Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016) (TV Series): A Swashbuckling Korean Epic

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

By Pratikshya Mishra

Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, Television Series Poster, South Korea

Scarlet Heart, also known as Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo is a South Korean Drama that was telecasted every Monday and Tuesday from August 29th to November 1st this year 2016. It is of historical fiction genre, with a bit of romance and fantasy, based on the Chinese novel Bu Bu Jing Xin by Tong Hua. Written by Jo Yoon-young and directed by Kim Kyu-tae, this drama stars an ensemble cast comprising some of South Korea’s best acting legends like Lee Joon-gi and budding talents like Lee Ji-eun better known as IU and Kang Ha-neul. Though the drama received poor ratings in its home country, it was applauded for its acting, directing and epic scale storyline internationally.


Hae Soo falls into a portal unintentionally during a complete solar eclipse and gets transported back to the Goryeon era in the year 941.  It starts with the princes wondering about their 4th brother whom they have never met but have heard many a weird tale about. He is rumored to be a very brutal killer who massacred his entire family in his residential place. He is infamously called wolf and is feared by the general public given his instant recognition owing to his half masked face.

Hae Soo is befriended by most of the princes for her cheerful and jolly personality. Some of them adore and pursue her. She grows emotionally attached towards the brothers and falls for the 8th prince. The easy camaraderie amongst the brothers is put to test as time passes by, and the race for the throne takes momentum.  Some group together, some take sides, loyalty is questioned, betrayal is evident, and the great rift amidst the royals is obvious. Many a person goes missing, dies or escapes. There are conspiracies and coups to dethrone the existing king, to murder the potential threats to the throne, and to save the loved ones from the life threatening political turmoil. It is a place where swords are used without a second thought, and people are sentenced to death for anything under the ruse of an act of treason.

Amidst this tough turn of events, Hae Soo is quietly drawn to the 4th prince who professed to love her beyond himself and stood with her when the one she trusted the most chose otherwise. Her feelings change from sheer dread for the person to being drawn towards him. She knows the future -- this person would be the infamous great king whose reign would be soaked in blood, who would kill his own brothers to take the throne for himself. But she is determined to change the history as she has known it. Through love and care, she is determined to bring about the core benevolence of the 4th prince to the fore.  Perhaps this is the purpose of her life henceforth.  Love blossoms between the two but hurdles are not far behind. 

Would the course of time and history really change? Watch this drama series based on the timeless themes of love and war.

The Portrayal of Love:

In South Korean series the play of emotions have a much higher ground than physical proximity? Love is portrayed here beautifully in its different shades through different characters. The perfect innocence of first love;  the effervescent beauty of the moments spent together;  the holding on and the letting go; the quiet throb of the agitated heart in unrequited love;  love that chose to thrive as friendship instead; the desperate longing and yearning for years; the long overdue reunion;  and the heartbreak. It can be emotionally overwhelming at times, but is deeply satisfying.

The Awesome Dialogues, Powerful Monologues and the Poetic Retreats in Between:

Some monologues show the difference between the character’s pretense and the inner workings of his mind. It reveals layers to the minutely nuanced character, which the writer’s pen has fleshed out in intricate detail.

“If I had not met him, I would not yearn for him. If I did not know him, I would not think of him so much. If we had not been together, I would not have to disappear. If I did not treasure him so much, I would not have so many memories. If I did not love him, we would not need to throw each other away. If we had not been face-to-face, we would never have been together. Perhaps, if I had not met you at all…” – Hae Soo’s monologue is heart wrenchingly sad and nostalgic.

All the happy times are short lived and fleeting, but nonetheless memorable. These are the essence of the lives portrayed. The turmoil, the sufferings, the conflicts in relations, and the political propagandas serve greatly to the plot of the race for the throne of Goryeo.

King told Hae Soo while dying – “When you go out of this room, people with enquire you about my condition. He who asks how I am, merely my condition, says that I am asking for more tea. He who asks whether I have passed away, beware of that person, he’s after the throne. You must bring the Crown Prince here, before they reach me.” This dialogue is heavy, it shows the stark reality of palace politics. There’s just a few whom the king can trust, even on his death bed.

“Did you really cause our brother’s death?” the 4th Prince asks. The 8th prince replies, “How about you? Are you going to become the King’s dog and kill our 10th brother? We are both struggling to survive. That is the fate of a prince who does not become a king. In order to protect, you must submit.” – It tells a lot about what the life in the palace actually entails. It’s not luxury, comfort and all the good in the world. It’s struggle, fear, dilemma of whom to trust and whom not to, who to be loyal to and who to betray so that the lives of the people who matter to you are not at stake.

Poetry could be traced in the everyday lives of the characters. The 8th Prince’s wife wrote a poem to go along with every letter she replied to- a personal touch. The 8th Prince himself uses the stanzas as a secret device to confess his love to Hae Soo.

“Green, O green is the willow,
Placid, peaceful the flow,
Hark and I hear on the river,
To the east, the sun is up,
To the west, the drizzles persist,
Though they say the sun is naught,

To me, the sun is aglow.”- “Song of Bamboo Twigs” by Liu Yuxi

When someone presents you with a poem, you make sure to return the favor through another verse as an answer. The proper etiquette is to reply a poem with another poem.

“I came to sit by the water, however, the clouds have come.” – a single line that Wang So, the 4th prince, left for Hae Soo before he went away for two years. This is a beautiful treat for a lover of words. It’s like saying every bit of my soul wanted to stay with you, beside you, but fate had other plans for me. A reason for the turn of events. A subtle explanation.

The 13th Prince’s paintings and musical renditions through flute too embody rhythm and beauty.

The Costumes and the Rituals:

The starting episode shows us an important spiritual ritual to ward off evil which is more like a choreographed sword dance sequence performed by the masked princes with a Fangxiangshi -- a monster hunter character at the front acting as the representative of the rite. The patterned moves and coordination among the performers to the drum beats at the auspicious moment is considered to destroy the bad spirits.

It really takes you back to the Goryeon era -- the costumes, the mannerisms and the rituals. The costume is the sole demarcation of role, status and experience of a person in the palace. 

The rain ritual is one of the surprising turning points in the story. Here the chosen prince practices penance, calls upon the Gods to bring back rain and put an end to the drought, and performs the ritual kneeling till the rains start, in front of the entire kingdom. It may take days together to appease the gods. While success might mean adoration, respect and idolization on the part of the people for the Prince, failure can result in sacrifice of life.  It can be a great opportunity to rise to the esteemed heights in the nation; it can be an impending doom too.

The Background Score (OST):

Foot tapping tunes with traditional rhythmic beats, head jerking happy numbers and deeply moving emotion scores comprise the background music for the historical fantasy. 

The Trailer (YouTube)

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated! 

About Author - 

Pratikshya Mishra, Guest Writer at A Potpourri of Vestiges

Pratikshya Mishra is a self confessed dreamer who loves the world of fiction more than the real world. She’s currently a web developer in a software company after her Btech. A passionate blogger, she juggles her time between coding and meeting deadlines of deliverables; reading novels; watching Korean sitcoms and learning new skills to satisfy her curiosity every now and then. She dreams to own a big library, make a literary museum and eventually publish her work one day. She blogs at Magic Moments

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