THE SHORT VERDICT:
A highly-buzzed, high-profile drama project that boasted strong credentials, a big budget and an even bigger cast, but which ultimately failed to deliver the expected awesome.
Patchy writing, jerky direction & execution, and uneven acting all contribute to Show’s general lack of oomph. For the tenacious viewer, though, there are small stretches of soapy crack to be had, and quite a lot of pretty to gaze at, for the most part. Lee Jun Ki is mesmerizing and quite wonderful in this, despite his character getting off to a somewhat shaky start.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Seriously, I need to know what is up with Lee Jun Ki’s drama choices in the last few years.
From Joseon Gunman to Scholar Who Walks The Night, and now Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, all of them looked nothing short of ah-MAY-zing in promo material like teasers and posters, but none of them actually turned out to be shows that I truly enjoyed nor felt like I could engage with. This, despite Lee Jun Ki clearly pouring himself into the roles. The shows themselves were just quite lackluster. Whyyy?
Is this the k-universe’s way of balancing out the fact that Lee Jun Ki is so beautiful?? Say it ain’t so! Don’t hate him coz he’s beautiful! *wails*
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.
STUFF THAT ADDED UP TO BEMUSEMENT CITY
If I had to describe Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo in one word, it would be: bemusing. There is a lot that I found bemusing in this show as I watched it, from characterization, to narrative choices, to direction and execution.
Let me state upfront that this show had its moments; there were small stretches where I even found this show mildly cracky. Sadly, those stretches didn’t last long, and the the overall experience of watching this show added up to be a mix of confusing, bemusing, and generally underwhelming.
There are silver linings, which I’ll talk about later in this review. In this section, I’ll be highlighting the things that most bemused me, starting with the writing, since that strikes me as the biggest culprit in making this show as perplexing as it turned out to be. I’ll also be diving into other areas a little bit, which will inevitably overlap with the writing.
Honestly, the writing in this show strikes me as quite strange, mostly. I don’t know how much of it stems from aligning itself with the source material, since I haven’t seen the Chinese version myself, and how much of it is just this show making odd choices, all by itself.
In the interest of (well, relative) brevity, here’s a quick list of some of the things in this show that made me go “huh?”
1. Jerky tone shifting
Show does a weird thing of switching between a Serious, Dramatic tone, and a Super Jokey Comedic tone. The stark difference between the two, and the frequency with which we are expected to adjust our viewing lens accordingly, makes for a watch that often feels jerky. I cringed at many of the scenes, particularly the obviously-angling-for-cutesy ones that involved all the younger princes bickering and horsing around (I get the princes were supposed to be very young, but isn’t it the case that early maturity and decorum was routinely expected of royalty?).
2. Patchy sageuk-speak
The use of sageuk speech patterns is very inconsistent in this drama world, particularly in the first half of the show. I know that Hae Soo (IU) is supposed to be from a different time period, but I found it really strange that we’d get scenes where almost everyone would speak to her using more modern speech patterns, and then see a subsequent scene where more sageuk speech norms are used. That choice seemed.. very odd.
3. Unexplained shifting relationships
A lot of time passes in our drama world, and with it, relationships among characters evolve. That, I get. What Show doesn’t do is paint a picture that we can easily follow, so that we can feel convinced of and engaged with the evolving relationships. This also results in a story that feels disjointed and roughly stitched together.
[MINOR SPOILER] For example, in the beginning, most of the princes start out pretty confused and bemused by Soo’s sudden change in personality after her “accident” (read body-swapping time-travel). In episode 6, though, all the princes are suddenly fawning over Soo like she’s their favorite person in the world. I get that some time is supposed to have passed since Lady Hae’s passing (Park Shi Eun), but we don’t get to see how Soo endears herself to the princes to this strong degree, save for that flashback of her drinking and talking with Baek Ah (Nam Joo Hyuk). The sudden strong affection feels like it’s coming out of nowhere and doesn’t feel organic. [END MINOR SPOILER]
4. Odd characterization
Many (seriously, so many) times while watching this show, I felt like characters were behaving in very odd ways. I found it hard to understand why they would behave the way they did, and this affected my ability to connect with these characters. This in turn hurt my ability to engage with this show, especially when the characters involved were often main characters.
