I’m back, peeps! The recent weeks long hiatus from drama recaps just happened by extended serendipity rather than conscious decision. As I waited for a new drama to come along that would hook my writing fancy, instead along came vacations and family events and sundry other mundane happenings that sucked up all my free time. And the dramas I ended up adoring and want to recap ended up being the weekend fare in Oh My Ghost and The Time I Loved You, and weekends are near impossible for me to have any time to write. All that makes the arrival of fantasy vampire sageuk Scholar Who Walks the Night the perfect Wed-Thurs pick me up, and not a moment too soon.
Night Scholar is one of the K-dramas with extended labor pains, ranging from overly long production process from when it was announced last year to the casting craziness to even onset accidents right from the start. If the drama ended up sucking right off the bat I don’t think anyone would be surprised, which makes the fact that it totally doesn’t suck (but does suck in other ways involving blood) all the more rewarding. It’s not a standard sageuk and doesn’t aspire to such, the dry court politicking is replaced with copious amounts of cheesy gore and ominous fantasy. A heaping amount of stuff happens in the first episode alone that could be expanded to fill half a drama, showing us that the story isn’t afraid to go dark and over-the-top in all the right ways. Welcome to my drama world, vampire scholar, I can’t wait to walk the dark with you.
Episode 1 recap:
It’s nighttime as the camera follows an owl as it flies through the Joseon royal palace. The King walks through the palace with his retainers as a voice narrates a scary ghost legend. Every month on the 15th, the King would schedule a consummation evening with a consort. A shaman is writing a talisman and performing a ritual.
A mysterious man Gwi walks through the palace, stopping to stare down the owl before proceeding onward. A retainer announces the arrival of the King of Joseon as the shy consort waits inside. Instead Gwi walks in and subdues the consort as she grabs a knife to defend herself. He grabs her by the neck and bits down as the King watches the shadowy action from outside. The narrator calls Gwi a beautiful vampire who feasts on blood to live.
The narrator turns out to be Crown Prince Junghyun, hanging out with his best friend Kim Sung Yul in his study. Prince Junghyun closes the cover on his third book, the story of a blood sucking monster who covets the King’s women. He wonders if his thriller will be more popular than the undead zombie books from the Qing dynasty.
Sung Yul wonders if the Prince wants to hear the truth or flattery and the Crown jokingly sasses back that he wants honeyed words of course. Prince Junghyun lamets Sung Yul’s great writing talent being wasted cataloguing books for the government but Sung Yul likes what he does. He then points out that Prince Junghyun’s book is about what the West calls a vampire and suggests he spice up the story into a love triangle with the King. Except even then this book will likely end up like all the previous books written by the pen name of The Lecherous Scholar – a useless book.
Prince Junghyun points Sung Yul to the shelf where his first two books reside, certain that the publishers are lined up to publish this third tome which will be as hotly awaited by the readers as the previous works. Sung Yul calmly takes his leave to go submit his report to the government officials while Prince Junghyun calls him out for not being a good friend and providing a book critique.
The two get on their horses and Sung Yul notices a man lurking on a nearby roof. Crown Prince Junghyun suggests a race with the winner arriving first. He takes off racing and Sung Yul follows close behind. The two are waylaid in the countryside by men wielding swords so Sung Yul jumps into battle to protect the Prince.
Prince Junghyun recognizes the men as Palace guards and calls off Sung Yul. The Palace retainer arrives and asks the Prince to quickly return to the Palace as the King is concerned he’s been away for the last three days. Prince Junghyun chews out the retainer for bringing Palace guards to escort him back this way but agrees to go.
Prince Junghyun and Sung Yul race back to the Palace, with Sung Yul winning this time with plans to cash in on the request at a later time. Prince Junghyun wants to write a romance as his fourth book which Sung Yul thinks will befit the pen name of The Lecherous Scholar. Prince Junghyun shoots Sung Yul a pointed look and agrees it will be lecherous and unseemly, including having a wedding night even before the wedding. And the main character will be none other than the Head of the Palace Repository.
Sung Yul wants to say something but Prince Junghyun starts narrating that the date in question was last month, on a rainy day a couple was heading down the mountain from the temple together. After being apart for six years, they finally reunited after getting approval from their parents for their marriage. Sung Yul keeps trying to argue that nothing happened, it was pouring rain and they just went to seek shelter is all. Prince Junghyun points out that he was nine years old when he met his love and now at twenty four years old he must be bottling up his pent up frustration for so long. Sung Yul finally agrees to write a book review for the Prince to shut him up.
