Thoughts on ‘Sageuk (historical drama)’


So there was this discussion going on my twitter timeline, and I got frustrated with twitter 140 character limit. So here it goes. About ‘Sageuk’

 

Sageuk 

What it literally means: It literally means ‘historical drama.’ ‘Sa’ for history, ‘geuk’ for drama.

How it is actually used: Basically, you see a K-drama and guys have long hair, and people are wearing somewhat colorful clothes, and people wield swords around, and people die a lot, and there’s class difference, and…ok I’ll stop.

Anything ancient-ish looking is called sageuk in K-drama world these days.

DF mentioned she’s reading stuffs about historical fiction, period drama, costume drama, etc. But they are all called sageuk, lol. I hate it, but that’s how people use the term, and language follows the way people use whether you like it or not. So I guess I’ll have to just accept the fact that they are just allll called sageuk, and will stick to how the terms are actually used not what the terms originally should mean.

Does sageuk have to be historically accurate?

Now that’s a realm of discussion. And my position is that, it does not have to be a documentary, but it has to respect history, and has to do its best not to distort what is known as historical facts. And yes, I am including those historical fictions, fusion sageuk, whatever they are called, they should also respect history if they want to put their characters in existing historical time period or use existing historical figure. When I’m saying ‘respect history’, I don’t mean everything should be exact and accurate as the history went. Things can be added, reinterpreted, changed, it’s a drama! Make it fun! When I say distort the history, I mean those very apparently ‘wrong’ things that denies what is known as history. It’s not like a sageuk police will appear and arrest them if they distort history, but take the criticisms that it’s a  ‘poorly made historical drama’.

Why Sageuks should ‘Respect History’

I’m not trying to say that sageuks should be entirely accurate, entirely based on what actually happened. If I wanted to watch that, I’d watch a documentary not a sageuk.

But the moment you chose your drama to be a ‘historical drama’, there’s a responsibility for you to make it as accurate as it is needed in your drama. Because by using the name of existing historical figure, you take the image of that existing figure. It is a very hard job to build a character from scratch, make that character interesting. But when you take an existing famous historical figure, you get it easily. You get that effect, then you carry the responsibility too. You can’t just swallow the sweet and and spit out the bitter.

For example, you say you want to write a drama. The main character is going to be, I don’t know, say Kim Oksoon. It is going to be about her life and love. Is anybody gonna be interested? Who cares about Kim OkSoon? Who the hell is she? You will need some long explanation.

But say you are gonna write about Queen Sundeok, her life and love (no offense intended at all, I loved that drama). It immediately attracts attention. All Koreans know who Queen Sundeok is, she’s in textbook, you’ve heard about her since young, seen her and memorized her for exams, and you get curious how she will be portrayed as a living person.

Writers may still be able to attract people’s attention with non-historical figures, and that’s actually what many many sageuk dramas are doing. Lee Daegil in Chuno wasn’t a historical figure, and he still is amazing as hell. But my point is that, when the writer chooses a  historical figure to be the drama’s character, there’s certain effect he earns from it. Like, when you hear the name Yi Bang Won, and you immediately think of the cold, ruthless, ambitious, strong ruler, and you don’t even need any character explanation to just feel the image.

And these ‘effects’ can be earned because there’s a common background knowledge about the history that people share. So, can you really blame them for getting mad when historical facts are distorted? You can’t. Certain expectation is formed the moment existing historical figure is mentioned in the drama, and it is more than natural to be mad if that expectation is betrayed.

And you can’t say you don’t really earn anything from using historical figure. Becuz if that’s the case, there’s a simple solution: don’t use a historical figure. Create your own fictional character. That’s what Moon Embraces Sun did, it just had an imaginary king as the main character. By having an era of imaginary king as its time period, it made all of its characters entirely fictional, all of its events entirely fictional. I had a lot of criticisms to make about that drama, but never did I criticize it for being inaccurate or not respecting the history–cuz it never claimed to be a history. But when you decide to use a historical figure, there is some effect you are trying to earn from it. Whether it be the dramatic nature of his story, or certain image the figure has, or the freshness of presenting opposite interpretation of existing interpretation, something inspired you to choose that character. So you should be ready to take the consequences of using a character that is not entirely your creation but is borrowing from what is already existing. What I wrote about taking a ‘historical figure’ can also apply to ‘historical time incident’ or ‘historical time period’. When you put the setting as Chosun, there’s some effects you are earning from it, and there’s some expectations audience have toward it. Try your best to meet the historical expectations.

