The Romeo of Goryeo…or Juliet Empowered? Empowerment in Korean Time-Travel Dramas


March (and sometimes April—I live in Winterpeg ;)) is always the time of year that I start getting a little bored and grumpy. Winter is taking too long to finish up, spring isn’t coming fast enough, and then I’ve been a student for the last six years, so there’s the inevitable end-of-school-year slog (anybody else here feel my pain?). Since I’m normally quite the sunny gal, I try to snap out of it quickly, and one of the best ways to do this is to get lost in a little bit of daydreaming. If spring isn’t coming fast enough, you have to bring it to yourself! Because I’ve been fantasizing about finishing my master’s thesis *very* soon, lately I’ve been dreaming about the PhD dissertation that I’m working on, which has lead me to watching a lot of K-drama. While I love all types of K-drama, my favourite type these days has been time-slip historical romance (like Scarlet Heart: Ryeo). Not only are these dramas beautiful and absorbing (and fourteen Goryeo princes never hurt anyone either), they also feel far-removed from the stresses of modern life. But are they really…?

Recently, I watched the K-drama web series, Splash, Splash Love (you can also watch it in two one-hour installments), which centers around a teenage girl, Dan Bi, who is about to write her CSAT exam. Dan Bi has a general disinterest and lack of confidence in academic activities, especially math, so when she forgets her umbrella on the way to her test and ends up arriving soaked in rain, she panics and decides to blow the test off, biding her time by sitting at a kids’ playground. However, when she steps into an enchanted rain puddle, she finds herself in the Joseon period. While a little sojourn to the past may seem appealing to anyone who wants to escape from something (winter, a test, hard choices, everyday life, etc.), Dan Bi’s time traveling adventure is anything but relaxing. Instead, she is confronted with her worst fear—math.

What’s interesting about Dan Bi having to help a Joseon king with math—rather than simply carrying out a love-line plot with him—is that she is empowered beyond their relationship. Although their love story is empowering for them both, Dan Bi’s newfound confidence in her scholastic ability encourages her to take an active interest in her future—whether that future is in the past or the literal, chronological future.

Cycling back to Scarlet Heart: Ryeo, this message gets used again. When we first see Go Ha-Jin in the 21st Century, she’s day drinking after her boyfriend cheats on her with one of one of her favourite esthetics clients. After jumping into a lake to save a drowning child (this all happens during a solar eclipse, mind), she winds up in the Goryeo era (and surrounded by a bunch of Goryeo princes) as Hae-Soo, the younger cousin of the 8th Prince’s wife. Setting aside the love-box situation that goes down over the course of the series (there’s actually a 3rd male lead), Scarlet Heart demonstrates some solid character development in Ha-Jin/Hae Soo, both romantically as well as personally and vocationally.

Without getting too spoiler-y, Soo (as she’s called through most of the series) doesn’t have any easier of a time in Goryeo than she does in 21st Century Korea. However, the way Soo handles the often heart-breaking decisions is more empowered in the past than the future. When she is almost offered the chance to be a prince’s prized second wife (not necessarily an appealing prospect by modern standards, but not a bad deal in Goryeo), she refuses, stating that “I cannot live that way. I can’t share my husband with several women. I don’t want to grow old waiting for him to come to me.” Similarly, when she is betrayed by someone that she does love, Soo is devastated, but not broken. When said betrayer vows to win her back, Soo firmly tells him that “It won’t be easy.”

On the side of personal and vocational development, we see how Soo rebuilds her belief in her own value and the value of what she did for a living in the modern world. While applying makeup to her terminally-ill Goryeo cousin, Soo mentions how she always treats her esthetic clients like friends—before we see a flashback of how in the 21st Century, Soo made up one of her “friends” before realizing that her boyfriend was cheating on her with this “friend.” However, back in Goryeo, when she sees her cousin’s delight at finally looking healthy and beautiful, Soo seems to, once again, feel confident in her work as an esthetician. Throughout the series, Soo has many other opportunities to help others with her knowledge of skincare and wellness—opportunities that have a large impact on the future.

While time-travel romance is not exactly a new concept (I’m thinking of a very popular one, featuring a certain, red-headed, kilt-wearing fictional Scot), what is unique—and impressive—about Korean time-travel dramas, is that they not only focus on romance and the female protagonist’s longing for a better life in the past, but on their identity as a whole and how who they become while being stuck in the past can positively influence their future. Dan Bi’s adventure in the past encourages her to believe in her future, and Soo’s time in the past reaffirms her ability to discern healthy romantic relationships from unhealthy ones, as well as the value of her vocation. This focus on young women developing their whole selves—not just romantic relationships—could definitely account for their recent surge in popularity.

Now don’t get me wrong—these two dramas, as well as most others, are definitely romances, and they all certainly have escapist and wish fulfilment elements–Scarlet Heart was alternatively titled Moon Lovers, after all, and Kang Ha Neul, who plays Soo’s cousin-in-law/love interest, was even dubbed the “Romeo of Goryeo,” by fans of the series due to his princely appearance and personality (1). However, the sense of immersion that fans experience when watching these historical dramas also comes from how they are empowered. Along with allowing fans to live vicariously through characters’ empowerment and choices, many recent popular historical K-dramas take advantage of fan experiences and activities as a way of actively involving audiences. For example, the massively-popular Moonlight Drawn by Clouds partnered with Naver’s Grafolio (an artwork platform) for a contest in which fans could draw romantic scenes for the series. The winners’ sketches were then featured at the end of the episodes (2).

While I’ll be going into more details of how fan internet platforms create a sense of immersion and community amongst fans in a later post, the concept is a great demonstration of how in today’s historical dramas, empowerment is a key concept. In the recent slew of historical K-dramas, the Romeo of Goryeo is all very well and good, but only if Juliet (aka, the heroine) is just as strong and empowered. And if this sense of empowerment inspires viewers in their own creative and personal development, then it’s a trend that makes our TV viewing that much more of a learning experience, rather than just a guilty-pleasure activity. Nothing like a guilty pleasure you can call personal development! Something tells me that in this era, where female empowerment is an important societal topic, this trend will—and should-stay.

Sources: 1. Mysujung. “INTERVIEW: The 8th Prince Kang Ha Neul Shares Thoughts on Scarlet Heart: Ryeo.” DramaFever. https://www.dramafever.com/news/interview-the-8th-prince-kang-ha-neul-shares-thoughts-on-scarlet-heart-ryeo-/. 26 Sept, 2016. Web.

2. “KBS ‘Moonlight Drawn by Clouds’ Drawing Contest.” Grafolio. http://www.grafolio.com/collaboration/109. 30 June, 2016. Web.

8 replies »

  1. I do love time travel and fantasy, and because I’m a long-time fan of Lee Joon-Gi, I tried to watch Scarlet Heart:Ryeo..twice. I could not get by the vampire genre. I don’t watch horror, either. I consider these to be very psychologically manipulative, and as a refugee from Hollywood, I don’t want more of what they consider “acceptable” for me to watch. I often have to go back in time to get the writing, drama, and politics that made Korean drama great.

  2. Hi Diane! You have good taste…Lee Joon-Gi is the best! I definitely had mixed feelings about Scarlet Heart: Ryeo…I loved the performances, soundtrack, and the whole aesthetic production value. I also liked that it wasn’t straight-up fantasy per se. I found the ending (promise no spoilers!) a bit lacking…it was good, but I felt it needed to be–and could have been– a bit more specific to really round it out. It was a missed opportunity in a lot of ways. I totally agree with you on the horror/vampire genre–not my style, and you’re right, often psychologically manipulative. Have you tried “Splash, Splash: Love?” My brother, who really disliked SHR really loved this one.

    I love your opinions on some of the dramas I’ve talked about. Like I said, you have great taste; I’d love to hear about some of your favourite dramas!! :)

    • Thank-you, Emily. Of the 158 dramas I’ve watched, (I rate them all) my First place, by a long shot, is “Eyes of Dawn”. It’s a shame it has been blacklisted. Second, is “Dae Jang Geum”, and third, “Deep-Rooted Tree”. I can never get enough of King Sejong. I could go on, but I’d have to send an e-mail to cover it all. LOL

  3. You’re welcome, Diane! Haha, wow, you are an impressive K-drama watcher! Thanks so much for the suggestions–I’ll have to take a look! And if you ever want to send that list ;) feel free to hit me up at 138976m@acadiau.ca (that’s my professional email:)) lol (but seriously, 158 is a LOT to cover! Amazing!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s