Hee? And those of Sun Joon and Jae Shin? Our J4 giving Ha In Soo a verbal shellacking is always fun to watch. Plus, we have the words of wisdom from The Gu Yong Ha and Professor Jung.

There’s a level of eloquence here that I rarely see in a youth drama. And this is with me relying on English subtitles. There always are things that get lost in translation so I wonder how much more beautiful the dialogue is in its original Korean form.

I particularly love how Lee Sun Joon defended Yoon Hee and Jae Shin during the disciplinary hearing, how he concocted a lie that was hard to refute except for the people who know the truth, and made everyone realize it was nothing more than an innocent brotherly (and sisterly) relationship.

When Student President Ha In Soo brought up Hong Byuk Seo, I thought Yoon Hee and Jae Shin were done for. But of course, our quick thinking Sun Joon has a counter argument to that. I love love love characters with more than two brain cells and all four main leads have quite a good number. Even Go Bong grew a brain cell (and found his balls) in the end.

I have to mention this but when I saw the hurt in Go Bong when the Royal Guards upended the library, I wanted to give the guy a hug and tell him it’s gonna be alright. It was evident then that despite his lack of intellect, he treasured Sungkyunkwan and truly regretted its desecration. The scene was only a few seconds but it did its intended effect. This drama has many beautiful little moments like this.

There is also the humor. The sleeping arrangements, the drunk Lee Sun Joon dragged back to Sungkyunkwan by the diminutive Yoon Hee, the pirouetting Gu Yong Ha. And who can forget the hiccupping Guh-ro with Yoon Hee’s handkerchief stuffed in his mouth? Swords and spears can’t stop this guy but close proximity with women reduces him to an adorable hiccupping mess. Instead of the royal guards, the Minister of War should have sent all of Moran-gak’s gisaengs with their big hair pieces and elaborate dresses to capture Hong Byuk Seo.

I also love how Sun Joon and Yoon Hee’s relationship started with friendship and mutual respect for each other’s talent and character. While love-at-first-sight is cute, I like that our main couple’s awareness of each other evolved as they helped each other grow.

Some have been disappointed with Sun Joon’s muted reaction when he discovered Yoon Hee is a girl. I think that response was very much in character. As the son of a nobleman, he was taught to keep his emotions in check, and he is the type who uses his head first before his heart. That logical part of him immediately deduced that he has no right to be upset with Yoon Hee. He was the one who forced her to take the exam anyway. He also realized how dangerous the situation is for her if she’s found out. There’s no time and really no reason for him to go all Choi Han Kyul on her.

I like the fact that there are none of what Javabeans (or was it Girlfriday?) calls the “silent noble idiots”. So many conflicts in dramas arise from people unnecessarily lying and suffering in silence. Hook them all up on lie detectors and there’d be no story to tell. In SKKS, if anybody lied or stayed silent, there was a very good reason for it.

Yoon Hee lied about her gender out of financial necessity. Sun Joon lied about his feelings for her because it will be trouble for her as well as for him. Jae Shin kept his feelings for Yoon Hee to himself because, well, he can’t just walk up to her and say, “Hey, Yoon Shik! I know your secret but I’m cool with that. Are you busy Friday night? I’m off my Red Messenger duties. Maybe we should go out to dinner or something.” Gu Yong Ha lied about his lineage because this is an era that gives birthright so much weight.

The Gu Yong Ha – possibly one of my all time favorite characters. Street smart and perceptive, he had people confused to a degree but that is what’s great about him. He finds amusement in the ludicrous, but knows when things are not to be trifled with. He loves to push people, even manipulate them. But his heart is in the right place.

For someone harboring feelings for Jae Shin, you wonder why he is pushing him towards Yoon Hee. I’d say he has long accepted that there can’t ever be more than brotherly love between them since Jae Shin is not gay and this is circa 1791. So he settled for the next best thing — being his best friend. Now, why is he also pushing Sun Joon to admit his feelings for Yoon Hee? In the beginning, he probably wanted Sun Joon to discover Yoon Hee’s secret. That would be quite entertaining. But later he sees him making grave mistakes in his effort to deny himself. Even for The Gu Yong Ha, that isn’t fun to watch.

As for the finale, I am satisfied overall though I wanted to see more. I would have liked to see how the student body reacted when they find out Yoon Hee is a girl. But there’s no time for that in one episode because settling the Geum Deung Ji Sa was more important. I wish Jae Shin had seen Yoon Hee dressed as a woman. Episode 1 doesn’t really count because he doesn’t know her yet. That scene with Ha In Soo shielding Chosun and Batman, er, Jae Shin jumping in was a bit cheesy (but I kinda like it). Minister Lee giving his blessing to Sun Joon and Yoon Hee’s relationship seemed too soon. I think there’s enough material for two to four more episodes. Too bad it had to end at twenty.

But of course, I can always watch the entire series again and again.

Brain Cell #1: If you keep watching and re-watching Sungkyunkwan Scandal, it will become a habit.

Brain Cell #2: I think that was the idea.

 

“The reason why crack cocaine is so addictive,” my pharmacology friend tells me, “is because it’s a serotonin-norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor which stimulates the mesolimbic reward pathway.”

At my unspoken but deadpan ‘Would you please speak English like a normal person?’, she rolls her eyes and explains a little more prosaically, “Look, it makes you high, alright? Like… cow-jumps-over-the-moon high. It’s a rush of pure euphoric bliss and then BAM! it’s gone, and the only way you can stay that buzzed, or just to stop the “crash” of major withdrawal symptoms, is to keep taking higher and higher doses of it until you end up in a toxic paranoid psychosis or selling your firstborn child for more. …You know, whichever comes first.”

Well, I might not know a thing about the real ‘benzoylmethylecgonine’, but if my addiction to Sungkyunkwan Scandal is anything to go by, then I’m really, really thankful that I don’t actually have a firstborn child to sell.

(Because I would – in a heartbeat – for another heady rush of pure Joseon crack.)

Of course, like most substance abusers, it took me a long time to even admit to having a problem, and, if I were being completely honest, I find myself – on occasion – still half in denial.

“…Problem?! What is this ‘problem’ you speak of?!”

(—I mean, there is absolutely no problem in watching the Yoo Ah-In Highcut video on constant repeat instead of cramming for your afternoon LAWS484 exam which you should have studied for weeks in advance but didn’t because you were too busy recapping the latest SKKS episodes, right? Right?!)

But in my (rare) moments of clarity, I find myself wondering, “How did I end up in this pathetic state? How did I fall into such an obsessive-compulsive stupor that would put the most neurotic of Twilight-fangirls to shame?”

Sungkyunkwan Scandal – what have you done to me??!!

You see, I’m no K-drama virgin. Being Chinese, and having cut my tweenage teeth on the likes of ‘Princess Pearl’ and ‘Romance in the Rain’, it was only natural for me to eventually find my way to the techno-colour world of trendy Korean drama. Some I’ve liked, some I’ve loved, and quite a few have had me avidly fangirling over the years.

But this? This love is off the charts.

–Which is surprising, considering how reluctant I was at the beginning to give the drama a shot. Call me shallow, but I admit it – the attractiveness of the main lead is major pulling power, and I often choose what I watch based on the guy’s looks. In my defence – hey, it’s Asian drama, not the Analects of Confucius. If I want to be educated, I have a stack of case law waiting for me on my desk (joy of joys) and a shelf full of classical literature. Drama is drama because it’s brainless entertainment, so why can’t I devour some smexy eye-candy while I’m at it?

Problem is, Micky Yoo-Chun isn’t exactly my idea of handsome (–blasphemy, I know), and I’d never even heard of Park Min-Young, rumours of major plastic surgery aside. In fact, had it been any other time of year, I would have probably let this gem slip through my fingers. But as it was nearing exam season, and everything seems to turn into Midas gold when you’re procrastinating on revision, in spite of my initial misgivings, I began to watch.

…Suffice to say, I have never been more thankful of the decision I made that fateful Tuesday night.

As the opening scene played out, I was immediately intrigued by the heroine – but really, any erudite, independent woman is commendable in my books, being the rare species she is in Asian-drama-land. After the first twenty-odd minutes, I found myself gradually sympathising with her plight. Another twenty more, and I was emotionally engaged enough to be anticipating the next episode. But to be completely honest here, it was the smouldering Moon Jae Shin bursting onto the scene in a kick-ass flurry of pure, unadulterated hotness that really sealed the deal for me. It was at that point that I knew – completely, utterly, irrevocably – yes, I had indeed found my brand of crack.

So if you’re like me, and all you’re really looking for is some eye-candy to get you through the day, then look no further – because there is no end of ‘pretty’ to this show.

The protagonists are pretty.

(…Yeorim, for example, is probably prettier than most women. —No, scratch that. He IS prettier than most women.)

The antagonists are pretty.

(Even a certain someone who glares so hard that I’m almost afraid his eyeballs will pop out of the screen and smack me in the face.)

The supporting cast is pretty.

(Barring… er… a few exceptions, of course. Yes, Mr. Ape-face, that means you.)

…Hell, even Professor Jung is pretty.

