October 2011 Highlight (1): Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)

Posted on December 21, 2011

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WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. Read on your own discretion.

” 一笑一少, 一怒一老. (One smile makes you a year younger, one frown makes you a year older.)

It was a joke, don’t be angry anymore.

“子曰:「中道而廢.今女畫 」(Confucius says, one should not start something he/she can’t finish.)

Stopping in the middle is worse than not having started at all.

“知彼知己,百戰百勝. (Know your enemy and know yourself, and you shall be undefeated.)

Do you really not know what I feel?

“爱 .

I love you.

“Kim Yoon Shik, have I told you? …Thank you!”

“For what?”

“You. Thank you for you!”

That’s it, Guh Ro? That’s all you’ve got to say? Really, that’s not how you tell a girl that you love her… You are just so damn chivalrous it’s killing me. Your coolness is breaking my heart.

Ok, before I get carried away and continue spoiling you that particular bit, let me properly introduce the crack that is Sungkyunkwan Scandal (SKKS). SKKS is a trendy fusion sageuk that straddles 2 genres: school and sageuk (obviously.) It is essentially a school/college drama that’s set in Korea’s Joseon era. It naturally has the typical ingredients of a school drama: roommates, cliques, classes, budding friendships, rivals, competitions, good students versus the bad ones, enemies-turned-friends, mischief, hullabaloos, overflowing hormones, …. and of course the inevitable romance.  Being a sageuk, of course this drama is expected to involve some sociocultural representations, political intrigue, and a mystery to solve. In addition to those basic formulas, SKKS adds a twist which ultimately constitutes the drama’s premise and explores it: one of the main characters/students is a crossdresser. Considering that females in Joseon did not get the privilege to attend schools, this gender-bending aspect surely serves as the hook. An inextricable scandal is soon to follow and you’ll be dying for the moment(s) of revelation.

SKKS is definitely not the first drama to adopt a gender-bending concept. See its predecessors Coffee Prince, Painter of the Wind and You’re Beautiful.  SKKS is vastly different from CP and YAB (they’re not sageuks, thus the sociocultural take on the gender construct is different), but closer to PoTW. If you’ve seen my Painter of the Wind vs. Sungkyunkwan Scandal entry, you should already know some bits and pieces of SKKS. What mainly sets SKKS apart from PoTW is the tone. PoTW is all somber and pensive while SKKS is lighthearted and plain fun. Two minutes into the first episode of PoTW, you kind of get a hunch of a sad ending. SKKS though is just the opposite. It keeps you excited, elated, and giddy from the start. I started this drama without any expectation (except that I’ve heard about the notorious bromance between two of the male leads.. a lot). but having noticed how everyone gushed about it, I was positive that this drama would end at least happily.

Why I liked it

If I have to describe my SKKS experience in one word, I would say that it was FUN. Yes, it was full of rollicking shenanigans and escapades that it made me feel youthful again. (Let’s see what they are… a substitute exam taker, the welcoming ceremony/hazing session, a girl and two guys sharing the same room, the archery competition, the undercover gisaeng on mission impossible, a ‘hockey’ game, the vigilante in action, the abduction by the king, etc etc.) Plus this drama was chock full of eye candy that made the show so addictive to me. It would be remiss of me not to tell you that those hotties are enough of a reason to watch this drama. They kept me glued to the screen. Three of them and the heroine made up the main foursome of the drama. They were dubbed the Joseon F4 or the Jalgeum Quartet. (They sure were better than Boys Before Flowers‘ F4, IMHO.) With such hot cast portraying unique distinctive characters and an eventful story to boot, there was never a dull moment. Not to forget that there was an equilateral love triangle and bromance, too.

The nice thing about SKKS was that however fun this drama was, it was endowed with real substance and intelligence. It was not just a drama about playful students getting in trouble (Gokusen, Biscuit Teacher) or some lame students getting entangled in a love triangle (*cough* BBF). SKKS put emphasis on Sungkyunkwan as a real academic institution that prepared its students to be government officials and always tie back to the Confucian teachings and literature as the underlying theme (just like how Harry Potter delved into magic or Dream High revolved around music). I loved it when those Chinese scripts cropped up on my screen, adding an artistic touch and educating me with particular  proverbs/analects. Aside from that, SKKS also illustrated the historical context (the Noron-Soron strife and the political clout at the time). The characters’ integrity and principles got challenged from time to time throughout a series of happenings, which enabled character development and transformation.

The lovable characters

Romance aside, what was especially memorable about SKKS to me was the friendship of the Jalgeum Quartet. I loved their characterizations individually and together, they formed an interesting dynamic. At first, they kind of started off on the wrong foot with each other but after getting to know each other and their real (good) qualities, they got each other’s back and stood as one. I loved how each of the quartet was different – not only personality wise but also background wise – but they were able to create a ‘political harmony’ (as often mentioned in the drama) and become buddies who supported each other. It started with three of them being roommates and the other one being a stalker/guardian angel who closely observed and followed the other three (you’ll know who is who), then through time and events, they developed a brotherly bond. I’d like to zero in on these four as they were indeed the heart of the drama

1. Kim Yoon Hee/Kim Yoon Shik a.k.a. DaeMul [大物] (Park Min Young)

Kim Yoon Hee is a fervent girl who belongs to a Namin (poor-lower class) family. When she was little she used to repeat after her dad when he taught her younger bro literary works. (As a girl she was not allowed to take lessons.) From that habit, precocious Yoon Hee grows up to be a knowledgeable, intelligent girl. Since her father passed away and her brother became ill, her family has always been in debt and often threatened by loansharks. Thus Yoon Hee helps her family by using her literary skill. She disguises herself as a Yoon Shik (using her brother’s name), and wrote essays/cheat sheets to sell to Sungkyunkwan students for some money. She even earns money from being a substitute test taker.

