Sageuk, Sageuk, Sageuk!

(Sageuk parody from High Kick Through the Roof,
and yup, that’s Jung Il Woo in the first pic!)

Sageuk (사극) n. Historical drama or play.

Growing up, I was not a fan of sageuk and thought of it as only for the “grown-ups”. The word “sageuk” conjured up images of court officials kneeling with their head bent down in front of the king and using archaic words that constantly needed defining on-screen.

Sageuk dramas from the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, like MBC’s 500 Years of Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조 오백년) and KBS’s Han Myong Hoe (한명회), appealed to mostly male viewers as they centered around the royal family and the court officials as they engaged in a political battle of the wits during the Joseon dynasty. It was practically guaranteed that every episode had at least ten lines of “전하, 성은이 망극하옵니다” (“Your Majesty, Your grace is immeasurable”) and another ten of “통촉하여 주시옵소서” (“I beg Your Majesty to take heed”). The actors spoke in that deep “stomach” voice characteristic of the traditional sageuk speech and laughed that hearty sageuk laughter.

I can’t pinpoint to exactly when it happened, but a noticeable change started occurring in the second half of the 1990s. KBS started hitting record ratings with their sageuk dramas one after another, and the scale of the shows became bigger and grander. Many of the sageuk dramas shifted their stories from the Joseon dynasty to the earlier history during the period of the Three Kingdoms and that leading up to it, and naturally, the conflicts switched from within the walls of the royal court to gruesome outdoor battles.

Even in the sageuk dramas that took place during the Joseon dynasty, the shift changed from stories of politicians to that of ordinary folks (doctors, merchants, etc.) who came to achieve great things.

The quiet introduction of Damo in 2003 was groundbreaking for three reasons. One, it was the first ever attempt at a fusion sageuk genre in Korea (and there were many more to follow it, including Hong Gil Dong, Conspiracy in the Court, and Tamra the Island). Two, it was the first time where a “sageuk” attracted so many younger female viewers, the demographic that the traditional sageuk dramas had always failed to win over in the past. And finally, Damo gave the radical idea that a sageuk doesn’t always have to be so “sageuk-like” after all. For example, characters started adopting a much more modern speech style, and contemporary pop (and even rock music in the case of Sungkyunkwan Scandal) was brought into the drama soundtrack.

What do I think about these changes over the years?

Although some mourn the loss of traditional sageuk dramas and argue that the newer sageuk dramas are just a bastardized version of the old, I do appreciate that there are many more diverse sageuk options available these days. The idea that sageuk dramas are only for the older male audience no longer holds true. However, I came to realize that I sometimes miss the old school sageuk dramas too, and wish they’d bring them back every once in a while. Dramas with languages like “성은이 망극하옵니다” (“Your grace is immeasurable”) and “통촉하여 주시옵소서” (“I beg Your Majesty to take heed”) have their own appeal.

Why this long spiel on sageuk dramas over the years? There are many sageuk dramas lined up for/in discussion for the second half of 2011 and early 2012, and as I prepared this short preview of the upcoming sageuk dramas, a montage of the past sageuk dramas just flashed right before my eyes as I thought about how we got to where we are now. And where exactly are we now? Well, take a look…


Bride Mask/각시탈 (KBS)

Projected start date: Late 2011 or early 2012
PD: KBS in-house
Scriptwriter: TBA
Cast: TBA
Synopsis: A drama adaption of the hit manhwa by Huh Young Man, whose other works, including Gourmet, Tazza, Mr. Q, Beat, and Asphalt Man, have also been adapted into film and/or drama. Bride Mask is about a man who disguises himself by wearing the traditional Korean bride mask and fights against the Japanese during the Japanese occupation era of Korea. Was also made into an animated film in 1986.
Current status:
KBS confirmed that they’ll be producing it.
Is currently in the pre-planning stages.
Source: Star News



Projected start date: TBA
PD: Kim Jong Hak (Legend, White Night 3.98,
Sandglass, Eyes of Dawn
Scriptwriter: TBA
Cast: Kim Hee Sun, Lee Philip, Kim Seung Soo, Kim Byung Gi,
Park Sang Won, Choi Min Soo, Lee Min Young
Synopsis: A big budget, 3-D fusion fantasy sageuk about medical doctors during the Goryeo dynasty era.
Current status: Working to get a timeslot/broadcasting station. Planning to start filming in late May. There’s a high possibility that it will be entirely pre-produced.
Source: IS Plus


Gyebaek/계백 (MBC)

Projected start date: 2011 (scheduled to follow Miss Ripley)
PD: Kim Geun Hong (Yi San, Jumong)
Scriptwriter: Jung Hyung Soo (Yacha, Dream, Jumong, Damo)
Cast: TBA
Synopsis: About the life of General Gyebaek of Baekje.
Current status:
Pre-planning and casting stages.
Source: Star News


