Today saw the premiere of a new Monday-Tuesday drama, SBS’s much-anticipated Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, which is another entry into the ranks of the 100 percent pre-produced dramas. (That’s also a mouthful of a title, so we can call it simply Moon Lovers from here on out.)
With the pre-produced dramas performing erratically (Descended From the Sun was a huge hit, but Uncontrollably Fond has cooled excitement for the format), there’s a lot of attention on Moon Lovers and how well it performs. Plus, of course, there is the ginormous cast and the name director; PD Kim Kyu-tae’s previous dramas include It’s Okay, It’s Love; That Winter, the Wind Blows; and IRIS. (The writer is a little less experienced, having worked on 2004’s Save the Last Dance and 2009’s Cinderella Man.)
Moon Lovers also decided, for some godforsaken reason, to air three episodes this week: Monday saw the broadcasts of both Episodes 1 and 2, with Episode 3 to air tomorrow. That makes our lives extra difficult (I am only one person!) but we’ll do our best to be caught up as soon as we can.
It’s too early to allow ratings to be a deciding force in anything yet, but you can’t deny that they mean something: I was actually quite surprised to see that Moon Lovers premiered in last place, even if its number (7.4%) wasn’t terrible and has room to grow. It was more that the adorable youth sageuk Moonlight Drawn By Clouds, which had a modest premiere week last week, doubled its ratings today to claim top spot with 16%. Monster held steady in second place with 10%. Moon Lovers’ second episode had no drama competition and ticked up to 9.3%.
This drama is set in the year 941, the 24th year in the reign of Goryeo’s first king, Taejo Wang Geon. Taejo had 29 consorts, and many many children, which explains why there are so many princes in the mix.
Our hero is Wang So, posthumously known as King Gwangjong, fourth ruler of Goryeo; his reign stretched from 949 to 975. There are eight princes in our cast; one is the Crown Prince (No. 1), while the others are often referred to by their number in the lineup (e.g., “the tenth” or “number fourteen” and so on).
Note: The court terminology used in Goryeo times was reflective of an empire (as opposed to a kingdom, which Joseon terminology reflects). But while the people of the times used terms like emperor and imperial highness, we often refer to them as kings now, so for consistency’s sake I’ve stuck to mostly using terms like kings and princes.
EPISODE 1 RECAP”
Present day Korea. A young woman huddles forlornly on a pier that overlooks a mountain spring, sporting a busted lip and wounded heart. We haven’t learned her name yet but it’s GO HA-JIN (IU), and she swigs from a soju bottle before noticing that the homeless man sitting nearby (Kim Sung-kyun) is eyeing the bottle thirstily.
Ha-jin offers the bottle, which the hobo eagerly takes. She asks glumly, “Have you ever wanted to sleep for a hundred or thousand years?” She describes trying to tell herself things will get better, only to have one thing or another crop up again: “I’d rather just go to sleep forever and never wake up.”
Apparently, some bastard left Ha-jin with a mountain of debt, and a girl deceived her and ran away with him. She regrets trusting them now, and says that she believed that if she didn’t change, the people she loved and trusted wouldn’t change.
She starts sobbing, and the hobo mutters that you can’t change life just by willing it, “Though if you died and came back…” He settles down to sleep.
As Ha-jin collects herself, she notices a child reaching out over the water, and a moment later he falls in. Ha-jin’s first impulse to jump in and save him, but she tells herself that it’s not her place, and that there are plenty of others who are already helping.
But a glance around proves that nobody’s even noticed, and she starts running for the water, bemoaning, “Why me again?!”
At the sound of Ha-jin diving in, the child’s parents belatedly notice what’s going on. The hobo wakes up from his nap and squints up at the sky—just as an eclipse starts to occur.
Ha-jin gets to the child safely, and the child’s father rows out in a boat to collect them. Ha-jin hands over the boy first, but as she reaches up to take the father’s hand, the sky darkens overhead and her eyes widen in shock… and then, she’s dragged underwater by some unknown force.
The last thing she sees as she looks up toward the water’s surface is the thinning of the crescent as the moon covers the sun.
Her vision blurs, and a sequence of images flash before her eyes: a couple kissing, Ha-jin slapping the woman, getting slapped in return, a man splitting them up and siding with the other woman. Then, Ha-jin being chased by an angry mob.
Ha-jin continues to sink as we reach total eclipse of the sun…
…and as the eclipse then begins to clear, on the other side we emerge with a rider on horseback. He carries a sword, and is headed toward the capital city of the Goryeo nation, with a team of riders in tow.