Sung Yul changes the topic to the more serious issue of why the King needs to see the Prince so urgently? Prince Junghyun thinks the King is upset at him for not wanting to hold an elaborate birthday celebration for the grandson prince. He sends Sung Yul off to visit Myung Hee knowing how he must feel anxious after not seeing her for three days.
Sung Yul’s parents are sitting with Myung Hee, with his mother not happy that their future daughter-in-law is the young girl they raised from childhood as a daughter. Sung Yul’s dad tells Myung Hee to pour her mom a cup of tea to cool her temper. Myung Hee pours her a cup of tea and her respectful attitude upsets mom even more because it’s like she’s stopped being her daughter because she’s going to become her daughter-in-law. Myung Hee apologizes as dad readies the official marriage consent letter and sets the wedding date for a month from now.
Sung Yul returns home and calls to his parents from outside. Myung Hee steps out with the tea tray and shares a knowing look with Sung Yul who smiles back. Mom steps out behind Myung Hee so Sung Yul respectfully greets his mother who sends him off to bed. Mom then pointedly tells Myung Hee to order her maid to keep the wild cat who jumps over her wall every night from going there. Sung Yul’s eyes widen knowing his mom means his nightly visits to Myung Hee, while dad tells his wife there is nothing that can be done to stop it so just let him be. Sung Yul offers to pass along this order to the maid.
Myung Hee heads back to her residence and finds her path lined with flowers for her. She smiles but hides her happiness when Sung Yul meows at her, warning that the maid will come show the stray cat away. Sung Yul suggests Myung Hee put the cat safely in her room if she’s so worried, but Myung Hee finds the cat has bad habits and cannot be allowed into her room that easily. Sung Yul wants to know what bad habits she’s talking about?
Sung Yul hands Myung Hee a bouquet of flowers and then hugs her before leaning in for a kiss, asking if these are the bad habits she’s talking about. Myung Hee shyly says the bad habits are coming into the room every night of a young girl about to get married and then hiding. Sung Yul smiles and asks what he does after hiding? Myung Hee rushes back to her room lest mom comes to check on her embroidery but Sung Yul isn’t worried about being found out. He sweetly calls out “I love you, Myung Hee!” as she heads back to her room.
The King sits with a somber Prince Junghyun and explains that his time is almost at an end and Prince Junghyun has been chosen by “him” to be the next King. From now on, Prince Jonghyun has to obey all “his” demands going forward. Prince Junghyun stares at the dead consort laying before him, with two teeth bite marks in her neck.
Sung Yul reads Prince Junghyun’s new novel to give a book review and looks quite concerned.
Gwi saunters through the Palace until he’s sitting on the throne in the main chamber. Two Palace guards storm in with swords pointed at him. Gwi tells them to leave and he’ll let them live.
Prince Junghyun is burning the body of the dead bitten consort before she comes back as another vampire. He thinks back to the King’s warning about how he’s been chosen as the next King.
Sung Yul arrives at that moment but Prince Junghyun orders him to leave as he cannot be here. Sung Yul asks to collect on his win request, wanting to know the real reason Prince Junghyun was collecting information on blood sucking monsters these past three months and why so many consorts have been dying and then being cremated.
Prince Junghyun gives the excuse that his research was for his book, and the consorts are dying of infectious diseases. Sung Yul brings up how all the dead consorts have bite marks on their necks. Flashback to Sung Yul in the Palace one night as a dead consort was being carried away and accidentally the sheet came off so Sung Yul saw the bloodless corpse with the bite marks on the neck. Prince Junghyun doesn’t want to tell Sung Yul because of their fifteen year friendship but Sung Yul wants to know the truth because it’s so important. Did Prince Junghyun write this third book because there really is a blood sucking monster in the Palace?
Prince Junghyun and Sung Yul walk through a bamboo forest when suddenly they are under attack by a man who can move faster than the wind and float through the air. Sung Yul tries his best to fight the spectre while in disbelief at seeing this supernatural ability. He focuses all his attention and manages to slash the presence on the cheek. He tries to escape with Prince Junghyun but the presence easily stalks them. Prince Junghyun orders Sung Yul to put down the sword as this being is here to help him.
Gwi has strung up a few dead Palace guards as their blood drips from above into a bowl below. He blames their deaths on themselves for daring to confront him when he gave them a chance to live, calling them as foolish as the King they serve. Gwi then ominously declares that his next meal might be the Crown Prince since it’s been three months since he learned of Gwi’s existence yet hasn’t come to meet him yet. That means the Crown Prince is refusing to serve him and that cannot be allowed.
