Curio in KDramaland… (or, Through the Sageuk Lens)

Samjok-oI have been contemplating the virtues of the well made sageuk and what its persistent appeal to me (and maybe even to other viewers) might mean. Surely, something… It turns out that while I apparently have watched only one third as many sageuks as contemporary fictions (from comedies to melodramas and everything in between), I am more disposed to want to collect historical dramas than I am contemporary fictions. When it comes to my viewing habits/experience, the list of what I have actually watched [at the time of first publication] includes about 1 sageuk title for every 3 contemporary fictions! [These proportions will continue to fluctuate in the list below as I update it to include newly viewed titles.] So why am I collecting only (well, mostly) the historicals on DVD? No doubt part of it is a hazard of the trade — I specialize in Medieval literature, so the farther back in time a tale, the more intrigued I am, especially when the tale offers a glimpse into how people lived in days of yore. It could also have something to do with the atemporality of the sageuk stories. BoysOverFlowersWhat I mean is that while the contemporary fictions do tend to offer a (super stylized) slice-o-life window into many social conventions in today’s Korea — all the while showcasing fashion, ambient soundtracks of the latest pop hits and other popular culture references (it’s called k-pop for good reason) — they also become instantly dated by these very elements, especially if they are particularly du jour. The historicals, on the other hand, will generally neutralize these modes of dating (even when they contain contemporary music soundtracks) for reasons that will require a considerable amount of thought to properly articulate. In the end, I am much more likely to rewatch an entire sageuk at some point in the future than I am to rewatch a romantic comedy or a flowerboy bildungsroman (yes, I do believe that there is just such a specialized genre, although it may go by a different name: consider — Boys Over Flowers, To the Beautiful You, You are Beautiful...)


Jeongjo of Joseon (1752-1800)

As tales and histories, I suspect that the sageuk will also age better over time. The atmosphere of “living theatre” that pervades them thanks to the brilliantly stylized wardrobe and dramatically archaic language and modes of declamation suggests a long, long shelf life to me. Furthermore, their subjects — as persons or as eras — are fertile ground for narrative reinvention; this makes it possible to revisit the histories of an individual or a particular period already familiar from other dramas, and to tell new stories involving them without becoming redundant. To wit, my list alone includes three titles about King Sejong the Great, two about the poet gisaeng Hwang Jin Yi, two about the painter Hyewon (Shin Yun Bok), and a grand total of eight (!) dramas prominently featuring, or expressly about, Jeongjo of Joseon, the twenty-second king of the Joseon Dynasty, patron of the arts extraordinaire and all-round renaissance mind (and a man with whom I share a birthday!) — [잠깐만! Actually, Hyeon Bin’s recently released —and much anticipated (by me!)— 역린 (King’s Wrath, aka Fatal Encounter) makes that nine titles featuring King Jeongjo!]. Also very present are the fifteenth and sixteenth kings of the Joseon Dynasty, Gwanghae (1574-1641, r. 1608–1623) and his unhappy successor Injo (1595-1649, r. 1623–1649). I do seek out these alternate versions for my own edification and enjoy discovering how the storyteller’s shift in perspective enriches my imagined pictures of the past. Ultimately, sageuks, on principle, are set in the context of actual historical events. Even at the farthest fusion extreme (save, of course, the very fringes), they still propose to offer some historically tenable cultural context in which to unfold their story.

And so I read them the way I read Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies: as dramatized narratives about moments in history, designed to contemplate and interrogate our shared human condition and experience while bridging the grand chasm of time separating the present and the past — and all of this in a way that only Poetry knows how to do. For really, who will quibble about the historical veracity of the magnificent speeches, monologues and exchanges in, say, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? In the categorized list below, I have allowed myself a small liberty that puts my bias for sageuk in even greater relief. While the contemporary fictions section of the list includes only the titles I have actually seen (plus one or two that I’d really like to see sometime soon), the historical section includes both the dramas I’ve seen and those that I plan to watch. With several of those I want to see, I have caught maybe an episode or two (esp. in the Goryeo section of the list) and thus already detected the preponderance of certain themes and tropes that make me want to know more. But why keep them on the list if I have not seen them entirely? Well, since I’ve arranged the historicals (seen and unseen, with the story’s dates in parenthesis) by the era in which they are set, the list puts them in relative chronological context. It also makes it easier to notice recurring themes common to dramas set in a particular era.



So for example, it becomes clear that the Goguryeo- and other Three Kingdoms-era dramas, set at the dawn of Korea’s history, are largely concerned with national foundation legends and accordingly, come with trope-laden heroes (both male and female) who go through several distinct stages of growth and transformation, all the while bearing the fate of the Korea of yore on their beleaguered shoulders. These stages span — by varying numbers of degrees — from the hero’s ignorance/naïvité concerning his prophesied destiny, to his reluctant acceptance of his fate, to his hard-won and sincere humility (usually resulting from some unspeakable loss), and finally to becoming fully realized in Wise Princehood. These dramas carefully document the hero’s individual and institutional martial feats as he expands the empire and fulfills the great missions of unifying the peninsula’s disparate peoples and reinforcing their common ancestral roots. Equally militaristic, but with an even greater quotient of mysticism, are the dramas of the Goryeo period — an era which is considered historically to have been the unstable transition between Silla-Balhae (660-936 AD, following the fall of Baekje and Goguryeo) and the golden age Joseon Dynasty. Accordingly, the prevalence of mysticism — especially in powerful institutions of government and commerce — in dramas set in this period suggests that the storytellers wish to underscore how, in times of great instability, superstition flourishes and enjoys considerable ascendancy.


