Moonlight Drawn By Clouds: Episode 1
Moonlight Drawn By Clouds is basically cuteness overload. It’s not your grandpa’s sageuk, or even your mother’s sageuk, and makes no claims to historical realism. If anything, this is your little sister’s sageuk, full of puppies and rainbows and an effervescent bright spirit, and I mean that in all of the good ways—it’s youthful but not juvenile, sweet but not saccharine. That makes it a solid successor to Sungkyunkwan Scandal, just with less seriousness and more cheek. I could really use a show like this about now.
EPISODE 1: “Moonlight Fate”
In the palace, a young crown prince is attended to by his dignified staff and dressed in his regal blue dragon robes. He sits reading a book with stately poise… and then his mouth quirks up in a grin and he shoots a surreptitious look around. Ha, are you reading something naughty?
This is YI YEONG, also known as Crown Prince HYOMYEONG (Park Bo-gum); he’s the son of King Sunjo and grandson of King Jeongjo, which puts us in late-1820s Joseon. When Yeong tosses the book aside, we see the title—”The Unknown Love Life of Joseon”—written by author Hong Sam-nom.
That author is also a famed love counselor whose real name is HONG RA-ON (Kim Yoo-jung), who happens to be a woman passing herself off as a man. She’s currently dressed in her male guise as she receives a nervous visitor asking advice “for a friend.” Aw, it’s Cha Tae-hyun!
Ra-on immediately recognizes the “friend’s” symptoms as lovesickness, and in his excitement, Lonelyhearts accidentally grabs onto a box and turns on a red light. Ra-on guesses correctly that Lonelyhearts’ friends have all been warning him against his impossible love, but she turns on the green light (heh!) and advises him to have courage and confess. Lonelyhearts brightens at the encouragement.
Ra-on later observes as Lonelyhearts attempts to speak to the object of his affections—ah, he’s a slave and she’s a high-born young lady (cameo by Jo Yeo-jung), and she won’t give him a second glance. So Ra-on advises Lonelyhearts to stay away for ten days to make her wonder, and he dutifully obeys.
After the tenth day, Lonelyhearts appears and silently crosses paths with his lady in the road. A falling tree branch crashes down toward her, and he dashes forward to rescue her. She betrays a flicker of emotion when seeing that he’s injured, but coldly instructs him not to do anything like this again. He grabs her and insists that he will continue to save her from all harm in the future.
Smack! She slaps him, to his shock. But then she gets teary-eyed and asks plaintively, “Where did you disappear to for ten days?” She lifts her hand to touch his injured face, and then he hugs her joyously. And as Lonelyhearts looks over his lady’s shoulder, Ra-on waves at him from up in the tree, axe in hand.
Ha, a look at the other titles written by Ra-on (as Hong Sam-nom) reveals “Scholar From Mars, Woman from Venus” before we land on “Moonlight Drawn By Clouds.” Today we’re in Chapter 1: “Moonlight Fate.”
At the palace, a huddle of attendants gather around Yeong’s door, and it seems they’re used to constantly worrying about their prince, who has them at wits’ end.
A short while later, the king makes his way toward a pavilion, ignoring the prince’s attendant, Eunuch Jang, and pausing to greet the prime minister. Both men and their retinues stop to observe prince Yeong, who’s busy at a lesson with his teacher.
The king smiles proudly to watch Yeong answering his teacher knowledgeably, fluent in the classics that teach self-restraint, moderation, learning, and self-cultivation. The prime minister looks taken aback, and forces a smile.
Then, a gust of wind carries off sheets of papers sitting on the table, and a minister catches it. As he reads aloud, smiles turn to frowns while the prince and his teacher exchange uneasy glances. HAHA, instead of proper lesson material, the prince has written out his lines (including his teacher’s conversational replies) as a script.
Yeong makes one last-ditch attempt to keep up the act before giving up the ruse. He and his nervous teacher jump to their feet to face the king, which only makes matters worse when Yeong’s hastily donned robes flap around and his topknot bobbles unsteadily.
The king crumples up the script and fumes at “that fool” before storming off. The prime minister smirks and walks off.
Yeong sighs after they’re gone, chiding his teacher for leading him astray, saying forlornly that it was the teacher’s fault for pretending to teach him rather than teach him properly. The teacher drops to his knees in abject apology, and then Yeong grins, saying he was just teasing.
