Drama Review – The Red Sleeve (MBC, 2021)

I’m pleasantly surprised at how well Show turned out, surpassing not just mine, but domestic and international audience’s expectations. It has now made it to my personal all-time favourite KDrama list. I was worried about the writer initially, having been credited for Ruler of the Mask (that was a drama with a problematic plot), but those worries soon became unfounded as week after week, Show gave us a strong plot with intriguing characters and superb attention to historical details. Kudos also to the PD Jung Ji-in, whose attention to details and an eye for aesthetics made Show absolutely a pleasing watch.

Based on a novel with the same title, or rather the literal translation should be “The Red Cuff of the Sleeve”, it retells the heartbreaking romance of King Jeongjo of Joseon, or his given name Yi San (Lee Joon-ho), and his one and only love of his life, palace maid Seong Deok-im (Lee Se-young), by attempting to offer insights to the psyches of the historical characters through recorded events and memoirs. The drama told not just their love story, but also his story as a king of a nation, and her story as a king’s woman. San having observed unharmonious family relations (his father is Prince Sado, infamously known as the prince who died while being imprisoned in a rice chest), grew up amid immense pressure to live up to expectations as the Grand Heir to the throne of Joseon’s monarchy. Historically he’s known to have no other interests besides work and Chinese philosophical books and classics, so his immense interest in a palace maid caught everyone’s attention. The Talking Cupboard has offered a great translation to a very lengthy post originally in Korean, about the historical basis of Show.

Deok-im on the other hand, lived a comparatively more carefree life as a palace maid, and it’s her lifelong wish to remain carefree. This is the reason offered by both the novel and the drama for Deok-im’s repeated rejection of San’s confession to her, since agreeing would confine her behind the palace walls forever, as the Queen Dowager (Jang Hee-jin) repeatedly affirmed this, in light of her brother’s exile and subsequent death, which she was unable to even attend his funeral. Despite her desire to stay uncaged, Deok-im chose to be with San as his concubine. Through the last two episodes, we saw how Deok-im changed in her demeanor as she coped with losing her own dreams and herself while being one of the king’s woman, no matter she is his most beloved. Her actions were louder than words but San sadly needed literal affirmation.

It’s a heartbreaking and sorrowful romance set up against the political backdrop that defined Yi San. The cast and crew delivered beyond expectations, giving the audience a memorable drama. The character growths were superbly portrayed and consistently written. It is as much the king and his woman’s separate stories as much as it is their love story. It is also a story about the choices various characters made in the days where freewill was almost a vulgarity, which made the story even more of a tragedy. My only gripe is the decision to devote 15 episodes to the background story before Deok-im becomes San’s concubine. Show is one of the rarer ones which might have benefitted more from a lengthier extension. Nevertheless, Show lived up to the hype it created throughout its broadcast. Highly recommended.

3 thoughts on “Drama Review – The Red Sleeve (MBC, 2021)

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  1. I really liked this drama but have yet to see ep.17. Just don’t want to remember a tragedy. I felt really sorry for her life after becoming a concubine and wondered why anyone would prefer to be nothing more than a broodmare? Such a boring, boring life….

    1. people in those times really do not have much choices, especially females. this applies to all patriarchal societies regardless of nationalities i believe.

    2. It is the same for women before the 15th-18th century everywhere even in England, where they were married off at an early age and were expected to do nothing else, but to obey their husbands and breed sons

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