Sungkyunkwan Scandal: Episode 2
I liked Episode 2 even more than the first; now that we’re past some of the setup, I find these relationships quite compelling, and all the various possible entanglements are rife with possibility. Even the more clichéd elements (such as her cross-dressing at school) have different stakes here, since the consequences of being found out are so severe — it’s no longer a matter of losing the guy’s trust, but of failing your family and facing severe punishment, possibly execution.
Tonally, the relationship chemistry is more Coffee Prince than You’re Beautiful — both were fun dramas, but I like this better than the reverse scenario. And despite my misgivings about Yoochun’s acting in the first episode, I like him a lot more in this one, which is mostly because I LOVE his character.
SONG OF THE DAY
Sungkyunkwan Scandal OST – “찾았다” (I Found Her). The title means a generic “I found it,” but the lyrics go on to say that “I found my love, the one I was searching for.” [ Download ]
LESSON 2 RECAP
At first the thumping heart is Yoon-hee’s, but when their pursuers leave and he deems them safe, Sun-joon finally looks down at her, and has a moment of startled awareness himself. Yoon-hee pulls back awkwardly, and demands her money in exchange for the book.
Right away, we have one of the reasons I responded so strongly to this drama; it’s beautiful to look at and to listen to. Take the following bit of background score, which is lush, lovely, and evocative — it reminds me of Tamra the Island or Return of Iljimae, actually. (That background noise is rain, not static.)
Elsewhere, awaiting word is In-soo’s in-group (clique? cadre? posse?). Upon hearing that Sun-joon got away, the reaction is frustration mixed with some admiration. In-soo is displeased but Yong-ha waves it aside, saying that traps and schemes always come with a twist.
Now safe, Sun-joon says he doesn’t have the money on him and promises to pay her later. Yoon-hee doesn’t trust him and wants to follow him home, to which he tosses out that he won’t throw away his integrity over “a mere 50 nyang.” That insults her, because it may be nothing to him but this money represents life to her — her brother’s and her own.
He gives her his word and asks for her name so he can leave the money for her at the bookshop. Plus, he’ll see her at the testing site for the next exam. She gives her brother’s name (Yoon-shik), but says she isn’t going to sit for the exam.
Sun-joon reminds her of the words she’d written on his clothing, and entreats her to sit for the exam. If the plight of the citizens bothers her so much, she should enter into government service fair and square, and make her case from the inside. He calls her “Scholar Kim Yoon-shik” — which is a mark not only of respect, as it makes them equals, but also his faith that she’ll pass the exam.
She scoffs at his idealism — she knows that the world isn’t a true meritocracy, and that the picture he paints is naive. She declares, with some bitterness, “I don’t think that Joseon is such a great nation.”
Aw, I love this dynamic already. So many layers and bits of meaning woven through it.
The king comments to Minister Lee, Sun-joon’s father, that he heard of his son’s little scene at the exams yesterday. (The other official by Kim Gab-soo’s side is Minister Ha, aka In-soo’s father, aka the lecher with an interest in Yoon-hee.)
Sun-joon’s father apologizes, but the king isn’t offended. Rather, he has decided to make sure that the next exam will be held properly, and announces his intent to personally attend. This causes scholars to burn their cheat sheets and hang their heads in despair with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Yoon-hee bursts into the bookshop to ask if Sun-joon has delivered the money, but he hasn’t. Hwang whispers of an opportunity to take the test for someone, but she reminds him of the king’s decree; this would put her life at stake. However, Hwang preys upon her desperation — the job would provide the needed 100 nyang.
That night, Yoon-hee mulls over her options, neither of which are desirable. Take the test and risk execution? Or not take the test and walk into certain doom as the war minister’s kept woman? Prostitute her brains, or her body? Which is the lesser of two evils?
On the morning of the exam, Minister Ha’s horrible steward arrives to collect her.She is dressed prettily and prepared for delivery — the scene recalls an animal being readied for slaughter — as her mother watches, heavy-hearted. Yoon-hee asks for a few moments to say goodbye to her family, and then is loaded into the sedan chair.
At the test site, Hwang waits with increasing nervousness at Yoon-hee’s absence, begging for extra time before the gates are closed. Thankfully, the latecomer arrives just in time…
…while back at home, the lady being seated in the chair reveals her face. It’s the real Yoon-shik, taking his sister’s place so she can take his.