Folding his paper into an airplane, he says it was the wind’s fault. His teacher gapes at the strange flying paper, and Yeong coins its name then and there: airplane.
On to the city streets, where Ra-on/Sam-nom makes her way through the streets, full of confidence—until she sees a trio of thugs headed her way. She freezes, then quickly ducks out of sight, managing to evade notice.
When she looks up, she notices the posted sign recruiting eunuchs, and notes their generous pay—enough to repay her debt and have money left over.
Her debt is at least in part due to her ailing father, who grumpily reminds Ra-on that they barely have money for food, much less his medicine. Moreover, he’s not her blood father, and he reminds her of her goal to earn money to find her lost mother and then leave.
They clearly care about each other, but her father seems intent on her leaving him and continuing her life. He gruffly tells her that if one day she disappears, he’ll be happy about it.
Ra-on gets called away to consult with another client, the dorky-looking Young Master Jung, who’s been exchanging love letters with a woman for a while. Ra-on prods him to consider meeting his lady, rather than just writing letters back and forth.
Ra-on prepares to transcribe as Young Master Jung recites poetic lines extolling her beauty…
…and over in the palace, Yeong reads the same lines with incredulity, having intercepted the letter before it got to his sister, Princess MYEONGEUN (Jung Hye-sung, who’s wearing a fat suit of some kind). She looks a bit simple, smiling blankly and eating away happily. He eyes the letter with suspicion, calling it lies meant to seduce Myeongeun.
Yeong scolds the princess’ ladies in waiting for their part in passing along the messages, and decides it clearly won’t do for his sister to meet her suitor, as the letter requests. The head court lady agrees to pretend the letter never came.
Over in the eunuchs’ quarters, the staff has a meal break while a couple of eunuchs gripe about the prince and why the Palace of the Crown Prince has taken on the nickname Palace of the Crown Poop. Heh. Even loyal Eunuch Jang sighs that the prince went too far this time and hopes for a bright new recruit to add to their ranks.
Then, he gets another gray hair when a court lady rushes in with more trouble: The crown prince has disappeared again. Eunuch Jang wails in frustration.
Yeong has dressed himself in scholar’s clothing and makes his way through the city streets alone. He comes to a gathering in the square, where a crowd watches a performing troupe put on a comical show, with Ra-on and her father portraying the king and the crown prince as buffoonish characters. Yeong clenches his jaw.
He raises his voice and starts to rail indignantly against their disgraceful display, but quickly notices that he’s the only one outraged. He makes a half-hearted jab at Ra-on’s lack of drumming skill and hurries away grimacing.
Ra-on returns to her shop, where her dorky client, Young Master Jung, insists that she take his place in meeting his sweetheart. Realizing that his love is impossible, he instructs Ra-on to end it for him. Ra-on angles for a higher payday before agreeing, then heads out dressed in the young master’s clothes.
Ra-on arrives at the meeting spot, and starts in on a flowery speech of how (s)he’s longed to see his beloved. But it’s a manly voice that cuts in, and Ra-on gapes in surprise.
Her mind connects the dots in the wrong way, assuming that Young Master Jung’s “love that cannot be” must be because he was in love with a man. And since she took his money, she sighs and bucks up the nerve to complete her task, turning to face the man—Yeong, of course, not that she knows who he is.
Yeong makes a sarcastic display of being moved at Young Master Jung’s love letters, but Ra-on interprets everything through the lens of her misunderstanding and lays on the earnest talk of deeply felt emotions. She suggests that they throw the world’s prejudices aside for one day and motions him to follow, while Yeong stares at her in confusion.
She takes him to a tavern for soup, laughing at the raucous jokes and the tavern grandma’s foul mouth. Yeong grimaces disapprovingly at everything, but Ra-on informs him that this granny used to work in the royal kitchens. He sniffs at that, acting so uppity that Ra-on laughs that he’s a hothouse flower, growing up sheltered and privileged.
Yeong gets huffy at being called a Flower Scholar, then glares at the swearing grandma. But when the grandma looks closer at Yeong, she notes that he seems familiar… and with a gasp, she places him, stuttering, “Pr-pr… your hi…”
Yeong dismisses Grandma with a glance, then tells Ra-on to follow him this time.