Painter of the Wind

The Joseon Dynasty sageuk is, like that of Goguryeo and Goryeo, replete with court intrigue, although here it proves increasingly more subtle and dangerously sophistic as the centuries go by. Along with that growing vicious sophistication in politics, there is also a growing sophistication in scholarly and aesthetic enterprises. Intellectual innovation and creativity, rather than military prowess per se, become the focus of the Joseon Dynasty sageuk as each in turn celebrates the birth of Hunmin Jeongeum (훈민정음, known today as Hangeul), the innovations of brilliant practitioners of medicine and commerce, the allure and refinements of dance, poetry, and music, the evolving semiotics of visual art, and the visionary possibilities of engaged scholarship.  This part of my list also includes the highest number of fusion sageuk (although, really, being dramatic readings of history, aren’t all sageuks more or less fusion?) When I grew curious about Korean history and then became aware of the sageuk’s foundations in recounting History, I realized that I could compose a virtual timeline in my mind and subjectively dramatize what I was learning from the [dry, dry, dry] history books. But learning history, even with sageuk supplements to fortify my efforts, takes time. And given that sageuks generally run longer than contemporary dramas (Jumong clocks in at 81 episodes!), it also takes some patience. It is a very different viewing experience from that of watching rom-coms, or musicals or contemporary melodramas, and I confess I like the contrast. So I have been in the habit of alternating historical and contemporary, following every sageuk I see with a couple of contemporaries before turning to another sageuk — which must account for the (nearly) 3:1 contemp-to-historicals ratio… My drama viewing has slowed down considerably so I expect that all these sageuk titles will take me several years to get through — and no doubt the to-watch list will keep growing as I learn more about Korean history and seek out the dramatic accounts of particular moments during the times of particular historical figures. I also imagine that the  contemporary fictions to-watch list will keep growing too… yep – there is still much drama on the road ahead! So thanking you for your patience through this rather long introduction, here is the list of my journey through the fantastic wonderland that is KDrama.

This is a simple system of cumulative experience. NB: an outline is just a placeholder. Each cumulative solid  star includes the qualities of the previous star. E.g. ★★ – means that over the course of the drama, I experienced “curiosity and satisfaction” (first star from the right), as well as “excitement, wonder and learning” (second star in the middle). Three solid stars would also include “thrill, laughter and tears” in the experience. What if a drama proved moving, provoking both tears and laughs, but its overall storytelling wiz bang was just okay? Then the middle star remains vacant but flanked by two solid stars thus .

Stars    — Summary Description (what I experienced over the course of drama)

  • ★★★ — Brilliant and Moving (thrill, laughter, tears)
  • ★★ — Cool and Brilliant (excitement, wonder, learning – much *wiz bang*)
  • ☆☆ — Okay to Cool (curiosity, satisfaction)
  • ☆☆☆ — Pass to Okay (distraction, impatience)
  • ☆☆☆ — Grey stars mean I have not watched the title yet.
  •  — Okay to Cool, and also Moving (curiosity, satisfaction, thrill, laughter, tears)
  • :) — Pleasantly adorable
  • —  Personal Library

Favorite Actors  — Indicated next to title in square brackets by [list number]

  1. (장나라) Jang Na Ra
  2. (이요원) Lee Yo Won
  3. (정려원) Jeong Ryeo Won
  4. (문근영) Moon Geun Yeong
  5. (정용준) Jang Hyeok (장혁)
  6. (김태평) Hyeon Bin (현빈)
  7. (조인성) Zo In Seong
  8. (이준기) Lee Joon Gi
  9. (이병헌) Lee Byeong Heon
    [*] (전지현) Jeon Ji Hyeon
10. (송일국) Song Il Guk
11. (정경호) Jeong Kyeong Ho
12. (배용준) Bae Yong Joon
13. (박신양) Park Shin Yang
14. (송중기) Song Joong Ki
15. (장근석) Jang Geun Seok
16. (여진구) Yeo Jin Goo
17. (심은경) Shim Eun Kyeong
18. (이진욱) Lee Jin Wook
[§] (신민아) Shin Min-A

For recommendations, see Playing Favorites… the KDrama and Film ‘Must See’ List






SILLA-BALHAE (660-936)

GORYEO (918–1392)

JOSEON DYNASTY (1392–1897)Dae-Wang-Sejong

  • ☆☆☆ +(1350-1425) The Age of Innocence * [5]
  • ★★★ (1368-1444) Tree With Deep Roots [5][14][16]
  • ☆☆ (1368-1444) The Divine Weapon *
  • ☆☆☆ +(1368-1444) Tae Wang Sejong



