Drama Premiere: The Time Travel Begins on ‘Moon Lovers – Scarlet Heart: Ryeo’

It’s finally here. The much-anticipated SBS sageuk remake of highly-popular Chinese novel-turned-series Bu Bu Jing Xin premiered this week, airing two back-to-back episodes on its first night.  Moon Lovers – Scarlet Heart: Ryeo is considered to be a production Goliath – armed with a big budget, a 100% pre-produced format, and many of today’s hottest names in K-entertainment. This formula so far has no guaranteed results, as demonstrated by the opposite reception on its predecessors Descendants of the Sun and Uncontrollably Fond.

Loosely inspired by Korea’s own history, Scarlet Heart Ryeo follows the story of a modern-day woman named Go Ha-jin who gets transported back to the Goryeo Dynasty, and finds herself in the body of a girl named Hae Soo. She gets entangled with the many princes of the empire, who are at the onset of a power struggle. I somehow think of it as Game of Thrones-slash-shoujo manga, with its multi-cast fight-over-the-throne aspect and reverse harem with seven flower princes. That alone pretty much sounds like a dream come true to me.

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Since this show is just so hyped, let’s quickly talk about ratings first. Last week when I blogged about Moonlight Drawn by Clouds, I was almost sure I was rooting for the underdog, half-expecting that it will be easily defeated by Scarlet Heart Ryeo once it airs. But in a very interesting twist, Scarlet Heart Ryeo placed last in its timeslot, with Moonlight in a significant lead after doubling its ratings from last week. The disappointing numbers even led SBS to decide on releasing a director’s cut of the first week’s episodes 1-3, to help viewers understand the drama and consequently boost ratings moving forward. Why the lukewarm response for Scarlet Heart?

Mon-Tue Ratings

I personally did not warm up to the drama that quickly. And even after three episodes I still can’t say I’m fully invested on the show. This is mainly due to the pilot episode that I felt was crammed with many character introductions and jumpy transitions, which in the end did not make me fully appreciate the new world that our heroine got sucked into. Thankfully the next two episodes were much more promising and engaging, albeit not without narrative choppiness.

Now if I could only block out from my head the OST that sometimes threw me off, we’d be good to go. I don’t mind modern music styles in a sageuk (after all, the heroine is from the present). I could even handle rap; but adding English lyrics on top of those is a little out of place.

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The drama definitely scores high on production value though, with the gorgeous cinematic feel and scenes shot with flair. This is truly the level of quality that a pre-produced work can bring. If I had any complaint with the camerawork, it’s the overuse of tight shots that basically fill the screen with the actors’ poreless faces. We can definitely ease up on the zoom button and maximize the grand scale of this olden world, can’t we?

The actors playing the two main princes – Lee Joon-gi and Kang Ha-neul – are simply knocking it out of the park for me! Lee Joon-gi plays the feared “wolf-dog” Wang So (yes, the same Wang So portrayed by Jang Hyuk in Shine or Go Crazy), who makes every second of his screentime count with his subtle expressions and compelling portrayal of the cold and wounded fourth prince. Kang Ha-neul plays the eighth prince Wang Wook, the calm and brilliant one who acts as Hae Soo’s guardian. He gets drawn to the “new” Hae Soo, showing tiny cracks of amusement and genuine care beneath his usual poker face. The only catch: he’s married to Soo’s distant cousin. In concept, having multiple wives is accepted in the era; but of course it doesn’t sit well with the modern audience’s belief in monogamy.

I couldn’t say the same level of praise for lead actress IU, however, who’s already under fire for her acting in this drama. To me she’s a decent actress and naturally has endearing qualities. But I guess acting against the more experienced male leads, it becomes apparent that she’s the weak link. The extreme close-ups don’t exactly work to her advantage either, as her wide-eyed expressions can get tiring. But she’s doing fine in general; no need for harsh criticisms.

For now Ha-jin/Soo’s characterization as a bubbly, outspoken, and totally confused girl learning the ropes of the era works for me, as she’s still an outsider trying to find her bearings in the unfamiliar surroundings. But I’m looking forward to actually seeing her grow stronger and wiser as she adjusts to her new home. And hopefully, IU can smoothly take us through that journey.

Then there’s the other princes (out of the many others unnamed), whom – with the exception of third prince Wang Yo aka Eyeliner Guy (played by Hong Jong-hyun) –  I only see as tools for fanservice. With limited episodes I doubt we could delve into their character arcs as extensively, but I hope the cast (especially Jisoo and Nam Joo-hyuk) can be given chances to flex their acting muscles some more.

I really didn’t picture these many princes from different birth mothers to be more than just civil towards each other. So it was surprising to see them aaaaaalways flocking together and teasing around like little kids. But I do appreciate the visual feast! Thank you, dramagods.

There are still other many characters to keep track of, and the plot is starting to move along – both in the political and romantic front. The excitement is building along with the tension as we get more of Wang So, and key characters make certain developments. I do hope that the drama’s content catches up to its stylish visuals soon.

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Overall it’s undeniable that Scarlet Heart Ryeo is a well-produced drama worth watching, and should be given just a little more credit than they’re getting. But then again, if everyone expected a totally epic and game-changing megahit Hallyu drama, this is not yet it – as far as the first three episodes go at least. But it’s only the beginning and no one needs to raise the white flag just yet.

What can you say about the drama’s opening week?

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photos: topstarnews.net, SBS

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