Sungkyunkwan Scandal
성균관 스캔들
KBS - 2010 - 20 Episodes, Grade: A-
Historical / Melodrama / Comedy / Romance
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA

Sungkyunkwan is the most prestigious academic school in the nation of Korea, it dates back to the Joseon era hundreds of years ago, and is still in existence today. This well-received Korean drama Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) is based on a popular 2007 novel The Lives of Sungkyunkwan Confucian Scholars written by Jung Eun-gwoi. It starred several up and coming young Korean actors who were at the beginning of their careers when they made this: our Rooftop Prince Park Yoochun, our Healer gal Park Min Young, our Werewolf Boy Song Joong Ki, and our King Sukjong from Jang Ok Jung, Living In Love, Yoo Ah In. Together they were nicknamed by fans "The Joseon F4", a reference to the modern F4 seen in Boys Over Flowers.

The school back in the Joseon era would not accept female students, so our story is about one girl who manages to disguise herself as a boy to take the place of her sick brother who cannot attend. She takes his name and is eventually accepted into the school, since for years she would listen at the door or patio while her brother took his lessons through private tutoring, and she learned to read and write by going to school secretly on her brother's lessons. Frankly, she's even brighter than her own brother, probably because she is healthier, and glows with vibrancy and good spirits. She is brave, and events that would cause someone else to run from conflict only make her more determined to succeed. Actress Park Min Young is really far too pretty to pass for a boy but I guess you're just supposed to use your imagination. They often call her "pretty boy", at the school, or "Dae Mul" (highly regarded one) an acknowledgment that she's the best looking among all the boy students. 

From left to right: Yoo Ah In, Park Yoochun, Park Min Young, Song Joong Ki

The Story:

Kim Yoon Hee (Park Min Young) disguises herself, and takes the name of, her sick bed-ridden brother named Kim Yoon Shik (Han Yun), in order to help make ends meet for her struggling family, including her poorly educated, widowed mother, Ahjumma Jo (Kim Mi Kyung, "Horseface!" who was in Healer with Park Min Young years later).

Yoon Hee alias "Yoon Shik" takes various low paying jobs, including one at a local bookstore, and then she gets offered a chance to earn big money by becoming a substitute test-taker (an illegal act) for the upcoming entrance examination in the prestigious Sungkyunkwan School, highly regarded as the most difficult to enter school in the Joseon nation, where the tenets of Confucius philosophy are discussed and debated freely. The money is irresistible to her, but can she make herself do something illegal?

Left to right: characters Jae Shin, Sun Joon, Young Ha

She gets caught in a swirl of private emotions caused by the handsome and upright, but rather stiff Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoochun), a student at the school, who confronts her on her behavior, and who later acknowledges her intelligence, not knowing she is a girl. He even encourages her to enroll in the university herself; with a degree from this school a person can then sit for the civil service exam and become a prosperous government employee.


She passes the test (of course!) and enrolls and is told to room with two young men: Sun Joon himself and a quiet, mysterious fellow named Moon Jae Shin (Yoo Ah In), nicknamed Geol-oh, who is prone to dramatic disappearances, and no one knows why. She also falls under the scrutiny of brilliant and rather comical upperclassman Gu Yong Ha (Song Joong Ki, our "Werewolf Boy", who provided many of the laughs in the show); his character is nicknamed Yeo-rim. He is like a spy, he's everywhere at once, and he seems to know everyone's business ... even before they know it themselves! He can see almost immediately that "Yoon Shik" is a girl, but doesn't say anything.

If caught "Yoon Shik" could even be executed by law, and none of the men who grow fond of her quickly, and eventually learn her secret, want to see that happen. Even her favorite teacher, the renowned Confucius scholar Jeong Yak Yong (Ahn Nae Sang), who with his keen eyes soon suspects she is female; he tells her she must always act like a man in order to stay at the school. Any weakness and she will be expelled. No allowances will be made for family struggles, economic concerns, or physical weakness.

Later, the quiet Jae Shin also discovers the real sex of "Yoon Shik" when he inadvertently comes upon her bathing and gets a glimpse of her chest, but he remains quiet about the secret as well. It's obvious from that moment on he becomes attracted to Yoon Shik, which becomes problematic when the three of them are sleeping in the same dorm room on the floor together at night, Yoon Shik, Jae Shin, and Sun Joon. The three of them stick together, however, and present a united front as three best friends. Soon the always smiling Yeo-rim joins their clique and students start calling them the "Jalgeum Quartet" and the name sticks. Soon the entire community is calling them that, even the gisaengs (prostitutes) outside the school, including stunning beauty Cho Sun (Kim Min Seo), who has her own secrets about where she disappears at night .... when she's not serving men, that is.

