The Red Sleeve (2021) Early Look
For the love of Lee Se-young, one of the genuine acting talents of her generation, I started this despite having a full plate of dramas calling out to me. Her versatility was showcased in the 2017 fantasy A Korean Odyssey where she handily played multiple characters and was pitted against veterans. Even while that drama devolved into a blithering storytelling mess, she was a consistent stand-out from start to finish and an acting powerhouse in the making. On top of that she has striking good looks reminiscent of an old-fashioned movie star. As one might expect, she delivers mightily here.
Lee Se-young dons the red cuff garment of an 18th century Joseon court lady to play the role of Sung Deok-im, a spunky transcriber cum storyteller placed in the eastern palace where the Crown Prince, Yi San takes up residence. The two (based loosely on historical characters) have their first encounter in childhood and knock heads 10 years later in an old musty library, resulting in a boisterous case of mistaken identity. It’s a trope fest from the first although without the more unpleasant peer rivalries that often plague these types of palace tales. So far. At the time of writing, Deok-im is surrounded by her three besties who are mutually supportive and even the head court lady with an agenda is a kindly figure who takes a keen interest in her future right from the start.
Her only romantic interest (thank God) is the above mentioned crown prince played by Lee Jun-ho, a popular idol actor although in all frankness, I’ve never been a fan of. There’s something about the affected earnestness in his performance that doesn’t sit comfortably with me but to be fair he is capable of genuine gravitas when called for it. That said, his chemistry with Lee Se-young is excellent and they spar off each other rather nicely. Though next in line for the throne, Yi San has the misfortune perhaps of being his father’s progeny. His father, the infamous Prince Sado, who was put to death by the current king’s decree, was rumoured to have mental health issues, prone to violent outbursts and according to this version was the terror of palace servants, many of whom allegedly died in his hands. Despite being his grandfather’s chosen heir, Yi San is perceived to be an unfit successor by elements in Joseon court and lives his life walking a precarious tightrope because genetics (even in those days) is destiny. We’re also meant to pity him because of his tumultuous upbringing and Grandpa’s tough love approach to raising a future king seems at times to cross the line into abuse. Something, methinks, akin to the old electric shock treatment dished out to inmates in psychiatric institutions. Grandpa probably likes to think of himself as a loving elder but often he comes across as a blustering tyrant. Still, Yi San is determined to be king so he puts up and shuts up, which is probably one of the more pleasing aspects to the drama. I tend to be partial to ambitious crown princes unless there are serious character defects that disqualify them from the job but a young man who accepts his destiny to rule in order to improve the lot of his subjects is usually music to my ears.
The prince’s gyeomsaseo, his right-hand man and key advisor, is a shady and dubious creature who turns on the charm when it suits. He’s a fine looking fellow that has the ladies falling all over him but he’s clearly riding on the coattails of the crown prince in the hopes of gaining real political power when there’s a change of management. He quickly perceives Deok-im as a threat to his position as the prince’s closest confidante when he notes the obvious partiality shown by the prince towards this lowly court lady. There’s little doubt that he has thoughts of setting his younger sister up with the future monarch to consolidate his role in Joseon. The actor, Kang Hoon, gives a terrific performance of someone who epitomizes a playful understated danger — like a lurking cobra slithering around opportunistically.
Among the villains, the least likeable is Princess Hwawan, the king’s daughter who with her adopted son, is scheming with one of the main ministers. She’s your typical, catty, teeth grinding, screechy female baddie that is written to be hated by everyone. From time to time she displays the odd glimpse of cunning but she’s not especially bright. In fact her insufferable arrogance leads her to be careless about who she offends. Short-term gratification as a result of vanity is ultimately her downfall.
But what’s a palace romance without some harem politics to throw catfights into the mix?
Of the two sageuks that I’m currently watching, I’m inclined to think that this is the better one even if it starts off painfully snail-like. However, the integration of the romance with the political landscape is a well-oiled machinery that demonstrates clarity of thought behind the project. I’m also of the view that the romance in this is better written, putting flesh on both leads as well as giving them both a far stronger foundation (and not just a fated connection) to building a romance that signals long-term political ramifications. The mistaken identity trope though frustrating at first, did on hindsight create a durable vehicle for the pair to have interactions on a more equal footing — a storytelling device that aims to go the distance. This meant that Yi San would take notice of Deok-im immediately. Admittedly I didn’t care for Yi San in the early episodes as he seemed, under the cloak of deception to be unnecessarily (and petulantly) tormenting Deok-im but on hindsight all of that has become the basis and justification for why he falls for her in unseemly haste. Rather than relying on the clumsy integration of rom com tropes to carry the romance forward, the show displays in a series of inadvertent confession scenes the strengthening of the bond that’s being forged between the duo. As much as Yi San is a prince, he is a hot blooded male who is passionate about many things, Deok-im eventually being one of them. He values loyalty and her unwavering determination to aid him in his times of need, buys a great deal of currency and seals the deal in terms of claiming his affections. As for me it’s always much more entertaining to see the male lead questioning his sanity when he falls for the female lead and despite his higher status in relation to hers, is racked with doubts about her feelings for him. This formula has always been a huge selling point for a viewer like me. Overall the fluff has some weight and it doesn’t take me right out of the show in a way that The King’s Affection does.
It’s always pleasing when the leads are both intelligent people (although not ridiculously so) and happily the plot isn’t driven in large part by someone’s stupidity or recklessness. Of course it’s still early days and trainwrecks can still come about especially in the crucial final act when a lot of dramas lose steam completely and splutter miserably towards the final stop. This is a historical romance with lots potential to be great right to the end so please nobody screw this up.