Saimdang, Light’s Diary: Episode 1
Lee Young-ae’s highly anticipated comeback drama, Saimdang, Light’s Diary premiered today as a double header. We spend most of the episode in the present timeline navigating the cutthroat world of academic art history, but slowly the mystery of Saimdang comes to the forefront, and we begin to see the nexus where past meets present, and where time stands still.
For little context before we dive in: Shin Saimdang is widely considered as one of the most well-known female figures in Korean history. She lived during the Joseon period, and was an accomplished artist, calligraphist, and poet in her own right. As the oldest daughter of a scholar in a family with no sons, she received more education than was commonly given to women during that time.
However, despite her achievements, she more often is represented as an ideal woman or “Wise Mother” based on Confucian ideals, primarily through her son (renowned Confucian scholar Yi Yi’s) depictions of her through his writings. But this idea is also carried through her own poetry, where she frequently expresses her deep devotion to her parents.
Thus, the aim of Saimdang, Light’s Diary is likely an attempt to reconcile those two seemingly contradictory portrayals of Shin Saimdang, by going back and examining her early life. So without further ado, let’s get to it!
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Our story opens in Tuscany, Italy back in 1551, where a bevy of lords and ladies gather in an impressive manor for some dancing and socializing. Late into the night, a maid knocks on a door with a tray of food in hand, and calls out for “Mister Lee” to take his dinner. The calls go unanswered and eventually she leaves.
Inside, we see a haggard looking man, whose eyes are crazed as he paints–this is our hero, LEE GYEOM (Song Seung-heon). As his brush glides across the red lips of the woman in his painting, memories of her flash through his mind. The woman is, of course, the famous SHIN SAIMDANG (Lee Young-ae).
Haunted by the past, Gyeom races out of his room and out onto the balcony overlooking the great hall. The partygoers below look up in surprise when they hear Gyeom scream out like a deranged man, filled with regrets.
In the present, art history lecturer SEO JI-YOON (also Lee Young-ae) stares adoringly at a beautiful painting on the wall. A moment later, a man, Professor MIN JUNG-HAK (Choi Jong-hwan), and two other women arrive at the house.
The new arrivals greet Ji-yoon familiarly, and it becomes clear at some point that Ji-yoon is a protege of Professor Min. Her presence in his home, and the fact that she helps out around the house and brings the family large quantities of homemade dishes, showcases a close relationship between mentor and student, but also illustrates how much Ji-yoon’s career is tied to Professor Min’s opinion.
We see that all of Ji-yoon’s extra effort has paid off when Professor Min assigns her to write a research paper on a famous Joseon artist. More specifically, a paper on An Gyeon’s “Mount Geumgang,” a painting that has appeared again after five hundred years. Ji-yoon is overjoyed to receive the assignment, and the honor of the project isn’t lost on her. Professor Min’s wife hints that with the completion of her research, she will finally complete her PhD.
After thanking him profusely, Ji-yoon hurries over to see the painting for herself. Its beauty takes her breath away, and she revels at the history before her eyes. As she takes a few photos of the painting from several angles, something catches her notice, but she shakes it off.
Soon, her mother-in-law (Kim Hae-sook) calls to ask where she is, realizing she’s late for a family gathering, Ji-yoon rushes off.
Elsewhere, Professor Min meets with DIRECTOR SUN (Kim Mi-kyung), the owner of the new An Gyeon painting and the gallery where it will be showcased. They discuss the importance of the Mount Geumgang painting, since it is currently the talk of the town and is likely to become a national treasure. Their conversation is loaded with subtext, and ultimately, it becomes clear that Director Sun hopes the academic work done on the painting will help both their careers soar to new heights.
Ji-yoon arrives home and greets her elders, as her mother-in-law praises her recent and near-guaranteed position as a professor. She encourages Ji-yoon to not mind the guests and work on her thesis instead.
In her office, Jiyoon examines the photos she took of the painting with exacting precision. She notices that there are maple tree designs on the border, which was common during the Edo period, which conflicts with An Gyeon’s recorded lifetime.
The revelation troubles her greatly, but before she can contemplate the mystery further, she receives a call from a bank looking for her husband, JUNG MIN-SUK (Lee Hae-young). She asks what the call is about, but the man on the phone avoids going to details and asks that her husband call them back.
As if on cue, her husband returns home, so she immediately prepares a healthy drink for him before proceeding to tell him about the new painting. She buzzes about its importance, but then admits that something about feels off. She cites the frustration in the brushstrokes and how the texture of the silk canvas differs from the other known An Gyeon pieces, whose strokes are elegant and bold.
