Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sageuks: Ratings and Spoiler-free Capsule Reviews

I’ve been meaning to get around to posting some brief, spoiler-free drama ratings for a while now, and today seems to be the day. This week was slow on the drama watching front—the Hunger Games movie wasn’t as amazing as it might have been, but it was good enough to inspire me to re-read the series, which has been taking up most of my free time lately.

Rather than the same-old alphabetical list everybody else posts, I’m going to group my ratings into genre categories. And in honor of just wrapping up the goofy-but-fun Tamra, the Island, here’s sageuk.

Sageuk Ratings
According to the learned folks at Drama Beans, sageuk literally means “historical drama.” These shows come in two flavors: Straight-up sageuk, which at least pretends to obey the laws of history and physics and such, and fusion sageuk, which melds historical settings with non-traditional storylines, meaning all bets are totally off when it comes to any sort of accuracy or plausibility.

In the West our historical imagination always seems to gravitate to the hundred-year stretch between Britain’s Regency and Victorian eras. After a lifetime of shows, movies, and books set in this time period, it seems cozy and homey: I know the clothes, I know the accents, I know the culture. And this is exactly why it took me a long time to try my first sageuk, most of which are set during Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392–1897). 

It’s one thing to watch contemporary Korean dramas, which show a world not so different from the one I know: a place filled with blue jeans and pop stars and cell phones. But it has become increasingly obvious to me that the foundations underlying modern-day Korea and America are not so similar after all. In the West, we have Socrates and Jesus and Descartes. Whatever western country you’re from, they all played a key role in building the society you live in, whether you ever think about them or not. But in Korea, those three men aren’t much of anything at all—instead, there’s Buddha and Confucius and Sejong the Great. It seemed to me that watching sageuks might be the television equivalent of looking at a stranger’s baby pictures—cute, but not particularly fun or meaningful. 

As is almost always the case, though, I was over-thinking things: It turns out that once you get past the wacky mesh pilgrim hats and men in dresses, sageuks can be pretty great. The one down side is that they tend to be incredibly long, weighing in at 50-plus episodes. I have yet to delve into any of the really long dramas, but will probably give one a shot sometime this summer.

Moon That Embraces the Sun (2012). A painfully overrated drama based on a book by the author of Sungkyunkwan Scandal’s source material. It’s mostly shallow wheel-spinning that’s simultaneously long and boring and yet too short for fully establishing its cast of thousands, say nothing about finding time to develop nuanced or compelling characters for them. With the possible exception of Kim Soo Hyun (who is nonetheless staring to act with his neck more than with his face), the indifferent efforts of its actors—young and old—can’t begin to overcome the script’s lousy writing and uneven pacing. It is fun to see a sageuk king that can actually hold his own against the bad guys for a change, but that isn’t nearly enough to excuse this show’s pandering to the lowest-common-denominator viewer, one who wants every motivation and thought handed to them on a silver platter (or in a silvery voice-over, anyway). I’ve seen more narrative sophistication in Disney Channel movies intended for ten year olds. D

Painter of the Wind (2008). A thoughtful, woman-centered sageuk that revolves around a girl pretending to be a boy so she can attend the royal painting academy. I suspect this drama’s creators considered it a misfire on a number of levels, not the least of which would be the complete lack of chemistry between the male and female leads. It turns out that watching someone paint can be truly exhilarating, though, and the many, many things Painter of the Wind does right more than make up for what it’s lacking in the romance department.

Unlike most dramas based around gender-bending, this show is a meaningful and emotionally weighty examination of what it might really have been like to disguise one’s gender in time when women’s choices were so limited. And although the plot doesn’t seem likely to be historically accurate, it does incorporate actual artworks attributed to the lead characters’ real-life namesakes, devoting whole episodes to how and why they might have been created. (Click here for my full, spoilery review of this show.)  A

The Princess’s Man (2011). Spectacular production values, cinematography, set design, and costumes make this drama feel more like a movie than a television show, even by American standards. (And yet they couldn’t manage to get the close-ups in the horseback scenes right—most of them are about as believable as the surfing shots from the 1960s Gidget movies.)

