Masterful, superb and fanciful presentation of the life of an historical legend, 16th Century Joseon female artist and noted calligrapher Shin Saimdang (her face is on the most expensive currency in Korea, the 50,000 Won bill and she was the mother of the Confucian scholar Yi I), in the context of a fictitious love story and modern day art mystery, Saimdang, Light's Diary feeds the hunger of the intelligent Korean drama viewer for a production laced with spiritual beauty, a chaste yet still passionate love story that will make one weep, sublime writing and acting, and second to none production values. In short an EXQUISITE Korean drama in every way!The Story: Beginning in modern day Seoul we meet Seo Ji Yoon (Lee Young Ae) a Korean art historian and lecturer who discovers on a trip to Italy (Italy, you say? well stay tuned!) the diary of historical figure and artist Shin Saimdang (also played by Lee Young Ae), an artist of nature and mother of several children including future Confucian scholar Yi I. She also finds an ancient painting of Saimdang that had been painted by her platonic lover Lee Gyeom (Song Seung Hun as an adult, Yang Se Jong as a young man). However the painting is the spitting image of Seo Ji Yoon herself! In shock, the Italian caretaker of the estate lets Seo Ji Yoon take the diary and the painting back with her to Korea, saying it's obviously fate that led her to discover them in the first place.
Coaxing the beautiful Korean actress Lee Young Ae out of a 13 year K-drama acting hiatus after her memorable work on 2003's Jewel in the Palace, with a magnificent, poetic script, and adding the handsome, dashing Song Seung Hun as her leading man, plus hiring a great ensemble cast, all created the foundation for a new classic Korean drama that I will enjoy over and over again (and I hope others will too!) for years to come. The colorful costumes, scenic backgrounds, magnificent soundtrack, colorful animation, and beautiful artwork are a feast for the eyes and soul.
Enough praise cannot be lavished on the production for its exquisite cinematography and the lovely country location selections (with a short trip to Tuscany, Italy), combining to give the viewer unique, spectacular visual imagery that you won't find in any other Korean drama, even other historical shows! In fact, after I finished this drama I was depressed for days, missing the characters and the beautiful, haunting story like crazy. I never thought an historical drama whose theme was Art would ever replace my love for 2008's Painter Of The Wind, but I found it in Saimdang, Light's Diary. It was so refreshing to enjoy a drama not aimed at a teenage crowd as much as a mature, thinking audience. The two leads being in their mid 30's was a delightful respite from all the teen idol based dramas we see too much of today. We need more grown up fare like this show.
Minor glitches occur once in a blue moon, mostly having to do with the modern day story sometimes too abruptly being interlaced with the Joseon story; the modern story wasn't the main focus of the drama anyway, but these changes in time periods do not distract from this Work of Art, unless you as a viewer choose to make them so by preferring the modern tale to the Joseon era story, or vice versa. The intent was to have them blend in seamlessly and for all intents and purposes they do.
The Joseon era story of Shin Saimdang's life is at the heart of the drama, similar to the story of 14th Century General Choi Young being at the heart of the story in 2012's fictitious time travel tale Faith. In fact, in the beginning of Saimdang, the interlacing of past with present is done perfectly and seamlessly, as you can see in the video, below, when Seung Hun Song's character as a Joseon era ghost shows up in modern day Italy!
The Most Remarkable Sequence I've Ever Seen In Any K-Drama!
It Could Be An Old Masterpiece Theater Classic Scene From Britain
Add in a great musical soundtrack with a beautiful "Close to You" song by "The One", and LYn's plaintive "Whenever, Wherever", as well as a soaring "Everlasting Love" by Lee Soo, plus unbelievably beautiful instrumental pieces, and you know you are about to watch (and hear) something very, very special. Many times I would just sit back gaping at my television screen, awestruck at this drama's artistry. "I can't believe what I'm watching, this must have cost a fortune! Every episode is like a first run movie in a theater!" Because of my frequent exclamations of wonder my children would come check out particularly beautiful scenes with me.
Miss this drama and it's your tremendous loss! The rest of the world is finally starting to appreciate the remarkable high quality of films, shows, and actors in South Korea, and this drama is one reason why. Korea produces masterpieces, America produces trash. Sorry, but it's the awful truth.
Yang Se Jong & Park Hye Soo as the younger versions of Song Seung Hun & Lee Young Ae
In Seo Ji Yoon’s world, Saimdang is a legend. In Joseon times, that legend was still being formed and Saimdang was known as a bold and talented artist, poet, and calligrapher. Those qualities were enough to leave a lasting impression on Lee Gyeom, a fictional character who is basically representing the bold Renaissance Man of the Joseon dynasty as a talented artist, writer, musician, and even women's rights' activist! From the moment he meets the young Saimdang (Park Hye Soo), he dedicates his life to her with a pure and constant love.
As Seo Ji Yoon learns more about Saimdang through her diary, she begins to unravel the secret behind the painting of a woman who looks exactly like her. We then go back into the past for a considerable amount of time as the foundation for this drama. Sometimes we return to the present day, where Seo Ji Yoon is having marital problems and professional problems due to the avarice of the most important men in her life, her secretive husband Jung Min Seok (Lee Hae Young) who puts the family into bankruptcy, and her boss, the corrupt Min Jung Hak (Choi Jung Hwan) who tries to pass off to the artistic community a fake painting as authentic. Along for her bumpy ride back to normalcy from chaos are her best friend Ko Hye Jung (chubby actress Park Jun Myun from Late Night Restaurant), her mother-in-law Kim Jung Hee (Kim Hae Sook from The Suspicious Housekeeper), her young son Eun Soo (Lee Tae Woo), her male student friend Han Sang Hyun (Yang Se Jong in a dual role), and ultimately, surprisingly, Director Seon (Kim Mi Kyung - Horseface!) who at first sided with her corrupt boss but who changes for the better by the end of the drama and supports Seo Ji Yoon.
