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The Red Sleeve (2021) Episodes 9-10
I enjoy this show (but to what degree is still in doubt because there’s the dreaded third act to come) and there’s certainly much to like about it especially the build up of the romance between Sung Deok-im and Yi San. The chemistry is palpably excellent and the actors are undoubtedly delivering in spades there. Their interactions are always beautifully acted, directed and shot. The push and pull, rather than being frustrating, soldiers on plausibly in light of the historical context and the political agendas that are at play as the romance blossoms between king and maid. Moreover, what’s also good is the wide array of characters — prominent and supporting — who aren’t necessarily good or bad in the obvious sense but genuine antagonists to the protagonists’ vision of the world. Take Hong Deok-ro for instance. He’s a hugely ambitious and is well-aware that supporting Yi San is his ticket to greater power and find his way to the history books. Even Yi San is aware that his so-called closest advisor isn’t as loyal to him as he gives the appearance of being. Deok-ro is not only far too eager to prove himself but he’s clearly not on board with Yi San’s growing attachment to Deok-im. Not because he likes her himself but because it diminishes his own relationship to the crown prince. The guy is machiavellian in as much as he’s allowed to be in a show like this, good looks notwithstanding. This is one of the more fascinating three-way dynamics that I’ve seen in K dramas for a while. Far more intriguing than any overwrought love triangle. The old king is also an interesting beast in this story. So much of what transpires hingest on his reaction and yet in effect he himself is largely a bystander and a convenient weapon of choice by those actively working against his grandson. Whether he realises it or not, he is being manipulated or exploited by others ironically because of his tenuous hold on power and reality. We also should give the writer credit for a character like Court Lady Jo who holds to her own principles in line with her position and yet there’s a zealotry that’s ominously dangerous and destabilizing for the nation. It seems to me that those who think that they have a right to make these sorts of life-death decisions to the disregard of anything else almost always end up doing more damage than the threat that they are trying to stem.
However… (you knew that was coming didn’t you?) in the last episodes I found the schemes of Court Lady Jo hard to buy into. I can accept on some level that she’s running a court lady cult but a girl power ninja army evenly matched with seasoned palace guards is… for me… a bridge too far. For one, where’s all the training taking place? Traditionally female spies through the ages would use seduction, drugs, wiles and blackmail to get the job done. Fairly effectively too. The fact that there’s a highly female army operating under the noses of the court for this long and no one has noticed… takes me right out of the experience. On top of that I didn’t find the sword fights anything to write home about.
Perhaps this is a small matter for some but these recent events it seems to me, highlights the limitations of the show itself. Because of Sung Deok-im’s background, the decision was obviously made to focus on the behind the scenes conspiratorial happenings of the court ladies who otherwise lead fairly mundane, routine lives. I have no issues about well-presented female characters plotting against the crown prince — it’s generally par for the course — but raising an army is almost never the modus operandi because the logistics would be challenging at the very least.
This also highlights some of the problems I’ve had with more recent sageuks and the truth is Red Sleeve is one of the better ones to date. There’s not only a dilution of the tragic vision but it’s become a vehicle (almost exclusively these days) to write a modern melodrama using an ancient setting. Some productions do this better than others obviously. However, it is one of the reasons that I haven’t watched or finished very many sageuks in the last two to three years. The target demographic for these so-called fusion sageuks have changed. And it isn’t just a K drama phenomenon either.
I’ve been watching a couple of videos by a YouTuber called Critical Drinker. I’m not sure why his stuff popped up on my recommended feed but he has insights that I’m entirely in agreement with about why modern films are unwatchable. One of his videos puts forward the argument that films are now written by children. On that point I would beg to differ slightly. I think what’s actually happening is that most films (and even tv shows) are written for children or younger people. Films have also become overtly propagandist in recent years.
When I was watching the last episode it struck me that I was watching a Nancy Drew story. Or something from a Saturday morning cartoon show. There’s something about the ninja army sequence that felt instinctively cartoony to me.
One of the reasons why I like Deok-im (and I’m sure it’s the case for Yi San as well) is that she knows and increasingly feels her limitations acutely as a working woman in that era. While she has her personality and talents they exist within the confines of her culture. Furthermore she’s profoundly loyal to Yi San. She’s not portrayed as a kind of wonder woman but ultimately it’s her character that makes her an attractive figure. That’s why it seems to me bizarre that there would be ninja court ladies in this narrative arising out of a cult. I think it was interesting too when asked why he showed preference for Noble Consort Yeong, the old king said that it was because Consort Yeong made him feel relaxed and comfortable. It makes sense. She wasn’t someone who wanted something from the king and she provided a place of refuge from the political storms created by others. Let’s give the old king his due too. In his heyday, he was a shrewd operator undoubtedly. I’m sure he knew what was going on even if he wasn’t privy to every conversation held among the court ladies.
I realise that this is not the common perspective of these last two episodes but it seems that some of the issues that I’ve been having with sageuks for a while now happen to emerge in these recent episodes. I don’t think it takes away from the romance at all but there’s something incoherent going on for me in the storytelling that’s possibly more about getting to the 17 episode finishing line.