(There’s something very melancholy and stirring about Yoon-shik, even though he has barely said a word thus far. Sound of mind though weak in body, he must feel miserable to be a burden and unable to help)
Yoon-hee takes a seat and waits for her “client” to make contact with her. As she looks around, a voice asks if she’s looking for her cheater contact. Nervously, she wonders if it’s Wang again — but no, the one who paid for her to take the test is Sun-joon.
(Aie! He “bought” her a seat at the exam to force her to take it! OH MY GOD I LOVE YOU SUN-JOON.)
But matters aren’t quite so simple as that. First, Sun-joon raises a hand to alert the proctors, announcing, “Look here! There is a person dirtying this test site!”
Yet when asked who it is, he names himself — and he meant “dirtying” literally, not metaphorically. He points to Yoon-hee’s ink-smeared scroll and asks for another, and this requires her to present her identification in order to receive a new testing sheet. This is his way of forcing her to use her real name (er, her brother’s). Under all this attention, Yoon-hee is compelled to give up her tag. Given a fresh sheet, she sits through the test.
She’s one of the last to complete the exam, along with Sun-joon (though it appears he’s stalling until she’s done, so he can follow her up). As they walk, she asks why he’s doing this. He says it’s because cheating is bad. She resorts to her go-to line whenever she can’t think of anything else to say, and retorts that he’d better pay for the book.
To their surprise, the test-takers are held back to await announcement of whether they have passed, to be delivered by the king. This is an unusual occurrence, and throws Yoon-hee into a panic at the prospect of facing the king directly with her fraud.
One by one, each person is called to receive results.
When she is called, Yoon-hee approaches in dread. The reason becomes clear a moment later when the king opens her exam sheet and reads her answer. Suddenly angered, he raises his voice in condemnation, and she drops to her knees to plead forgiveness. Clearly she hadn’t expected to be held back to explain herself, and now she has to deal with the fallout.
Again, her wit has gotten the better of her, as her answer is a cleverly worded admission of her intent to cheat. It finishes with the declaration that she has no right to enter government service.
The officials demand to know who called her here to cheat on his behalf, and she looks back at Sun-joon, who sits amongst the others, surprised at this turn of events. Yoon-hee answers that her contact didn’t come.
Sun-joon interrupts to declare that she is lying. He stands and identifies himself as the offender.
He explains that this he employed Yoon-shik to take the test — Yoon-shik has outstanding talents, but is unable to serve the government due to his unfortunate circumstances. This was his way of giving him a chance to take the test. And if someone as intelligent as Yoon-shik were unable to serve, Sun-joon had decided that he would not serve, either.
Have I mentioned that I love Sun-joon? (Also: It must be nice to have that unwavering faith in your stance — admirable, but aided by the power of his privilege. He may not intend to rely on his position, but it shrouds him like a protective cocoon.)
The king, however, angrily decrees that they will be dealt with severely… and instructs, “Go to Sungkyunkwan.” Both she and Sun-joon are ordered to live and board at the school, to spend all their time in pursuit of the righteous path. That is a royal command.
The king approaches Sun-joon and softens, saying with warmth that he will show the two of them the Joseon of which they dream.
Overwhelmed with how far she is in over her head, Yoon-hee falls to his feet in an almost-faint, then coughs loudly, claiming that (s)he is sick and dormitory life too hard.
That attempt doesn’t work, since he calls his royal doctor to examine this worthy young man. The doctor feels a pulse, and knows the truth immediately, announcing, “This person is a woman!” This angers the king and creates an uproar as she is condemned to execution…
…which, of course, is her guilty conscience in overdrive. In other words: Fake-out! In actuality, all she can do is to accept the king’s order. Worse yet, he promises to remember her face.
As they leave, Yoon-hee tells Sun-joon angrily that she had no intention of taking the exam. Leave that for the bored, privileged people like him.
Sun-joon says he was wrong after all, if she was the type to stand on excuses and throw away this opportunity. He hands her the money owed for the book, then leaves her with a few last words — that if she’s worried about her brother’s health, entering Sungkyunkwan is best, as scholars get medicine for free and a stipend. If she’s so foolish to overlook that, well, she’d be no good to the citizenry as a civil servant anyway. Ah, reverse psychology.
