A young 21st century woman awakens in the Goryeo area. She gets close to the princes, especially 8th prince Wang Wook (Kang Ha-Neul) and his dark brother, 4th prince Wang So (Lee Jun-Ki), future King Gwangjong.
You may be able to be a source of comfort for His Majesty, but you will not be able to be his source of strength.
As Lee Jun-Ki’s latest project, Scarlet Heart : Ryeo showed promise. Although I confess I didn’t know half of the charming faces that make up the cast, I did know Kang Ha-Neul from Heirs and IU from Dream High, where I had liked their respective characters. The stills presented prior to the show’s air date also set my expectations pretty high regarding Lee Jun-Ki’s performance, beautiful landscapes, and a certain delicate touch to the decors, all three of which got me pretty excited for this drama.
On that front, at least, Scarlet Heart didn’t disappoint. It starts hard and fast, with a gorgeous solar eclipse, followed by beautiful snowy landscapes and flower-shaded lakes covered in waterlilies. Magnificent, really. The costumes were also pretty well done, and of course, the actors’ faces have to count for something, too.
As expected of him, Lee Jun-Ki puts up an excellent performance as a lonely prince constantly rejected by his kin. Prince Wang So seeks only one thing: his family’s love and acceptance. Being continuously rejected and abandoned over the years, the 4th Prince has developed a fierce sense of loyalty, but also a deep fragility that Lee Jun-Ki weaves into his character with subtle elegance. How many blows can a man take before his heart irremediably shatters? I asked myself as I watched him. Surely, there is a limit to even his resilience. And yet, Wang So gets back up, over and over again, displaying a truly awe-inspiring strength of heart and character. Of course, this strength comes at a price, but this is, I think, one of Lee Jun-Ki’s best roles, which he plays with rare intensity.
IU and Kang Ha-Neul, on the other hand… Their characters are so perfect they quickly slip into “boring.” Their emotional repertoire being limited on top of that, they pale horribly next to tumultuous Lee Jun-Ki, who basically carries the entire show on his shoulders. I also feel that Wang So and Hae-Su’s relationship is both unhealthy and unbalanced: while Wang So would do anything for Hae-Su, she never reciprocates in his time of need, choosing instead to judge and lecture him.
And while this might make sense in the first half of the show, given that she only knows of him through history, it doesn’t make any sense after she gets to know him as a person. In fact, their fire and water character posters make a lot more sense now than they did before: Wang So loves with everything he is, throwing himself into his relationships with the ardent passion of a burning blaze, while Hae-Su, cool and careful, holds herself back.
What’s more, the script contributes to this growing unease: having the heroine in love with the protagonist’s rival for almost three-quarters of the show was already a mistake, but it then slips into absurd laziness by using ellipsis after ellipsis to skip over capital events and character development that should precisely have been happening on-screen. Hae-Su being in love with Wang Wook for so long, it’s very difficult to believe in her feelings for Wang So when we’re not even allowed to see them blossom and grow.
The same happens regarding Wang So’s ambitions: the prince makes it a point on several occasions to say he’s not interested in the throne, but then, he shows up after yet another ellipsis (it’s difficult to know which one, given that there are three in as many episodes), explaining that he saw “things” and now wants to be king. I’m sorry, but I need more.
The blatant fanservice in episode 1 is also quite shocking. While the brothers’ relationships to each other were a nice touch and won’t fail to make you smile, the fact remains that, instead of banking on the plot, the acting, or even the directing to draw in audiences, Scarlet Heart chooses to show off its cast (most of them idols, or famous KPop band members) bare-chested. And while this could have been ignored had the script been iron-clad, it just gives off the strong impression that audiences are believed to be stupid enough that they won’t notice the crumbling plot since they’ll be too busy oggling abs and pretty cheekbones.
Besides, there were also far too many characters for a show of this length. It takes a good half of the drama to differentiate them all, and a few more episodes on top of that to remember their names. Either there should have been ten more episodes to elaborate on everyone’s story, or a few princes should have been cut out altogether. Which, I admit, would have been a pity, since several of them are nothing short of adorable.
Yet, there was potential, so much of it! On top of the beautiful decors, some scenes are absolutely beautiful and memorable, such as the heart-wrenching start of episode 16, or any, really, featuring Im Sun-Hae’s “Will Be Back,” which is in itself enough to make the angels weep.
I’ve known for a while that Lee Jun-Ki’s projects are rarely up to part with his talent, but that didn’t stop me from hoping that Scarlet Heart would be better. It wasn’t: instead, I feel almost as cheated and frustrated as I did with Descendants of the Sun.
Title: Scarlet Heart Ryeo
Country: South Korea
Cast: Lee Jun-Ki, IU, Kang Ha-Neul, Ji Soo, Nam Joo-Hyuk
Aired: 08/29/2016 to 11/01/2016
Number of Episodes: 20
Genres: Sageuk, Romance, Time Travel, Action
My grade: ★☆☆☆☆