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Sageuk, Korea's 80 Year Long Love for History

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With a history spanning close to 5000 years, Korea has always had a fascinating relationship with its roots, especially in the fields of drama and film. After over 80 years of ups and downs, sageuk, or historical drama, has regained its place in the spotlight with the enormous success of films like King and The Clown and TV series like Jumong. Let's take a look at where and when sageuk started, and how this genre got back on its feet after decades of struggle.

The Origins

Theories concerning the first ever Korean film vary depending on sources and standards. For instance, the first ever Korean yeonswegeuk (screen and stage play, also known as kino drama), Kim Do San's Fight for Justice, was first shown at Seoul's Dansungsa Theater near the end of 1919. But as far as full-length features go, many regard Japanese director Hayakawa Kosyu's 1923 film The Story of Chunhyang to be the first film shown in Korea. The contention here is obviously over the fact the film was directed by a Japanese person, as Korea was under Japan's colonial rule at the time. Still, despite the controversy, it was definitely the first sageuk featuring Korean actors.

The story of Chunhyang, one of the Joseon Dynasty's most famous folk tales, became one of the most important starting points for the genre. Over the last 85-plus years, Chunhyang has been adapted into over a dozen films and even a few TV dramas. The 1935 version directed by Lee Myung Woo was the first ever Korean sound film, while 1955's version directed by Lee Gyu Hwan was the first sign of a rebirth for the industry in the immediate postwar. And of course master Im Kwon Taek was one of the first to make inroads into the international market with his own Chunhyang, which tells the story using pansori.

In the early 70s the film industry entered a downward spiral after the enormous successes and excesses of the 60s Golden Age. With cinema saddled down by dwindling theater admissions, increasing government censorship, and a general lack of quality, the new entertainment venue of choice for Koreans became the little box inside their house, television sets. Back then production funds were so scarce that most dramas were shot on the fly, like a theater play. But it didn't matter, as sageuk became one of the flagbearers of this monumental movement in popular culture, along with Koreans' everlasting favorite genre of melodrama.

The first ever sageuk produced for TV was Kim Jae Hyung's A Far Away Land, set in the Goguryeo Kingdom, telling the tragic tale of Prince Hodong of Goguryeo and the princess of Nangrang Commandery. But while many of the sageuk produced for the big screen in the 60s were based on historical records, most of the sageuk produced for TV in the 70s drew from unofficial chronicles that mixed legends and fiction with actual history. There were two main reasons for this. While these unofficial chronicles might not accurately represent historical events, they were much more dramatic in nature, making them more appropriate for dramatization. Another big reason was that the work required to go through official records, with hundreds of volumes written in hanja (Chinese characters), would have made the task of writing a daily sageuk nearly prohibitive. Still, there were exceptions. Government-funded KBS in particular started producing sageuk focusing on important historical events such as the Imjin War (Joseon's Seven Year war against Japan, led by Admiral Lee Soon Shin), deviating from the more female viewer-oriented traits of daily sageuk.

Winds of Change

In the 80s, Chungmuro began recovering from the debacle of the 70s through the films of Bae Chang Ho, amongst others. Classics like People in the Slums, Whale Hunting and Deep Blue Night gained Bae the nickname of Korea's Steven Spielberg. Sageuk meanwhile also changed a lot during the 80s, with the advent of erotic sageuk. Some argue that this new genre, removed from the conservative ideals and portrayals of the past, was the government's answer to growing unrest against harsh military rule. By offering a little more sex and controversy, films like Pong, Eoudong and Byeon Gang Swi paved the way for nearly a decade of sexy hanbok-wearing flicks.

The situation on TV was a little more interesting. The first spark came in 1983, when KBS produced The Foundation. At first sight the show looked like a normal retelling of Lee Sung Gye's founding of the Joseon Dynasty, but the station curiously legitimized Lee's coup d'etat against the former ruler (King U of the Goryeo Dynasty) in ways which smelled a little too much of allegory, especially as the president at the time, Chun Doo Hwan, also came of power through a military coup. But the biggest change came from rival MBC, which started airing the landmark 500 Years of Joseon in 1983. Produced by Lee Byung Hoon of Dae Jang Geum fame and written by the great Shin Bong Seung, the series put the spotlight on the entire Joseon Dynasty over its eight-years of broadcast (over 800 episodes divided into 11 series).

