[Review] Saimdang, Light’s Diary – 사임당, 빛의 일기


Seo Ji Yoon (Lee Young Ae) is a Korean art history lecturer at Hankuk University about to finish up her PhD, advised by the university’s renowned professor, Min Jung Hak (Choi Jong Hwan).  Her path to obtaining tenure is ruined when she publicly expresses doubt about recently discovered painting, Geumgangsando, and its authenticity.  Outraged, he moves to sabotage her reputation and career.

While in Italy, she happens to stumble on an old diary written by a Joseon aristocrat, Lee Gyum (Song Seung Hun), which leads her to a portrait of Shin Saimdang (also played by Lee Young Ae).  Feeling an immediate connection to the historical figure, Ji Yoon decides to use the diary, which mentions the Geumgangsando, and the portrait to clear her name and tarnished reputation.  Through her journey, she rediscovers the extraordinary life of Shin Saimdang, an artist, writer, calligrapher, poet and mother to an influential Joseon scholar dubbing her the moniker, Wise Mother.

I’m not sure if Shin Saimdang would have considered herself a feminist but to me, she’s an admirable figure in being able to cross the restrictive gender boundary lines during the Joseon era.  This would probably not have been possible if it weren’t for the support of her family and even her husband who allowed her to have such freedom.  Considering that she is called Wise Mother, it’s an indication that that freedom fostered an environment that encourage another generation of talent and intellect.

The thing that initially drew me to this drama was the past and present storylines.  Oftentimes sageuks can feel distant, mainly because I’m not familiar with the historical context, but the story of Ji Yoon is a helpful tool in bridging that gap and making the story more relevant to modern audiences.  It’s interesting to see the role reversal of Ji Yoon’s life in the present compared with Saimdang, especially when you see scenes of Ji Yoon preparing a fancy meal for Professor Min or Saimdang having the freedom to get an education and paint.

It’s been 14 years since Lee Young Ae was on television in this pre-produced drama.  At times, I did find myself cringing when she played Ji Yoon in the present day scenes.  In the drama, Ji Yoon faces a number of setbacks, not only in her professional life but in her personal life as well.  Not only did I find Lee Young Ae’s performances in these scenes over-the-top but incredibly dated.  She more nuanced in playing Saimdang which is enjoyable to watch but as stated above, I really looked to Ji Yoon as the gateway in between these two worlds.

Song Seung Hun has been slammed before regarding his acting in dramatic roles.  He doesn’t quite have the gravitas as other veteran actors of his age and even I have enjoyed watching him dramas for the man candy.  It’s not that he’s a terrible actor but he just tows the line between good and bad.  However, this drama is an indication of how much he’s matured as he’s begun to show a wider variety of his range through subtle changes in his delivery.  Also of note, I could not seem to get over how he’s managed to age backwards in the last 20 years.  Please lead me to the fountain of youth.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the fresh-face up and coming actors.  Simply put, Yang Se Jong is delightful as the young Lee Gyum and Ji Yoon’s university junior, Hang Sang Hyun.  He is literally the Next K-Drama Star to keep an eye out for and you bet I’ve been keeping a close eye on him.  Similarly, Park Hye Soo is very talented as the young Shin Saimdang.  As the younger version of Lee Young Ae’s character, Park Hye Soo is convincing as the free-spirit who dreams are crush when her life and the life of her family is threatened.  She’s the one who has to convince viewers that what Saimdang experiences in her youth is the person that Lee Young Ae plays later on in the drama and she does an excellent job.

I am always in support of pre-produced dramas.  However, I also glad that the producers saw the ratings and decided to re-edit parts of the drama.  My problem with the drama’s pace is that the sageuk story seemed to dominate much of the screentime and made the present day story a side plotline.  However, the second act in the battle between Seo Ji Yoon, Min Jung Hak and the university’s dean is repetitive and sluggish that it drags most of the drama down.  I wanted to care about what happened to Ji Yoon and her cohorts because she is supposed to make Saimdang’s story relatable but there wasn’t enough in that story that captivated me.

It is unfortunate that the drama’s sluggish pace and clumsy storytelling are the reasons for the drama’s shortcoming.  That’s a problem that could have been easily solve, especially considering that it was a pre-produced drama.  However, there is a lot that I enjoyed with this drama.  The cast is fantastic and the drama is beautifully shot.  Most of all, Shin Saimdang is a fascinating person.  While the story between her and Lee Gyum was fictionalized, it was their relationship that entertained me and made their situation relatable ‘til the very end.  It pays off to watch until the end to see how the drama comes full circle.



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