Booklender Hwang gives Yoon-hee 50 nyang as a “scholarship,” which makes her suspicious — is this some kind of loan? What’s he up to? He tells her it’s an advance, and since scholars will be given a stipend, she feels free to accept, not aware that Sun-joon provided the money (and made Hwang swear to secrecy).
Now Yoon-hee has the needed 100 nyang to repay the debt, and she delivers it to Minister Ha’s household and retrieves her brother, who has been beaten in punishment for their switch.
Yoon-hee is overcome with guilt but Yoon-shik tells her it’s okay: “I’m glad there was something I could do for you.” He’d never been able to rest easy with her working so hard for his expense.
Instead of being angered, Minister Ha laughs to hear of Yoon-hee’s actions, intrigued by the girl’s perspicacity. He can afford to play a li’l cat-n-mouse for now, because he figures she can’t hold out forever, and “I have never let go of a girl I’ve taken a fancy to.” Ugh, shudders! The guy is a Class A creep. I guess if you want a brilliant tactician planning your country’s wars to undermine the enemy, he’s your guy?
That evening, Sun-joon speaks to his father, who eyes his latest behavior at the exam with a little amusement and perhaps even pride. He chuckles to hear that the guy that Sun-joon spoke up for was accepted to Sungkyunkwan — if Sun-joon has faith in somebody, that person’s success reflects well on him, and by extension also Minister Lee. However, Dad cautions that Yoon-hee hasn’t yet “passed,” and adds — firmly, but not unkindly — that the same goes for Sun-joon. In his father’s eyes, until he has advanced and proven himself, he hasn’t passed muster either.
Yoon-hee’s mother is opposed to her entering Sungkyunkwan — and living in a dormitory with other young men — but Yoon-hee doesn’t have a choice, as it was the king’s order. This is why Mom had told her daughter that her studies would be a bane rather than blessing.
Yoon-hee says tearfully, “I want to live as a person.” If she has to be dragged off to be Minister Ha’s kept woman, she will forever be valued by her price, 100 nyang, rather than as a person. She wants to go to Sungkyunkwan, where she will be able to provide for Yoon-shik’s medicine on her own merits, earn a stipend, and improve her education. That is the path to living as a person.
Yoon-shik enters the conversation to take his sister’s side. Even though this means he will not be able to live under his own name, he argues that his sister has always lived for him, and asks for his mother’s approval.
And so, Yoon-hee prepares to enter the school, sent off with specially prepared food from her mother. She notices that her mother’s hair is no longer adorned with her ornament, which her mother presses into her hand, saying, “I’m not letting you go because you want to go, I’m sending you.” (This is her way of giving her approval.)
Mom warns her to endure hardship no matter what and to not lose her cool, because nobody must learn that she is a girl. Her brother gives her his identity tag and wishes her well.
On her way through town, Yoon-hee witnesses a loud argument in one of the food stalls — the proprietress angrily berates one customer for not paying for his liquor. The offender is Moon Jae-shin, who is hardly perturbed by the accusations; a little drunkenly, he swaggers off with a glib comment. This scene is barely noteworthy in an episode packed with events, but I mention it because it’s our only glimpse of Yoo Ah-in this episode (sob!).
Sun-joon is accompanied to the school by an emotional manservant, who says he’ll miss him. The servant points ahead to someone else in line, commenting that the “pretty young man” also came — Yoon-hee. Er, Yoon-shik.
Each of the new entrants is checked in at the gate, and both Yoon-hee and Sun-joon are recognized (albeit separately). I guess you don’t kick up a huge fuss at the testing site without registering in people’s memories.
Upon entering the courtyard, Yoon-hee looks around amidst all the hubbub, and is approached by fellow freshman BAE HAE-WON (in white). He came from the same school as Sun-joon and offers a friendly greeting. Interrupting them is a third frosh, KIM WOO-TAK, who makes a grand introduction that goes largely ignored. Hae-won has a melancholy, hapless air about him, while the quirky Woo-tak (wearing the glasses) is all big talk, but in a harmless way. (They’ll likely be comic relief characters.)