Her husband asks if she means to contradict Professor Min’s assessment of the painting as authentic. She denies it, so he advises her to go with the flow. Ji-yoon decides not to argue with him, then mentions the call from the bank, and thinks it strange for them to call so late.
He doesn’t say anything to her inquiry, but when she leaves, a troubled expression appears on his face.
As they settle into bed for the night, she tells Min-suk that she’s flying out to a conference on Saturday in Bologna, Italy. It takes him a moment to digest the information before he sits up, alarmed. He complains about the suddenness of her announcement, asking who will take care of their child while she is gone, but Ji-yoon argues that she told him a long time ago about it, and he clearly forgot.
Annoyed, the pair go to sleep with a huff.
At the university, Ji-yoon presents her research on the An Gyeon painting. She tells the audience (which includes Professor Min and Director Sun) about what a miracle it is to find another An Gyeon masterpiece after five hundred years.
Ji-yoon introduces Professor Min, who comes to the stage to speak on the discovery of the painting and its significance. Professor Min explains that An Gyeon’s most famous painting, “Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land,” represents a time during the Joseon period when Korean artists began painting idyllic landscapes as seen in Chinese arts.
Suddenly, a young man in the audience named HAN SANG-HYUN (Yang Se-jong) raises his hand to ask a question. We learn from some whisperers in the crowd that the young man is apparently someone who was fired by Professor Min for arguing against his opinions.
Sang-hyun begins pointing out the two discrepancies Ji-yoon had found earlier in her investigation to question the piece’s authenticity. Two security officers arrive to escort Sang-hyun out, but he fights them off and turns to ask Ji-yoon her opinion directly.
After a long and painful moment of hesitation, Ji-yoon confesses that she can’t be sure it’s the real thing. She explains that although the mounting of the painting is done in a style commonly found during the Edo period, she points out that paintings were commonly remounted throughout history.
Thus, she says, the mounting alone isn’t a correct method of evaluation, and against someone like Professor Min, who has studied An Gyeon’s art for over thirty years, Sang-hyun’s criticisms seem theatrical rather than objective. The audience then breaks out into laughter at Ji-yoon’s denouncement of the interrupter.
After the seminar, Professor Min tries to assuage Director Sun’s concerns by explaining that the art history world is full of doubters and critics. When she isn’t fully convinced, he promises that he is putting his entire career on the line for the project.
Ji-yoon also meets with Professor Min to apologize for the incident during the seminar. Although he’s agitated by the event, he calmly assures Ji-yoon not to mind it, and tells her to focus on her presentation in Bologna instead. As he turns away from her, he scowls.
Later, Ji-yoon calls her husband from a restaurant, where he’s a no-show. She complains into his voicemail that he was supposed to tell his mother about her upcoming trip.
Meanwhile, at Min-suk’s office, it’s pandemonium as prosecutors arrive to seize company documents as their stock begins to plummet. After returning home from dinner, Ji-yoon is stunned to see her living room filled with angry people demanding to know where her husband is.
It turns out that those people are debt collectors, since her husband ran off without paying back his loans. Things get rowdy quickly as the group begins pushing the family around. Ji-yoon then receives a call from her husband, who tells her to take their family and leave town for a while.
She runs out of the house to try and find him, but the mob follows her and begins to assault her as her cowardly husband watches the chaos unfold from nearby.
Later, Ji-yoon takes her mother-in-law and young son to her friend, GO HYE-JUNG’s (Park Jun-myun) apartment for refuge. When her family is out of sight, in a moment of weakness and with tears in her eyes, Ji-yoon contemplates giving up her ambitions to be a professor. Hye-jung rightly tells her not to give up, promising that they’ll get through this somehow.
The next morning, the newly blended family adjusts to a morning routine, and Ji-yoon speaks with her shell-shocked mother-in-law, promising to become a professor no matter what so she can support their family until her husband returns.
On the airplane to Bologna, Ji-yoon shows Professor Min her presentation materials. He capriciously objects to the color and design of her slides, but then takes little interest in the changes she makes.
At their hotel, Ji-yoon runs into a famous art historian that she knows, and she asks for his autograph. He also recognizes her from a video taken of her seminar back in Korea about the Mount Geumgang painting. He tells her that he feels like the painting is strange and needs to be researched further. Oh boy.
Ji-yoon is stunned by his critique, but is unable to respond before Professor Min comes over to greet the man.
Separately, Ji-yoon and Professor Min both watch the video circulating online about the painting’s controversy, which questions its authenticity. Professor Min receives a call from Director Sun demanding that he take care of the video.
