Sunday, 21 August 2016

KDrama Review : Sungkyunkwan Scandal

Step aside, Aqil, Fahim, Danish, and Dayyan. You're no longer my favourite quartet. For I have a new one, and that is none other than the legendary Jalgeum Quartet!!!

L-R : Yoo Ah In as Moon Jae Shin, Park Yoo Chun as Lee Seon Joon, Park Min Young as Kim Yoon Hee (in the guise of Kim Moon Shik), Song Joong Ki as Gu Yong Ha

This may or may not be my mostttt favourite photo of the Jalgeum Quartet!!!! Hilarious.

I wanted to watch Sungkyunkwan Scandal (SKKS) because of Park Min Young, duh of course. An additional reason is Baekhyun's sageuk drama is coming soon, and since I'm a sageuk virgin, I thought acclimatising myself with the genre beforehand would help me appreciate Baekhyun's drama better. SKKS seemed to me like a light, fluffy, frothy introduction to the genre. 

Frankly speaking, SKKS is a bit of a slow burn for me. It took me several failed attempts (and unintended naps) before I could get to the finishing mark of the first episode. The following 3-4 episodes weren't any less of a chore either, but I'm happy I remained seated, seatbelts fastened because afterwards the drama began to pick up its pace, and what a ride it was.

Is Park Min Young gorgeous? Absolutely. Is it easy to buy the premise that she's crossdressing as a man in 18th century Joseon era, despite possessing that illegal amount of gorgeousness on her face? I wasn't sure at first, but I think a little effort of make believe on my part (and acknowledging the fact that there are some men are out there killing my self esteem with their pretty looks, exhibit A) help to enhance my viewing experience and make her disguise more believable. Besides, her voice isn't too artificially deep, so her male portrayal isn't too disturbing to me.

I love Kim Yoon Hee right from the first episode, when it becomes known to me that she's going around - writing exam answer scripts & being substitute exam taker (both illegal) - under the pretence of her younger brother (Kim Yoon Shik) who's ill, to earn more money so that they can afford the brother's medications. Her mother struggles to fend for their family, yet Kim Yoon Hee still feels as though as the eldest child, she shoulders a fraction of the responsibility to make ends meet - it's easy to relate to her because I'm the eldest child myself. In the face of oppressive patriarchal society that deems universities & education as off-limits for women, it's a huge ordeal being a Kim Yoon Hee, hence the disguise. I love that she's not just doing this to make sure the family get by, but also because she loves knowledge. She wants it, she yearns for it, she gravitates towards it, the more she's denied of her access to it, the more badly she covets it. There's no stopping this girl from getting what she sets her mind & heart to, and my heart leaps in joy because yay for brainy girls!!! Her insatiable thirst for knowledge, though admirable, is plagued with her own doubts of whether or not she can make the world a better place, having possessed the knowledge, and then Lee Seon Joon comes along.

The self righteous, upright, skema Lee Seon Joon. As much as I dislike his character, I need to thank him for creating miracles (in his own irritating ways, no less) that allow Kim Yoon Hee (as Kim Yoon Shik) to set foot in the Sungkyunkwan Unversity - a safe haven, a sanctuary of scholars who study the tenets of Confucianism. Throughout SKKS I keep asking myself what is it about him that I actually hate, is it the Leo Seon Joon character or is it Park Yoo Chun's delivery of the Leo Seon Joon character?? I've come to the verdict that it's the former. Lee Seon Joon is so rigid and stony and confident about being right that he's written off as arrogant & so full of himself in my book, I guess that's why I'm not very fond of him. Character development takes place, of course, and his trajectory is actually quite the high arched one. He slowly becomes more flexible, more able to bend laws & rules where he sees necessary in inevitable situations, but he remains rooted to his deep seated philosophies & beliefs. His principles are tested when his own father, for whom he reserves a great deal of respect, appears to be going against what's right, and I'm glad Lee Seon Joon stays true to his character by upholding the values he believes in, unbiased. My favourite moment of his character is when he outsmarts the Student Body President, Haa In Soo, during the jaehwe, thus saving both Kim Moon Hee & Moon Jae Shin from the punishment of homosexuality and more importantly, saving Moon Jae Shin's secret Red Messenger identity from transpiring, even though at this point this fact is still unbeknownst to Lee Seon Joon. Just goes to show how much he's grown as a trustworthy friend to Moon Jae Shin. Still, even with all the development, my first impression of Lee Seon Joon remains unshaken until the end, I don't like him.

So when Kim Yoon Hee & Lee Seon Joon fall in love with each other (even while Kim Yoon Hee is still holding up her male facade), I don't really care about their romantic journey.

Because Moon Jae Shin has already stolen my heart!!! *swoons*

Haih Moon Jae Shin, you mesmerising man you.

My whole SKKS viewing experience is basically a severe case of Second Lead Syndrome. I can enumerate all the reasons Moon Jae Shin wins me over Leo Seon Joon, but I'll go on and on for at least forever, so here are some of the reasons. Moon Jae Shin is that character with a cold, hard exterior with gooey, sweet mousse surprise centre inside. And he fights. His first appearance is when he fights the bad guys to save Kim Yoon Hee, and also because the bad guys are too noisy they're disrupting his sleep lolol. I love me some man who knows what to do with his limbs to save the day, so that's strike one for me.