When Yoon Hee gets the offer of admission to Sungkyunkwan, she does not decline it since it is the king’s request for her to attend the school. (King notices her potential through her substitute exam answer.) However she has no desire to study at Sungkyunkwan nor to become a government official. She accepts the offer just for the sake of money. (As a student she would get an allowance to pay her debt and her brother’s medicine.) Yoon Hee is originally very cynical about the ruling government and Joseon’s future in general since she comes from a downtrodden class. It is Sun Joon who challenges pessimistic Yoon Hee to dream big and he brings out the best in her.

*’DaeMul’ means ‘the big thing.’ The other students give her that nickname since she successfully obtains Cho Sun’s undergarment during the hazing. They really think she has slept with Cho Sun, the hard-to-conquer gisaeng.

2. Lee Sun Joon a.k.a. GaRang [佳郎] (Micky Yoo Chun)

Sun Joon is an imperious, staunch prodigy who belongs to a noble class/yangban. His father is the left prime minister and a member of the Noron faction (Members of this faction are mostly corrupt officials.) Sun Joon is upright and idealistic, but he comes across as condescending and overbearing at times without him being aware of it. He is raised sheltered from the reality of Joseon, hence his being rather clueless and unable to relate to poor people or to perceive the world in their view. It is Yoon Hee who gradually changes him to the better. She opens his world and makes him more human. In the end, Sun Joon learns about love as he falls for Yoon Hee. (See his love confession in Confucian style that I quoted above.. so cute! Uri Sun Joon is not that uptight anymore..)

When Sun Joon is told of his father’s wrongdoing in the past (involving the murder of Yoon Hee’s professor father), his reaction shows that he is truly a noble nobleman. He follows his moral compass and maintains his integrity notwithstanding the possible consequence of losing Yoon Hee. When Sun Joon realizes that he likes Yoon Shik (that is Yoon Hee before the revelation) he questions himself and his own principles but finally comes to terms with his sexual orientation, even daringly proclaims it to protect Yoon Hee. The Jun Soon who used to hew to the accepted convention is now able to defy conformity when it goes against his conscience. He’s changed from that puritanical man to someone with a true heart who’s willing to lower himself to side with justice, friendship and love. His Jalgeum friends, especially Yoon Hee, are the ones who take him to new heights.

*His nickname ‘GaRang’ is given by Gu Yong Ha. It means ‘the perfect husband.’

3. Moon Jae Shin a.k.a. GuhRo [桀骜] (Yoo Ah In)

AHHH second lead syndrome kicks back in. This is the first drama from which I got a severe second lead syndrome. Ok, it should be obvious that Guh Ro slayed me completely. Sun Joon is a great guy but I’d much prefer Guh Ro.

Guh Ro/Moon Jae Shin is the second son of a Soron nobleman, the Minister of Justice. Guh Ro seems gruff, surly and blase but he’s got dashing charisma. He’s different from the typical cold, aloof Kdrama heroes or the erratic hot-tempered  assholes. He’s neither hot nor cold, just plain cool, collected and awesome. Even his weaknesses are endearing to me (the bumbling hiccups, his inability to express his feelings to Yoon Hee, etc.). Guh Ro on the outside is this insouciant, intrepid rogue who’s rather emotionally closed off. Sometimes he would go haywire like a drunkard, hence his nickname ‘Guh Ro’ (wild horse). People are afraid of him because he’s a badass fighter. Deep down inside, Guh Ro is just a scarred lonely guy who holds a grudge against the Norons who killed his beloved reformist brother along with Yoon Hee’s father. He turns into his alter ego ‘the red messenger – vigilante’ at night to avenge his brother by terrorizing the Noron officials. As a Soron, it would be natural for him to hate the Noron students -Sun Joon included. That explains why he does not get along with Sun Joon at first. He doesn’t buy Sun Joon’s idealistic ‘political harmony.’

Thank God he meets Sun Joon and Yoon Hee and stick with them. After all, he must’ve noticed the rare qualities in those two given the fact that he does not reject a Noron and a Namin roommates. It apparently takes these two good-natured, passionate people for him to slowly transform and finally uncover the better side of him. It’s the friendship of the quartet (Yong Ha included – to a lesser degree) that heals him. Through the Jalgeum Quartet, he learns to open his heart and trust again. When he finds out that Yoon Hee’s a girl, he can’t help his innocent attraction to her. (Oh the fact that she’s his roommate clearly doesn’t help ..poor boy.) She becomes his achilles heel – blame the pheromones. But through Yoon Hee, he finally learns to truly love again. The fact that he gallantly surrenders Yoon Hee to Sun Joon proves that he is indeed a noble nobleman. In the end, he even acknowledges that Sun Joon is the one who’s worthy of the girl. What a real gentleman. *Squee

On a side note, I think Yoon Hee is so dumb not to realize that this man is in love with her as a girl… it is obvious yo! How can you not have that female instinct?