Yoon-hee walks around, familiarizing herself with the classrooms, library, and grounds, gulping a little when an upperclassman playing soccer takes off his shirt.
Sun-joon is the freshman with the most influential background and gets the VIP treatment by the school’s obsequious (and easily corrupted) chancellor. He gets the full suck-up treatment, as the man calls his father a close friend and offers to lend him these quarters if he doesn’t like his own.
Sun-joon wipes that smile right off the chancellor’s face by calling him out on his behavior, pointing out that he’s faking the closeness with his father and so forth. He also says firmly that he will decline any instance of special treatment.
JUNG YAK-YONG (played by Ahn Nae-sang) has been sent by the king to Sungkyunkwan, and hears this conversation. (He is a real-life person who was a leading philosopher of the day.) Jung asks if Sun-joon’s insistence on equal treatment will end up making things awkward for the others. Sun-joon answers that they shouldn’t give up at the first sign of discomfort.
Room assignments are posted, and Yoon-hee is startled to hear that they have to share rooms — no singles. And guess who she’s assigned to bunk with? This drama wouldn’t be interesting if she didn’t have to live with Sun-joon, now would it?
Yong-ha overhears her fretting and interrupts to say that there’s no need to worry, since that won’t happen and he probably won’t be around. A third person is on the list, but he hardly ever sleeps there. Yong-ha assures her she’ll get to use the room alone, which is pretty lucky for a new student.
She smiles in relief, and he swoops in to examine her reaction. Does she have a particular reason she needs a single room? She stammers no.
Yong-ha introduces himself, offering both his name and nickname — it appears each of our main characters will get their own nicknames, and his is Yeo-rim, which refers to his playboyish ways with the ladies.
Before she can react, he grabs her in a hug, which freaks her out, naturally. He whispers in her ear — further unnerving her — that she’ll be getting a nickname soon enough.
Yoon-hee enters her room expecting it to be empty, but to her horror, Sun-joon is already inside, settling in.
She protests profusely, saying she cannot share a room with him. He isn’t too keen on sharing his room either with someone who so easily denigrates their country, but he’ll endure. He advises her to endure, too.
To her surprise, a group of upperclassmen runs through the dorm area, dousing the lights and calling out the newbies. The incoming class gathers in the courtyard, where a light display is presented. Then, flour is doused over the newbies (which is still in practice today), and a select group of senior students comes out wearing elaborate masks.
In the administrative offices, one professor asks the others to stop the students, but the officials aren’t going to intrude on tradition.
We can guess who’s leading the activities — In-soo’s gang — though they remain covered as they start the tradition. Yong-ha declares that they will begin collecting offerings from each of them, and the new students are called up one by one to present the food they brought.
So they give up their offerings — some willingly, and some much more reluctantly.
Yoon-hee knows her food is humble — plain rice cakes made by her mother — and goes up reluctantly. Sure enough, the upperclassman handling the offerings (the loutish Byung-choon) kicks her basket aside, sending the cakes into the dirt.
She clenches her fists — she must endure, after all — and turns silently to return to her place. But then, she changes her mind and turns back, which quiets the proceedings as everyone watches rapt, freshman and upperclassman alike. She strides right up to Byung-choon and asks, isn’t he a student who came here to learn? Did any of their books say it was okay to mock food because it was humble?
Byung-choon stammers his defense, saying he wouldn’t have treated edible food that way. She returns, “If it’s not food, what is it?” He declares it’s not fit for dogs or pigs to eat. He moves to stomp on the rice cake with his foot, but the step is blocked by a hand. Not hers — Sun-joon’s.
With care, Sun-joon collects the fallen rice cakes and puts them back into the basket — silently, undramatically — and places it on the table with the other offerings.
By now all the senior students’ masks have come off in their curiosity, and Sun-joon says, “You’re right, it’s not food. Once you have risen to success, it is the sweat and blood of the citizens you will have to care for.” He offers one cake to the offender, saying, “So please partake.”
Byung-choon balks nervously, unwilling to eat something that fell on the ground. So Sun-joon takes a bite himself, and that causes quite a slew of reactions: Yoon-hee’s eyes widen, Yong-ha smiles in approval, and In-soo smirks.
