Fresh and promising, I thought. I was trying not to hope too much for Sungkyunkwan Scandal, which premiered today (Monday, that is). We’ve got a lot of promising dramas coming up and I didn’t want to jinx myself by getting excited about them all.
So I’ve been wary about this “Joseon F4” business that takes the venerated historic establishment of Sungkyunkwan and turns it on its ear with a modern, fusion twist, replete with rich-boy cliques and gender-bending students (well, just the one). But the drama takes its own twist on the setup (although there are definitely some familiar clichés), and I find myself interested in how the story progresses.
(The pronunciation, in case you are wondering, is sung-gyoon-gwan. Soft s and g’s.)
Ratings-wise, Sungkyunkwan Scandal got off to a slow start with a 6.3%, which is a drop from Gumiho: Tale of the Fox’s Child‘s 12.9% finale last week. (MBC’s Dong Yi drew a 27.3%, and SBS’s Giant pulled in a 20.9.) I’m not surprised given the tough competition, but it is a disappointment, and it was expected to make a bigger splash. I think it’s got time to built an audience.
SONG OF THE DAY
Hot Potato – “진취적인 그녀” (That enterprising girl) [ Download ]
LESSON 1 RECAP
We open with an establishing shot of Sungkyunkwan, which was founded in 1398 as the nation’s highest academic institution. It is still in existence, and in the time of this drama it is a prestigious school attended by the sons of noblemen.
Right away we see that this is no classical representation of the illustrious campus, instead imbued with a very modern flair. This drama takes liberties by reimagining the school with the spirit of a modern university, and that means slackerly students and rich boys with a sense of entitlement.
(You can see how the real Sungkyunkwan was offended by this drama’s loose depiction, but I think we’re all aware this is very much fictional.)
Moving away from the campus, we find one young man hurrying through the busy streets of the capital city. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that this is a girl in disguise — KIM YOON-HEE (played by Park Min-young) — who accidentally bumps into a passerby on her way to the book rental shop. She doesn’t notice that she drops the manuscript she’s carrying, so when she arrives, ready to collect her pay for transcribing the book, she finds that it’s gone.
This sends the waiting scholar into a panic, as he needs the text for the upcoming civil service examination. Yoon-hee isn’t worried, though, and asks for a mere 30 minutes to fix the problem. Taking out her calligraphy brush, she gets to work writing — and lo and behold, she has memorized the whole text and reproduces it in its entirety.
Another scholar in the shop witnesses this: the languid and eternally bored GU YONG-HA (Song Joong-ki), who has a taste for the finer things in life and who invents little activities to keep himself amused. He flips through Yoon-hee’s newly transcribed book and proclaims it perfect.
Yong-ha then looks at Yoon-hee with added interest — perchance he has caught wind of her true gender?
She regroups from his scrutiny and demands her pay. While this work isn’t exactly criminal, it’s unethical in that the rich boys of the school have tasked the bookshop with completing their work for them, for pay.
Yoon-hee has a gift for this kind of literary work, but her talents are wasted because as a woman, she cannot pursue education. Instead she uses this skill to earn money for her family.
There is at least one student who is incorruptible, though he may be the only one. He is LEE SUN-JOON (Park Yoo-chun, aka Micky Yoochun), an upright (and uptight) scholar who is at the top of his class.
Sun-joon is intelligent and confident, and therefore looks with disdain upon the desperate superstitions of his peers. For instance, his classmate Wang sets up an elaborate plan involving splattered eggs in order to take ten strands of his hair. Why? So he can pass the upcoming civil service examination. He has collected hair from the most brilliant minds, and Sun-joon’s will make his good-luck talisman complete.
Sun-joon takes the clump of hair… and lets it fly off in the wind. He tells Wang that he’s depending on chance, not effort, and says coolly, “I don’t care if you hate me. However, I cannot tolerate you telling me I am wrong.”
Yeah, he’s THAT guy.
The bookshop owner (Hwang), wonders why Yoon-hee doesn’t take the state exam herself (er, himself), because her smarts are tops. We know why she can’t, but she gives a blase answer about earning money instead of contending with those privileged slackers.
Ah, that gives Hwang his opening: He leads Yoon-hee to a secret basement room, where transcribers are busy filling in answer sheets and cheat booklets. His attitude is that if the entire world is corrupt, might as well make some cash from it.
