Original Air Date: January – March 2012
Plot: Set in Joseon times, this historical drama is about a fictional crown prince who is engaged to a smart intelligent young lady. Due to political scheming and corruptness, she ends up being cursed, losing her memory, and becomes a shaman.
Watched Because: Kim Soo Hyun was my first ever Kdrama actor crush after seeing him in My Love from the Star. To help with the MLFTS withdrawals, I had to search him out in another drama! When I watched this back in 2019, it is also the first historical drama (sageuk: 사극) I had ever watched.
Moon Embracing the Sun is a twenty-episode historical/fantasy/romance drama set in the Joseon Era. It was extremely well received in South Korea with a peak rating of 42.2%. It also won multiple awards including the drama of the year and actor of the year at the Baeksang Arts Awards, MBC drama awards, and others. I personally really enjoyed it and binged it incredibly quickly. Here in 2021, I ended up going on a second binge when I rewatched it to write this blog. With my Kim Soo Hyun bias lens on, this is a must-see. But with my blogger analytic hat on, I do recognize that the drama had some missteps in the writing and in the casting.
But first, what I loved!
My learning of the Joseon Era. I know sageuk’s are not for everyone. But I personally do enjoy them because I love learning about the history and culture of countries through movies and tv. Through sageuk’s, the history of Korea really come alive for me. Yes, I know things are dramatized and Moon Embracing the Sun, is based on a fictional king and mystical magical experiences with shamanism. But it still teaches you a lot about the political structures of Joseon, the hierarchies from the King down to the servants, the culture, the style of clothing, the food, etc… I find it all so interesting. With every sageuk I watch, I learn something new about Korea’s past and it prompts me to start doing my own reading and googling of Korean history. From this drama, I ended up reading and learning a little more about shamanism in Korea’s religious history.
The child actors and actresses
The first 6 episodes were set 8 years in the past with child actors and actresses. They were so amazing, I was actually a little sad to leave them in episode 6 for the time skip to the present and the adult actors. Having more Korean dramas under my belt, it was also exciting to see familiar faces in their younger childhood acting days.
Yeo Jin Goo, child crown-prince. He was amazing as the young spirited crown prince who fell in love with his princess. After this drama, he was nicknamed the nation’s little brother. His most recent adult roles are The Crowned Clown, My Absolute Boyfriend, Hotel Del Luna, and Beyond Evil.
Kim Yoo Jung, child originally betrothed to the crown prince. She was OUTSTANDING as the young to be a crown princess. So outstanding, she completely overshadowed her adult counterpart (more of that in my could have been better section). She was nicknamed the nation’s little sister. She’s been in a billion dramas at a young age. Her most recent adult roles are Love in the Moonlight, Backstreet Rookie, and Lovers of the Red Sky. I really have the urge to go watch Lovers of the Red Sky just to see her.
Kim So Hyun, the young to be Queen. I also liked her better than her adult version. Also nicknamed nation’s little sister (I guess they like this type of nickname?) Most recent adult roles include Love Alarm, Tale of Nokdu, and River Were the Moon Rises.
Im Si Wan, young teacher to the crown prince. Again, I thought he was a better cast than the adult version! His most recent adult roles include the lead role in Misaeng and Run On.
I don’t know if it is the fault of the drama that they left us with the child actors for so long, but it was really hard to leave them and then adjust to their adult selves. None of them looked like their characters and a lot of them felt like they had personality transplants. It took a few episodes to get back into the drama with the adult cast.
Kim Soo Hyun is the best king ever.
Okay, that’s only a slightly biased opinion! But he did win multiple actor awards for his portrayal, so the experts also thought he was amazing! He had such a commanding regal aura around him. As he barked orders or got angry at those around him, you felt his power. Then in the next scene, you could feel his anguish as he would cry over the situation he is in. He could turn on the playful king with his bodyguard and eunuch. Then, he could turn on the swoony/cute with his love. His range is so good. Seriously, he is awesome.
Eunuch Hyung Sun (played by Jung Eun Pyo)
I loved his eunuch so much. He was well written and well-acted. He brought the needed comedic relief to the show. I loved how playful he was with the king and would help him to explain how girls’ brains work or what gifts mean. I love that the King would always tell him to go face the wall when he got mad at him! I loved the snowmen he built for the king. He had such a good on-screen connection with both the young crown prince and the older King.
In general, I enjoyed the plot
For the most part, I found the plot to be pretty engaging and interesting. It was mostly a love story set in Joseon times with family politics and betrayal getting in the way. They tended to leave you with cliffhangers at the end of each episode, so it keeps you in binge mode.
