The central conflict this time around deals with sexism against women in Joseon. On its face this entire idea is a little odd, considering that Saimdang herself was a famous artist who was appreciated in her time. What's more, "Saimdang: Light's Diary" has consistently had unnamed characters react to Saimdang's gender with a sense of novelty, rather than revulsion. So for people to suddenly have a hissy fit about Saimdang going beyond her station marks a rather serious break with continuity.
It even contradicts current continuity, since you might recall that Headmistress Choi was recently promoted to be Princess Jeong-soon's personal art instructor. If sexism were that big a deal in Joseon art there would have been just as big a protest against that as there is against Saimdang here, yet Headmistress Choi's position passes without comment. Except to the extent that she is apparently not doing a very good job, since Princess Jeong-soon's attempt at portraiture is quite poor.
Which incidentally brings me to another contradiction- not all kinds of painting are created equal. Different kinds of painting require different kinds of skills. So while Saimdang may be an epic painter of landscapes and natural scenery, that in no way qualifies her to make an official royal portrait, which is a completely different genre of art. Granted, the real Saimdang's artistic skill encompassed a wide variety of work. But uh, human portraits weren't one of them.
The real problem, as usual, is that the story's completely made up without even the faint hint of truthiness as a defense. The real Saimdang did not break down any barriers for women, nor would it have occurred to her that this was a thing she should do. Fame in art, then as now, is more about exposure than meritocracy. That's why Saimdang was a famous woman artist in a time when women were not allowed to compete in public contests.
Of course I can get into all these technical accuracies again and again but when it gets right down to it even historical accuracy isn't important if the story's actually good. The writing in "Saimdang: Light's Diary" is extremely bad and is obviously deliberately contrived to set up these generally pointless conflicts. Maybe I'm just spoiled by all these historical dramas with excessive cross-dressing, but I would think that outing a woman in men's clothing would require better evidence than some random guy saying "he looks suspiciously feminine".
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Drama Review] "Saimdang: Light's Diary" Episode 22"
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