  • 38 / 60



Winter Sonata2

Winter Sonata



Love Rain








King of Dramas



FILMS (seen and liked)CONTEMPORARY


Castaway on the Moon

  • ★★★ ∞ Il Mare [*]
  • ☆☆ April Snow [12]
  • ☆☆ Baby and Me [15]
  • ★★★ ∞ Castaway on the Moon [3]
  • ☆☆ Love Me Not [4]
  • ★★★ ∞ Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, Spring
  • ☆☆ Time
  • ★★★ ∞ Addicted [9]
  • ☆☆★ ∞ The Classic [7]
  • ★★★ ∞ Dirty Carnival [7]
  • ☆★★ A.f.r.i.k.a. [2]
  • ☆★  Five Senses of Eros (오감도) [5] [14]
  • ☆★★ Windstruck [5][*]
  • ☆★ My Sassy Girl [5][*]
  • ☆★★ I am Happy (나는 행복합니다) [6]
  • ☆★★ ∞ The Volcano High (화산고)  [5] [§]
  • ☆★★ White Valentine [13][*]


  • ★★ ∞ A Frozen Flower [7][14][16]
  • ☆☆ ∞ The Divine Weapon
  • ★★ ∞ The King and the Clown [8]
  • ★★★ ∞ Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King [9]
  • ★★★ ∞ War of the Arrows
  • ☆☆☆ Hwang Jin Yi [+]
  • ☆☆☆ ∞ Portrait of a Beauty [+]
  • ★★ ∞ Untold Scandal [12]
  • ★★★ ∞ (1752-1800) King’s Wrath (Fatal Encounter) (역린)★★★ [6]


FILMS – (on “to watch” list)

  • ☆ ∞ A Werewolf Boy (늑대소년) [14]
  • ☆ ∞ In Love and the War (적과의 동침) [3]
  • ☆ ∞ Pieta (피에타
  • ☆ The Face Reader (관상
  • ☆ ∞ Poetry (
  • ☆☆☆ ∞ The Recipe (된장) [2]
  • ☆  Please Teach me English (영어완전정복)  [5]
  • ☆  Searching for the Elephant (펜트하우스 코끼리)  [5]
  • ☆☆☆  M 
  • ☆☆☆ Maybe (토끼와 리저드) [5] 
  • ☆☆☆  The Client (의뢰인) [5] 
  • ☆☆☆  The Flu (감기[5] 
  • ☆☆☆  Innocent Thing (가시) [5] 
  • ☆☆☆ The Age of Innocence (순수의 시대[5]
  • ☆ Sunny (써니) [17]
  • ☆ ∞ A Millionnaire’s First Love (백만장자의 첫사랑) [6]
  • ☆ ∞ Late Autumn (만추) [6] 
  • ☆ ∞ A Come Rain Come Shine (사랑한다, 사랑하지 않는다) [6]

  • DRAMAS: 90 / 92
  • FILM: 17 / 34
  • TOTAL: 107 / 126

A Key to the stars and arrows:

  • (*) after title of feature films included in the drama series list
  • (>) next to a “not yet seen but cued up and will watch” title in grey
  • (+) next to a “will watch but yet to find” title in grey
  • NB: If the designation “Comedy” on some of the contemporary fictions toward the end of the list seems unconventional, it is because I am going by the literary (and Ancient Classical) definition of comedy as a tale of growth through travails culminating in a happy ending. Some of the titles designated as comedies on this list won’t necessarily be laugh-out-loud funny. To warrant that classification on my list, it is enough that they be not fully invested dramas (some rare few of which have happy endings) and that they set up the players as the types ordinarily found in the classical comedy.
This entry was posted in (김태평) Hyeon Bin (현빈), (이요원) Lee Yo Won, (정용준) Jang Hyeok (장혁), history, KDrama, Music, narrative, Poetry, query, travel, visual art, 사극 (Sageuk) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

71 Responses to Curio in KDramaland… (or, Through the Sageuk Lens)

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  4. Betsy Hp says:

    Wow! This is an awesome list! Some I’ve seen, some I’ve not, some I’ve not even heard of — so this makes for a good referral for future viewing. 🙂

    I do question The Return of Iljimae getting listed under the Goryeo period, though. The drama takes place immediately prior to the second Manchu invasion (I think? maybe it’s the first?) during the Joseon era. I only mention that because I think it gives a good flavor of what life was like for common people during a fairly specific time period. (A time period I’m obviously not recalling very well, sorry. But I can tell it’s the Joseon era.)

    But enough nitpicking! I agree that getting history through stories is such a fun way to learn it. And also about the dryness of history books. I’ve picked up an overview of the history of Korea (from the Paleolithic age on!) just to give myself some context but it’s slow going. I’m happy to be getting the context, but… 😉

    • There are several titles on the list that I happened upon incidentally: while learning about something in Korean history and seeking clarification on the web, while reading about another drama I was curious about or while looking at actors’ filmographies — titles which may not appear in, say, DramaFever or other collections of that ilk. Some titles I discovered while shopping for DVDs (mostly on Amazon, Hanbooks, and Yes Asia plus a couple of other places). My, but I love the interwebs! 😀

      Thank you for the heads up about the period setting of Iljimae (I & II) — I am happy to notice and correct my listing mistake sooner rather than later. I have not seen either drama yet. I do believe that it was about umpteen ages or so ago that I added them to my to-watch list, read something (I forget where) about a Robin Hood type during the Ming Dynasty (how’s that for biased context!) and so I just tacked on the grossly uninformative date range (1368-1644) which accounts for its original position on the list… Dominoes: how inexorably they do tumble one into another..!

