Monday, 11 April 2016

Crack K Drama Recommendations - Part 1: Saeguks - Historical Dramas: Swords, Silks and Subterfuge.

Saeguk dramas, (pronounced 'sahguk') are historical / period dramas. These are most commonly set during the Joseon Dynasty, 1392 - 1897, with a few exceptions being set in the earlier Goryeo and Silla Dynasties or later, during Japanese Occupation.

The Joseon Dynastic family was a royal hot mess of dysfunction, intrigue and treachery that made the Tudors look like the Brady Bunch, all set against a backdrop of trying to increase their own prestige, while simultaneously appeasing their Chinese overlords and fending off Japanese incursions.

What makes the Joseon Dynasty such a rich and unique source of drama is 'The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty'.  Now, bureaucracies the world over obsessively record the daily minutiae of government, but what separates the Annals is that they also obsessively recorded every utterance of the king. Crucially, the King was forbidden from editing, or even reading these annals, so they paint some 'warts and all' character portraits for us.  Consequently, we know that King Sejong wanted meat for every meal, against doctor's orders, and constantly teased his personal bodyguard and that Crown Prince SuYoung often wore robes that were too big for him!

For the sake of accuracy, I must point out that the following dramas are more properly know as 'Fusion Saeguks', because they stray somewhat from the path of historical accuracy to be more speculative, as well as sometimes adding elements of fantasy.
If it's pure history you're after, you need to head back to the saeguks of the 80's and 90's.

But that's another the meantime, buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Arang and the Magistrate  / Arang Sato  /  아랑사또

Where to begin with this wonderful gem?  I think that I will start with what struck me first - the stunning, sumptuous and imaginative visuals.
This drama is a pure fantasy, the titular Arang is a virgin ghost who enlists (ahem, blackmails) the aid of the magistrate to solve the mystery of her death and help her to move on to heaven.  The depictions of the her journey to the Underworld were so amazing that by the end of the second episode, I was emailing artist friends with strict instructions to check it out.

This is a fully realised world with a rock solid internal logic. There are no wishy-washy 'it's just magic' cop outs. There are rules and they are not only explained, but followed. It's really quite refreshing!

The writing is excellent, with a fully developed, complex cast of characters playing for the highest of stakes - more than life and death, it is Arang's very soul which is at risk. This is balanced by some fantastic moments of humour and top-notch chemistry between the leads.

And the bonus of watching any drama starring  Lee Joon Ki - as a 4th Dan Black Belt, he does hella good fight scenes!

Bridal Mask / Gaksital / 각시탈

Our next saeguk takes place in 1930's Seoul, at the height of Japanese Occupation.
This show was brave even before it started production! "How so?" I hear you ask. Korean pop culture; the pop music, the dramas and the movies, are big business across the rest of Asia. Incredibly big. HUGE. And their biggest market is Japan.  This drama, dealing as it does with all the dark and nasty corners of colonialism will never......EVER..... air in Japan. For this reason, several actors turned down the lead role, until it was offered to Joo Won, who considered the story too important to pass up.

This is a period of time which is still in living memory, and still quite raw, mostly due to Japan's unwillingness to deal with it's murky past. And much like France after WWII, there is still deep bitterness against the collaborators. Gaksital pulled no punches in depicting the depravity of both the Japanese occupiers and the Korean collaborators.  There were scenes which gave me goosebumps and one particular scene which froze me to the bone.

In a nutshell, Gaksital, the titular hero, works with the Japanese Government by day and as a masked freedom fighter by night.

It was great to be watching this in Korea as it aired - it became a runaway hit, EVERYBODY was watching this one.  I have a lovely memory of one of my seven year old students whispering in my ear to tell me 'Gaksital's' real identity.

Six Flying Dragons / Yook Rongi Nareusha / 육령이 나르샤

I give you fair warning - it's going to be difficult for me not to gush like a giddy fangirl for this one. This drama is utter perfection in every single aspect and in every single episode, from one to fifty.  Fifty episodes may sound like a daunting commitment, (most saeguks are 24 eps) but I promise you, I ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEE YOU that you will eat up every last bit and beg for more. ( I have the withdrawal symptoms to prove it!)