I would say, as I was writing this up, I realized a lot of what I just wrote would probably only apply to Koreans who know the history. To people to whom those names don’t really ring a bell, historical figures would just feel like another character. So foreign fans might not be as sensitive to sageuks distorting history. And I respect that. There are some horrible sageuks out there that utterly destroyed history and I hate them for that, but I never disrespected fans of the drama cuz no one ‘has’ to feel certain way about a drama. After all, it’s a form of entertainment. And ‘respecting history’ is not a duty for drama producers written in some code of drama, and all I’m saying is that if they fail to do so they would have to be prepared to deal with the criticisms and hatred. And hopefully the fans of the dramas would also understand and not hate haters for hating the drama, cuz even if you are not bothered by the historical distortions, others may be, and the moment actual historical figure/system/incident/period is discussed, audience hold all the right to form expectations towards it.

‘Chill, it’s just a drama, it’s fictional! Why do you care?’ –Don’t we all care?

In case some of you are still wondering why this ‘accuracy’ matters at all, let me point this out. We all care about accuracy in dramas. It’s not even like only harsh standards are applied to sageuks. Any dramas are expected to be reasonably ‘realistic’, right? They are expected to be as accurate to the reality as it is allowed in your drama frame.  And writers are expected to study enough to make the drama reasonably realistic. Medical dramas, legal dramas, police dramas….people criticize them if they are too unreal, if there are some factually wrong stuffs about them. So why should historical drama be an exception? Sageuks are free from ‘reality’ of current society. There are doctors out there to point out medical dramas being unrealistic, lawyers to point out legal dramas being unrealistic, and just…people, to point out a drama about people being unrealistic. ‘That’s not true, that’s not done that way!’ Drama is fictional, it is not real anyway, it’s just a drama, but people expect reasonable reality from it. And in sageuk’s case, no one lived the past to tell whether the drama is realistic, but ‘history’ is that standard. People expect it to  be reasonably in accord with history.

What sageuks can do to make it fun

As I have repeatedly said, when I say respect the history blahblahblah, I don’t mean film a documentary. Sageuks really don’t have to be from a textbook, and my fav sageuks are definitely not visualized textbook..! Here are some stuffs that a well written sageuk can do.

Write on the margin

Who says sageuks have to be about recorded people, recorded incidents? Something or someone totally fictional can still be in accord with history, be very historically reasonable. Just write on the margin of the history, tell the story of the untold, and make it believable that something like this ‘could’ have happened. Chuno would be a very good example of this. It’s copy was “Unrecorded history of Chosun’s greatest slave hunting”, if I remember correctly. Chuno is an entirely fictional drama. Lee Daegil, Song Taeha, Unnyun, Hwang Chulwoong, Eopbok…none of them actually existed. But no one accuse Chuno of distorting the history. It makes it so believable. Characters talk and act like they would in that era. Something like that could’ve happened. Slavery indeed existed, numbers of slaves indeed increased during that time, and something like slave hunting def would’ve happened. And the few characters that were actually recorded in the history, like the king or crown prince, were actually portrayed pretty accurately.

Interpretation, or Reinterpretation

Who says using an existing historical figure, you can’t do fun creations? Sageuk is a process of making those text records into alive human beings, and there’s a lot of fun stuffs you can do in that process. King Sejong is prob the most famous historical figure in Korea, everybody loves and respects him. But I’d say no one imagined him swearing sh*ts as he did in The Tree with Deep Roots. It was a fresh King Sejong, unexpected, and it was fun. And it’s not a distortion…cuz who knows how he actually was? He might’ve actually been a dirty mouth!

In JDJ, Yi Bang Won was portrayed as a premature, proud and also kind of naive young man in the beginning. It was different from prevalent image if Yi Bang Won, and some people felt ‘it’s not right’, ‘it’s not YBW’. But the script and the actor made it convincing enough, and audience enjoyed new YBW. There was still no apparent ‘distortion’. Actual deeds he did was still the same as known in history. But sageuks can still build different human beings from that same record.

Destroy the frame!…only within a frame!

