I 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. What 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...)
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.
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]
|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
|THREE KINGDOMS: GOGURYEO, BAEKJE, SILLA (37 BC–668 AD)
|JOSEON DYNASTY (1392–1897)
|CONTEMPORARY HISTORICAL (pure fiction)
|FANTASY: FUSION SAGEUK SciFi & TIME TRAVEL
|DRAMA: CHILDHOOD, SOULMATES MELODRAMA|
|DRAMA: MEDICAL / PROCEDURAL/CRIME/MYSTERY
|COMEDY: ART & PERFORMANCE|
|COMEDY: YOUNG ADULT|
|FILMS (seen and liked)CONTEMPORARY
|FILMS – (on “to watch” list)
|CONTEMPORARY FICTION COUNT (110)
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.