Kim Yoon Hee has financially supported her family since her father's death. Although she has a brother, he, Kim Yoon Shik, has been sickly for a long time. Yoon Hee took to dressing as a boy and taking her brother's name in order to find work as a scholar, copying books and notes for a shady little bookstore.
When her family suddenly finds itself in need of more money, fast, Yoon Hee takes more risks than usual and is, unfortunately, caught helping someone cheat on an exam. Rather than turning her in and having her punished, the scholar who catches her, Lee Seon Joon, sets things up so that she has little choice but to become a Sungkyunkwan scholar (as far as I could tell, Sungkyunkwan is a school for future government officials). There's one problem: women aren't allowed in Sungkyunkwan. In fact, women aren't even supposed to receive an education.
Somehow, Yoon Hee has to keep all the Sungkyunkwan scholars and professors from finding out her true gender - since she's expected to spend almost all of her time with them and has two roommates, one of whom has a tendency to hiccup around women, that's not exactly easy. Things get even more complicated when the king gives her and her friends a secret mission: find Geum Deung Ji Sa, the late king's will, which was lost 10 years ago. The king wants to change the location of the capital and reshape it (and the country in general?) into a place where everyone is equal. Geum Deung Ji Sa is his best chance for silencing others' opposition.
I think this is the second K-drama (Korean drama) I've watched from beginning to end – the first was Coffee Prince. I chose to watch Sungkyunkwan Scandal because the image for the show, which I have used in this post, made it look light and fun. Also, I liked that, like Coffee Prince, it featured a cross-dressing heroine.
One of the things I immediately liked about the show was the look of it. The historical costumes were gorgeous, and I liked most of the settings. I enjoyed just about everything the main characters wore, but Gu Yong Ha, in particular, got to show off some really stellar outfits. He prided himself in his unique appearance, so I guess that's not very surprising.
A good-looking show is nice, but there has to be more to it to hold my attention for the 20+ hours this one did. What got me hooked on this show was its many character relationships, which ranged from romantic, to bromantic, to familial.
Yoon Hee had a bit of a love triangle going with Lee Seon Joon and Moon Jae Shin, her two roommates, although I think she was completely oblivious to Jae Shin's feelings for her. Seon Joon was interesting, in that he started to fall for Yoon Hee before he knew that the male “Kim Yoon Shik” was actually a girl. He knew homosexuality wasn't tolerated, so he tried to turn to the girl everyone said he should marry, the sister of the Sungkyunkwan student president. Jae Shin, meanwhile, knew more about Yoon Hee's secret than she realized. He treated her a bit like a younger sister, inspiring others (who had no idea about her secret) to speculate that they might be a homosexual couple. So, lots of drama involving those three. If I had had my way, Yoon Hee would have ended up with Jae Shin – once people got past his prickly surface, he was sweet. Plus, Seon Joon tended to lose points with me for being morally upright to a fault.
Another bit of romantic drama that was, to me, unexpected, but extremely interesting, involved Yoon Hee and Cho Seon, a courtesan. Cho Seon fell for Yoon Hee after Yoon Hee treated her with courtesy and respect. Yoon Hee, once she realized what was going on, tried not to encourage Cho Seon, but every attempt she made to let her down nicely only inspired Cho Seon to like her more. I really liked Cho Seon and wished that the ending, which did a bit of a “flash forward,” had shown how things went for her. Unfortunately, the ending skimped on several characters I would have liked to have seen a little more of. As much as I disliked the girl Seon Joon was engaged to, I was disappointed that, as with Cho Seon, the ending didn't show how things went for her.
In addition to all the romantic relationships, there was also a bit of bromance between Moon Jae Shin and Gu Yong Ha. Gu Yong Ha was one of my favorite characters. He started off as someone who was very hard for me to pin down – at first, I thought he was one of the Sungkyunkwan student president's lackeys, but learning that he and Jae Shin had been friends since childhood threw me through a loop. I loved his confidence, cleverness, and absolute loyalty to Jae Shin.
As far as family relationships go, filial piety came up a lot. The king repeatedly said that his desire to move the capital and create a place where all could be equal was inspired by his desire to fulfill his father's wish. Right from the start, Jae Shin had issues with his father, mistakenly believing that his father did not care about what happened to his older brother as much as he did. Seon Joon, on the other hand, was the good son who always followed his father's teachings. When he learned that his father might have done something terrible in the past, he found himself having to choose between siding with his father or siding with Yoon Hee and his friends.
Yoon Hee had some incredibly sweet details about her relationship with her father come up throughout the series. I wasn't always fond of how her other family relationships were handled, though – it really bugged me that her older brother was little more than a plot device, giving Yoon Hee a plausible way to obtain a male personal identity tag. For most of the series, he couldn't be Kim Yoon Shik because Yoon Hee was borrowing his identity, and he seemed to exist only to support Yoon Hee's story.