After over a decade of unofficial chronicles, this series finally focused on official historical records, namely The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty. Not content with just translating into images what the records narrated, the series even offered very controversial takes on many historical events and figures, such as Han Myung Hwi. Over the years, 500 Years of Joseon became one of the most controversial and popular sageuk of all time, perhaps the most important in history when it comes to redirecting the industry's attention towards real history and not popularized history.

Crisis and Resurrection

From a fan's point of view, the period between 1983 and 1998 could be referred to as the Golden Age of the genre. In addition to 500 Years of Joseon, great series like Han Myung Hwi, Jang Nok Soo, Tears of the Dragon, King of the Wind, Im Ggeok Jung, and more were made, with clear sub-genres emerging from the mold (political sageuk, war, palace intrigue). But in an industry where ratings mean money, quality doesn't always mean success. From 1992, when AGB started collecting nationwide ratings, to 1999, sageuk dramas recording ratings of over 30% could be counted on one hand. The film industry was no better, with 1993 recording a dismal 15% in domestic share and 1995's The Eternal Empire as the only respectable sageuk produced in the 90s. A change was needed, and soon.

Understanding the problems the genre had showed since the 90s, veteran producer Lee Byung Hoon brought young star writer Choi Wan Gyu of General Hospital on board, and they embarked into a project which would change the genre forever: Hur Jun. Lee saw the genre's biggest problem as its inability to penetrate the 10-to-20 demographics, which had slowly matured into the leading force in television viewership. With countless trendy dramas boasting pretty young faces and easily digestable stories, who would sit down to watch old men with fake beards regurgitate lines from complicated historical records? For Hur Jun, Lee took the focus off the historical events and focused on the people, following the hero from humble beginnings to success as the king of Korean traditional medicine in the Joseon Dynasty. The result? Over 60% ratings, one of the top three of all time, and the birth of a new sub-genre, fusion sageuk. Infusing historical dramas with modern sensibilities, fusion sageuk would change the genre in ways even Lee could have never expected.

Fusion Sageuk: A Success Story

Although KBS largely ignored this new wind of change, MBC started putting all their efforts into sageuk, with Lee's second project Sangdo being about the life of legendary Joseon merchant Im Sang Ok. Although it wasn't as successful as their 1999 effort, the drama was a joy for the eyes, with fantastic performances by leads Lee Jae Ryong, Park In Hwan, Jung Bo Seok and Lee Soon Jae. But even more impressive was 2003's Damo. The first ever Korean drama shot in HD (High Definition), the show starring Ha Ji Won and Lee Seo Jin generated a massive online following and became one of the hottest talking points of the year. Although the story was fictional, the addition of Hong Kong-style wire action, the kind of melodrama typical of trendy dramas, and the traditional appeal of Korean history made it an unforgettable experience.

Although Damo did make a lot of fans outside Korea, it was nothing compared to what Lee Byung Hoon had in store the same year, when MBC started broadcasting Dae Jang Geum. In the past, sageuk focusing on women retained a very patriarchal viewpoint, and rarely offered a positive, identifiable role model. After all concubines like Jang Nok Soo, power-hungry figures like Jang Heebin, or sanctified mothers like Lady Hyegyung weren't exactly the most appealing subjects for women, and after the daily sageuk of the 70s went out of fashion, female viewers largely avoided the genre. Dang Jang Geum, however, told the inspiring story of Jang Geum (Lee Young Ae), a commoner who became Joseon's first female royal physician. Combining the medicine of Hur Jun with an exquisite (in all senses!) look at royal cuisine, Dae Jang Geum recorded ratings of over 50%, and became a cultural phenomenon extending to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and even the West.

