An Outsider’s Thoughts on Sageuk

With the currently airing Three Musketeers and the upcoming Secret Door, the focus is not only the characters in the dramas but also the historical figures who inspired the fictional people featured in the period pieces. Although the history could be a major spoiler for those who hate to be spoiled when they are watching a particular drama, to me, the process to reach the conclusion is more important, since it sets a drama different from the others revolving around the same historical figures. Sure, we already know the ending, but it is worth the time if the events leading to the ultimate ending are wonderfully crafted, enough to leave me breathless. Although breathless sounds like an exaggerated expression but that’s what it feels to watch a well-written drama, which is rare nowadays.

ย Back to the topic, I chanced upon several articles while browsing through the news this morning.

Lee Jin-wook VS Lee Je-hoon, Who is the More Unfortunate Prince among These Two?

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The article discusses about the current trend in dramas, shedding new lights on the lives of the two unfortunate princes: the one who lived a dramatic life, Crown Prince Sohyun, and the prince who met a tragic ending, Crown Prince Sado. They lived hundred years apart, yet experienced the same fate: born as the heirs to the Joseon throne but failed to receive the love from their fathers, leading to their tragic endings. Well, it mostly talks about the actors Lee Jin-wook as Prince Sohyun and Lee Je-hoon as Prince Sado, but the article might be able to induce the curiosity in the readers to find out more about the history behind these two famous princes of Joseon Dynasty.

I have watched the first three episodes of Three Musketeers and its plot is light but entertaining so far. Prince Sohyun is portrayed as a good looking prince who seems to be carefree on the outside but he has every intention to keep his country safe from the Manchus. While we’re still early into the story, it’s clear how much Injo depends on his eldest son. Although Injo is the king, he values Sohyun’s views and he is willing to gave in to his son sometimes. His pride has been shattered thanks to the Manchu army who has invaded Joseon and he continues to be bothered with the thought of having the despicable villains stepping on him again. It might be a king’s intuition since he starts to have nightmares and Injo might grow uneasy with the way his officials are acting around him. Prince Sohyun wants to deal with the matter quietly, but it can cause discord in between the father and son later,ย  if not dealt properly. It’s worth wondering how far the story will go, considering that it is planned to have three seasons: will it delve into the pitiful ending of the royal couple? We still have a long way ahead, so I’m just going to enjoy the show for now.

Fantasy Sageuk, How Far They’ve Come

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It talks mainly about Three Musketeers and the abundance of fictional characters featured among the real historical figures during Injo’s reign. Fantasy sageuk or fusion sageuk is a branch of the sageuk which is popular among the young audience. Although it contains fictional bits in between the historical facts, fusion sageuk is still successful in attracting the attention of both young and old generation. While it is purely entertainment, one can’t deny fusion sageuk’s influence on the viewers, for instance spurring interests in the real historical figures depicted in the drama. But then, this genre often attracts the attention on the issue of distorting the historical facts. I have witnessed several uproars involving the fusion sageuk, like what happened to Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love and Empress Ki.

Both series happened to be focusing on the lives of the femme fatales in the ancient Korea but their stories were told in different perspectives, compared to the images painted by the historians. I realize that the public is more lenient to movies compared to dramas when it comes to twisting the history, but it might be due to the availability of the piece: dramas can be watched by anyone but movies are only limited to the people who want to watch it. Rather than thinking that it’s trying to change the history, I like to think that the dramas intend to shed a different light on the supposed femme (and homme) fatales: what have caused them to become the notorious people recorded in the history? It’s like feeding the imagination that the viewers have in between the records of the historians and the events that were not written in the history.

Sometimes, fusion sageuk opts for a safer choice, that is to have the background set in a fantasy timeline, just like The Moon that Embraces the Sun and The Night Watchman’s Journal. Both are set in the Joseon Dynasty but everything aside from the setting is purely fictional. There are complaints saying that with a fantasy setting, it’s nothing more than an ordinary drama playing house wearing hanbok. They might be similar to a modern drama, but a fantasy sageuk provides a space for the plot to come into play. For instance, rivalry between siblings for inheriting a company sounds ordinary, but change the background to Joseon, with siblings in conflict for the throne succession – sounds more complex, with bigger stakes at play. Each setting has their own pros and cons: modern dramas have all the means to find out the secrets of the rivals while in historical dramas, getting rid of someone can be as easy as drinking water. In the end, it depends on how well it is written for the story to be accepted by the audience, be it a modern drama or a period piece.

