In an industry that has notoriously relied on the live-shoot system, pre-produced dramas have definitely made a splash this year. With such a varied response — Descendants of the Sun won awards, while Kim Woo-bin apologised for Uncontrollably Fond — the spotlight is firmly on the next pre-produced cab off the rank, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo.
Moon Lovers has also been gaining attention for its time travel-sageuk concept with a royal reverse harem, as well as for its good-looking cast of IU, Lee Joon-gi, Kang Ha-neul, Ji-soo, Hong Jong-hyun, Nam Joo-hyuk, EXO‘s Baekhyun, and more. Based on Chinese bestseller Bu Bu Jing Xin by Tong Hua, Moon Lovers has the added pressure of living up to the source material, while also adapting it to Korean history.
After a rather slow first episode to introduce our characters, the pace picks up considerably; and by the end of episode 5, we have seen an assassination attempt, a one-man massacre, a number of (questionable) lovelines blossom, and said goodbye to what may be my favourite character in this drama.
Warning: the following contains spoilers for the drama, but not the the Chinese source material, or Korean historical events. We kindly ask that readers use spoiler tags when discussing these in the comments.
Moon Lovers begins in the 21st century, as Go Ha-jin (IU) nurses a soju bottle, a busted lip, and a deep sense of betrayal. We’re clued in to her innate sense of rightness as she gives her alcohol to an apparent vagabond (Kim Sung-kyun) and jumps into a nearby lake to save a drowning boy. Only, just as she’s about to be pulled out of the water by a grateful father, she instead gets sucked in, as the moon eclipses the sun.
When Hae-in resurfaces, she finds herself in Goryeo, the name for South Korea in the 1st century. She also finds herself in a private bathing pool of princes, the sons of Goryeo founder Taejo Wang Geon — it’s major fanservice, but it introduces us to the princes and their personalities, which makes placing them in subsequent episodes much easier.
Ha-jin discovers that she is in the body of one Hae Soo: cousin of 8th Prince Wook’s (Kang Ha-neul) wife, Hae Myung-hee (Park Shi-eun). Having a ready-made identity, and the excuse of amnesia, makes Ha-jin’s immediate survival in Goryeo easier. It also doesn’t hurt that Soo is a member of nobility. We also don’t get an immediate explanation for why Ha-jin is here in place of Soo, but now that it’s confirmed that royal astronomer Choi Ji-mong and the vagabond are the same, I’m sure we’ll receive some kind of answer in later acts.
Instead, we are asked to focus on Ha-jin’s attempts to adjust to her new circumstances, and the bonds she forms with the princes. We get some hilarious scenes, like Ha-jin meeting the king (Kim Min-gi), giving 10th Prince Eun (Baekhyun) a black eye, and replying to a poem with an emoji. The emotional balance comes mainly from Myung-hee; she regards the orphaned Soo like her own child, is the first person to reach out and make Ha-jin understand the consequences of her actions. With the death of Myung-hee, though, Ha-jin’s safety net has been removed, and she will now have to rely more on her wits to survive.
Myung-hee’s death saddens me greatly, because while we feel great sympathy for her, I cannot shake the thought that her death happens only to help us feel less guilty about Ha-jin and Wook. Wook has definitely been infatuated with Soo well before her ‘accident.’ And I agree with 13th Prince Baek-ah (Nam Joo-hyuk) that, even though Myung-hee loved Wook more and feels that she forced their marriage, she deserves better. It also makes me think of what Soo herself made of Wook’s attention towards her: did she accept these feelings, or was she more wary?
Moon Lovers has already set a precedent for multiple royal marriages: why not keep Myung-hee alive and explore how a Ha-jin-Wook relationship would affect their other bonds? You could even bring in Baek-ah to complete the quadrangle. You’re already working up the incest angle with Yeon-hwa and So, why don’t you just give the me cousin-sister wives, too?
However, this isn’t the direction Moon Lovers is going in — probably because they’re too stingy to pay an actress to be in more episodes — so I’m just going to have to accept Myung-hee’s death and move on.