More action than romance, The Princess’s Man revolves around bad guys trying to take the throne and good guys trying to take it back. The plot moves quickly and covers a lot of ground, but can’t avoid feeling repetitive in the drama’s last third. It’s also full insanely stupid decisions that will make you want to scream and throw things at the screen, but the likeable characters and actors will almost certainly keep you watching to the end. The friendships between the male leads and the love story are compelling, but I thought one character could have used a bit more attention: The nation of Korea, which was after all the impetus of so much of the story. B+

Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010). Probably my second favorite drama of all time, SKKS hits all the sweet spots: A smart, bookish female lead with a (totally anachronistic) social conscience who just happens to pretend to be a boy to attend Korea’s most prestigious university? Check. A brilliant, dreamy, and deeply moral male lead who inevitably falls in love with said female lead? Check. A giggle-inducing second couple whose palpable bromance flirts with actual romance? Check plus.

This drama’s first half is a giddy delight that’s almost impossible to stop watching, and although things do get bogged down a bit toward the end, the whole show is propulsive fun. And you can’t go wrong with the tender, quiet romance that develops between the lead couple. Most dramas get so tied up in keeping their leads apart that they forget to show viewers why they belong together, which makes SKKS’s mutual respect and friendship-turning-to-love all the more wonderful. A+

Tamra, the Island (2009). A handsome young British lad and his Japanese best friend find themselves shipwrecked on the beautiful island of Jeju, then known as Tamra. The problem? Korea was closed to outsiders and prone to executing Westerners that showed up on its shores.

In a lot of ways, this fusion sageuk is a hot mess—its tone is uneven, starting off with poop jokes and ending with a fairly serious exploration of the merits of international trade; its pacing is herky-jerky at best; and its female lead is perilously close to the Bong Uri School of Dead-Eyed Chipperness. But whether inspired by the moments of sanity in the plot, the likeable actors, or the go-for-broke commitment displayed throughout, I couldn’t help loving it anyway. Somehow even the male lead’s butchering of the English language came off as charming rather than obnoxious. (I shouldn’t mock—he’s a native French speaker who’s apparently aces at Korean, his second language.) And while most sageuks are set in Seoul or other major cities, Tamra offers a fun perspective on what rural life might have been like during the Joseon dynasty, complete with squads of abalone-diving women and lovely country scenery. B-


  1. Congrats on finishing 5 sageuks (thanks for adding one more word to my vocab). I have finished a grand total of.. 2 1/4? (that quarter being a looong experiment with Jewel in the Palace, which I can't seem to stop watching because the food always looks sooo darn good, despite having to wait for 10 meals to cook before some actual drama occurs)

    SKK and Princess's Man are the only 2 I've officially completed, and I was not too impressed by the Princess's Man. The music was good, and all the actors are generally likeable. Maybe I was looking for a tad bit more character development from the secondary cast. I was disappointed.

    SKK though: priceless acting, and I've found nothing quite as adorably perfect as the 4 friends in a scene altogether. I got horribly bogged down though by the historical drama. It was my first sageuk, but maybe I'm just too new at this to enjoy (or even understand!) the nuances of Joseon court intrigue.. less of that and I might have enjoyed it more.

    I might take your advice and try Painter in the Wind next.. It's been on my radar for a while..

    1. I think sageuks might be an acquired taste, and have only tried ones that meet my own weird criteria: they have to be about girls, can't focus on action over character, and can't be longer than 30 episodes. So that pretty much rules out the entire genre =X

      But I've liked most of the sageuks I watched...and keep eyeing Jewel in the Palace, too. Every time I consider starting it, though, I realize I'm too commitment phobic for anything with that many episodes. Sad but true.

  2. You should try jewel in the palace and queen seondok

  3. I recommend watching The Legend (Tae Wang Sa Shin Gi). It has a great soundtrack (composed by Joe Hisaishi), great visual appeal (it's like one of the biggest budgeted dramas in Korea and you can definitely tell), awesome character development for both protagonists and antagonists, cool fantasy elements and CG, and etc. The main reasons why I love this drama so much is definitely the OSTs and the flawlessly written plot.

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