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Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episode fifteen to end

October 31, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha) meets Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) as a woman

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.

Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) , Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In) and Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun) — the future of Korea in their hands

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.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes nine to fourteen

October 28, 2012 1 comment

Well as we tread heavily into episode nine of Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010), we’re into revenge as Ha In-Soo (Jeon Tae-Soo), our Student President, has been humiliated. So he frames Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) for theft. King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha) involves himself and gives the identification of the true criminal(s) as the next exam question. This pits the Gang of Four against the rest of the students. So we now get a tedious investigation that’s enlivened by one absurdity and another touching moment. As a team, they realise the record of who passed on the stolen goods to the merchants to fence would be held by the head merchant. They plan to break in. The way it works out, Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun) is the one who enters the storeroom. He’s spotted and the local law enforcement is summoned. Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In) intercepts them in the street and while he’s fighting, Kim Toon Hee disguises herself as a courtesan and enters the storeroom to rescue him. When the guards finally arrive, they find Kim on top of Lee. Embarrassed by what they think is a routine tryst, the guards leave. Seizing the moment, our dynamic duo get over their own embarrassment in their new sex roles and find a stack of highly embarrassing records. When the guards are about to return, Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) persuades Cho Sun (Kim Min Seo) to parade by with her team of courtesans as a distraction. Our duo escape with keys records. This is absurd because, in the space of the fight with the guards and with no prior warning, Kim has to find a dress and make-up, and then find a place to transform herself into a courtesan, classy hair style and all. She then has to get from her changing room, past the guards and to the storeroom. Only in a Korean drama would such a thing be thought possible. The second more affecting moment comes when Moon Jae-Sin talks with the young man who physically removed the goods from the University. He says some pleasing things about the relationship between brothers. So now Lee Sun Joon has seen Kim in the “wrong” dress, he’s even more confused. Poor boy. Anyway, while he’s agonising what to do about his feelings, he must also decide what to do with the evidence they have collected which may incidentally implicate his father.

Micky Yoochun and Park Min Young as the inadvertently straight couple

We’re back into the tedious moralising rut again. The fantasy reformist version of this King has given our foursome a crash course on just how awful life is for the poor, presumably so they’ll become righteous civil servants and protect the people in the future. As Kim puts it to Jung Yak-Yong (Ahn Nae-Sang), the country has been in the hands of men and look what a mess they have made of it. All the bribes have been flowing upwards into the hands of the corrupt nobility and, starved of funds, neither the King nor the people can do anything about it. So now all eyes focus on Lee Sun Joon. What will be do with the sliver of evidence against the nobility? They are the true criminals but how does that help Kim. Indeed, if she cannot save herself, does she deserve to be an “official”?

Song Jong-Ki and Yoo Ah-In as the other couple

Ah well, all this is academic because, when it comes to the hearing in front of the King, Lee Sun Joon hands over the book showing the nobles are the real criminals and the young thief comes forward to confess. Isn’t life wonderful when everything comes out right! I now propose to pass over the island episode as terminally embarrassing. It seems Lee Sun Joon is brain dead because despite seeing Kim as a woman, he still seems fixated by the restoration of male attire. Cho Sun is quicker off the mark and takes the heartbreak like a woman of experience should. Similarly the hockey match is painful in all its aspects. The best approach is to see all this as cultural ambivalence in modern Korea about the struggle of a young man to come out as gay. By his own admission, this man has had no friends to date and certainly no sexual experience of any kind. If he now finds himself attracted to a person he has labelled as male, this fills him with guilt and, with nods and winks from Ku Yong-Ha, he has a big decision to make. Should he reject the increasingly tragic Ha Hyo-Eun (Seo Hyo-Lim) who’s throwing herself at him, or live as a friend with Kim?

The only feature which is even vaguely of interest is the plan of Ha Woo-kyu (Lee Jae-Yong), the Minister of War, to capture our Iljimae figure. He’s been paying a skilled swordsman to go round town in the same black outfit, killing merchants and lots of the royal guards. The hope is this will lure out Moon Jae-Sin to defend his reputation of an all-round nice Robin Hood figure. We then get the predictable confusion as the stupid Moon Jae-Sin goes out to confront the imposter only to pick up a wound. When he gets back to the University, our tender flower helps bind the wound. The self-righteous Lee Sun Joon sees what he thinks is an embrace and is naturally jealous. So now we finally get to the scandal in the series title. Based on Lee Sun Joon’s shocked reaction, Kim Toon Hee and Moon Jae-Sin are accused of having a homosexual relationship. Ha In-Soo convenes a special council to try them based on what he believes will be conclusive evidence from Lee Sun Joon. The only way they will beat this charge is by admitting Moon Jae-Sin is the masked Robin Hood — not a bad trap. Incidentally, the identity of the imposter going around doing the killing is fascinating. Otherwise, Sungkyunkwan Scandal continues in a downward spiral of embarrassing awfulness as the screenwriters fail to decide how to deal with the issue of homosexuality.

For the remaining episodes, see Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on the first eight episodes and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes fifteen to end.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on the first eight episodes

October 26, 2012 3 comments

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.

The F4 (Boys Over Flowers) in Josean times: Song Jong-Ki, Park Min Young, Park Yoo Chun and Yoo Ah-In

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.

Jeon Tae-Soo following in his father’s footsteps as a villain

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.

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