The Scholar Who Walks the Night: Intro & Ep 1 of 20
February 24, 2021 3:11 PM - Season 1, Episode 1 - Subscribe

Able to be appreciated on many fronts, visually ravishing and full of restrained (and unrestrained) emotional expressiveness, the addictive qualities of k-drama are becoming more widely known in the West, especially since Netflix got involved. As a two-culture person and I've loved watching compelling art produced from what feels like a familiar space of flux, revision, brokering and reclaiming. The Scholar Who Walks the Night (2015) is a historical fantasy South Korean vampire serial that I love in spite of its flaws. I want to talk about cultural context as well as episode summaries. All I can write about is what I found out on the internet and all I've got is shallow knowledge, I could be really wrong about lots of things but will try to explain what it is about this series that so interests me. There will be some spoilers and descriptions of the male lead's costumes.

Ep 1. In a fantasy version of Joseon young historian Kim Seong Yeol, best friend of Crown Prince Jeonghyeon, is catapulted into a dreadful dynastic conspiracy that shatters his life and destroys his family, his fiancee and his best friend/feudal lord Jeonghyeon. All he has left is determination to end Gwi, the secret monster at the seat of government corrupting the Joseon polity. Kim Seong Yeol will dedicate the rest of his life to recovering and implementing the deceased Prince's plan to overthrow the politically entrenched, super- and supernaturally- powerful Gwi. 120 years later, a young bookseller may be able to help.

TSWWTN is based on a manhwa or Korean manga of the same name, which was as yet unfinished during filming and which can be found online here up to issue 60. On first watch it was jarring to be dumped into a grand guignol blood-&-guts vampire melodrama from within the middle of a sageuk historical costume serial! I was so disconcerted I had to stop watching. There is also a bit of a tease in this first episode about what is supposed to have happened and what is a deliberately fictional re-imagining of what happened. Confusing at first watch, this conceit foreshadows one of the major themes of the work, the power of the imagination to shape the future and redirect the past.

Wanting to see some of the visuals again brought me back, in particular to a fight scene set in a bamboo forest, an obvious tribute to A Touch of Zen, or perhaps to Crouching Tiger which pays its own homage to that film. Then after I finished the series (which process entails a whole bunch of narrative frustrations) I had another rewatch specifically to make a note of the male lead's clothes. This rewatch brought a clearer idea of what the story is and the means it takes to get there. And I will forgive this story anything now and believe in its excellent qualities wholeheartedly.

In episode 1 Lee Jun Gi (link goes to breakout role 2005) wears:
* a sheer orange surcoat over a brown silk hanbok worn over visible white undergarments, no hat beads, and a brick-red simple cord belt. This elegant costume is austere compared to what he'll wear later in the series.
* Azure lightweight figured silk surcoat with decorative pleating over violet-blue figured silk hanbok, dark violet-blue cord belt, no hat beads.
* Prussian blue surcoat over turquoise hanbok, darker turquoise cord belt.
* Smoky black sheer surcoat over heavy light grey figured silk hanbok, hat beads long, dark brown, separated by cluster of round beads, cluster pattern is pearly clouded glass between two jade/tan-coloured smaller beads.

The clothing and clothing names are complex, I've not been able to work out exactly what puts a garment into one category or another in spite of researching. Therefore, with apologies I've tried to describe the costumes so a general audience might get a hint of what they look like. There are so many beautiful costumes! So many characters wear them! So I shall focus only on Kim Seong Yeol. Also apologies, I hope 'figured' means what I think it means i.e. woven throughout with a self-coloured damask motif, in this series usually small, floral and sparsely applied.

Lee Soo-hyuk plays Gwi. Here he is walking for Balanciaga.
posted by glasseyes (6 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The production process is gruelling. Serials are typically 16 or 20 episodes long, a certain number of episodes are shot in advance and then 'go live' which means episodes are being shot shortly before broadcast. It's something you can trace in the faces of the actors, by the end of the series they look exhausted. Which, since in a drama, their characters have been taken to hell and back by the story, isn't detrimental to the effect they're after.

It's cut-throat competitive, everyone has an eye on the ratings, revisions to plot and script may be made on the fly according to audience feedback. TSWWTN didn't do too well in the ratings unfortunately and I've read a fair amount of criticism of it.

Fan engagement is taken extremely seriously as part of a production's PR, and the fan community is pan-Asian or wider. So from the production side there are interviews, press junkets and the release of behind-the-scenes videos more or less for each episode, and the fans debate them vigorously on online forums (sometimes in terms of 'Well that editing was bad'.) No pressure then for the actors and director. But the fans have been known to do things like bring a food truck over for a location shoot for cast and crew. Fan support is a big part of the industry, and actors seem to take fan engagement seriously as part of their professional practice. In interviews they will say things will like 'Please support us so we can improve and do better.'

It's extraordinary to see the shooting process, so many people milling about, just out of frame, with lights, microphones, reflectors, a damp sponge, a handkerchief. To see the actors snapping immediately into intensity and out again after 'Cut!' It looks so slight and casual, and the quality of what is made is so damn high, I've got immense respect for the people who make this art. As a popular commercial art form the nearest comparison I can think of is Dickens, with long windedness, profusion, cliffhangers and melodrama being characteristic of the form and rightfully appreciated for their entertainment value.
posted by glasseyes at 3:14 PM on February 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Well, after reading your compelling description, I have to watch this!
posted by Seamus at 7:20 AM on February 25, 2021

Yeah, I am excited to watch this.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:38 AM on February 25, 2021

I'm such a doofus though, I've been meaning to write it up for ages but Netflix uk stopped streaming it at midnight on 23rd Feb. As I was watching! The Scholar is on dramacool which I can use from uk but I have to download because streaming is too frustrating.

I'm planning to make 5 or 6 posts looking at the story in chunks. And fair warning, lots of folks online think it's lame (I love it.)
posted by glasseyes at 8:34 AM on February 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

With an episode and a half under my belt, I’m, if not, strictly speaking, riveted, then successfully amused. The leads are attractive and splendidly dressed, with charming presentations that make me want to know what happens to them. Which is mostly not good this episode, as we get to the twist. It’s not quite brutal, but Gwi is an admirably awful villain, who I suspect we will learn is acting out of boredom as much as malice. His elaborate plans certainly seem unnecessary, given his powers.

Lee Jun Gi is handsome and appealing but also genuinely ugly and repellent in his “hungry vampire” look. He’s believable as a reanimated corpse desperate for human blood. He also does angry self-loathing pretty well as a foil to all the romantic mooning he dishes out at the beginning.

Lee Soo-hyuk so far has less to do. Mostly, he gets to glower and be evil. I hope he gets a little more depth, because that’s not enough to carry 20 episodes.

Lee Yu-bi is pretty fun as a cheerful pornographer trying to make a buck. I expect cross-dressing hijinx, although the tone shifts so far make me reasonably worries for the cast.

+1 for the costumes! It’s not for nothing that Joseon was known as “the Kingdom of hats.”
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:22 PM on March 1, 2021

The costumes are amazing, aren't they? I'm glad you're successfully amused. Happy watching!
posted by glasseyes at 10:03 AM on March 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

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