Oh Yoon Ah gives a great performance as Whieum Dang
Adding to the drama's intensity in the Joseon story is Saimdang's erstwhile "friend" Whieum Dang Choi (You Are All Surrounded and Alone In Love actress Oh Yoon Ah), a girl from a humble background who once wished to be better than Saimdang as an artist but who could not do so and therefore blames Saimdang for the rejection she faced at the hands of Lee Gyeom. Whieum Dang ends up giving Saimdang years of grief, including several times putting her life in jeopardy due to jealousy. Whieum Dang is forced to marry a man who doesn't love her, Min Chi Hyung (Choi Chul Ho), but who only sexually desires her. Her husband knows all too well she carries a not so secret torch for Lee Gyeom and this creates lots of dangerous animosity between the two men, as is evident in this fantastic sword fight sequence, below.
"You're vulgar!" Lee Gyeom Says To Whieum Dang
A Great Swordfight Scene With Seung Hun Song
Fate intervenes to keep the loving, artistic teenage couple Saimdang and Lee Gyeom separate; she too is forced to marry another young man named Lee Won Soo (played as an adult by Yoon Da Hoon) otherwise there would be a royal command to kill her beloved Lee Gyeom by the mentally disturbed monarch of the time, King Jung Jong (Choi Jung Hwan in a dual role)
For two decades Lee Gyeom remains in the dark as to why Saimdang abruptly married another man and moved away, creating a home with him and having his children. When he does discover the truth, that she did it to save his life, he is able to drop his bitterness by the wayside, even coming to her aid several times when she is in trouble, and even caring for her children who are not his own, for example teaching her academically bright son Hyun Rong (Jung Joo Won), and encouraging his brilliant mind at academics, and then standing up for her daughter Mae (Shin Shoo Yun, in a beautiful performance for one so young) who wants to attend a royal art school designed for men only.
One of the best parts of this drama is seeing Saimdang relating lovingly toward her children, teaching her children so many valuable academic, moral, and life lessons. This is so rare in Korean dramas, depicting such a high quality, sacrificial mother, and I delighted in it. Saimdang's husband turns out to be nothing but an oaf who can't pass the civil service test even after trying repeatedly for years, and he also cheats on her with a bar maid. So she throws all the love she has into her children. I especially loved her relationship with her daughter Mae, who also wished to be an artist like her mother, even disguising herself as a boy, trying to get into the royal academy of arts that is the exclusive territory of men. She wins the top prize but when it's discovered she is a girl she is disqualified from attending the school. Her mother gives her hope for the future, that Joseon may not always be a male-dominated society, by trying out for an opportunity to paint the King himself, and winning her objective. I just adored this beautiful conversation between mother and daughter, in the video clip below. Saimdang's decision to become a royal painter, no matter what the personal cost to herself, just so she could show Mae that there was hope for her to achieve similar goals, was so inspiring. As a mother of five children all these scenes touched my heart tremendously.
When Saimdang's silly husband gets his bar girl friend pregnant his marriage with Saimdang is essentially over. Lee Young Ae played these scenes exquisitely, even asking her incompetent, cheating husband why he couldn't be happy with her. He replies he knows she never felt passionately toward him, but being fond of him and being a good housewife just wasn't enough for him. Saimdang now becomes the major breadwinner for her family by creating a new kind of art paper that is superior to others on the market and she enlists the help of the common people who love her to produce this colorful paper.
Does all this send her into the arms of the love of her life, Lee Gyeom? No, it still doesn't. She comes to the decision that she wants her children to respect her above everything else, and that her children wouldn't be able to hold their heads high in society if she took up with another man. She comes to this decision in the sequence the romantic meeting at Mount Geumgang, one of the artistic highlights of the entire drama.
Saimdang is of such high moral character that she even forgives the jealous Whieum Dang and helps her out when her own husband is jailed and comes back out seeking revenge against Saimdang and Lee Gyeom. The man is so evil he doesn't even care that he is a terrible moral example to his own two sons, whom he ignores. Saimdang actually becomes the best moral example to Whieum Dang's sons, a fact that shocks the boys' mother into finally changing her mind about what is most important in life. In fact there is so much forgiving going on in this drama nearing the end that I think certain scenes could be used to teach forgiveness in religion classes! They are that powerful.
So why was Saimdang's diary and painting found in Tuscany, Italy? Lee Gyeom had escaped there after an order had been issued to execute him for treason he didn't commit; living in Joseon was no longer possible, and several important people help him escape. This all leads up to an ending that is very mystical and poignant and had me in tears several times, but I won't give any spoilers away. Suffice to say two worlds meet in the spirit and physical realms, two fascinating women meet, and a loving couple meet again who should have always been together from the beginning, if the world were not such a sinful, violent place.
As a huge fan of Song Seung Hun I believe this is his finest performance, and Lee Young Ae impressed me so much that I am determined to watch her in every other drama or film she's ever been in. She is sublime, both inside and out. Don't miss out on Saimdang, Light's Diary, whatever else you do in life! It's totally beautiful. If more people were like Saimdang and Lee Gyeom what a better place the world would be. Don't listen to any naysayers about this drama: they lack beauty in their souls. This is just about the most perfect Korean drama I have ever seen in my life. I adored it.
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