The riders gallop into the heart of the city, causing a ruckus and sending alarmed bystanders darting out of their path. The leader’s face is partially masked, and he is identified as WANG SO (Lee Jun-ki), the fourth imperial prince of Goryeo (he would later become the fourth king). This puts us in the mid-tenth century.
At the palace, we meet more imperial princes. In order of appearance: Tenth prince EUN (Baekhyun) is mischievous and joking, and seems to always be paired with fourteenth prince JUNG (Ji-Soo).
Third prince YO (Hong Jong-hyun) has a devious look to him, in contrast to smiling thirteenth prince BAEK-AH (Nam Joo-hyuk). His actual name is Wook, but he must go by Baek-ah because an older sibling also goes by Wook: the calm, thoughtful-looking eighth prince (Kang Haneul).
Then there’s ninth prince WON (Yoon Sun-woo), and while there are admittedly a ton of princes thrown at us at once, right away there are glimpses of their personalities. The younger ones are boyish and playful, the mean-looking Yo is quick to anger (and wears eyeliner, telltale evil hint), and Wook seems like the peacemaker.
Wook notes that fourth prince So is absent, and that if he’s much later he’ll miss their ritual ceremony, meant to cleanse the palace of evil spirits. This is So’s first ritual with his fellow princes, and the others wonder if the king had a special reason for summoning him.
We learn a few things in the princes’ exchange: So and Wook are the same age; there are rumors of So killing people viciously, in a wolf-like manner; and So, fourteenth prince Jung, and eyelinered Yo all share a mother. Also, So is only here for a short time before returning with his entourage to the northwest city of Shinju.
Annoyed, Yo snaps at tenth prince Eun’s joking and warns them all to watch what they say to the king. Unflaggingly chipper, Eun just changes the subject and dives into the next pool, just outside.
And as he immerses himself, just behind him someone else pops up—our modern-day heroine Ha-jin, bursting out of the water, fully dressed in traditional Goryeo clothing. She looks around at the surroundings—possibly the same place she’d been a thousand years later—and gasps in relief that she made it out alive.
Then she meets eyes with Eun, and they simultaneously scream. Eun calls for his fellow princes just as a slave girl catches Ha-jin’s attention from the nearby shrubbery, urging her to get out right away. While the princes watch in shock, their intruder climbs out of the pool and over the barrier, disappearing from sight. Curiously, Wook whispers a name: “Hae… Su?”
The slave girl, CHAE-RYUNG (Jin Ki-joo), ushers Ha-jin away, scolding her all the way. Belatedly, she thinks to ask Ha-jin if she’s feeling okay now. Ha-jin can’t make heads or tails of anything, and wonders why she’s being called Lady and why she’s here.
Then she registers the sight in front of her: people wearing period clothing, bathing at the outdoor pools. Ha-jin supposes she died after all, and that she’s in the hereafter. And then faints.
Fourth prince So finally arrives at the palace, and his lead attendant reminds him to uphold his adopted family name with the king, and then return to Shinju.
So sneers at the mention of being an adopted son, replying sarcastically that he thought he was a hostage all this while. His face hardens as he rides inside the palace gates alone, dismounts, then grabs for his sword. He takes a swing, and—crap, did he just kill his horse?
That he did, and everybody in the courtyard freezes in horror. A soldier stutters that he isn’t allowed to carry a sword in, and So just hands it over. The man adds that he’ll prepare a horse for So’s departure, and So replies, “I won’t be going back.”
Our homeless man from the 21st century is also in this time period, and he takes in the exchange closely from within the palace walls. So stalks off alone, and thinks to himself that he won’t be taken hostage again to return to Shinju.
When Ha-jin comes to, she’s called Hae Su by an older woman called Lady Hae. In confusion, she identifies herself as Go Ha-jin, then laughs, “Oh right, I died.”
Slave girl Chae-ryung clarifies that she had a near miss, and Ha-jin blurts, “I didn’t die?” She darts outside and takes in the unfamiliar sights, head pounding and alarm growing. “Where am I?” she wonders.
Ha-jin asks Lady Hae for clarification, who identifies herself as Su’s cousin. Ha-jin realizes, “Have I come into someone else’s body?”
Lady Hae tells her to think hard, explaining that they’re at the residence of the eighth prince, Wang Wook, in Songak. Finally, that name connects dots for Ha-jin: Songak was the old capital city, and she asks, “Is this Goryeo?” Lady Hae says the current king is the man who established the nation, and that, at least, is a fact Ha-jin recognizes: She’s in the time of Taejo Wang Geon.
