THE SHORT VERDICT:
Light, frothy, fizzy fun, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is perfect for viewers who are new to sageuk and feel intimidated by period / historical settings. Dressed in Joseon robes but possessing a fresh, modern, rom-com sort of feel, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is easy to love, even for the sageuk noob.
Helped by a breezy, ear-wormy OST and a pretty great cast, SKKS manages to pack a lot of fun – and heart! – into a zippy, peppy package.
Plus, everything – and everyone – is just so darn prettyyy.
THE LONG VERDICT:
I will always, always have a soft spot for Sungkyunkwan Scandal. It is literally one of my all-time favorite kdramas.
This show was my gateway into sageuks, and I couldn’t have asked for a better or easier way to acclimatize myself to sageuks, to be honest.
As a fusion sageuk, SKKS manages to create a drama world that looks like Joseon, but possesses a sensibility that feels modern, breezy and cute enough to make even the most die-hard rom-com fangirl feel right at home.
Because SKKS has a girl-dressing-as-a-boy at its center, it’s easy to call it a kinda-sorta Coffee Prince, Joseon Edition. Honestly, though, SKKS is completely its own unique beast, and is a wonderfully cracky, fizzy, spring-summery sort of watch.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
YES, THERE ARE FLAWS
There is no perfect kdrama, although some are closer to achieving perfection than others, which means that SKKS has its share of flaws.
For the record, here are some of the less-than-ideal bits of this show:
1. The acting from some of the cast is a little flat.
Offenders include our female lead Park Min Young herself, whose acting was certainly of the one-note variety. However, to me, her saving grace was her winsome smile, which I found endearing and quite charming. Plus, she managed to come across as earnest and likable, which counts for quite a lot in my books.
Another offender in this category, is Jun Tae Soo, as resident antagonist Head Scholar Ha In Soo. The expression he wore most often was a fierce glower, so much so that I began to think of that as his resting face.
Thankfully, Jun Tae Soo’s glowering didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the show too much. 😉
2. Pacing slumps a little, from time to time.
The show is mostly a fabulously fun and breezy watch, and gets seriously addictive in stretches.
I have to admit, though, that there were a couple of (short-ish) stretches, in the mid to later episodes, where the pacing dipped noticeably. When this happened, though, it generally didn’t last long, but it was noticeable, and did add a bit of drag to an otherwise jaunty pace.
3. The ending is a touch weak.
Without being spoilery, let me just say that the ending could’ve been stronger and better. There were a couple of things in the final episode that I found overly neat, &/or rushed, &/or unexplained.
At the same time, I understand the constraints within which the writers were trying to stay, and how those would’ve likely influenced where the writers chose to end our story.
Don’t panic, though! It’s a happy ending. And for that, I am grateful. 🙂
BUT! THERE’S SO MUCH TO LOVE!
I love the entire atmosphere of the show, which feels youthful, modern, and energetic, and I really love the breezy OST as well. The music really is a strength in this show. It reflects and evokes moods so well. It’s full of breezy, happy, thumping tracks that evoke such a youthful cheeriness, that you just know that nothing terrible is going to happen in a world backed with peppy, poppy music like this.
The sly little touches peppered through the show, of Joseon takes on modern gadgetry, also amused me greatly.
Despite its peppy vibe, the show manages to inject pathos into various narrative beats, and allows that pathos to hit home, while still managing to maintain an overall tone of lightness and fun. This delicate balance is not an easy feat at all, and SKKS does it admirably. Kudos to writer-nim!
Characters and Relationships
My favorite, favorite things about this show, though, are our main characters and their relationships. Boys Over Flowers had their F4, but to me, this Joseon 4 wins, hands-down.
Here’s a quick shout-out to some of my personal picks, for best of this show’s best.
1. Park Yoo Chun as Lee Seon Joon
Some viewers have categorized Yoo Chun’s performance in SKKS as “wooden” and I beg to disagree.
Lee Seon Joon the character is a big ol’ square, and is as upright as they come; I felt that Yoo Chun’s delivery was true to that, which is why he comes across as a little wooden.
Cast a slightly more careful, discerning eye on his performance, however, and you’d find that Yoo Chun imbues Seon Joon with a great deal of heart-tugging nuance. Despite the stiff outer surface, Yoo Chun manages to give us insight into Seon Joon’s inner emotions, and I appreciated that a lot. He plays Seon Jun straight, mostly, but it’s the little flashes of cheeky; the gaze in his eyes; the suppressed smile. Those are the little details that make him so endearing, and make Seon Joon come alive as a character.
