Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung
신입사관 구해령
MBC (2019) 20 Episodes
Historical, Romance
Grade: A+
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA
Some Spoilers

My Favorite OST Piece:
My Dear, by Park Jong Mi

An outstanding historical Korean drama (sageuk), Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung (2019), with wonderful writing, acting, and solid production values, floored me for one main reason: it was the first time in over a decade I finally, completely warmed to a Korean actress whom I had only had lukewarm feelings for before, Shin Se Kyung (When A Man Loves, Sensory Couple, Friends, etc.). I guess it took the right part for her which made her sympathetic and admirable to me for the very first time. In many ways this process was similar to the long period of time it took for me to warm to actress Soo Ae; after years of watching her in various shows and films it finally took one role of hers, as the mother in the big budget film The Flu, for me to feel real affection for her for the first time.

I had tended to avoid Shin Se Kyung's dramas because I considered her such an acquired taste - and for whatever reasons I had never acquired it before! This time I decided to try it because I was bored, escaping from Hurricane Dorian at my son's house, but then found, to my utter amazement, that I was hooked, and I watched the first fourteen episodes pretty much non-stop, and even my sons sat and watched some of it with me because it was so compelling and entertaining. Then when it ended a few weeks later I drove back to my son's house to finish up the last episodes. That's dedication and commitment: a long drive to watch a sageuk! This sageuk and The Crowned Clown are, in my opinion, the best two historical dramas for 2019, and both rate a rare A+ from me for their true excellence. I only give A+ grades to those dramas which I feel will stand the test of time, and be watched again, even ten or twenty years down the road, finding new fans. I think Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung will be that kind of a timeless drama too. I would re-watch it over again in a heartbeat, even buy it on DVD when available.

The Story: Taking place in the Joseon dynasty, the action surrounds the fascinating life of a noble lady named Goo Hae Ryung (Shin Se Kyung) who is intelligent and brave, flaunting stubborn Confucian conventions when she feels it is right to do so, even in a time period when women had few, if any, legal rights. Hae Ryung at twenty-six years old is still not married, nor is she convinced her happiness depends on her being married. Instead, she focuses her time on studying history, as well as defending poor people when they are in trouble.

Rookie Historian Hae Ryung

When her adoptive brother and guardian Goo Jae Kyung (Gong Jung Hwan) seems determined to betroth her to a complete stranger she balks, and at a daring moment, right before the engagement ceremony, she runs to her betrothed in private and begs him to call off the wedding, convincing him that both would be miserable married and are better off staying single. Her words convince the young man, who appears before the guardian and calls off the wedding. Hae Ryung is convinced she's avoided a fate worse than death, early feminist that she is!

Prince Dowon

During this time, handsome, twenty year old Prince Yi Rim Dowon (Cha Eun Woo) has been living his life alone in an off the beaten trail estate called the Nokseodang, away from all the politics of the royal court, and with only his Eunuch Heo Sambo (Sung Ji Ru) and two silly female servants for company. Despite being ostracized by the royal family, for reasons he is unclear about at first, Prince Dowon finds joy through anonymously writing (under a pen name "Maehwa") a salacious romantic novel, which becomes wildly popular among both the poor people and the aristocracy, especially among the women, many of whom are learning to read Hangul for the first time and certainly not encouraged to read a flamboyant, illicit love story!

Hae Ryung, who is not fond of the romance genre at all, goes on her own search to track down the real writer of this lustful novel. It doesn't take long for her search to uncover the prime suspect. Hae Ryung's and Prince Dowon's first meeting sparks a not so subtle war between the two of them. As Yi Rim has the nerve to criticize Hae Ryung for her lack of taste in literature, Hae Ryung chides the Prince (whom she doesn't know at first is a prince) for his informal speech toward her, and his lack of understanding of women in his illicit novel. Despite their fighting on the merits of different kinds of literature it's obvious that there are romantic sparks beginning between them. (This is a standard cliche in K-drama writing: the two main characters don't warm to each other at first and then eventually fall in love - if I've seen it once I've seen it four hundred times!).

