It’s hard for me to believe Hwarang has finally concluded, but even more shocking, is the fact that I stuck through it until the very end. This drama was in a weird category of its own making, and I’m not even sure it knew what it was trying to be. I had many emotions watching this drama, but majority of them were the result of confusion. I think it’s fair to say it was a muddled mess, but depending on how you look at it, I think this muddled mess still had a few positive things to offer. Read below for my review.
[Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].
I don’t usually do this, but I want to start off with a bit of a disclaimer, or should I say, my thought process and advice for watching this drama. If you haven’t seen the drama Scarlet Heart Ryeo, this information will be irrelevant to you, so you can scroll to the next section.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us went into this drama after the completion of Scarlet Heart Ryeo. Naturally, our instinct is to compare the two. It’s undeniable that Hwarang and Scarlet Heart Ryeo have many things in common. Both are historical, both follow a group of dazzling flower boy men, both made use of major media play and marketing, and both shared similar plot aspects (i.e. a villainous Queen mother, a comedic plot that shifts more so towards tragedy, the antagonist princess/sister, and the youngest member of the pretty boy group becoming a martyr, simply to name a few.)
I think the problem lies in the fact that the two dramas aired one right after another, automatically setting them up for comparison. It is clear to me that Scarlet Heart Ryeo had a much larger budget than Hwarang, most likely because it was a remake of an extremely successful Chinese Drama. Scarlet Heart Ryeo was aiming to be something completely different from Hwarang. I think that it’s really important to keep that in mind. While Scarlet Heart Ryeo touched on thought provoking themes and embodied tragedy, Hwarang aims to be something much more simple, and lighthearted. I’m not entirely sure its message was ever nailed down, but I’m positive, that it wasn’t ever trying to be something groundbreaking or harrowing in the way that Scarlet Heart Ryeo was. Hwarang had its share of sad moments, yes, but it never lost its comedic elements in the way that those beginning humorous and care free scenes disappeared almost entirely by the middle to end of Scarlet Heart Ryeo. In fact, Scarlet Heart Ryeo essentially became an entirely new drama once the darker plot set in. I’m not saying this makes Hwarang inferior. I simply think it’s important to realize that Hwarang seemed to be going for a more universal message, absent from the complexity that Scarlet Heart Ryeo sought to grapple with.
The reason I’m dwelling on this so much is because I’m trying to prevent anyone from making the same mistake that I did. Many people have been comparing the two works, just as I did, and almost all comments I’ve seen have deemed Hwarang a very shoddy version of Scarlet Heart Ryeo. If you’re looking at the two side-by-side like that, then yes. Hwarang really does come out to look like an inferior bootleg. This serves to prove my point that if you go into Hwarang hoping it will be similar to or viewing it from the lens of Scarlet Heart Ryeo, you will be vastly disappointed. It was not created with the same intent as Scarlet Heart Ryeo. However, if you go into watching it without any pre-conceived ideas or the desire to compare it to Scarlet Heart Ryeo, you will have a much easier time discovering the unique charm that Hwarang can offer, so long as you keep an open mind.
Park Hyung Sik as King Jinheung: Signed on for PSJ, stayed for PHS. Honestly, one of the only reasons I held onto this drama was for this guy right here. Hyung Sik made such an alluring hidden King that I couldn’t peel my eyes off of him whenever he was on screen. I even dare to say that he outshone Park Seo Joon many times in my opinion. I just couldn’t get enough of his character and the way he took command of the role. He was really good at emoting through his eyes. I think Jinheung’s story was a lot more interesting than Sunwoo’s, simply because Sunwoo became limited to playing Ah Ro’s knight in shining armor for much of the drama, which was super bland and boring. Jinheung’s confession to Ah Ro was much more swoon worthy than Sunwoo’s. I honestly think Jinheung deserves better than Ah Ro though, so I’m not complaining that he didn’t get the lady.
Park Seo Joon as Sunwoo: Park Seo Joon had a bit of a bumpy start. It took me a little to finally start believing him. I’m not sure whether he was intimidated at first or what, but he was definitely much more muted and awkward in the first episodes than he was in the later episodes (and remember, I love Park Seo Joon, so it pains me to admit it). His character was your run of the mill hero, simply seeking justice for all classes of people (so… nothing revolutionary). Despite receiving such a bland role, I think Seo Joon managed to pull it off, make it believable, and turn it into something a lot more exciting than it sounds on paper. By the end, I was really rooting for Sunwoo to have a happy ending, and wanted things to turn out in his favor.
