The Red Sleeve had a solid start but unfortunately wandered off the track towards the end and got lost in its own introspection. For nearly everything I liked about this drama, there was a counterweight of something I didn’t like. I will also admit I went into this with expectations of a sweeping historical romance, as I had heard this was a drama that captured people’s hearts with its love story, but, uhm… well, more on that in the review. Cause there was good and bad there, too, unfortunately.
The story itself was interesting and fresh. Though I am familiar with the fate of Crown Prince Sado, I am less familiar with the story of his son, King Jeongjo. I was captivated by the struggles of this young man, his fierce battle to always appear even tempered, intelligent, and upstanding so as never to be compared with his violent, mentally unstable father. You could really sense the pressure this young royal was under, how practiced his manners were, how he forced himself to endure any hardships with near silence and restraint. Lee Joon-Ho was surprisingly good in this role, for the most part, his bright eyes barely hiding the amount of intense suppressed emotion he carried around inside him.
He was especially charming in the beginning of this show. We got to enjoy one of the most tried-and-true tropes, the prince in disguise, as he sat around the library flirting with our lead female, the palace maid who somehow failed to recognize him as royalty.
These were the best episodes, in my opinion, and where both the lead male and lead female truly shined. At this point in the drama, the script felt focused and on track to deliver a great story of a young man navigating the complexities of politics and the dangers of the royal court while finding a loyal and intelligent woman to stand by his side. The King even says this. Verbatim. Like a thesis statement. That the crown prince will need to find solace and comfort in a woman, someone who can be his rock as he navigates the raging sea of politics. And for about half of the drama, that is the storyline we were given. And it was great.
I am most familiar with Lee Joon-Ho from Cheese in the Trap, one of my favorite coming of age stories (despite its flaws). He was excellent in that show as the extroverted, charming, troublemaker second male lead – the counterbalance to the serious, near psychopathic male lead. As a casting director, I can’t say Lee Joon-Ho would have been my first choice for this role, but overall the actor pulled it off. Personally, I think he’s better suited to a historical drama with more comedy, but whatever.
The most emotional aspect he was required to deliver was his conflicted relationship with the King. And he nailed it. You could sense how much he feared and probably despised his grandfather. And with good reason.
For those of you who may not know – Crown Prince Sado was murdered by his father. His death was particularly cruel – as no one wanted to outright murder him – so they shut in a small box until he died from starvation and dehydration. There were a lot of reasons behind Sado’s murder, but the constant criticism and strict disapproval of his father, the King, were certainly culprits. The King, played by Lee Deok-Hwa, was outstanding and captured both the disarming charm of the man as well as his mercurial nature, his fits of rage and suspicion, and his descent into dementia. Would it have been nice to have a little more overview into what exactly transpired between the King and his son Sado? Well… yes. I imagine it’s common knowledge in South Korea and no one needs the refresher course, but for us foreigner viewers I was grateful I had seen several movies and shows about Sado so I knew what was going on.
So that’s the basic plot. The male lead, our crown prince, is doing everything in his power to appease his grandfather the King and stay in his good graces so that he may one day take the throne. Our crown prince has many ideas for improving the country and is eager to step up and rule. Again, this is another area of the show that is both good and bad. Good, cause I understood why he’d been so studious and forced himself to remain stoic and even tempered in order to secure the crown. Bad, cause the show remained quite vague about the specifics of his grand plans of improvement. It was also quite vague about all the political and bloody turmoil that happened after he took the throne. They felt rather skimmed over and when they did take to the front of the stage, the emotional weight was lacking because those characters hadn’t been developed enough for me to care. Where the script chose to focus its attention often meandered and left me, the viewer, quite annoyed by its choices.
Listen, creating a good historical drama is a tough gig. Most sageuk’s end up like this one, with some solid episodes but overall sort of messy. They can’t all be Six Flying Dragons, I guess. For me, this was worth watching but I’ll never rewatch it. And if I am going to be recommending historical dramas, this won’t be near the top of the list.
Overall Rating: 7/10.
To say more is to venture into spoiler territory so come along with me, my friends, further down the page if you want to dig into the female lead and the awkward handling of gender in this tale.Continue reading