The scared gormless King asks for more time for the Crown Prince to accept this reality but Gwi cuts off the excuses to bring up how the King’s ancestors came to him two hundred years ago for help when Goryeo was falling. The ancestor asked for Gwi’s power to help him create a new country and agreed to serve Gwi forever afterwards. It was Gwi who was the force behind the creation of Joseon so all successive Joseon Kings must never forget it.
Sung Yul learns that the vampire Gwi has been behind the recent consort deaths, doing so as a way to show his force when there is about to be a new King installed. Sung Yul demands to know who this mysterious person is and hears that he’s also a vampire. But he’s a protector vampire unlike Gwi, explaining that vampires exist because they are called forth by humans and only humans can send them away. He compliments Sung Yul as having the ability and intelligence to be a savior to the people in a time of need.
Prince Jonghyun wants to know where the secret manual is that has the method to destroy Gwi? He’s told that in two days there will be a full lunar eclipse which is when Gwi’s power will be at his weakest. He’ll have the secret manual ready by then so they can come get it.
Prince Junghyun declares to Sung Yul that he cannot serve the vampire and still be a King who can instill hope in the people of his world. He cannot stomach telling his own son years from now that he served a monster, and his son will be required to serve a monster as well. Prince Junghyun feels terrible placing this huge burden on Sung Yul right before his marriage. Sung Yul repeats Prince Junghyun’s words to him when they were nine years old “Sung Yul-ah, I want to create a new world full of hope, will you join me?” It was those words that stayed with Sung Yul and made him want to expand his knowledge and become stronger for this new world full of hope.
Prince Junghyun tells Sung Yul that he’ll write down the method for destroying Gwi in his memoir. Should anything happen to Prince Junghyun, he’ll make sure the memoir gets into Sung Yul’s hands. Sung Yul assures Prince Junghyun that no such thing will happen as he will stake his life on protecting the prince. They walk off and the camera pans to Gwi lurking there having heard the conversation.
Gwi pays a visit to the protector vampire and the two supernatural beings battle it out but the protector vampire is no match. Gwi tears his arm off before recognizing the protector as his own master. Gwi believes he killed his master two hundred years ago and wonders how he’s still here? Master asks Gwi to leave with him rather than staying here where he’s not welcome. Gwi likes it here better, lording over the weak humans rather than hunting vampires like he did in the past.
Master warns that humans are not as weak as Gwi thinks and one day they will have the power to destroy vampires. Gwi takes the special vampire killing dagger from his Master and stabs him in the heart, calling him pathetic and foolish.
Sung Yul pays a visit to his beloved Myung Hee, watching her sleep until she wakes up. She notices that he looks very worried but Sung Yul assures her that everything is fine before telling her again that he loves her. He admits being worried because he needs to help the Crown Prince finish one task and doesn’t know if he can do it. Myung Hee tells him to trust himself because he has never failed in anything he wanted to do, including making their marriage a reality. Sung Yul takes Myung Hee’s hand and thanks her for believing in him.
Prince Junghyun is in the throne room reading his memoir when Gwi attacks him. Gwi reads the writings and finds names in there, demanding to know if those people are involved in plans to exterminate him.
Sung Yul heads to the Palace the next day and overhears Palace guards being sent to lock down the Prince’s residence and sent to arrest the traitor Kim Sung Yul. He races out of the city to go see the Master. Myung Hee pricks her finger on her embroidery needle and looks worried.
Sung Yul arrives at the Master’s residence and the fallen arm pulls him to the ground before dragging him inside. He finds the Master dying on the ground and is called to come close. The Master then bites Sung Yul in the neck hard before explaining that this is all he can do now. He doesn’t know how much of his power will be transferred to Sung Yul but now Sung Yul is his successor as the protector vampire. He tells Sung Yul to never take off the black robe as it will protect him against the sun and blood urges.
Sung Yul collapses on the ground twitching in pain and agony as his body transforms from a human into a vampire as the vampire blood courses through his body. His eyes turn red before he falls unconscious.
Sung Yul wakes up to the sound of Myung Hee calling him orabeoni. He gasps in pain and tries to make sense of his whereabouts. He sees an arm on the ground while the place where the Master fell is now dust where the body used to be. Sung Yul reaches his hand over and is almost burned by the sun while remembering what the Master said about the black robe protecting him.
Sung Yul stumbles back to town and all the people who pass him run off screaming because he’s covered in blood. He asks around and realizes that three days have passed. He arrives at the Palace gates to find people mourning the death of the Crown Prince and his cohorts who have been declared traitors, with their heads cut off and stuck on a pike. Also up there is Sung Yul’s dad. Sung Yul screams in agony and horror and is subdued by the soldiers there.