[SPOILER] As a small example, in episode 2, Soo runs after So (Lee Jun Ki) when she spots him as he chases assassins into the woods. I just couldn’t make sense of why she’d choose to do that. She’s terrified of him, and it’s obviously a highly dangerous situation. He’s certainly not going to the woods to, say, have a friendly game of cards with the assassins. Seriously, that decision made no sense to me whatsoever, and made me question the intelligence and the sanity of our leading lady.
On a tangent, I also wondered why Evil Queen (Park Ji Young) hated her own son So to the extent of wanting him dead, and scorned him for the very scar that she’d personally inflicted on him. That just made no sense to me either. [END SPOILER]
5. Big plot leaps offscreen
Sad but true; this show regularly makes rather large leaps in its story, and does them offscreen, often with no explanation whatsoever. Given that everything already feels rather roughly stitched together, this just made everything so much worse.
[SPOILER] A good example of this phenomenon is in episode 13, when King Taejo (Jo Min Ki) dies and Yo (Hong Jong Hyun) fails in his attempt to usurp the throne. It’s around this point that stuff on my screen felt so disjointed that I wondered how we got there. Like Evil Queen coming out of the palace with her hair down and suddenly all grey. Why was her hair all grey all of a sudden? Did it turn grey from the stress of Yo’s capture? And, after Yo had been captured, why was he suddenly on the run with everyone chasing him? I deduced that he must’ve escaped somehow (rather than just being set free for the hunt like an animal, for instance), but that was a seriously confusing leap that made very little sense to me. [END SPOILER]
Direction & execution
The execution of this show is a very weird beast that manages to feel indulgent and yet low-rent at the same time.
The low-rent stuff
Given Show’s high profile and buzz, I’d expected a more luxurious feel in its costuming and general execution. Disappointingly, the costumes often looked, well, cheap. It was bad enough that all the princes’ robes were so ill-fitting, but the gauze overlay that was introduced in later episodes only served to make the princes’ robes look even worse.
Additionally, important scenes like royal coronations and weddings were consistently handled with just a handful of extras, when these scenes logically demanded more pomp and grandeur.
The indulgent stuff
On the indulgent side of things, PD-nim has a clear penchant for extreme close-ups, and allows the camera to linger so up-close-and-personal that I’d be able to see every pore and eyelash of our actors. I personally found that rather too in-yo-face for comfort.
Sometimes, I even found PD-nim’s choices almost annoying, to be perfectly honest. [SPOILER] Like the time in episode 14, when So takes Soo out on a boat, and the sunshine is dappling off the water in the background. Through most of the scene, the glare from the dappled sunshine off the water is so strong that the faces of our leads literally aren’t properly visible for moderately long stretches. I know, coz I frowned through most of that scene – at the glare, and also because it was almost impossible to take a proper screenshot showing either of our leads’ full faces. That directing choice felt extremely indulgent and unnecessary to me, and I didn’t like it. [END SPOILER]
At the same time, there were certain scenes which seemed overly excessive.
[SPOILER] Like the extended bloody massacre of tongueless monks in episode 3, which felt gratuitous and try-hard at the same time. Like, LOOK AT HOW BADASS HE IS. SLASH. KILL. SLAY. This style of badassery didn’t work for me so much, precisely because it feels so try-hard. You basically lose all of your cool points once you look like you even have to try, y’know? [END SPOILER]
Also, the abrupt time skips and resulting dizzying parade of kings didn’t help.
Hae Soo’s characterization & delivery
I wanted to like Soo as our leading lady, but try as I might, Soo just didn’t work for me, as a character. I believe both the writing and the delivery factor into this, so let me break it down a little.
On a side note, let me just say that many other characters in this show suffered from the bad writing. As our leading lady, though, it’s just natural that any weaknesses around Soo as a character would affect the viewing experience more than in the case of a supporting character.
The characterization around Soo is really strange, whichever way I look at it. Consistently, I didn’t find her actions and reactions believable, in the way that I wouldn’t believe any normal, reasonable human being would arrive at the decisions &/or conclusions she did.