The casting of Han Ga In/The writing of her character in the back half. As I mentioned earlier, the younger actress who played her role was fabulous. She was able to do nuanced facial expressions and a variety of emotional scenes. But the writers also wrote her character as an amazing young lady. She was intelligent, she had spunk, she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind about ethics and politics. She made the young crown prince think about the world differently. It was easy to see how he fell in love with her. But when we switched to her adult self, Han Ga In played the role very flat. Her expression was usually open eye shock or tearing up. She spoke very reticently and quietly.
The writers also didn’t do her justice. She now turned into a weak female who constantly had bad things done to her and she just passively accepted it. I kept waiting for that spunk in her to return. I kept waiting for her to take charge of her own destiny, but to the end, she was passive. And to top it off, once she finally found her memories, she decided to hide them and let herself be in exile? Why would she not tell the king and try to problem-solve with him? Then she ends up locked in his closet for how many episodes in hiding? Sure there were a few cute moments between them. But how pitiful did she become that she was content being locked in a closet instead of using her extreme intelligence to figure out a way out of the situation? But nope, instead, the king figured out on his own how to solve the dilemma and she remained in his closet. What a waste. She ended up being a disappointing lead female after the fantastic start.
The plot/ending/character writing
Stagnant Plot. Around episode 13 or so, you realize the plot really isn’t moving. It’s the same cycle of the king and prince fighting for a girl. The girl continually has bad things done to her (e.g. that torture scene was tough to watch). The girl accepts the bad things getting done to her. Like yeah, don’t worry I was almost beaten to death, but how is your health king?
Stagnant Love Triangle/Handling of Prince Yangmyung. They also stretched the love triangle too long with Prince Yangmyung (played by Jung Il Woo). He just started to look so pathetic going after Shaman Wol when he knew she didn’t love him and he loved his brother the king. We didn’t really need it to get stretched for ALL TWENTY episodes. And then to kill him in the end as he still imagined her face. Plus the way he got killed was a little ridiculous. Could no one really stop that spear coming at him? Why was he resigned to commit suicide? Why does that help the plot at all? What a one-dimensional character that since he didn’t get the girl, he had to die. Why couldn’t he get over the girl, and go live a life where he went on to do well in the world with his knowledge of medicine.
Not utilizing the side characters fully.
I was pretty disappointed in the handling of Seol’s character. I was waiting for her to play a larger role in protecting Shaman Wol. I wanted to see her bad-ass sword skills. But the writers never used her fully, she kept her mouth shut for 8 years and died protecting Heo Yeom, which was a tear-jerker scene. But it bothered me that they made her die for romantic love for her former master rather than to die in a friendship protective love for Seol. It could have been a 10x more heartbreaking scene to die protecting Shaman Wol. Instead, Shaman Wol found out while being locked in the king’s closet and never got to say goodbye to her friend of 8 years.
Your tears don’t fool me, Princess.
Princess Minhwa character and relationship. Princess Minhwa and Heo Yeom were lacking major romantic chemistry. It may have been the adult casting of Heo Yeom. But he treated her as a younger sister he was not interested in. And he always rebuffed her advances and avoided their consummation date. So it was a head-scratcher when she was suddenly pregnant. When did they consummate? It’s like the writers wanted a reason to hold on to her when the truth got revealed. But I just didn’t believe it when suddenly Heo Yeom was now in love with her and after her exile, still, loved her and wanted to be with her? And for her to tell the king, she would do it again and help “kill” his bride just to have her husband. What? Talk about zero character development. And she is supposedly married to the most ethical and just teacher in the drama. It just bothers me that the writers left her alive and eventually gave her back her husband and child when she was spoiled entitled “murderer.” But they decided to kill Prince Yangmyung and Seol, the loyal servant?
*Spoil alert over*
So as you can see, the drama was far from perfect. However, despite some writing and casting lapses, I still enjoyed it tremendously on both the first and second watches. The plot was interesting enough to me to keep me engaged to the end. Kim Soo Hyun put in an amazing performance as the King. I also enjoyed the acting by his eunuch, his bodyguard, and his brother the prince. The younger cast is also worth the watch on the first 6 episodes to see a lot of adult actors now in their childhood breakout roles.
It’s a must-see for any Kim Soo Hyun fan. But if you aren’t into him or historical dramas, you may struggle through politics and violence. If you want to get your feet wet into the sageuk world, I think there might be more lighter-friendly ones to try like Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung or Mr. Queen.
Final Opinion: Add it to your sageuk watch list.
Bonus: Here’s Kim Soo Hyun singing one of the songs from the OST