Drama Review: Sungkyunkwan Scandal

“…a delightfully upbeat adventure tale, with a sizzling romance — and an unexpected bromance…”

Sungkyungkwan Scandal PosterSungkyunkwan Scandal
air date: 8.30.2010 through 11.2.2010
network: KBS2
number of episodes: 20
I watched it: for the third (and definitely not last) time

In a nutshell: A girl dresses up as a boy and, via a series of unfortunate events (or fortunate, depending on your point of view), winds up a student at the elite Sungkyunkwan University — training grounds for high government officials and advisors to the king. This is a sageuk-fusion drama, meaning it takes place during a historic period (the late Joseon era, in this case) but keeps a modern sensibility. Filled with all the warmth and hope of its summertime setting, this is a delightfully upbeat adventure tale, with a sizzling romance — and an unexpected bromance — to round it all out.

The Story: Essentially, this is a school-story (Sungkyungkwan University is a boarding school) with all the student bonding and house-rivalries and coming of age awkwardness that makes that particular genre so much fun. (The king is the head-master, to all intents and purposes, and Cho Seong-ha fills that role perfectly — benign and twinkly on the surface but with a core of steel. Ahn Nae-sang is the cool teacher — full of challenging theories and ideas, and Kim Ha-kyun is the bureaucratic traditionalist — Kim Yoon-shikthere mainly to be a comic foil but with a few redeeming features of his own.)

Within the confines of that story structure, there’s not a real need for Kim Yoon-shik to be anything other than a poor but brilliant freshman. As the new kid, Yoon-shik’s school adventures are compelling and fun in and of themselves. So the extra twist that Yoon-shik is actually Yoon-hee — the older sister disguising herself as her younger brother — merely adds to the fun and the compelling. Which is a testament to the story’s strength. Rather than coasting on the girl-in-boy’s-clothing schtick, leaving her big secret as the only interesting thing about Yoon-hee, the story and the character are much broader. There are even times when the action has little to nothing to do with Yoon-hee’s actual gender.

Yoon-shik has a secretBut the big secret is definitely an important player. It’s a remarkably safe world our characters are moving through, especially considering the time period. Which suites the school-story feel of the drama perfectly — one worries about expulsion and social humiliation in school; death rarely figures — but could have weakened the story’s tension and momentum. The secret of her real gender intensifies Yoon-hee’s desire to succeed, it adds greater danger to the various adventures she finds herself in, and it gives us a poignant, funny, and surprisingly sexy romance. (You will never look at a gat in the same way again.)

The Players: Park Min-young plays those dual sides to Yoon-hee quite well. As the new student, made unusual by her poverty, she’s a winsome mix of grit and cynicism and a wide-eyed enthusiastic desire to learn everything. It’s that thirst for knowledge that outweighs her instinct to stay hidden and quiet as a girl pretending to be a boy. And it’s her sense of injustice at being denied open access to that learning that adds such depth to her slowly awakening idealism. training...It’s believable that her passion and eagerness wins over so many of her fellow students.

Particularly, Lee Sun-jun — the privileged son of the government’s most powerful minister. This was k-pop star Park Yoo-chun‘s debut acting role and he chose wisely. Any stiffness translated well into the upright and aloof character he played. But he also managed to convey the vulnerability of the boy always left out of the fun. His excitement in meeting someone who both understood the intellectual ideal he was trying to uphold but also had the intelligence to challenge it was easy to see. And it jump-started the camaraderie and the chemistry between the couple — both outsiders in their own way.

bromanceBringing depth and subtlety to the show are the two senior students who befriend our star-crossed couple. Yoo Ah-in as Moon Jae-shin becomes an unlikely big-brother figure for Kim Yoon-shik — his seeming bored disinterest hiding a borderline nihilistic rage at the injustices he sees around him. Song Joong-ki as the hedonistic, Gu Yong-ha, is a reliable source of comedy… that he easily shrugs aside when it’s time to let his deeply bitter cynicism show. Together they formed a bromance that almost eclipsed the main romance. (They won the “best couple” award at KBS’s 2010 award show.) With Yoon-hee and Sun-jun, they form an unlikely quartet that develops into a delightfully resourceful team.

shenanigans!