Sung Dong Il/Kim Kwang Kyu: These two were another saving grace of this drama. Hwarang tried to push the boundaries of comedy, often including lowbrow humor that I found quite campy and annoying. However, this pair of veterans managed to provide us with some great moments of comedic relief, right when we needed them most. Whoever casted these two knew what they were doing. Their chemistry was unbeatable, and they made even the stupidest of jokes seem natural rather than forced. I loved the little bickering moments they shared on screen, and am thankful they had a lot more screen time than I had originally expected.
Seo Yeji as Princess Sook Myung: A lot of people didn’t like Sook Myung as a character but I actually thoroughly enjoyed her. I think this was mostly due to the fact that Seo Yeji was perfectly casted for the role. Her manner, elegance and grace were so mesmerizing that even if you disagreed with her actions at times, you couldn’t help but like her. I think Seo Yeji has a great voice, and it was really well suited to the cold, but well intentioned princess who has endured a difficult life. She was definitely devoted to her brother, and I was glad that she figured out who he was in the end and tried to give him strength. Yes, Sook Myung was greedy for Sunwoo, and was cruel to Ah Ro, but much of what she said was correct. Ah Ro did only put Sunwoo in danger, and the only reasons he ever got hurt was because he was bending over backwards to try and protect her. I preferred the Sook Myung x Sunwoo pairing much more than the Ah Ro x Sunwoo pairing. I just felt Sook Myung was much more suited to Sunwoo in theory, though we all know he didn’t take interest in her. That’s a damn shame, because I think they would have made a much more interesting and dignified couple. Anyway, as heartless as some people thought Sook Myung was, she ultimately did change, and even helped Sun Woo escape with Ah Ro after she was shot with an arrow. She also put her feelings aside and gave in at the very end, recognizing that Sunwoo was truly in love with Ah Ro. That’s pretty admirable if you ask me.
Pa Oh: No explanation needed. This dude was great. Loved every moment Pa Oh had on screen. He was such an endearing and lovable character, and his unwavering support and devotion to the King were so touching. He also had many a comedic moment, but he was badass when he needed to be as well. I also loved the little bond he formed with Dan Se. My favorite thing was how he managed to trick people into thinking he was only 22. Gotta love drama logic.
Lee Kwangsoo’s Cameo: Kwangsoo’s role, though mostly two episodes, extended far into the drama. It was pretty much the foundation for everything that took place from start to finish. It propels Sunwoo’s character forward, provides backstory, creates tension between the King and Sunwoo, and becomes the motivation for Master Ahn Ji’s grudge. I loved Kwangsoo’s character so much, that I couldn’t stop remembering poor Mak Moon even after we were seventeen or so episodes in. That’s the impact that powerful acting can have. I think Kwangsoo did an excellent job here. It’s just a damn shame Mak Moon had to die for the drama to live.
The Ending…Kind of: I was relieved to have a happy ending with this one. I think it was the right decision to keep Jinheung as King and Sunwoo as his helper. I loved that all the Hwarangs remained a team and conquered the corrupt politicians within the palace. I was glad that Jinheung didn’t have to marry his sister (thank god) and I was glad he sort of had a moment of reconciliation with his mother before she beat the dust. More importantly, I was glad he let her know his way of ruling would be motivated by the same goals, but simply done differently, without all the violence and unnecessary killing his mother had done. Unfortunately, the end also fell a little flat for me. First of all, how rushed were the final two episodes? It felt like they saved everything for the last week, which seemed a little ridiculous and poorly executed in my book. But more importantly, so much was left unexplained, that I couldn’t help but find the ending somewhat disappointing and confusing. Some characters were completely left out, while others had stories that remained bafflingly unexplained. All I can say is, they made the right decision by making sure they showed Dan Se in official Hwarang gear rather than his old apprentice gear, because I would have had to fight the writer if they didn’t. Also, seeing Pa Oh as the new commandant was a nice touch.
Go Ara as Ah Ro: …I don’t know guys. I think Go Ara was okay at times, but most of the time she was just dreadful. There’s not a single episode where she isn’t doing this awkward forward hunch, while gripping the front of her skirt with her fists. It’s so ugly and awful!!!!!! And when she wasn’t doing that, she was sporting this super ugly pout that just made me want to smack her. It was unforgivable. It’s one thing to be sad or disappointed at appropriate times, but she wore that same whiny, sulky expression and stayed in the same hunchback position the whole time, that I couldn’t take it after just five or six episodes. I’m not sure how she thought this was a good representation of her character, but then again the character of Ah Ro was EXTREMELY poorly written. Just awful. But we’ll save those comments for later. One thing I will say is…at least she’s pretty.