That very Taejo currently presides at court, with the six princes (So is absent) in attendance. A dead bird is presented as evidence of tampering with the crown prince’s breakfast, having dropped dead with one bite. Taejo orders the culprit found, but an official speaks up—Wang Shik-ryeom, the king’s cousin—to argue that the crown prince, aka first prince WANG MU, isn’t fit for the position. There are even rumors that he suffers an incurable disease.
Wang Shik-ryeom entreats Taejo to dethrone Mu (Kim San-ho) in favor of another prince, just as Mu himself arrives outside the door, hearing everything. Inside the throne room, Taejo asks Mu’s half-brothers if they agree, and who would like to replace him. At that, the princes look around—some shiftily, some in surprise.
Level-headed Wook is first to react, and kneels before the king to beg him to retract those words, stating that there is none among them who wishes to replace the crown prince. Thirteenth prince Baek-ah quickly follows suit, and then third prince Yo joins them. Catching on, the younger princes kneel too as they all plead in one voice for the king to reconsider.
The king calls forth his astronomer and fortune-reader, CHOI JI-MONG (Kim Sung-kyun again), who launches into an explanation of the stars and their meaning, and how they indicate that the crown prince is not unfit. Taejo reaffirms this, and declares that Crown Prince Mu will take the leading position in the upcoming rites. Shifty-looking third prince Yo seems displeased at this—although to be fair, he kind of seems displeased at everything.
Next we meet Taejo’s third queen and the mother to Yo, So, and Jung, Queen Sinmyeongsunseong (Park Ji-young). She meets with Wang Shik-ryeom and seems surprised that Crown Prince Mu escaped unscathed; Mu was born to the second queen, so I presume that Queen Sinmyeongsunseong was angling for her own sons to advance.
She grows irritated when her court lady informs her of a visitor and refuses to see him—even though it’s her own son, So, standing outside waiting to see her. He’s turned away.
That night, Ha-jin shuts herself in her room and huddles in fear, still convinced she’d died in the water that day, and that her host body, Hae Su, must have also have died in the water. “Then am I Go Ha-jin, or Hae Su?” she wonders.
She decides to consider this a stroke of fortune and a new chance at life, which means she ought to stick it out as Su. And yet, she’s aware of how obvious it is that she isn’t Su, and how very little she knows about Goryeo. She’s not even sure which king comes after Taejo, and guesses incorrectly.
Eighth prince Wook arrives home and hears from his wife, Lady Hae, that Su was in the water for two hours before resurfacing, and had been “like dead.” Slave girl Chae-ryung adds that Su lost her memory, while Lady Hae worries that Su may harm herself.
A look of concern comes over Wook’s face, and moments later, Su’s door comes crashing in. Wook tells her not to fear: “I brought you here, so I will help you through to the end.”
Wook holds out a hand and asks her to trust him, and she looks at the hand, thinking that she can’t go back or change her appearance. But she’s hit with a wave of new determination to live, and takes his hand.
So thinks back to his childhood, when he’d been a young boy and his parents—Taejo and Queen Sinmyeongsunseong—had just lost their firstborn. The queen is alarmed that Taejo intends to take another wife, asking if he even feels sadness. But he’s motivated by military and political concerns, seeking to fortify the border with this marriage.
The queen grabs So and orders Taejo to make the choice between his marriage and his son, holding a dagger to the child’s throat. The king warns that she won’t be able to stop his marriage this way, but it doesn’t stop her—she raises her hand to strike.
Before she can do damage, Taejo grabs her arm—but then she wrenches her arm out of his grasp, and the blade slashes So’s young face, spraying blood. Which explains the mask he wears now.
In the present (Goryeo) timeline, Astronomer Choi and Taejo observe So from a distance, and the astronomer suggests positioning So on Crown Prince Mu’s side. But the king says they don’t know whether So will become the Mu’s shield, or the knife that seeks his life.
At Wook’s residence, Su (the show calls her Hae Su, so we will too) is shown around the grounds by Chae-ryung, who fills her in on her life. The “amnesia” is a handy excuse for her to learn things about herself, and she pretends that some of this is coming back to her. Her maid can tell something’s off, though, and asks if Su is faking her condition—maybe she had a secret relationship with a young man, or incurred a debt.
That makes Su pause and ask if Hae Su was two-faced, acting quiet on the surface while sneaking around at night. But Su’s tendency to talk about herself in the third person convinces Chae-ryung that she really is hurt.
