In what might be a traumatic look back for some, this week we’re returning to Goryeo, and a very divisive drama that set fans hearts alright, whilst leaving others at a loss. Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo was a massively hyped up drama around the time of it’s airing, and no wonder – just look at the cast! IU, Lee Joon Gi, and the most stunning line up of flower boy princes any fangirl could hope to put together. Not to mention Seohyun and Baekhyun drawing in fans from their respective groups, eager to see their idols in historical roles.
But of course, all the great casting and excitement in the world can’t save a drama with a terrible plot. And despite some contention on the subject, Scarlet Heart really doesn’t fall apart as much as it might well have done. Are there flaws? Certainly. Is there excessive drama and emotional upheaval? Undeniably. But perhaps that’s to be expected before diving into this extravagant saeguk. After all, it was one of the most expensive k-dramas ever sold until it was beaten a few months later. And anyone who had read the Chinese novel upon which it was based, or watched the Chinese drama, would have known what they were getting into.
Let’s set the scene: after a mysterious set of circumstances, a startled Go Ha Jin (IU) finds herself in Goryeo period Korea in the body of Hae Soo – who happens to work in the royal palace. So begins her struggles with the princes of the Wang Dynasty. In particular, she finds herself caught in the politics of the palace, and two specific princes – Wang So (Lee Joon Gi) and Wang Wook (Kang Ha Neul.)
Wang So has his own past to contend with, and with that comes a lot of emotional scars. And a physical one. Perhaps a manifestation of the internal wounds that have made him so cold, this scar comes to represent a great deal of his personality. Ultimately, it is Hae Soo who helps him deal with it, gradually healing him. Meanwhile, Wang Wook loses his wife and gains an ambition for the throne – one that sees him make some questionable choices despite proclaiming his love for Hae Soo.
This is just the beginning with Scarlet Heart. Multiple storylines and relationships weave together, intersect and disrupt expectations. Sometimes the plot falls into the cliche trap as easily as you might anticipate. Other times, events are turned on their head in the manner that keeps the whole thing addictively interesting. A side plot with the 10th prince Wang Eun (Byun Baekhyun) and Park Soon Deok, begins innocently as a small distraction. Ultimately, it becomes one of the central conflicts in the drama for all the main characters, a truly defining moment that leaves an impact. It’s unexpected and yet perfectly built up to. That’s the strength of the writing here; it’s so complex, so character-driven, that it’s hard to find many moments that fall flat emotionally. But that’s also it’s greatest flaw. Scarlet Heart often becomes so caught up in the dramas of its characters that the overarching conflict becomes lost and flimsy.
The end is perhaps the prime example of this. Without spoiling too much, a reunion of lovers in Hae Soo/Go Ha Jin’s present is strongly hinted at. Yet viewers are left wanting. The build-up falls flat in the regard, and the characters, whom the audience have come to care for so much, feel incomplete. Often times, Scarlet Heart feels like someone taking a walk along a path and getting distracted by other routes along the way. Whilst all these routes are satisfying in some regard, we end up in a place that we possibly hadn’t expected to be. And we’ve missed sections of the main path along the way.
For all it’s faults, Scarlet Heart does have… well, heart. It’s undeniably likable because of this, and the main actors give their all in every performance. Lee Joon Gi has a delectable skill in flipping between genuinely unnerving in one scene and heart-wrenching sweet and relatable in the next. His character is all the more believable because of this, and it can’t help but be suggested that the characters might not have been as wonderfully alive as they are if not for the performances.
Is it worth watching three years later? Yes. So long as you haven’t been spoiled yet. But the emotionally driven plot (not to mention a fantastic, star-studded soundtrack ) is worth the watch if characters are where your true love lies in dramas. If suspending your disbelief and possibly ending up immensely unsatisfied with an unclear ending aren’t your thing, then perhaps find something else. Because Scarlet Heart is unapologetic in its intensity and its enthusiasm. And you’re either along for the ride or left well behind when you jump in.