From the throat-clearing, awkwardly adorable Vice-Student-Body-President, to silent Kang Moo and not-so-silent Mr. Know-It-All — with more candy going around than a Halloween party, there’s bound to be at least something to suit everyone’s tastes. So whether you’re barking up the Moony tree, moonlighting in a Yummy’s bedroom, or holing yourself away in Hermitage Garang (—or all of the above), I think we can all agree that these boys are definitely too cool (…too hot?) for school.

…And THAT, in itself, is enough to make Sungkyunkwan Scandal my drama crack for the year.

(Does that make me shallow? Fine – fair call. Heck, I was willing to suffer through sixteen whole episodes of a certain ‘It Started With A Kiss’ remake just to watch a living statue walk around for sixteen hours looking pretty. So, really, the fact that the pretty-boys in Sungkyunkwan Scandal have actual acting talent merely sweetens the deal.)

But although it was the beautiful people, the beautiful costumes and the breathtakingly beautiful scenery that enticed me here, it was the beautifully heart-warming storyline that made me stay.

Because, you see, love stories are timeless. They will never die, or wither, or grow old. The same tropes (particularly those of the cross-dressing persuasion) will be reused and recycled for generations upon generations, and for some strange and incomprehensible reason, they will still manage to sell. Meyer knows it, Mills and Boon knows it, and Asian broadcasting stations? …Well, they sure as hell know it.

…And what is Sungkyunkwan Scandal if not a story about love?

Out of the love for his talented, prodigious daughter, a father sacrificed his life to forge a vision of a newer and better world. Out of the love for his country and the good of its people, a dreamer died to protect a Scroll with a legacy that would live on forever. And, out of the love for her sick brother, a determined young woman took on the mantle of responsibility, struggling to survive as a man in a man’s world to provide for her family when all else was lost.

…Cliché? Oh, absolutely.

(But, hey, it’s love, right?)

Sungkyunkwan Scandal tells of a king’s love for his people, a father’s love for his children, a friend’s love, a brother’s love, a man’s love for a woman. It is a tale of love’s lengths and breadths, its selflessness and selfishness, of the loved, the loving – love, in its broadest spectrum.

And that, my dears, is the real reason why Sungkyunkwan Scandal is my drama crack of the year.

Sure, there were times aplenty when the execution fell short of its lofty goals, where I struggled to turn off my brain and suspend my disbelief, and more than a few where I had to wonder if I was rolling my eyes at the drama for descending into such sheer ridiculousness – or myself, for being fool enough to lap it up. Sometimes I even questioned my own sanity for being so ga-ga over something so pointless when my degree was on the line.

Because the thing is, no matter how much neo-Confucian thought it shoves into each episode, no matter how clever or well-intentioned or ‘meaningful’ it hopes to be, a trendy K-drama is a trendy K-drama is a trendy K-drama.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a romantic comedy for a reason. It’s fusion-sageuk for a reason. It will be melodramatic. It will misuse and abuse truisms and anime-esque sound effects and catchy pop music like no tomorrow. The script’s political propaganda and Moral Messages will hit you over the head with all the subtlety of a two-tonne mallet. Certain bookshops will become a black vortex of time turning broad daylight into pitch-darkness in the space of fifteen minutes. …Key characters may even pull gisaeng and Red Messenger costumes out of their ass.

And yet, I stuck to it – pitfalls, plot-holes, moments of patchy editing and all – because well… it’s CRACK. It’s addictive, it’s fun, and it sure ain’t meant to be good for you. I came looking to be distracted and entertained, and while I certainly got both, I also came out with a little something more. In spite of its faults and oft-times mindless frivolity, Sungkyunkwan Scandal did something that I didn’t expect it to. Somehow, someway, it managed to truly touch me… to the depths of my cynical, unfeeling, stone-cold heart.

It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me scream at the top of my lungs. Before I knew it, I found myself genuinely caring about these characters – not just the loveable ones, but the distasteful, the ambiguous and the thoroughly hateful, too. As they grew and developed, and learned (or not) from their mistakes, I watched and cheered for them every step of the way.

Like real people in the liveliest of stories, each had a history, and a future. These were characters that existed beyond the pages of a given script, beyond the opening scene and closing sequence, beyond the snapshots captured by the camera alone. Their struggles and triumphs, hopes and desires, private foibles and personal fears – buried though they were beneath the mandatory bathos and pathos and mozzarella cheese – all resounded and rang true. In my mind, the characters of Sungkyunkwan Scandal became larger-than-life, and, for a brief moment in time, they took me out of my world and into theirs – and on an unforgettable journey of the heart.

(…My brain, of course, was left at the door.)

 

First, an admission. I don’t think this is the best show of the year. It will not make my top 10 of all time. But it will make my highlights of 2010, and I’ll be banking it for repeat viewing. It was drama crack of the best sort, a show you could happily obsess over, with eye candy to drool over, and enough of a following to let you find friends to squee with. I adored this show for 15 or so episodes and then was made unhappy, but I squeed and spazzed with the best of them as it brightened the k-drama landscape. My unhappiness with the last few episodes doesn’t mean I’m drinking hater-ade. For me, it’s still a win, but I feel sad that the ending let down what could have been a truly classic show.

When SKKS came along, I was hoping for a nice light series. My expectations were very low, having been burned by several shows in the first half of 2010, and I was in desperate need of something fun to watch. Plus, I’m a saguek junkie. I’ll give anything remotely sageuk a fair try.

So, what DID work about the show for me? First of all, on the technical side, the show is beautifully framed and shot. It’s visually very pretty. There are some scenes that are lit and framed so well that they could be calendar shots. The score is good, although eventually I wished they would lay off the vocals and go with more instrumentals. There were little touches of sound editing adding comic effect to the show that were outstanding. Effects like the comic sounds for Hyo Eun batting her eyes or the animation of the bookie’s playbook for the archery tournament added to show instead of detracting from it. All but the last few episodes are very nicely edited. By the time it hit the end, there were weird continuity errors that were jarring and it suffered from jump cuts that really made little narrative sense.

This is really a coming of age story dressed in saguek garb. So, you have your girl disguised as boy scenario with a few twists – namely it’s set in the Joseon era in a time and place where it would be a death sentence to be caught – and then the hijinx ensue. Each of the main characters gets a side plot to carry things along the way, and it’s all tied in nicely to a palace intrigue and learning to come to grips with your family and future.

SKKS has the same light fusion saguek feeling as Tamra: the villains weren’t excessively villainous, the mystery wasn’t all that mysterious, any danger didn’t feel that threatening, and the OTP was a dead cert from day one. The writers had a deft touch with keeping things comical and serious by turns. It doesn’t pay to look too closely at the plot, because that isn’t really the strong point with this show, and for me is really where the show let me down in the end. If you want plot, go watch Joseon X Files. (Seriously. Go watch it.)

The series started out with a beautifully shot sequence that was actually a pretty ingenious way of introducing characters, as Yoon Shik made her way into town to deliver her scribe work and then back home to discover that she needed to pay up or be sold off to the War Minister. The episodes where the four friends meet and thrash out their relationships to each other are really very charming. The “who is sleeping where” bedroom sequences that litter the show are really some of the funniest bits in dramas in quite a while.

Where did the show go wrong for me? *sets out stack of books to block tangerines being thrown* After 15 or so episodes of awesome, things got dicey for me. The last 2 episodes in particular had logic fails and editing fails of the spectacular variety.

I have no problems with the finding out the past and coming to terms with their father’s storylines, that’s good stuff. I also have no real problem with the final ending sequence, which was a fairly nice return to the cute of the first few episodes. Getting there via the MacGuffin of the Geum Deung Ji Sa was the problem. The dive into the stream was laughable; the magically drying hanboks were silly. Couple rings? Even assuming that it wasn’t an anachronism of the boldest sort, that’s a heck of a way to keep a relationship secret.

And once the couple was together, why did Yoon Hee suddenly become less spunky? Where did the character that challenged Professor Jung go for a couple of episodes before she, thankfully, returned to form? Even the most rabid of SKKS fans had to cringe when the MacGuffin was found in broad daylight, in a populated street, with a student wielding a pickax, and then she proceeded to sit down and read it in the street? Clearly the secret part of this assignment didn’t register with anyone. And then she toted it into the palace in front of the entire student body?

Also, what was with not showing how Jae Shin and cohorts got out of that last fight? There’s a nice sequence of Cho Sun reflecting on Yoon Hee and going against the War Minister’s orders. She’s had enough and she’s willing to fight. In Soo is moved by this to protect her, in a pseudo-redemptive move for him. His remaining lackey is also moved to help him (at least he was faithful to the end). Then Jae Shin shows up and then…poof…nada…we get zippo. *smack* This is the sound of my head hitting the desk repeatedly.

Are we to assume In Soo and Cho Sun live happily ever after? I’d have been happier if In Soo and lackey went down fighting and Jae Shin sent Cho Sun off into the sunset on the last horse out of town. Heck, I’d have been happier with virtually any closure on this scene.

The last episode in particular suffered from the classic drama evil of the rush to tie up every loose end. As a long time saguek junkie, I am really bugged by the moral and political whiplash that poor King Jeungojo was made to do in the last episode. Like a lot of saguek fans, I am particularly fond of King Jeungojo and right up until the last episode I was enjoying this take on him. Since this is technically a saguek, I wouldn’t have minded if at least someone got offed or at least punished. Even Tamra had a higher body count than this, and Tamra is sweeter than a puppy.