The Master Ahn Ji x Queen story: Is anyone else scratching their head wondering what exactly happened between these two? Because we never actually got a full or coherent explanation to their relationship. All we know is that the Queen loved him, he had a mute wife, the Queen made him exile his own son, and his wife died somehow. We never really know if he dated her before, during, or after he had a wife. We never really know why she hated his wife or made him exile his child. We never really know why she sometimes desperately asked him to come to her but then tortured, or bitched him out in the next. Honestly, the whole nature of their relationship was confusing and poorly executed. I think including a more complete picture of their backstory could have helped the drama on so many levels. A missed opportunity in my book.
The Commandant and his Overdone Expressions: This dude always looked so damn stunned at everything. I thought his eyes were gonna pop out of his skull. His eyebrows were always furrowing to the point where I thought I could go kayaking in the valley they created on his forehead. He was easy on the eyes though. But seriously man? Tone it down a little. It’s not that deep. It never was.
The OST: I liked quite a few songs on the OST. One of my favorites was Hyolyn’s version of ‘Become Eachother’s Tears.’ Another favorite was Hyung Sik’s, ‘I’ll Be Here.’ Unfortunately, my favorite instrumental song was not included on the OST CD. What a rip! I recently discovered that it was actually released as an OST for another drama The Royal Gambler. It’s called ‘I’m Alone‘ by Oh Joon Sung (the same composer for the Hwarang OST as well) and is a tad different. I actually like the Hwarang version better. I’m not sure why it wasn’t included. It was a really good track that was often played during the most intense moments of the drama, and I feel it really embodied the desperation of those situations well. I put it under the mediocre category because, although it had a few nice songs, it really wasn’t anything too impressive, and I like to reserve spots for OSTs that really go above and beyond.
The Cinematography: Or lack of cinematography if we’re being completely honest. The camerawork wasn’t all that impressive for an entirely pre-produced drama. I naturally expected a lot more since everything was shot in advance, but this drama really didn’t put much focus on cinematography. There were a few shots in the end and in the final scenes of the last episode that I found beautiful, but other than that, there wasn’t much to look at.
The Permanent Damsel in Destress (Ah Ro): Listen, the writers made it impossible to like Ah Ro. In the beginning, she really wasn’t so bad. She was independent, funny, witty, and likable. But, as each episode passed, more and more of her better qualities were replaced with shitty ones. They essentially transformed her into an insecure leech by the halfway point of the show. Once she got the hots for Sunwoo, she always needed saving, and she always needed his constant attention. In fact, she was so greedy for his attention, that even when he couldn’t look at her during his sword fighting practice (because he wasn’t trying to die this early on in the show), she threw a temper tantrum and yelled at him for it (???????). Look, I know you like him and want him to notice you, but can’t it wait until after a fucking sword fight?????? But wait, there’s more! If you can name a single episode (after she’s met Sunwoo) where she doesn’t cry, I’ll give you a prize (not really, but you might everlasting fame and glory for finding the impossible). Honestly though, Ah Ro’s character becomes so unbearably whiny and hungry for Sunwoo’s attention that it crossed into the realm unhealthy relationships in my opinion. It was downright obsessive. It’s unfortunate, because they ended up throwing out her good qualities in order to use her as a plot-driving device. And not even a good one. Because, seriously? How boring is watching a female constantly fall into trouble and need saving over and over again. Answer: Extremely boring.
Soo Ho Crushes on the Queen: What the fuck even was this? First they were using it to be humorous, but then towards the end they were really making it out to be serious love interest. I thought it was awkward and inappropriate. I really thought it was weird and unnecessary, especially because she was a lot older than him, and already married (though her husband passed) and with fully grown children. ?????????!
Dan Se Kills his Brother (by accident): This was mad fucked up man. I was triggered. I was in a cold sweat having flashbacks to when Wang Eun died in Scarlet Heart Ryeo and asked his own brother Wang So to give him the final blow so he could go peacefully and not by the hands of Wang Yo. I was actually really surprised this happened, because I had originally begun to believe Dan Se was going to be the one they sacrificed. Thankfully he’s alive and well, but I guess I just didn’t think it would be the youngest and most innocent Hwarang that got killed off. Hell, I even thought Soo Ho was gonna go at one point. I get that they were trying to make a meaningful moment but, yikes! I found it a bit cruel and unnecessary. The most fucked up part about it is that in the very act of trying to save his own brother, Dan Se accidentally kills him instead. Honestly, it doesn’t get more heart wrenching than that.
