He will love only once, but, it will be for always ….

My relationship stays strong because I serenade her with my actions and I write poetry in her heart with my deeds

My endless love is expressed with more than just my words; my love is lived as a verb

Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

Saimdang: Light`s Diary (2017) 
Fantasy, Fusion Sageuk, Historical, Romance, Sageuk
Written by
Directed by
Country of Origin
South Korea

oh! … background

The fictional script for this production is loosely based on historical figures of the Joseon-era. Particularly the kdrama focuses on the imagined story of famous artiste and calligrapher Sin Saimdang (October 29, 1504 to May 17, 1551) and the artwork of Ahn Gyeon.

Sin Saimdang was a Korean artists, writer, calligraphist and poet and mother of a Korean Confucian scholar Yi I. Esteemed as a model of Confucian ideals, she was respectfully nicknamed Wise Mother – Eojin Eomeoni. Her real name remains unknown as she was only known by her pen names Saim, Saimdang, Inimdang, and Imsajae. Due to her upbringing in a household with no brothers, she was able to cultivate her talents and later when she married, her husband, Commander Yi Wonsu consented to her continuing her studies and artistry. She died suddenly at the age of 48 following a move to the Pyongan region. Sin Saimdang’s artwork mostly consisted of insects, butterflies, orchids, grapes, and landscapes, with some fish. As many as 40 of her pieces of art remain, unfortunately, not much of her calligraphy remains, but her style was greatly praised in her time by high-ranking officials.

Ahn Gyeon, an early Joseon-era painter was born in Jigok, SeosanChungcheongnam-do. He entered royal service as a member of the Dohwaseo, the official painters of the Joseon court, and drew Mongyu dowondo for Prince Anpyeong in 1447 which is currently stored at Tenri University

The reigning king in this kdrama production was King Jungjong of Joseon (16 April 1488 – 29 November 1544) reigned from 1506 to 1544. He succeeded his half-brother, Yeonsangun, because of the latter’s tyrannical misrule.  A coup placed a reluctant Jungjong on the throne. Jungjong was a good and able administrator especially during the reform period led by Jo Gwang-jo. However, historians have determined that he was a fundamentally weak king due to circumstances of his ascension to the throne, too easily swayed by both Jo Gwang-jo and conservative ministers. Perhaps he was merely a tragic figure who never wanted to be a king but was forced to become one? He deposed his loving queen under the pressure of the coup leaders who also killed her father during the coup. Recently, some historians have suggested that Jungjong was not actually manipulated by his ministers and in-laws. Instead, he used and manipulated them to kill off each other to strengthen his regal authority. Either way, you view it, his reign was marred by much confusion, violence, corruption, and court intrigues.

In the production, some attention is paid to Saimdang’s son, Lee Hyun-rong. In fact, Yi I (December 26, 1536, to February 27, 1584) became on e of the two most prominent Korean Confucian scholars of the other being his older contemporary, Yi Hwang (Toegye). Yi I is often referred to by his pen name Yulgok (“Chestnut Valley”). He is not only known as a scholar but also as a revered politician and reformer. Yi I was born in GangneungGangwon Province. He was the grand nephew of Yi Giprime minister. It is said that by the age of seven he had finished his lessons in the Confucian classics, and passed the Civil Service literary examination at the age of 13. Yi I secluded himself in Kumgang-san following his mother’s death when he was 16 and stayed for 3 years, studying Buddhism. He left the mountains at 20 and devoted himself to the study of Confucianism.

This kdrama’s characterization of Crown Prince Yi Ho was before he became King Injong of Joseon (10 March 1515 – 8 August 1545). He reigned from 1544 to 1545). He was the 12th king of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. His father was King Jungjong, and his mother was Queen Janggyeong. As the firstborn, he became Crown Prince in 1520 and succeeded his father to the throne following Jungjong’s death in 1544. As a young king, he was very ambitious and tried to reform the government of the time that was rife with corruption, a legacy of the failed reforms during his father’s reign. He rehabilitated Jo Gwang-jo and recruited Sarim scholars who turned away from politics after Third Literati Purge of 1519. His maternal uncle Yun Im exercised great power during this period. However, King Injong was too often ill and died in 1545, just one year after coming to the throne. Following his death, Yun Im was executed by Yun Won-Hyung in the Fourth Purge of 1545 when King Myeongjong,  son of the ambitious Queen Munjeong succeeded the throne.

