Eeek! Sorry it’s a day late! My original draft of this post had “I’ll probably end up watching this drama again because I loved it so much”… and that’s pretty much what I did, staying up to the early hours of the morning. However, I managed to get here, so here’s the review for the Joseon-era romance Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010). This drama is 20 episodes long, although I wish it was a lot longer!
What’s it about?
Kim Yoon Hee’s father died when she was young, leaving her, her sickly younger brother, and her mother in poverty. To help provide for her family, Yoon Hee (Park Min Young) took her brother’s identity, Kim Yoon Shik, and worked in the local bookstall, where her odd jobs included doing homework for students attending the nearby Sungkyunkwan University. With her family getting desperate for money to cover medical bills, Yoon Hee agrees to take on the incredibly risky job of posing as another student during entrance exams. She is discovered by the proud and upright Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun), who later pesters her to sit the exam herself. Finding herself in a situation where refusal to attend the university would result in her execution, Yoon Hee continues to pose as a boy amidst the other male scholars. Should she be discovered, her death would be imminent due to strict Joseon-era laws. Facing challenges from the student president Ha In Soo (Jun Tae Soo), political tension between her room-mates Sun Joon and Moon Jae Shin (Yoo Ah In), and the mischievous curiosity of Gu Yong Ha (Song Joong Ki), Yoon Hee lives in the university.
The four main characters of Yoon Hee, Sun Joon, Jae Shin and Yong Ha are amazing in this drama. Their interactions are amusing and meaningful and their backgrounds are interesting. Yoon Hee is a likeable protagonist, proving that she can easily match the boys in intelligence and wit, but retain her feminine characteristics of being kind, loving and generous. Sun Joon is a strict, genius scholar, but is terrible at social interactions, unintentionally coming across as arrogant… sounds like he needs someone to teach him the importance of living life. Jae Shin is the “Crazy Horse” of the university; rebellious, easily angered and passionate. However, he has the wonderful quirk of being hopelessly awkward around females, even developing nervous hiccoughs when he knows he’s in the presence of one! Finally, Yong Ha. He’s mischievous, clever, and loves setting up trouble for the other characters around him to observe how they react. Why? Purely for his own entertainment. As Yong Ha’s role expands in the drama, he becomes the character to make you laugh with his ridiculous priorities (fashion sense before anything else) and flamboyant mannerisms. Chances are you will fall in love with one of the male characters in this drama (personally I’m a Jae Shin girl).
With excellent characters taking the fore-front of this series, it’s not surprising to find this drama has a lot of heart. There are a couple of scenes that will have you near tears, such as Jae Shin begging for his father’s help in episode 19. There’s plenty to make you laugh, and plenty of awkward scenes that will leave you giggling like a maniac. There’s a bit of action and high-tension scenes thrown in, as well as the expected drama and conflict between characters. I felt that the love story unfolded naturally and beautifully, at a steady pace. The match between Sun Joon and Yoon Hee was perfect, and, even though I didn’t want Jae Shin’s heart to be broken, he never had a fighting chance.
Thirdly, it’s great to see that the acting all-round is excellent. The young cast playing the four mains do a great job of bringing their characters to life, injecting a lot of energy and fun into the series. Tae Soo also does a great job of portraying the antagonist In Soo. A couple of the older actors also caught my attention; Ahn Nae Sang who portrayed Professor Jeong Yak Yong, and Cho Seong Ha who portrayed King Jeongjo. I’ll definitely have to crazy-stalk them in other dramas.
I think that the setting of this drama really worked. The set-up of the story is by no means original; there are countless adaptations of “girl-poses-as-boy-and-falls-in-love”, but, as a westerner watching a Korean drama for the first time, the background of the political tensions of the Joseon-era adds a nice touch to the story. There were a lot of cultural themes that really grabbed my attention, and there was also plenty of room for the writer’s powerful ideological expression.
As you would expect with the kind of drama, it is held back by the believability of parts of the plot. You take one look at Yoon Shik and it’s beyond-obvious that she’s a girl. You can perhaps get around this by arguing that a female posing as a male in Sungkyunkwan University would be so unthinkable during the Joseon-era, that it wouldn’t even be considered. However, there are other parts, such as the King’s involvement, the main characters’ search for a particular document of importance, and the ability of Jae Shin to miraculously heal after a night’s rest, that make you think that the plot was stretched a little too much.
I would have also enjoyed some more information about some of the characters. For example, I would love to know how Jae Shin and Yong Ha became friends. I would also like to know more about the gisaeng Cho Sun, who is a very interesting character that deserved some more screen time. More details about her and In Soo would have been good, but may have detracted from the main characters.
Finally; the ending. It was rushed and not as climatic as it could have been. There should have been more importance placed on Yoon Hee’s gender and that important document I’ve already mentioned. The epilogue was a little disappointing; while Yong Ha and Jae Shin’s future didn’t surprise me, [SPOILERS/] seeing Sun Joon as a teacher rather than an official and Yoon Hee continuing to pose as her brother was a let down after the ideology in the series [\SPOILERS]. A drama that started out as well as Sungkyunkwan Scandal shouldn’t have had this inconsistency in it. But… it is a drama, and I wasn’t expecting there to be much more than happiness, laughs, and kissing in the final episode.
Anything else I should consider?
I don’t consider this a negative, as my confusion was due to my own ignorance of Korean history, but just be aware of the historical and cultural setting of the drama. A couple of times I had to quickly google a few things to figure out what the significance was of the political factions of Sorons and Norons, as well as the importance of historical figures and documents. I have to admit that a couple of scenes that made use of Chinese characters and Confucius’ teachings were completely lost on me. However, the drama is still easy to follow with a limited knowledge, and you’ll quickly discover the most important thing you need to know; the Joseon Dynasty had the best hats.
Story: 8/10: A fun plot, with a good mix of different themes thrown in. Although it does stretch its believability and the ending is a little bit of a let down.
Characters: 8/10: The characters really bring this drama to life; they’re quirky, complete, and draw you into the story.
This is a sweet little drama which has a great cast that brings it to life. Even though I’ve already watched the whole series twice, and select episodes more than that, I still find Sungkyunkwan Scandal addicting and its characters more than loveable. I recommend to this to anyone looking for a decent drama, regardless of whether they’ve watched a Korean drama before. Overall, I give it an 8/10.