In 2011, time-traveling dramas became a trend in China, after the releases of Gong and Bu Bu Jing Xin. Both controversially and arguably based on the same novel by Tong Hua, titled Bu Bu Jing Xin. When South Korean director Kim Kyu Tae, known for It’s Okay It’s Love and That Winter, The Wind Blows, announced her desire to remake the series in Korea, excitement wasn’t the emotion on the mind of most fans. After several quiet months, the remake was officially confirmed, with the rights to the original novel purchased. The story was to be readapted into Korean history, completely pre-produced with a high budget and investment by Warner Bros. I was a very big fan of the original series and for a while, until the release of Nirvana in Fire, it was my favourite drama. That’s a very big claim considering the countless series I have watched.
Another year… A new beginning.
It would be false to say I didn’t have high expectations for the series, but it wouldn’t be true to say that I did either. I was sceptical, but kept an open mind. Nevertheless, after one year of waiting, the Korean series was given an airdate. With an unexpected cast of IU (Lee Ji Eun), Lee Jun Ki and Kang Ha Neul, I really didn’t know what I had signed up for. I’ve seen IU, Lee Jun Ki, and Kang Ha Neul in previous projects before, and felt indifferent to, but okay with the casting of the male leads. The reason behind my scepticism towards IU playing Maertai Ruo Xi was because I’ve never been impressed by her performances in earlier dramas. IU also lacks Liu Shi Shi’s elegance, which I felt was important to the character. After the casting of the lead roles, I considered giving this drama a pass, but when JiSoo was confirmed to play 14th and Baekhyun 10th, I reluctantly gave it one more chance.
As the days grew closer and excitement from Korean drama fans for this flower-boy-studded cast blossomed further, I became more indifferent. Out rolled the first episode and most reviews were negative. Korean netizens were saying there were too many close ups and that IU’s and Baekhyun’s acting was awkward. Comments from International fans were not so different. However, I had a friend who seemed to enjoy the first episode.
I continued to wait though, until the 6th episode aired. By then, most of the complaints were dispersing, the drama had been re-edited to address criticism of its cinematography, and most of what I had seen was now praises. And so my journey began. I had heard from many not to consider this a Bu Bu Jing Xin adaptation, but to take it as an entirely different drama. As much as I wanted to take this advice to heart, I just couldn’t help but subconsciously compare.
Moon Lovers is not another Bu Bu Jing Xin, and I shall not remember it as such. Although the Chinese version had questionable CGI, the cinematography overall is much more mesmerising and pleasing to the eye than the Korean version. The difference in grandness and varsity of the palaces is one that I saw many Chinese netizens talk about, and I agree.
However, it is unfair to compare the two, as the time difference between the Qing Dynasty and the Goryeo Dynasty is more than 600 years. This difference in time has allowed for an establishment of grander court etiquettes, intrigues, and a royal palace. This would always be the flaw and setback of basing it on Korean tradition. In the Goryeo period, Confucianism was a relatively new system to Korea, and many of the similarities in tradition between the two countries are because of this introduction of Confucianism.
So by setting the drama in the Goryeo dynasty, there would always be conflict between being as accurate as possible to Korean history and culture, and staying true to the original novel, which reflects Chinese history and culture. The drama decided on the former.
The determining factor to my enjoyment of this adaptation would lie in the differences between HaeSoo’s and Ruoxi’s characters. Ruoxi was a character of many flaws; she was wishy washy, indecisive at times, and there was a strange mixture between selflessness and selfishness to her. However, she was a character we could relate to, empathise with, and she made us aware of what was important to her.
But HaeSoo crosses this thin line between a good flawed character, to an unbearable one. HaeSoo is very much the typical Korean female lead; she’s weak, helpless, alone, unaware, nice and compassionate, but her character does not mesh well with the actions of Ruoxi. The writer’s choice to make HaeSoo much more oblivious, is slightly strange to me. Although we do see her regain some knowledge of the past, I think the reveal is an unneeded plot device, for a story with so much depth already.
What I believe was one of Ruoxi’s most significant traits is that she wanted to live. She wanted to stay alive and was afraid of death. Whilst at times she was heroic and brave, she mainly took on actions she knew would not kill her. She was well educated and witty enough to understand how to command words to her favour.
This is something I did not see much with HaeSoo. HaeSoo seems to enjoy placing herself in situations that may result in injury. She’s a clear damsel in distress. That is not to say Ruoxi wasn’t at times, but Ruoxi knew who to find to protect herself, whilst HaeSoo relies on fates and miracles.
Plot execution, was also something I found much better in the Chinese adaption. The characters are introduced with meaning and intricacy, so that we remember the most important figures of the battle for royal accession. But in Moon Lovers, the characters are thrown together.
Some argue that it’s because the drama was condensed from 26.25 hours in the Chinese, to 20 in the Korean. But the differences are too noticeable, and the result missed an important element to the story. The story is centred on the relationships built between Ruoxi and the princes. It’s their childhood ties, because of the times they spent together at 8th’s Manor that makes Ruoxi unable to turn a blind eye, and inevitably sacrifice her future with 4th. But most of this is not shown in the Korean drama.
Nicky’s adlib became one of the most iconic scenes in both adaptions. Is it how to use an umbrella? Maybe not, but it would become of the many reasons it would become so hard for our female leads to let go. In a place full of fear, pain and hardships, someone was willing to endure it with them.
The death of Minghui, the pleading of Mingyu, the steaming of Yutan, the suffering of 8th, 10th and 14th as well as the loss of her child were part of a long painful string of events that lead to Ruoxi’s final decision. However, most of these events are not in Moon Lovers, and some that made it into the drama seem very much shoehorned into the storyline.
In Moon Lovers, HaeSoo does leave the palace with the aid of 14th, but the justification is not as strong. Ruoxi’s death is a lifting of her ‘sins’ and the last step to placing together history, giving her the deserved peace and freedom. But freedom and peace are not seen with HaeSoo’s death as she leaves behind a child, removing the importance and closure associated with Ruoxi’s death.
This utilisation of death is very much misused in Moon Lovers. It’s because of 9th’s death that we feel the villainous nature of his character start to fade and he is able to redeem himself as a character of emotions. However, the Korean version is unable to replicate this. There is a clear villain and a clear character to hate in the Korean version, which, for me, removes one of the beautiful things about Bu Bu Jing Xin.
What was left behind..
Although I did not enjoy Moon Lovers, having dropped it after 6 episodes, and skipping to the last 3 for the purpose of this review, I don’t intend to discourage you as a viewer from watching it. Moon Lovers retains typical Korean drama traits and should be seen as a separate creation from the Chinese version. It follows a different period of history in Korea; one with just as much diversity as the battle between Kang Xi’s sons. As long as the comparison is not placed between the two adaptions, I believe many would enjoy Moon Lovers.
The beauty of Bu Bu Jing Xin is one I’ll always keep close to me, and even if Moon Lovers is not the best adaption of the storyline, it has its own uniqueness that would make it worth watching for others.