They walk a bit, until suddenly Yeong shoves Ra-on against a tree with a knife to her neck. He says he came alone today in the hopes that Young Master Jung would be a decent fellow. But now he’s seen enough to figure that he’s just a phony aristocrat-impersonator.
Ra-on blusters that (s)he’s a bona fide aristocrat, and that the letters were sincere. Yeong orders her to march home so he can confirm his identity for himself, and Ra-on has no choice but to walk on.
Meanwhile, there’s another blueblood out for Ra-on’s neck: a nobleman who blames Ra-on for his daughter-in-law running away. Ah, Ra-on’s first customer is now boarding a boat with his sweetheart, having run off together.
The couple crosses paths with a young nobleman’s son, KIM YOON-SUNG (Jinyoung), who briefly notices them. Then he spots the guards stationed at the pier to greet his return, which he finds embarrassing.
He thinks of an out by swooping in with an umbrella next to a young lady, telling her smoothly that she’s too beautiful to suffer the sun’s glare. She’s won over, and allows him to escort her off the dock, right past his guards.
The lady comments on Yoon-sung’s consideration, at which point he informs her that the “beautiful face” he was talking about was his own. HA.
Yeong keeps pressing Ra-on onward, and when they arrive at a particular tree by the roadside, she thinks fast for a solution. She recalls having been strung up by her loan sharks at this tree, below which they’d dug a pit, warning that they’d drop her in it if she didn’t pay them back.
The pit is loosely covered by grass at the moment, and Ra-on pauses there for a pee break. Yeong turns away in distaste, and that’s when she kicks him into the pit—although as he lurches forward, he makes a mad grab and catches her ankle, dragging her down with him. Muahaha. Well, it’s not like she didn’t deserve that.
They crash to the bottom of the pit, where a fuming mad Yeong demands to know why she pushed him. Before Ra-on is forced to answer that, a snake slithers up on his shoulder and has him screaming.
It’s Ra-on who flings the snake away, and then Yeong bellows at her to get on her hands and knees so he can climb up first. They bicker back and forth about who’ll lift whom, and finally she grudgingly complies, although she crumples immediately under his weight anyway.
There’s nothing for them to do but wait for someone to come by and help them, but time passes and nobody does. So Yeong grabs Ra-on close and holds her right up to himself, catching her off-guard. He offers to lift her up first this time and grabs her around the middle to raise her up.
As he struggles to lift her higher, he mutters to himself that he’ll make her regret it once they’re out of the hole, though when she asks what he said, he glosses over that comment.
Finally, Yeong lifts Ra-on high enough to make it out of the pit, then calls for her to help him out… and a sly grin crosses her face that makes him ask nervously what she’s thinking.
She swears to send people to help him and starts to run off. Yeong blurts that he’ll let her go without asking any further questions, and she reminds him of the “I’ll make you regret it” statement earlier, which he sweaaars was just a joke.
Then he turns thunderous and warns her to get him out of the pit, or else. She just chirps that if they meet in the future, she’ll do whatever he says then.
“Sorry!” she yells, and scampers off while he rages impotently in his dirt hole.
Ra-on arrives back in the city by nightfall, and comes upon freshly posted wanted notices: one each for the runaway lovers, and one for Ra-on (her male persona). Newcomer Yoon-sung pauses to read the posters and asks a bystander why they’re wanted, and the answer startles Ra-on; she’d thought the slave was in love with his owner’s daughter, but she’s actually his daughter-in-law. Whoopsie!
Yoon-sung notices Ra-on standing next to her own wanted poster, and clocks her nervousness at seeing patrolling soldiers nearby. Ra-on surreptitiously affixes a fake mole to her face, while Yoon-sung looks pointedly at Ra-on as he calls to the soldiers, asking what happens to the criminal when he’s caught. They reply that he’ll die at the nobleman’s hands before he’s even handed over to the authorities. Gulp.
Ra-on says defensively that the runaway woman had suffered a lot in that household, and that the slave was her only comfort. The soldier asks how she knows so much and angles for a closer look at her face, while she shrinks back—just as Yoon-sung swoops in to block her from sight.
Yoon-sung talks to her familiarly as he leads them away, successfully sparing her from scrutiny.