With fusion sageuk clearly becoming a hot trend, even the ever-conservative KBS joined the mold, with their first tentative Emperor of the Sea (2004). Starring sageuk veteran Choi Su Jong (Dae Jo Young, Emperor Wang Gun) as Jang Bogo, one of the leading merchants during the Unified Shilla Dynasty. The show mixed melodrama with action and adventure tropes reminding of films like The Gladiator, and made a star out of Song Il Kook with his charismatic portrayal of villain Yeom Jang. Yet, KBS quickly returned to what they did best, epic sageuk, particularly ones focusing on war heroes. And that this was what they were born for was instantly clear when The Immortal Lee Soon Shin started broadcasting.

From Lee Soon Shin to Shin Don, The Hybrids

Clocking in at 104 episodes, The Immortal Lee Soon Shin suffered ups and downs in the ratings thanks to controversies over historical accuracy and a not-so conventional beginning. But once the cannons started roaring, the country fell once again for one of their history's most shining heroes, not to mention the impressive CG, naval battles rarely seen in anything outside Hollywood, and particularly the incredible acting of Kim Myung Min, who was cast at the last minute as Admiral Lee Soon Shin. What's more interesting about the show was its combination of signature KBS epic sageuk spectacle with a style more associated with MBC's fusion sageuk (strong focus on character development and their lives removed from the historical context). Perhaps the best example of this new hybrid style is Jung Ha Yeon's Shin Don, a masterpiece loved by its fans, but cursed by its less-than-satisfying ratings (averaging in the low 10%).

Portrayed as an evil and selfish monk by Joseon records, Goryeo's Shin Don had always been a side player, the villain of the moment. But Jung, one of Korea's greatest writers, re-interpreted history in a new light, showing why past accounts were biased. The relationship between Shin Don and Goryeo's last reformist King Gongmin, their intrigues and palace politics, their friendship and tragic fate made for a perfect arena where some of the best actors in the country (Jung Bo Seok, Son Chang Min, Oh Hyun Kyung, On Man Seok, and more) fought for eight months in an unforgettable mix of Greek tragedy-like pathos and incredibly interesting historical commentary.

The New Line: Jumong and Legend

Fusion sageuk still holds the throne on small and big screens. Lee Joon Ik's record-breaking 2005 hit King and The Clown made stars out of its leads Gam Woo Sung and Lee Jun Ki, but also rejuvenated the country's interest in traditional culture. Selling over 12 million tickets, the story of two clowns and their strange relationship with tyrant Yeonsan changed the way sageuk was portrayed on screen. Although Hur Jun started this movement on TV, it took a few years to translate to the big screen, starting with 2003's Untold Scandal, which marked Korean Wave star Bae Yong Joon's big screen debut.

Another proof of this genre's popularity came with MBC's Jumong, which concluded in March 2007 with an amazing 51% rating and over US$7 million in overseas sales. Telling the story of Goguryeo founder Jumong (Song Il Kook), the show is the perfect example of this new brand of sageuk, focusing more on dramatic elements than history. Even KBS' Hwang Jin Yi starring Ha Ji Won achieved similar success, with a mix of great costumes and a look back at one of Korea's most famous gisaeng (female entertainers). It looks like more and more sageuk will be produced in the future, as the genre is doing well in both television and cinema.

Of particular note is upcoming drama The Legend, boasting an incredible, record-breaking production budget of US$45 million. The first sageuk to be completely shot before broadcasting, the show stars Bae Yong Joon, Choi Min Soo, and Moon So Ri, in her first ever TV role. Also notable is Jang Yoon Hyun's feature film Hwang Jin Yi, starring Song Hye Kyo. 2008's King Sejong on KBS will tell the story of one of Korea's most beloved rulers, the man who helped create hangeul, the Korean alphabet.

For a genre that's over 80 years old, sageuk has undergone many transformations over the years, adapting to the demands of a constantly changing audience. History is indeed a dialogue between past and present, and we can only be thankful we can enjoy it all through these wonderful sageuk.

Published May 14, 2007

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