So, why is this show still in my win column? Even the last few episodes had moments of shining brilliance. The butt fight sleeping scene was one for the books. Episode 19 had lovely Yong Ha moments. The ending sequence was adorable, particularly since Jae Shin looked get in a uniform. The fact that episode 8 stands out in my mind as one of the cutest entire episodes of k-drama ever is enough to kick it into the saved for a rainy day pile.

But, let’s be honest, this show stays in the win column for Moony, Yummy, the King, the Left State Minister, and Professor Jung. I enjoyed the heck out of all of their scenes. In particular it stays as a win for Yoo Ah In’s portrayal of Moon Jae Shin.

I suffer from second lead syndrome rather frequently, but this was one for the books. From the second episode on, I was totally in the Moony Faction and was happy just to lean back and watch the pretty. I’ll admit to rampant shallowness, and also a serious failing for handsome, long haired fighting men dressed in black, but eye candy that can act that well is a joy forever.

 

I’m going to admit something sacrilegious to all SKK Scandalers right up front. Given the fact that most of you know me from the live recaps and translations, this might come as quite a surprise so brace yourself because it’s pretty awful. Keeping this secret inside me has nagged on my conscience ever since Thundie invited me to write this review and I just can’t keep it in anymore so here goes.

When I started watching the first episode, I fast forwarded through a great deal of it. I only liked the music because that was the one thing that didn’t confuse me. Wish I was kidding, but I had no idea what was going on or what was being said! On the first episode, I saw a scene where In Soo is wearing this headgear and lighting candles and I thought he was being crowned King. It took five episodes later (with subs) to realize he was the student body president and was preparing the rites for the start of the examination. Initially, I made a probable guess that the testing site with the mats was for a sit-in demonstration.

It gets worse. I never knew any character names until episode five. I really thought Sun Joon’s name was Whang So Bang for the first few episodes and memorized it like that. At the time, I remember thinking it was the worst name for such a cute character and thought the writer must’ve been high to go with that. But nothing beat my disappointment at realizing that Song Joong Ki was playing a bad guy, a sort of spy for the guy I thought was King at the time. My heart fell with disappointment because I wanted Joong Ki to be on the good side.

You have to understand; this was the first sageuk drama I had ever seen without subtitles. The words just went right over my head so I was like a five year old watching Gandhi and trying to figure out the story just based on acting and expressions. Everything they said sounded like “blah blah blah” and I strained my ears to catch even one or two familiar words.

Out of that haze of confusion, only one thing was crystal clear. I knew without a doubt that Yoon Hee was a girl posing as a boy and that last scene where Sun Joon holds her tight made me determined to tune into the second to see if he realizes he was holding a girl. To make matters even worse, I almost stopped watching after the end of the second episode because Jae Shin barely had any screen time and I missed the “hot ruffian” (that is what I dubbed him at the time).

Gradually, I started getting accustomed to the old language with the aid of subtitles and realized that it wasn’t that hopeless of a cause after all to understand a few lines here and there all on my own. Then I decided to start sharing my new found knowledge even before subtitles came out and my first spot translation on Soompi was for Episode seven and that’s where my story begins.

Now that you know the truth about my rocky start with SKKS, I can continue with a clear conscience. When I choose to watch a drama, I tend to follow my instincts. Some scene or line catches my attention just mildly or grabs hold for dear life. The first emotional pull was when Yoon Hee frees her brother and touches his face where he had been beaten and he says reassuringly, “It’s really good that I’m still able to do something for you. My heart never felt this at ease in my whole life like today.”

It began with a series of scenes that tugged at my heart like that and then in episode five, it took hold. Not a firm grip, but enough to give me the feeling that his show might end up mattering to me. Little did I know to what extent at the time.

In retrospect, I should have seen the signs. They were coming more frequently and to a greater degree each episode. The bromance between Jae Shin and Yeorim was intoxicating on episode four when Yeorim wouldn’t stop manhandling him. When Jae Shin grabbed Yoon Hee and chivalrously knocked her down before In Soo’s arrow found its mark on her shoulder or head, the look of shock on his face holding her in his arms made me sit up and take notice and the look on my face mirrored his. Something inside me went, “Uh oh, this drama is going to be trouble.”

By the end of episode five, I was pretty much a goner. I knew I would tune in next week for certain. Then during the archery tournament, I was hooked. What should have bored the crap out of me with any other cast made me want more and then the last few minutes where Jae Shin discovers her identity floored me; no other drama has ever left me speechless from just how perfectly that scene played out. That is until the next episode when all the comedy ensued and I knew then that this show had me in a vice grip and there was no escape from there on. Pretty sure I am going to continue feeling this pull for years to come.

It wasn’t just that it had an intriguing storyline, impeccable actors, breathtaking cinematography, stirring OST, but it had them in spades and then some. It took what should have been trite and turned it into a mesmerizing hour or so that transported every character into our hearts and lives and we hung on every word, every gesture, and every bewitching gaze (except for Yoon Hee’s — well at least not for me, but if you did, uhmm no judgment — more power to you).

This drama ruined any future ones for me because the inevitable comparison will happen. It’s going to be nearly impossible to match the caliber of this drama where everything was filmed with so much wonder and delight and I had never seen anything executed so brilliantly. It proved that a formula for a great show can fail miserably from the get-go (like Playful Kiss) or soar to new heights like this, well beyond anyone’s expectations.

I can tell you that as of this moment, SKKS is fighting for the top spot on my all time favorite drama list. (The other contenders pushing and shoving for that honor as well are in order Coffee Prince, My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, and You’re Beautiful, but SKKS is inching closer and closer to the top every time I see another MV about MJS and his angst.) Before SKKS, MGIAG held the top spot in my heart and I was pretty certain nothing would change because I had already fallen head over heels in love with it, but SKKS made me cheat and stole my heart away with all the winking, hiccupping, back hugging, hats colliding, fighting over sleeping spots, etc.

Now that it has ended, the other day I realized what the scandal in the title means and it made me realize just how misleading titles can be sometimes. Just look at these definitions – disgraceful or discreditable action, an offense caused by misdeed, damage to reputation, malicious gossip, person whose conduct brings offense — and your mind whirls with what all the supposed scandals actually were.

There are layers on top of layers about why they called it a scandal. Just the premise itself that a woman dared to pose as a man to enter Sungkyunkwan doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. SKKS is a misnomer because I don’t define some of the scandals in this drama as something negative at all. She broke the rules because she was tricked into it by Sun Joon and ordered to by the King. She was an unwilling participant in the start, but soon came to realize she was not only qualified to stay, but also earned her right to remain. Isn’t it more disgraceful to treat women as inferior and not let women study with men? How about Moon Jae Shin masquerading as HBS to spread his messages? Would you call Yeorim’s doting love for Jae Shin crossing the lines of friendship or defend it as acts of brotherly love? Could those really be construed as scandalous behavior?

The real scandal makers were Ha In Soo and his father. Everything In Soo did from publicly ridiculing Yoon Hee for being poor in front of the whole school, accusing Moon Jae Shin and Yoon Hee of being gay, and openly outing Yeorim for his lack of credentials could all be deemed disgraceful actions.

Most scandalous of all was In Soo’s father’s reprehensible disregard for life when he decided to kill Yoon Hee’s father and Moon Jae Shin’s brother. By killing her father and Jae Shin’s brother, he deprived a daughter of her right to know her father and tragically cut short a younger brother’s bond with a brother he adored, thereby throwing the child into a lifelong search for purpose. There is nothing more criminal and unpardonable than that.

 

Thoughts on the cast and the acting? Who shone the brightest?

 

When I first heard the casting news, I was beyond apprehensive.

I’ve always found Song Joong-ki to be adorable in his past works, and had no doubt that he’d be able to play a convincing playboy. However, there was a big question mark concerning the remaining three members of the Joseon F4. I’ve seen Yoo Ah-in in a number of his past works (Sharp, The Man Who Can’t Get Married, and Antique Bakery) playing a scrawny boy-man. Although he only played minor supporting roles in all these works, it is also true that he never blew me away. I was uncertain how charismatically he could pull off a rebel character, although I did hear that he turned in an impressive showing on Strongest Chil Woo.

I wasn’t very familiar with Park Min-young’s work, except for the couple of episodes I caught of her debut sitcom Unstoppable High Kick. My main concern for her was as shallow as whether she could “look” the part of a girl cross-dressing as a boy. But not surprisingly, the biggest cause of alarm was the casting of DBSK’s Micky Yoochun in his first leading role, and of all things, in a sageuk! I have a pretty high tolerance for less-than-stellar acting, but I also learned over the years that bad acting gets magnified in a sageuk (ahem, Han Hyo-joo, I’m looking at you), and this could really test my patience.

Thus, I approached the first episode with caution. With the introduction of each of the soon-to-be Jalgeum Quartet members, my concern was appeased. Yoo Ah-in oozed charisma the instant he appeared on-screen (and I swear, my opinion has nothing do with the fact that he bared his chest in his first appearance). Song Joong-ki was hilariously charming with his awkward winks and his all-knowing smile.