Actress Seo Hyo Rim: WHEN will she get a lead role
instead of supporting? She's so fantastic in everything!

Each of the men have their own family issues that have motivated them to attend the school. Jae Shin wants to succeed in place of a brother who was killed unjustly. Sun Joon wants to be dutiful to his respected father, the Left State Minister in the King's cabinet, played well by Kap Soo Kim (the actor who played the father in A Tale of Two Sisters). It turns out that Sun Joon's obedience doesn't extend to his father's choice of a marriage partner for him, however; he tries but he just doesn't love Ha Hyo Eun (Seo Hyo Rim of That Winter The Wind Blows, Scent of a Woman, Master's Sun, In Soon Is Pretty, Me Too Flower!) no matter how sweet and kind she seems to be. Young Ha became a busybody clown at school because he grew up feeling neglected by his parents and enjoyed grabbing others' attention in funny ways. The student body president is the son of the King's Minister of War (Lee Jae Young) and feels he should be strong and best in everything he does, that he should outshine all the other students because of the stature of his father. 

Cannot affection be non-sexual in nature?

The quartet's popularity stirs the jealousy of student body president Ha In Soo (actor Jun Tae Soo, who is the brother of Ha Ji Won from Secret Garden in real life). He keeps trying to best them all academically and in sports. He is known as the best archer in the school, and when Sun Joon trains Yoon Shik in the sport she actually overtakes In Soo and wins a tournament over him, even in front of King Jeongio (Jo Sung Ha)! A miracle!

That does it, In Soo is really out to destroy them now! He comes up with the idea of maligning two of them with a false accusation of homosexuality, Yoon Shik and Jae Shin, and they have to appear before the student council body to defend themselves against the charge. (All this reminded me a bit of the American film The Children's Hour though here it is the students being charged with indecency, not the teachers). If proven true, they can both be dismissed from the school and have their names stricken from the school's registry permanently. Will anyone come forward in their defense? This is the "scandal" of the title. Simple affection and concern for one another makes two students targets of those who are jealous of their trusted friendship and talents.

Actor Jun Tae Soo does a great job playing
Ha In Soo, the jealous student president

I don't want to reveal all the sub-plots of this compelling story, you should discover them for yourselves. All the acting was fabulous, there was not one sour note. There are funny moments, and serious moments presented in a good mixture. The one main thing I would have changed was to see more classroom academic discussion and debate, and not as much competition based on sports. After all, the school was / is known as a bastion of academic intelligentsia, not a sports school. Perhaps because the script writers knew a lot of young people would tune in to this show they focused more on sports competitions, but I think an opportunity was lost to educate modern young people about the real issues that interested people back in the Joseon era, Confucianism, Language and Literature, Mathematics and Science, and simply learning how to ask the right questions. "Question things until you bleed," says their teacher. I liked that! Do you realize how few people have critical thinking skills today?

Episode Four had a great glimpse of all that brilliance, so I was encouraged it would continue, but it did not. We rarely had any classroom scenes shown in the series after that, mostly the intrigues going on outside the classrooms, politics, sports competitions, royal intrigues, jealousies in the King's court, and catching a thief called the Red Menace. If you haven't watched this show yet, just plunge in and watch Episode Four and you will see what I mean. If there was more philosophy depicted like in Episode Four then this would definitely have been given an A or A+ rating, instead of A-. I still loved it, however, and was only disappointed in that aspect which was lacking. I would certainly watch this show again in future. The chemistry between the cast was dynamite.

For those of you who love romance, there's plenty of that too. It was delightful and delicious to see Yoon Shik and Sun Joon falling in love against their will. In that respect their relationship reminded me very much of the one in Coffee Prince, where the male lover comes to the realization he doesn't care one whit what the sex of the beloved is, he simply loves that person for who they are as a human being. I think my favorite scene between them was when they tried to kiss for the first time and realized those silly wide brimmed Joseon era hats prevented them from doing so. They laughed and it broke the tension between them. Too cute. Next time they tried to kiss they had to take off the hats! (for those of you who don't know, back in the distant Joseon past it was considered a sin to cut one's hair, that you would be maligning and disrespecting your parents if you cut your hair, so the men's hats were designed to pull their long hair back in a bun on top of the head, partly hidden by the hat).

I think one of the main reasons I thought actor Yoo Ah In (Jae Shin) was actually the best looking guy in the cast in this show was that his character was a rebel and he often wore his hair long without the hat on -- like this. Mmmm..... much better. ;)




Sungkyunkwan Scandal Photo Gallery

Yoo Ah In with long hair (above) and hair in the hat (below)
Which looks better to you? I know my answer! ;)

What nice teeth you have, Werewolf boy!