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KBS2 (2021-2022) 16 Episodes
Historical Romance Drama, Grade: A+
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA
(Some Spoilers)

"A scholar's arrow is not meant to hurt anyone."

Yet another addictive marathon watch for me, historical Korean drama Moonshine (2021-2022) starred an appealing actor I have watched grow up on screen for two decades, Seung Ho Yoo (Sad Love Story, Love Letter, The Legend, The King and I, Arang and the Magistrate, Operation Proposal, I Miss You, Remember, Ruler: Master of the Mask, I Am Not A Robot, Memorist, Imaginary Cat, and the classic film The Way Home), and so I wasn't about to miss this new drama of his for the world! Directed by Hwang In Hyuk (Sungkyunkwan Scandal), and penned by a relatively new female scriptwriter named Kim Joo Hee, who did a pretty masterful job covering an unusual topic for a sageuk (historical drama): a period of time in Joseon history when there was a Prohibition against making and selling alcohol, even for family celebrations or for medicinal purposes. Many of the same problems resulted in early Korean society during this ancient Prohibition period as occurred in more recent American history with their Prohibition period [1920–1933]: criminal elements rising up to make and sell liquor illegally, a decay of the family structure, and anger against the ruling class who often didn't obey the same laws they enforced on the citizenry. In this drama Seung Ho plays a Royal Inspector who is in charge of tracking down and arresting bootleggers.

The rest of the fabulous cast included Hyeri (Hyde, Jekyll and I, Record Of Youth) as the dynamic female lead, who almost stole the whole drama with her flamboyant portrayal of a feisty female bootlegger; handsome second male lead who played the Crown Prince in the story, Byeon Woo Seok (Dear My Friends, Scarlet Heart: Ryeo, Live Up To Your Name, Search: WWW, Record Of Youth); sweetie pie Kang Minah (Hotel Del Luna) playing Woo Seok's (eventual) love interest; and as our ultimate main villain (he almost always plays villains!) gritty actor Choi Won Young (Twenty Again, 3 Days, Heirs, Where Stars Land, Alice). Although they portrayed him as a rather straightforward royal minister in the very beginning of the story I just KNEW immediately that he would be revealed eventually as a more evil type of person, just because they cast him in the role! He does evil so well! ;)

The Story:

Aspiring civil servant and scholar Nam Young (Seung Ho Yoo) and his best friend and man-servant Chungae (Kim Ki Bang) move from the countryside to the city of Hanyang (early name for Seoul) seeking a better, more prosperous life for themselves. His parents are deceased, he has an adoptive father named Nam Tae Ho (Lim Chul Hyung) who is very ambitious for him, and he wants a new start in the big city. Nam Young desires to take the royal civil service exam, and when that time comes, miracle of miracles, he comes in first place (after others fall for a liquor trap set by the King!), and he is made a Cabinet member instead of just a regular civil servant. He is appointed to be a Royal Inspector, to uncover the secret bootleg trade in "spirits", during a time of Prohibition in the country. When he arrives in the city, Prohibition has been in effect for ten years, decreed by the current King Lee Kang (Jung Sung Il), and supported by his powerful Chief Royal Secretary Lee Shi Heum (Choi Won Young).

Very early on Nam Young meets a female day laborer and street vendor named Kang Ro Seo (Hyeri), and rescues her from a street ruffian named Gye Sang Mok (Hong Wang Ryo), who is jealously looking to tap into the meager supply of money in her purse, claiming he is in charge of the marketplace and that she must pay a fee in order to sell there. Nam Young chivalrously rescues her, even though he himself could have been hurt by the ruffian. When Sang Mok turns his attention on Nam Young next it's Ro Seo who returns the favor and rescues him. She ultimately gets her money back, pulls a chunk of Sang Mok's hair out, and the ruffian is humiliated in front of crowds of people.


Of course Nam Young has no idea, at first, that this pretty young woman he rescued, rumored to be from a noble but disgraced family, is soon to become a closet illegal bootlegger: he and his male servant actually begin to share a home, separated into two apartments, with Ro Seo and her rather lazy, always in-debt brother named Kang Hae Soo (Bae Yoo Ram), who spends time on poetry reading while his sister works hard to support him! (Oooh, did I want to yell at this loser guy, "Get a job!").

Ro Seo is a strong maiden: she cuts down trees herself for firewood, and will even take on unpleasant side jobs just for money to pay off her brother's debts, like finding lost jewelry for a noblewoman, even if that jewelry has been lost in a pile of cow manure which she has to dig through to retrieve! A very feisty woman, this Ro Seo, and one who has hidden talents, like producing her late father's delicious recipe for custom soju, which sends everyone who tastes it into a frenzy of pleasure.