Su thinks to herself that she can’t very well explain that somebody else’s spirit is in this body, and heaves a sigh. On the upside, she realizes that her face feels fresher than she’s used to it feeling, and marvels at how well preserved these Goryeo ladies were.
With the rites approaching, the princes gather in Astronomer Choi’s tower, noting at all the contraptions he’s built and invented (such as telescopes and flying devices). Suspicious Yo asks if that talk about Crown Prince Mu’s star was even real, and ninth prince Won points out that it’s well-known that Astronomer Choi is loyal to Mu.
To prove that he wasn’t lying, thirteenth prince Baek-ah challenges the astronomer to read his fortune; if he’s accurate, he’ll accept his reading for Mu. But the princes are unimpressed with the all-too-obvious reading that Baek-ah is lucky with the ladies—everyone knows that.
The half-brothers all laugh and joke with each other, until one wonders why fourth prince So is still yet to be seen. They’ve also heard the story of how So killed his horse and wonder at the reason. Yo says tersely that he wouldn’t welcome someone like that even if he did show, while Wook says gently that he’s still a brother, advising the rest not to be too harsh.
That’s when So arrives, all glowery and dark. The only one to greet him is Wook, while everyone else holds their breath until So stalks off.
Back at Wook’s residence, Su observes Wook’s doting attention to his wife and asks about him. Chae-ryung replies proudly that he’s the best man in all of Goryeo, often thought of as the one who should have been the first prince. Su wonders with her limited history knowledge whether this was the prince who became King Gwangjong. (He isn’t; that’s So.)
From a distance, Su watches the couple and recalls how thoughtful Wook was with her earlier; she’d also felt then that he was trustworthy.
Enter a sharp-eyed woman, who snaps at Su for being rude for staring. Chae-ryung immediately bows and prods Su to follow, because this is Princess YEONHWA (Kang Han-na). The princess says sweetly that it’s too bad that Su has forgotten her manners along with her memory, and insinuates that Su could stand to relearn a lot of things.
Su sizes up the princess, internally grumbling at her bitchiness, then smiles widely and advises, “If you dislike me, just say so.” The princess is speechless with shock, while Su points out that the princess is the type to bide her time waiting for a moment to swoop in with criticism. Su says that doesn’t work with her, and her carefree attitude offends the princess, who calls her a bitch and raises her voice.
Su raises her voice right back, just as Wook interrupts, his presence immediately quieting the argument. Wook takes Su aside, noting that she must have lost her memory of proper greetings. Su immediately bows and gives a modern hello, fumbling to respond appropriately.
Wook supposes that her amnesia means she doesn’t remember him either, and asks if she peeped on the princes’ bath before or after her memory went. She doesn’t remember.
He asks what she wants to do with herself now, intending to facilitate those wishes; he’d planned to look after her from the outset, when she first accompanied his wife here. But Su wonders why he’d go to such trouble, even if she is related to his wife. He’s taken aback when she says she’ll take care of herself, and some of her word choices are even more puzzling, since she’s thrown in modernisms without thinking. Su nervously clarifies that she means she’ll stick it out and livehere.
As Wook makes his way around the bookshelves in the library, Su attempts to follow him while assuring him of her many talents and promising that she’ll find a way to make herself useful. She nearly runs into him, tensing in surprise as he stares down at her.
Wook notes, “You seem like someone else.” There’s definite tension here, although I’m not sure if it’s on both sides, or just Su’s at the moment. She’s flustered by the closeness, while he’s as calm as ever, telling her that it doesn’t matter. He won’t ask further about her memory, either: “But you must not worry my wife any further.”
Su agrees, then runs off when dismissed.
So browses through Astronomer Choi’s library, smirking to find erotic texts. Astronomer Choi sneaks up on him and offers to lend him the books, but So cuts to the chase: Why was he called here?
Astronomer Choi informs him that the court lady who prepared Crown Prince Mu’s (poisoned) breakfast was found hanged—and a death disguised as a suicide suggests that the culprit is a member of the royal house. Quite possibly even a prince.
“Find the culprit,” the astronomer tells him.
So scoffs, “What am I, a dog? People keep calling me dog-wolf, dog-wolf. You must think I actually became one.”
But Astronomer Choi supposes that So’s horse-killing display was because he no longer wants to live as a hostage. Fulfilling this task will give him the opportunity to be free.
So still isn’t convinced, but does stop short when he’s told it was Mu who wants this investigated. That’s when Mu appears, and Choi explains that they’ve received word of a planned assassination attempt on Mu’s life during the upcoming ritual.
Mu promises that if So catches the culprit, he’ll give him anything he asks for. So names his price: He wants to live in the capital city.