He makes the offer to Yoon-hee to join in this work, promising huge earnings. The work pays many times more than her current transcribing job, and if she sat for an exam in place of someone else, she could earn 100 nyang in a day, which is three year’s wages.
She turns him down flatly. Not only is it illegal, she’d be going aginst her own moral code, and “that’s not something a man ought to do.”
Once she’s in private, Yoon-hee lets down her hair and takes off her man’s garb. Donning a woman’s hanbok, she resumes her normal persona and heads home, where she finds trouble.
Her mother is being harassed by men who are here to collect on her loan. Payment is due today, and her mother begs for their understanding, promising to pay back the money somehow. The man is unmoved by her pleas.
Yoon-hee steps in and faces him with righteous indignation, asking if this is how he abuses all people who are poor and powerless. He leers at her with interest, and says chillingly that they need not worry, since he has not just found something “of value.”
He makes clear his threat: either Mom can settle her debt with money, or she can sell her daughter as repayment.
They are poor but respectable folk; the family has fallen on hard times with the double-whammy of having no Dad (long dead) and a sick younger brother, Yoon-shik. This debt has been incurred to pay for Yoon-shik’s medicine, and now Yoon-hee assures her family not to worry. In fact, work is picking up and she will be able to make enough to pay back their debt.
What wonderful coincidence that their debt just happens to be exactly how much the booklender offered to pay! 100 nyang now becomes a matter of saving her family rather than standing on her integrity (oh, that little ole thing?), so Yoon-hee decides to take the substitute exam after all.
The day of examination arrives. The education system of the day is characterized by exams, and the students must pass various kinds at different stages — in order to get into Sungkyunkwan, in order to earn the designation of scholar, and then to advance into government careers.
The school prepares the rites, led by one of the most influential students at Sungkyunkwan, HA IN-SOO (Jeon Tae-soo, aka Ha Ji-won’s little bro). He’s the student body president and son of the war minister — an ambitious, humorless sort who commands a clique of toadies.
The testing grounds are busy with preparations, and fierce competition breaks out among test-takers for seats (usually fought by representatives of the students who are sent ahead to claim the spots). All around are signs of corruption, with illegal substitute test-takers in place, students with cheat sheets, and bribes being negotiated.
A nervous Yoon-hee arrives at the testing site, supplied with a code phrase, a map of the seating, and a drawing of her contact (the hapless Wang). She finds the marked spot and cites her code phrase — to Sun-joon.
The subtitles let us know that Sun-joon’s reply is in Wang’s literary style, so Yoon-hee proceeds, going through her spiel to offer him the various “levels” of cheatery available.
She’s encouraged by his reaction, until he cites the reward for whistleblowers who catch cheaters. He raises his hand in the air and calls out to the test officials. Panicking, she reconsults her diagram and drawing, only to realize that she mistook Sun-joon, with a teeny dot on his upper lip, for Wang, with his huge mole. Uh-oh!
While the officials head over, Yoon-hee begs Sun-joon for mercy, hurriedly telling him of her difficult home conditions and her sick brother. For a moment he seems to take pity on her, but then he proceeds anyway, announcing that somebody is attempting to take the test through fraudulent means.
Yoon-hee bows her head in dismay, awaiting her punishment… until Sun-joon declares that all the scholars here are the wrongdoers, and the officials as well.
He accuses everyone of being part of the overall corruption, which meets with some resistance, naturally. However, the accused head minister (whom we saw taking bribes) recoils when he hears who Sun-joon is — he’s the son of a very high-ranking government minister.
His word carries weight, and with this kind of scrutiny being shined on the proceedings, the officials crack down on all the cheating, kicking out all transgressors and administering the test properly. This allows Yoon-hee to slip away unnoticed.
Sun-joon is first to finish, and takes his papers up to the officials. But to his own chagrin, the head scholar asks dryly if he’s involved in some newfangled cheating scheme of his own — the back of his robes have been marked by someone else’s brush.
Now we see that while Sun-joon had sat for his exam, Yoon-hee had sat directly behind him, writing on his clothing. (Here we have more proof that Yoon-hee is not only skilled with the brush but witty and literary to boot.) Her words made it sound like he had written them, commenting on the hypocrisy of the upper classes, asking why it is that one who sells writing to buy rice is a thief, and one who sells writing to buy power is a loyal citizen. It adds, “I am the biggest thief of all,” where “I” means Sun-joon.
