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Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) Drama Review
Kim Yun Hee is a well-educated girl, an anomaly in 15th century Joseon. Left as the sole provider in her family after her father’s death, she’s forced to take drastic actions to escape a crushing debt – dress as a boy and enter the renowned Sungkyunkwan University. The penalty of being found out is death; but here she makes her first true friends, her equals in bravery and intelligence.
Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a “fusion saguek” in every sense of the term: modern sensibility and fun, but still packing the dramatic heft of a traditional saguek. I still say it’s about as modern a saguek as you can get, and anyone today will be able to identify with our troupe of friends at school. They grumble about professors and exams, cut class, drink and compete, and have hijinks galore.
What makes it so special, though, is that there’s a strong strain of idealism, embodied in different ways in each of our four main characters. This is the Joseon of strong class stratification, where noble blood gets you every privilege, closely followed by scads of money. It’s what Yun Hee struggles against, being poor as well as a woman, which basically gives her no rights; it’s what Seon Jun and Jae Shin are at war with, the blatant corruption of values in their class, which takes advantage of the commoners to satisfy itheir greed. The drama is set in King Jeongjo’s time, which is a very interesting period in Korean history. The drama takes liberties, of course, but the real King Jeongjo was a reformer, and is portrayed as such here. And what better group of people to dream and build a new Joseon than young, idealistic University students? This is what gives three-dimensionality in what would otherwise be a fluffy plot.
Unfortunately, maybe because of the live-shoot system or whatever, the ending left a bad taste in my mouth. Without giving away spoilers, the drama never actually makes good on its idealistic promises. The very thing that had given it so much depth in the first half petered out in favour of fanservice and illogical narrative toward the very end. It might be okay in a different drama, but compared to the greatness of the first half, it was very disappointing indeed. To this day, I prefer to think the series ended at episode 18.
In the end, though, Sungkyungwan Scandal is addictive, sheer charm, and a helluva fun ride.
The drama’s single best thing was the Jalgeum Quartet: the four best friends that had so much chemistry together it was hard to believe. Of course, a lot of credit is due to the Yong Ha-Jae Shin duo, who totally stole the screen with their unlikely friendship every time they were together, but the Jalgeum Quartet, in the words of a gisaeng, just kill you.
Park Min Young as Kim Yun Hee : Yun Hee is a (unusually) strong-minded, well-educated woman, and has the cynical attitude to match. She’s gutsy enough to stand up for her worth as a woman as well as an intelligent thinking individual, and vulnerable enough to learn some things about hope and dreams along the way. Park Min Young is good enough, better in the dramatic moments than the cutesy ones. Lord knows she would never really be mistaken for a boy, but if you suspend disbelief then she’s a heroine you can root for. She’s Daemul, the “Big Shot”.
Park Yoo Chun as Lee Seon Jun: Seon Jun is the scion of nobility and wealth, but rather than being a spoilt brat, he’s morally upright and well-meaning (in the most Confucian way) almost to the point of being naive. Yoo Chun was surprisingly good here, barring a few moments when he fell rather flat. Granted, his character is pretty straightforward, but he conveys his stubborn uprightness with a sincerity that makes you like him even more. His very apt nickname is Ga Rang, “Perfect Husband.”
Song Jung Ki as Gu Yong Ha: Oh, here we come to the most interesting (IMO) of the four. Yong Ha is the crafty, worldly, impeccably and effetely dressed, the perceptive and sometimes manipulative one. Beneath all that, though, is a sincerely caring heart and a sly sense of fun. Song Jung Ki fits his character to a T, with his beautiful face and his expressiveness with his hands and body as well as his face. He’s Yeorim, the “Forest of Females.”
Yu Ah In as Mun Jae Shin: Here we come to Jae Shin, and a million fangirls erupt in screams. Best buddies with Yong Ha though he is, he’s poles apart. Noble-born, he’s a rebel with a cause; slumming his time drinking and gambling and cutting class, he takes no nonsense from anyone, less so from snooty entitled kids. Yu Ah In really gets into the role here, so much so that it’s hard to focus on anyone else when he’s on. He really embodies the passionate Jae Shin, also expressing his inner core of idealism and gentleness. He’s Guhro, Sungkyunkwan’s “Crazy Horse.”
Jeon Tae Su as Ha In Su: He's the embodiment of the upper classes at Sungkyungkwan. He opposes the Jalgeum Quartet not just because he's no match for them, but because they offend his elitist sensibilities. Jeon Tae Su has got little more to do than glare and plot, but there are a few moments when he's given depth, particularly his unrequited love for the gisaeng Cho Sun.
Although these are the actors getting the most screentime, there are lots more characters, as is usual in a saguek. Honorable mention goes to the solid veterans like Kim Gab Su, Ahn Nae Sang, and Jo Sung Ha. They’re the anchors of the drama with their greatly charismatic performances. Special mention to Kim Min Seo as the gisaeng Cho Sun, who stole every scene she was in; and to Seo Hyo Rim, who made a potentially annoying bratty character approachable and vulnerable.
Sungkyunkwan Scandal was really beautiful to look at: saturated colors, crisp photography, and a very bright palette. But the best part in my opinion was the director’s choice to include little visual graphics. For example, the charts showing the seating for the exams, the player highlight reel for the archery competition, and others. It added such a fun and graphic pop to the drama. Of course, since this is a saguek, we have lots of beautiful clothes too. Gisaengs are clothed in all their beautiful hanboks and accessories, but what steals the show is Gu Yong Ha and his expensive, immaculate wardrobe.
The music is a mixture of the traditional and modern, leaning toward the latter. It actually fits well, because in feel the drama is very youthful and energetic, and the musical choices echo that. The end track, Chajatta, is one of my favorites and pretty much sums up the Jalgeum Quartet.
The one thing to watch out for are the live-shoot mistakes toward the ending, where the scenes are chopped off abruptly and you have day-and-night inconsistencies. Other than that, it was very well directed.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
1) The Jalgeum Quartet. They’re all appealing characters individually, but when they’re all together, it’s an explosion of youthful fun. And they’re ALL so pretty…
2) The dorm room fights. What happens when you have three people sharing a room, one of whom is a girl and the other two are boys who may or may not know her secret? LOTS of squabbles over who sleeps where and next to whom. SO much fun.
3) The shenanigans. Staying out late at night, tying up a bunch of guards and painting on their faces, going on a mountain field trip…time with our Jalgeum Quartet was so much fun.
4) Gu Yong Ha. The expressions, the sly laughs, the clothes, the accessories, the characteristic drawl of "I'm Gu Yong Ha"…which brings us to:
5) Gu Yong Ha and Mun Jae Shin. Though they’re complete opposites, these two form the bromance to end all bromances.
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