In this light historical drama that I watched a year ago I found myself asking, “So where is the scandal?” Ah, that a mere girl has infiltrated the hallowed halls of Sungkyunkwan is the scandal, hence the title Sungkyunkwan Scandal.
Let’s say I didn’t know that there’s a real Sungkyunkwan University, that I watched this series without knowing beforehand who the actresses/actors in it are, that I was just curious about a centuries ago campus life when school buildings were of wood, foot-walks to classrooms were paved with stone, attendance in the cafeteria was checked, and the dorm looked like the traditional countryside house, what could I say after watching it?
Produced in 2010, this is set during King Jeongjo’s reign (Yi San, 28 October 1752 – 18 August 1800, the 22nd ruler of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, r. 1776-1800), when his character in the drama is shown to be already using painkillers and is talking of how limited his time is and so he must speed things up. He secretly visits the campus to watch ball games and is at one time the arbiter of a campus crime investigation that he turned into an examination item.
The meat of this drama is in the dialogues. I was not disappointed in my quest at taking a peek at what elite Confucian students might have been looking into because they do recite here small snippets from the books. Taking note of the dialogues and putting them in a post here will have to be done at another time, though. Like with Tree with Deep Roots here’s another way to get introduced into the high regard for the Chinese classics, which form the basics of a Confucian scholarship.What makes the series interesting for me is the way the students and their mentors/elders make moves one after and against the other around the problems they have to contend with, making it seem like a chess game of wits with integrity at stake. When parts start to drag, like in the romantic scenes, I just fast-forward.
There are many characters here, which is usual. I can speak about the four main characters only for now, and on what makes them interesting for me. They each are from different spheres of their society, from different political influences, making their friendship an object of admiration even by the king. Although the drama moves around their involvement with each other the story starts long before they were born, in the strife between political opponents that got the present king’s father killed.
1.) Kim Yoon Hee sacrifices much for the sake of her family. She takes care of them, being the eldest child of a fatherless household that has a chronically sick younger son. This in itself is not unusual then and now, but what is unusual is her way of doing it: she transcribes books (a bit like “print on demand” type of job) for a bookseller. She has made good use of this skill and talent she has — unconventional for a girl during her time because it was only the men who can get a high level of literacy such as hers, so the bookseller knows her only as Kim Yoon Shik since she comes to the shop attired as a man using her brother’s name. She had a good start at the classics as a little girl when her father, who was a professor at Sungkyunkwan, was still alive. After she enters Sungkyunkwan in guise her schoolmates nickname her Daemul, meaning “big shot”. Sungkyunkwan, being the elite learning institution of Joseon, is exclusive to males and the uncovering of her successful entry comprise the scandal. She is the key, however, as the child of a former Sungkyunkwan professor who was highly trusted by the king, in locating a controversial document that several political bigwigs tried to destroy ten years ago.
2.) Lee Seon Jun is the child of the Left Minister who is also the leader of the kingdom’s strongest political faction. Hence he is an “untouchable” to the extent that the school’s chancellor is always on tiptoe in looking out for his welfare. He is as upright as can be, a perfect replica of his father in conduct and demeanor, which is consistently emotionless. He struggles with his attraction to his roommate whom he sincerely believes to be a man. Thus, he undergoes an existential struggle concerning an issue that is anathema to the principles he lives by: conservative Confucianism. He, an upright leader-to-be of the kingdom, becomes introduced into a world that is outside the scope of his upbringing and the contemporary norms — and this not only with regards to sexuality but also with the overall worldview, giving him opportunities for applying into deeds the principles written by scholars of long ago, those he had learned in books, on how to live a worthy life. A friend nicknames him Garang, meaning an ideal husband material. He represents the awkwardly fumbling bridge between erudition and the authentic human.
3.) Moon Jae Shin is the surviving younger son of the Justice Minister. His older brother was a radical supporter on issues regarding the common people — he and Kim Yoon Hee’s father were killed while performing a secret royal order, the transport of a document that was written by the former king wherein stated is his remorse over the death penalty he gave to his own son the Crown Prince Sado, the present king’s father. Moon Jae Shin’s nickname is Gul-oh (also Geol-oh), the crazy horse. He disregards conventions practiced by Sungkyunkwan scholars and his teachers have “failed” him from graduating three times already, though no-one berates him, not even his father. He comes and goes to his dorm room at will, which he occupies by himself, and it’s not unusual for him to reek of alcohol, be unkempt, and be absent from or asleep in class. However, like his older brother he is an excellent writer, and has read all the books in the library. He leads a double life, being a masked vigilante at some nights who drops off from the rooftops to the main roads below seemingly subversive red notes. By these notes the king has ascertained that he’s a Sungkyunkwan scholar and thus wants to protect him from the powers that suspect him of knowing about the former king’s secret document, the recovery of which threatens the current strongest political faction’s hold on power.
