Such a sweet, summery show! It really is a Disney take on a sageuk drama but, as it’s my third time watching, it obviously really works for me. Sure, the dangerous elements might not have had the sharpest teeth — but the teeth were still there. Which meant our characters had to truly earn their victories. Plus! The delightful scattering of steampunk elements! Not at all historically accurate (I’m sure) but just believable enough to accept. (An example: the “radio broadcast” of the big archery tournament via clever use of tin-cans and string.) [Spoilers for everything below….]
Another thing I liked: Song Joong-ki. He’d pinged me as a promising actor when I’d first seen Sungkyungkwan Scandal (me and the rest of the world, right?). But doing the re-watch it really struck me how well he made use of every moment given him.
In many ways Gu Yong-ha is a gift of a character. Such a delightfully mischievous and campy role is made to be an audience favorite and Song Joong-ki milked it perfectly. The twirling entrances (to better show off his stunning wardrobe), the cheeky winks, being the guy who pretty much knows it all and sees the fun in it… Song Joong-ki was enjoying himself and we got to enjoy ourselves with him.
And then there were his interactions with Jae-shin. Obviously the show was setting them up as the era’s epic bromance — that silhouetted closeup of them in kissing distance while they discuss current events weren’t no accident — but again, Song Joong-ki dialed it up delightfully. I strongly suspect some ad-libbing went on. The amount of handsy-ness, for example. Or that one scene when they were ducking through a doorway and Yong-ha coos at Jae-shin to watch his head (like an overindulgent mother with her most precious child). It was adorable and perfect and added delightful sprinkles of humor to their various scenes — even when they’re just hanging out in the background.
(Yoo Ah-in played a large part in all that, of course. But he had the less noticeable job of playing the straightman — the role that generally only gets noticed if you do it wrong. And he did it very well, giving Song Joong-ki a solid surface to play against. But I feel like it was Song Joong-ki’s choice to ham it up as much as he did. And he balanced the silly with the sweet really, really well.)
But what really stuck out to me were those few scenes when things got real and Yong-ha dropped the frivolity to show the real (cynical and scared and angry) man beneath it all. When he chides Sun-joon for getting out of his hazing — there’s a palpable sense of contempt towards coddled boys, ignorantly protected by their fathers’ status. Or when he faces his fellow students after they’ve learned his family secret. Or that awesome reaction shot when he realizes the Student-body President knows Kim Yoon-shik’s secret.
Song Joong-ki gave Yong-ha so much more depth than a lesser actor would have done. And in turn, that gave the show a lot more depth. It was a Disney-safe world, but there was enough badness to it to have wounded Yong-ha, enough to scare him. Which made his (and his fellow Jal-geum Quartet’s) acts of bravery that much more meaningful.
And then there was Yoo Ah-in. He had a much more restrained role to play, but I think he made a clever character-choice with Jae-shin and it served him really well throughout the drama. He gave Jae-shin a surface laziness (like even talking was an effort and he was kind of pissed people were making him do it) combined with this hidden watchfulness. It made me think of a tiger in the sun. Yeah, he looks like moving is an impossibility, but poke him and you’ll learn different. It gave Yoo Ah-in a lot of range to play with. And it meant that when he did let his emotions out (like with his father, or when he was screaming at Professor Jung to tell them everything was okay, that the king would protect Yoon-shik) they made a real impact. Again — adding depth and a sense of danger to an otherwise unrealistically safe world.
And he was incredibly sweet with Kim Yoon-shik. Very much an older brother, even after he realized she was a girl and began to crush on her. (Actually, I really loved how Jae-shin took Yoon-shik under his wing, while Yong-ha took charge of Sun-joon. It was all kinds of adorable and warm and sweet.) It meant that I didn’t feel too much pain that the love-triangle wasn’t going his way. Because he and Yoon-shik had their own relationship and it could easily transfer into a platonic one.
Plus, Yoon-shik and Sun-joon were so completely perfect for each other! And the show built up their relationship perfectly, without wallowing in unnecessary or borrowed trouble just for the sake of dramatics. It was actually kind of refreshing how swiftly they moved from enemies to besties to confusing crush to one-true-love. Each step was earned, of course. But they were both so trusting of and honest to each other. (The big “I’m really a girl!” secret aside. And even then, Sun-joon totally understood why Yoon-shik lied. Because he wasn’t a moron.)
My one single solitary complaint — and it’s just a small bug, really — was Jeon Tae-soo‘s portrayal of Student-body President, Ha In-soo. For a surface villain, he was perfect with his fifty-shades-of-glare acting choice. But when the end comes and he suddenly goes against his father to stand with his (apparently) one-true-love Cho-sun… Even when I knew it was coming I didn’t fully believe it.
I never felt In-soo’s love for Cho-sun. I honestly didn’t get the sense that he loved anyone. There just didn’t seem to be those kinds of emotions lurking beneath In-soo’s angry-face because he never seemed to drop that mask. Which made me feel like it wasn’t a mask, even though I could tell the show was trying to drop a few hints here and there.
One such scene is when In-soo flubs his final shots and Yoon-shik wins the archery competition. In-soo looks furious and yet there’s that single tear. Logically, the only explanation was he was doing it because Cho-sun wanted Yoon-shik to win. So it was a selfless act of love — or at least, should have hinted towards him feeling those emotions. But all I got from him was frustration and fury. Or when he reminisces about his first sight of Cho-sun (after she’d made one of those awesome insults that don’t register as an insult until a few seconds later). He sounded so wooden it was hard for me to understand what emotion he was supposed to be feeling. Though I’m pretty sure it was supposed to be another hint that his love for Cho-sun was real.
It’s too bad because a villain with a secretly squishy heart is a particular weak spot of mine. So I see it as a missed opportunity and I wonder how the character would have come across if an actor with more range — like Yoo Yeon-seok — had played the role. But! In-soo did make for a lovely villain and so it certainly didn’t ruin the show or anything.
[Caveat: This is the only thing I’ve seen Jeon Tae-soo in. He may have been badly directed. He may have been really green. So I’m not saying he’s a terrible actor, just… he could have done better.]
But, other than that, I think the drama did its job well. I even liked the ending — that the gang is all still in the capital, each doing their thing but — I’m positive! — hanging out at Sun-joon’s and Yoon-shik’s home, ready to spring into action if their king needs them. (I was okay with Yoon-hee remaining hidden behind her brother’s name. It would have been a bridge too far for me if suddenly the Joseon era repudiated their Neo-Confucian social norms. That so many of the characters were willing to change their thinking… that was enough for me.)
If I ever made a top ten list, I suspect Sungkyunkwan Scandal would be on it.
… Okay — two more pics because, really:
Or could Yong-ha be any more fabulous?