Here are a handful of instances (out of many) where Soo didn’t make sense to me:
1. Her oddly quick adjustment to her situation
Given that Soo finds herself in an extremely fantastical circumstance, I expected her to be more careful and wary, and a lot more tentative in her approach to people and situations. Instead, Show glosses over how she adapts to her new surroundings, and Soo very quickly assimilates herself into her new environment with very minimal fuss. In my opinion, that just makes her – and this whole story – feel not very believable.
2. An uneasy mix of timid & brash
From episode 1, I found Soo to be an odd mix of timid & scared, and bold & brash. It seemed out of character (what little I felt I grasped of the character anyway) for her to stand up to the princess when she was a new fish in a completely foreign pond. That sudden surge of ballsy from Soo in the later part of episode 1 felt like a jerky tack-on; a sudden shift from her timid and scared persona when she realized she was in Goryeo.
Soo’s brash tendencies struck me as very strange, given her new-to-everything situation. Her decisions bemused me often. Like when she chased So into the woods when he was hot on the tail of assassins, or when she grabbed and wrestled a crazed-angry-dangerous-bloody So when she barely knew him, or when she wrestled a peeping Eun (Byun Baek Hyun). It all struck me as very strange behavior. That all the boys were so charmed by how different she was from other girls just made me cringe harder.
3. Her take on Chae Ryung
Most recent in my memory is how Soo reacted in the latter episodes, to the information around Chae Ryung (Jin Ki Joo) basically being a treasonous spy who’d betrayed Soo’s trust. Soo’s reaction was basically a few quiet tears, and a wistful statement that Chae Ryung was simply someone in love. That was very, very strange. Considering how deeply Soo trusted Chae Ryung, and therefore how deeply the deception reached, and over an extended period of time, to boot, Soo’s reaction seemed to skip several key strong emotions, like disbelief, betrayal, hurt and anger. Soo simply grieving that Chae Ryung was only someone in love was.. sweeping a heckuva lot of bad things under the carpet, and just not normal human behavior.
That this stance on Chae Ryung was also a key issue that drove her apart from So, just made it all the more frustrating.
Let me state for the record that I actually really liked IU in Dream High and Producer, and thought that she did very nicely in both shows. Which is why it makes me sad to say that I didn’t enjoy IU in this role.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say she’s terrible in this role, but her delivery did mostly come across as flat and one-dimensional. There was a lack of depth and nuance to her take on Soo, and that – on top of the questionable writing – affected my ability to engage with her as a character and my ability to root for the OTP.
There were times where I found IU’s Soo quite earnest and charming, but there were many more times when her delivery just didn’t work for me. Which is unfortunate indeed.
The times when Soo was supposed to be cute mostly fell flat for me. Like the time in episode 3, when Soo breaks down crying in the forest. I gathered that her blubbering like a baby was supposed to be cute, since Wook (Kang Ha Neul) looked affectionately amused. But instead of cute, I found it stiff and hollow, and I found myself feeling more annoyed at Soo’s reckless behavior than anything else.
I also quickly grew tired of Soo’s stricken wide-eyed face, coz that seemed to be her default expression so much of the time. Whether Soo felt shocked, or dismayed, or scared (or any other related emotion, really), this was the expression she wore, and it got really old pretty fast. It also had the unfortunate effect of showing IU’s acting limits quite starkly, because there were no varying nuanced shades of shock, just that one single shade.
In episode 9, Soo becomes more withdrawn. Oddly, IU’s delivery makes Soo come across as aloof instead, which I don’t think was the intended effect. The way she walked to Eun’s door to talk him into attending his own wedding, it almost felt like she was cold and annoyed, which doesn’t make sense when I take into account her personality and her long-standing friendship with Eun.
Lee Jun Ki as Wang So
Even though Lee Jun Ki counts as my single biggest silver lining in this show, I must admit that it took a while for his character Wang So to settle, for me.
For the first couple of episodes, both the writing around So, and the delivery of his character felt a little try-hard (I’m sorry, Jun Ki-sshi!). I mean, I found Lee Jun Ki gloriously beautiful in screenshots, but the bristling anger that So nursed in the early episodes came across a little too strong, I felt. I love Lee Jun Ki most when he’s exercising some restraint in his delivery, and this was not restrained.