Honorable Baek Dong-soo/야뇌 백동수 (SBS)

Projected start date: July 2011 (scheduled to follow Lie to Me)
PD: Lee Hyun Jik (OB&GYN, Lobbyist, That Woman, Punch) &
possibly Lee Myung Woo (Ja Myung Go, Bad Couple)
Scriptwriter: TBA
Cast: Choi Min Soo, Jeon Gwang Ryul, Lee Won Jong,
Nam Ji Hyun, Yoon Ji Min
Synopsis: Drama adaptation of a manhwa by the same name. A fusion action sageuk under the fictional premise that Crown Prince Sado (King Jeongjo’s father) actually had a powerful secret force behind him.
Current status: Trying to cast for the role of the title character,
although Kim Bum’s name was tossed around at one point.
Source: Newsen
Edit: Name was changed from Honorable Baek Dong-soo
to Warrior Baek Dong-soo. (Apr. 26, 2011)


King Gwanggaeto the Great/광개토대왕 (KBS)

Projected start date: June 2011 (scheduled to
follow King Geunchogo)
PD: Kim Jong Sun (Dae Jo Young, Taejo Wang Geon,
King and Queen, Dawn
Scriptwriters: Jo Myung Joo (Three Dads One Mom, The Vineyard Man)
& Jang Ki Chang (The Immortal Lee Soon Shin)
Cast: Lee Tae Gon (Golden Fish), Jang Shin Young (I Am Legend), Kim Jung Hwa (Job Well Done), Lee In Hye (Comrades), Jo Ahn (Three Sisters), Kim Seung Soo (I Am Legend), Kim Jung Hyun (Giant)
Synopsis: An epic-scale sageuk drama on the
life of King Gwanggaeto of Goguryeo.
Current status: Currently filming.
Source: Sports Chosun


The Princess’s Man/공주의 남자 (KBS)

Projected start date: July 2011 (scheduled to
follow Romance Town)
PD: Kim Jung Min (Drama Special: Family Secrets, Loving You a Thousand Times, Hometown Legends, Cannot Hate You,
Barefoot Love
Scriptwriter: Jo Jung Joo (Partner)
Cast: TBA
Synopsis: A Joseon-era Romeo and Juliet love story between King Sejo’s daughter and Kim Jong Seo’s son. (King Sejo kills Kim Jong Seo in a coup to take power from Kim Jong Seo and his faction before taking the throne for himself.)
Current status: Pre-planning and casting.
Source: Sports Korea


Tree With Deep Roots/뿌리깊은 나무 (SBS)

Projected start date: September 28, 2011
PD: Jang Tae Woo (Painter of the Wind, War of Money,
101st Proposal, Bad Housewife)
Scriptwriters: Kim Young Hyun (Queen Seon Deok, H.I.T.,
Ballad of Seo Dong, Dae Jang Geum, Advocate
& Park Sang Yeon (Queen Seon Deok, H.I.T.)
Cast: Han Suk Kyu, Jang Hyuk
Synopsis: Based on a bestseller novel by Lee Jung Myung, it was adapted into a drama by the same name in 1983 as an installment of the 500 Years of Joseon Dynasty series. A fusion mystery sageuk surrounding the murder of a group of scholars during the seven days leading up to the announcement of the Korean alphabet during the reign of King Sejong the Great. 
Current status:
Source: Hankyung

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12 Responses to Sageuk, Sageuk, Sageuk!

  1. kcomments says:

    Thanks blue, for the line up. Tree With Deep Roots looks interesting, I loved Painter of the Wind. Sageuk was never appealed to me because it tended to be long drama with lots of characters, however I’ve come to enjoy fusion ones (as you said attracted younger gen hehe) and thus leaded me to try real Sageuk, gotta mention though that Miss cooking DJG was my first^^

  2. lei2010 says:

    now i know, why i am becoming addicted to k-dramas, koreans never take a break… hoho

  3. supah says:

    I’m kind of giggling at the comic visuals for The Bride Mask. Haha! (Need to get my mind out of the gutter.) But I’m sure the mask in the sageuk adaptation will be a lot less erm, exaggerated.

    I’m kind of a sageuk n00b, used to avoid it as I kind of stuggled with the sageuk speak and was reliant on subs and generally not fond of pompous royals. I kind of tried to get into it with Queen Seon-deok and Chuno, both were a little hit and miss, with QSD starting off promising and ending up draggy as the story and characters went limp, and Chuno was good but also bad. But since last year I’ve made more of an effort to get into the genre (because there’s very little else on offer besides rom-coms otherwise, and I need heavier fare in my life). I started on the more manageable sageuk and have since graduated upwards — currently watching Dae Jo-yeong.