That One Dude Everyone Hated (Kang Sung): This guy was annoying but also a very poor plot device that came and went like the wind. It was so clear they only brought him out when they needed him, and then put him back in the toy chest when he wasn’t relevant anymore. He doesn’t even show up in the final two episodes, so I guess we’ll never know what happened to him. He probably still would have been an asshole, so I don’t really care anyway.
What Happened? (Featuring Hwi Kyung, Master Ahn Ji’s wife, and that Other Wonhwa): Is anyone else left with a laundry list of unanswered questions? The character of Hwi Kyung was actually super interesting, and yet…they left out half of his backstory. Why was he banished? Why was his wife made a Wonhwa? Did he marry her before or after she became a Wonhwa? What happened to Queen Jisoo’s husband? Was he murdered? Did he die a natural death?
And what was up with that other Wonhwa? Princess Nam Do or whatever? I saw like 2 blurry seconds of her in an irrelevant flashback and never saw or heard anything about her again. Except in the general context that both Wonhwas became enemies or something and then they both died? Uh…??? Wonhwa Joon Jung didn’t seem all that menacing, so why did they turn against each other. Was that story actually true? Or just something the Queen made up in order to hide the fact that she murdered Joon Jung as a way of maintaining her power. I totally wanted to hear the full story, but we never got that opportunity.
I already Mentioned my questions regarding Master Ahn Ji’s piecemeal story and all the questions that follow about his wife. That was another huge missed opportunity in my humble opinion. His character actually had some depth unlike some of the others listed above.
The Pseudo-incestuous Plotline: Ugh. Where to begin. So, the show decided to design a plot where Sunwoo must secretly live as Master Ahn Ji’s son, and Ah Ro’s brother. He’s not actually related to them, but Ah Ro doesn’t know this until later on. Which means, for the first eight episodes, she technically falls in love with who she believes to be her brother, even though she knows it’s bad. They dragged this out for eight whole episodes. The drama even had the audacity to try and cultivate these little romantic moments, which is SUPER gross. Honestly, it’s just plain nasty. I don’t fuck with pseudo-incestuous plots. They are never necessary. I can easily think of a million different ways they could have done this differently without the use of pseudo-incest so there really isn’t an excuse for this one. If you weren’t creeped out while watching it, I’m deeply questioning your morals. On top of that, even after she finds out he’s not her brother, everyone else is still in the dark. Then they start acting like lovers and it’s just so weird, it’s like they’re not scared that other people might see them (which actually happens when Ji Dwi peeps them having a make out session). The whole thing made my insides churn, and not in a good way.
The Costumes: I mentioned earlier that it’s no secret this drama had a relatively low budget. Or at least…that’s what I’m telling myself, because there is a lot that went wrong, and having the budget excuse eases some of the pain.
Let us first address the number one issue on everyone’s mind: The wigs. Look, I’ve seen some ratty wigs in my time. I’ve been watching sageuks for ages and I have suffered through the nappiest, dingiest, most crumpled and dirtied wigs on the period drama market. Unfortunately, Hwarang served up quite a few bottom of the barrel wigs. They just looked so dowdy and misplaced. They never seemed to sit proper on the people’s heads and worst of all, they could not make up their mind with Sunwoo. Sunwoo’s first wig was atrocious, but he looked semi-okay once they had it tied back in typical Hwarang uniform fashion. What I failed to understand, was why they decided to change his hair a third time, when they had him let it down but without a forehead tie or whatever you want to call it. It looked like they gelled it too, so it always looked greasy, wet, and stiff as a board. What I hated most was the way they styled his bangs. The whole thing just looked dreadful and I was baffled as to why they didn’t just keep it tied up or tie some of it back, or let the man have some bangs actually covering his forehead. Anyway, enough about the frumpy wigs.