oh! … brief

Dismissed by overbearing professor Min Jung-hak, Korean art history lecturer at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seo Ji-yoon, sets out to discover the authenticity of the recently discovered An Gyeon painting Geumgangsando. During her investigation, Seo Ji-yoon finds the diary of Shin Saimdang, a historical Korean figure and renowned artist-poet of the Joseon era.

oh! … talks drama

There’s so much to love about this production, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this kdrama, but I seem to enjoy sageuk-styled, even fusion-sageuk so it’s no surprise that this was a winner production for me.

The writer of the script, Park Eun-ryung did plenty of research ahead of writing this script, that’s obvious by his decision to produce the story the way he does, with two timelines – present-day and past. I must admit I preferred the past story, in all its glorious sadness to that of the present-day melodramatic antics. However, having written that, I believe this script was outstanding in combining the two fictional elements together to create a masterpiece in the kdrama industry. Yes! It was that good. The story, the narration, the humour, the sadness, the various aspects of human nature – love, jealousy, revenge, anger, hatred, – you name it, this story has it!

However, there was a lot going on and this production deserves a second, perhaps a third watch to appreciate the mastery behind the script. But, the script is not flawless. A lot of attention was paid to developing the past story, and I appreciated this as I liked the backstory with all its sageuk, fusion sageuk elements, and kdrama clichés – classic characters, excessive pitfalls and emotional themes.  It made for an interesting yet agonizingly charming story and was well-written and narrated.

One aspect to appreciate and understand is that Park Eun-ryung uses reincarnation of characters from the past into the present-day storyline in unexpected but parallel fashion. This also cuts down on casting, which is always a blessing with a long story or in this case, two stories combining into one production.

Even with the present-day timeline not as well written or narrated, I can’t praise the innovation behind the two stories enough, you must watch it for yourself. Be warned though, the first two or three episodes are difficult to get through because you’re not entirely aware of what’s going on or where the production is going to take you. But, I guarantee it worth it!

The fictional love story behind Saimdang and Lee Gyeom, a member of the royal family of the time, was so heartbreakingly sad. Played by two sets of actors to reflect the young teens who meet and fall in love and then meet again later in life as adults. The young actor and actress who portrayed the early years and blossoming love built a genuine and solid foundation for the older cast to continue. It was well thought-out and written. And direction from Yoon Sang-ho brought all the important aspects of life and made the story believable, even knowing it is fictional.

The present-day story was slightly more chaotic with countless plot twists and turns. The overall story didn’t need as much melodrama as was written, that perhaps is my only and strongest criticism, but overall it worked out in the end.

Director Yoon Sang-ho had his hands filled with two very different stories, but he succeeded in delivering a fantastic production. The cinematography was amazing for the period elements (past story depicting the fictional life of Saimdang) – the scene setups were authentic, the gorgeous period costumes and accessories were exceptional, the acting was phenomenal and locations to shoot were astounding for their beauty and desolation which perfectly mimicked the story. The choreography of the various fight or chase scenes was exciting and realistic.

Park Hye-soo played teen Shin Saimdang, Yang Se-jong played teen Lee Gyum, and Yoon Ye-joo who played teen Whieumdang Choi all worked so well together and created an endearing and solid foundation for the adult actor and actresses to work from. Park Hye-soo’s interpretation of a rather outspoken and spunky Shin Saimdang was ideal and matched Yang Se-jong’s interpretation of a young charismatic and irresistibly charming Lee Gyum.  The performance by Yoon Ye-joo’s interpretation of Whieumdang Choi’s jealousy and the rivalry was heartbreaking.

Shin Saimdang as an adult was played by Lee Young-ae. As Shin Saimdang, Lee Young-ae delivered another powerful, authentic performance. Her interpretation of woman forced into a marriage and trying to make the best of her circumstance was riveting. Lee Young-ae’s character’s poise, grace and stoicism was visible in every movement and facial expression and made palpable by the muted tone of voice used throughout the past timeline. This delicate performance allowed the audience to witness Shin Saimdang in all her intelligent elegance.  It was breathtaking and heartbreaking to watch.