I also felt like So’s layers weren’t very elegantly constructed, and the layers sometimes felt like a hodgepodge mashup to me. [SPOILER] The scene in episode 2, when Soo sees So’s scar in the bath area, is the first pull-back to reveal So’s inner insecurities and hurts. Gone is the strong and steely So, and in his place, we see a scared and vulnerable So. I get that this is supposed to be a meaningful character and relationship moment, but after all the broody, angsty macho swagger, this sudden shift felt jerky and out of place to me. [END SPOILER]
As So started to settle in my head as a character, though, I began to truly enjoy Lee Jun Ki’s performance as So. As So softened up more, and showed more warmth and willing vulnerability, I warmed up to him more and more. Plus, Lee Jun Ki basically killed all the undercurrents of sadness that So felt, from being rejected not only by his mother, but by his father as well.
In a drama world where so many things weren’t working for me, Lee Jun Ki’s all-in, faceted delivery of So became the thing that grounded the show for me, particularly in Show’s second half.
Here, I’d just like to give a quick shout-out to 2 scenes where Lee Jun Ki really blew it out of the water.
In episode 9, So’s mother finally treats So with affection over a meal, then asks him to kill the Crown Prince (Kim San Ho). The look of conflict on So ‘s face when he thinks his mother is giving him love and approval, finally, is so well-delivered. There is so much conflicted emotion that flickers across So’s face, as he puts food in his mouth and struggles to eat.
In episode 16, Eun pleads with So to kill him, rather than let him die by Yo’s hand. So’s tortured expression as Eun pleads with him to kill him, is a display of a multitude of complicated emotions. Pain for Eun, grief that this is the only choice, hopelessness that he can offer no other option to his brother, anguish as he steels himself for the deed, and a complex mix of hopelessness and fury, in the face of the situation created by Yo.
Augh. Absolutely stellar, seriously.
In spite of my reservations about Show’s patchy storytelling, I got sucked into So’s story much more than I anticipated. I felt invested in So’s journey, and that’s completely thanks to Lee Jun Ki’s delivery. He imbues So with many layers of believable emotion, and I couldn’t help but root for him.
Kang Ha Neul, Hong Jong Hyun & Nam Joo Hyuk
In such a large cast and such a big bevy of princes, there a few that I also count as silver linings.
I enjoyed Kang Ha Neul’s take on Wook, and found his delivery heartfelt, layered and believable as a general rule (more on Wook in a bit). I also have an existing affection for Hong Jong Hyun, and I thought he did a decent job of portraying the scheming guy-linered Yo. It’s true Yo’s arc didn’t always make sense, but I thought Hong Jong Hyun did a pretty good job of the evil glowering.
I’ve also had a fondness for Nam Joo Hyuk since watching Who Are You – School 2015, and I found him quite pleasant as Baek Ah. Sure, I didn’t think Baek Ah had that interesting an arc, but I simply liked having Nam Joo Hyuk on my screen. He’s got a warm sort of screen presence that I dig.
Woo Hee Jin as Court Lady Oh
There are a few secondary arcs that add interest to the main story, and the one that left the deepest impression on me, is Court Lady Oh’s relationship with Soo.
[SPOILER] When Court Lady Oh chose to die in episode 11 in order to save Soo, I found the entire arc very moving indeed, and thanks to Woo Hee Jin’s excellent delivery, I genuinely felt the emotion of the moment. [END SPOILER]
SO vs. WOOK AS ROMANTIC ENDGAME [SPOILERS]
Based on what I know about the Chinese source material, Show follows the C-version in ramping up Soo’s loveline with Wook in the earlier episodes, even though he isn’t endgame. I find that this makes for an interesting and rather odd watch. Coz, if you’re in the know, you find all of Soo’s romantic interactions with Wook unimportant and also, irrelevant even, and you spend time wondering when the actual loveline is going to kick into gear.
If you’re not in the know, you’ll likely be caught at least somewhat off-guard when you’re set up to root for Wook, and then the loveline appears to then shift later in the show. While this does make for more interesting storytelling in theory, I found that this also hampered the development of the OTP relationship, since Soo spends so many episodes pining for Wook. During those times, we often didn’t see much of So, to the extent that he almost felt like a minor supporting character. Which is weird, since he’s the male lead of this drama.
