Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on the first eight episodes
Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) is difficult to review without my words sounding contemptuously patronising. So let’s bite the bullet and explain the problem. This is set in Sungkyunkwan University in the late Joseon era during the reign of King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha). As you might expect, despite the past role models like Dae Jang Geum, women continue to be considered nothing more than baby producers. This series plays the now well-established game of the cross-dressing woman of surpassing ability who outshines the men at their own game. This time, we have Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) who’s been trying to pay for her brother’s medical treatment by writing crib sheets for students seeking to enter the University. Unfortunately, her family has also borrowed money from Ha Woo-kyu (Lee Jae-Yong), the Minister of War, and a lascivious and unpleasant man who decides he would rather take our heroine as his mistress than have her pay off the debt. As a result of the usual complications involving a young man, Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun), she finds herself tricked into taking the entrance exam to the university. In an unexpected burst of honesty, she admits to the King, who’s invigilating the exam, that she’s doing so as a result of an agreement to take another’s place. Needless to say, Lee Sun Joon stands up to declare he’s proud of doing so because, wait for it, he wants to test whether the King will uphold the rules. In this case, the King’s punishment for the pair is to commit them to University and arrange for them to share the same room. As The Great Queen Seon Deok quickly learned in a barracks environment, this is not an insurmountable difficulty when all around her expect to see a man.
So now you see my problem. It’s the same old unrealistic plot of a woman who looks feminine at all times, passing herself off as a man to get ahead. To add the usual spice to proceedings, women found inside the University compound will be killed, tortured or generally made to feel ashamed of themselves for breaking the rules. The series therefore claims to walk a tightrope with our heroine always on the verge of being revealed, but somehow scraping by. So let’s cut to the crux of the problem with this as a plot in a romantic comedy. Since this is supposedly light and fluffy entertainment, the King is not going to attach one strong horse to each of our heroine’s four limbs and encourage them to move away. The resulting parting the ways would destroy the mood and make sex difficult for her afterwards. So there’s absolutely no suspense. There will be a marriage at the end of it and everyone will live happily every after. Such is the way of Korean drama and drama elsewhere, for that matter. Period reality is watered down and no-one will be “made an example”.
At some point, men around her will either fall in love with the appearance i.e. the men will be homosexual and so not interested in her as a woman, or the men will realise she’s actually a woman and therefore have to decide what to do about it. Obviously, openly showing affection to her when cross-dressed is going to get funny looks from a relatively intolerant society. But persuading her to admit her sex is going to be a challenge if this admission is going to get her killed. In The Great Queen Seon Deok, this didn’t matter too much because she was either training or fighting alongside the lads, and killing as many of the enemy as possible. Indeed, she died a virgin queen. But this new series is overtly sexualising the woman by having Lee Sun Joon spend time looking at her lips and, presumably, fantasising about kissing “him”. We also get the soft porn version of her undressing in candlelight and having a well-earned bath after becoming top archer, the glow of the flickering flame reflecting off the sheen of moisture on her shoulders. . . Sorry, I have to stop at this point because episodes such as this are gratuitously insulting titillation for the men watching. Correspondingly, the casting of a large number of young hunks is to keep the female viewers happy as we’re allowed to catch sight of bare chests every now and then. Just to reinforce the point, this is a prime-time show and just as there’s not going to be any torture or death, there’s also not going to be any sexual activity shown. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Except this script is actually not completely unrealistic and, in the early episodes, reasonably endearing as stories go. Despite its romantic comedy leanings, it has a slightly hard edge as events inside the University are matched by the political machinations in the Court. As always, there are conspiracies afoot. So there’s real poverty in the capital and the nobility have no real conception of the lives the common people. Into this mix comes one of these dashing masked men (like Iljimae except this time he’s called Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In)) who bounds across rooftops like he’s attached to wires and shoots arrows with remarkable inaccuracy — he misses the Minister of War in one of his early attacks. This adds an element of mystery to proceedings because we’re not supposed to recognise which of the students is playing the role of this agent provocateur — appropriately, he’s the son of the Minister of Justice.
The two features of the first episodes are the discovery of the deception by Jung Yak-Yong (Ahn Nae-Sang). He’s one of the King’s men who’s been sent to work in the University for an unspecified reason. Fortunately, he has no interest in her as a woman — he’s a brains man — and, as soon as she wins the archery competition, he’s a fan. He’s also caught because everyone knows he’s been giving “him” medical treatment and therefore cannot have failed to detect her true sex. This catches him as a conspirator and he will suffer a worse fate than her for allowing the deception to continue. And, as you will have gathered, the boys have to train our girl to be an ace archer. As minor plots, we have Cho Sun (Kim Min Seo), a high-class courtesan who’s interested in our girl as a man. The Secretary of War has two children. The naive Ha Hyo-Eun (Seo Hyo-Lim) who decides she’s in love with Lee Sun Joon at first sight, and Ha In-Soo (Jeon Tae-Soo) who plays the villain as the University’s Student President. Not surprisingly he’s out to do down anyone who does not show him due respect. All in all, it’s a battle for hearts and minds as the dynamic duo preach honesty and a meritocracy rather than entrenched clan and/or class advantages. Ah ha! So this is one of these sageuks with a modern political agenda to argue for social change in contemporary society.
The archery contest itself is endlessly drawn out but, as anyone with a few brain cells would predict, the team of losers beats the odds-on favourites with our plucky girl coming through a sabotage-induced injury to beat Ha In-Soo in the final. That’s the ultimate indignity for the Minister of War’s son to bear. So now we get the romantic complexities building up. The ultimately beautiful courtesan wants our cross-dressed heroine in bed. The Minister of War’s daughter wants our hero in bed. And the circle of people who’ve had the sense to identify our heroine as a woman is growing. The Iljimae figure is now smitten — as evidenced by the continuous hiccups when in her presence. As an aside, he’s also got fantastic healing powers. He digs the arrow out of his waist, plasters on a few herbs Dae Jang Geum style, shoots a few arrows himself in friendly competition, and is completely healed the next day — Wolverine should take lessons. And Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) the manipulative fourth member of our little group, hasn’t made up his mind on what to do about the situation. I’m seriously considering giving up but, having come this far, I suppose I’d better see what dirty secrets the nobles are trying to hide. More to follow as Sungkyunkwan Scandal continues.
For the next episodes, see Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on episodes nine to fourteen and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes fifteen to end.