The ladies of Wook’s household work on fashioning lanterns shaped like flowers, and Su is utterly hopeless at it. Princess Yeonhwa points it out, of course, and dismisses Su from the task. Su insists on helping, and the princess sets her to work making glue—a labor-intensive, dirty outdoor job.
She pauses from stirring glue to stretch, and the unusual sight has Wook gaping at her ungainly poses. When she leaps back to tend to the glue and sees Wook watching her, Su explains that the princess put her to the task. He dryly uses Su’s own words to tease her, saying that she sure is demonstrating her many talents.
The princes prepare for the rites with a type of sword dance, and tenth prince Eun is by far the worst at it, crankily giving up in the middle of practice. As the princes pause for a break, ninth prince Won asks if it’s true that the king intends to abdicate his throne to Crown Prince Mu following the ceremony. That brings everybody up short, and Astronomer Choi declares that he knows nothing of it.
After Astronomer Choi leaves, Wook frowns at his brother, telling Won he was foolish for saying that, and that they can’t have the king hearing it. Third prince Yo counters that they’re all curious, and that it’s not Won’s fault for asking. Furthermore, Choi didn’t exactly deny it outright.
Exhausted from the glue-making, Su rests outside, and happens to see Astronomer Choi walking by. She instantly recognizes him as the hobo on the pier and takes off after him, chasing him through the city before eventually losing sight of him.
Just then, So comes riding furiously through the street, once again sending villagers diving for cover. Su doesn’t see him until very late, freezing to see him thundering towards her.
A passing peddler’s pack knocks her backward, and she loses her balance and starts to flail at the edge of the ravine, about to fall backward into the ditch below…
And at the last minute, So reaches down and grabs her about the waist, pulling her up into the saddle with him.
Well, it felt like a jam-packed episode while it was going but once it was over, I could see why they wanted to air two episodes off the bat, because so much information was crammed into the premiere that there was actually not that much plot covered. And while I enjoyed the princes and all their distinct personalities, I found myself itching for more Lee Jun-ki, who remains a cipher as of this point in the story.
There were a lot of really promising things in this episode, and with high production values and gorgeous cinematography, you could really see where the pre-produced format shines; it allows this show (and director) to achieve that cohesive feeling that gives it a movie-like feel. Everything looks amazing, and I was constantly struck with how pretty the scenes were, how interesting and varied the shots.
Admittedly, after I had a chance to step back and think about what happened in the episode, I was a little less wowed, because so far I don’t think we’ve really gone anywhere. Obviously, the heroine has traveled over a thousand years, but I’m still waiting for the results of that action. For one, we’ve had so many time-traveling dramas by now that the heroine hasn’t encountered anything new or unusual, which contributes to the static feeling of the episode. Also, I find myself both liking and disliking the choice to have her jump into an existing person’s body, because that eliminates much of the identity crises that a time-travel incident would normally incur; she’s got a ready-made identity, so she’s relatively safe, and there’s no immediate sense of peril—and therefore, no immediate stakes.
But that’s not a permanent criticism; if the story makes good use of that, I’m fully willing to embrace it when we get there. I did at least find Ha-jin/Hae Su likable (although, who names their drama’s lead couple So and Su? That’s the only reason I’m not spelling her name Soo, which would be even more confusing). I wanted more confusion and flailing from her, because she accepted her outrageous predicament pretty easily, but she’s endearing and charming with an undercurrent of sadness, and I can respond to that.
Another mark in the plus column is the introduction of all of the princes; given the sheer number of them, I’d wondered whether it would be a mistake to dump them all in our laps at the same time, because how are we to keep them all straight? But I found them easy to keep track of, even if their names haven’t stuck yet—I suspect I’ll be thinking of them as their actor names for weeeeeks. (In fact, I wonder if that’s one upside to casting name actors for most of the roles, because there are fewer new faces to learn and keep track of.) So that turned out to be much less of a concern than it had been.
I also really took to the Su and Wook connection, even if it felt like the introduction skewed too far in favor of the second lead while leaving the main pairing in the dark. They have a curious chemistry, and normally I’d be jumping up and down to see them delve into that fully, except that minor complication where he’s married. I know it’s a period drama and that it’s inevitable that some, if not all, of these princes were already married, but this is just the risk you run when you set a modern drama in the past, okay? You have to deal with us modern viewers and all our annoyingly modern standards, so I’m a bit mentally blocked with their romance—at least for now. I’m willing to see where they take it. Although, that takes a backseat to the main couple, whom I’m impatient to see more of. Onward to Episode 2!