Although it took me about two episodes to fall in love with Park Min-young’s portrayal of Yoon-hee, she eventually and completely won me over. I found Park Min-young to be not only endearing, but she actually gave much depth to Yoon-hee’s character. In particular, she shined the brightest in the quiet, unspoken moments. For instance, one of my favorite Park Min-young’s scenes was in episode 17 when Yoon-hee first learned that her father had in fact been reading to her when she was a child. As Yoon-hee gazed longingly at the screen door, I cried along with her.

But not only the main leads, all the rest of the supporting cast delivered. Of course nothing less was expected from the veteran actors (Ahn Nae-sang, Kim Kab-soo, Lee Jae-yong, and Kim Ha-gyun), and sure enough, they brought multiple dimensions to not only their own characters but to the other characters they interacted with.

I had not heard of Jo Sung-ha before Sungkyunkwan Scandal, but his warm demeanor brought to life an entirely different perspective to King Jeongjo’s character from that of his predecessors. (Interestingly, I saw a painting of what the historians believe to be the real King Jeongjo, and he shared a striking physical resemblance to the actor himself.) The rest of the younger, less-experienced actors also got the job done, although some better than the others. Most importantly, whatever the individual talent of the actors may be, they all had great chemistry with each other.

However, what would a discussion on the cast of Sungkyunkwan Scandal be without mentioning Micky Yoochun. If Lee Min-ho was the breakout actor of 2009, Micky Yoochun made 2010 his. In doing so, not only did he shatter the prejudice people held against idols-turned-actors, but he also earned himself the ticket to act again in the future.

By no means do I imply that his acting was free of flaws. So then why the praise of adoration I throw at him?

First, it must be mentioned that I was never a fan of DBSK. I was very much aware of who they were and even the names of all the members. I agreed that they were a good-looking group, and in fact, I personally found Micky Yoochun to be the most attractive of the five members. Nevertheless, their music was never to my taste, and even though I indulged in k-pop music every once in a while, I convinced myself that as long as I remained disdainful of DBSK (the epitome of the current k-pop idol culture), I’d be okay.

Second, I did not look favorably at idols going into acting. It wasn’t the idea of singers acting or even that they were somehow “less talented” than the other actors who were professionally trained in acting. On the contrary, there are many actors who’ve been acting for years and who still cannot act. What did bother me were the fans who blindly supported their idol stars, even when the acting or the drama, many times both, were clearly bad.

And so with these two biases against him, I watched the first episode half-heartedly, ready to drop the show at the first sign of boredom, but also with the eyes of a hawk toward Micky Yoochun, almost fully anticipating his acting to go wrong.

My first reaction to seeing him on-screen was surprise at how scholarly he looked in his hanbok. But the bigger surprise came once he opened his mouth. You see, I come from an old school of thought in believing that a sageuk needs to sound like a sageuk. With the influx of fusion sageuk dramas in recent years (of which Sungkyunkwan Scandal is one), many actors could get away without ever having to learn the distinctive voice tone and voice control of the traditional sageuk speech. This is understandable.

Even so, the public still expects certain characters (for example, those serving in the royal court) to speak in the sageuk tone in order for them to have the appearance of authority and command. Those who have failed to do so have been targets of acting criticism from the Korean audience. This is easier said than done when even many veteran actors struggle with getting the sageuk speech right. If done incorrectly, it only highlights any acting deficiencies they may have. (By the way, who else is looking forward to seeing how Kam Woo-sung handles the sageuk speech in King Geunchogo? This is one man who can act, but whose voice is not suited for a sageuk at all. He was able to get away with it playing a street entertainer in The King and the Clown, but to do so again playing a king? Hmm, this I got to see. But I digress.)

So imagine my surprise when this young, inexperienced idol-turned-actor totally nailed the voice tone and control of a sageuk speech.

Whereas others criticized that Micky Yoochun’s expressions looked stiff and emotionless, I thought this suited the stoicism of the ideal Confucian scholar. Speaking of proprieties and customs in his textbook-perfect sageuk speech and in his serious, stoic face, Yoochun painted exactly who his Lee Sun-joon’s character was supposed to be. I was sold! And what a beautiful contrast this initial portrayal of Lee Sun-joon would be to the man he changes into after he meets Kim Yoon-hee. It wasn’t some grand emotional break down scene, but in small moments when Lee Sun-joon’s inner thoughts seeped through and his perfect façade broken, whether in a small eye-roll or a gentle smile, that made me scream in delight, “Yes, he GETS it!”

 

Of course, I love the entire cast, because they collective gave me the ultimate crack experience, but of the older generation, I especially loved King Jeongjo, played by Jo Seong-Ha [조성하], Jeong Yak-Yong by Ahn Nae Sang [안내상], and Lee Jeong-Moo by Kim Gap-Soo [김갑수].

These three characters really rang true to me the old saying ‘군사부일체 (君師父一體)’ or ‘King, Teacher, and Father as One Body’. It was a concept I personally experienced in my early school days, and these three helped me relive the excitement of being a student again. With proper guidance, there is not a thing in the world that could stop one’s quest for knowledge and understanding.

The acting expertise of these three veterans also made me completely forget about their other roles in previous dramas, and I was completely in love with this Jeongjo, and that tease behind his eyes, that says, “Go ahead, shake your king’s hand, I don’t bite,” and Professor Jeong’s silence, that screamed “You are not being true to yourself and I know!” as well as Councilor Lee’s courage to take the blame, in his attempt to protect his son. How I love these three, and how I miss my own father through them.

But the one that really shone like none other has to be Micky Yoochun [믹키유천], who played Lee Seonjoon. Yes, he’s still a newbie, and he’s not completely skilled, but what he possessed and delivered was the perfect aura of a Confucius scholar that completely bewitched me, like I was in 2007 by Kim Myung Min as Dr. Jang in 하얀거탑 [White Tower]. And what astonished me even beyond this powerful first impression, was the transformation I saw in the character Lee Seonjoon, from the boy who ruled by reason, to the man who ruled by his heart and soul. I saw his gaze soften, and I smiled his smiles and cried his tears, and it was completely heartwarming.

Micky Yoochun might not have the acting repertoire of some of the more veteran actors, but I think he really got this one. His portrayal of Lee Seonjoon was believable and endearing to me, unlike Kang Ji-Hwan [강지환] in 쾌도 홍길동 [Hong Gil Dong], and unlike Eric in 최강칠우 [Mighty Chil Woo]. (However, I did love both Kang Ji-Hwan and Eric in other dramas, such as 커피하우스 [Coffee House] and 케 세라 세라 [Que Sera Sera].)

Yoochun was destined to play the role of Scholar Lee Seonjoon and any other actor playing this role would’ve made it less convincing to me. I am not sure what will become of Yoochun’s acting career after this, but he owned this role and he owned this drama. It was his to shine.

 

This is the part where me and my two brain cells would fail miserably. We’re very much noobs when it comes to dramas. I stick to rom-coms. I avoid melodramas, bawling my eyes out just isn’t my idea of entertainment. The only sageuk I’ve seen are Hong Gil Dong and thirty episodes of Jumong.

But despite my limited drama viewing habits, I believe they have picked actors best suited for each role. There may be better actors but I never found myself wishing somebody else was in it instead. Our J4 fit into their roles.

Two people who were always spot on are Yoo Ah In and Song Joong Ki. They’re every bit Guh-ro and Yeorim. Jae Shin’s bashful smiles whenever Yoon Hee flashes her pearly whites, and the awkward nobleman look in episode 19 were priceless. The Gu Yong Ha could have easily been annoying but Song Joong Ki gave him just the right charm. I can’t think of a moment where these two were sub par.

Even Jeon Tae Soo, laughable evil laugh aside, fit into Ha In Soo. He knows only two expressions (evil and eviler) but that’s pretty much what the character requires. He did show a softer side with his later scenes with Ha Hyo Eun which was nice.

Micky Yoochun. So much has been said about his acting. There seem to be as much praise as there is criticism. I think he did pretty well. And nope, I’m not a Cassie. I don’t even know why DBSK fans are called Cassies (or did I misunderstood what a Cassie is?). Anyway, I came into this without any preconceived notion of who the actor was.

There are parts where Yoochun could have done better, such as when Jae Shin was trying to keep Sun Joon and Yong Ha from seeing the bathing Yoon Hee. Sun Joon could have looked a little more confused but he just looked blank. However, there also are scenes where he excelled, like when he confronted his father about the deaths of Yoon Hee’s father and Jae Shin’s brother, and when he begged his father to help Yoon Hee in the last episode.

Park Min Young was good though sometimes I wish she cried a little less. Many scenes would have been alright with tears just welling up in her eyes a little bit and not full on crying. It didn’t look like she was making any effort to hold back her tears, which is what one would expect from someone who’s supposedly a guy. But overall, she was cute and endearing. I like her a lot.

 

For a drama with such middle-of-the-road ratings, the choice of cast and quality of the acting was… well, unexpectedly stellar. While some were over-utilised, some under-utilised, and some shunted to the rather unfortunate role of the Omniscient And Omnipresent Plot Device, each – even at their eye-rolling and/or evil-cackling worst – managed to retain a certain charm.

A tip of the hat first to the elders – giants Ahn Nae Sung, playing the wise and benevolent Professor Jung, and Kim Gab Soo, whose role of the ever-pragmatic and morally ambiguous Left State Minister Lee served as the perfect foil to his naïve and stubbornly idealistic son.

