New Review: Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (2019)

Shin Se Kyung and Cha Eun Wo in a scene from Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung.
2019 was a strange year for finding good romantic Korean dramas. I had high hopes for Yoo In Na’s new show, but while she was great, I thought the drama itself was a snooze. Anyway, here we are in October, and finally there’s a historical fantasy with an interesting romance that I can recommend. Below is a more detailed review. For the short version go here.

Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung
When the heroine not only entertains a crowd with a reading from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in the first episode, but also gives her sensible interpretation of the suicidally heartbroken Werther as a negative romantic role model, you realize that this is not your typical historical K-drama. And it’s a good guess that the romance portrayed won’t be of the Werther-like existential life-and-death kind. Yes, our Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung likes romance as much as the next person but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life – or this drama.

The show is suffused with strong female characters, and genre-wise it is refreshingly multilayered: While there is the romance between the main character Goo Hae-ryung (played by Shin Se Kyung) and the young Joseon prince Dowon (Cha Eun Woo) and quite a bit of comedy, we also have the political intrigues typical of historicals (but thankfully only mild violence), birth-secret mysteries common in weekend family shows, and the power games we’re used to seeing in office dramas. Plus you learn about the role of historians in the Joseon era, which is actually really fascinating. These ingredients mix beautifully in this drama about four young women from an alternate Joseon era who break into the male work domain by becoming female historians.

Right from the start the drama undermines romantic tropes. In the first few episodes it makes fun of unrealistic romantic stories (and the largely female audience that adores them) by showing that the most popular author of romances in this Joseon town has absolutely no clue about real-life relationships. And then there’s Goo Hae-ryung: Even though she falls in love, her emotions don’t change her views on the practical aspects of relationships – atypical for romantic narratives. Her contemporary and rational attitude towards romance as well as the way she keeps crossing rigid social boundaries and following her own convictions mark her clearly as a real-life role model. And her unconventional actions provide plenty of suspense and comedy in a drama that’s supposed to take place in the Joseon era.

Shin Se Kyung and Cha Eun Wo in a scene from Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung.

But there’s a twist to the character of the oh so reasonable Goo Hae-ryung: The man she falls for (and with whom she enjoys a happy ending) is the passionate, idealistic and romantic Prince Dowon, who is the embodiment of the unrealistic romantic ideals she rejects. What does this mean for Goo Hae-ryung as a role model? Is a super-romantic partner a much better choice after all? And does this mean that many of the uber-romantic tropes shouldn’t be disregarded – because they fulfill a useful real-life framework, at least for men?

Apart from these interesting twists about the typical romantic narrative, the drama stands out by portraying Westerners and Western culture in an unusually positive light. (Typically, American or European characters function as villains in contemporary K-dramas – or have minor roles and no personality to speak of.) We’ve already mentioned Goethe, whose story about Werther Goo Hae-ryung reads as a sensible corrective to self-destructive romantic relationship fantasies. Here, something can be learned from European culture and the last episode clearly shows how this new attitude towards romance can be realized. This portrayal of Western culture as something positive is further displayed in the character of a French national in search of his brother, who taught Koreans advanced medical techniques.

But enough of this intellectualizing: Light but thoughtful, this historical fantasy with contemporary tweaks is simply a thoroughly enjoyable treat. Love the funny modern ending. Excellent minus.

PS: Goo Hae-ryung’s unusual interpretation of The Sorrows of Young Werther was certainly not how Goethe’s book was read by the majority of his contemporary audience. See, for example, here.