I’ve been talking about respecting the history, not destroying the frame, etc. but now I’ll say….it IS ok to destroy a frame. If you make it clear that it is deliberately done, and there’s enough reason for you to do that, and that is the point you want to make, and you keep others in frame. Because, after all, fiction is a deliberate distortion of reality, and although you should try your best to make it accurate and realistic, you should be able to do whatever you want to do to make the point of the story.

For example, Tree with Deep Roots start with a serial killing within a palace. That didn’t happen in the history. If it did, it would’ve been recorded, but it is not recorded. So it’s fake. So, does that mean it’s a poorly made sageuk…? I wouldn’t say so (I have some other problems with Tree with Deep Roots, but that’s not the point here). It’s not the matter of the logic of the drama, it’s about the premise about the drama, and I believe dramas, or any fictions, should be allowed some crazy premises. It’s like, Kafka’s <The Metamorphosis>. You turn into a bug, jesus. That’s soooooooooo fake. But I wouldn’t say it sucks becuz it lacks reality. Turning into a bug is his crazy premise, and after accepting that one premise, the rest of the portrayal of society or people should remain pretty ‘realistic’.

Sageuks can be as crazy as possible, if it is super clear that that’s their intention, that’s the whole point they are making this drama. Like, Gu Family’s Book, the protagonist is half blood between a human and…what’s that….a wolf? a god? whatever that sexy thing is. I don’t think that ‘unrealistic’ part of the plot destroys the drama. Cuz that’s the whole point, and it made it clear that it’s a fantasy drama.

Anyways, this post became wayyyyyy much longer than I intended to, and I’m getting sleepy, so I’ll wrap up doing what I originally intended to do. Explaining some terms of sub-categories of sageuks. It’s not super correct, I’m not a sageuk-term expert or anything, it’s just how I understand those terms. Please correct me if there’s anything wrong.

Taeha sageuk 대하 사극

what it originally means: large scale historical drama

how it is taken in K drama land these days: ‘more historical’ dramas. Usually broadcasted in KBS1 channel. has the image of being more heavy, strict, less fun and more accurate. –>NOT TRUE. It can be fun, extremely intruiging, and it can also be horribly distorting and impressively ridiculous.

Periodical drama 시대극(shidae-geuk)

what it originally means: dramas taking place in certain period. Dramas not necessarily about recorded history events but have time setting in ancient period should originally fall under this category…but those are just all called sageuk.

how it is taken in K drama land these days: the word shidaegeuk is used for dramas with time setting that is not current days, is back in the old days, but not as quite old as Chosun dynasty or before.

Fusion Sageuk

what it originally means: anything other than ‘traditional sageuk’

how it is taken in K drama land these days: sageuks that don’t have to care about history at all…personally disagree to this, and my argument is what I’ve been writing all along.

examples of fusion sageuk: Damo, Chuno, Dae Jang Geum, Tree with Deep Roots, Gu Family Book, Tamra the Love Island, Queen Sundeok, etc. Probably just about every sageuk that international fans have watched.

fusion sageuks can be divided once again into smaller sub categories i guess…like, romance sageuk, fantasy sageuk, etc. and a drama can fall under multiple genres too. like, action fantasy romance sageuk.

Traditional Sageuk

What it originally means: The term was born due to emergence of fusion sageuk..but yeah traditional sageuk means how sageuks used to be before those fusion sageuks. Usually stick to important incidents recorded in history, all the important characters are historically recorded characters, in most cases kings, generals, or famous officials, etc.

how it is taken in k drama land these days: similar to taeha sageuk…boring, heavy, ahjussis watch it…JDJ is kind of changing that thought these days though.

 

Anyways, yeah this post got way too long and I don’t even know who I’m writing this for lol. In conclusion, I like sageuks. (lame conclusion, just like those I had to write in highschool 10 min before the essay due)

 

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11 responses to “Thoughts on ‘Sageuk (historical drama)’

  1. THANK YOU!!I was on another Kdrama site and someone said”a lot of sageuks ” and someone asked what that meant , but no answer was given back ! So… Here I am asking and got way more info than I thought to get , but am truly grateful for all your input!! Be very Blessed!!