Dowager Empress and Crown Prince Lee Jin

While this couple fall in love, there are many not-so-hidden troubles brewing at court, especially among Dowon's family members who truly seem to love him, including his grandmother the Queen Dowager Im (Kim Yeo Jin, Angel Eyes) and his older brother Crown Prince Lee Jin (Park Ki Woong), while his father, King Lee Tae (Kim Min Sang) never even spares a smile for him on the rare occasions he sees him. Some corrupt court ministers, like Min Ik Pyeong (Choi Duk Moon) know the real reason why Dowon is ostracized from the court: he is not the King's real son, but his late brother's son, King Lee Kyeom (Yoon Jong Hoon), who was murdered because he favored French Catholic missionaries to enter Joseon, in the hope to make it a more enlightened land.

Kindly Historian Min

During this time, certain ministers in the royal court who are forward thinkers, demand female historians be admitted to the once male-dominated field of historical reporting; a test is given to some aristocratic ladies and Hae Ryung excitedly enters, and passes the test, becoming an official historian apprentice, along with three fellow rookies (Park Ji Hyun as Song Sa Hee, Lee Ye Rim as Oh Eun Im, and Jang Yoo Bin as Heo Ah Ran). Of course most of the male historians give them a hard time, as well as some ministers in the royal court who were against their hiring, but as time goes on the four new female historians prove their mettle and dedication to their job. They fight gender stereotypes quite brilliantly, when all is said and done, and eventually the male historians actually begin to defend them when they are challenged unjustly. (Some funny moments are there as well, like the first time the female historians have to write down what a corpse looks like, pictured below, LOL). My favorite of the male historians in the court was most definitely the upright and moral Min Woo Won (Lee Ji Hoon, pictured above) who was wise, kind, and brave, despite having experienced tragedies in his life like the death of his beloved wife. For awhile I was hoping Hae Ryung would fall for him, but after the Prince enters her heart, that pretty much becomes impossible.

As for our main romantic couple, what lies ahead for historian Hae Ryung and Prince Dowon Yi Rim is a risky adventure of finding true love, and for fighting for morality in a court where it isn't often found. Together, and with the help of Hae Ryung's fellow historians and the revolutionaries lurking in and outside of the palace, who yearn for Joseon to give a better life to its people, Hae Ryung and Prince Dowon must struggle in a society steeped in censorship of the arts and literature, of intellectual knowledge and various religious creeds like Christianity, and must solve the mystery behind the land's oppression, the answer of which could be linked to their own pasts and their own dead parents and their deceased cohorts who had tried to build a new land of peace in Joseon.

There are humor, sweetness, and melancholy bits here and there to hold your interest in this story. For instance, the persecution of Catholics is explored quite heavily, and one of the historians loses his job when it's discovered he believes in this "Western God", Jesus. His devotion causes the head historian played so well by Lee Ji Hoon to go seeking out more information on this God, and he quietly obtains an illegal Gospel of Mark to read in Hangul. I was mightily impressed by this segment, even more so because they hired a French actor fluent in Korean to play the missionary, named Fabien Yoon, who must be of both French and Korean heritage. He was quite good, it reminded me of the French actor who was also fluent in Korean who played second male lead in Tamra, The Island, Pierre Deporte. The casting department must have worked extra hard to find this fellow!

There are several times when I cried during this production; for instance there is a scene where a smallpox epidemic is affecting parts of Joseon and Shin Se Kyung's character the rookie historian bravely goes into the countryside to check on how bad it is. She runs into a mother and her little daughter living in a shack in the country, eking out a living from nature without a man around, since he had died from the disease. The mother begs the historian to take her daughter with her so she doesn't catch the disease. Rookie historian Hae Ryung gently refuses, afraid that if the child is harboring the disease she could infect others in the parts of the country which haven't been touched by the epidemic. Weeks later she goes to check on them again and the little girl has died of the disease. The mother is wailing in grief, still with smallpox all over her face. Shin Se Kyung's character steps outside the shack and for five minutes the camera closes in and lingers on her grief-stricken face as she quietly weeps. Of course I cried. It was the very first time this actress made me cry. If she had had roles like this one in the past I probably would have liked her a lot more before now!

The only criticism I can make of this show applies only to the last episode 20. I wanted to see the guilty parties receive full justice for their murdering royalty and peasants when it suited their own personal power ambitions. However, we get a "three years later" jump (another common stereotype in K-dramas) and their judgment is kept from us, not even glossed over. The baddies are simply ... gone. I think the ending would have been much better if we had seen them get their comeuppance.

Don't miss Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung. You'll learn a lot about old Joseon history and what life was like for the peasants and royalty classes in centuries gone by. Enjoy!


I'm going to miss Historian Min most of all! :)