Sun-joon places the rice cake in Byung-choon’s hand and challenges him to eat it, “If you’re not a dog or a pig.”
Enjoying this twist immensely, Yong-ha fetches the basket and puts a cake into the mouth of Lackey #2 (Go-bong) and takes a bite himself. Then he walks around with the basket and tells everyone to take one bite of the peasants’ blood and sweat.
Sun-joon addresses everyone now, saying that Sungkyunkwan is a place where they learn for the sake of the commoners. Turning to look specifically at In-soo, he declares that if you don’t agree, he won’t acknowledge him as a scholar.
Now In-soo gets up and says that Sungkyunkwan is where they prepare for their advancements, and learn how to bring order to society. It’s also where they learn who’s strong and who’s weak — and how the weak should act toward the strong. He vows, looking at Sun-joon, “I’ll teach this to you properly.”
One professor listens at a distance and wonders what this means — is he declaring his intent to expel Sun-joon from the school?
Now, they move on to the task portion in these traditional rites. The freshman class is given written instructions in riddle form, and whoever wins will gain a “big prize.” On the other hand, those who can’t follow the orders will get stripped of his shirt.
This time it’s Yoon-hee who approaches Sun-joon, advising him to hurry to make their time limit. She babbles a bit until he asks her what she wants to say, and she thanks him for his help. She heard In-soo is an incredibly powerful person and worries that he put himself on the line.
He tells her not to worry, because he didn’t do it on anyone’s behalf; he was acting according to his own principles.
She jokes about taking her time, not really believing that non-finishers will get kicked out without administrative reason, but he warns her that once you’re out, you’ll never get another chance to take the state exam or advance. That gets her in motion, and she hurries.
Each person has a slightly different clue leading them to a different location. One of In-soo’s cronies goes to Hyo-eun (In-soo’s sister) to request her aid in prepraration for her visitor — Sun-joon. She smiles a little in anticipation of meeting him.
Yoon-hee, on the other hand, figures that her clue leads her to gisaeng Cho-sun, and she is to “get her affection” via silk petticoat.
I’m presuming these tasks are meant to have obstacles, and Yoon-hee finds herself unable to see Cho-sun, who is the top gisaeng at the gibang (gisaeng house). Instead she is waylaid by a group of gisaengs — who, by the way, had been admiring her in Episode 1 but been rebuffed.
In her desperation to avoid being undressed and discovered as a woman, Yoon-hee bursts out of her room and runs away — but smashes into another room by accident.
Just her luck, this is the room where Cho-sun is attending to Minister Ha. This angers the man for several reasons: He was just about to get busy with his companion, and other guests recognize him and begin whispering.
However, he takes a good look at Yoon-hee’s face, and seems to recognize her. Pointing a finger, he declares, “You…!”
First off, how beautiful is this drama, huh? Despite the trendy-romantic-comedy angle that they used to market this drama, I am responding much more to the more meaty storylines. (Although student shenanigans are, of course, very enjoyable to watch.)
But take, for instance, this contrast between Sun-joon and Yoon-hee. Unlike other supercilious heroes of kdrama yore, Sun-joon isn’t willfully snobby — like, say, Gu Jun-pyo or Hwang Tae-kyung. I love that he believes he’s a fair guy, but by very dint of his privilege, he’s buffered by his place in society. He’s the type for whom the term “ivory tower” was invented. As part of the elite class he’s therefore out of touch with reality — he of the “Oh, 50 nyang, what piddle.”
And then, Yoon-hee challenges him about the social gap between the high-borns and the low-borns. Oh, I’m sure Sun-joon is aware of their existence on a theoretical level, but she’s the one who gives him a concrete look at how dirty and miserable life is like on the bottom. She’s cynical, he’s idealistic.
In traditional Cinderella stories, Prince Chaebol swoops in and uses his luxury to save his girl, but hardly anyone else. In contrast, it appears Sun-joon’s code of morality won’t just help the girl he loves, but society on a grander scale. I love this setup.
And while I still think Yoochun’s playing his character with a flat affect, it almost-sorta works with his character’s noble earnestness. I’m liking Sun-joon more and more.
(Note: This may become a guest-recapped series, so I give you fair warning that recaps may assume a different schedule come next week.)