Props also to Seo Hyo Rim – who gave life and spark and almost loveable quality to the otherwise irritating role of Ha Hyo Eun. When all you have to work with is a shallow, manipulative character whose obsessive actions are not only cringe-worthy, but out-and-out embarrassing to the rest of womankind (–the self-respecting part, anyway), to craft a character that is not only just-shy-of likeable, but actually relatable, is a truly commendable act.

A nod, too, to the beautiful Kim Min Seo, ruling the roost as the infamous gisaeng-cum-assassin, Sungkyunkwan Scandal’s resident femme fatale. Not only did she successfully carry the role of a strong-willed (albeit broken) heroine in her own right, but she also managed to balance a remarkable sensitivity and vulnerability with great inner strength. In stillness and shadow and the irresistible allure of feminine mystique, Kim Min Seo stole the show with the dignity of a queen.

Of course, we can’t forget our wilful heroine Kim Yoon Hee herself, played by the playful and pretty Park Min-Young. …Too pretty, perhaps, to convincingly pull off the role of a boy, but that (almost) became a non-issue in the face of her sassy and fiercely dogged character. Although there was the odd moment where her (overly) cutesy acting or fail-safe dramatically tear-filled eyes ran the real risk of grating on the nerves, and her character started getting a little too doormat apologetic for my argumentative, outspoken tastes, these moments were forgiveable in the grand scheme of things. The chemistry, for example, between her and both the first and second male-leads (and, to a lesser extent, with Song Joong-Ki) was undeniable, and boy, what sparks they made on-screen!

While panda-like manservant Soon-Dol and the adorable little page-boys in blue filled in the drama’s quota of cute, the Golden Tofu Award of Most Promising Performer can only go to Micky Yoo-Chun, in his centre-stage role of the upright, socially-inept, stick-in-the-mud Lee Sun Joon. Although his freshness and idol-stiffness was blatantly obvious and almost cringe-worthy at the beginning, Micky Yoo-Chun gradually proved that he could, in fact, hold his own beside his more experienced peers. He walked in as an idol-singer, and waltzed out an actor, and though he still might not be my idea of cute – this dedicated, hard-working and determined young man now has my complete and unwavering respect. It will be interesting to see what projects he’ll be taking onboard next.

In order to save this from deteriorating in an incoherent mess of fangirl squealing, I shall be brief on the topic of Yoo Ah-In. Yes, this boy is all kinds of hot – but it was also clear from the outset that this relative unknown wasn’t just another pretty-face. In his role of Moon Jae Shin, Yoo Ah-In was the heart, the shield and the silent protector, a mouth-watering paradox of fearsome masculinity, bashful innocence, and the occasion bout of psychological instability – and never has a Second Male Lead danced such a jig on my angst-happy heart.

And yet, despite Yoo Ah-In’s animal magnetism, the one who shone the brightest, like Venus rising in an ocean of stars, was, for me, Song Joong-Ki. While others floundered, falling flat in the occasional moments of over- or under-acting, it was as if this pretty, pretty man wasn’t even acting at all. From the twitch of his lips to the quirk of his brow, to the ever-changing glints of calculation, speculation and downright mischief in his eye – Song Joong-Ki, with his wit and verve and Wilde-worthy lines, was never far (if at all) off the mark.

His delivery? Brilliant. His timing? Almost flawless. And while I might not lust after his character (or even approve of said character’s hedonistic, playboy ways), this I must confess: with every flamboyant flourish of his fan, and every ‘I-can’t-actually-wink-but-I-know-I-still-look-cute-trying’ twitch of his eye, Song Joong-Ki was irrepressible, he was irreplaceable – he was THE Gu Yong Ha.

 

On the entirely positive side, for me the shining stars of SKKS are Yoo Ah In as Moon Jae Shin and Song Joong Ki as Gu Yong Ha. I had seen both in previous series and movies and liked them in their roles, but they really brought it here. They grabbed these roles and ran with them. I can only hope that this propels them to bigger and better things.

The entire supporting cast deserves some real kudos, but I’ll give a shout out to the grownups – Kim Mi Kyung as Yoon Hee’s mother, Ahn Nae Sang as Professor Jung Yak Yong, Jo Sung Ha as King Jeongjo and Kim Gab Soo as Left State Minister Lee Jung Moo. They really added dimension to the show. Since much of the plot had to do with each character coming to grips with their parent and how their parents choices affected their lives, the parental roles were very important. I’d almost watch any of the three men read the phone book, that’s how much I enjoyed watching them.

On the “well done guys” side, Park Min Young as Yoon Hee/Yoon Shik was probably carrying the heaviest load in the drama, and she did well. She played Yoon Shik just slightly differently than Yoon Hee – as if having played a boy for so long she put it on with the robe. Micky Yoochun turned out to be a fairly able actor, which was a relief and kind of fun.

And on the “hmmm? better luck next time” side, Jun Tae Soo as Ha In Soo had a tough row to hoe as the villain in a light saguek. But he really needs to work on his maniacal laugh and threatening stare.

 

If it wasn’t already evident from my hysteria at the end of episode 18, most of you already saw this coming:

“An act of love that fails is just as much a part of the divine life as an act of love that succeeds, for love is measured by fullness, not by reception.” — Harold Lokes.

“I would like to believe that having loved Yoon Hee will be in the end be a part of who Jae Shin is, something he can look at fondly, whether Yoon Hee will ever know this about him.”

Whoever wrote that on Soompi totally captured the essence of who Moon Jae Shin was all about and clarified what he meant to so many of us. Geol Oh and everything he stood for represented all the guys we ever had crushes on, the ones we watched from afar, admiring him from a distance, hoping the best for him, even if that meant letting him go. What he did with Yoon Hee — all that longing, guiding, and protecting — we’ve all done at one point in our lives or will do again in the future. It’s the best part of ourselves and sharing that with someone makes us more human and we are better for having shared.

Moon Jae Shin’s vulnerability at realizing his dream would never be fulfilled gave us more anguish than we dreamed we were capable of. We actually had to sit down and tell ourselves to get a grip because he doesn’t exist and we should stop caring so much. Our intellect tried to bring us back to reality, but our hearts screamed for his love to be requited.

No other character carried around so much tenderness and warmth and deserved love more. The person responsible for women all over the world sitting in front of their TVs or monitors, edging closer to get a clearer glimpse of those luscious lips and pearly whites was a name I didn’t even know at the beginning, but now I can’t stop chanting along with millions of other smitten fans.

No other character has looked so startlingly different in real life than Yoo Ah In. Boyish to the extent that he could easily pass for high school still, his thin physique doesn’t help him look any more mature. But every time he donned that wig and hanbok, his complete transformation started from the way he walked and carried himself to the way he spoke with an air of authority and confidence that completely belied his sensitivity. Yoo An In’s height magically lengthened, his shoulders broadened, and he exemplified every hero in our dreams rolled into one.

Yoo Ah In didn’t just bring Moon Jae Shin to life, he embodied him heart and soul. In almost every scene, he stole his veteran costars’ thunder and left them speechless with his dead on portrayal. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that women around the world broke records for their unfailing rapt attention during his scenes.

Watching the promotional press junkets for SKKS, I heard the name Micky for the first time and I remember thinking, “Who is this guy and why is he pulling focus away from Joong Ki?” I was one of those few who had no idea who Micky was and that is a good thing in my book. I had no preconceived expectations for his acting going in so I have a much clearer perspective of his abilities. To be completely honest, if his singing is just as good as his acting, he should find a way to do both. The guy has potential oozing out of every pore and totally had me convinced that he must have been exactly what the writer envisioned for this character and then some.

Borrowing his character’s words, I love how Yoon Hee rocked the foundation of Lee Sun Joon’s faith in what he believed the world to be and as a result left him all dusty and confused. Nevertheless, he found his way to her stumbling and fumbling every step of the way. Though he may have floundered, once he found his footing, he made haste to where she was emotionally and not only caught up with her, but surpassed her. It was beautiful to watch a man of his integrity risk ridicule and ostracism by openly admitting to others as well as to himself that he was gay to protect the one he loves.

Micky’s portrayal of Sun Joon was so exceptional, I totally believed he embraced that character and not only did he breathe life into him, I bet a part of Sun Joon is still inside of him and will live on in the accolades Micky deserves.

I always felt that Song Joong Ki had acting chops, but this was the first time I saw to what extent. His emotional outburst when he felt so pained by his friend’s lack of acknowledgement about who he meant to him was not just heart wrenching, it seemed so real and painful; we felt it just from watching and cried right along with him even with the language barrier. That connection to a character, feeling everything he is feeling so acutely can’t be just credited to his acting skills alone. I always knew there was a hidden cache of raw energy and screen presence in Joong Ki that would make any esteemed actor flub his lines and Joong Ki flashed that talent in so many scenes.

Honorable mention should go to the kid who played Bok-Dong. That scene where he watches his brother confess and tears roll down his cheeks left a lump in my throat. Give him ten years and he will be stepping into roles like his seniors. He has the budding potential to be the next generation of Micky Park, Yoo Ah In, and Song Joong Ki.

 

Your top five scenes?

 

Why five? Why not…. umm, ten? (*ducks*) Here are my top 10 scenes, in chronological order.

