[2019 Year in Review] A sageuk for every season
by Guest Beanie
If last year was dubbed the “Long Sageuk Drought,” this year it’s been a deluge. I’ve counted 11 historical dramas of varying lengths and species. I couldn’t watch all of them. Choices had to be made (though who says I can’t binge the ones I missed over Christmas?) The following are some of the highlights of my 2019 journey, with one sageuk for every season:
Winter blues: The Crowned Clown
Like playing with snow. At first it’s magical. But then skies turn dark, storms close in, and you might end up shovelling a lot of snow to get to the end of the road.
The Crowned Clown
I decided to start the year with this remake of the 2012 film Masquerade. The opening episodes were pitch perfect. I was blown away by the acting (double Yeo Jin-gu!), the soundtrack, and the stunning cinematography. Like many Beanies, I gasped at a certain plot twist. However, the story soon started to lose my interest. It was as if the writer had decided on the twist for the sheer sake of the twist, but didn’t think through the implications for the rest of the drama. I started to feel the long episodes (80 minutes, c’mon!), and besides, it bothered me that the actors looked like they were freezing in their thin clothes. Eventually, I put the drama on hold, and only managed to finish it recently for the Bean Count. In short, if you don’t like the plot twist, you will probably struggle to complete this drama. It’s not a light watch by any means, though there is some humour, and an adorable Eunuch Jo.
Also airing at the time were Kingdom, and Haechi (I’m sorry Jung Il-woo oppa, I’ll get to it soon I promise!)
Spring blossoms: Nokdu Flower
Like sitting by a window watching icicles thaw and rivers unfreeze, and flowers unfurl their wonders and sorrows as the days become warm again, hoping and waiting for summer.
I was feeling sageuk fatigue after The Crowned Clown, so I waited a few months to start Nokdu Flower. I was immediately struck by the fact that it centred on the lives and thoughts of ordinary “middling” people, not palace grandees or nobles like in most historical dramas. At first I thought the message would be one of patriotism, but the drama delved into much more than that. Ultimately, it was about what it means to be human (or inhuman). I watched spellbound as the fictional characters’ stories were woven into the rich historical context of the Donghak Peasant Revolution of 1894. I felt blessed watching the carefully-crafted scenes, the intelligent camera work, and fully fleshed out characters (including several capable and strong female characters). This is my drama of the year. It’s not exactly an addictive watch because its themes are heavy, but you will keep coming back for more of the superb acting and wonderful writing.
Also airing at the time was Different Dreams (literally aired on the same day argh).
Summertime: Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung
Like having a picnic in a magical garden with geeky friends. At the end of it you adjust your hat, dust off your clothes, and return to work refreshed.
Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung
I started this one on a whim while waiting for Part 3 of Arthdal Chronicles, which was such a frustrating and dark drama (literally) that I thought my eyes were ruined forever. Anyway, I needed something light and fun, and Rookie Historian fit the bill. Initially I was skeptical because I knew that female historians had never existed in Joseon, but the drama managed to charm me with its utopian take on 19th century history. I grew to love the quirky historians, and would have loved to see more of the “office sageuk.” I also enjoyed the dynamic of the OTP, with Shin Se-kyung as the smart and gutsy heroine, and Cha Eun-woo as her lonely and timid prince. Overall, it’s a clever and beautifully-filmed drama, providing enough laughs and meaty parts. This is probably my favurite performance by Shin Se-kyung.
Also airing at the time was the unfortunate Joseon Survival, and Arthdal Chronicles (…Moving on).
Autumn leaves: My Country: The New Age
Like walking through an autumnal forest in the rain, as golden leaves fall and branches are left bare, silent witnesses of the pain and greed of people who wanted to change their world.
My Country: The New Age
I just finished this one so feelings are still raw. Initially what drew me in was the stellar cast of veterans and rising new actors. I stayed for the marvellous acting and compelling friendships. Unfortunately, the writing felt off sometimes, as the show glossed over important historical events to focus on action instead. I was confused by the time skips and frustrated that character development took place off screen. In the end, I was left thinking how much better this would have been with just a few more episodes. So, if you like to learn about history through dramas, be prepared to do your own research. If you just want to be entertained and are not fussy about the history, this is a good drama for you (maybe have some tissues handy).
Also airing at the time were Flower Crew: Joseon Marriage Agency, and Tale of Nokdu (I’ve been following recaps but couldn’t find the time to watch them).
So that’s it, thanks for reading! I think I need a break from sageuks now, at least for a little bit.
Rookie Historian Gu Hae-ryung
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