Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episode fifteen to end
Mercifully, we’re now into the final lap to end the race to the bottom. In a crisis, Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun) fails completely to reconcile his feelings for Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) as a man with her reality as an attractive woman. He therefore does the only thing confused young men in this situation do. First he saves the “man” he loves through a nice piece of argument before the student council called by Ha In-Soo (Jeon Tae-Soo). He then goes round to break off the engagement with Ha Hyo-Eun (Seo Hyo-Lim), the naive woman he thought he would marry to cure himself of his homosexual tendencies, and then runs away into the hills. At this point, I need to refer to a change of law in California. For decades, therapists have been claiming success in the treatment of homosexuality as a medical disorder and asserting a “cure” is possible. This always has been a nonsense and the new law reflects this by banning gay conversion therapy. When signing the law, Governor Brown said this should consign the therapy “to the dustbin of quackery”. Obviously this news has arrived too late in South Korea to save this series.
In his mountain retreat, Lee Sun Jeon decides he loves Kim Toon Hee as a man. This is not an easy decision and, once made, it confirms the essential gayness of the character. When he sees Kim Toon Hee by the river, he runs up to “him” and gives him a hug — a public demonstration of affection, not caring whether it’s observed. With respect to the scriptwriters, this is not a psychological problem that can be cured by showing him the object of his affection is actually a woman. Indeed, having gone through the existential debate, Lee Sun Joon should be disgusted by Kim Toon Hee. She’s the wrong sex and not sexually attractive to Lee. Yet, of course, we now have to go through the equally embarrassing courtship as a heterosexual couple, endure Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In) acting jealous, and despair of everyone else’s general lack of awareness. Even Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) is growing a little tiresome.
In the midst of all this, we discover King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha) has a plan to move the capital and thereby break the power of the nobility. It turns out he’s high on opium a lot of the time which explains his slightly erratic behaviour in choosing a cross-dressing woman, a gay man, a terrorist and a dilettante fashion guru of ambiguous sexuality to save his country. To give himself political cover, the king wants to recover a letter that was lost some ten years ago — a transparent McGuffin to dig a weak king out of a losing position. All the four “heroes” have to do is find the letter, discredit the nobility and prepare to run the new utopian capital city when it’s built. Not a bad day’s work for university students.
As a plot, I think the routine noble-born boy meets girl from the wrong side of the Joseon tracks would have been a better bet. When he defends the girl’s right to learn and advance herself that would have more force because everyone can see he’s going against convention. In this version, his progressiveness is masked by the gender confusion. Similarly, the political decision to relocate to what’s now Seoul could have been the basis of an interesting plot, but it’s left superficial and simply tacked on at the end to give emotional cover for the resolution of the four’s rite of passage. More importantly, an opportunity was missed in not expanding on the situation in which Cho Sun (Kim Min Seo) finds herself. She’s another of these very talented woman who’s kept in a cage.
As we have it, the whole thing comes to a head as a family squabble with the virtuous can-do young showing their fathers they will be good leaders in the future. That’s except for Ha In-Soo, son of Ha Woo-kyu (Lee Jae-Yong), the Minister of War and lackey-in-chief. They have both been portrayed as trading on their status without actually having many brains, so suffer the usual ignominious defeat. Magically, the son does finally show a little gumption. But it’s too late to earn him a reprieve.
I suppose I must forgive the scriptwriters. They are bound by the culture of South Korea and cannot yet run an honest prime-time series about gay love. So I’m completely at a loss as to why they should put themselves in difficulties by adopting the cross-dressing theme. As the series Dae Jang Geum and Dong Yi both amply demonstrate, South Korea can run a traditionally gendered story to highlight the need to reform women’s rights. Indeed, after the archery and hockey, this woman is increasingly shown as dependent on the men around her. What little spark she had seems to dim until it flickers slightly more brightly as she solves the problem of where the missing letter has been hidden. It’s somewhat ironic. She’s a lot more positive when no-one knows she’s a woman. When she has three men in on the secret, she’s a lot more needy. Frankly, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a disaster.
For the first episodes, see Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on the first eight episodes and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes nine to fourteen.