Drama Review: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

A friend of mine told me that I’ve had a major fall at least once every year since she’s known me. And she’s not wrong.

In 2014, I fell right smack on my tailbone and had to work from home for three months. In 2015 I fell while boarding the bus, split my lip and busted my knees. This year, I fell on my left knee and the side of my right foot while rushing to work from the swimming complex on Monday morning.

So I spent the whole of Tuesday like a downright slob, watching dramas and camping out on YouTube, using my injury as an excuse to procrastinate on the proper work. The self-loathing is real, guys :/

It feels terrible not being able to move about freely, go for a swim, or even do a jumping Jack. Now I know how frustrated and upset my granddad must have felt after he broke his hip. So pardon me for hiding out in drama world for a day (and wallowing in self-pity).

The plus side is, I finally managed to finish this terrific South Korean drama called Scarlet Heart Ryeo (AKA Moon Lovers), and now I’m in a COMPLETE WRECK thanks to it. I’d been putting it off for a month before finally deciding to watch it since people around me kept urging me to.

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And boy, was it worth the watch! I had never really been into time-travelling historical fantasies, but this drama completely changed my mind! Historical dramas are now my new obsession!
(Especially now as I’m planning Land of Sand and Song, a YA historical fantasy novel, I’ve been reading up on bloody monarchs, one of which includes Emperor Gwangjong. Scarlet Heart Ryeo is centred around this character, how he came to ascend the throne and gained his reputation as a wise, fair, but ruthless emperor known for the emancipation of slaves and the extensive purges of nobles who rebelled against him. This Tumblr post offers a detailed yet digestible explanation of the early Goryeo dynasty (Korean dynasty established in 918 by King Taejo).)
Scarlet Heart is based on a book trilogy written by a famous Chinese author, Tong Hua (who also wrote Sound of the Desert, if you remember my earlier blog post raving about it), and there’s a reason why people get so obsessed about her stories. She has perfect acumen in terms of plotting, and a particular knack for delving into her characters’ psyches, fleshing out delicious backstories, and then transforming them over the course of the story.
I didn’t watch the original Chinese version (because the number of episodes it had is quite daunting), so I went in without any expectations.
With the Korean adaptation, I was first blown away by the beautiful cast
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Then by the GORGEOUS costumes and cinematic visuals
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And the EPIC orchestral OST (more on that later!)
The Korean version, at only twenty episodes, was fast-paced and concise – every scene and dialogue is crucial and I couldn’t skip any scenes because they were all so gripping.
Scarlet Heart Ryeo is, in a nutshell, a palace drama with a twist, beginning with a 21st century girl down on her luck who goes into a coma after an accident and ends up in the Goryeo dynasty as Haesoo, the cousin of the eighth prince’s wife.
There, she meets the princes and is caught in the middle of their power struggle after the incumbent king takes ill. She soon falls in love with the warm, kind and sweet eighth prince Wang Wook (played by the cinnamon roll that is Kang Ha Neul) AND IT’S NOT HARD TO SEE WHY
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His smile can thaw the harshest winter

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THEY TRADE POETRY as a form of courtship. Can we adopt this practice for the 21st century please *__*

But things change when the fourth prince Wang So (who would eventually become Emperor Gwangjong) enters the picture. Abandoned when he was a child (sent to a live with noble family, but basically abandoned) because of a scar on his face, Wang So (played by the charismatic Lee Joon Gi) is the textbook misunderstood bad boy with a broken heart.

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The lonely, misunderstood, often feared Wang So. As much as the eighth prince’s smile captured my heart, I wanted to give the fourth prince a much-needed hug 😦

He watches as the power-hungry Wang Yo (third prince) claws his way to the throne, backed by the ruthless Mother Queen Yoo (also Wang So’s mother, but he gets ZERO loving from her, that cold bitch), watches him try to exterminate all threats to his position, including his brothers, and vows to become king so as to end the bloodshed and indiscriminate killing.
Along the way, Haesoo and Wang Wook’s relationship changes as the latter begins to yearn for the throne. Haesoo and Wang So grow closer as she helps him cover up his scar and becomes instrumental in his ascension to the throne. So there’s a lot of deception, mercury poisoning, emperors driven to madness, bloodshed, regicide, fraticide, betrayals, broken promises and broken hearts, and also a lot of romantic swoon-worthy moments in this drama.
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The final episode of Scarlet Heart destroyed me – I was literally sobbing into my palms. It’s a tragic ending (the kind most historical dramas tend to have) that completely rips your heart out, but it was gratifying to witness the way the entire story played out, how some characters came full circle and how others changed, for better or for worse, how history came to be written.
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Scarlet Heart Ryeo was the first Korean drama project for Universal Studios and had a budget of US$13 million. It was significantly less of a commercial success than the Chinese version, and I know some viewers were frustrated at how the story ended, but I personally LOVED it. It didn’t have the happy ending everyone hoped for, but I think if the screenwriters had pandered to the audience’s wishes and wrote the cheesy, predictable happy ending, the story wouldn’t have ended on such a strong note – one that is ridden with regret and sorrow, and the yearning for more.
ALSO, the orchestral OST is the icing on the cake. It is THE BOMB – I’ve had it on replay for days!
Have you heard anything quite as beautiful?! I think what made this drama such a fantastic escape and reprieve from reality is its keen sense of place, and the OST definitely helped set the mood.
So tl;dr contrary to what the naysayers think, I absolutely ADORE Scarlet Heart Ryeo. It helps if you just take the drama for what it is without comparing it to the original version. Overall, the plot and pacing and dialogue are tight, intricate, and pack a mean punch. It doesn’t have a happy ending, but its ending is perfectly sublime in the amount of catharsis and pathos it evokes. GO WATCH IT IF YOU HAVEN’T, THEN PLEASE COME AND FANGIRL WITH ME.
What are your thoughts on Moon Lovers? Any other recommendations for period dramas? I am officially a fan of Lee Joon Gi now and am planning to watch his previous dramas, Gunman in Joseon and Scholar Who Walks the Night!
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One thought on “Drama Review: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

  1. Pingback: Drama Review: The Legend of the Blue Sea | the writes of passage

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