      Of course the posters of both dramas should have set off some alerting signal since the characters’ dress speaks volumes. (In retrospect, so should have the fusion element, even if only secondarily.)

      So thanks to your heads up, I’ve narrowed down the date range to (1627-1636) and relocated both Iljimae dramas to just before Chuno on my list. The best part about this correction is that now I get to recalibrate my anticipations. I gather from what you say that there will be allusions to specific political events which will no doubt help me narrow the setting date even further when I eventually watch both Iljimaes.

      In the end, I am happy to know that the list can be useful to other drama fans and/or lovers of History.

      • Betsy Hp says:

        One more clarification! (Since I’m on a roll… ;)) The two Iljimae’s are actually unrelated. The “Return” in The Return of Iljimae has to do with the idea that whenever there is trouble, this particular hero will be reborn.

        I’ve not seen Iljimae, but I understand it’s a very tongue-in-cheek telling of the story. I think it’s the more fusion-type one, so I’m not sure if it sets itself in history or not.

        The Return of Iljimae, however, is a pretty straight-up hero’s journey. And the narrator fills in gaps on what’s going on during his various travels and travails. So I believe it’s set pretty specifically (though I’m sure good historians would find some fudged time-lines — because they always do ;)).

        • The more clarification, the better. Thank you!

          I must say, now my eagerness to see both Iljimae and The Return of Ijimae just spiked … I recently saw Lee Joon Gi in Arang and the Magistrate and simply loved him in it. I’m a sucker for beautifully choreographed martial artistry and he was magnificent! He was also some kind of fierce-cool in My Girl yet he was ever so delicate in The King and the Clown. So I look forward to seeing him as a super hero in Iljimae, however kitschy it may be (I’ve been hearing things…)

          And how could I not watch The Return of Iljimae as well? I am actually glad to know that they are stories about different incarnations of an archetypal folk hero, each with his own story: double the fun, I’d like to think!

  5. Ah, the joys of having a sageuk timeline! Am now watching the first chapter of Iljimae I and in all the talk of conspiracy I hear how our hero’s father is going to be framed as a conspirator and named among those who want to reinstate Gwanghae to power… Big deal! So?

    Well, just before Iljimae, my timeline has the film (1574-1641) Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King starring Lee Byung Hun ;-), a film I’ve been trying to find for a while and now, more than ever, look forward to seeing! [PS – I just saw a note on Amazon that it will be released On DVD in June 2013 – yay!] The film is also called Masquarade and tells the story of how when King Gwanghae was poisoned and lying at death’s door, his doppelgänger sat on the throne for him during his convalescence, and complications arose — as they will. Well, the king recovered and the plot thickened…

    In any case, the much embattled fifteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty, Gwangaehun (1574–1641; reigned 1608–1623) is also dramatically present in (1552-1608) Heo Joon, presumably as a fairly young man. He is also featured in The King’s Woman, a title I have now added to my list which now looks thus in that section of the timeline:

    • ☆☆☆ >(1545-1598) Immortal Admiral Yi Sun-sin
    • ☆☆☆ >(1552-1608) Heo Joon
    • ☆☆☆ *>(1574-1641) Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King
    • ☆☆☆ >(1574-1641) The King’s Woman
    • ☆☆☆ >(1623-1641) Iljimae
    • ☆☆☆ >(1627-1636) The Return of Iljimae
    • ★★★ (1636) Chuno

    Ooooh, I can’t wait to find those two Gwanghae-related titles. In the meantime, I plan to savor the much maligned Iljimae that apparently takes place during the beleaguered Gwanghae’s time of dethronement. How can I not? Prophecies, conspiracies, birth secrets, class issues… mmm-hm! Oh, and let’s not forget the clever super hero whose brilliance and sense of justice are already apparent in his early childhood… all this despite his [soon to be upended] cushy, privileged upbringing… mmm-hm, indeed!

  6. Notes on Iljimae

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  7. Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (chapters 1-3)

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    Iljimae_IIPS. The new information about the historical setting also means adapting my timeline to properly reflect the chronology which now looks like this in that section:

    • ☆☆☆ >(1552-1608) Heo Joon
    • ☆☆☆ *>(1574-1641) Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King
    • ☆☆☆ >(1574-1641) The King’s Woman
    • ★★★ (1636) Chuno
    •  (1645-1649) Iljimae
    • ☆☆☆ >(1648-1649) The Return of Iljimae
    • ★★ (mid 1600) Arang and the Magistrate
  8. Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (chapters 4 ff.)

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  9. Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (the Martial Arts)

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  10. Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (banned books and the written word)

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  11. Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (chapters 9-20)

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  12. Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (chapters 21-24)

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  13. Notes on The Return of Iljimae: (dates — finally!)

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    • Betsy Hp says:

      Oh, I’m so glad I found your notes! (Or rediscovered is probably the better word choice.) I loved reading through your notes on Return of Iljimae.

      I adored that drama so it was fun reading your rocky start and then seeing get slowly won over. 😉 For some reason I was fond of the overly-intrusive narrator — but I know I do stand somewhat alone on that. This was my first experience with Jung Il-woo and I am now a huge fan.

