Soo (played by IU) is a woman in the modern world with relationship problems. She also quickly gets into the unfortunate situation of being in close proximity to a child who cannot swim yet somehow manages to make his way into improbably deep water without anyone noticing. From there, Soo is plunged into the Goryeo era, where the King's many children, in addition to having sexy baths together, also engage in major political plots. Prince Wook (played by Kang Ha-neul) is the clear heir apparent while Prince So (played by Lee Joon-gi) has a chronically bad attitude due to childhood trauma.
Unlike most time travel stories, Soo does not appear as herself but rather as a pre-existing Goryeo lady. This ends up creating an odd dual interpretation to most of the scenes in "Scarlet Heart: Ryeo". From Soo's perspective, this is a goofy fish-out-of-water story as Soo tries to figure out situations her character should already be aware of. From the perspective of any other character, the volatile political question is of vastly greater importance and Soo is merely a temporary eccentric interruption.
I'll admit that as expository episodes go this one is pretty good. We already have pretty much all the information necessary to figure out what the general stakes are. Soo is a very incurious protagonist when it comes to apparently random time travel. The time travel is less a plot device and more a means to explain why there is a woman at the royal Goryeo residence with a personality and attitude so widely out of step with the local culture.
Yet at times, this very eccentricity makes Soo seem like an unwelcome interruption to a classic historical drama story that's plenty interesting enough to sustain a plot on its own merits. Goryeo dramas are relatively rare in the Joseon-dominated Korean historical drama field, and "Scarlet Heart: Ryeo" consistently looks and feels like a product of a more brutish age. Note how very curt characters are with each other, regardless of official rank.
The general look, too, is very good. The costuming, makeup, and backdrop is consistently excellent, and director Kim Kyoo-tae has a great eye for the right camera placement to show this all off. Yet even here there are often unwanted modern flourishes, the dreaded shakycam, for example, which mostly serve to detract from the drama's strong points. I remain unsure as to how strong "Scarlet Heart: Ryeo" will be in the long run.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.
"[HanCinema's Drama Review] "Scarlet Heart: Ryeo" Episode 1"
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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