Adult Lee Gyum was played by Song Seung-heon. As Lee Gyum, Song Seung-heon’s best interpretation of his character’s angst was in his eyes. Every glance at Shin Saimdang, every drawn-out stare in her direction, every loving gaze, he nailed every single one! I was mesmerised by his performance and interpretation of gallantry.  There is a certain refinement to Song Seung-heon’s performances and as Lee Gyum he brought meaning to the depiction of his character without having to say a word. You could sense and feel the love the character felt for Shin Saimdang. Even if he never uttered the words, “I love you”, the impression was intensely acute, you could draw no other conclusion. Brilliant!

Adult Whieumdang Choi was played by Oh Yoon-ah. The storyline of the past wrote this character as a vengeful, conniving young woman who wheedles her way into the upper-echelons of society. Where Lee Young-ae’s performance was low-key but strong, Oh Yoon-ah’s performance was strong but harsh. Oh Yoon-ah’s interpretation was scarily compelling. She used her body language and facial expressions to paint a scorned woman whose fascination with a man remained unrequited, or even yet, spurned. Oh Yoon-ah as Whieumdang, oozed anger, jealousy, hatred, and vengeance. Oh Yoon-ah’s performance as the formidable and hateful Whieumdang was spectacular in frightful poise.

oh! … sidekicks

There were many supporting performances that were strong or outstanding. I personally liked some of the minor or perhaps insignificant ones the most.

Deposed Queen Dangyeong played by Yoon Suk-hwa was one of my favourites. The character has but two, maybe three scenes, but I loved Yoon Suk-hwa’s performance. Understated, perhaps the smallest but important role, Yoon Suk-hwa gave her character a gentility that was raw and about as organic as the two female leads.

Yoon Da-hoon’s performance of Lee Won-soo, Saimdang’s rather useless and unfaithful husband was astute. Especially Yoon Da-hoon’s interpretation of Lee Won-soo’s justification for his treatment of his wife came. That came across well at the almost end of their relationship. The audience could finally understand why he would gamble and throw himself away. Yoon Da-hoon played a convincing fool and overall ‘lost’ man.

Lee Hyun-rong, Saimdang’s son was played by Jung Joon-won. My initial gut reaction to the performance was negative – I loathed the whiny brattish behaviour of a child who selfishly wanted more than his parents could offer or afford to offer. It grated my nerves. But, then he mellowed out his ranting and raving and Lee Hyun-rong gave a good and honest performance.

oh! … that’s a wrap

Fans of sageuk, fusion sageuk, historical stories based on real-life historical figures would best appreciate this kdrama. Also, people who enjoy unfulfilled or tragic destiny stories might also appreciate this production. The tragic love story for the past timeline has elements that meld well with the story of the present-day timeline.

Of course, the elements include a strong, opinionated, educated woman overcoming pitfalls life hands her to emerge stronger than before. Female empowerment and development is an underlying theme to both storylines.  The leading female characters suffer (both timelines), due to the fear, insecurity, and arrogance of men in a power of position.  This is often true for women in present day, but, was certainly true in times gone by, regardless of country and culture.

Another element true to both timelines is the underlying theme of sacrifice. This element crossed both genders and while this is an honourable trait to have its authenticity in times gone by and in the present day is unlikely. People just are too selfish. At least that’s my biased opinion. But watch for the sacrifices – some are obvious, others are hidden.

I would watch this kdrama again, I enjoyed it, even though the two storylines (past and present) weren’t equally strong or given equal airtime. Overall this is a kdrama classic that will be added to my collection.

oh! … tidbits

Saimdang Light’s Diary marked Lee Young-ae’s television comeback 14 years after her pan-Asia hit drama Dae Jang Geum (2003).

The scholar, Eo Sukgwon, of Myeongjong mentioned in his book Paegwan Japgi (“The Storyteller’s Miscellany”) that Saimdang’s paintings of grapes and landscapes compared to those of the notable artist Ahn Gyeon.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

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