There are many period pieces out there. I can only select from the few that I have watched so far- but which I have really liked- and I only watched a few as they are time consuming. However, they also tend to be so well done that they pull you in and the time invested in watching them is a time rewarded and satisfying in the end. Moreover, a feature of these longer saeguks is that they usually consist of story arcs ehich lasts for a couple of episodes. Once one arc ends, it;s a good opportunity for a break. You do not need to and perhaps should not know much of history for any of these- because knowing what happens may spoil events in the drama for you. They tend to be tightly knitted around historical facts or legends or historical figures but they tend to rework or reinterpret them them to fit the format of a tv soap opera.
1. Queen Seon Duk : Meet the most BadAss Courtesan Ever!
Wins top points for the most convincing. Strong Badass Woman Ever. If not for anything else, watch it for Mishil. She’s not a character you see in many dramas. Mishil’s existence in history seems to be unproven, but it is possible that a woman like her existed in the court, executing intrigues in a struggle for power. Dramas set in such an early period are interesting inasmuch as they show how knowledge really is a powerful thing. This is a drama for those who rather than action appreciate more tensions and ambiguities between characters, tensions of various kinds.. tensions and misunderstandings created by words, tensions and subterfuges which create tragedy. There is a lot of talking, but this talking has various shades and meanings and is beautifully rendered by acting prowess of the actors involved. It has a lot of detail and reveals a lot about character portrayal. They show these many situations for the viewers to see and infer own conclusions and to unravel the tragic threads of fate our protagonists are doomed to, to understand them thoroughly. Very well done, thorouh and detailed. Facts may not be accurate but the way they are reimagined gives them much colour and emotion and can encourage the viewer to explore the historical facts much more.
2. Jumong : A Rookie’s Route to Success.
He wanted to take the high road, but ended up on the low roads. It’s a riches to rags and back to riches story on individual level and about how a nation begins and how leader gains a folloing of people and what problems he faces. This is again a drama set in early times, much of the source material seems to come from historical records of the period such as Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa. Come here if you do crave a hero. Here is your hero who can do both action and emotion. So you want a hero who goes against the grain, who is inherently lonely and has to shed tears of loneliness because the burden he carries is heavy? Here is such a hero. Here is a hero who is unyielding and determined, whio has been shaped by hos own force of will as well as the will of his heart.
The drama consists of several arcs. The first tells the story of jumong’s early days. The second shows him struggling with his sense of self, wandering around the world, learning all he can and changing so much, leaing up to some life-altering decisions. The third shows him expanding his influence, gaining more followers and paving the road to achieving his mission. It is also here where he breaks practically completely with his past. And finally, the third one, shows him in his full glory. The final arc actually offers a very symmetrical closure to one of the themes, and it is done in accordance with what legens and history have to say.
This is one of those dramas that on story level has it all: camraderie, love, loyalty, politics, many toching moments. Once you finish you are satisfied. And you really root for the underdog in this one. The pace is great so But I really enjoy the fragments where he’s practising and gaining strength. We see a character’s growth throughtout and so many endearing chracters whose fate I wish I could change.
3. Jewel in the Palace : True Talen Shines Among Courtly Intrigues
A story about the difficulties of being a talented, smart woman at an imperial court, of overcoming those difficulties, of becoming respected for what one does, winning against all odds story. In many ways it is a quaint story, but one when you strongly root for the underdog.
4. Jejoongwon : Rags to Doctor Story at a Turning Point in Korea’s History and Medicine Practices.
I posted a review for this before right here. This used to be a very overlooked drama in the past an it is an excellent transition story in many ways. Follows the story of an underdog from a low social class who despite difficulties becomes a doctor. The drama featured some very strong and likeable characters, including strong and progressively minded females. There are historical figures here, like Dr Allen and one of the female doctors and the sotory brings to life the difficulty of introducing western medicine in a traditional society and running a western-type facility. It has a love story thrown in for good measure. Thundie invesitgated the history behind it (the post contains spoilers, so beware) and found out that:
“The hospital came under the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church of America after the Joseon government could not continue financing its upkeep. It was then renamed Severance Hospital in 1904, after its main benefactors, the Severance family. It is now the second largest university hospital in Korea, and is part of the Yonsei University Health System.
5. JIN : Just go back in time to understand what it means to be a physician and learn to be one.
Not a strictly historical drama, more a time travel set in the period but one that is nonetheless very interesting because it satisfies the curiosity, in some way: what one would do if one suddenly found oneself in the past? A very convincing time travel drama that shows what it means to become lost in the past and what you need to do to adapt to it, it;s set entirely in Edo and we follow a surgeon as he learsn the meaning of healing and grapples the complex issues of time disruption. It’s a reflective drama.
Japanese have some traditional historical dramas as well. So far, however, I only watched Go-Himetachi no Sengoku and while it was interesting, I wasn’t too happy with the casting at times, especially with younger actors. Still, it featured a very interesting portrayal of Toyotomi Hideyoshi a rather peculiar and influential character from Japanese history.It was also informative because it offered some final bits after the show itself on the various places shown- but maybe that is the general convention of Japanese historical dramas. In any case it was quite interesting.
There are many saeguks out there. They are a worthwile watch because they often offer a different perspective on some of the same figures and they bring history to life. Depending on your preferences, other possible routes for exploring may include dramas like:
Yi San , Hwang Jin Yi, Bu Bu Jin Xin, Shinsengumi, Utahime.
If you like blockbuster dramas then the following are likely good choices- they are all polished productions, some of them with highly dramatic cliffhangers, going from extreme moods with fast pacing and very attractive actors to gush over: The Princess Man, The Bridal Mask, The Moon that Embraces the Sun, Sungyunkwan Scandal- which is a bit lighter, crossressing fare with many comic elements. Though personally, it never really made me laugh and at some point I got bored with it.
Currently airing saeguk is “The great King’s Dream” and I find it of interest inasmch as it will likely shed some moore light on thefigure of Kim Yushin (also featured in Queen Seon Duk)- but I always felt Queen Seon Duk, focusing on the difficulties of being a queen, did not really sufficiently highlight that very accomplished figure from Korean history.
For more idol-based saeguks, currently airing and nearing midpoint is “Arang and the Magistrate”, where the lovely Shin Min Ah (isn’t she just great for such “otherworldly roles? She has a very foxy charm 😉 ) plays a ghost who meets a cynical Lee Jun Ki.