Sejong and So Yi’s Loveline: An Immoral Act in Reality?

I remember reading this article back in 2011 when I was following Tree with Deep Roots, and I recognized the title even after several years. An interesting read, because it happens to compare between Sejong’s relationship with So Yi and Crown Prince Sado’s infatuation with a palace maid. Yeongjo’s relationship with a palace maid is also mentioned and it’s such a coincidence that Han Suk-kyu happens to play both Sejong and Yeongjo in Tree with Deep Roots and Secret Door, respectively.

I’m not sure if people still remember the close relationship shared between Sejong and So Yi in the drama, but it left a deep impression on me since she was depicted as the main supporter and benefactor to Sejong mega project, Hangul. She provided emotional support to Sejong each time the king feel defeated by the constant objections and hurdles coming his way, but their relationship was only to that extent. However, in reality, to have a king being alone with a palace maid was frowned upon. So Yi was Prince Gwangpyung’s maid but she spent more time beside Sejong, helping him to achieve his ambition of creating Hangul. It was acceptable for the king to make a palace maid as his concubine but So Yi might be the talk of the palace in reality.

It compared Sejong with Crown Prince Sado, who also had several relationships with palace maids; however, it became a controversy and incurred Yeongjo’s wrath because of the status of the maid, Ping-ae. She was originally a maid under Queen Inwon, Sukjong’s third queen consort, which made her Sado’s grandmother by law. It was considered a taboo to covet things belonged to a superior, thus Sado made a big mistake when he fell for the maid. Yeongjo was mad to hear about it and demanded for Sado to return Ping-ae to her original place, but Sado, being too infatuated with her, hid her inside his palace and disguised someone else as Ping-ae to put on a show for his father, Yeongjo. Of course, Yeongjo was tricked since he did not even know Ping-ae’s real face and Ping-ae stayed hidden beside Sado.

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Then, the article brought on the issue of Yeongjo with one of his concubines, Lady Moon Suk-ui. She was originally a palace maid working under Crown Princess Jo, Yeongjo’s daughter-in-law who married his first son, Crown Prince Hyojang. After Princess Jo passed away, she managed to catch Yeongjo and became his royal concubine. She was later raised to the rank suk-ui from suk-won. It was not the first time, since Sukjong had Lady Choi Suk-bin, who was originally Queen Inhyun’s watermaid and Lady Jang Hui-bin, who served under his great-grandmother, Queen Jangryeol. Sukjong also encountered objections from his officers when he wanted to make Lady Jang his concubine, but it might have to do with the factional rivalry and Queen Jangryeol supported his decision as Lady Jang’s status would give Soron the chance to flourish alongside Noron under Queen Inhyun.

The complex status issue is probably hard to be understood by us but for the people who lived in that era, they had to obey the laws dictated by the nation and held on their beliefs. Through the historical dramas and movies produced not only in Korea, but in other countries, the audience will be able to learn something and appreciate the beauty of history, although they could become a double-edged sword: to stir the interest but at the same time with the danger of causing the confusion between fact and fiction. Well, my advice is do not simply believe what you watch on the screen!

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20 thoughts on “An Outsider’s Thoughts on Sageuk

  1. Part of Injo’s insecurity regarding his throne is probably due to the fact that he didn’t inherit the throne. The ministers in power overthrew the previous king and put Injo in his place instead, to be their puppet. So I guess he feels like he doesn’t have true power despite being the king. Sohyeon mentioned to Dalhyang in the 3rd episode that he grew up outside the palace and preferred life outside of it (who blames him). But it’s interesting to see how the father-son dynamic develops between him and Injo that would ultimately lead Sohyeon to his end. Or we might not see it in this instalment, seeing that Three Musketeers is planned out for three seasons. More Lee Jin-Wook, yay!

    1. Yeah, we’ll see more of Injo’s interaction with the ministers soon but it must be depressing to live without real power, and then sacrificing his pride in front of the barbarians before being accused of neglecting his own people!