      On a different note, for some reason your blog stopped appearing in my reader — so I assumed you weren’t posting. I’m not sure what the technical glitch was, but I’m really, really glad Maybee nominated you for a Liebster because I followed her link and behold, posts!

  14. Maybee says:

    Hey, Curio.
    It might seem excessively forward of me, but I can’t help but grin at your meticulous curiosity. hehe. I love the list. I think it’ll come in handy as I try to chip at sageuks.
    Glad you enjoyed Arang and the M. Also, love all the adjectives used to describe The Return of Iljimae. hehhehe. (Though I personally haven’t watched it yet.)
    One recommendation: War of the Flowers. It’s on Dramafever. About Injo and his Lady Jo. Year is 1636. Still airing, though. Unlike my expectations of a sageuk being pretty grave and portentous, this one surprised me by being pretty accessible and even bawdy(!) at times. This drama so far fascinates me and repulses me, alternately. Don’t know how it’ll progress or IF you’ll like it. But Injo is said to be pretty well played here.
    Give it a shot.

    • Thank you for the recommendation Maybee! 🙂 I will definitely add it to my list after what you’ve said. I saw it advertised a while back and even read the description but something about it, starting with the title (Cruel Palace: War of the Flowers), just reeked of makjang. All this was at a time when and work was intense and I needed to be cruising on low gear so I just cruised on by. Now that the rest of my world has quieted down a bit, I may soon be ready to kick things up a notch in dramaland. I’ll wait for it to post all its (50!) episodes and then I’ll give it a go. In the meantime, it finds a place on my list just before The Return of Iljimae.

      • ☆☆☆ >(1574-1641) The King’s Woman
      • ☆☆☆ >(1595-1645) Cruel Palace: War of the Flowers
      •  (1632-1645) The Return of Iljimae

      I am also happy to know that you find the list both useful in content and amusing in execution. Where some people collect train sets or build miniature battlefields, I learn new things and try to discover the appropriate place for them amongst the furniture of my sometimes crowded mind. ;-). I look forward to hearing about your experiences with sageuk!

      • Maybee says:

        I’m not sure if this is the right place to post this, but there’s this Liebster award thingy going around the K-drama blogosphere. It involves answering a set of questions and basically breaking ice.

        So, I nominate you for one. See here for details:

        If and when you have time, do participate. It could be fun. 🙂

        • “Gasp!” is right! You know, I just got through posting my own set of super-super-biased awards about KDrama and Film and then I saw this…! Just being nominated is pretty special and I thank you sincerely, Maybee.

          So what exactly should I do – write a Liebster Awards bit and post like the one you did? Happy to – although I have to say that while I will ramble on about everything under the sun, I generally don’t have much to say about myself. Anyway, let see what ends up on the post. 😉

    • Bisiriyu says:

      I had watched the first 2 epdiesos of QSD and had just decided that it was going to be my next historical drama! I was so sad to see that it was gone, BUT glad that it will be back up soon. So for now I’m watching Jumong.

  15. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 1

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  16. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 2-6

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  17. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 7-27

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  18. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Prince Hodong – a Profile

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  19. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Crown Princess LaHee – a Profile

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  20. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Puku / Jamyung – a Profile

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  21. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 27-30

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  22. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 31

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  23. Notes on JaMyung Go (자명고): Chapter 32

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  24. Series or Feature Film? Hwang Jin Yi and Shin Yun Bok, a Case Study.

    Now that I finally have a pair of distinctive series and films to consider, I developed the comments previously posted here into a new article comparing the two — yay for KDrama, always giving me something to write about! 🙂

  25. Notes on Kim Soo Ro (김수로)

    What can I say…? More soap opera (of the daytime variety) than historical epic even though it is all about the founding monarch of Geumgwan Gaya, Kim Suro.

    Watched all 32 episodes with mixed emotions — something akin to amusement and impatience — enjoying isolated elements here and there since the whole things is sort of deliciously terrible. Not awful, just somewhat sophomoric with some bald-faced cultural anachronisms that made me chuckle (e.g. the congratulatory applause – complete with handclapping! – that occurs every once in a while after some gratifying announcement in a council meeting) and the occasionally lame individual or group skirmish. Plainly put, this piece makes it more apparent that Jumong with Song Il Guk rather set the gold standard for Goguryeo period sageuk dramas, especially in its representation of formal comportment, prophecies and certainly of battle scenes and even one-on-one combat.

    On the up side: I gleaned a few footnotes about the ancient Korean Kingdom of Geumgwan Gaya. It helps that the opening credits feature a map of the peninsula putting places like Goguryeo, Buyeo, Baekje and Silla (prominent in Jumong, Kingdom of the Wind, Jamyunggo), as well as Naklang (once again Jamyunggo) in cartographic context.

    Also, I discovered a new favorite kdrama heroine: Princess Hoe Hwang Ok who later becomes the first Queen of Geumgwan Gaya. She’s remarkably intelligent, calm, wise and profoundly kind and generous and the actress who plays her does a fantastic job of conveying the depths of her quiet strength. In fact, it turns out that the majority of key women in this story were each in their own way quite admirable for their strength of mind and purpose. It is one of the few redeeming elements of this drama that actually made it watchable…:-)

    So, as trying as it has occasionally been to get through Kim Soo Ro, am happy to have done it. Now I can move on to the next one on my list with a clear conscience.