4.) Gu Yong Ha is the son of a rich merchant. They can afford vacation trips to China, is always very fashionably dressed, has a dorm room all to himself that is lavishly decorated — whereas the others have to share up to three persons each, ones that are almost bare of furniture. He is very popular among the gisaeng (the female entertainers) and is nicknamed Yeorim, the playboy. Being not of the yangban (nobleman class), his father bought their status, thus making Yeorim acceptable to Sungkyunkwan and their family respectable. Having a traditionally merchant family has made Yeorim wise in the ways of the streets, making him “at home” not only among the aristocracy but also in the shops. Their wealth makes Yeorim a valuable ally among the leaders-to-be in his school but isn’t a strong enough buffer against political ignominy, thus his bought status is a well guarded secret. Yeorim is the tactician among the Jalgeum Quartet — which is the name given by the gisaengs to this group of four friends, meaning that to the girls they’re four exciting/thrilling young men. It is Yeorim who consistently puts two and two together, enabling him to anticipate happenings and so is never at a loss at any situation. Yeorim is the one who can be depended on to get things done. His shallow-playboy image is a mask that covers an introspective personality. He’s actually a cynic and only their teacher has discerned his propensity at distancing himself from disadvantageous situations. Using their individual means, he and Geol-oh are the most mobile of the four friends, having the confidence and the capicity to roam anywhere they want — Geol-oh using his martial arts prowess and Yeorim using his family’s resources that includes a private army.
My favorite characters in the drama all in all are, briefly:
❤ Gul-oh – he uses academics as an end to something else, and is emotionally engaged in his aim, which basically is upholding the common folk – a value rubbed off on him by his brother
❤ Yeorim – he speaks out, knows his way through situations, operates with certainty while being unafraid of well-calculated risks
❤ Sun Dol, Lee Seon-jun’s personal servant – he’s so unguarded, so sincere in what he does that he doesn’t let conventions check the way he expresses himself: he teases, scolds, nags and hugs his young master
❤ the king (Yi San) – resists political pressures for the sake of the populace; he listens to the opinions of young scholars, trusts them, and gives generous appreciation where due
❤ the two professors – they have integrity and deserve the respect given to them
❤ the school principal/chancellor – always torn between being upright, dealing with the parents, and being on the good side of the powers-that-be — in his funny way manages this beautifully
❤ the school’s staff, including the children who run errands and ring the bell – they are the main keepers of order in campus, cleaning, cooking, and assisting the teachers
Daemul and Garang, the romantic pair, are fine in their own way but they’re not the reason why I’ve counted this drama as a favorite 🙂 One’s always too nice and the other’s always too goody-two-shoes, what Yeorim might call “boring” if not for the events that arise because of them. But the way each of the four responded to their unusual friendship is engaging for me, and the dynamics makes the drama worth watching again. Children who have disappointments with regards to their fathers might find this drama interesting despite its obvious commercial attractions — the young men’s relationships with their prominent fathers are given attention in this drama. Considering that the unkempt Garang and the well-groomed Yeorim have been buddies for a decade now, and that the “cheat” Daemul bonds with the irreproachable Garang, the yin-yang concept is seen here. Daemul, who is not interested in the attractive Yeorim, was first found out by the indifferent Gul-oh who is “allergic” to girls — he hiccups when he gets close to one. Garang is also the opposite to Gul-oh, in temperament and in political orientations. Similar to Garang, Yeorim also once had to deal with his strong fascination over another male, Gul-oh, but which does not bother him now. Gul-oh is the most physically capable of the 4 but has to be “saved” by them several times. One thing that I appreciate in this drama: thankfully there’s no fighting among the 3 guys over Daemul 🙂
…that’s all for now… ciao 🙂 (all captures in this post zoom in when clicked on)