The Sageuk Bandwagon
Yunno, I might just have to rethink my opinion on the whole sageuk thing. And by “rethink,” I mean “start watching.”
I’ve never been a fan of historical “sageuk” dramas. The Adults In The Family watched them all the time when I was growing up, and they’re consistently solid ratings performers among Korean viewers. But I didn’t get the appeal. Maybe it was the antiquated speech, maybe it was the (generally) low production values, maybe it was a culture gap thing. Maybe it struck me as old granny dramas since my grannies watched them. Even in light of recent, well-produced sageuk blockbusters (Dae Jang Geum, Jumong, Dae Jo Young…), I’ve remained staunchly anti-sageuk.
I asked my parents a while ago what the appeal of sageuk dramas were, since they both watched them, although neither are huge sageuk fans. My mother (the literary buff) agreed that sageuks aren’t very fun, but they’re familiar and reliable, stories she’d grown up hearing. My father (the history buff) had a different interpretation, and that was that they are an important aspect of Korean people reclaiming their own histories.
After all, Korea has for ages resisted its conquerors who tried to rewrite its storied, rich history, and had to fight the marginalization of its historical importance. Hallyu is a great source of pride for Koreans for a great many different reasons — there’s the simple sense of pride in a job well done, seeing such overseas popularity of domestic products — but I’ve got to think part of the satisfaction must also stem from a sense of ownership, of one’s own folklore and history, that its achievements are finally being recognized outside its own insular culture. On a more visible platform than previously, at least.
My mother watches sageuks because they’re familiar entertainment; my father watches them because they’re important. As for me……
SONG OF THE DAY
Leeds 리즈 – “그깟 사랑” (That kind of love) [ zShare download ]
Well, my opinion (said the drama buff) comes from a much more frivolous place: Are they fun?
I was thinking that the upcoming drama season looked to be pretty bland, being for some strange reason overloaded with a crop of historical offerings. There’s HONG GIL DONG, the fusion sageuk about a legendary Robin Hood-like figure, starring the charismatic Kang Ji Hwan, alongside baby-faced Jang Geun Seok from the historical drama Hwang Jini (and also college sitcom Nonstop 4, but who remembers that?), as well as (meh) Sung Yuri — about whom the best thing anyone can say is, “Well, she’s improved…” Even the fact that the Hong sisters are writing the series wasn’t an immediate yes for me.
There’s the super-high-budget Bae Yong Joon vehicle LEGEND… but I didn’t love either Yonsama OR the (in my opinion) overrated Winter Sonata, so I’m not necessarily itching to jump aboard that one.
There’s THE KING AND I, starring two actors I do like, Oh Man Seok (The Vineyard Man, Hyena) and Gu Hye Sun (Pure 19, Nonstop 5), but… the series, not so much.
But it took the little, rather silly fusion sageuk STORY OF HYANG DAN (or Hyang Dan Jeon) to finally come around to the idea that not only are historical dramas not necessarily boring, they can be funny and entertaining as well. (Yes, I’m planning on putting up the recap for Episode 2. Sometime. Soon. Ish.)
For me, part of the appeal, aside from thinking, “This really happened (kind of),” is in how the societal restrictions of the time affected the romantic developments. I’ve heard a lot of people say they enjoy kdramas because they’re more “innocent” — at least in its depictions of romance, love, sex, passion — than lots of salacious, sensationalistic Western programming. That’s generally true — even a racy, or violent, Korean program isn’t on the same plane as a racy or violent American show (have you seen Dexter? Which, by the way, you totally should — sympathetic serial killers! It’s awesome).
But while a regular kdrama no longer gets away with lame, frozen-in-place, chaste kisses, a sageuk strives for historical veracity (kind of), and a simple hand-touch is still enough to get you excited over the implications. Heck, a wayward glance is practically a soul-searing admission of love, so any form of skin-to-skin contact is essentially a full-on expression of carnal desire.
I was watching Hyang Dan, and loved how in Episode 1, Hyang Dan took a moment to enjoy holding on to Mong Ryong when he had her ride on his horse. I nearly squealed in glee when they touched hands for a brief, innocuous moment when he handed her something in Episode 2. In a culture where being found alone with a man could lead to enough suspicion to disgrace a woman, the closeness they share often has to be sneaked in whenever possible, so I felt Hyang Dan’s sadness at sending off Mong Ryong for some alone time with Chun Hyang in the boat in Episode 1 — and adding insult to injury, she has to sit by and watch them from a distance. Even if the viewer’s used to much more suggestive stuff in real life, seeing the relationship through the context of the material turns little things like that into heady stuff.
So, I figure, now’s a good a time as any to at least try looking at the sageuk genre with an open mind. I’m hoping Hong Gil Dong turns out to be a fun series, and I’m taking the recent CONSPIRACY IN THE COURT (Han Sung Byul Gok) for a whirl. Judging from the first part, it looks fantastic. If Hyang Dan Jeon is a fusion romantic comedy, then Conspiracy in the Court is a fusion political thriller — and it’s gorgeous, and intense. In some ways, it reminds me of Mawang/Devil — excellent production, beautiful cinematography, intriguing plot — even if it’s not necessarily my style. Hopefully it holds up.
(Dae Jang Geum)