In any case, it’s clear that Wook has become bolder in his actions since the arrival of Ha-jin in Soo’s body, even giving her a love poem. I’m not going to blame Ha-jin for Wook’s interest because his feelings aren’t her responsibility, but she is responsible for returning those feelings, even if she thinks getting all googly-eyed and trying to literally walk in his footsteps is too ‘innocent’ to be counted as cheating. Ha-jin was able to pick up on Eun’s crush quickly, and read haughty Princess Yeon-hwa like a book; but she doesn’t want to do the same for herself.
Ha-jin’s wilful ignorance about the meaning of Wook’s poem is infuriating to watch, especially considering how we all know about Ha-jin’s own boyfriend and best friend backstabbing her. I was right with Baek-ah when he called her out on her betrayal of Myung-hee; but the drama itself doesn’t the connect that with what happened to Ha-jin in the 21st century.
I am all for flawed women, but Ha-jin is turning into the kind of Mary Sue fan fiction self-insert protagonist that made me wary of watching Moon Lovers in the first place. We see her willing to risk punishment to fight injustice (with servant Chae-ryung (Jin Ki-joo) as the hapless victim), but she avoids responsibility for her own actions.
Much more exciting to watch is terrifying 4th Prince So’s (Lee Joon-gi) storyline. He has a doozy of a backstory: disfigured by his own mother in a futile attempt to dissuade the king from taking another wife, then sent away to be adopted-cum-tortured by the clan of a royal concubine grieving her own dead son. He returns to the palace with a determination to never leave, making his intentions clear by killing his horse on arrival. This only adds to the ‘wolf-dog’ persona that already has everyone scared — including his own brothers.
So gets his shot at Songak PR when he is approached to impersonate Crown Prince Mu (Kim San-ho) at the upcoming cleansing ritual, and becomes part of the investigation into the inevitable assassination attempt. A handy bit of information from Ha-jin, who becomes involved because the plot demanded it, helps identify 3rd Prince Yo (Hong Jong-hyun) as the culprit, and his — and So’s — mother, 3rd Queen Sinmyeongsunseong (Park Ji-young) as the mastermind.
This leads to a most crucial moment in So’s story, as he finds the temple that harboured the monk-assassins and kills everyone there. His skill, both here and at the rite, shows that he has indeed been trained in combat, despite claiming otherwise. But even more interesting is that he did this to destroy evidence of his mother’s involvement. Interesting, but an entirely understandable action from a So who has been starved of affection from both his parents, and treated terribly by his adopted family.
I genuinely thought that Sinmyeongsunseong would have accepted So, if not out of gratitude then at least out of shrewdness in gaining a powerful henchman. This could have also increased the tension between So and a possibly threatened Yo. However, she completely and utterly rejects So, thus ensuring his alliance to the king and Mu.
It’s a stupid move, which makes me wonder what actually happened for Sinmyeongsunseong to hate her son so much? It could be the guilt of disfiguring him causing her to overcompensate, but I have a feeling that there was a reason she chose him to threaten the king with in the first place. Either way, I’m interested in seeing how the drama will explain what I consider to be a grave tactical error by the bad guys.
This desire for affection, though, explains why So is drawn to Ha-jin. When he rages at her about killing the monks, her response of asking him if he’s OK (informed by a similar conversation she had with Wook earlier), gives him pause. He may have thought her annoying during their first couple of encounters, but her concern and caring attitude brings out his own vulnerability.
I hate that he has held his hand to her throat multiple times (with the drama even playing romantic music during one instance) and is your typical, abusive male lead with a sword. But at least he has a more sympathetic backstory than other drama leads, and hopefully Ha-jin doesn’t have to go out of her way to ‘fix’ him.
Looking to future episodes, it will also be interesting to see how Ha-jin and Wook move forward after Myung-hee’s death. I also want So come out of his shell and not only finding the love and affection he craves, but also his ability to return it. But what I want most is for Ha-jin to start drawing on her own resources more: I need her to be more of a player in this game, and not end up as a damsel in distress for the princes to take turns saving. I mean, that’s probably what is going to happen but a girl can dream, can’t she?
Readers, what are your thoughts on Moon Lovers so far? Let us know in the comments, and please use spoiler tags for anything related to historical facts or the original Chinese drama and novel!