Korea Shouldn’t Give Up On Legit Sageuk Dramas, And Neither Should You
Remember when the term sageuk used to really refer to Korean dramas that were based on historical events or people? No? Just me?
Not trying to sound ancient (too late), but at one point, sageuk dramas used to be like 70+ episodes long, were based on old legends or people that existed in Korean history, and were the staple of many Korean grandpas who would watch them while relaxing in Korean spas. Ah the good ol’ days.
But now when we think of historical dramas, many of them are actually fusion sageuks that are often based on webtoons and are more fluffy and light-hearted than ever before. Are they super fun? Definitely! But it’s sad to see that people just don’t really get excited about old school historical dramas anymore, which is perhaps why we don’t see these kinds of dramas as often as we used to in K-drama land.
As someone who grew up on sageuks, here are six reasons why Korean production companies should continue to make epic historical dramas, and why you should give these kinds of dramas a chance.
Warning: potential spoilers for the dramas below.
Many are based on true stories
One of the best feelings you can have as a kid is to get super immersed in a movie, TV show, or a character, and then find out that this amazing story or person actually existed in real life. Real historical figures like Hur Jun (Jun Kwang Ryul), a talented court physician, and Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo), who rose from being a palace maid to a royal noble consort, all had their hand in shaping history with their choices, and to be able to see a dramatic depiction of their lives makes everything so much more legit, because some of the events could have actually happened.
Watch Dong Yi’s story in “Jewel in the Crown”:
Many sageuk dramas have underdog stories that give us hope
It’s safe to say that sageuk drama characters have it HARD. Fighting for the throne? Yep. Often seeing your loved ones die tragic deaths? Ugh. Getting wounded every single episode? Yeah…it sucks, doesn’t it? But what’s amazing is that above all these things, no matter what life throws at them (arrows, swords, you name it), historical drama characters never give up. In the drama “Hwang Jin Yi,” the titular character (Ha Ji Won) has to go through the tragic death of her loved one (Jang Geun Suk) and always has people plotting against her, but she never gives up and ends up becoming an accomplished courtesan and performer. There’s something so encouraging about watching a character take on never-ending hardships and still emerge victoriously. If they can overcome their daily (epic) hurdles, so can you! *Cue uncontrollable sobbing*
Catch the first episode of “Hwang Jin Yi”:
There’s an epic vibe to them that fusion sageuk dramas lack
With more episodes, traditional sageuks are able to really set the stage for the viewers in depicting backstory, culture, and social systems that fusion sageuk dramas don’t really focus on. In “The Great Queen Seondeok,” we get to see the world that the main character Deokman (Lee Yo Won) enters into, even before she’s born. When the first scene shows a man galloping on a horse with the lines, “When the heavens and earth were connected and had not been separated yet” – you know you’re in for an epic treat. The attention to detail and various grand sets also give the stories epic, larger-than-life kind of vibes that make it fun to watch because it’s not just one story, it’s a kind of world. And we get to jump into it every episode.
Watch “The Great Queen Seondeok”:
Sageuk women shine in BOSS roles.
Unlike fusion historical dramas, where the female leads are basically there for the romance or aren’t very confident in themselves, traditional sageuk dramas have female characters at the core of all the action. If the drama title features a female name, you know she’s actually going to be the center of her own story.
Take, for example, Dae Jang Geum (Lee Young Ae) from “Jewel in the Palace”: she’s born with an innate sensitivity to taste and is known as the first female royal physician in Korean history. Female prodigies are not commonly seen in K-dramas. Usually, male characters are often described as “tortured geniuses” while female characters are known as the empathetic and hard-working ones. But in traditional sageuk dramas, female characters have just as much potential to be epic geniuses, and the chosen-one vibes of these dramas make it so satisfying to see the female characters grow into the heroines they are.
Watch Dae Jang Geum’s story in “Jewel in the Palace”:
There’s a sense of partnership in the romance
As mentioned before, there is a lot of conflict in old school sageuks. People scheme for the throne, battles go on every day, and revenge is a common theme in all stories, so there’s a lot at stake. Unlike fusion sageuk dramas where the emphasis is on the heart-fluttering, romantic moments, old school sageuks focus more on the main couple working together, trusting each other, and communicating with each other to save their world.
This is the case with Lee Bo Young‘s Silla princess character and Jo Hyun Jae‘s character from Baekje in “Ballad of Seodong.” The way they support each other and depend on each other is perhaps more realistic (sans the battles and epic events) than a swoony modern K-drama couple. There’s something beautiful about two people using their skills and power to save their country while falling in love in the process.
They feature different kinds of stories that go beyond the main leads
Modern K-dramas are super fun, but you can’t deny that there’s a common pattern of events in many of them. The main leads meet, sparks fly, and then some sort of conflict occurs and they have to overcome it all to be together in the end. While sageuk dramas focus on the main characters and their romance, they also include stories about family, friendships, and other characters that you might not see that much of in fusion sageuk dramas. In “Goddess of Fire,” we not only get to see Jung Yi’s (Moon Geun Young) romance with Prince Gwanghae (Lee Sang Yoon), we also get to see her life in the porcelain workshop with her fellow potters. You’re not just watching the main leads, you’re watching everyone’s lives unfold. And if that isn’t reason enough to watch these, then I don’t know what is.
Catch the first episode of “Goddess of Fire”:
Don’t know where to start? Here are some epic historical dramas to check out:
When you want to see women overcoming all odds: “Jewel in the Palace,” “The Great Merchant Kim Man Deok,” “The Iron Empress,” “The Great Queen Seondeok”
When you want all the feels: “Hwang Jin Yi,” “Empress Ki,” “Queen For 7 Days,” “Jewel in the Crown,” “Yi San”
If you’re looking for Korean folklore: “Rebel: Thief Who Stole The People,” “Ballad of Seodong,” “Ja Myung Go”
OG epic sageuks (do not start lightly): “Dae Jo Young,” “Gwanggaeto, the Great Conqueror,” “Hur Jun,” “Immortal Admiral Yi Sun Shin.”