Let’s move on to the costumes. These things looked like they were made out of bootleg polyester or satin. Everything was fake shiny, like ‘we couldn’t afford silk ‘ shiny. The sheen was just super ugly, and so was the sort of wrinkly bunchy nature that the fabric had all together. Honestly, the costumes just screamed cheap. It looked like they were bought off of some seventy year old woman’s online Etsy shop during a warehouse sale. The colors were either too bright, too dull, or too pastel. I thought some of the ladies were preparing for a goddamn Easter Egg hunt at one point. I think the Hwarangs looked a thousand times better in the black and navy uniforms they wore (on the night they broke into Master Young Shil’s storage) than they looked for the entirety of the rest drama. The purple, blue and white outfits were…shameful.
The Queen’s outfit had to be my least favorite. She’s the fucking Queen yet she was the most shabbily clad noble in the entire vicinity. Even worse, she never changed her outfit aside from the final episode. The outfit she wore in the final episode was so much better than most of the costumes, and I was just so downtrodden that they couldn’t let her wear something of that quality a lot sooner. Same with Jinheung. His outfit the day of his coronation was his best EXCEPT for that contraption they put on his head where the fucking tail end of his knotty ass ponytail was poking out (fucking hell, what were they thinking). And don’t even get me started on Soo Ho’s fucking dangle earrings. Atrocious. The biggest offense of the drama hands down. I cannot believe they let him wear those. I cannot believe Minho agreed to wear those. Sadly, the damage is already done.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I totally appreciate that this drama took place in the Silla Dynasty; something we don’t see a lot of. I’m also aware that Silla’s fashion is much different than that of the Joseon, Goryeo, or Baekje Dynasties. But, if you want to see nice Silla era costumes, skip this and watch The Great Queen Seon Duk instead.
Kim Jisoo as the Queen: I already addressed this in my initial thoughts post on Hwarang but I must harp on this again. The Queen was a complete and total buzzkill for me. Kim Ji Soo’s performance was so underwhelmingly lackluster that I just couldn’t take her seriously or find her compelling in the slightest. To make matters worse, she was playing a role that has been done time and time again. Therefore, she had previous examples to guide her and the opportunity to add her own flavor to the character. Her expression was literally the same stoic glare for the whole series, except for maybe the four or five cry/yelling scenes she had, which were also, not very moving. She had a heavy lisp, which was harmful, though not her fault. However, I mentioned before that good diction is a key part of acting and I felt that her significant lisp took away from that. If you want to see a really gritty, greedy, and vicious Queen mother in action, watch Scarlet Heart Ryeo instead.
Jinheung Couldn’t be King Earlier because…???: So here’s heart of our plot: The ‘Jinheung isn’t ready for the throne yet so the Queen will sit here and occupy it while committing treacherous acts’ arc. Honestly, this entire idea never made sense to me at all. One minute his mom was saying the throne was hers as if she were greedy for it and never actually planned to give it up, the next moment she’s telling her son he just needs to wait some more, other times she was pretty much verbally abusing him and telling him he was so weak that he should cling to mommy. Just what exactly was she aiming to do? What were her true motives? I don’t know that the story ever really fleshes that out. When Jinheung finally steps up she gets so angry, but then they share a final moment where she seems to be happy, sad, and apologetic all at the same time. I guess she felt ruling had to be carried out in a violent fashion, and that the throne couldn’t be handed over until he accepted that, but thankfully he finally takes the throne and tells her he’ll rule with his own methods. But I couldn’t help but think the whole time, that he was King, and if he really wanted to step up, he totally could have at any moment. Yea, it would have been intimidating, and he had some enemies, but I think they dragged it out a lot longer than it had to be, which made it less and less believable to me. Especially a lot of the deaths or punishments that were dealt out by the Queen that I felt Jinheung could have easily put the kibosh on without having to reveal his identity. But whatever, nothing’s perfect, and this was the entire driving force behind the drama, so we’ll have to live with it.
So what does all of this mean? It means Hwarang possesses many flaws. And yet, while this is true, it also had a few charms that worked to keep you holding on. Hwarang was a unique experience. I wouldn’t ever watch it again, and if I had the chance to do it all over again, I don’t know that I would have held on as long, but I’m grateful for the strong acting (aside from a few lemons) and honest effort they put forth. I enjoyed some decent chunks of it, and although there were disappointments, the laughs were good laughs, the sad moments were truly sad, and the happy ending was one I think everyone could be contented with. It made for an interesting ride, but unfortunately, that ride was average at best. If you enjoy comedic historical dramas, happy endings, or nothing too complex, Hwarang might be the one for you. Otherwise, I’d have to leave this one off my recommendation list.
Did you watch Hwarang? What did you think of the drama? If you haven’t seen it, you can check out the extended preview here.