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The Weekend Binge: "The Red Sleeve"

"The king loved the court lady, but did the court lady love the king?”

Based on the true story of Yi San/King Jeongjo of Joseon (2PM's Lee Jun-ho) and court lady Sung Deok-im (Lee Se-young), and the eponymous novel by Kang Mi-kang, The Red Sleeve explores this question over the course of 17 cinematic episodes. While doing so, this drama, written and directed by women, tackles the harsh realities of 18th-century palace life as seen from the perspective of its women—from court ladies whose stories are seldom told, to members of the royal family.

I’ve enjoyed quite a number of k-dramas that aired in 2021 and have written about a couple of them for this blog (click here for my reviews of Mine and One the Woman), but The Red Sleeve is one of those special k-dramas that come only once every couple of years that completely consume me. Having said that, I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to do it justice while keeping spoilers to a minimum, but I’ll give it a try anyway.

We first meet our heroine Sung Deok-im as a precocious court maid trainee. She learns early on that her fate depends on the Crown Prince, and hears from no less than the King himself (Lee Deok-hwa) that the red sleeve cuffs on her uniform symbolize that she belongs to the king. Her intelligence catches the eye of Head Court Lady Jo (Park Ji-young), who sees the young girl’s potential and encourages her to consider becoming a royal concubine in the future in order to elevate her status.

We also meet Crown Prince Yi San, a studious young boy who takes his duty as the future King of Joseon with utmost seriousness. The shadow of his disgraced father’s death looms large over the young heir (for historical context, the 2015 film Sado/The Throne is a must-watch), and he is determined to live up to the expectations of his country and his grandfather, King Yeongjo. The two children encounter each other one late night on their way to the wake of Yi San’s grandmother, Royal Consort Yeongbin, King Yeongjo’s most beloved concubine. After trading barbs and narrowly escaping trouble, they part ways without learning each other’s full identity.

With this foundation firmly established in The Red Sleeve’s magical first episode, the drama fast forwards to Sung Deok-im and Yi San as young adults, played by Lee Se-young and 2PM’s Lee Jun-ho, respectively. Sung Deok-im is as smart and free-spirited as ever, while Yi San is still pompous and serious. A hilarious meet-(again)-cute, adorable bickering brought on by a case of mistaken identity, and a tiger on the prowl provide great entertainment in the drama's early episodes.

But this being a sageuk (historical drama), palace politics soon come into play, and our leads take turns helping each other through difficult, often life-threatening situations. Despite her low status, Sung Deok-im proves to be a valuable ally to the constantly embattled Crown Prince, wielding her intelligence as her strongest weapon. A very smitten Yi San starts to find comfort in his personal court maid's presence.

Sung Deok-im, Ahead of Her Time

As she starts to realize Yi San’s romantic feelings towards her, the alarm bells go off in Sung Deok-im’s head, for she is no ordinary Joseon-era woman. Although she leads a life of servitude, she is quite content to be where she is. She takes pride in being good at her job and is happy to spend her free time with her best friends. She fiercely cherishes the very few freedoms she has, and understands she would lose them if she were to become a royal concubine whose sole function is to produce a royal heir (or a spare).

Sung Deok-im’s independent mindedness and stubborn determination to protect her choices drive the drama’s main conflict and can be frustrating to watch for anyone who was expecting a straightforward love story that would have you rooting for the couple to get together, palli palli. Her loyalty and devotion to Yi San are unquestionable, but whether these are born out of romantic love or a strong sense of duty (or both?) is a theme that threads throughout the series.

Lee Se-young does a fantastic job of communicating this inner conflict through her large, expressive eyes, clear diction, and well-modulated voice. Her performance is nothing short of stellar, and part of me would like to believe that Sung Deok-im herself waited 200 years to be reincarnated as this wonderful actress to tell her story.

While Lee Junho and Lee Se-young's chemistry is off the charts, and the angst of their push-pull dynamic makes for an excruciating slow-burn romance, The Red Sleeve constantly reminds viewers that giving in to Yi San is not an easy decision for a court maid to make, no matter how glorious his abs are. (A quick note: Lee Jun-ho went on a strict chicken breast diet for one year to prepare for this drama, and we are grateful for his sacrifice.)

Yi San, Swoony Yet Flawed

Seriously though, while The Red Sleeve is arguably a feminist drama, it is also the story of Yi San’s journey towards becoming King Jeongjo, the second most beloved Joseon monarch after King Sejong the Great. Lee Jun-ho’s nuanced portrayal does justice to the reformist king by imbuing Yi San with humanity and sensitivity.