A Few Nit-Picks: On the whole, the drama delivers exactly what it promises — even a little bit more. There really is a special joy in watching Song Joong-ki’s portrayal of Gu Yong-ha; even when he’s in the background he brings sparks of interest and entertainment to the action. The OST is gorgeous and does a good job establishing mood without being intrusive or annoyingly repetitive. The costumes provide beautiful bursts of color and, glaring: it's what he dotaking advantage of the “fusion” aspect of the story, there are lovely little steampunk elements scattered throughout.

I did wish that the school bully had been played with more layers. True to the genre, there are places where a hidden vulnerability could have been shown. But Jeon Tae-soo let those moments pass without shifting his angry veneer an inch. (A sad miss for me, because I adore school bullies with hidden depths.) And, in the last few episodes the editing gets a bit choppy (the OST suffers a bit as well — laid on with a heavier hand). The live-shoot system delivering its sting, I suspect. However, those are the tiniest of nits.

joy!In Conclusion:  Light, summery fun, this is a drama that feels effortless. Which means a lot effort went into it, so viewers can feel free to sit back, put their feet up, and sink into the story. It’s a lovely world to spend time in, and it’s leaving that world, saying goodbye to the characters, that’s the hard part. Definitely one for the repeat-viewing lists.

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15 thoughts on “Drama Review: Sungkyunkwan Scandal

    • Thank you! The different headings help me organize my thoughts, so I’m glad you like it. 😀

      It’s so re-watchable, isn’t it? Kind of like getting back together with old friends. (Oh my gosh, I loved her school nickname — and how she totally embraced it. 😉 )

      • I think your headings also makes it easier for your readers to read as well and it is a fantastic idea^^

        This drama will forever have a special place in my heart and just talking about it is so nostalgic! I still remember how much I squealed when I first watched it! The romance, the bromance and even the plot are amazing! I love Yoochun because of this drama but his “I Miss You” drama really disappointed me:(

        Haha…..the nickname~ I laughed so much at the irony of it:D It’s been ages since I last watch it and I can’t believe I still remember the nickname! To be honest, I’m really bad with names and I don’t even remember the main characters names so I find it funny how I can remember the nicknames instead:P

        • This was the third or forth drama I ever watched, and it was the first one I thought my husband would enjoy. (And he did!) So it’s got a special place in my heart, too. 🙂 In fact, the reason I did the re-watch is I’d had a string of disappointing dramas and thought SKKS would be the perfect antidote to all that disappointment. And it was! 😀

          I think it’s awesome you remember the nicknames! I had to think for a moment when I first saw your, “Go Dae-Mul!” — but then it clicked. 😉 I’m so bad with names, too. I depend so strongly on dramawiki and asianwiki to give me that info. And they didn’t include the nicknames. 😦

          I’m going to be really interested to see how Park Yoo-chun does in his next drama. (I can’t remember the name… “3 Days” maybe? where he’s a bodyguard for the president?) It looks like it could be very action-packed. (I liked “I Miss You” but for really specific reasons. It’s not one I’d recommend to people without a lot of caveats. Especially for the many, many, many tears. 😉 )

  1. I love this show….have watched it twice and I’m sure I’ll be watching it again and again and again…the only gripe was that the ending was somewhat flat as we spent the whole series thinking about how girls are equal to boys in a society where they are not given importance but then they just decided to bury the whole secret…it was kind of disappointing….but I guess that would have been a bold step considering the olden times’ culture in Korea….

    • That’s… a really sticky issue, I think. I’m honestly not sure how they could have overthrown… well… everything about that time period in order to give girls equal status with boys. I mean, it would have meant a completely different timeline with, I personally think, a vastly different modern-day Korea as the outcome.

