SUNGKYUNKWAN SCANDAL – DVD review

Sometime in the late 1700’s, during the era when Korea was known as “Josun,” a young girl named Yoon-hee struggles to support her mother and ailing younger brother. Unusually well-educated for a girl, she scrapes along by masquerading as her brother and doing small transcription jobs for a local bookseller, copying the text from books and making study guides for students of Sungkyunkwan, the local university.

Unfortunately, Yoon-hee’s family is deep in debt since the death of her father, and the owner of that debt is demanding that she be sold to him as a concubine in order to settle the bill. Horrified at the thought of becoming that man’s possession, Yoon-hee becomes desperate for money, and begins to take on riskier, but higher paying jobs, such as smuggling banned books and taking the Sungkyunkwan entrance exams in place of a less-intelligent applicant to help him cheat the system.

However, thanks to an unexpected battle of wits with an uptight scholar,Yoon-hee is forced to take the entrance exam in her own (well, her brother’s) name instead of the applicant she was supposed to cheat for. The penalty for backing out of the test or submitting a blank form is a beating, so she has no choice to do her best, now that she is committed to the exam.

Things go from bad to worse when the King takes note of Yoon-hee ‘s intelligence from her exam answer, and orders her, not knowing she is a girl, to become a student at the university. This is a time when women have few rights or opportunities available to them. Career options are limited to wife, mother, concubine, or gisang – a glorified prostitute. Women were not considered equals, and the punishment for a woman even taking the university exam, much less passing it and daring to attend the university, is death.

Now Yoon-hee is stuck in a difficult position. Become that awful minister’s concubine, or attend Sungkyunkwan? If she disobeys the King, she risks her life. If she obeys him, she risks her life. If she disappears to become that man’s concubine, she loses her freedom. Weighing her options, Yoon-hee opts to attend the university disguised as her brother, Yoon-shik.

This series follows Yoon-hee’s adventures as she attends Sungkyunkwan university dressed as a boy. She experiences the complications of being a fairly sheltered girl surrounded by men, the challenge to maintain her disguise, the fear of discovery, and the academic pressure to perform and even outmatch all the scholars around her. As if all that wasn’t enough of a task, throw in some unpleasant attention from a powerful school bully, some political intrigue thanks to opposing factions of power-hungry officials, and, of course, a little romance.

Along the way, Yoon-hee makes some unexpected allies. Lee Sun-joon, the self-righteous and idealistic scholar who is responsible for Yoon-hee’s predicament ends up being her roommate, and surprisingly, turns out to be a valuable friend. Moon Jae-shin is her other roommate and ally, but he has some dangerous secrets of his own. Finally, the playful dandy Gu Young-ha rounds out the quartet of friends. Young-ha has a perceptive gaze and a remarkable ability to read those around him. This talent will both help and threaten Yoon-hee’s masquerade.

Will Yoon-hee be able to successfully make it through life at the university disguised as a boy? What would happen if she is discovered? And what is this secret project that the King is working on that threatens to entangle Yoon-hee in even more complicated plot?

This set contains all 20 episodes of “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” spread across 7 discs. That’s a good 20 hours of historical hijinks. This drama is a lot of fun. It is a fast paced “fusion” drama that incorporates a lot of serious historical drama elements, and then spices them up with some modern twists, such as the modern music and pacing. The sets and costumes are all detailed and top notch.  There are so many dangers Yoon-hee must face, that there is always something pulling the plot along. While Yoon-hee and Sun-joon are the focus of the main story, all of the supporting characters are given subplots and ample screen time to explore them. This allows for more character development and made me really grow to love all the characters, even the bad guys.

The actors are all attractive and perform their roles well. Park Min-Young is especially plucky as Yoon-hee, and really brings life to an appealing lead character. Yoon-hee may be a girl, but she is every bit a smart as the guys, if not smarter. She constantly pushes herself to greater heights in both academic achievement and athletic ability, often proving herself to be a proud and worthy adversary. I like when the lead female character is strong and resourceful. Yoon-hee really is a smart heroine worth cheering for.

Micky Yoochun, a popular singer, makes his TV drama debut here. It’s quite a leap, debuting in a leading role, but I think he does a respectable job of portraying the stoic, idealistic, unwavering scholar Lee Sun-joon. Granted, the role requires him to be somewhat expressionless much of the time, however, he has a great presence, and I fully believed in his portrayal of the character. Sun-joon is extremely steadfast and idealistic, and has a great vision for how great he thinks Josun could be. Micky conveys this with a quiet seriousness.

There is a little bit of everything in “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” – comedy, adventure, romance, mystery, and action. I really enjoyed the main theme of the plot – that education and learning are the keys to improving oneself, and that seeing past labels, valuing friendship, and appreciating people for who they are is necessary for growth as both a person and as a nation. This drama has an overall optimistic outlook.

Video:
This series is presented in 16:9 anamorphic wide screen. It looks great. This is a historical fusion sort of a series, so even though it takes place in the past, the clothing and sets are very bright and colorful. The cinematography in this series is beautiful, with detailed historical sets, lush, misty nature scenes, and plenty of well-choreographed action sequences. The video quality here serves the look of the series well.

Audio:
“Sungkyunkwan Scandal” contains one audio track- the original Korean language in a solid Dolby Digital 2.0, with English subtitles. While it’s certainly not reference quality, it sounds fine. This series has a beautiful soundtrack that blends some more modern-sounding action music, with wonderful classical pieces using stringed instruments. It all sounds great.  There are no serious technical issues.

Extras:
I am a bit disappointed to find that there are no extras included in this set.

Miscellaneous
As with the other Korean drama sets I’ve picked up from YA Entertainment, “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” is packaged in a box that is not only attractive, but is also remarkably sturdy. The 7 discs are packaged in 2 keep cases (3 in one, 4 in the other) which slip snugly into the box.

Film Value:
“Sungkyunkwan Scandal” is a mouthful to say, but after recommending this show so often, it’s now easy for me to pronounce. It’s a charming blend of mystery, intrigue, gender politics, comedy, and romance. With engaging performances by a charismatic cast, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Reply