  2. WOW, what an informative post Gumi. Loved it and totally agree with you on this one ❤

  3. Would be good to stick to one romanization and not to mix them up.
    Also, WBDS is a good example of a great sageuk turned into pile of rotten hay in few episodes for no apparent reason.
    I’d add also one more distinction between daeha and sageuk: sageuk can be entirely fictional, daeha is not (but has fictional elements). Daeha always centers around one historical figure and meticulously, slowly narrates their life and deeds. Sageuk is more focused on the dynamics of the story.
    And no, history checking is not only for Koreans. I teach Korean history too.
    Keep up the writing!!

    • I was writing this post out of stream of consciousness on spot, so it can be a little messy lol.
      I wouldn’t say there’s a distinction between daeha and sageuk. Daeha sageuk is a kind of sageuk, it’s a sub category. But I get your point, some sageuks can be entirely fictional, daeha sageuks usually are based on actual history.
      I’m not sure if I’ll say daeha sageuk always center around one historical figure. Daeha means big river, and daeha sageuk literally means drama that talks about a big flow of history. Daeha sageuk usually focus on big historical events, not on a person. True, most daeha sageuks have a historical figure as their title, but it’s usually those standing right in the middle of big turmoil or shift of history. Sageuk is about the life of a doctor, and it narrates his life, and I wouldn’t say it’s a daeha sageuk(this, some might disagree actually, depending on how broad they apply ‘daeha sageuk’ concept. most people, including news articles, just call long sageuks daeha sageuks, as I said on the post. This whole comment is trying to get more specific distinction/characteristic of daeha sageuk and it’s only my opinion not an official definition) . on the other hand, is about the life of the founder of Goryeo, and it is called a daeha sageuk.
      There are also daeha sageuks that don’t center around one historical figure. right now does indeed have JDJ as the main figure, but it does not center around his life, and it is definitely not a slow narration. JDJ doesn’t even get the majority of screen time in the drama. The drama focuses on showing the dynamics of that period. , one of the most famous daeha sageuks, covers the time period that exceeds any one historical figure’s lifetime.
      Overall, I would say daeha sageuks don’t really focus on a figure but focus more on big events and flow during that time period. I feel like actually more newer sageuks focus on giving a life to one historical figure.
      I’m glad that you like&teach Korean history 🙂 It was my fav subject wayyy back when I was young.

      • I’m nitpicking, I know, but.. “Overall, I would say daeha sageuks don’t really focus on a figure but focus more on big events and flow during that time period”. I always ask my students: “Who makes history? One person or a crowd?” Now I can ask: are those “big events” happen by themselves? No, there is always a person behind them.

        I’m a pain in the a**, I know, I apologize.
        Sageuk lovers fighting!!

        • Well, I’m also nitpicking I feel like, but..I was not talking about what history is or who makes the history, but about what the drama genre is. I agree there’s a person or people behind any kind of historical events, but I’m just saying “Daeha sageuk” does not mean sageuks that focus on one historical figure 😛

  4. Reblogged this on obsessive compulsive (k)drama-watching disorder and commented:
    Hurrah for Gumi’s twitter frustration if it results in an illuminating post like this ;P And halfway through my Chuno watch, this comes along at the perfect time! Thanks Gumi.

  5. Write on! Excellent post. love history, and used to research it a lot to write my Voyagers! stories too. Sageuks are not the first dramas I run to, but there are some great ones out there. Like Chuno and TWDR. I find the fusion ones fun too.

  6. Very interesting, thanks for writing. I also google as I watch sageuks. I’ve now started to read several books on Korean history as well as the online koreanhistoryproject. All because of Chuno! Reading up for Cruel Palace helped me understand the court politics in Chuno during the last rewatch. I haven’t had the heart to finish Cruel Palace, precisely BECAUSE the characters are soooo well defined and I know what history has said awaits them. Oh! And I’m trying to learn to understand Korean just so I can finally see Queen Insoo. LOVE sageuks!

  7. Excellent writeup! I think I watch saguek dramas for the history. It is funny that some of the popular ones that were imaginary characters are the ones I either never finished or didn’t like. As you can imagine, they were the popular ones. When I do watch them, google is my best friend as I check facts to separate the fiction! I watch a saguek drama over everything else. I’m looking forward to the next batch of dramas as they are saguek heavy! Thank you, thank you! I am a certified history nut!

  8. Reblogged this on It's My World-NewKDramaAddict's Drama Sandbox and commented:
    Excellent post for us Saguek watchers out there! That’s me!!

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