      Which would have been fascinating — but not very feasible to handle in the last few episodes. So I actually think choosing to keep it down to a personal level was a wise choice. Like how Yong-ha is a merchant, not a government official, because of his social standing. But he’s still friends with Jae-shin, who’s ranked above him. The utopia the king dreamed of wasn’t reached society-wide — but he managed to protect those of his subjects who were striving towards change. Baby-steps.

      Which, yes — flatter than full on victory, I agree. Just… I don’t know how they could have managed it.

      • Gonna chime in and agree with Snow on this one! The end really undermined all the good stuff in the first half, first by diminishing Yoon Hee’s character and second, with the search for that something or rather (I forget what it is!) that didn’t amount to anything. For me, the first half it felt like it was a drama after my heart! And then the drama decided to not follow through on some of the more interesting questions (of gender, governance) it raised earlier, in favour of turning Yoon Hee into a very traditional female love interest instead of remaining true to her character, I felt. It’s a shame really coz I loved it, but only the first half!

        • The MacGuffin! The magical, mystical object that would change everything and bring utopia into being!! Okay, it was a letter from the king’s grandfather regretting ordering his son’s execution… but really, it was the magical, mystical key. And that’s why I was fine with the ending. Because it really would have needed a seismic sized shift to create that enlightened world the king was dreaming of.

          For me, the search for that MacGuffin — and Yoon-hee solving the puzzle and finding it — was like catching a glimpse of a future, enlightened age. It was impossible for Yoon-hee to see it happen in her lifetime, but she could finally see it as a possibility. So she remained at the school, the most important place in the kingdom per the story, and became an influential teacher. Still searching for that MacGuffin in a sense. (Which is what utopias are — something to strive for though it’ll never actually be realized.)

          And that’s why it worked for me. 🙂

          • That it was a Macguffin made me a little sad coz it seemed like the drama was making some progressive commentary in the beginning, only to reinforce the status quo. And that Yoon Hee to have found it, well, that says alot about the importance of her character in the end.

            I wasn’t expecting the drama to serve up the new world order, but I definitely expected at least some discussion of why it was not to be and what the implications of that were on the group. and for her. Was there a moment where Yoon Hee talks about this enlightened future? The the memory is weak, but it certainly felt like it was like, oh well, that’s that, let’s move on.

            The Macguffin can work provided the character’s journey makes it worthwhile. And what did Yoon Hee get out that journey? She got married to a boy, and remained at the school, embedded in not one but two patriarchal structures, one could say 🙂

            In any case, it’s my own expectations here that were the problem. But still doesn’t change that twinge of feeling disappointed :(.

          • I think that the school — though most definitely a patriarchal structure — was first, where Yoon-hee wanted to be, but also, the place where she could chip away at the current world order. She’s not just at the school — she’s a popular and therefore influential teacher. With her marriage, since our brief glimpse of it opens with Yoon-hee chiding Sun-jun for not doing his chores, I think we’re meant to see it as a modern marriage of equals.

            I think the discussion came in two parts. First when Yoon-hee solves her father’s puzzle. It’s after she’s realized that he wasn’t teaching her toddler brother with her sneaking in lessons on the porch. He was specifically teaching her — talking loudly, reading way above her brother’s understanding, and listening to her answers. She finally sees that her father wanted her to learn. Which is what spins her towards realizing that her father saw Sunkyunkwan as the true power center of the kingdom. And its gateway to the poor and marginalized village was what made it that center — which is where the MacGuffin was located. (In a sense there was more meaning in the location than the actual object.)

            The second part came when Yoon-hee is discovered as a girl and taken into the king’s custody. The only way the king can make use of the key that Yoon-hee found and gave to him is if he has her disappeared. Otherwise the accusations that she’s a girl would have meant the entire court would realize her secret, taint the key, and render the power it gave the king useless.