Ji-yoon tries to do her own damage control, mainly through Hye-jung’s connections, but she’s too overwhelmed by all the moving pieces in her life to give it too much attention.
A little later, Ji-yoon arrives at a cocktail event, but upon meeting Professor Min, he immediately demands she go out and purchase some toiletries for his personal use. She’s flustered by the command, but then eventually obliges.
She returns with his items in hand and waits on the side timidly as Professor Min takes his glory shots. They meet privately to the side, only for Professor Min to tell her to leave at once. He suggests she change her major and give up all hopes of becoming an art history professor, otherwise he’ll ruin her life permanently. Oh man, this guy is a piece of work.
Left with no other option, Ji-yoon heads back to her hotel room, only to discover all her luggage has been placed outside the door. She’s been forcibly checked out of the hotel, and she tries to complain to the front desk about it, but they aren’t helpful at all.
Soon, Ji-yoon is wandering the streets alone with nowhere to go. Hye-jung calls to ask what happened, because apparently Professor Min has manipulated the story to make it seem as if Ji-yoon irresponsibly blew off her presentation to go out shopping. Ugh! This guy!
Ji-yoon can’t believe her ears, but Hye-jung rightfully assesses the situation and understands that Professor Min had it all planned from the beginning, and that he selfishly decided to take credit for Ji-yoon’s work. Hye-jung warns Ji-yoon that the only way out is the prove that the painting is a fake, like she suspects it to be.
As Ji-yoon walks through the night, the wheels on one of her suitcases breaks, so she opens up her bag and begins throwing about all the books she has of Professor Min’s. She laments the fact that she wrote one of the books, but received no credit. She also laments that for five years she worked like a dog under him, but he still refused to give her a PhD.
She downs some boxed soju she brought with her, then stumbles half-drunk through the streets until she knocks over some displays of a used book stand. The owner insists that it’s fine (in Italian), but after she gives him some money, he hands her a few books he grabbed absentmindedly from the fallen pile.
Without much resistance, she takes the books and his well wishes, then walks around until she finds a cheap place to stay.
In her motel room, she receives a text from her husband informing her that their house has been given over as collateral. She throws her phone across the room in a fit of frustration, but then notices one of the books given to her for the first time.
Fatefully, she reads the words “Mount Geumgang” on the cover, and can’t believe it might be connected to her research. She finds an Italian phrase on the cover: “Siesta Di Luna,” which translates to “Moon’s Sleep.”
The next morning, an inspired Ji-yoon goes around town asking about the mysterious phrase, until she sees something in the window that leads her to Tuscany. Turns out, Siesta Di Luna is the name of an estate, the one Lee Gyeom was staying at in the top of the episode.
The owner of the estate greets her at the door to show her around. As she walks through the great hall, it is almost as if she can feel the lords and ladies dancing to the music back in 1551. Suddenly, she turns toward the balcony and hears Lee Gyeom cry out into the night.
Something takes hold of her from within, and soon she hurries through the grand building, climbing the stairs in search of something, in spite of the owner’s protests that there is nothing but empty rooms.
A mysterious breeze blows through the air, and though Ji-yoon doesn’t realize it, a phantom image of Lee Gyeom walks past her, linking them together.
Her search takes her to room, where the owner notes that the window has mysteriously opened on its own again. Sitting on the window sill is a dove, who curiously watches Ji-yoon scan the room.
As she looks around, images of the past fill her mind, until the mirror before her shatters in a thousand pieces, and the dove takes flight. To their surprise, hidden inside the mirror is a large, ornately painted cabinet.
When Ji-yoon opens the doors, inside is the painting of Shin Saimdang that Lee Gyeom painted nearly five hundred years ago at Siesta Di Luna, whose resemblance to Ji-yoon is uncanny. The owner, believing it to be fate, offers Ji-yoon all the ancient items stored in the cabinet. Whoa, pretty generous.
On her flight home, she reads over the booklets she found in the cabinet, part of which says: “Flowing and flowing. To feel regret for the death of an innocent. Letting go of this desperate sadness to the skies. The past memories must be written.”
She contacts a botanist to examine the seeds that she found in a pouch with the other items. Right away, the botanist remarks that the seeds are at least hundreds of years old.
After she leaves, she gets a text notifying her of her removal as a lecturer. She goes to the registrar to complain about having some time left on her contract with the school. The manager dismisses her and explains that the climate right now is strained, especially because there are other instructors protesting against the school.
Outside, Sang-hyun sits with the rest of the protestors, and when he sees her, he runs over to speak with her. She tries to brush him off, then accuses him of trying to recruit her to join his protest. Sang-hyun explains that he only wanted to apologize for dragging her into his conflict with Professor Min.