  26. Notes on King Geunchogo (근초고왕): 1-2

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  27. TamaraJ says:

    Finding a good catalogue with information about k-drama that’s both easy to understand and fascinating is really a miracle. Your creating style is just my cup of tea. I’ve seen many of the same dramas here although there are a few that I have not even heard of. 🙂

    • Hi TamaraJ – welcome! I hope the catalogue is helpful to you. I’m glad you like it!

      • Elena says:

        I have a very bizzare theory of the hanbok 한복 that I would like to share with you since you have obviously done some research on Korean traditional dress and also obviously know more than me on this subject. Could the hanbok be designed to protect women from foreign invaders. One book states that Korea has been invaded 3,000 times but I think this is an exageration. Pirates landing on your coast can’t be considered an invasion and I think Koreans do count these sort of incidents as invasions. The hanbok is that total opposite of the hourglass shape and makes a woman look like an apple. All sociobiology studies suggest men are genetically driven to pursue women with an hourglass shape and generally find women with a apple shaped figure to be the least attractive. Could the hanbok be an attempt to make Korean women look less sexy as to protect them from foreign invaders? Kind of like covering up the women in Muslim societies but in a more covert

    • Rubz says:

      I’ve been blasted in the past for claimimg that Neo-Confucianism with its hyper-fundamentalist metaphysical emphasis was the dark rotting root of–okay, I’m being wordy. Re-reading Ki-baik Lee’s “A New History of Korea,” he hints at these claims but doesn’t come right out and say it. But those are the glaring issues that gnaw at my brain whenever I read Korean history. The yangban with their precious pinky fingernails really fucked up the nation in their self-important laziness, and it led to the nasty society described by visitors at the end of the Joseon era and to the yangban selling their nation out to the Japanese.To me, the nationalistic chapters sound sarcastic.

  28. Indira says:

    I simply want to tell you that I am just newbie to blogging and really enjoyed this kdrama catalogue. I’m going to bookmark your website . You actually have outstanding posts and reviews. Bless you for sharing. 🙂

  29. Hit-o-meter: Who delivers on engaging drama?

    So, given the recent very poor showing of both Kim Soo Ro and King Guenchogo, I started wondering how sageuk dramas fare by production network. It turns out that MBC has a fairly consistent record of turning out hits (that is, is you exclude Kim Soo Ro). KBS, home of King Guenchogo comes in second in consistency while SBS is a little less reliable. I don’t really have a sufficiently large pool of dramas to reach any meaningful conclusion so this is just a bit of trend spotting. Maybe later, after I have seen more dramas, I can find a more reliable pattern.





    • tasha says:

      Hi, i agree with you. I have noticed the pattern too, i.e.MBC taking the lead in hit productions. Also of the opinion that MBC scripts are better, there is more thread and continuity compared to SBS and KBS. SBS melodramas tend to be long winded, most scrips evolve around jealousy and envy/revenge a lot and thats when they keep going round and round. For KBS, the star is of course Chuno and second is Iris (not Iris 2 much as i love Jang Hyuk). Am not a big fan of sageuk, (your list now is tempting me, hahahaha, good reviews and thoughts). Thanks for a great write up.

  30. Notes on King Geunchogo (근초고왕): 13-14: Pirates!

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  31. Notes on King Geunchogo (근초고왕): 15: The Strategist

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  32. Notes on King Geunchogo (근초고왕): 15-19

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  33. Notes on King Geunchogo (근초고왕): 19-24

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  34. Y says:

    Interesting list. I like how you rate the dramas (kind of complicated for me), but the thought process makes sense, and give lots more insights than just a simple rating system. Will definitely try to check out some on your list. Still apprehensive about starting on saguek, as they are usually long.

    • Curio Serand says:

      Hi Y, if you like your dramas short and sweet, you might like some of the fusion sageuk which clock in at 14, 16, 20 or 24 episodes. I don’t know whether you’ve seen any of the ones listed in the Playing Favorites… the KDrama and Film ‘Must See’ List here.

      Let me know if you find anything there you like.

      PS. The titles under “Great Kings” are all long except “Tree With Deep Roots” with Jang Hyeok(!). He is also in “Chuno” (24 episodes) — maybe something to tide you over while we await the next three Wednesdays….? 🙂

  35. Hello, Curio!

    I guess this is the best place to ask several questions..
    1) Are you watching Joseon Gunman? What do you think of the series so far?
    2) Are you watching Three Musketeers? I regret not marathoning Cruel Palace before since it’s set after the current timeline in Musketeers. Enjoying CP so far and I find myself sympathizing with the characters, especially Jo Gwi-in and Injo.
    3) I think you might like Jung Il-woo so I’m wondering if you’ve checked out The Night Watchmen’s Journal..
    4) I am so excited for Secret Door that I can’t stop reading The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong. Have you read the book before?

    Sorry for the sudden outburst of questions but I’m curious about your thoughts on the current and upcoming sageuk 🙂

    • Curio Serand says:

      Hello muchadoaboutlove! 오랜만입니다!