Plus, just look at the little melty smile in the screenshot above, with that slight sheen of tears in his eyes. How could I not love him, right?
Here are a couple more shots of Yoo Chun, being in turn, fierce, gentle, impassioned, and tender-hearted as Lee Seon Joon. Just, lovely.
2. Yoo Ah In as Moon Jae Shin / Geol Oh
I confess that the first time I watched SKKS, I was so mesmerized and distracted by Yoo Ah In as Geol Oh that I found it kinda hard to focus on anything else. That’s how wonderful, and amazing, and well, hawt he is, in the role.
On a shallow note, Yoo Ah In rocks the goatee, the mane of glory, and the smirky sensuous swagger, so, so well. Every time he appeared on my screen, my eyes glazed over a little, from his charismatic screen presence and general brand of laid-back badassery. Swoon.
At the same time, Yoo Ah In genuinely delivers in the role. Beyond the inevitable heartache as our second lead, Moon Jae Shin is an angsty, conflicted character, and Yoo Ah In portrays that inner struggle with an emotional weightiness that I found very compelling indeed.
Also, can I just say, I found Geol Oh’s hiccups super cute, and very, very adorable. Squee!
Because I loved Geol Oh so much, here’s a bit of a screenshot spasm for your gazing pleasure. Well, ok, fine. For my gazing pleasure too.
Have I mentioned that my eyes have a deep appreciation for Yoo Ah In? 😉
Swoon. Spazz. Puddle.
3. Song Joong Ki as Gu Yong Ha / Yeo Rim
I hafta say, Song Joong Ki is simply fantastic as the flighty, flirty Gu Yong Ha. I don’t even know if anyone else would’ve been able to bring Gu Yong Ha to such teasingly coquettish life.
Every twirl of his hanbok and every subtly naughty curl of his lip was a delight to watch, and his antics on my screen caused me to giggle out loud on many occasions. Yeo Rim’s playful curiosity, often complete with his trademark flirty wink, was one of the most awesome things about this show.
At the same time, Yong Ha as a character is far from being just a vain playboy. Beneath the awesome twirling and winking, Yong Ha has his own angst and inner struggles as well, and Song Joong Ki kills it all. I was blown away by Yong Ha’s deeply emotional scenes; Song Joong Ki delivered with such deep-reaching, reverberant passion that he clean blew me away.
Despite his serious moments, though, in trademark Gu Yong Ha fashion, he always looks like the naughty curl of his smirking lip is never far away.
Impassioned, with eyes blazing fury, or reveling in his trademark twirl, Song Joong Ki as Gu Yong Ha is pure joy to watch. Just, so, so awesome!
As a marvelous bonus, Song Joong Ki gets to have some of the most memorably cheeky expressions on the show. Take a lookie!
4. Relationship between our OTP
The Pure Connection
Despite my huge soft spot for second lead Geol Oh, I found Yoon Hee and Seon Joon as our OTP very lovely to watch indeed.
I love how we get to witness their budding friendship, as they continually defend each other, and challenge each other, while each forcing the other to become a better person; to conquer new boundaries. Before the romance ever came onto the horizon, these two connected as people, and it’s endearing, uplifting stuff indeed.
Kudos to writer-nim as well, for building the conversations between our OTP on such a contemplative, meaningful and pure foundation. Many times during the show, I swooned not only because of Yoo Chun’s delivery of the subtle melty gazes, but also because of the poetry and purity of the conversation.
One example of the truth and strength that gets imparted between these two, is this exchange in episode 7, before Yoon Hee goes up for the final shot.
Uncertainly, Yoon Hee asks Seon Joon, “First place. Do you think I can get it? You are not one to pay lip service.”
Impassively, Seon Jun answers, “No. Your shoulder that supports the bow is still small, your arm that pulls the bow string is still weak, and your breathing is unstable. So don’t overstretch yourself to come in first.”
Yoon Hee’s face falls and her shoulders slump, but after a brief pause, Seon Jun continues, “But… at least this hand… I love it. While training for this day, you’ve lived better than the best. Even if you get disqualified or lose, In my eyes, Kim Yoon Shik, YOU! You’re already a champion. Daemul. Go on and show them the skills of a champion.”
Seon Jun smiles his encouragement, while Yoon Hee beams, and I melt.
What an earnest and sincere and completely pure moment. Love. It.
Once the show started hinting at romance between our OTP, I have to confess that, even during my second watch, these two had me swooning to the floor.
The close proximity and skinship, and more than that, the way Seon Joon looks at Yoon Hee, with such gentle, tender eyes. It’s just so, so melty.