Six Flying Dragons is the prequel to Tree With Deep Roots, another drama on this list.  Tree With Deep Roots tells the story of King Sejong the Great and the political and ideological ramifications of the creation of the Korean alphabet, hangul.
When if finished, I wondered to myself, "How could this exquisite drama possibly be improved upon?" The answer?
Take the same production team, set the story a generation earlier, at the foundation of the dynasty, given them a larger ensemble cast and twice the time to tell the story.

It is a trademark of both dramas that the ideological conversations are every bit as gripping and exciting as the breathtaking fight scenes.
And if amazing dialogue and mind blowing martial arts aren't enough to float your boat, (you weirdo!), well then, just sit back and enjoy the pretty!!

Here are three of the six dragons:

And trust me, it does not hurt that the top guy, Byun Yo Han, is channeling the young Errol Flynn for the early days of his character!

Middle Main Man, Yoo Ah In, in an actor of such incredible intensity that I look forward to watching him for many years to come.

Lastly, Yoon Kyun Sang manages the delicate task of playing a character of humbling innocence and strength.

Just watch it, m'kay?!

Sungkyunkwan Scandal / 성균관 스캔들


This drama is listed under 'Saeguk' but could just as comfortably be filed under 'Gender Bendy Shenanigans', as the heroine is a girl who dresses as a young man in order to work as a book seller and support her family.  Through mischief and misfortune, she ends up attending the epynonymous Sungkyunkwan University. (Not only an actual university, but one of the oldest in Asia, founded in 1398)  Cue hijinks galore!

This drama not only has the fun of gender bendy shenanigans, but the bromance is off the charts!!  You'll be squeeing for days! And the romance is just adorable. Feck it. I'm just going to have to watch it again!

Take this drama as a gift wrapped tonic from me, and stream it the next time you need a pick me up.

The Princess' Man / Gongjooui Namja / 공주의 남자

Hand's up who loves 'Romeo and Juliet'?

Now imagine if our darling Romeo and Juliet were a few years older, intelligent and had a strength of conviction so rock solid that you could build a house on it - sounds pretty good, huh?  You're in for a treat then, cos that's this drama.

I discovered this drama while a friend and I were having Sunday lunch at a restaurant, and this was playing on the telly.  My friend and I were busy chatting and eating, not paying it any mind, when we suddenly realised that every other diner in the place was riveted to the screen as the episode's cliffhanger played out. And damn! As soon as we looked, we were hooked!

This drama is based on the bloody and vicious coup of Prince Su-Yang in his bid to become the seventh king of Joseon in 1453. The stakes are high and the scope is epic. The show has a tightly constructed plot which will keep you guessing until the end.  This is a drama you can really sink your teeth into.

The Return of Iljimae / Doraohn Iljimae / 돌아온 일지매

This drama is such a sumptuous feast for the senses!  Lush cinematography, thoughtful editing, beautiful music which enhances the scenes without ever overwhelming them, and all in support of a thoughtful and complex character arc of our hero, Iljimae. And the swordfights are pure art!

And would someone please explain to me how the hell Jung Il Woo can emote such much just with his eyes!!!!

This is a drama which I will be happily rewatching for years to come.

Tree With Deep Roots / Puri Gippeun Namu / 뿌리 깊은 나무

Oh, Show, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways?

Based on the best selling novel of the same name, words fail me in trying to praise the excellence of the script. It's exploration of the dictum, 'Knowledge is Power' is thought provoking to a degree which is deeply satisfying.  It showcases the colossal talent of Han Seok Kyu in his tour de force role of King Sejong the Great.

How epic was this show? The actor Song Joon Ki, currently taking Asia by storm in the hit drama Descendents of the Sun, turned down the chance to play the lead in a drama, so that he could play the young King Sejong for only four episodes and one Oscar worthy scene further down the line. And that decision transformed his career. This show is just that damn good and if I ever win the lottery, I'll be buying a desert island so that I can kidnap my friends and make them watch it!!

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Well my lovelies, I hope that some of these luscious offerings will lure you over to the dark side! heh heh.

These dramas can be streamed on subscription sites like Dramafever or Viki, and can be streamed for free on

To get the full historical context, as well as references to Korean legends and customs, go to and read the recaps after each episode.

Coming up in Part Two: Crime and Punishment in the Land of the Morning Calm.

No comments:

Post a Comment