      I assume that they will conclude this season with Injo’s surrender to Machurians and Sohyun’s depart as a hostage to Shenyang. I am thankful to the team for choosing Lee Jin-wook for this role, because he’s enjoying every bits and pieces of his portrayal as the cheeky Crown Prince ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’m all for Sohyun and Kang Bin’s relationship to advance to the next level. Heee

      1. I’m pretty pleased with how they have paced the drama so far. Each episode has highs and lows and serves to reveal more about the musketeers. Oh yes Lee Jin Wook is definitely the highlight of the show for me. I’m not too bothered if they develop the romance or not (but it’s plus point if done right!) as the plot is interesting enough. I remember Tree with Deep Roots fondly and that didn’t have too much of a romantic element to it. Really looking forward to Secret Door as well, would be interesting to see how they interpret/reinterpret Sado’s story.

        1. At first I’m quite sad that they are airing it once a week but they are able to keep us afloat with the little surprises here and there. Funny that it has only aired four episodes so far but I care a lot about the characters!

          Tree with Deep Roots proved that a drama does not have to be centered around romance in order for it to be successful. Although Chae-yoon and So-yi did have love line, it was done beautifully that it did not cloud the main focus of the story, that was the Hangul project. I can see Writer Song doing the same thing she did with Nine – the romance will be moving alongside the main plot and here in Three Musketeers, love flourishes amidst the tragedic invasion of Joseon. Did I get too poetic? Ha..

          I’m anticipating Secret Door too, but I’m worried that they might encounter the ‘distortion of history’ issue. Hopefully not!

  2. As always your articles are fascinating and learning experience. I cannot wait until Secret Door starts. As an older drama watchers, I watch fewer fusion/fantasy saguek drama than most. My dropped list is littered with them because I’ve watch so many that I’ve love that may distort history but not as extreme as the fantasy/fusion ones. Like you stated, if/when I watch them, I take them as entertainment only. Looking forward to Secret Door a LOT!!

    1. Thanks!

      I feel you..fantasy sageuk isn’t for everyone and I also have several of them that no matter how many times I tried to watch, they came out as flat and/or lacking charms. Distortion of historical facts, to me, is on a thin line between fascinating and irritating, and it’s up to the writers to shape the story to be as fascinating as possible and to minimize the irritating aspects.

      I love the historical dramas depicting the real events but the challenge for international viewers like us is the lack of subs due to small circle of fans. Like Jeong Do-jeon, I want to watch it but the subs are almost non-existent ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      I am so impatient for Secret Door that I visit the official website several times daily, although I know well that SBS can be quite stingy with the promo materials. We have about two weeks until the premiere!!

        1. I’m a penniless student so have to turn a blind eye on any DVD.. sobs

          I’m glad that I wasn’t the only one who thought so..this year’s sageuk offering has been scarce..maybe the broadcasters are playing it safe? I’m currently watching Cruel Palace, jtbc’s sageuk last year. It’s so addictive so far ^^v

  3. Hi. I like both sageuks and fantasy sageuks.
    I wish there would.be a fantasy sageuk that would take full advantage of the fact that it’s not constrained by history and give us a powerful drama.
    The straight up sageuks in that instance can’t deliver because the ending is known.

    I am however looking forward to Secret Door.

    Btw, I love your blog

    1. Hello ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for visiting!

      I wish that a brave scriptwriter will attempt to do so and s/he will be supported by a broadcaster that is willing to take the risk of airing a pure fantasy sageuk. If it’s done right, then there’s nothing to stop the drama from being accepted by the viewers. MoonSun and Night Watchman are on the decent scale but we’ve yet to see an outstanding one for that genre ๐Ÿ˜€

      Sageuk based on historical events & figures can generate public interest on the drama, hence that might be the reason the broadcasters are more interested in such genre. After all, profit is important behind a drama’s production.

  4. I’m always so amazed by your articles, especially the sageuk related ones! They are always so well written and educational. Information about ancient times Korea are so rarely translated, so we really (I mean REALLY) appreciate what you do!

    1. There are so many interesting things related to Korean dramas but most of them are written in Korean, especially the historical bits. I’m happy that my lacking translation can shed some light on the history behind the dramas. Thanks and I’ll work harder to spread the love~ ๐Ÿ˜‰

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