Sung Yul wakes up to find himself in Gwi’s underground lair. Gwi can tell that Sung Yul was recently bitten and is surprised that Sung Yul is still alive since he hasn’t drank blood yet and he needs to drink blood within half a day. Sung Yul sees the dead little grandson prince on the ground and Gwi offers up the little boy’s blood for Sung Yul to drink. Sung Yul vows to end Gwi for everything he’s done. Gwi is impressed that Sung Yul can still fight and refuse to drink blood. He demands to know if Master was the one who turned Sung Yul?
Gwi is quite impressed with Sung Yul’s willpower and asks for him to become his follower, and together they can rule this country. Sung Yul rages that Gwi doesn’t truly rule this country because he’s still a blood sucking monster that cannot see the sunlight. Only those who want his power pretend to serve him but really they all look for ways to destroy him. Gwi rages that there is nothing in this world that can destroy him because he’s gotten rid of it all. Sung Yul is certain one day Gwi will be destroyed before he’s knocked unconscious.
Sung Yul wakes up to Myung Hee’s voice calling him orabeoni, and this time it’s not a dream as Gwi has captured Myung Hee with a knife to her neck. He cuts Myung Hee’s arm and pushes her towards Sung Yul before stabbing Sung Yul in the chest. He explains to Sung Yul that if he doesn’t drink Myung Hee’s blood now then he will die. He also points out that Myung Hee will not sacrifice herself for him now that he’s a vampire, because that’s how heartless and weak humans are.
Myung Hee gets up and runs into the knife Gwi is holding, stabbing herself in stomach before falling back on the ground. Sung Yul screams in rage before a burst of power sends Gwi flying into a wall and falling unconscious.
Sung Yul goes to help Myung Hee but she’s dying and it’s too late. She assures him that he’s done nothing wrong and this is not his fault. She urges him to quickly drink her blood and survive but Sung Yul cannot bring himself to do it. Myung Hee wants him to live on so that he can accomplish his goal, leaning in for a final kiss.
Myung Hee cries as she says “I love you” to a sobbing Sung Yul who flashes back to Myung Hee explaining that she’s unable to verbally express her love to him as she leans in to kiss him.
Sung Yul cries as he lowers his neck and begins to suck on Myung Hee’s blood. Her eyes widen before her arms go slack. Sung Yul finishes drinking Myung Hee’s blood and pulls back his head to scream in agony. He cradles a dead Myung Hee in his arms while sobbing his guts out.
It’s one hundred and twenty years later and the marketplace is bustling with activity. Young bookseller Jo Yang Sun strides along with a book in hand, cheerfully greeting vendors left and right. She stops to share her good mood with another bookseller, explaining that she’s got a meeting later tonight with the mysterious Yongmyung Valley Scholar who might become her customer. Yang Sun is all smiles that such a lover of books wants to meet her, she is certain he must have great character.
Yang Sun arrives at a gisaeng house for the meeting, hesitantly making herself known outside a particular room thinking it’s the location to meet the mysterious scholar. She hears flirty conversation from inside the room, opening the door to see a yangban sketching a half dressed gisaeng. The man, Lee Yoon, says he didn’t call for a bookseller but when he looks up and sees Yang Sun, he pauses and stares like he recognizes her. Yang Sun is told she’s in the wrong room and apologizes for the interruption.
Yang Sun meets the retainer for the mysterious Scholar and asks if it’s true that the Scholar has amassed a book collection even more vast than in the Palace? The retainer notices a squeaking from Yang Sun’s sleeve and she shows him an injured little squirrel that she was asked to heal. She’s called inside where a curtain is pulled down to separate her from the Scholar who is of course Kim Sung Yul, looking exactly the same as one hundred and twenty years ago.
Sung Yul asks if Yang Sun can find any book as rumors have it? Yang Sun assures him she can find anything so is asked if she can find Crown Prince Junghyun’s memoir? Yang Sun explains this is the first time she’s heard of this particular Crown Prince. The little injured squirrel escapes her sleeve and runs over to Sung Yul’s side so Yang Sun cross the curtain to look for the little critter.
Yang Sun grabs the squirrel and finally lifts her head to look at Sung Yul and is promptly rendered speechless at his beauty. Yang Sun jokes that the Scholar must loves books even more than her as the squirrel ran into his robe rather than hers. The squirrel suddenly scratches Yang Sun’s finger and Sung Yul’s eyes widen to see the presence of blood.