She’s outraged by his apology and asks how he can apologize after basically guaranteeing her demise. He thinks she’s being dramatic, and claims that she’ll be fine since she did kind of agree with him on the fact that the supposed An Gyeon painting was suspicious. His comments set her off, and she tells him not to assume he knows anything about her life, and to leave her alone.
Back at Hye-jung’s, Ji-yoon tries to mount her defense against Professor Min’s false claims in preparation for her upcoming disciplinary meeting, but it isn’t going very well. At that moment, her husband calls to meet, so she runs out to meet him at a train station.
He texts her the location of a certain locker and tells her the passcode. She spots him in the distance and chases after him, but he jumps on a train before she can catch him. In the locker is a large stack of money, and a note that simply tells her that he’ll call again.
The next day, Ji-yoon sits before the disciplinary committee and attempts to salvage her good name. She maintains that Professor Min and her have a misunderstanding of some kind, and that she has prepared some documents to support her story.
However, Professor Min is far more prepared that she is, and shows the committee photographic evidence of her holding a shopping bag filled with Professor Min’s requested toiletries, and a video of her drunken tirade on the streets.
With the evidence stacked against her, Ji-yoon’s fate is sealed, and she is terminated.
After the meeting, Ji-yoon storms into Professor Min’s office, and then shockingly gets on her knees to tearfully beg for forgiveness. She pleads with him to save her, but Professor Min’s true personality shows itself, and he tells his underlings to get her out of his sight.
I’m surprised we didn’t go back in time just yet, but I like the sweet, sweet vengeance being set up now. Things did move a little bit quickly in this episode for my taste, but on the other hand, I’m happy to get the setup out of the way if it means we can start to learn about Saimdang. The other good thing about the fast pacing is that I feel like we got a good grip on the main players in the present timeline. Right now, I don’t think these characters are interesting or new in any way, but I was entertained enough to keep going, which I suppose is the main thing.
I really didn’t expect Yang Se-jong’s character to be such a central part of the modern plot. I guess I’ve been conditioned to overlook the actors that play the main cast’s younger selves, because it’s really all about who has top billing in those cases. That said, I think it’s an interesting setup, and I liked all of Ji-yoon’s and Sang-hyun’s interactions so far, so I’m eager to see how it plays out, and if it’s successful.
There’s something about this drama that feels dated somehow, but I can’t really figure out what that is exactly. It might be the themes dealt with in this episode (everything’s pretty familiar), or I think it might be Ji-yoon’s character that I’m having a little trouble with. I like the components and trajectory of her story, but I didn’t feel that I ever really connected with her. But it’s only the first episode, so there’s time to explore her characterization a little more deeply, and perhaps through her research of Saimdang’s life.
But, we can’t talk about this episode without discussing Lee Young-ae. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve imagined her as Dae Jang Geum for so long, but every time I saw Lee Young-ae as Saimdang, I got so excited (even if it was a painting oddly enough), and I just felt like it was right. And then I would see her as Ji-yoon, but like I said before, I didn’t connect to her character or even her portrayal of the character as much as I wanted to.
To me, Lee Young-ae is like one of those people that was born in the wrong era. She just possesses this air that doesn’t feel modern somehow. Maybe I’ve fallen victim to overly romanticizing her, but I couldn’t shake the feeling while I was watching the episode. She just works for sageuk, so I can’t wait to see her in the past storyline.
Overall, I think this first episode did what it set out to do. The art history plotline could’ve easily fallen flat, but it managed to be engrossing. I don’t know that it was necessary to have that whole husband bankruptcy story thread, but it was used well enough as an impetus for Ji-yoon to ignore her instincts and continue with her presentation of the An Gyeon painting. That said, I would like a little less of those plot lines, because it’s distracting, and we’re all here for Saimdang, so more time spent on that the better, in my opinion.
- New teaser and airdate secured for Saimdang, Light’s Diary
- A time-crossed encounter in first teaser for Saimdang, Light’s Diary
- Saimdang, Light’s Diary pushed back to next year
- Two more promo crumbs from buzz sageuk Saimdang, Light’s Diary
- SBS’s Saimdang, the Herstory to premiere in October
- Press conference and open set day for Saimdang, the Herstory
- Lee Young-ae and Song Seung-heon’s first stills for Saimdang
- Song Seung-heon considers Saimdang opposite Lee Young-ae
- Lee Young-ae eyes comeback with sageuk drama (not Dae Jang Geum 2)