Updated: Mar 20
As we celebrate being “lit” in April, let’s look at one of the k-dramas adapted from literature in its digital form, the web novel, specifically, Naver's Gooreumi Geurin Dalbit. Moonlight Drawn by Clouds (2016), also known as Love in the Moonlight, is a well-made coming-of-age romance sageuk (historical show). Its first-time leads, Park Bo-gum and Kim Yoo-jung, won the 53rd Baeksang Arts Awards Most Popular Actor and Actress, respectively.
Forced by her mother to live as a man, Hong Sam-nom (Kim Yoo-Jung) scrapes a living as a street-smart love counselor and romance novelist. The mischievous Crown Prince, Lee Young (Park Bo-gum) roams the streets incognito, hunting for the writer of his sister's love letter. It turns out, Sam-nom does pen that letter, but it’s for one of her clients. Young, thinking that the love consultant herself is seducing his sister, confronts Sam-nom. The love guru tries to escape, but both fall into a pit. The Crown Prince helps the relationship counselor out but Sam-nom leaves him behind, promising to be Young’s “dog” (slave) when they meet again.
Sam-nom, unfortunately, gets sold as a eunuch. While trying to escape from the Palace, she encounters a mysterious man. As the clouds hover past the moon, the moonlight reveals the dark figure as Young, disguised as a Palace guard. The Crown Prince recognizes Sam-nom, dressed as a eunuch, and breaks into a prankish smile as he remembers Sam-nom’s oath.
Inside the Palace, Young learns to accept and fulfill his responsibility for the kingdom as his father becomes mentally unfit to rule. Despite the risk of revealing her identity and losing her life, Sam-nom helps the Crown Prince out of sticky situations, mostly brought about by Young’s political rivals. Together, the Crown Prince and Sam-nom navigate their way around the precarious Palace politics with the help of Eunuch Jang (Lee Joon-hyuk), the Crown Prince’s Head of the Royal Guard Kim Byung-yeon (Kwak Dong-yeon), Young’s mortal frenemy Kim Yoon-sung (Jung Jin-young), and Crown Princess Jo Ha-yeon (Chae Soo-bin). Politics is as strong as ever amidst a backdrop of famine, a peasant rebellion, and the Qing ambassador’s power flex.
The k-drama is meticulously planned and magnificently executed in all aspects: engaging storytelling, kilig-inducing chemistry of the leads, solid supporting cast, stunning cinematography, and an emotionally-stirring original sound track (OST).
Historical note: The Crown Prince Hyomyeong (1809-1830) was the eldest son of King Sunjo (1790-1834) and Queen Sunwon (1789-1857). The queen outlived her husband and son IRL, but in the fictional story, she died when the prince was still a child. It seems the story starts in the 1820s, during the late Joseon period.
The fictional tale starts by introducing characters in comical anime-ish scenes, and balances cliffhangers and early pleasant surprises in the middle. At the end, it resolves the knots satisfyingly, except for a few sluggish episodes and one character's disappointing arc. Recurring themes (identity reveal, longing for a mother) and imagery (moon and clouds, water, dark vs. vibrant colors) are deftly woven into the storytelling. For example, water is at first associated with the Crown Prince's memory of his mother, but later, with uncovering an aspect of Sam-nom's identity. Silence is also organically used as a plot device: Young uses sign language to convey his feeling to Sam-nom without being caught by the ministers.
The audience can feel the kilig whenever Young and Sam-nom are in a frame together—they don't even need to speak!
Even as individuals, they are strong and independent; together, they not only overcome their emotional wounds, but also heal the people around them. The mutual trust and respect of our one true pair (OTP) for each other reduce (not eliminate, though) the unnecessary but common couple drama tropes.
Now, to address the elephant in the Palace: the taboo relationship is handled delicately. The Crown Prince's conflicted feelings toward Sam-nom are replaced by resolve and acceptance of the possible consequences of “this bad love.” Young handles the unexpected "gender" reveal maturely, experiencing a stream of emotions from denial, shock, and anger to relief and hope, succinctly narrated by his facial expressions in less than a minute.
As for Sam-nom, yes, the viewer may need to suspend disbelief as she still looks like a woman, not just a eunuch with a feminine face. However, while her femininity is repressed for being forced to live as a boy, she finds creative ways to put bread on the table. Sam-nom does lose her spunk and needs saving towards the end. However, her transformation from a eunuch on survival mode to the Crown Prince's savior is a notable achievement in itself.
Solid Supporting Cast
While Young’s regency is decided by his father, he knows he needs help to become competent. He seeks and consults an exiled but wise teacher, Jeong Yak-yong (Ahn Nae-sang). Historical note: He's a well-known poet, author, and one of the most influential thinkers of the late Joseon era.
The Prince Regent is also supported day-to-day by Eunuch Jang, who remains loyal to him in spite of the intrigues. Ha-yeon, upon recognizing the Crown Prince's true feelings, helps him amicably settle the question of their royal marriage.
Young's childhood friend Byung-yeon serves him as his loyal and dashing bodyguard. The Prince Regent also forms a temporary and unlikely alliance with the noble Yoon-sung, despite the enmity between them. When the three of them team up to rescue Sam-nom, it seems no problem is left unsolved. The way Young plans, deploys resources, and uses evidence to decide shows the remarkable growth in his role not just as regent, but also as ruler.
Each scene feels like a breathtaking photograph, enriching the drama further. Here are three iconic scenes, all involving water.
Young rescues Sam-nom.
Sam-nom trades the eunuch garb, stands in for a missing dancer, and saves the Crown Prince's Royal Banquet.
Young, Yoon-sung, and Sam-nom inadvertently meet as they wait for the rain to stop.
The OST adds even more depth to the awe-inspiring scenes. Park Ji-yeon, more popularly known as Gummy, sang the title track. Park Bo-gum, whom fans also call BOGUMMY, sang "My Person" (co-written by Kim Se-jin) which became #1 on seven South Korean music charts upon release.
Popular and Critical Reception
Even though the drama starts out light and fluffy, it does have its dark and serious moments, making it more than "just" a basic gender-swap show. So popular was Moonlight Drawn by Clouds that it peaked at 23.3% viewer ratings nationwide (AGB Nielsen) and later received six Baeksang nominations and won Best Drama Series in the 22nd Asian Television Awards.
To cap it all off, enjoy the anachronistic yet well-fitting "trailer" for the drama below:
STREAM IF: You like a well-crafted k-drama and an engaging cast, not to mention a solid OTP and an amusing bromance (k-drama available on Netflix, Viu, and Viki; web novel on Naver).
SKIP IF: You want a rom-com that is light through-and-through and if you need a female lead that never becomes a damsel in distress.