1. People place a huge significance to anything first. First kiss, first job, first love. And the first scene of a drama where you realize that you’re fully invested in the characters and wish to see how their stories unfold. For me, that scene was the new student welcoming initiation/rice cake scene in episode 2. How beautiful were Yoon-hee’s lines, retorting back to the senior students where in any of the books does it appear that you can look down upon humble food. But everything else just worked together as well: Yong-ha’s look of wonder as he pulled off his mask, and Sun-joon’s look of defiance as he ate the rice cake that fell to the ground. Together, this scene just simply became… magical.

2. Some of the most memorable scenes from Sungkyunkwan Scandal were the life lessons taught by the characters. In particular, the scene in which Moon Jae-shin washes Bok-dong’s feet stands out to me (episode 10). The gentle care that he took to washing Bok-dong’s feet show what kind of a character Geoloh really is. And how true was the message that he told Bok-soo standing at the back! Everything we do can become a habit, and little brothers follow the lead of the older brothers. I think these life lessons are things that I’ll remember for a long time.

3. Yoon-hee shows so much spunk in her interactions with Professor Jung. How awesome was it when Yoon-hee asked Jung Yak-yong why Joseon was in the state it was in, when it was governed by the able men who were qualified to be government officials (episode 10). You go, girl!

4. The following scene is one in which I initially dreaded when I first read the spoiler, but it was so tastefully done that it became one of my favorite scenes. It is the scene when Sun-joon wakes up at the infirmary after getting injured in the Jangchigi Tournament and all he sees and remembers is Yoon-hee (episode 13). I knew the dreaded proposal to Hyo-eun was coming up, but when I saw the agony Sun-joon was going through, it just made the situation that much more heart-breaking. Take note, this is how a flashback sequence can be put to good use. (Fangirl moment – And how gorgeous were Micky Yoochun’s eyelashes as he kept batting his eyes?!)

5. In a romantic comedy, I want to be able to at least like, if not relate, to the female protagonist. Personally, I love how jaded and practical Yoon-hee is. One of the best examples of Yoon-hee’s practical nature is shown in the scene where she calls the Hongbyukseo a fool for writing his messages using difficult Chinese characters that the commoners and women cannot read and understand (episode 13). One of the greatest strengths of writer Kim Tae-hee is her attention to details, and this characteristic is often times shown directly through Yoon-hee.

6. The sleep arrangement fight between Jae-shin and Sun-joon (episode 16) was a great fan-service scene, but hey, I’ll take it! When two grown men (and Sungkyunkwan scholars, at that!) resort to butt-pushing to get a chance to sleep next to the girl they like, I call that a great television moment. And Sun-joon’s “come hither” look… priceless!

7. How can so much be communicated with nothing being said at all? Here are my reasons on why the date scene between Sun-joon and Yoon-hee (episode 17) is one of my favorite scenes: Yoon-hee’s look of self-consciousness and regret as she compares her own garb to the other “couples” and the women dressed in female attires; Sun-joon’s total obliviousness to it all, smiling giddily as if he’s on cloud number nine; and Sun-joon trying yeot (Korean toffee) for his first time, only to accidentally stick it too far into his mouth. The yeot scene, in particular, never fails to make me laugh, no matter how many times I re-watch it. Anyone who has ever tried yeot would know that it is very hard and sticky. Micky Yoochun did a perfect job in showing the precious doryunnin, Sun-joon, eating a commoner’s food like yeot for the first time and the hilarious food accident that ensues. Once again, it’s not some grand action, but tiny details like this that makes Sungkyunkwan Scandal so charming.

8. Somebody, please find me a gaht! Even after the 20th time watching this scene, I still hold my breath and tightly grab my collar every time Sun-joon unties and removes Yoon-hee’s gaht (elevator kiss scene in episode 17) because it feels like he’s removing my own clothes (OMG, did I just say that out loud?!). Let’s move on…

9. If the yeot scene is one that never fails to make me laugh, the scene where Yoon-hee first learns that her father purposely read to her as a child is one that never fails to make me cry (episode 18). How great is her father, Professor Kim Seung Hun, yeah?

10. There have been many k-dramas in the past where a male lead begged the female not to leave him. But Lee Sun-joon’s back hug scene in episode 18 was one of the sincerest one I’ve seen. “If it’s possible, I want to turn back time and pay you back for all the privileges I enjoyed. So, please forgive me.” It’s heart wrenching. It’s raw. And oh my golly, it was beautiful.

 

Lesson One:
Seonjoon denouncing everyone as a participant in overall corruption, at the “sogwa” test plaza. He had no reason to speak up like that, except that he needed to, because he had a conviction. And the one who propelled him to speak up? Kim Yoonshik (Yoonhee). Their fate as the OTP couple was sealed for me right there and then.

Lesson Ten:
When our witty Yoonhee (Park Min Young) asks Professor Jeong (Ahn Nae Sang), why the state of Joseon is in such plight, when in fact it’s been ruled by the men who so qualified to rule a nation. Sure, my feminist heart rejoiced, but it made me love our heroine so much for her courage and her sweet sarcasm.

Lesson Sixteen:
The “butt fight” between Seonjoon, the son of Noron leader, and Jaeshin (Yoo Ah-In), the son of Soron leader. It’s so childish but it reminded me how childish in a simple sense love can be, and how childish in its fights politics can be.

Lesson Nineteen:
When Yeorim (Song Joongki) spoke up at the Sungkyunkwan student council meeting, and confessed he was a fake noble, but that his real offense was feeling shameful for not being a noble. I loved Yeorim from the get-go but this episode had me worshipping him. I was touched and teary by his words, but I felt relieved and elated.

Lesson Twenty:
The last scene. He got on top. They shrieked. Priceless! It was the ultimate honest fun. I watched it about 50 times. Okay, it was more like 100.

 

1. Yoon Hee, The Bathing Beauty
Jae Shin at his hiccupping finest. Yong Ha out to seek the truth, justice, and a bathing naked lady. Ok, not the naked lady (or so he claims). Sun Joon just out to seek Yoon Shik. There’s several things wrong with this scene: the aforementioned Sun Joon’s blank face, the tub at an angle where you can’t see it from the door, and how did Yoon Hee climb those narrow shelves without toppling it over? But Yoo Ah In and Song Joong Ki are so good they turned this into the Guh-ro and Yeorim comedy show. This was the scene that cemented Sungkyunkwan Scandal as my Drama Crack of the Year.

2. The Girl Pretending To Be A Boy Pretends To Be A Girl
Or, the girl pretending to be a boy pretends to be a boy pretending to be a girl. Which triggered a whole flood of emotions out of the boy who thinks the girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl is really a boy that’s too pretty he looked like a girl.

Excuse me while I try to revive one of my brain cells. This is too convoluted for her to handle. But I’m doing a real bad job with the mouth to cell resuscitation because I could not stop laughing!

Alright, brain cell revived and what does she ask?

“How in the world did Yoon Hee find a gisaeng outfit, get herself dolled up and find Sun Joon in less than half the time it takes for you to get ready in the morning?”

I don’t care! I love the cuteness and the absurdity of it. Sun Joon’s face was so precious I couldn’t care less if Yoon Hee came looking like she’s from Cirque de Soleil. The couple realizing they were holding hands and abruptly pulling away was just icing on the cake.

I just wish Jae Shin also saw Yoon Hee in her gisaeng garb. But then, he would have keeled over from a severe case of hiccups and Yong Ha would be eulogizing the Red Messenger by episode 11. That drastically changes the storyline, I guess.

3. The Bedroom Shenanigans
I can fill my quota of favorite episodes with just the sleeping arrangements. Guh-ro kicking Yoon Hee into the middle spot was a hoot. The same Guh-ro stuffing his mouth with Yoon Hee’s handkerchief trying to muffle his hiccups, and grabbing Sun Joon some episodes later when Yoon Hee got a little too close for comfort. Yoon Hee discovering Sun Joon’s Joseon porn.

Then, there is The Battle For Middle Earth.

Ok, it was just the middle spot. But you’d think it was Middle Earth at stake, what with the butt and back shoving. I knew there would be a scene like this, where Sun Joon and Jae Shin both try to claim the middle spot and I imagined Yong Ha would get into the mix somehow. But even that anticipation did not dampen the fun because it was so well executed. Comedic timing of both actors was flawless. Sun Joon silently coaxing Yoon Hee to his side was adorable. I can’t tell if Yong Ha was really scared of gumihos or if he’s just making it up, but bonus points for what felt like a shout out to Mi-Ho and Woong-ah (to me, at least).

4. Father and Child
This took the most time to write. It was hard to pick just one scene and even harder to find the words to describe them.

Lee Sun Joon and his father.

The scene where Sun Joon confronts his father about the death of Professor Kim and Student President Moon Young Shin was quite moving. I first saw it raw but it was so powerful I didn’t need subs to feel it. Micky Yoochun did a great job conveying the hurt Sun Joon felt when he realized the father he looked up to was not that honorable of a man. In a lot of ways he felt betrayed and it’s in his eyes, his face and overall demeanor. Even his posture when he stood up to leave has this sense of defeat, like he is at a loss for what to do.

And just when I thought the Sungkyunkwan gods have given us all, they give us a desperate Lee Sun Joon in the last episode, begging his father to save the woman he loves. Even my brain cells were crying.

