K-Drama Rewind: Sungkyunkwan Scandal

Let me share something personal about the ahjummamshies squad. When we were just starting out as friends who share a common interest in Korean dramas ages ago, Tipsy Ahjumma asked me to watch this fun sageuk about a group of young scholars studying in Joseon’s prestigious university for future government officials. Sounds like a common premise for teenybopper college dramas, right? But what makes it different is that the heroine poses as a man in order to enter the male-only institution. I was immediately hooked and the rest is history for our mini squad. And that my friends is how I met my favorite oppa Yoo Ah-in. If you are an avid reader of our blog, you would know by now that my biases are Ah-in-ssi and Jo In-sung oppa. They are the holy grail of my Korean drama obsession. Also, fresh from the announcement of his engagement to (Tipsy Ahjumma) Song Hye-kyo unnie, I thought it’s just proper to feature one Song Joong-ki classic. This is where it all began, my friends. And I am not really sure if they still need some introduction because this drama is a cult favorite among old and new fans alike. So for this week’s Grumpy Flashback, let’s reminisce the quirky moments of the 2010 youth sageuk, Sungkyunkwan Scandal.

First off, let me channel my inner Maknae Ahjumma and explain the “sungkyunkwan” education and the political factions surrounding the drama. Sungkyunkwan is composed of three root words: Sung (성) which means “accomplish/achieve,” Kyun (균) which means “balance,” and Kwan (관) which means “institute/university.” Sungkyunkwan is the premiere educational institution in Korea during the late Goryeo and Joseon dynasties located in the present-day Seoul. The drama deals heavily on socio-political climate during Joseon society, so let’s discuss briefly the political factions mentioned in the series. 

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During the reign of King Injo, the political factions Seoin (Western) and Nam-in (Southern) were in power while the Eastern faction of Dong-in disintegrated. While the country was grieving the death of the King’s son in 1659, the nobles were feuding on the length of the period of mourning. The Nam-in faction was accused of a conspiracy theory after the power of the Seoin faction weakened significantly during the two-year long mourning. The Western faction eventually split into two groups: the Noron faction (Old Learning) and the Soron faction (Young Learning). In the drama, Norons hold powerful government position, but was infamous for severe corruption. Sorons initially planned to revolt, but paid a high price for this mutiny.

Dozing off already? Don’t worry if you don’t like history, I got ya fam. Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a youthful period drama starring Park Min-young, Park Yoo-chun, Yoo Ah-in and Song Joong-ki, which was based on Jung Eun-gwol’s bestselling 2007 novel “The Lives of Sungkyunkwan Confucian Scholars.” It uses a very familiar plot of a female lead disguising herself as a guy. 

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Set in the time of King Jeongjo of Joseon, our heroine Kim Yoon-hee (Park Min-young) poses as her ailing brother Kim Yoon-shik in order to land a decent job for her family. While working at a local bookstore, she got an offer for a side job as a substitute examiner for the upcoming entrance test in Sungkyunkwan. During the exam, she got caught by the righteous son of the Left State Minister, Lee Seon-joon (Park Yoo-chun). Seon-joon eventually recognizes Yoon-hee’s intellect and potential as a Sungkyunkwan scholar and plotted a scenario so that he can take the exam. And because Yoon-hee has to make ends meet for her family (students were given allowances and free medicines which she can give to her sick brother), she entered the male-only university using the identity of Kim Yoon-shik.

This drama was very successful during its airing that it even won the bronze award at the 2012 New York Festivals’ International TV and Films Awards held in Las Vegas. Its male leads Park Yoo-chun, Yoo Ah-in, and Song Joong-ki became household names and went on to star in their respective hit dramas. I won’t take this any longer, ahjummamshies. These are my favorite moments from this modern classic!

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FIRST SCENE: SJK

You know you are in for a treat if the drama’s first scene flashes Song Joong-ki’s face. He is Sungkyunkwan’s famous playful upperclassman Gu Yong-ha, the son of a powerful landlord renting out properties for market merchants.