Of course, with Yoon Hee spending much of the show in disguise as a guy, the budding romance also gave rise to lots of hilarity.
Here, I’d like to highlight my favorite examples of each.
Hilarious Crossed Signals
In episode 10, we get lots of laughs when Seon Joon’s completely discombobulated from having seen Yoon Hee (whom he still thinks of as a man) dressed as a girl.
Yoo Chun plays it so, so well – he inflects his usual stony demeanour with so many details that give away his confusion: his shifting gaze, nervous swallows, mild stuttering, trembling fingers, fidgeting, and uneven breathing.
So well done, and so very amusing, heart-melting, and completely lovely to watch!
Not long afterwards, the moment when Seon Jun requests Yoon Hee never to appear in front of him in women’s clothing again is extra hysterical coz he’s all confused inside, and is all like, No. I must not see him as a woman! I must not be drawn to his lips!.
At the same time, it’s sad for Yoon Hee, who’s all like, Oh no. Oh no oh no. He’s disgusted at how I look as a woman. He will never be able to see me as a woman. Tear.
It’s kinda sad coz he’s unknowingly telling her not to be a woman to him, or to be herself. But honestly, the multiple crossed wires are hysterical and absolutely golden.
Honestly, there are so many melty moments between this OTP, and it’s largely due to the way Seon Joon keeps looking at Yoon Hee with so much gentle tenderness. It just makes me swoon.
If I had to pick a favorite scene – and to keep this review to a reasonable length, that’s exactly what I’m forcing myself to do – it’d have to be the kiss scene in the elevator!! Eeeee!!
In episode 17, after various failed attempts at kissing Yoon Hee, Seon Joon finally successfully makes his move.
Seon Jun, taking out the ring that he’d bought for her, “Did you say it would all end once we leave Sungkyunkwan? There’s no such thing as the end. Because I’ll… just start over again and again every day.” Swoon.
And then he gently and deliberately unties her gat and then his own. And he does an adorable quick nervous swallow and looks at her with such incredible tenderness as he slowly leans in to finally kiss her.
Eeeee!!! The feels!!!
The moment is so tender, so gentle, so deliberate. There’s nothing wild or impetuous about this; his heart is full and he is intent on kissing her; and her heart is full and she is ready to receive his kiss. There is nothing hurried about the moment or the kiss. You can feel him taking his time to let the moment sink in as he savors it.
Plus, the undoing of the gats.. it’s so sexy. It feels like he’s undressing her, even though all he’s doing is taking off her hat. Spazz.
And after the kiss, the way he so very gently takes her hand in his, as he gently smiles and gazes into her eyes. Melt. Meltmeltmelt~
5. Bromance between Geol Oh and Yong Ha
Since the friendship between Geol Oh and Yong Ha is arguably the bromance that started the whole bromantic trend in dramaland, a review of SKKS simply would not be complete without at least a shout-out to these two awesome friends.
From the outset, the show doesn’t give us a lot of history nor context to their friendship, but even from the early episodes, we get many in-yo-face, almost-skinship moments between them. It’s tantalizing, and just borders on scandalizing. After all, these two didn’t win couple of the year for nuthin’. 😉
Without being too spoilery, let’s just say that Yong Ha’s forthright, intense care for a gruff, taciturn Geol Oh was awesome to watch, in all of its forms. And despite more being left unsaid than said between them, the deep care, understanding and love that these two shared gave me the heart tingles.
As a little tribute to these two’s awesome bromance, here’re just a couple of great Geol Oh-Yong Ha screenshots.
Adorbs, I say.
Besides the individual growth arcs, the OTP romance and the bromance, I also really enjoyed seeing how close our Joseon 4 became as a group, over the course of the show.
Eventually, I came away pretty satisfied with the ending, in that the futures depicted for each of our beloved Joseon 4 felt true to each of their personalities.
At the same time, and as I mentioned in the beginning of this review, there were definitely things that I wished could’ve been treated just a little differently. That would’ve made the ending much more satisfying to me.
Still, SKKS is so charming and engaging in so many other ways, that I just can’t bring myself to hold a grudge, y’know?
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Flawed, sure. But so cracky and addictive that you’ll forgive the show, and then probably come back for seconds.
FINAL GRADE: A
Here’s one of my favorite breezy tracks from the OST. I find the manhwa iterations of our characters very amusing too.
A sweetly poignant track, for gazing at the beauty of Yoo Ah In as Moon Jae Shin:
Plus, here’s a fantastic tribute to flirty Yong Ha and his knock-you-over wink:
For a bit of BTS goodness, here’s a Star Date clip from the end of the show: