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It’s so weird watching Yoo Ah In play a mysterious man in black with long hair in Chilwu, the Mighty right now, not just because that drama is so weird, but because I just saw him play a similarly tressed character in the wonderful drama Sungkyunkwan Scandal (KBS 2010 – 20 Episodes).  This was one of my favorite dramas ever, and it was in a genre I didn’t even like much – the gender bender.  It helped that it was paired with one of my favorite types of dramas – the fusion sageuk, for it turns out that cross-dressing goes way back.

I guess it could be easier for a girl to pretend to be a guy, as our heroine, Kim Yoon Hee, does here, when men wore dress-like clothes, and had long hair.  She still stands out as the prettiest of pretty boys, but still, her secret is safe for the better part of the drama.  And her reason for hiding her true identity and living as a man wasn’t anything so common as to make money (like in Coffee Prince).  It was a great and noble one – she didn’t just want to live with cute guys, she wanted to learn, too.

Kim Yoon Hee (Park Min Young) is a bitter and jaded young woman from a fallen yangban family, who does whatever it takes to keep her weary mother and sickly older brother alive.  It helps (or maybe hurts) that she is an exceptionally bright girl, so well-versed in the classics (thanks to her deceased father, who taught her, even though he knew it would be useless), that she makes a pretty penny making cheat sheets for lazier students.  For this, she of course has to pretend to be a boy, and that actually wouldn’t have been a problem if not for her run-in with Lee Sun Joon (Mickey/Park Yoo Chun), one of those totally un-fun, Type A, perfectionist types, which leads to the wacky events of the drama.

No one really likes him, but since he’s super smart, and his dad is the most powerful man in the government, I’m guessing he’s not really caring what they think.  Even though he generally wants nothing to do with most people, he takes an interest in this bright but surly boy, whom he knows as Kim Yoon Shik (her brother’s name).

For one reason or another, Yun Hee ends up at Sungkyunkwan, bunking not only with the attentive Sun Joon, but a scary upperclassman, Moon Jae Shin (Yoo Ah In), who likes to walk around in flowing robes, and who’s known as Guh Roh (Crazy Horse).  They’re all about nicknames at this place, and Sun Joon soon becomes known as Ga Rang (Perfect Husband), while our heroine winds up with Dae Mul (Big Fish), thanks to an awkward run-in with the beautiful gisaeng, Cho Sun.

But not as awkward as when Yoon Hee has to act as a literal sleep barrier between Sun Joon and Jae Shin, whose families are political rivals.  The drama really loved going into how inappropriate such a living situation could be, especially before the guys realized who they were rooming with.

But school isn’t just about getting vaguely obscene monikers, and stealing things from gisaengs.  Yoon Hee has lots to do in her first year: maintaining her secret identity, dealing with snobby freaks, figuring out what to do with this strange masked rebel who shows up at school a lot, trying to help the king uncover a huge conspiracy (which involved her father, Guh Roh’s brother, and Sun Joon’s father), and passing all of her classes (I’m surprised she ever got to this, considering how much else was going on).

And for some reason, there were a lot of sporting events at this school, which was good, I guess, since the rest of the drama was primarily spent in libraries.  Sound minds, in sound bodies.

But what was really important was how she dealt with her growing feelings for Sun Joon, and his even more confused feelings for his classmate.  Yes, it was fun for her to become Dae Mul, and be a part of the campus’ premier gang, the Jalgeum Quartet (like a Joseon F4), but outside of school, what were she and Sun Joon going to do?  If he could get past her deception, would their families’ tangled history prevent them from being together in the end?

Now, I liked Sun Joon and everything (even though this wasn’t much of a role, I have to say), but for me Guh Roh dominated this drama.  He was that wild student in school, who was always on the brink of flunking, and whose hair must have always obstructed his vision.

Of course, this being a drama celebrating an educational institution, Guh Roh was also a closet nerd, just as smart as Sun Joon (without really trying), and one of the biggest teacher’s pets ever (disgusting), but at least he balanced that nastiness with doing weird things like sitting in ginkgo trees all of the time, or dressing up and running around rooftops at night (maybe – I don’t want to spoil things for you, even if they are really obvious).

But since he was such an uneven student, you knew he wouldn’t get the girl, no matter how much I wanted him to.  This was basically a school drama, after all, and having the unmotivated slacker get the girl would have sent a very bad message to the children.  So he did all of the typical good second guy things for Yoon Hee in vain, like giving her potatoes and piggyback rides, and on occasion, saving her life.

Even though I hardly ever really like the main guy, I even more rarely root so much more for the second guy, but here I totally wanted Guh Roh to get the girl, since that would have made him so happy.  He was the son of the Minister of Justice, and by political and familial alliances, Yoon Hee’s total match (if her father had lived, that is).  That’s how much I liked him – I’m even willing to use family ties and political factions in his defense, even though those considerations are usually so infuriating or boring in dramas.

And I don’t want to give away the ending (which in general wasn’t exceptional, but not so bad), but I think that Guh Roh had the best one of the quartet, even if others (like me) would call him a sell-out over what he chose to become.  And it also set up a perfect sequel, featuring the exciting adventures of Guh Roh, which I am still waiting for.

Yoo Ah In wasn’t perfect in the role, and Guh Roh had some problems as well, but he was a big part of what made the drama so campy, and so fun to watch.  Deal with the scene when he first meets Yoon Hee in the alley way, and covers her eyes.  I was less a fan of his forced tics, like hiccuping uncontrollably around women, and his long, bare-chested robes look just came across as mighty sleazy.  But he was so great, so who cares.

I kind of wish I had seen this before watching He Who Can’t Marry (which was actually a pretty good drama), since, at first, it was almost impossible for me to take him seriously as a brooding, rebellious type.  How could I, when all I could see was him sitting in a rocking chair, using coupons?  But I eventually totally bought into the whole Guh Roh myth, even if I don’t really know why.

Right now I’m also really liking him as Heuk San, the Assassin in the Reed Hat (and the haircut which must prevent him from using his peripheral vision), even if it’s hard to take him seriously as a killer, and viable love interest for Gu Hye Sun, when he looks about 12-years-old, especially dressed as a yangban.  I think I’ve liked Yoo Ah In’s roles more than him, since I have no desire to watch his latest drama, Fashion King, since it sounds kind of boring.  When is he going to put on period garb again?

Even if Guh Roh didn’t get the girl, he was still part of the famous Jalgeum Quartet, and had a lively best friend who was in love with him.  Gu Yong Ha (Song Joong Ki) was the decadent playboy of the group, with his own mysterious past, and hidden nerdy tendencies.

Nicknamed Yeo Rim (another vaguely obscene moniker), he started out as one of those equivocal, don’t-get-me-involved-unless-it’s-to-mess-with-people types, which I really hate, but he eventually saw the light, and stopped being so annoying.  I actually didn’t like his spinning, or other attempts at being “fun” or “wacky,” and thought that Yeo Rim’s dramatic scenes were much more impressive and compelling.

There was one especially poignant scene between him and Guh Roh when he was actually real, and it was so much better than anything else he did.  So even though I’m not exactly looking forward to Song Joong Ki’s new melo, Nice Guy (which follows Bridal Mask, and is penned by the same screenwriter who wrote a drama which made me cry too much, Sorry, I Love You), I’m curious to see whether he’s still got it.

I had already seen Park Min Young in I’m Your Teacher (which was just ok, and might have been better if I hadn’t found her love interest completely disgusting), and had found her pretty likable.  She was better here, since she looked like she was having such a good time filming the drama.

Even though she wasn’t really the one who had to carry the drama, she left a pretty good impression with this role.  I know that if she had followed this up with a great drama, instead of the disappointing Glory Jane, I would have remembered Yoon Hee as an even stronger character.

One thing I didn’t like was her character’s journey, which had her beginning as a much more interesting angry young woman, and ended with her acting like the more typical wide-eyed, goody two shoes leading lady.  I didn’t know that K-drama heroines had to go to university in order to become like that.  I’m glad that she was presented as a super smart female (which is actually kind of rare in Korean dramas), and it was even ok that Sun Joon and Jae Shin were smarter, but the ending she was given kind of left me confused.

Oh well, when the drama has the cross-dressing heroine also have a great, but pointless scene in which she gets to cross-cross-dress as a lavish gisaeng, then I guess logic doesn’t really play a large role.  When the fun keeps rolling in, you don’t ask why the drama stops making a lot of sense.

Even though Sun Joon was often eclipsed by his flashier co-stars, I thought Mickey did a pretty good job of carrying the drama, or at least playing the straight man.  I felt for him when he had his obligatory identity crisis as he found himself falling for his classmate, but I still wished he didn’t have to go through that at all.  Couldn’t the drama just have focused on Yoon Hee being a poor fallen yangban, whose father had been one of Sun Joon’s father’s enemies?  After all, the drama was about class as much as it was about gender.

One thing I really liked was how Sun Joon was pretty much consistently nice to her – I hate jerky first guys who torment their love interests endlessly and pointlessly.  Still, I have to admit that he just came across as kind of bland, and I wondered whether a different actor could have done more with this role.

I’ve heard some good things about his most recent drama, Rooftop Prince, but I don’t know if I liked him enough to deal with Han Ji Min (she has just been in a few dramas I really didn’t like).  And while I didn’t love the JYJ heavy OST (where have all the good drama OSTs gone?), I still listened to it way too many times.  So Mickey was obviously a very important part of the drama.

This was one of those dramas that I obsessed over – oh, I miss those days.  I love fusion sageuks, and have yet to meet one I haven’t at least liked ok.  I might have loved Tamra, the Island a bit more (because who really wants to revisit school?), but this was still such a wonderful, addictive drama, which I highly recommend.

Like with Boys over Flowers, one of the biggest draws was that whole quartet thing, though here they weren’t so much crazy-rich chaebols, as they were crazy-rich kids (most of them) with impeccable lineage (again, most of them), and an implied duty to rule the country one day.

They not only became local celebrities, but were so famous that they even spawned a rival quartet, which was like the Nega-Jalgeum, headed by the evil Ha In Soo (Jun Tae Soo, Ha Ji Won’s little brother).  I really liked how Yoon Hee was an integral part of the group (without her, they would have just been the Trio), even if she had to dress up like a boy to join.  People have done crazier things for less.

This drama was presented as a youth drama, and though I’m still not exactly sure what this means, I see how the drama celebrated all those things you do when you’re young, like participate in student protests, or agree to become weird spy-detectives for the king.  Ah, youth.  All of the characters reveled in being young and bright, as much as they paid attention to love triangles, government conspiracies, or classes.

This drama is based on a book, The Lives of Sungkyunkwan Confucian Scholars, and its sequel, by Jung Eung Gwol.  I really want to read this, as well as her other book, The Moon that Embraces the Sun (I might even want to watch this drama more than read her books – that’s bad, isn’t it?).  She’s obviously tapped into some kind of magical, Joseon formula, which I hope she continues to milk for a long time.

This Joseon gender-bender was so much fun to watch, and I still look back on it quite fondly.  And Sungkyunkwan is an actual university, so this drama must have been very historically accurate.  There was a lot going on in this drama, with a few second leads and villains, and Kim Gab Su as an evil papa who thought asking about happiness was a stupid question, but in the end, it was all about the love and the quartet.  And school, I guess.

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