In time Ro Seo and Nam Young start to feel attracted to one another, although they often have heated arguments between themselves on various topics. Ro Seo tells him point blank that she doesn't think liquor should be illegal, that making it illegal creates too many "criminals" out of ordinary people, who simply want to relax after a long day at work and enjoy a drink. She says it's not right that the royal class often visit the brothels in the city at night, where liquor is served freely, and nobody does a darn thing about stopping it there! And this is exactly what evil Chief Royal Secretary Lee Shi Heum is counting on: so much social unrest that he can eventually have his perceived enemies disposed of. It's obvious it was his idea to promote Prohibition in the first place, not the King's idea. He had told the King at the time that they would be able to expand the royal police force under Prohibition, and that the production of rice as food would expand greatly since it wouldn't be used to make rice wine! Then this evil man eventually tries to assassinate the King by having him drink wine in specially made poisonous cups! (Methinks HE wants to be King!)

Cunning Lee Shi Heum Causes New Mischief
In The Kingdom Every Day!

Meanwhile, Ro Seo's lady servant and close friend Cheon Geum (Seo Ye Hwa, cute performance) starts to fall in love with Nam Young's servant and close friend Chungae. They make an adorable homely couple! Will she inadvertently let the cat out of the bag to him about Ro Seo's secret, illegal distribution of fine liquor? Or will Chungae figure it out by himself and inform his master Nam Young? Or could another person altogether inform Nam Young about the secret life of the woman he is living with in the same house, a lady whom he is quickly falling in love with? Will Nam Young feel compelled to arrest Ro Seo if and when he discovers the truth of her secret trade? If one is arrested for making or drinking liquor under Prohibition they are commanded to be exiled to an island to die. Ro Seo is so desperate for money she takes the chance, over and over again. 

Prince Lee Pyo Certainly Has An Eye
For The Ladies ... and Good Wine!

During a visit to a secret late night distillery Ro Seo meets the Crown Prince Lee Pyo who likes to escape the Palace when others are sleeping so he can have a taste of the hard stuff himself. Ro Seo doesn't know this handsome young man is the Prince, instead she nicknames him "Jade Lad". Lee Pyo is taken with the pretty young maiden who braves visiting this distillery alone at night. However, his royal parents want him to become engaged to a royal lady in good standing, certainly not to a bootlegger lady from a disgraced noble family! As Ro Seo's friendship with "Jade Lad" deepens so too does Nam Young's jealousy at his competition.


Ro Seo, through getting the better of her bootlegger competition in Hanyang, especially her prime challenger Merchant Sim Heon (Moon Yoo Kang), a very violent man, becomes very rich and is able to pay off her brother's debts at last. She also makes friends out of former enemies ruffian Sang Mok and an older lady bandit named Dae Mo (Jung Young Joo) and her followers and family. Ro Seo is also able to buy the freedom of her long time lady servant Cheon Geum, but even after being set free the devoted Cheon Geum stays by Ro Seo's side.

Servants Are Always Good For Comic Relief!

The more successful Ro Seo becomes the more she makes an enemy out of the chief villain in the Kingdom, the two-faced minister Lee Shi Heum. Eventually Ro Seo and Nam Young have to come to terms with who was behind the murder of her own father Kang Ho Yeon (Lee Sung Wook) when she was a child. Nam Young as a child might have inadvertently caused that tragedy to happen. Even though he witnessed the murder he doesn't remember the murderer's face. Will Ro Seo be able to forgive him? By now their attraction is too strong to be denied, passionate kisses are exchanged, and Crown Prince Lee Pyo, sensing defeat in the romance department, sets his sites on a new female love interest, the coy-faced noble lady Han Yae Jin (Kang Minah).

The kingdom is in turmoil and Ro Seo and Nam Young know they need to finally find out for certain who is causing it all to fall apart in their beloved country. Can they find help in the most unlikely places in order to expose the prime villain? Amazingly enough, some help even comes from the Queen of Joseon, Queen Yeon (Beon Seo Yun, what a lovely, dignified performance!). She has never considered Prohibition a wise law. 

Moonshine certainly was spell-binding throughout, with lots of twists and turns in the plot worthy of a classic novel, and it gave the audience great cliffhangers at the end of each episode. This would be a very good first choice for newbies to sageuk K-dramas to sample their delights. The cinematography was stunning, the OST very pleasant (especially some pieces played with vintage string instruments), and every cast member gave it their all. I will definitely be re-watching this superb drama again in future. You can view it on Viki's streaming website or Kocowa's streaming website.