In terms of setting up both Wook and So as romantic interests, Show initially presents Wook as the sweet, melty (albeit married) choice, but as we get deeper into the drama, Show takes pains to contrast the two men as romantic rivals.
Essentially, we get to see that Wook is self-focused and self-preserving in the way that he loves, while So gives and cares even when it means putting himself at risk.
When Soo is in danger of being forced to marry King Taejo, Wook prays to his dead wife to ask her to save Soo – and promises to give Soo all the love that he didn’t give her. That is the weirdest promise to a dead wife who must’ve been saddened by his attraction to Soo while she was alive. Seriously, how is that promise supposed to comfort his dead wife? “I couldn’t love you when you were alive, so I’ll love your cousin now, if you’ll save her and send her to me”? That is some selfish love goin’ on there. Just sayin’.
In episode 11, when push comes to shove with the poisoning incident, Wook doesn’t have what it takes to stand up for Soo, let alone put his life on the line for her. I get that he’s pushed into a corner by his scheming sister Yeon Hwa (Kang Han Na) over the whole poisoning issue, but there’s something in the way he responds that rubs me the wrong way. He’s resigned to the corner his sister has pushed him into, but it also feels like there’s a part of him that doesn’t hate being in that corner. I didn’t feel as much anguish as I’d expect from him, for someone who’s forced to abandon Soo, after professing to love her so very much.
So, on the other hand, shows up as Soo’s protector in the same episode; someone who’s literally willing to put his own life on the line for her. Not just in the way he quietly drinks the poisoned tea, but also in the way he pushes himself to see her in prison, when he’s barely survived the poison himself and is still weak from it. And, the way he stood by her in the rain, literally, while covering her with the shelter of his cloak – that stoic look in his eyes speaks volumes to me, about his determination to love this woman.
Show is far from subtle in the way it contrasts the two men as love rivals, but it does an effective job of turning the romantic tide in So’s favor, despite the many early episodes that served up Wook as a melty romantic match for Soo. I did have some issues with several of So’s romantic gestures, but I’ll talk about that in a bit. In general, I definitely rooted for So rather than Wook; credit to Show for making that effective loveline switch.
THOUGHTS ON THE OTP
I have to confess that my heart wasn’t fully into rooting for this OTP. This mostly had to do with my general feelings of disconnect because of the writing and the rushed time skips, which resulted in a overall sense of disjointedness in the viewing experience. The other factor is, as I mentioned earlier in this review, I found it hard to believe in and connect with Soo as a character.
This means that all my OTP loyalty basically came from Lee Jun Ki’s delivery of So. Which is no small deal, considering that there were moments that I found the up-close-and-personal time between Soo and So quite crackly. It was more because of So’s intensity and growing intent, than because of shared chemistry, but I take what I can get, and I give credit where credit’s due (all hail Lee Jun Ki!).
I didn’t care much for Soo’s tendency to backpedal where So was concerned, and sometimes I wanted to shake her vigorously because of it, but So’s constant, unwavering loyalty, care and undiluted emotion for Soo was something that I found very appealing indeed.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
There are two OTP scenes I especially liked, and I’d like to highlight them here. I’ll also talk about the OTP separation, since that’s a key part of their story.
Melty #1: Removal of the mask
I really love the scene in episode 8 where Soo removes So’s mask and just looks upon him, and he just lets her. Well, after some resistance, he just lets her. The deliberate vulnerability it demands from him, to just sit there as she looks upon him, and then touches the very scars that represent the rejection that dominates his life, is very moving, intense stuff.
That Soo can look upon him and touch him with gentleness and empathy, must mean so much. It’s no wonder he falls for her. The intensity, as he deliberately declares, “If it is you… I can put myself in your hands. Do whatever you want. From now on.. I am yours.” And then only after she’s finished covering up the scar, the declaration, “I said before, right? You’re mine. Whether it was then, or now. Or the moment you touched my face I’ve made up my mind I will make you mine. Brace yourself from now on. I will never let go of you.”
