“…a delightfully upbeat adventure tale, with a sizzling romance — and an unexpected bromance…”
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 — there 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.
But 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. 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.
Bringing 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.
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, taking 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.
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.