EVIL STUDENT COUNCIL PRESIDENT HA IN-SOO

If I would make a list of top villains in K-dramaland, Sungkyunkwan’s notorious student body president Ha In-soo (Jun Tae-soo) would definitely make the cut. He made life in Sungkyunkwan a living hell for Yoon-hee and Seon-joon, and is willing to do everything to make sure that our OTP will be expelled from the university.

SQUAD GOALS: JOSEON EDITION

Everything I love about this drama can be summarized into two words: Jalgeum Quartet. The y are the perfect mix of different characters united by friendship.  Seon-joon, the intelligent son of a noron; Yoon-hee, a lowly scholar with a pretty face; Moon Jae-shin (Yoo Ah-in), the mysterious roommate-slash-soron who knows (and protects!) the heroine’s secret; and Yong-ha, a happy-go-lucky senior who is Jae-shin’s bestie.

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I don’t want to disappoint but Yoon-hee (Park Min-young) is my least favorite character in the Jalgeum Quartet. Don’t get me wrong. I love this show for having an intelligent and persevering heroine, but among the four leads, Yoon-hee is the least colorful one for me (compared to the three guys). Seo-joon, on the other hand, gained my respect for being the nerdy hero who stands up for his principles, but is ready to embrace his sexuality when it comes to love.

I was not tired yet of watching gender-bender dramas during Sungkyunkwan‘s airing so I was pretty much tolerant with all the disguise that’s been going on in the series. And just like any other gender-bender dramas, I often like the journey of the confused character more than the struggles of the one in disguise. Blame it on fiction, but the heroine dressing up as a man and her effort to conceal her identity can be easily trounced by the hero’s gender crisis. Just imagine the confusion felt by a virtuous person like Seon-joon before he admitted that he loves “Yoon-shik” (Yoon-hee) for who he is.

Anyway, one of the best moments of the series was definitely the quartet’s discovery of the Geum Deung Ji Sa. Here is a brief explanation of this main plot point:

In 1762, King Yeongjo ordered the killing of his own son Crown Prince Sado because he was accused of killing people in the palace and raping palace maids. But later, the King realized it was a conspiracy by his political opponents. The Geum Deung Ji Sa was a group of scrolls written by King Yeongjo in which he expresses his regrets for having killed his son, and blames his political opponents for the conspiracy. When King Yeongjo died, his grandson Jeongjo (son of Prince Sado and current ruler in the drama) became king, he ordered the quartet to look for the Geum Deung Ji Sa in order to show his father’s innocence, and prove the political conspiracy. 

CHRONIC SECOND LEAD SYNDROME

The most striking highlight of this show that I remember up to this day was the severe heartbreak I felt for the second lead Moon Jae-shin. His personal struggle after knowing that Yoon-hee was a girl and everything he did to protect her was simply unforgettable. He may be charismatic and tough, but he is also sweet and caring when it comes to Yoon-hee.

My love for Yoo Ah-in went sky high while watching this drama. I have this thing for rustic-looking, rugged boys ever since I was a hormonal teenager, so it’s pretty obvious that I fell for the dirty (but princely) neighborhood hero in this drama.

LEGENDARY GEOL-OH AND YEO-RIM BROMANCE

Before The Lonely and Shining Goblin’s Goblin and Grim Reaper, and Descendants of the Sun’s Big Boss and Wolf, there was Sungkyunkwan Scandal’s Geol-oh (crazy horse) and Yeo-rim (forest of females). They were the epitome of bromance that can topple all the bromances in K-dramaverse. The friendship between Moon Jae-shin and Gu Yong-ha clearly overshadowed the love line between the main couple Seo-joon and Yoon-hee. In fact, I was always looking forward to their scenes rather than watching the main couple getting all lovey dovey. And to cement their reputation as one of the best team-ups in Korean drama scene, Song Joong-ki and Yoo Ah-in even won the Best Couple Award at the 2010 KBS Drama Awards! What’s even better is the fact that Ah-in (my love) is also a close friend of Joong-ki’s fiancee Hye-kyo!

Did you learn something new about Korean history in this week’s feature or you dozed off even before we get started? Anything boring becomes fun when you mix it with the things you love. So why not start watching this cute sageuk and tell me what’s your take on it?

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All the credits for the videos and pictures used in this blog goes to KBS World.

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