Joseon Idol 2021: Somebody else’s year in kdrama

What time is it in Joseon?


Oh yeah, 2021 was the Year of Sageuks. So many Sageuks, you guys! Classic Sageuks, serious Sageuks, silly Sageuks, fantastical, frivolous, fun Sageuks. Controversial Sageuks.

There’s just one problem. As a general rule, I don’t like Sageuks. Like most rules, there are exceptions that prove it (more on this later). But as a general rule, Sageuks suck. It’s literally in the name.

Junho from the band 2PM in a smouldering scene with his Red Sleeve Cuff costar from the popular Sageuk
Yes it is two hours past noon, why do you want to know?

In their purest form, a Sageuk is a meticulously accurate historical recreation. The problem with history, generally, is that it also sucked. (This has been my thesis presentation, thank you for your attention).

Oh sure, there are the exciting and bloody tales of wars and political intrigue, sedition and treason. Spies and lusts and clamouring for power. But how many ways can you tell a story about a puppet man-child trying to maintain his familial power base while exerting his independence as a ruler (and possibly having some kind of semi romance with somebody who, in real life, would have been an actual child).

Sageuks are boring, you guys! And if not boring then disturbing if you look at them from the right angle (or the wrong angle if you’re an ‘historical lens’ kind of person).

I mean, every now and then you establish a new nation or invent a new alphabet or have a lot of hot bodyguards with amazing wigs. But then it’s at least 10 episodes of identical bearded men in funny hats having earnest conversations about the internecine power struggles of a feudal elite in one of the poorest nations on Earth.

Give me zombie hordes any day of the week (yes that was technically a Sageuk but hardly of the historically-accurate variety). If not action then at least an endearing extended metaphor about female agency or possibly a searing polemic on late-stage capitalism.

The cross-dressing King in the King's Affection rides a horse while holding a bow and embodying commanding monarch energy
Everyone questioning their sexuality, including the audience

Why were there so many Sagueks this year?

Well, I have a theory and that theory is – Covid-19. Yes, that nasty little virus that is still circulating freely and impacting our lives. Covid-19.

Sageuks are filmed in Sageuk villages. No scouting for shooting sites, no mixing with the general public. Entrance to the village can be regulated, people screened. Testing can be done on site. If you want to control a highly infectious illness while filming for several months, a Sageuk village would be a great way to do it.

I’m not sure if this is true or not but it would certainly explain why my viewing year was plagued by so. many. damn. Sageuks.

A man in Goryeo dress in a sword fight. He is not Jisoo, the original star of River Where the Moon Rises but his replacement
You look different, did you do something new with your hair?

Not that it was a boring year for Sageuks. Far from it. We had a raft of scandals to keep us interested in a world that was not palace politics on a small peninsula between 1392 and 1910 (yes this is Joseon and yes my next sentence is about Goryeo. Sageuks might be meticulous, I am not).

Kim So-hyun followed up her 2019 fusion Tale of Nokdu with this year’s epic Goguryeo fantasy, River Where the Moon Rises, only to have her co-star mired in a scandal the likes of which we would not see again (at least for a month or so). So great was the scandal and so immeasurable the impact on the drama itself, that they not only recast the male lead but re-filmed the entire show.

At least River Where the Moon Rises got finished, unlike the ill-fated Joseon Exorcist. A fusion Sageuk seemingly designed to offend everybody just by existing (even me by casting the wonderful Jang Dong-yoon in a show I was never going to watch – good actors should only be cast in dramas that are not historicals). Joseon Exorcist lasted a mere two episodes before the howls of rage led to its cancellation. (Jang Dong-yoon was exorcised from our screens, this is not an original joke. Credit: Umar).

Jang Dong-yoon dressed as a King in a Sageuk splattered in what appears to be blue blood. Behind him are two guards equally covered in the same blood.
I blame the Arthdal Blue Bloods

This unfortunately back cast some social judgement on the earlier Mr Queen; an exuberantly inaccurate fantasy about a modern 21st century chef who finds himself in the body of a Joseon Queen. Despite everything I have said so far, I do love me an anachronism-laden fusion historical; one where everything is so clearly wrong that it ends up being clearly right.