The king meets with Prime Minister Kim, who happens to also be his father-in-law. Immediately, their conflicting political views are apparent: The prime minister has punished thieving citizens with the death penalty, arguing that leniency will spur them to take more. The king finds death an overly harsh punishment for stealing food. So: king good, prime minster bad. Got it.
But the prime minister is the more commanding of the two, and one mention of “ten years ago” sends the king into a traumatic memory: riots at the palace, mayhem, murders. Prime Minister Kim guesses that the king still suffers insomnia and advises that he trust his judgment.
Outside the door, a disheveled Yeong is back from his pit adventure and overhears the conversation, which seems to anger him. He walks off without waiting to speak to his father.
As Ra-on walks through town with Yoon-sung, he asks if she thought “that” would be enough to disguise her identity. He looks her up and down, indicating her men’s clothing. Sharp eyes, this one.
Ra-on admits that since he’s caught on, she won’t lie about it, and thanks him for helping her. Yoon-sung figures her crime didn’t seem that terrible, but wonders if she’ll be able to handle being recognized by others. She doesn’t answer, and just bids him farewell as she heads off in the other direction.
As soon as she turns, she’s seized from behind and dragged off. When Yoon-sung turns back to say one last thing, he finds her gone.
Ra-on is taken by the three loan sharks, who succeed in forcing her thumbprint signature on a contract of some sort. The ringleader assures her that where she’s going is better than where she could be going, which is no consolation at all.
They deliver her to a building and shut her inside with a beady-eyed, red-nosed man sharpening his many knives. She asks where she is, and he informs her in a drunken slur that this is where men get turned into eunuchs. Eek! I mean, she’s in no danger on that score, but I’m not sure that exposing her true gender does much for her survival odds right about now.
The man approaches with his blade in hand, and Ra-on backs away in horror, insisting that she absolutely cannot be made a eunuch. She drops to the floor to beg for mercy: “Milord! No, Teacher! Your Highness!”
Then the man cackles, “Did I say I was doing it now?” He informs her that she’ll need to fast for three days before the procedure, and Ra-on mutters to herself that there’s no point when she doesn’t even have “it.”
The knife-wielder overhears and wonders, “What don’t you have?”
At the palace, Princess Myeongeun deflates to hear that another day has passed with no message from her sweetheart. Yeong watches his sister fall down in dismay, feeling pity for her.
Tied up and about to be unmanned (…sort of), Ra-on blubbers in fear, while the knife-master advises her to buck up—it’s either become a eunuch or face death anyway. Ra-on supposes that at least she had the good fortune to be at the hands of the best technician in the land, and a glint in her eye lets us know she’s Up To Something.
The knife-master puffs up at the praise and pours himself another drink as he brags about how good he is at this job. Ra-on pours on the flattery and prods for more stories of his prowess, and he doesn’t even notice when she works free of the ropes, since she’s busy plying him with drinks.
It’s late into the night when he picks up his knife to finally get down to business. Slice! Ra-on screams.
In the morning, the knife-master wakes up to find bloody rags everywhere, and he freaks out, thinking he’s accidentally killed her.
He’s therefore relieved to find her sleeping in the next room, and nervously pretends he remembers everything from last night. Ra-on looks genuinely pained and her clothes are soaked in blood, but she praises the man for doing a neat job of it.
Meanwhile, her father waits for her to return to the traveling performers’ troupe. Despite insisting he wanted her gone, he has to be prodded to leave. Aww.
Once alone, Ra-on tends to her wounds—it turns out the blood was all her own, the wound inflicted upon her leg. She bandages up the bloody gash, and thinks back to an instance in her childhood when she’d dressed in a fine hanbok and used her mother’s cosmetics. Her mother had been alarmed and reminded her that she was to live as a boy, slapping her across the face and ordering her to take off the dress.
As Ra-on binds her chest, her thoughts turn to her troupe father who’d said he’d be happy if she never returned, and how he’d asked, “You know what that means, don’t you?” Hm, does that mean he wanted her to live as herself? Ra-on cries, saying that her father must be glad at the thought that she’d finally run off.