    The lineup looks really good and still looking forward to Baek Dong-soo although my heart sinks a little seeing it looking all Ilijimae-ish and possible teenie-bopper sageuk, especially with the possibility of Kim Bum taking the role. Now if Choi Min-soo and Nam Ji-hyun had been cast in something like Tree with Deep Roots instead.
    I like Jang Hyuk and rate him as an actor, he was magnificent in Chuno, but he doesn’t naturally carry the attributes that I personally like to see in actors. Which kind of affects how much I look forward to his projects (as in, I don’t.)

    The Princess’s Man seems interesting — and quite similar to Ja Myung-go, that was a solid love story. ❤

    • blue says:

      I’m with you on Jang Hyuk, except I don’t rate him much as an actor and think he’s overrated. But Han Suk Kyu in Tree with Deep Roots (he’ll be playing King Sejong) should be wonderful! The storyline sounds fascinating.

      I’m interested in The Princess’s Man, but I think my final opinion will depend on the cast. This one, more than any others on the list, really needs likable actors to play the two leading roles.

      Bride Mask is probably not a sageuk per se, but more like a period piece similar to Capital Scandal.

  4. sandy says:

    personally I am very interested in the joseon era I even read the whole thing and there is alot of bizzar stuff that could be brilliant material for sageuks but since kland is all about ratings and money makin you hardly find interesting ones thats not just a boring tale of a king and his women and his horse my fav happenes to be the king and I /jamyunggo/8days and citc which I did not love really but the script was nothing short of genius mixing the past and the present with a shakespearean like dialogue no wonder it was written in 3 years I also heard shin don is good as well but its not available

    regarding this list like i said before the princess man sounds ok but I have to wait to see the cast and more info its been a while since we had a romance sageuk

    faith is meh since medical stuff is not my thing and we already had a couple of them anyway

    my problem with tress with deep roots which sounds kind of interesting is Jang Hyuk he is one of those very overrated actors he lacks depth and charisma and he is one of those who want to be in as much of projects as possible I wonder if he ever sleeps

    I dont know about the bride mask one if they are going to make it it sounds like a joke or something maybe another Hong Gil Dong

    my dream sageuk would be filled with secrets and fantasy and dancing and witches and curses I love that sort of thing or a sageuk about an usual figure like a singer or a spy


    • blue says:

      I haven’t watched it myself, but in case you’re interested, just wanted to let you know that Eng subbed Shin Don is available on both DramaFever and crunchyroll.

    • supah says:

      Sandy: have you seen Joseon X-Files yet? That might be right up your street. It has pretty much all of those elements.

      Another one that I’d recommend is the short drama (2 episodes) First Marriage (I know, totally vacant title). It’s wonderful, amazing, magical.
      It’s a sageuk about a bunch of gypsies and their wierd and wonderful traditions carried forth (in terms of arts, crafts and their superstitions/beliefs). Only problem is, it’s unsubbed and almost unheard of. (I’m surprised, since it came out late last year as part of SBS’s 20 year anniversary celebrations).

      Blue: Oh, you’re so right, the Tree premise sounds fantastic. I’ve heard of Han Suk-kyu but never really seen the guy in anything, but I’m definitely looking forward to it.
      I’m glad you’ve noted that it’s a remake of an 80s MBC drama, I know dramas may use the same titles but are complete separate entities, so I was wondering whether it would be a retelling of the same story.

      Ohh… I LOVE modern period dramas, I’m guessing it’ll be a fictional and more elaborate take on the Kim Doo-han story (And yes, I’ve seen both Rustic Period and The General’s Son <– Park Sang-miiiiinn!!).

  5. Rose says:

    I love Sageuk dramas : Merchant Kim Man Dok (only up to episode 10 although), Queen Seon Duk or the fusion genre like Painter of the Wind, Hong Gil Dong, Joseon-crack Sungkyunkwan scandal so I’m anticipating very very much The Princess’ Man !

  6. sandy says:

    ok back to this post cause we have casting news the princess man heroine will be moon chae won now I dont know why did they cast her even though she is filming a sageuk movie also ( FOR VERY MYSTERIOUS REASONS SOME ACTRESSES ARE FORGOTTEN FOR YEARS AND SOME GET TONS OF ROLES AT THE SAME TIME ) and why her not someone more well known I dont know how do I feel about this I dont like or dislike her sometimes I find her face VERY annoying but if the story is so good we will see

    regarding Honorable Baek Dong-soo he wont be kim bum but someone who I havent even heard of and who is a star of daily smash hit thats enough to stay clear from this one

  7. Betsy says:

    Sageuks are what made my husband and I discover the amazing culture, history and talent of the people of Korea. It started with the showing of Wang Gunn about 7-8 years ago. Now we’ve watched many, read everything we can get on Korea, get google news of Korea and have been to South Korea twice. We have coached and tutored many newcomers to New Jersey in English.
    And we’re crazy over Korean BBQ!

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