Mr Queen was generally too slapstick for me but the acting was extraordinary and there’s nothing like two of Korea’s finest actors generally living large. At least until Kim Jung-hyun took a trip to Scandal Land. Population: increasing. And another one bites the dust.

Maybe instead of doing a Sageuk, wonderful actor, you should instead do something that is not that and avoid the inevitable scandal that I’m unfairly attributing to historicals generally (yes I’m looking at you, Yoo Seung-ho. When I said I wanted a dramatic Chrissie pressie from you every year I didn’t mean something called When Flowers Bloom, I Think of the Moon).

A woman in hanbok sleeps on the stomach of an injured man. She is holding his hand gently. The scene is dappled sunlight and pastels.
The moon is beautiful or something

I haven’t forgotten the non-Sageuk scandals of this year, I’m just editing them out because they don’t fit my narrative and I’ve been re-educated in logic by anti-vaxxers.

Oh look, I know I know. You all loved Bossam and Red Sleeve Cuff and Lovers Of the Red Sky was a glorious trainwreck and every member of 2PM has trooped across your TV screen in hanbok. It has been a good year for people who just love trying to work out which is the Right Left Chief State Minster of Rites and whether Beard 1 is evil or if it’s actually Beard 5. And aren’t Beard 2 and 3 the same person? Oh no, they’re former friends turned enemies who will look sad when they inevitably have to murder each other.

Possibly it’s just a good year for those who wanted to see Junho’s abs again. It has been a while.

My friend Ally wanted me to mention that in this dramatised version of history, everyone is ridiculously beautiful with pristine clothing, flawless makeup and modern hairdressing and she is not wrong. Also that Chief Ministers are all cloned bearded uglies. Thank you for this suggested edit, Ally, especially since we never agree on anything. Like most things in this post, this statement is not entirely accurate.

Maybe next year Dramaland can be wall to wall problematic romcoms and I can try to work out which PPL I’m not putting on the Alter of the Dramaland Gods that they are punishing me so. I don’t like Subway. I just don’t. Maybe this is the real reason why Dramaland is littered with Sageuks. I should have developed a taste for Maxim.

The King’s Affection and Secret Royal Inspector and Joy are very enjoyable. This statement does not invalidate the premise of this post.

Bye bye 2021. If I never see another gat again…

Taecyeon from 2PM holds up his Royal Ispector seal. He's wearing a gat. His ears stick out.
Yes! It is I! Secret Royal Inspector Dumbo Ears

NOTE: This has been edited since it was first published, not that any of the three people who read it probably noticed.


10 thoughts on “Joseon Idol 2021: Somebody else’s year in kdrama

    1. I’m sure that’s true, Sean. I’m sure that’s true. 🀣 Happy Sageuk Year to You.

  1. Make that 4~

    Blame the blue blood on Asdal – yes I will lmao. I wasn’t even watching Joseon Exorcist since its zombies, but I’m still upset over the cancellation.

    1. Four readers are definitely better than three. Were they zombies in Joseon Exorcist or demons? Zompires?

  2. πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ€£πŸ€£πŸ€£
    That was fun as fun as watching SHS being Mr Queen

  3. “It has been a good year for people who just love trying to work out which is the Right Left Chief State Minster of Rites and whether Beard 1 is evil or if it’s actually Beard 5.” LOL, this is so funny and on-point, yes, that’s 100% me. This is also a bit agonizing in a sense that I always question myself whenever I see a congress of these undistinguishable ministers, if I carry some racial bias or if this is some type of cross-race effect I still carry from the very homogenous country in which I was raised. But I try to sooth myself though that ever since I immigrated to the US in my late teens and being a naturally curious extrovert who likes to interact with a variety of people, I’ve grown blessfully cosmopolitan in that regard. Oh you, sageuk ministers, making all of us question our sanity well into 21st century.

  4. This post made me chuckle! πŸ™‚ And this is coming from someone who generally enjoys Sageuk! Love your insights, I’m guessing there are many more others who enjoy reading Kdrama blogs as much as watching the dramas! πŸ™‚

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