A lot of the stuff I didn't like as much about the show cropped up in the early episodes. There were some early “you're such a girlie-looking guy” jokes aimed at Yoon Hee that rubbed me the wrong way. I know they were meant to convince viewers that the characters recognized that she looked pretty and yet still accepted her as male, but the tone of the jokes had my hackles going up. Then there were some of the early reveals/near-reveals of Yoon Hee's secret. Whereas I would have thought that her female anatomy would have put her in the most danger of being discovered, in those early episodes, it was her pulse that was her biggest problem. Yes, apparently a female pulse is so different from a male's that a simple check of her pulse would have given her away. That little detail had me doing some Googling to find out if it was true. From what I could tell, it looks like it might be, but I'm still glad that the pulse thing was pretty much dropped from the show later on. It struck me as bizarre.
Another big thing that didn't quite work for me in this series was all the historical stuff. Yes, I know, it's a historical drama. It wasn't that I didn't find all that stuff interesting. It was just that my knowledge of Korean history is nonexistent, so I couldn't always follow along as well as I would have liked. At one point, I Googled “Norons,” “Sorons,” and “Namins” in an attempt to make sense of the various factions. However, trying to incorporate what I read with what was going on in the show just confused me more. I eventually gave up and just relied on the show to give me whatever information I absolutely needed in order to understand the plot.
Overall, I enjoyed this show. The relationship stuff was a lot of fun and usually enough to help me overcome any issues I had with the series.
[Update, 8/30/12: Wow, I checked out this review and realized I somehow managed to miss an incredibly important bit in the last episode of this show - that Yoon Hee still somehow lives as a man during the epilogue, while somehow also being married to Seon Joon. I'd have to watch the episode again to be sure, but apparently people were still calling her Kim Yoon Shik. That...kind of makes me mad, and adds to the things I disliked about that epilogue. So, I guess it not only skipped over some characters I would have liked to see more of, it skipped happily over the "land where everyone could be equal" that everyone kept talking about. I still think it's an enjoyable show, but that ending really could have used some work.]
I have no idea if these problems are present in YA Entertainment's Sungkyunkwan Scandal DVDs, but I figure I should mention them just in case. On Crunchyroll, at least, the sound effects tended to be a little odd, particularly in the earlier episodes - they seemed almost like they were echoing. Also, at one point, the subtitling changed for a brief period, leading to a switch in how various names were romanized and how Yoon Hee's nickname was translated.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Coffee Prince (live action TV series) - If you'd like another K-drama that mixes romance, drama, and comedy and stars a cross-dressing heroine, you might want to try this. It's set in contemporary times. I have written about this.
- The Great Queen Seon Deok (live action TV series) - A historical K-drama featuring twins who were separated at birth, one of whom cross-dresses for a while. I watched some of this and enjoyed it, but my K-drama stamina turned out not to be quite up to snuff. This series is long.
- The Story of Saiunkoku (manga) story by Sai Yukino, art by Kairi Yura; The Story of Saiunkoku (anime TV series) - This pseudo-historical series stars an aristocratic girl from a noble family that has fallen into ruin. Her wish is to become a government official, but women aren't allowed to do that. When the opportunity presents itself, she agrees to become the king's concubine in order to turn him into a better ruler and earn her family some money. I have written about the first season of the anime.
- Sea Change (e-book) by Darlene Marshall - This is available in both print and e-book form. I read the e-book version. Those who'd like another historical story starring a cross-dressing heroine might want to try this. There's romance, details about the heroine's efforts to keep her gender from being found out, and even a bit involving prostitutes that fans of Cho Seon might like (these prostitutes catch on much more quickly than Cho Seon did).
- Alanna: The First Adventure (book) by Tamora Pierce - This is the first book on Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet, featuring a girl who cross-dresses as a boy in order to follow her dream of becoming a knight. Pierce's books tend to feature awesome young heroines.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (book) by J.K. Rowling - This one is maybe a bit of a stretch, but all the "find Geum Deung Ji Sa" stuff near the end of Sungkyunkwan Scandal made me think of the Harry Potter series, which also pits a group of friends against old mysteries and the adults connected to those mysteries. I've written about the audio book version of this book.
- Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma: A Victorian Romance (anime TV series) - If you enjoyed the storyline involving the Sungkyunkwan student president's sister and her crush on Seon Joon, you might want to try this series, which has a similar love triangle involving Emma, a maid, William, a member of the gentry, and Eleanor, an aristocratic young lady. I've written about all of the manga and both seasons of the anime.