His hiccups whenever his female radar goes off!!! ADORABLE. Overwhelmingly adorable that his hiccups count as strike two and strike three. I'm officially in love with Moon Jae Shin.

He knows he looks good with his goatie & that mane of glory, and he flaunts it. I prefer this raw, unwashed look to his cleaned up, hair up look (in the first photo) to be honest. I don't know if hair conditioners existed in those times, but I just wish to grab the writer by her shoulders and shout "Screw historical accuracy, let Moon Jae Shin's hair be silky & soft goddamnit!" in her face. Maybe if his hair does not look like a broom, Kim Yoon Hee would actually take a second look on him, I'm just saying.

His instinctive protective nature towards people (read : Kim Yoon Hee, actually, since she has the propensity to get herself in trouble half of the time even as a guy). That apple scene. That time he throws a punch in Gu Yong Ha's face for isolating Kim Yoon Hee & Lee Seon Joon on an island because he's worried out of his mind that something might happen to Kim Yoon Hee. That top of the tree scene where he & Kim Yoon Hee look out to a bird eye's view of the city, and he opens up about his brother. That scene of he & Lee Seon Joon fighting for a sleeping spot in their cute attempt to protect Kim Yoon Hee from each other, hahaha. 

If Lee Seon Joon's specialty is his wisdom, then Moon Jae Shin's specialty is pulling at the right heart strings of people into doing things as he wishes them to. A lot of scenes exemplify this, but the ones that come to my mind now are a) when he convinces that child to confess that he's the real theft culprit and b) when he apologises to his father for thinking that his sadness is greater than that of his father and for assuming that his father does not love his brother as much as he does, so that his father does not use the allegation of Lee Seon Joon being the Red Messenger as an opportunity to seek his revenge towards Lee Seon Joon's father. Man, Moon Jae Shin can talk me into eating taugeh any day. 

My heart aches and bleeds and breaks and tears into a gajillion necrotic muscle tissues when the writer does not give Moon Jae Shin a chance at all to confess his feelings to Kim Yoon Hee. As if the many times that he goes out of his way to protect Kim Yoon Hee, only to have Lee Seon Joon's final act to steal that knight in shiny armour title, aren't bad enough of a fate for my Moon Jae Shin. It's just tragic and unjust to do that to such a marvellous character. Why you like that to my Moon Jae Shin, writer-nim? Wae?! I can count the number of times I cry during SKKS; my eyes tear up a little whenever Park Min Young cries her pretty cry, but my eyes go all out torrent whenever Moon Jae Shin hurts himself, physically & emotionally :( The only good thing about Kim Yoon Hee not loving Moon Jae Shin is that I get Moon Jae Shin to myself!!! Kim Yoon Hee, your loss, boo (cue flying kisses).

I can toooootally imagine Gu Yong Ha saying that previous sentence!!! Ugh, Moon Jae Shin is my favourite character of SKKS (surprise, it's not Kim Yoon Hee), but Gu Yong Ha comes a close second. Sassy, fabulous, funny, fashionable. Man, Song Joong Ki's delivery of Gu Yong Ha is sublime. I didn't expect him to be this phenomenal (especially after having seen him up until episode 9 of Descendants of The Sun & being completely let down by the plot. Couldn't find the will to finish that drama). I love that he reads people like an open book (though I think he hardly reads, haha), and sees right through their lies & pretences. Even after his suspicion of Kim Yoon Hee being a girl is confirmed, he doesn't lose his shit & parade around telling people about it. And when he finds out about the love triangle, he doesn't choose any sides - he loves Moon Jae Shin obviously, but he doesn't pave the way for his good friend to get the girl and block Lee Seon Joon's path) - but rather, he gives genuine advice to both Moon Jae Shin & Lee Seon Joon to be true to themselves & their feelings. Ugh love him. Love how people come to consult & seek advice from him because they can always count on him. Love that scene where he complains about wearing black hanbok not being fashionable enough for him & making him look like the Grim Reaper hahaha. And every twirl he makes. And every smirk and wink. And his iconic "I'm Gu Yong Ha" line that works like magic to cast away everyone's worries. But most importantly, love his bromance with Moon Jae Shin!!! Honestly the BEST thing of SKKS ok, hands down, end of discussion. That scene where he just latches himself onto Moon Jae Shin and tells him "It's been a long day without you", ughhhh yes, one bromance of epic proportions for me juseyo.

As much as I love SKKS and the Jalgeum Quartet, I have a few problems with this drama. The main one being the initial response when the other characters learn of Kim Yoon Hee's real identity & her crime.