The Shadow Behind The Door.

Here, a father laments that his daughter, for all her talent and intellect is limited by a society that offered so few opportunities for women. Would it be right to encourage learning when she may not be allowed to realize her full potential? I feel for the father who felt helpless, and the daughter who never knew how much her father agonized for her sake. Completely heart-wrenching.

5. The End
It wasn’t easy choosing which kiss (or almost kiss) is my favorite. The library kiss was wonderful. I melted with the elevator kiss. The hat-thwarted kiss was both hilarious and poignant. Those wide brimmed hats wasn’t just a physical barrier to intimacy. As long as Yoon Hee wears that hat, it would be difficult for them to have a real relationship.

My favorite wasn’t really about the kiss. True to form, Lee Sun Joon consults a book to please his wife in bed. Big mistake that I watched this on my train ride to work. It took every ounce of my being to keep myself from bursting out laughing. Sun Joon, you read Sex For Dummies before you hop into bed. Not while you’re at it.

Brain Cell #1: What’s with the ultra-powerful candles? Blow one out and it’s completely dark. So all that light came from one itty-bitty flame?

Me: Aaaahhhhhhh shut up!!

 

Memory, it seems, is a rather fickle thing. Often the moments you swear you’ll remember forever fade away into the recesses of your mind, leaving only half-formed, hazy impressions behind. Instead, it is the random and utterly unexpected things that leave the deepest imprints – the smell of freshly baked banana-bread from a tiny bakery in Berlin, the dent in the backseat of a temperamental old Ford, ‘Freedom’ scrawled in bold, capital letters on the hot sand of a deserted beach.

It is the same, I think, with Sungkyunkwan Scandal. With almost every scene of its twenty episodes semi-memorable in its own way, I hardly knew which ones to pick. Five? Just five?! I could name a hundred!

“Oi. How can I sleep with all this noise?!” —With tantalising glimpses of a tanned, leanly-muscled chest, enter the Knight-in-clothes-worthy-of-industrial-grade-bleach.

“If it is a miracle you need, then I will make one.” —A challenge, a declaration, and quite possibly the most powerful words we will hear Lee Sun Joon speak.

“We’ve been friends for ten years… did you really think I wouldn’t know the truth in your eyes? …Do you really think so little of me?” —Whether it be unshakeable friendship or undying love, Yong Ha proves – in a rare moment of raw and gritty honesty – that no Joseon pair has a relationship which runs so deep.

Not knowing where to start, and on the verge of cranking out the trusty pros-and-cons list for my top fifty contenders, I decided it was probably wiser (and more efficient) to just close my eyes and pick the first five scenes that popped into my head.

…But for some inexplicable reason, there was really only one that jumped out from the clamour of the rest.

“Every time I think of Father, a cool breeze passes over my heart, because every time Father sat you on his knee and read to you inside, my place was always outside, in the cold. So every time I think of Father, I can never recall his face. I only remember the silhouette I saw from my place outside the door.”

“But, Noona, do you not know? Father always read in the loudest voice he could, right in front of the door. I never understood a word of the difficult texts he read to me, because Father – he was really reading to you.”

Despite all the tender and touching and heart-breaking scenes in the drama, it was this scene that genuinely made me cry (…and when I mean ‘cry’, I mean big, fat teardrops rolling down my cheeks in a crowded library, at midday, in full view of at least thirty people). I cried because even though romantic love is the most celebrated, romanticised form of love – the stuff of ballads, and legends and epic stories – this love, the simple, understated love of a father for his daughter, is the kind of love that truly moves mountains.

‘It pains me to see my daughter’s knowledge flourish. As a teacher, the child’s talent should fill my heart with joy. But for a daughter who has no possibility of progressing in this world, is it right to teach her such ambition and passion? As the helpless father who is unable to give his prodigious child that opportunity, holding my breath as I listen to the voice of my daughter reading, I can only weep silently in my heart.’

This simple scene between sister and brother, and the revelations that unfold as Yoon Hee reads over her father’s memoirs for the first time, illustrates the drama’s well-intentioned (if not always well-executed) themes of equality and empowerment, of the desperate struggle of a woman in a paternalistic society fighting for recognition and worth. As a feminist, and as a young Asian woman, even now, still straining against the age-old traditionalist values of China’s Confucian past, this is truly heartening to see. Because no matter how much they tell us ‘you’ll never be good enough’, we are. We are. As daughters, as mothers, as wives, as women – we really are beautiful, we really are capable, and we really do have worth.

 

1) Jae Shin discovering Yoon Shik was a girl – that whole sequence of scenes from him first checking to see if anyone was in the incense hall through the handkerchief stuffed in his mouth to prevent hiccups to the “Malaria….I think I have malaria” scene in bed the next morning is just priceless. This is episode 8 which is a gift from the drama gods.

2) Yoon Hee bringing home the scraps that In Soo had insultingly given her, hugging her mother and giving medicine to her brother. It was a scene that was so sweetly performed.

3) Yong Ha trying to stop Jae Shin from going into an obvious trap. It revealed more about both of them than nearly any other scene in the show. It showed Yong Ha’s depth of friendship, and the intelligence and loyalty he had been hiding beneath a veneer of frivolity. It also revealed Jae Shin’s commitment, even knowing that it was a trap, and his appreciation for Yong Ha’s friendship that he normally would hide beneath annoyance.

4) Jae Shin and Yoon Hee up in the tree, when he tells her what his brother had said about the school opening, not on the palace, but on the poorest section of town. First of all, this scene is beautifully shot with a lovely pull away. Secondly, at this point, he knows perfectly well he’s playing second fiddle, and he still is who he is, the surprisingly intelligent, handsome as anything, gentle Crazy Horse who cares about her. Third, he looked very, very handsome here. It was a little moral of the day-ish, but I’m a veteran of Japanese school doramas and their moral of the story lessons.

5) And lastly, a brief little scene with King Jeongjo and Professor Jung watching the destruction of the black market shops by the police. Professor Jung asks the King about what he thought this would teach the four students, and the King’s reply revealed his bitterness at his own inability to effect change. That brief scene gave gravity to the whole investigation endeavor and to his stated desire to teach these four students and leave a legacy beyond the factionalism he was facing. Okay, this was very lesson of the day but hey, the King and the Prof did it so well.

The curious thing about those five scenes is that the OTP (one true pairing) is nowhere in sight. It’s the rest of the story — the supporting cast and characters — that is memorable for me. Now, the hat scene was good – great use of the elevator and hat for effect – but it doesn’t make my Top 5.

 

I am going to cheat and pair up similar scenes since they resonate the same way, just for different reasons.

When Sun Joon begged his father to help save Kim Yoon Shik, the speech was perfect because it had the right balance of sentimentality and honesty and managed to waver a man as imperturbable as Sun Joon’s dad. The other one is of course Jae Shin begging his father to let Sun Joon go. The cadence in his repetition of the word “I was wrong” eloquently emphasized his desperation and the last part about not wanting to go back to the hell of hating his father was like the final nail in his speech that drove right into his father’s soul.

When it comes to Yeorim, there wasn’t a single scene he was in that I didn’t absolutely adore. No matter if he brought us to tears or made us giggle like crazy, his character added the necessary infusion of humor in an otherwise depressing moment. There was something so satisfying in the way he stood up to In Soo and said “I am telling you now that your threats no longer work on me anymore, Ha In Soo. This is Sungkyunkwan and I am Gu Yong Ha.” For someone in his position to speak down to In Soo like that, that’s what I call moxie.

What got to me was Yoon Hee’s dad scene when we hear his narration: “The helpless father who is unable to give his talented daughter that chance, holding my breath as I listen to my daughter read, I once again cry silently in my heart.” No joke, when that last word was spoken, Yoon Hee’s tears and mine synced perfectly and our tears dropped together on cue.

Every scene where Jae Shin stood silently by watching them fall deeper in love and having to pick up his broken heart over and over again made me realize that each time he did that, it was his own way of preparing himself for the inevitable. Just as he taught Yoon Hee about that tightening feeling, he held it in until he couldn’t stand it anymore, when he said “Thank you” to her, that’s when he finally let go.

Even though I am supposed to list most memorable scenes, I want to amend my earlier comment on the post and mention one scene that never happened.

After reviewing all the episodes from the start, it’s time for me to stop griping about how Jae Shin never had a moment with Yoon Hee where he could confess his feelings to her. Why? Because he got to hug her way more than Sun Joon and he had some declaration scenes that missed the mark, but at least he voiced what was in his heart each chance he got. Like these:

“That’s why I am eating with you.”
“Because it’s you, that’s why I worry.”
“Always stay within my sights because I thought I was going crazy.”

There were probably more, but that is enough for me. Besides, his inactions spoke volumes, more than any verbal declaration of love.

 

Weeks and months from now, what will you remember (or treasure) about the whole Sungkyunkwan Scandal viewing experience?