This means that the entire test site bursts into laughter, at Sun-joon’s expense.
As Sun-joon storms out, he trips over a bit of string — it’s a cheating tactic by the real Wang, who is receiving Yoon-hee’s aid. She’s delivering cheat sheets from a distance.
Sun-joon confronts her, and she runs. A chase ensues as Yoon-hee races through crowded streets, finally barreling into a passerby who stops her. It’s Yong-ha, who catches her in his arms and looks down at her quizzically (and confirms his earlier hunch about her gender).
Sun-joon gets detained by the other students in the group — this is In-soo’s clique, which includes Yong-ha and a few bumbling lackeys. A few terse words are exchanged between Sun-joon and In-soo; the former is guided by his rigid sense of ethics and unintimidated by the others, while the latter is smart enough to realize Sun-joon’s strength and is threatened by it.
Sun-joon resumes his pursuit, almost catching up to Yoon-hee. When he confronts a figure wearing a woman’s head covering, thinking it’s his quarry, the woman slaps him for his impertinence. It’s Yoon-hee, but because she is covered and speaks like a lady, Sun-joon stammers an apology, since it would never occur to him that Yoon-hee WAS a lady.
When she’s alone, Yoon-hee seems ashamed of herself for stooping to cheating, but that’s nothing compared to her feelings upon being found out by her mother. Her mother has found her materials and asks if she realizes the gravity of her crime if she were to be caught.
Her mother blames herself for not stopping her when Yoon-hee insisted she could take care of Yoon-shik’s medicine costs herself. But this is the end of the line — she must live as a woman now. She calls Yoon-hee’s writing talent “poison.”
Yoon-hee arrives at the home of the man her family owes, which turns out to be the war minister’s household, also home to In-soo and his spoiled sister, HA HYO-EUN (Seo Hyo-rim).
In a respectful tone, she addresses the lord of the house, saying she is here to “pay her respects” for his kindness. However, her words are very clever, as she says that his act will naturally attract people’s reproach, because people will say he used a high-interest loan to buy a young girl — she hopes that he will not be caught up in scandal because of her. She offers what coin she has, and promises to pay the rest.
The minister understands her words perfectly, interpreting them as a threat. She says no, all he has to fear is public sentiment. She knows the ancient Chinese war strategy that advises avoiding conflict if you know you’ll lose. This is her trying to avoid a fight.
Surprisingly, this makes him burst into laughter. He’s impressed that she knows military strategy and agrees that she is right; he should accept her repayment now, before public sentiment creates trouble.
But this is his own strategy at play, since obviously she can’t repay everything right now. Leering at her, he declares that he’ll have to make her his. He’ll send for her in three days.
As Yoon-hee leaves and walks along the crowded marketplace, feeling dejected, a thug comes along and snatches her money purse. She chases, catching up to him in an alley, and first demands, then pleads for her money back.
Matters escalate when they are joined by a whole gang of roughnecks — and the minister’s man.
In fear, Yoon-hee kneels before the men, begging for the money. She’s vastly outnumbered but makes a feeble attempt to fight back.
This is bound to end very badly for her, but the noise awakens someone sleeping nearby, who throws an apple that knocks the main aggressor aside. Looking every bit as rough-and-tumble as the gang, this mysterious guy drawls that he’d like to sleep in peace.
Although his identity technically remains hidden from us, we know this is MOON JAE-SHIN (Yoo Ah-in), another eventual Sungkyunkwan attendee, although you’d hardly be able to tell from the look of him.
A fight breaks out, and he swiftly dispatches the team of thugs with an impressive display of fighting prowess and acrobatics. After the fight ends, he tosses the money to Yoon-hee and heads out — at which point one guy makes one last attempt to attack from behind.
With his swift reflexes, Jae-shin simultaneously claps a hand over Yoon-hee’s eyes — to keep her from seeing what happens next — and clubs the attacker in the head. Hot damn he is sexy. (Yoo Ah-in, I knew you’d be my favorite!)
Yoon-hee thanks him profusely, but Jae-shin isn’t interested in her gratitude, nor does he accept her handkerchief to tend the cut on his arm. Instead, he tells her that the best way she can repay him is to not show up in front of him again.