First, Lee Seon Joon's reaction. What. The. Hell. I understand that he may be washed away with relief once he realises that he's not gay (thus not having to bear the ridicule & discrimination that would follow if he actually is, in those times), that his love is not forbidden, that there is a ray of hope for him of a happily ever after, but to accept the fact that Kim Yoon Hee has lied to him and done disgrace to Sungkyunkwan University oh so easily, is just out of character. And a waste of dramatic potential. His angst is there and I want to see him sort out his affection & principles that he grasp tightly, I want to see him dissecting his own emotions & ideals in depth, but he goes from being in Shock stage to Acceptance stage in like, what, 0.3 seconds? Ridiculous. Writer-nim you can't use the flux of human's emotions to make characters hop out of the central conflict, you have to make them work their way through it, that's how characters grow!! Even Moon Jae Shin's reaction (his hiccups! Cuuute) to the great reveal is treated with greater care. All the more reason to root for Moon Jae Shin (read : We're now moving on to terminal stage of Second Lead Syndrome, where there's no chance of recovery, but I only hope to survive).

And then there's the King's reaction. WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. HELL. At first he's furious, and then.... He's just... Not angry anymore??? His wrath just evaporates into thin air? Like magic?? I'm sorry is this sageuk or fantasy sageuk?! He just lets it slide??? He's like, okay Kim Yoon Hee you been naughty trespassing the uni, but I'll let you off this one time, don't do this anymore ok? Okay cun. Um hello excuse you tak cun at all!! If Lee Seon Joon's angst is poorly glossed over with his love for Kim Yoon Hee, what's the King's alibi then? It makes no sense AT ALL. Ugh I'm so pissed off.

And then the ending?? That vague thing is called an ending??

THE KERNEL OF THIS DRAMA IS THE IDEA THAT A GIRL IS DISGUISING AS A MAN & BREAKING THE LAW WHILE DOING THAT, and we know that she's sure to be beheaded because the idea is that in those times, men > women, and the main engine that drives the drama is the question of whether or not Kim Yoon Hee can make the world a better place by putting an end to this inequality, but what I get is

A quick, lazy, half-hearted, sloppy, cincai solution to conclude the dilemma.

The dilemma that stretches on for 19 episodes long, gets resolved in the last 15 minutes of the 20th episode by burning the vital historical relic that Kim Yoon Hee recovered (read : invalidating all of Kim Yoon Hee's effort, reducing her to a titural character who adds no values/wisdom to the King's reign). 

I read up about Confucianism because of SKKS. I read up about Korean history because of SKKS. I read up about Geum Deung Ji Sa because of SKKS. I read up about Crown Prince Sado because of SKKS.

Do you understand the magnitude of my disappointment?

At this point, it's no longer about historical accuracy. This is the pivotal point to challenge the ideology of gender & class, yet the writer just turns her back to me & lets Kim Yoon Hee be a professor at the university as a man and Gu Yong Ha a fashion consultant and Moon Jae Shin a grammar teacher running on roofs and Lee Seon Joon a jealous husband. Might as well stab me in the chest, that'll hurt less than this betrayal. But for there to be betrayal, there has to have been trust first, and I did trust this drama, I had faith & I saw the potential. The build up is good and then it just... Bails on me. You know what, I can come to terms with what was done to my Moon Jae Shin's silent & buried love, but to refuse to answer the drama's theme on issues that are still relevant in this day in many parts of the world, is an act of cowardice. It makes the Jalgeum Quartet's fight throughout the whole drama seem like an exercise of futility. 


So is SKKS flawed? Yes. But do I love it? You're damn right I do! And I love it a lot. I love how everyone of the Jalgeum Quartet has their own inner conflicts & their own dreams - Kim Yoon Hee with the men-women equality, Lee Seon Joon with his filial piety vs moral code issue, Moon Jae Shin with his quest for the justice his brother deserves, Gu Yong Ha with a classless community he wishes to see in the future (basically all the issues that are touch based by the writer-nim, but not properly addressed, hmph eksyen je). They're each fighting their own war, but they fight together & help each other to become the better versions of themselves. It's like they're all just mediocre individually, but together, they make quite the amazing combo (except for Gu Yong Ha, he's born fab, so his fabulosity prevails with or without the other three). Even Ha In Soo's character has many fascinating layers, especially in that archery game tournament thingy. People in the comment section on Dramabeans were up in arms about it, some believed that Ha In Soo's failure to score a perfect 10 at the final shot was a momentary lapse of judgement, while some others believed that it was a deliberate, precisely calculated mistake to swallow his pride & appear as the better man in Cho Seon's eyes. While I belong to the latter group, it's interesting to see how that one same scene can rouse different emotions & interpretations in different people, and this reminds me again how wonderful KDramas are. There's no one way to look at things.

This drama is a pleasant surprise for me. SKKS carries a lot more dimensions, depth and substance than I initially thought. The ending ruins it, but am I going to let it negate the fun & joy that Jalgeum Quartet gives me? No. 19 good episodes and 1 bad episode, that doesn't sound so bad. Highly recommended to anyone who's thinking of a gateway to sageuk genre! :)

A word of advice to the writer, as Moon Jae Shin would say it : don't set a huge potential in motion but not deliver it fully. If you keep doing that, it'll become a habit. I still love SKKS though, so thank you. I apologise if my words up there sound derogatory & malicious, but please tell me I'm not the only one who's deeply disappointed by the ending? If you've watched it, I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.

And now, Byun Baekhyun, I'm ready for your drama!! Anyone else just as excited?

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