Thoughts of Mine:
Woah baby doesn’t even begin to capture the veritable deluge of exposition and tragedy that unfurls onscreen within the first hour of Scholar Who Walks the Night. This drama starts off deviating wholly from the source manhwa and never stops to question the decision to adapt the story with different elements. I love its confidence in going a new direction, even as a reader of the entire manhwa as published to date who really enjoyed the original material. What works in one medium might not work in others, and in this case the drama elected to set up the background of vampire scholar Kim Sung Yul from the get go rather than doling it out through the story. That works marvelously to humanize Sung Yul before we meet his vampire form, the inhumanely beautiful bloodsucker who can’t die even if he wants to because he has a vendetta to settle and a world to rid of a pestilence named Gwi. Even if Lee Jun Ki didn’t play Kim Sung Yul right off the bat with so much charm and tragedy all mixed into one delicious ball of angst, the characterization of Sung Yul is so wonderfully rendered in both his friendship with Crown Prince Junghyun and his love for childhood sweetheart Myung Hee.
I found the drama relentlessly decisive in how dark it dares to go, killing off everyone that Sung Yul loves and doing so in the most painful way possible. Having Prince Junghyun and Sung Yul’s dad’s head on a pike in front of the Palace is brutal, followed by Myung Hee sacrificing herself so that Sung Yul can drink her blood and live. It’s brutally dramatic but oh so necessary to raise the stakes sky high in a story centered around vampires in Joseon. The explanation of the evil vampire Gwi being served by the succession of Joseon Kings is so ripe for commentary on the lengths the powerful will go to secure power, but actually has precedent within the supernatural beliefs in many Asian shaman rituals of “feeding a ghost”. The idea that people can welcome an evil supernatural being to help accomplish a goal, but then must pay a dear price afterwards to keep that being “fed” so to speak. It’s a neat way for this story to swap out Asian ghosts for the Western vampire construct but remain squarely within established Asian supernatural rituals. Even more pertinent is the consequences of feeding a ghost to accomplish a goal, which is the price to pay is always far more painful that anything to be reaped from the assistance, as episode 1 so clearly inflicts on poor Prince Junghyun.
I was moved by Prince Junghyun and Sung Yul’s friendship, how so much was conveyed of their affection towards each other even in a few brief scenes. Lee Hyun Woo’s cameo was one of the highlights of this episode for sure, and his death isn’t in vain as it set into motion the transformation of Sung Yul from human with hope to inhuman vampire trying to bring hope to others. Same goes with Sung Yul’s romance with Myung Hee, it was sweet and surprisingly physical, not holding back that two people about to get married would be getting it on even in ye old Joseon times. That Myung Hee is Candy without being saccharine really made her stock tragic construct more meaningful than most such blink and miss it first loves that bite the dust. And she literally bit it, LOL, but I cried for her and for Sung Yul, even as the cheesy overdone background score threatened to take me out of the moment. Tone down the music, MBC, but otherwise so far so good. Most of the characters haven’t fully arrived yet so it’s hard to say how Changmin, Lee Yoo Bi, Kim So Eun in her other role, and Jang Hee Jin will do, but Lee Hyun Woo and Lee Jun Ki have set the way way high. Lee Soo Hyuk is acting like he’s in a one-man Shakespearean stage production so it’s hard to discuss his acting in terms of nuance, other than he owns the role and makes it wonderfully delicious to watch.
The drama’s explanation for Sung Yul’s vampire state makes it more integral to his protection mission to rid Joseon of evil vampires. Compared to the manhwa when he was accidentally bitten while in the Qing dynasty with the Crown Prince, here he was purposely turned by the Master, who is also the one who turned Gwi, in order to create a successor to take over the vampire hunter role. It’s unfair but considering that he was just made a traitor and was steps from getting his head chopped off and mounted on a pike next to his dad and Prince Junghyun, I’d say Sung Yul found the most useful way to stay live AND get him some revenge down the line. He’s useless as a human against Gwi, but as a vampire he possesses power and a conscience to make him a true anti-hero for the Joseon people. Lee Jun Ki really excels at playing larger than life heroes and Kim Sung Yul continues his great role picking streak in understanding what best displays his particular brand of acting intensity. Sure he was overacting but nothing else will do when he had the worst three days possible in the history of bad stuff happening to one guy. Thank god he’s had one hundred and twenty years to get over the waves of pain, now it’s time for some payback against Gwi and I can’t wait to see vampire v. vampire showdown, with a side of romance with a certain adorably plucky cross-dressing bookseller.
Click here to watch Scholar Who Walks the Night.