      Did you get my tweet about newly spruced up seaofdrama banner? I thought you might get a kick out of it! 🙂

      Anyway, about your questions: All the titles you mention are on my DramaFever cue but I have not watched them yet for several reasons. I’ll start with…

      Cruel Palace: I started watching it some time back but I was also writing a lot so I could not really focus on the story. I did see the first episode and realized that the whole thing was going to be very, very dense, very intense, requiring considerable attention (in a good way, I think). Now that my desk has cleared a little, I will take it up again, and maybe end up marathoning :-).

      All told, it looks quite serious, with a lot of gravitas, although the first impression I got of Yam Jun was strangely tragic-comical [It’s just a first impression so it may be completely off.]

      Based on what you just said, I am now really looking forward to it. From other sources, I somehow developed an idea that Injo had a rather unhappy reign so now I want to see how this sageuk makes him sympathetic. Admittedly, the foot-march in the beginning to kowtow to the barbarian Emperor Hong Taiji of the Quing Dynasty was quite painful to watch. Did you notice that the “Game of Thrones” theme music sounds a lot like the background music when Injo finally gets to the end of his tragic march?

      I do like Jung Il-woo, a lot. But since Joseon Gunman, Three Musketeers and The Night Watchmen’s Journal are all still currently airing, I’m going to wait until their finale before beginning. I do my best to avoid live viewing, especially of sageuk because, if I end up liking the story, the week-long waiting between installments just drives me nuts.

      Despite my best efforts, though, I still find myself getting ensnared occasionally and when that happens, I just have to make the best of it. It happened with Milhwe and now with Fated to Love You–which I LOVE, by the way–and despite my enjoyment, I found myself resolving even more passionately to stay away from live watching – it really wreaks havoc on me, all that waiting week after week!

      “The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong” is also on my reading list but for a different reason: I recently started paying closer attention to Hyeon Bin’s work and I’m discovering that he is quite a remarkable actor. Of course I indulged in crushing on his strangely intense aesthetic appeal (I still cannot fathom how someone can be THAT beautiful!), but what’s really cool about him is that he is quite passionate and serious about acting and it shows in the variety of projects he chooses. Anyway, I’ve been waiting for the DVD for The King’s Wrath (역린) aka Fatal Encounter to come out since it combines my interest in Jeongjo with my current fascination with Hyeon Bin. In the midst of all that, “The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong” came to my attention as part of a collection of Korean Classical Literature that I got for a present this summer so I know that one of these days I’m going to read it!

      So I’ll be watching Cruel Palace with you and then eventually I look forward to Secret Door as well!

      Thank you for the questions and the recommendations. I’m actually rather excited now to return to Cruel Palace. I may even start a “Notes on Cruel Palace” post if it inspires the kinds of reflection about storytelling I like…


      • 안녕?! Twitter must be acting up a bit because I didn’t get any notification =.= But I’ve followed you on twitter! Hee~ I noticed the banner and grinned widely while writing my comment yesterday.

        I used to despise Injo a bit and Yamjun even more when I watched Cruel Palace before this, but it must be because of the FF I did. I watched the first two episodes again and I could understand the reason why both of them are like that. I’m not watching GOT (because I’m afraid I would get addicted) but the march and kowtow scene was powerful, in the sense that I could see how humiliated Injo was, throwing away his pride to save his country. Ah, kings and their duties…

        I can get easily attached to a sageuk so I prefer to watch it live rather than marathoning it, because it’s hard to stop watching! I remember back then when I marathoned King’s Daughter Soo Baek Hyang, it was so irresistible that I had to limit myself to 5 eps/day. Watching sageuk live, although quite a challenge to wait every week, gives me more time to ponder about the drama between the weekly releases. I’m still behind with Joseon Gunman, though O.O

        I think my ‘crazy for Hyun Bin’ phase has passed and I have learned how to be a moderate fangirl, ha. I am saving King’s Wrath for later since I’m concentrating on dramas right now 😉 Apart from Binnie, there are many of my favourite actors in it, so it’s like killing two birds with one stone. Can we get him in a sageuk soon?

        I’m sure Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong will be an enchanting read for you. It’s hard to put down the book once you get started, so beware! At least that’s what I’m experiencing right now…

        I’ll be happy to share my thoughts about Cruel Palace with you! Hoping that I won’t fall behind since I tend to be distracted a lot~

        Oops, this had turned into an essay! Heee

        • Curio Serand says:

          Hey, I love essays!

          When thoughts are numerous, rich and complex and we have language at our disposal to unspool them so that others might share them, and it costs us nothing but a little bit of time and a little bit of effort to use the words we need, why shouldn’t we?

          There is a place for the 140-character exclamation or question. There is also a place for the 3000-word exploration, contemplation, and reflection. Plus everything in between and beyond.

          Going back to sageuk: last night I had to peel myself from my screen and shoo myself to bed because I had gotten so caught up in Cruel Palace that I marathoned though 9 chapters without intending to. In fact I had decided that I would just go a chapter or two a day or every other day but by the end of chapter 2, I was in that excited “and then..?” mode which, by chapter 3 had developed into a full-blown fever. The end of chapter 6 cracked me up and thrilled me to no end: I was really impressed by Lady Jo’s talent for flattery – even the king was taken aback and kind of into it, even while knowing it was all just hot air.

