The pacing in "Scarlet Heart: Ryeo" really is top notch. While I still psychologically recognize the obvious discordance between the political powerplay scenes and Soo's vastly more simplistic interpretation of plot, the tones are quite well balanced. We go from one to the other without any real sense of whiplash. Prince So is an uncommunicative jerk with his brothers, and he's also an uncommunicative jerk with Soo. But in both cases Prince So is also the main guy who's all about getting things done even if it means his hands get dirty in the process.
One aspect of the Goryeo royal family here that distinguishes it a lot from the Joseon royal families more commonly seen in Korean dramas is the sheer level of backbiting competition. The royal princes all love each other, yet at the same time they seem to take disproportionate glee when someone else fails. Even assassination attempts don't seem to phase them on a personal level. It's like they're trying to win at a game.
This is one way that Soo's apparent role as the center of her own hot man harem feels oddly justified. Soo is just another symbolic goal for all these manly men. They want her because they don't have her. And as is the case with all of the other power struggles, physically dominating Soo is sort of besides the point. Simply being the strongest man in the room isn't good enough. You have to be the smartest one, too.
It is through this context that the production team is able to rather fantastically build up the ritual which makes up the climax. What's especially great about this scene is that even without all the political context all the performers (extras included) are treating this one hundred percent seriously just as people back then would have. The choreography is so excellent and engaging it's a legitimate surprise when the knives come out even though we were practically told explicitly in advance that there was going to be an interruption.
Narratively, the ritual also fulfills the important role of bringing Soo into the lives of the royal princes through a more convincing plot device than having her be around at the right place and right time to give a stern lecture. While this, too, is an convenient scriptwriting coincidence, the more permanent implications are quite interesting. How will a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve function in an environment where every personal interaction has multiple layers?
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 email@example.com. 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 2"
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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