Then he gives her some advice: “Don’t bow your head so easily. And don’t kneel to just anybody. That’ll become a habit, and once that’s a habit, it’s tough to fix.”
Meanwhile, Sun-joon has been trying his best to track down Yoon-hee, but his servant has been unable to find her (him).
He is called in to speak with his father (Kim Gab-soo), and it’s not hard to see how Sun-joon became the stickler he is. His father is respected, principled, and tough, and imparts some advice to his proud son. The whole world is waiting for him to misstep, and the most foolish man is the one who boasts of his own wisdom.
Sun-joon doesn’t want to hide his wisdom, because why should he? Dad answers that there’s nothing wrong with preserving his name and authority, but to remember his position and heritage.
Dad’s warning is right on the money, as In-soo’s team of idiots is busy plotting Sun-joon’s demise, wanting to put him in his place. Er, below his place, I guess. The dumb duo offer clumsy suggestions like hiring a gang of thugs, but In-soo looks to the cleverer Yong-ha for a solution. And sure enough, Yong-ha tears his attention away from his sexy comics long enough to offer up one possible plan.
Intent on tracking down Yoon-hee, Sun-joon goes around with a drawing of her (the male version). The reason he gives for his pursuit is that he has a “debt to repay,” which is supposed to sound ominous but could be read in more than one way. The booklender recognizes the drawing, but keeps quiet and denies knowing him.
Yoon-hee bursts in to the store to ask Hwang for help — she needs 100 nyang right away. She requests an advance for taking the next exam, but Hwang turns her down — everyone’s nervous from the last exam fiasco. So she turns to reverse psychology, sighing that perhaps this work wasn’t meant for her. In fact, she’ll have to reflect on her misdeeds and confess… and those confessions will probably include mention of this bookshop…
Faced with this unappealing prospect, Hwang caves. He can offer her 50 nyang up front, and tells her of a risky job she can do for him.
Yong-ha sees her emerging from the store and confronts the booklender, saying that he knows he’s harboring the kid that Sun-joon has been looking for. Exerting a little pressure of his own, Yong-ha has Hwang in a precarious position. Gulp.
Next, he meets with Sun-joon and offers to help him find that guy, which has Sun-joon suspicious. Why the offer of help?
Yong-ha cites florid stuff like collegiate fraternity and loyalty, then cuts to the chase: It’s not for any of those BS reasons. In fact, he’s only got one simple reason to help: “For fun.”
He’s interested in seeing how far Sun-joon pursues this matter, which will provide him entertainment. He offers one way to find Yoon-hee, but it’s dangerous, and requires one big sacrifice. Is he in?
The job requires Yoon-hee to smuggle a banned book to another contact. Because the government has forbidden the book, if she is caught in possession of it, she will face dire consequences. With that in mind, she nervously makes her way through the forest to her rendezvous point.
What she doesn’t know is that In-soo’s team has set this up, per Yong-ha’s plan. It’s actually a trap to frame the exalted Sun-joon with the banned book, and they’ve got the royal police force on alert to catch him in the act.
Not knowing this, the two parties meet in a dark shed, where they exchange the coded password.
Yoon-hee starts to make the hand-off, but to her surprise, Sun-joon grabs her wrist. Immediately, she thinks this is some sort of trick he’s playing in retaliation (and she still thinks he’s Wang), so she dashes outside. Sun-joon follows, asking, “Do you know how much I’ve been looking for you?”
I suspect he isn’t out to get her, but the sound of approaching policemen interrupts before he can explain. Yoon-hee assumes that he framed her with this scenario, and slaps him angrily.
Sun-joon grabs the book from her, then faces the first wave of officers, fighting them back rather impressively. However, he’s outnumbered by at least twenty to one, and turns to run.
But first, he shoves Yoon-hee down the hill to get her out of their way — although she doesn’t interpret it as a kind gesture — then takes off.
Elsewhere, In-soo’s clique toasts to Sun-joon’s imminent downfall. Yong-ha sighs in boredom that he thought Sun-joon would have put up more of a fight, almost disappointed to end it so quickly. Meanwhile, In-soo drinks in grim satisfaction.