King Jeongjo’s extraordinarily well-documented love for Sung Deok-im is the stuff of legends, and Lee Jun-ho perfectly embodies a man who is deeply in love while devoted to being a good father to his nation. And even though he looked impeccable in cheollik (informal day robes) and shot arrows into our hearts with his heartfelt declarations of love, Lee Jun-ho’s Yi San was by no means a fairytale prince.

Yi San's dark side is never glossed over in The Red Sleeve. The childhood trauma from his father’s gruesome execution, the abuse inflicted by his harsh yet well-meaning grandfather, and his sometimes terrifying possessiveness and urge to exert his power over Sung Deok-im all contribute to a realistic portrait of a flawed monarch of his time.

Lee Jun-ho had already proven himself to be a capable actor in his past films and dramas, but The Red Sleeve, his military comeback project, rightfully marks a turning point in the k-pop idol's acting career. His transformation into Yi San was utterly compelling and completely won me (and countless other viewers) over as a new fan.

An "Acting Party"

The Red Sleeve’s leads are supported by an outstanding ensemble of actors, even by already high k-drama standards. There is a crucial scene which brings most of the major characters together in the Royal Office that was hailed online as an “acting party”—you’ll know when you see it—that literally left me breathless. Everyone brought their A-game to this drama, and I can’t imagine a better cast.

While Oh Dae-hwan provided comic relief as Yi San’s close-in guard, Kang Hoon delivered a breakout performance as Yi San’s dubious right-hand man, and Lee Deok-hwa was magnificent as King Yeongjo, it was the drama's female cast that truly brought its dominant themes of choice, sacrifice, and self-love to life.

The Red Sleeve is the first sageuk since the beloved 2003 classic Dae Jang Geum/Jewel in the Palace (which incidentally, Lee Se-young also appeared in) to deeply explore the lives of court ladies as unique individuals with their own stories, fears, and dreams. No palace could properly function without their labor, and it is refreshing to see these strong women in the spotlight, and not just as expendable spies or poison testers.

Park Ji-young is formidable as Head Court Lady Jo, while Jang Hye-jin is so endearing as mamanim Court Lady Seo, Sung Deok-im’s loving mother figure. Lee Min-ji, Ha Yul-ri, and Lee Eun-saem’s chemistry with Lee Se-young as lifelong best friends was heartwarming, and it may even be argued that their precious friendship was the greatest love story of this drama.

Kang Mal-geum, Jang Hee-jin, and Seo Hyo-rim likewise gave memorable performances as the palace’s royal women who despite their titles, were at the mercy of the king, making them no more than prisoners in fancy clothing.

Cinematic Production Values

Like a master conductor, Production Director (PD) Jung Ji-in—now known as “갓지인”or “God Ji-in” for her brilliant work on this drama—brought out the best not just in her cast but the entire production team. The Red Sleeve's cinematography and art direction make for a visual feast, while musical director Noh Hyung-woo’s powerful score successfully balanced traditional eastern instruments with modern orchestration to guide viewers through a deeply emotional journey. Even the OST is a good mix of classic sageuk and modern tracks.

Once known for its Golden Age of Sageuk era, MBC spent 16 billion won (over USD13 million) on The Red Sleeve—its most expensive drama in recent years—and it shows. The attention to detail in The Red Sleeve is mind-blowing, and if you'd like to do a deeper dive after watching it, there is a lot of great fan-made content dedicated to its cinematography, its selection of books and poetry, and even the symbolism of flowers, water, and hands in the drama. You may also find this video explaining the Ilwolobongdo interesting.

Was It I Who Was Captivated?

Having said all of this, do I think this drama was perfect? No. The Red Sleeve was originally planned as a 16-episode series and was given an additional episode due its unexpected popularity. But even with the extension, the third act still felt rushed, and I can’t help but feel a little cheated out of more happy scenes after suffering through all that angst. Given that sageuks still manage to have successful 20-episode runs, I think 18 would’ve been a great compromise, and I’ll always be a little salty over this.

That grumble aside, I still love The Red Sleeve to bits and will never shut up about what a masterpiece it is. As someone who has voraciously consumed interviews with the cast and director, I can confidently say that PD Jung’s vision elevated the The Red Sleeve into what it is. I dare say it would’ve been a lesser drama in the hands of a male director.

I started watching this drama knowing little beyond it being a historical romance starring Lee Se-young, whom I had loved in her previous sageuk, The Crowned Clown. The childhood backstory and enemies-to-lovers rom-com energy of the early episodes hooked me before I could realize I had signed up for pain. But having fallen in love with this exceptionally beautiful drama, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I won't be letting go of The Red Sleeve any time soon.

STREAM: If you would like to watch a breathtaking historical drama with a refreshingly feminist perspective.

SKIP: If you'd rather not cry buckets these days.

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