          So, as you can see, I’m loving it! I’ve even drafted the “Notes on Cruel Palace” post which I will probably publish by the end of the day today. The “Notes” series of entries tend to be running commentaries on a drama while I’m in the process of watching it so I start off in with an introductory “first impressions” post and then continue to add more thought in the same note.

          Lastly, I did a bit of blog housekeeping and added a “Saguek” section where only the posts specifically about a sageuk or in someway featuring the subject will be displayed. Now I think I will add one for the Notes series…

          • “There is a place for the 140-character exclamation or question. There is also a place for the 3000-word exploration, contemplation, and reflection. Plus everything in between and beyond.”

            Love this one!

            Oh, you beat me already and that’s so fast! I have the whole 50 episodes of Cruel Palace (yeay!) and will resume watching soon, after and I complete a hanbok post which has been bugging me for the past few months..I blame this obsession for all things hanbok!

            Lady Jo is cunning and manipulative but it can’t be denied that she is quick to get the grasp of life inside the palace. It’s interesting to watch when Injo, who knows exactly what Kim Ja-jeom is planning about when he sends Lady Jo to her, but he seems to enjoy the company of his new concubine. Glad you’re loving it too and I can’t wait to read your notes about the drama!

            I love reading your thoughts about sageuk because you have an amazing talent in writing 🙂 You’re my blogging idol! Hehehe~Since the niche of avid sageuk watchers is not that big, it is nice to read thoughtful discussions about them around and I’m so, so glad you’re loving sageuk too. We need to spread the love around 😉

            • Curio Serand says:

              Okay, that first note on Cruel Palace was quite a bit of fun to write and I finally published it but I backdated it so that it would not show up on the cue right after the piece on “Love in Fated to Love You.

              I’m also finishing up the third piece on Fated to Love You all about Lee Geon and Mi Yeong and once you see the note on Cruel Palace you’ll understand why I don’t want it anywhere near the three part series on such a beloved romantic comedy couple… 🙂

  36. tasha says:

    Hi, love your list. Im sourcing some of them to watch, the most difficult to get for me is Tree w Deep Roots (priority is all JH’s productions bcos i love his work, hehehe). Starting w sageuk series and got Gwanghae over the weekend. Thanks to your link, i can watch Daemang online, and after 2 episodes, it looks good to continue. Thank you for sharing.

    • Curio Serand says:

      Oh, fantastic! I’m very happy to know that you’re getting some practical use out of it. I’ve linked to the streaming services I use but I know that international licensing issues can sometimes restrict regional access around the world.

      In case you do encounter any such restriction in these links, I know DramaFever, which is based in San Francisco, California, is expanding to Europe and I think is already pretty international. Besides those two, the only other options I have access to are just buying DVDs online from East and South East Asia (yay interweb!), or sifting through YouTube, which tends to be hit-or-miss (but thank goodness for the fortuitous Daemang playlist).

      I hope you like Daemang. I fell in love with it in the first 10 minutes and stayed hooked to the end. Maybe it was because of the tiger chase at the beginning which reminded me a bit of Painter of the Wind, or maybe it was because of the gorgeous cinematography; the YouTube video is quite low resolution and therefore somewhat blurry but even that cannot hide the beauty and precision of the shot framing. I also discovered that a grand total of four of the actors on my favorites list were all in this drama, along with a couple of others who I really like but have not listed.

      I will try and acquire the DVD for Daemang – that is just how much I loved it!

      • tasha says:

        Hi, thanks for the reply and infor. I have read again your notes above and i have to agree with the conclusion that sagueks will have a everlasting appeal for Korean drama lovers compared to melodramas and rom coms. I have now switched to watching films than rom coms or melodramas whilst waiting for the new premiers after FTLY simply bcos FTLY set a bar up and all productions after that pale in comparison in plot, script writing and acting…hahahaha. Also when i started going to watch early works of Jang Hyuk and Hyun Bin, i have discovered that they are less appealing becos it is more dated, and i would certainly have given it a miss if not for the actors in it. The only reason i watched was bcos i was curious how they performed in their earlier works and how they have matured. The only thing that has put me off sagueks is the incredibly long episodes, so whilst i want to explore more based on your list above, i wld probably cheat a bit and go for those w the least no of episodes. Also, i think i probably have to read a bit more to get a perspective of Korean history to enjoy sageuks more.

        I have watched Gwangae (one grouse i do have is that the Korean directors and producers do not stick to one name for international screenings, took me while to figure out Masquerade was Gwanghae!) and its a gem. This is the first time i watched Lee Byung Hun and he deserves the awards given to him. I would give it a 3 star. I have also watched King’s Wrath/The Fatal Encounter, but i must say Gwanghae was better. Not becos Hyun Bin didnt deliver but i think the director’s way was not seamless in King’s Wrath so i will give it a 2 star. But in terms of looks, Hyun Bin wins.

        For Daemang, the YouTube production is a pain to watch, so i have put it on hold whilst trying to get hold of the dvd set.

        I love your blog, your thoughts and certainly would love to hear more of it from you.

  37. fulaor says:

    Nice list! I think 3-Iron would be a fitting addition to your movie list.

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