Back in the forest, Yoon-hee grumbles at Sun-joon’s boorish behavior, not fully understanding the situation they’re in. Silently, Sun-joon grabs her and claps a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet, pulling her out of sight of the police who are scouring the forest for them.
They huddle behind a large boulder, just as the lead officer pauses. As he turns toward their hiding spot, Sun-joon pulls Yoon-hee closer to him to pull her out of sight, but in the midst of this tense moment, her heart starts to pound.
It’s partly the panic of the moment but there’s definitely some of that omg-hot-boy-holding-me awareness in there, and Yoon-hee struggles to pull back and gain some distance. But Sun-joon, ever aware of the danger lurking, refuses to slacken his grip and holds her tightly to himself.
First off, the plot:
Sungkyunkwan Scandal has been compared to Boys Before Flowers (F4 at school) and a number of cross-dressing shows (Coffee Prince, Painter of the Wind, You’re Beautiful). There are enough similarities that the comparisons are understandable, such as the part where the girl is forced to cross-dress in order to pay a debt. No better way to justify an extreme premise than to saddle the heroine with a sick brother and poor family, right? That makes her sacrifice noble and admirable, rather than perplexing.
Despite those points of comparison, though, I found enough about Sungkyunkwan to be fresh and different that I wasn’t even thinking of any of those other shows while I was watching. In fact, I thought that if I had to pick a show that seemed most similar, I’d pick Tamra the Island for the tone. It’s not quite as jokesy, but it has some of that similar freshness and a darker undercurrent hinting at deeper story stuff down the pipeline. This, in my book, is a good thing.
Perhaps we’ll get more of an F4 vibe later when all of these characters are at school together, but right now I don’t see anything of Boys Before Flowers in this story (which, again, is a good thing). I am very pleased that not only do these characters not all know each other, they don’t even like each other, particularly with the curious sabotage going on between Yong-ha and Sun-joon.
And most of all, I love that two of the three main dudes already know that Yoon-hee is a girl. (Okay, Yong-ha doesn’t have concrete proof, but he pretty much knows the truth.) That gets some of the familiar territory off the table — those “Oh no, they think I’m a boy, isn’t this awkward!” moments are fun to watch, but by this point they’re old hat. I’m interested to see if this drama makes twists upon the familiar scenarios.
As for the acting:
As expected, Yoo Ah-in totally commands the screen when he’s on, and he was ON. He was the least-known of the four main actors, but I was sensing he’d be the sharpest and most charismatic — he has a really fantastic ability to be a chameleon, and his dark assassin role in Strongest Chil Woo proved he’d be able to take this careless rebel character and make him intriguing.
Song Joong-ki is also very good, playing this bored hedonist type. He reminds me of the Valmont character in Dangerous Liaisons (or, for you younger folks out there, Sebastian in Cruel Intentions). Not quite as cruel, but he has a dark streak that I dig. I hope they play it out rather than cheering him up right away. I’ve been dying to see Song act in meatier roles for a while.
Park Min-young has been okay in past roles, but I wasn’t expecting too much of her. I think she held her own well, and although I won’t say she’s the best actress to do this type of role, I’m okay with her. For now.
Yoochun… erm… I wasn’t wowed, I’ll be honest. He wasn’t outright bad, and he’s not so weak that he drags the show down. But he wasn’t strong. He was a little flat, and yes, I realize that his character is supposed to be cold and supercilious. I think what I miss is the spark of charisma that the other characters have — his Sun-joon is a great character and I enjoy this setup where he’s cut himself off from everyone with his superior ways. But I wish he had a little more oomph — more emotion, more verve, more… energy. And that doesn’t mean he has to act OUT and BIG, but that he could stand to bring more passion to his acting.
Still, I think he has room to improve, and I actually like the chemistry between Sun-joon and Yoon-hee. I suspect that he wasn’t after her out of revenge (which is one way you can read his statement, “I’ll pay him back”) but out of some other reason.
Sageuk purists will probably be chafing at the liberties Sungkyunkwan Scandal takes, but frankly I’m much more drawn to the fusion stuff than the straight period pieces. Mostly because the fusion pieces allow for a sense of humor, and Sungkyunkwan knows when to play it light and free. I suspect that it will dip into some serious territory later — the seeds are being planted, that much is clear — but I hope the characters and concept are enough to keep the drama going.