 

Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds of k-dramas. And I honestly can’t say where Sungkyunkwan Scandal stands among them. There have definitely been higher-quality dramas, no doubt. I’m not going to try to convince anyone that this was the greatest drama I’ve seen. It wasn’t. But it’s also true that there have been very few dramas that made me obsessed to the point that Sungkyunkwan Scandal made me either. I genuinely fell in love with all the characters, and wanted the best for them. Even after the drama ended, I continue to worry about the characters, wondering how their lives would have changed years later after the death of King Jeongjo. Would they have turned disillusioned? Would they no longer dream big dreams, feeling hopeless by the state of the world? Would they have turned complacent due to old age? Or did they continue to make miracles happen around them?

I remind myself that this is not normal. They’re not real people. However, Sungkyunkwan Scandal made me do things that were not normal for me. I spent countless hours every week to sub the show for others to see. I voluntarily checked into the hospital for Sungkyunkwan Scandal Addicts Anonymous (Thanks, Thundie!). I spent hours looking through Youtube, searching for new fan-made videos.

Every once in a blue moon, fictional characters are created who take a special place in our heart and continue to live on in our memories. Mr. Darcy. Anne Shirley. And now the Jalgeum Quartet members have joined in those ranks for me. “Not their shabby deaths or their short lives, but their dreams… the tomorrow of this land that they have so longingly desired. I will continue to remember this for a long time.” And this is what I take from Sungkyunkwan Scandal.

 

I know a few people in my life have been waiting to enlist me in a rehab program of some sort, but I am in no hurry to be cured from this addiction, because honestly this type of obsession-worthy drama doesn’t come very often. But now that the drama has ended, I have slowly eased back into my life, but I am living through my otherwise mundane life with a renewed attitude and a giddy spirit. I am so grateful that this drama came into my life, and healed my wounded heart, and gave me a new attitude for life, but that is not all.

I will forever treasure the online community we formed. I was reacquainted with some old friends with whom I share a deep understanding words are inadequate to describe, and I made new friends with whom I may not have a lot in common with in real life, but together, we witnessed a true phenomenon that we know in the depth of our hearts to be real and magical.

This has been one heck of a crack marathon, hasn’t it? In the land I live in, people are always labeling one another and such labeling still make me cringe at times, but I am so proud to be labeled a SKKS Pye-In, and I love that I’m in the same category as many of you, from all walks of life, and all kinds of backgrounds, from all over the world. Just like Garang, Daemul, Yeorim and Georoh overcame their labels, by finding out and standing by their true selves, I feel that we were able to unite based on the truth that we all felt in our hearts. Go and live your lives, everyone, but let no one take away the glee we have collectively experienced.

 

I come home 2am Tuesdays and Wednesdays and what do I do? I go to am-addiction and download the previous day’s episode. I wait for the download to complete, spend another half hour converting it and putting it on my iPhone to watch on the 7:35am train back to work. Yes, it’s raw, I’m not Korean, and I’m lucky if I get 3 hours of sleep. If that is not addiction I don’t know what is.

It was because of SKKS that I discovered Thundie’s Prattle. I have read Thundie’s year-end reviews on Dramabeans but I never knew she had her own blog. I must be living under a rock or something.

And because of her and SKKS, I now have this one Japanese DBSK song on an infinite loop. How in the world did I not know about DBSK until now? (Brain Cell #1: You were living under a rock, remember?)

On one of those bleary eyed Tuesday mornings, I got an email from Thundie inviting me to be a part of this epic review. Woooohooooooo!! I was so excited! I would have jumped up and down but I was on one of those double decker trains that had a really low ceiling above the seats. I would have banged my head pretty bad my two brain cells would be dead.

It’s too bad my current work load prevented me from regularly participating in the craziness. I still have a backlog of recaps here, on Dramabeans, Tofu’s and Yogurutu’s blog to read. I thank Thundie for letting me prattle here. Writing this review is one of the best things about my viewing experience. SKKS kept me sane while work is driving me nuts.

Now, I had my closest girlfriends ask their husbands if they would be able to tell if a woman disguises herself as a man.

One said it is hard to tell. There are men with slightly feminine build and if you are in a place where there shouldn’t be any women, you wouldn’t even think about scrutinizing everyone’s gender.

So, I have a friend as dense as Lee Sun Joon. (He’s pretty smart, too. But his singing is only good for noraebangs.)

The other said he’ll immediately suspect. He’ll actually have fun trying to expose her (figuratively and literally).

Gu Yong Ha, is that you?

Now, where do I find me a Moon Jae Shin?

 

Weeks, months, years from now, I will remember spinning in my room, girlish and giddy over another elusive glimpse of Moon Jae Shin’s bashfully breathtaking smile. I will remember the agony and the thrill, the crash and the euphoric bliss, the hours spent tearing my hair out at every utterly untranslatable phrase and impossible figure of speech.

But most of all I will remember all the new friends made and all the new relationships forged – all brought together by this shared love of SKKS. For it was a love (–nay, an obsession) that crossed oceans and time zones, languages and cultures – a love that transcended Sungkyunkwan Scandal itself. Because while the series may have ended, this fandom – the fandom we’ve built with our love and our tears, our speculations and rants and our major fangirl squealing – will live on.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal was more than just a drama for me – for eight weeks, two days and sixteen hours, it became my whole world. (…Oh, who am I kidding? It still is my whole world.) Sungkyunkwan Scandal rekindled my passion – not just for cute boys in period costume, but for writing, for translating, for the Chinese language – and amidst all this, my imagination soared. For the first time in my life, I wrote – I recapped – not just for myself, or for work, or for x percent of my final grade, but for the joy and pleasure and the benefit of others, and to all this, I have Sungkyunkwan Scandal to thank.

In those eight weeks, two days and sixteen hours, I lived, breathed, dreamed this show, and if that makes me pathetic, or obsessive or downright insane… you know what?? I couldn’t care less.

It’s been one hell of a ride, and I’ve loved every minute of it.

(…I hope you have, too.)

 

First, I think that Moon Jae Shin and Gu Yong Ha are going to live forever in my memory as two characters who breathed life into their surroundings. Jae Shin, in particular, raised the second lead up several notches. From the comic to the heartfelt to the downright sexy, Jae Shin became a person, not a character. When it becomes apparent that he’s hiding his intelligence under a bushel, and is nearly as observant as Yeorim, the little self-deprecating smile becomes bittersweet to watch. And when he is willing to give up looking for the mastermind behind the plotting for fear it would hurt his friends, their value to him is painfully obvious.

Yeorim, with his complex playboy puppeteer personality was played to the hilt, and Jong Soong Ki played him so very well without ever overplaying him. I honestly can’t think of another k-drama character quite like him. His role as a speaker of truth was at times startling, and at other times endearing, since he would equally turn that on himself as others. While his ability to show up in just the right place at the right time could have been hard to explain at times, in the end he was “THE Gu Yung Ha” with his informants in place, his eyes open, his mind always working. The two of them together added up to a bromance of epic proportion.

Second, this was a heck of a fun ride. Some shows are best enjoyed with company squeeing and clapping and getting silly along with you. This is one of them. Luckily, we had a fun group that was in the mood for playing along. Even the group of us who were watching together while chatting online and sniping mercilessly at the last 2 episodes were having fun. Thundie’s hospital and Softy’s live recaps were a blast. Bad Milk’s awesome novel translations, the backup subbing team that went into action to fill the void, the fanvids that were totally awesome (I’m particularly fond of the Avenue Q and Goodbye Love videos), and all the other fandom fun was a really fun experience.

And last, it had, hands down, my best moment of Mom/daughter drama bonding ever. One day, Mom had finished watching episode 10 earlier and we were sitting at dinner. She looked up, and rather randomly said, “You know, that girl on that school show is falling for the wrong guy. She should be falling for that nice Jae Shin boy.” A few minutes later, after I peeled myself off the floor, I had to agree.

 

That I got to be part of the most wonderful group of devoted supporters for a drama ever and I had the privilege of getting front row seats to watch them make history with their loyal following. In the beginning there were only a hundred or two, but just like me, after episode five the numbers started to rise exponentially and towards the last few weeks, the numbers climbed past 700 during the broadcast and that was just Soompi’s numbers.

SKKS is centered around a beautiful love story that was destined to blossom to all its glory from the first moment Sun Joon held Yoon Hee in his arms. Neither may have known exactly how much they would fall for each other, but every viewer knew and so did the writer. She gave no room for anyone else in their hearts from start to finish.

This drama was a tidal wave of talents, each character undulating onto the screen, taking their turn to amaze and astound us with their brilliance and blurring the lines of fiction and the real world. Some great speech or performance might have stolen the limelight away from their costars, but they all had worthy performances they can look back on and be proud they took part.

Even though Moon Jae Shin warned us about repeating actions that could develop into habits, I didn’t listen to him. No one around the globe listened either. At that point it was like asking us to stop breathing; we made our lives revolve around that hour on Mondays and Tuesdays.

His warning echoed in my mind as I wrote this, but it has been too late for me and so many others. It has been for quite some time now. Once we fell in love with this drama with all our hearts, that habit rendered us helpless and refused to let go and I want to hold onto it for as long as I can. As devoted fans, I think we earned that right.

Wow, was that a most delectable treat or what? Take a bow, blue1004, dramaok, Lei, miss_tofu, momosan and Softy!

Okay, it’s your turn now, dear readers. Comment away, thank you!

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69 thoughts on “[Epic review] Sungkyunkwan Scandal

  1. Pingback: a link to drama crack circa 2010 | Bakar Merah Red Burn

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