Exploring Korean Dramas: Sungkyunkwan Scandal

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I have a confession to make: I watched the ending of Sungkyunkwan Scandal first.  The bits that I’d heard about the show were enticing, but I didn’t want to get sucked into the 20 episodes only to have a gut-punch ending.  Too often, historical kdramas end with one or both of the leads dead.

If we’re lucky (and using the term “lucky” loosely), it’ll just be one of the second leads to go.  I don’t mind sad endings to historical films, but I can’t handle investing 20 or more hours into a series only to see my beloved characters die.  Even the Hong Sisters, whom I trusted for a bubblier historical piece, killed off both the leads at the end of Hong Gil Dong, so I’m wary of historical kdramas.

I’m happy to report that Sungkyunkwan Scandal did not break my heart.  I was sad when it was over, but only because that meant that I had no more episodes to watch.  Scandal isn’t a perfect kdrama, but it’s the first one in months into which I’ve really gotten emotionally invested.  I missed these characters when their stories ended, and wished that I could spend more time with them.

My husband likes to joke that Sungkyunkwan Scandal is the Korean Yentl.  He’s not wrong.  Kim Yoon Hee is a bright young woman living in Joseon Korea, in the 1790s.  She’s the breadwinner for her family; her father’s dead and her brother is too sickly to find regular employment.  She dresses up as a man and takes her brother’s name, Kim Yoon Shik, so she can make money working as a scribe at the local bookshop (something women weren’t allowed to do at that time).

She meets Lee Sun Joon, the studious son of a top government official.  He’s about to enter Sungkyunkwan, and realizing Yoon Hee’s ability, he tricks her into enrolling as well.  Sungkyunkwan was the premiere university in Korea (it really exists and is still prestigious), and forbidden to women.  Now Yoon Hee has to keep up her male facade while studying at Sungkyunkwan and rooming with two men, Sun Joon and Moon Jae Shin.

The premise is, of course, ridiculous.  Kim Yoon Hee is so obviously a woman, and it’s just silly that no one aside from Goo Yong Ha, a senior at Sungkyunkwan and the fourth member of their quartet, realizes it.  But I don’t really care about the silliness of the premise, because I absolutely love what Scandal does with it.

At first Yoon Hee wants to get out of Sungkyunkwan as soon as she can.  Although she listened in on the lessons her father gave her brother growing up, she’s never aspired to actually going to a university.  The penalty for a woman masquerading as a man is death, so at first avoiding that is the only thing on Yoon Hee’s mind.

The longer she’s there, however, the more Yoon Hee begins enjoying herself.  She flourishes at Sungkyunkwan.  By the time Sun Joon discovers her true identity, she’s able to give him impassioned reasons for why he should allow her to stay, why even the threat of death (the real reason why he wants her to leave) isn’t enough to deter her from continuing:

“I don’t want to live in fear about a tomorrow that has not yet come.  Even if I leave Sungkyunkwan, I’ll still have to dress in a man’s hat and robe, and wander around Woonjong Street doing transcript work.  And if I can’t do even that, I’ll have to just marry anyone in order to lessen the burden on my struggling family.  So to me, there is no tomorrow that I should want to protect with all my might.  I want to enjoy this moment now, with all my heart and with all my strength.  Because these are moments that will never be allowed in my life again.”

Ugh, here, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, just go ahead and have my heart, why don’t you.  You’re clearly gunning for it.  With speeches like these you’ve got me eating out of your hand, all the more because you don’t limit your pro-equality messages to women.  Scandal addresses the political infighting rife at the school, of the lines drawn between the children whose parents are members of different parties, and between the rich and the poor (the latter of whom are allowed to attend, but with limited rights).

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