Guh Ro was definitely an unparalleled hero to me… until Park Kyu came along. (I watched Tamra, the Island after SKKS.) He got the mysterious charm of a bad boy and the vulnerable heart of a lonely gentleman. It definitely helped that Yoo Ah In looked hot in his mane of glory. When he was all groomed and decked out in the school uniform, he looked even hotter. *hyperventilates

Okay enough raving about Guh Ro

4. Gu Yong Ha a.k.a. YeoRim [女林] (Song Joong Ki)

Out of the four, Yong Ha is the tenuous one. He is portrayed with such levity and mysteriousness, which makes him an intriguing character. Yong Ha at the beginning is this behind-the-scenes observer of what’s going on at Sungkyunkwan, particularly when Sun Joon, Yoon Hee and Guh Ro are involved. (He sides with the villains at first.) He is that curious stalker I was talking about earlier. He would stalk from his window or lurk outside the trio’s room to whet his curiosity. He would also show up out of the blue to meddle in their affairs or to catch them in the middle of their quandaries… or to simply join in the camaraderie. In addition to being observant and curious, Yong Ha is omniscient. He is extraordinarily intuitive that he knows what’s going on, what might happen or what’s on someone’s mind. Well, he claims that he knows the color of an underwear a girl is wearing just by smelling her make-up powder. HA! He is also aware from the beginning that Yoon Hee is a girl. To his surprise, his guesses regarding the trio are not always correct though. That’s why he’s intrigued and drawn to them (especially since his long-time buddy Guh Ro unexpectedly reacts differently to Yoon Hee and Sun Jae than he would normally to other people). As time goes by, Yong Ha often gets entangled in their situations and finally jumps on their bandwagon. He changes from a stalker into a guardian angel who a lot of times helps the trio behind the scenes.

On the outside, Yong Ha appears to be an insouciant, frivolous playboy. He loves to ostentatiously hang around gisaengs  and party with them. (His nickname ‘YeoRim’ means girls and booze – indicating his penchant for both.) Yong Ha is actually a son of a nouveau riche, but he claims to belong in the yangban class. I guess the reason for him hiding his real identity has to do with pride. When the noble students confront him about the lie and strip him of the noble privileges, we see him cry for the first time – He finally reveals a more human side of him. Another secret is his real sexual orientation. I’m not 100 % clear on this one, but I’m pretty sure that his bromantic feelings for Guh Ro are real. (It dawned on me that he really treasured Guh Ro when he said that he could not lose him.) Though I found it hard to connect with Yong Ha, he was still precious to me as he always brought the fun and mended the rifts between the trio. He is ‘Glue Yong Ha’ indeed – as coined by his fans.

Below are the pictures of the Jalgeum Quartet and the Jjilgeum Quartet (the villains). I just have to include Ha Ji Won’s bro  – Jun Tae Soo, cuz he’s just hot (and I still can’t get over his uncanny resemblance to his sister). I know he plays a sleazy character, but still… those laser-beam glares are worth displaying.

What left me dissatisfied

Ok I’ll keep it brief since the review has gotten long. My biggest disappointment was the closing chapter of Guh Ro-Yoon Hee loveline. I shipped them and I knew the ship would sink.  However, I just wished that they got a more heartfelt moment other than the “thank you for you” exchange (see quotes above). He should have been honest to her and just told her how much she meant to him so that she could have acknowledged his feelings. Whether she would accept or reject him just did not matter. There was no confession, no appreciation, no farewell kiss, no proper goodbye and I was miffed. Another quibble would be Sun Joon’s reaction upon discovering Yoon Hee’s real identity. It was barely existent. The scene left me with a gasp at the end of episode 15 and then cue in time jump, then episode 16 started with a different scene that’s completely disconnected from the previous one. There was a huuuge hole. They did not show how they got over it or how he dealt with it. The next time Sun Joon and Yoon Hee appeared, they just chit-chatted gleefully as if nothing happened. The last four episodes on the Geumdeungjisa mission were just confounding maybe I should rewatch that whole part. Finally, the ending sequence felt rushed and abrupt. The fanservicy ending was just dumb. (I heard it derailed from the novel.) I mean, Guh Ro ended up as a police officer and Yong ha as a merchant after their Sungkyunkwan stint? after all that hardwork? Lame…

Despite all that, I still loved SKKS. Recollecting my favorite moments just makes me giggle : the bed fights, the sleeping arrangements, Guh Ro’s swoonworthy gestures, the elevator kiss, the bromance, etc. SKKS was not original, but it was definitely a phenomenon (judging by the massive fandom). It could have been perfect, but you know I always say this in every review, about every drama…

Rating: 8 out of 10

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Posted in: K-Dramaland