My first leap (but certainly not my last) into the world of Sageuks and the fascinating near-475-year history of the Goryeo Dynasty was Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo. As one of my favorite Kdramas, Moon Lovers has inspired me to start a multi-article series that delves into the show, its multi-dimensional characters, and the rich history of some of the show’s most notable historic figures. [WARNING: this article may contain spoilers]
The time-travel drama, based on the Chinese novel Bu Bu Jing Xin by Tong Hua, is captivating with its dynamic spin on some of Korea’s prolific monarchs. It near seamlessly infused the struggle of the internal family battle between the 4th Queen Consort, Queen Shinjeong (whose counterpart in Moon Lovers is known as Empress Hwangbo, played by Jung Kyung-soon) of the Hwangju Hwangbo clan, and the 3rd Queen Consort, Queen Shinmyeongsunseong of the Chungju Yoo clan (known in the series as Empress Dowager Yoo, played by Park Ji-young).
By extension, the vie for power between the two consorts were inherited by their children with 3rd Prince Wang Yo (Emperor Jeongjong; played by Hong Jong-Hyun), Princess Yeon Hwa (Queen Daemok; played by Kang Han-Na), and later 8th Prince Wang Wook (also known as Daejong) continuing the seemingly endless corruption.
Perhaps the biggest highlights of the show are the unique character traits of each of the royal family members; in some ways (while speculative) an echo to their true historical counterparts, the acting for each of these characters enhanced the show’s storyline—and could almost make up for its faults.
Wang So (Emperor Gwangjong; played by by Lee Joon-ki) for example, is a prime example of this complexity. The character starts off as regal, cold and withdrawn due to his horrific background as an abused royal hostage to the Kang family. Being a pariah to society only fueled his hostility to the world and his ambition to return to Kaesong and be a part of the family that had initially cast him out. This dynamic is perhaps the most compelling arc of the whole show—to see the relationship between Wang So, his brothers, and the spiteful mother who hated him. In upcoming articles, I plan to go even deeper into reviewing and discussing the characters and their historical counterparts.
The chilling execution of the reveal of Gwangjong as well as the Eclipse is one of the prime examples of the beautiful cinematography, special effects, and the talented actors and actresses who portrayed the royal family. Combined, they created a tension-filled, beautiful, and emotional atmosphere.
However, none of this would’ve come together as beautifully if it weren’t for the makeup and wardrobe, which reflected each of the characters well and highlighted the actors’ appearances to better resemble the historical royalty. The prime example of this can be seen with Jo Min-ki (Emperor Taejo) and Kim San-ho (Wang Mu).
While the paintings appear to show the figures a little older (at least from my perspective), the makeup and wardrobe in Moon Lovers beautifully bring out the subtle similarities between the drama’s characters and historical figures.
Although Moon Lovers has many amazing aspects, it also has cons that pulled me out of the story. The royal family (and the incredible performances given by the actors) consistently kept me engaged. However, the one character I struggled with was Hae Soo (portrayed by IU). Hae Soo, also known as Go Ha-jin, is a young woman from the 21st Century. After drowning in a lake at a local park, she travels back to the 24th year of Emperor Taejo Wang Geon’s reign (941 AD) and gets thrown into the chaotic political war between the Princes’ and their families.
The time travel concept in and of itself wasn’t a problem—in fact when done right such as in BBC’s Doctor Who—it can be wonderful. However, as a viewer with a writing background, the problem with Hae Soo’s character is the lack of consistency, depth, and the consequences she faces for her actions in the show. While I do not claim to have extensive knowledge of Korean history or their customs, there are elements that should be common knowledge if the individual had a basic understanding of the country and society of that time.
Realistically, Hae Soo’s actions throughout the series would’ve been punishable by exile or execution. The best and briefest examples of this could be seen when Hae Soo assaults 10th Prince Wang Eun (played by Baekhyun) or when she tries to get out of the royal marriage with Emperor Taejo. Both instances would’ve been met with heavy retribution, not just for her but the Hae family by extension. While Emperor Taejo was known as a good and wise king, he could be stern and unwavering when required. Hae Soo’s actions, in the context of the time period, would have reflected badly, not only on her but the rest of the family as well.
Compared to other characters in the show who face harsher consequences, most of the conflicts she is presented with seemed to be solved with one Deus Ex Machina after the next without any believable explanation or reason. Her consistency in decisions seemed motivated solely by what is needed for the plot, i.e. how she trusts Wang So with information concerning the Emperor’s health—after the Emperor explicitly orders her not to reveal his condition—to suddenly distrusting Wang So about Wang Eun’s location despite So telling her he wants to protect the Emperor and his wife.
Her visions seem to appear out of nowhere without any real explanation or prior setup other than what the Astronomer Choi Ji Mong mentions. Between that and the clumsy romance in the show between her, Wang So, Wang Jung, and Wang Wook (played by Kang Ha-neul)—and how almost everyone except for the show’s antagonists likes or loves her without any real context or reason—her character looks more of a function or “plot” character than a real fully fleshed out protagonist like Wang So, or Wang Baek Ah, (played by Nam Joo-hyuk). Hence, if you can skip over most, if not all, of Hae Soo’s scenes or removed her from the story completely and you still get a cohesive solid story, there’s really a big problem with the character design.
The other aspect of the show that felt jarring was the K-pop. On its own the songs weren’t bad, frankly, the performances were well done, however, Sageuk fusion or not, the over usage of K-pop seemed jarring and out of place. It could be said that it was a memento of the anachronism Hae Soo. However, when it’s used in scenes she’s not in, it feels unsuited for the tone of the show and the period it’s set in.
Overall, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo is a wonderful series if watched for the historical fiction elements and the royal family. The performance of these actors made this book adaption memorable and beautiful. Despite the show’s few flaws, its beautiful, nuanced and moving performances, as well as the stunning cinematography consistently outshine them—and that’s truly saying something.
In the next installment of this feature series, I will discuss the characters and their historical counterparts.