At the palace, a heartbroken Princess Myeongeun refuses food and vows bloodthirsty revenge one moment, then worries that her sweetheart might have fallen ill the next. With a sigh, Yeong enters and tosses a book down, its pages full of drawings of faces. He tells Myeongeun that he’ll explain what it is if she eats, and she complies out of curiosity.
Yeong explains that it’s a facebook of all the young, well-to-do men in the city, and that if she picks one that she wants, he’ll do whatever it takes to bring him to her. Aw, you’re a good oppa. I mean, your means are a little crude but you mean well.
He gives her the ol’ “plenty of fish” speech while tsk-tsking to himself that she had to fall for that scrawny guy, thinking of Ra-on.
Ra-on is led along with all the other eunuch recruits toward the palace. On the way, a swordsman in black bumps into her (Kwak Dong-yeon), and he stares intently before walking on ahead. Ra-on notices the bloody cut in his upper arm, then catches up to the rest of her recruit class.
They’re housed together in tight quarters, and Ra-on has difficulty sleeping that night. She replays the knife-master’s last words of warning on her way into the palace: that boot camp would start in the morning… just as soon as physical examinations are complete.
It’s that thought that keeps her up at night, and she grabs her belongings and slips outside, quietly making her way toward the main gate. She’s al…most…. there, working her way to the exit, when she plows headfirst into a chest.
She freezes. The man demands to know who she is, and Ra-on cautiously looks up.
His face is shrouded in shadows, but then the clouds clear away from the moon, illuminating his face slowly.
“Flower… Scholar?” she asks in shock. “Young Master Jung?” he asks back, equally shocked.
And then, at the same moment, they recall her last words to him—that the next time they met, she’d do everything he asked. Ra-on cringes, and Yeong tips her face up to his.
“Nice to see you again, Mung-mung [bow-wow],” he says. Ha, is she your puppy now?
It’s an adorable premiere, chock-full of endearing characters, and I’m very relieved to have Moonlight Drawn By Clouds turn out to be a bubbly, fun rom-com—tone is always tricky on these wacky romances and fusion sageuks, but this one hits the right balance of cheekiness and self-referential humor. I appreciate that it doesn’t go too far on that score, either, because the show is allowing the characters to be serious as the matter calls for it—say, Ra-on’s resignation when binding herself (certainly symbolism) and giving up her identity to survive. I don’t know yet why, but I believe that to the characters, this is a dire matter, and that’s what I need from a show like this: not outright realism, just credibility within the world it’s created.
To be honest, I’m not even sure how much of the show’s charm is purely the work of Park Bo-gum and Kim Yoo-jung, both separately and together. I’m also not sure I care about that distinction, because they are so freaking adorable it’s hard to even even about that. But it’s also not something you can purely attribute to cuteness, because cuteness without context (ha, I said context) is, ultimately, empty.
Park Bo-gum has been climbing the ranks and making a name for himself as an acting talent that goes much farther than a pretty face—I actually think that where he’s concerned, his talent, presence, charm, and real-life persona are all so winsome that I kind of forget about his looks. Obviously I don’t forget he’s beautiful, but it does stop mattering at a certain point. (The reverse is also true, when no amount of beauty will compensate for a lack of those other things, but I much prefer this version of that dynamic.)
So I’m thrilled to have him in this role, able to give it some kind of depth beyond the charming rascal we see on the surface. I’m curious to know what is lurking underneath his rapscallion ways, and to delve into that hint of darkness we saw where his father is concerned.
I don’t expect this drama to remain heavy, and I’m looking forward to a lot of its lighthearted jokiness, but I do at least appreciate that there is some underlying meat to the characters. It helps the meta humor and the pop-culture-like jokes land when there’s a real story connecting the gags, and this drama reminds me fondly of self-referential shows like The Story of Hyang Dan. It’s as much sageuk as Shrek is fairy tale—inspired by, tinged with, but not solidly in the genre of.
The setup itself is pretty familiar and we’ve seen many iterations of this story in dramas before, even if we haven’t seen this exact arrangement of tropes—I don’t look to Moonlight Drawn By Clouds to reinvent the crossdressing heroine genre, or the lonely prince genre, or the plucky Candy genre, or any of the subcategories in play. So it’s extra crucial for the relationships and chemistry to carry the day in shows like this, and I’m therefore pleased with what we’ve seen in this premiere. I’m looking forward to what tomorrow has in store.
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