Yes, the declaration that she is his, is a little domineering and dictatorial, but I take the point that in this scene, he declared himself hers first, and before he gave permission for her to touch his face. Putting himself in her hands, and allowing her to touch the very scars that represented rejection in his life, is literally, giving himself up to her to the maximum extent. That’s deep, and I dig it very much.
This is possibly my favorite OTP scene of the entire show.
Melty #2: The OTP consummation
In episode 16, we get treated to a shirtless So and an OTP consummation. I liked that the consummation and the events leading up to it were poignantly and meaningfully pulled off, and I particularly loved So’s tortured fever-fueled delirium moment – so mesmerizing and well-delivered; it sucked me right into the scene.
My thoughts on the OTP separation
In episode 19, Soo makes the decision to leave the palace, despite So’s efforts to dissuade her.
I feel like when I rationalize everything, I can understand Soo’s decision to leave the palace. But, Show doesn’t do a good job of portraying it. In fact, the way Show presents it, it feels like Soo’s decision to leave is hinged on Chae Ryung’s death, which really seems petty, since Chae Ryung really had been involved in treasonous acts.
When I look at the bigger picture, though, I can see why Soo would be at the end of her rope; she’s forced to watch Yeon Hwa become So’s queen; she doesn’t have long to live and all the bottled-up frustrations worsen her condition; the people she cared about are falling around her like flies; So is displaying a ruthlessness which he had promised he wouldn’t give in to. Chae Ryung being beaten to death was the straw that broke the camel’s back, not the sole reason she left.
In this sense, I felt like I understood Soo’s desire to leave, even though it meant an OTP separation that would ultimately never end. Boo. Poor So.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
I.. honestly don’t know what to think about this ending.
On the one hand, it seems that Show was at least somewhat faithful to the source material, since I’d heard that the Chinese version had a sequel (or was that a spin-off?) that took place in a modern-day timeline. I’d also come across the fact that the female protagonist in the Chinese version had a short lifespan, and had died in her thirties.
Still, if Show was going to go with Hae Soo waking up as her modern day self, remembering her epic love with So, why couldn’t we have seen her meeting her modern-day So? Particularly after that voiceover from So saying that he would find her; wouldn’t that have been a more satisfying way to end the show?
Instead, we end on the sad image of So being left all alone in his timeline, while Soo (well, Ha Jin, if we’re being technical) cries many tears in her timeline over how she’d left him all alone. And then Show leaves us with a flashback glimpse of So and Soo together in the palace, in happier times. Which is bittersweet, granted, but why couldn’t we have gone for a bittersweet modern-day “Do I know you?” reunion? That would’ve been much more satisfying, no?
Ultimately, I think this show’s problem is that it was never quite clear on what it wanted to be. I never felt it more than in this final episode, what with the multitude of flashbacks employed in order to have almost every characters’ lives flash before our eyes, all juxtaposed by the finale tears and angst. Despite the cheery happier times that we see in those flashbacks/earlier episodes, Show had been determined to be as sad and tragic as it possibly could, the later it got into its run.
And while I do occasionally appreciate a well-done tragic tale, I found it really difficult to engage with this show’s bent for tragedy because of the hodgepodge execution and patchy acting, which together made this journey feel fraught with drama whiplash. Suddenly, things would be light and obviously gunning for comical. Suddenly, things would be heavy and serious. Suddenly, we would get informed of important events that had happened offscreen. Suddenly – or perhaps not so suddenly – I found myself not caring anymore.
In the end, this show was a letdown on so many fronts, which disappoints me, because as a fully pre-produced drama, it had the time to figure out what it wanted to be, without the pressures of a live shoot. For the record, I really wanted this one to be awesome.
On the upside, I did get awesome Lee Jun Ki, who basically pulled much more than his weight in helping to keep things as grounded as possible. And he’s gloriously beautiful while he’s at it too. Which isn’t too shabby of a silver lining, I must admit. But that’s all it is, at the end of the day: a very beautiful, very well-delivered silver lining.
Show could’ve done so much better; Lee Jun Ki deserved so much better.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Bemusing and patchy, with small spots of soapy crack, and a glorious silver lining in Lee Jun Ki.
FINAL GRADE: C+