            Yoon-hee isn’t a part of that discussion (because I think she would have argued for her death — because heroic, etc.) but the three boys and the awesome teacher all argue that in killing Yoon-hee the king is sacrificing the very people he’s trying to protect and raise. It’s a choice between violently forcing a whole new order or settling for chipping away steadily at the old. And the king says as much to his court when he claims the papers inside the box were destroyed. He vows to keep on pushing for an end to the system that keeps so many of his people downtrodden.

            And there’s an extra beat of hope in Sun-jun’s father accepting Yoon-hee into their family (leaning towards the new system) and in the Defense Minister getting arrested for his role in killing Yoon-hee’s father and Jae-shin’s brother. The opposing court power is beginning to change its view.

            It’s not a dramatic victory but, given the time-period, it was enough to satisfy me. (But then again, I didn’t see this as a huge challenge to the current world order. Girls attend Sungkyunkwan University today, women teach there, women are powerful players in Korean politics. So it was kind of preaching to the choir. I think it was more saying, weren’t they silly back then, with their biases against women and hard-working merchants? But their outfits were pretty! 😉 )

          • But that’s part of my point though–where was Yoon Hee in all of this? If she wanted death, well let her say it then and let her explain why. What does she she think about the King’s sacrifice to save her? Why did she choose to remain at SKK and continue to be in disguise? Why does the drama silence her at such a crucial moment?

            I think that it’s because by the end, she’s been diminished to elevate the boys hero trajectory. A small example– she doesn’t even get win that final test over Sun Joon. The basis of that whole “if I win, you leave” bet was ludicrous, and I think it’s safe to say the YH at the beginning would’ve not stood for any of it. Not to mention that Sun Joon wouldn’t hv had any basis to make such a bet earlier, and it’s only now that they are lovers that he has gained power over her as a man to make such demands of her. So what ultimately was the point of this scenario? Plot-wise it serves no purpose. It’s framed as cutesy, but what it really does is to cast YH into the role of a very traditional female love interest, i.e. taming her, and preserving the status quo. And by the time we get to the final crux of outing her, she’s been basically damsel-ed, needing to be rescued. Finding the key, doesn’t make her a hero which is what you’d kind expect to happen. It’s quite the opposite in fact, it undermines her and the king’s plans for future reforms.

            So in the end ultimately, the existing social order has co-opted her, she who was once so threatening to it. If SKK is a power centre, then she remains there on it’s terms, not on hers (coz we see her disguised). If knowledge is power, why not armed with her scholarship, teach for instance, all the little girls in the village exactly like her dad did? (In my headcanon actually, she holds night classes for all the poor folk :)).

            If this wasn’t a gender-bender and if I didn’t like it, it wouldn’t matter to me as much and I probably wouldn’t be so harsh on it. It’s again, my own expectations here at play, or more accurately, my hopes.

            Y’know if the drama hadn’t tacked on that epilogue, I’d be so much happier with the ending, come to think of it. Why did it do that??!

          • Ahh, okay I’m seeing what it is that bugged you. For me, the test-contest outcome confirmed how far SKKS was going to go with regards to equality and the place of women in society. Which, as it turned out, wasn’t that far at all. It was saying how things were in the past was wrong — of course girls should learn, just like boys! — but it wasn’t questioning current day traditions. (An easy path, obviously.) But if there was an expectation for more — for Yoon-hee to really break out of the typical female lead role of current k-dramas — that would be disappointing.

            (For some reason the test-contest outcome wasn’t a surprise for me so I didn’t resent it. It just confirmed things. And now I’m wondering why I was expecting the story to conform to traditional romantic parameters with the guy as the protector? Sun-joon definitely saw himself as older than Yoon-shik — he was the teacher and the protector pretty much from the beginning. True she surprised him with her knowledge and grit and ability, but he still took the lead most of the time.)

            I have a friend who hates epilogues as a matter of principle. Her thought is if you have to include one you didn’t tell your story well enough. Or you don’t trust your audience. (I’m more agnostic. I like them unless I don’t. 😉 )

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