The Scholar Who Walks the Night [Bameul Geotneun Sunbi] (2015) is a historical fantasy of romance, revenge and vampires spanning the court politics and common folk of an alternative Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). Sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, always romantic, this 20 episode television adaptation of the 2012 manhwa series by Jo Joo-hee & Han Seung-hee also provides a heartfelt plea for the cultural value of raunchy romance novels.
The opening episode spends most of its time establishing the backstory for the events to follow. Kim Sung-yeol (Lee Joon-gi), the titular scholar, is the best friend of Crown Prince Jonghyun (Lee Hyun-woo), a jovial ladies’ man with a double life writing erotic novels under the nom de plume Lustful Student – novels which are considered scandalous not just for their risqué content, but for their coded criticisms of his father’s regime. His latest novel, despite its fantastical subject matter, is intended to be a much less thinly veiled portrayal of reality – telling the tale of a royal bloodline whose reign has been compromised for the past 200 years by their complicity with the vampire Gwi (Lee Soo-hyuk), who inhabits a secret underground palace and feasts on the King’s concubines. The Prince introduces his friend to Hae-seo (Yang Ik-june), a vampire who hunts other vampires and who has a plan to destroy Gwi.
The Prince’s planned rebellion is thwarted, his co-conspirators are killed, and the Prince is erased from the historical record. Kim Sung-yeol manages to escape to the countryside, where a dying Hae-seo instructs him to seek the Prince’s Memorandum detailing the secret plan to destroy Gwi. Hae-seo then sinks his fangs into Scholar Kim’s neck, turning him into a vampire and bequeathing him a black robe which will allow him to walk in the daylight. The grief-stricken Sung-yeol rushes to confront Gwi, only to find that his move has been anticipated and Gwi is holding his beloved Lee Myung-hee (Kim So-eun) hostage. As Sung-yeol must either feed soon or die, Myung-hee forces herself into the knife held at her throat. In the ensuing tumult, Gwi is knocked unconscious and Myung-hee begs Sung-yeol to drink her blood so that he can survive.
Skipping forwards 120 years, we meet Jo Yang-sun (Lee Yu-bi), a cheerful young woman dressed as a man who is the chief breadwinner for her impoverished family. Due to an unspecified incident in her childhood, she can’t recall any details of her life from further back than ten years. Working as a bookseller, she has an encyclopedic knowledge of her fellow booksellers’ stock and has earned the reputation of being able to find any book. She supplements her income by secretly copying and selling the banned works of Lustful Student, also making use of them as pro bono educational tools for the children of the poor. In her spare time, she has begun to write a novel of her own detailing the exploits of the Night Scholar, a mysterious folk hero who protects the weak. Her skills at locating rare books have led to a significant commission from a secretive scholar who maintains a room at Hwayanggak for the purposes of conducting business. Having established her credentials by meeting his request, he commissions her to locate his real goal – Prince Jonghyun’s Memorandum.
Before her comically formality-puncturing meeting with the man she has no way of knowing is her hero the Night Scholar, her mistaken entry into the wrong room leads to an encounter with an artist sketching one of the residence’s courtesans. Where most people would back away embarrassed, Yang-sun plunges forwards to admire the quality of his brushstrokes and attempts to recruit him to illustrate the works of Lustful Student, before being extricated from the room and directed to the correct location. Little does she know that the artist is Crown Prince Lee Yoon (Shim Chang-min), who is astonished by her resemblance to his childhood friend Seo Jin. The Prince lost track of his friend ten years ago, during a turbulent period when his father Prince Sadong (Jang Seung-jo) and his followers were executed by order of his grandfather King Hyeonjo (Lee Soon-jae) for an insurrection suspiciously similar to the circumstances surrounding the forgotten Prince Jonghyun’s death. Witnessing the death of his father at Gwi’s hands (or should that be teeth?), Prince Lee Yoon uses his playboy antics to obscure his secret agenda, operating under the Lustful Student pseudonym to undermine his grandfather’s rule and force knowledge of Gwi into the light.
Having used the first two episodes to introduce the main characters and establish the key background elements, the writer Jang Hyun-joo spends the new few episodes setting up the Night Scholar and the Crown Prince as potential competing suitors for Jo Yang-sun’s affections. She does a good job of balancing the tension between playing with the plot elements and advancing the story, taking just enough time to have fun with Jo Yang-sun’s apparent male identity before allowing the Scholar and Prince to work out she’s actually a girl. The Night Scholar’s female confidante Soo-hyang (Jang Hee-jin) provides the complication of a jealous rival – rescued by the Scholar as a child and growing to love him, no sooner have her pleas to be allowed to become his eternal companion been rejected than she sees him beginning to pay an inordinate amount of attention to this new young man/woman.
An additional wrinkle comes with the introduction of Choi Hye-ryung (Kim So-eun), a woman who bears a startling resemblance to the Night Scholar’s lost love Myung-hee. In reality she is the daughter of the corrupt prime minister Choi Chul-joong (Son Jong-hak), who gave her to Gwi as a child as a sign of his loyalty in return for promotion. Her unfortunate upbringing has resulted in a cold and calculating woman who despises her father and who is determined to rise to a position where he no longer has any power over her – which, given the heights he has reached, leaves Queen as the only viable option. To this end, she has carefully orchestrated a series of events which will allow her to cultivate the affections of the Crown Prince, while Gwi makes use of her resemblance to Myung-hee to mess with Scholar Kim.
Jang Hyun-joo keeps manipulating the various plot elements and character interactions to shift the story along swiftly, allowing the heroes to come closer and closer to reaching their goals but injecting fresh complications to set them back again into worse positions. A more linear plot progression would quickly have become wearing across 20 episodes, but Jang allows her story bumps to develop organically from the situation rather than inserting artificial impediments. She also makes sure to set Gwi at odds with our heroine very early on, continuing to keep him actively involved with the story rather than remaining a lurking menace in his underground palace (a suitably moody and grandiose set with tree roots poking from the walls). The Night Scholar is shown to be completely outclassed by Gwi, unable to defeat him in outright battle and hampered by the considerably greater resources at Gwi’s disposal, adding a significant degree of peril to each of their encounters.
Lee Yu-bi makes a delightful heroine, with big soulful eyes and an infectious smile. She’s at her best when being playful or going for outright comedy, but is equally capable of tugging the heartstrings with her romantic longings and can play for drama when required. Lee Joon-gi is mostly called on to be a brooding romantic hero with a perpetually straight face, but shows he has the capacity to portray a wider range of emotions in his pre-vampire state and is convincingly feral in his wilder moments. Similarly, Kim So-eun goes from the cheerfully human Myung-hee to an extremely reserved and controlled performance as Hye-ryung, faking her emotions efficiently but eventually revealing cracks of the more vulnerable self she never expected to let out from behind her facade. Shim Chang-min turns on the charm as the Prince, but becomes more serious and develops greater authority as a leader as the story develops. Lee Soo-hyuk manages to stand out among a generally attractive cast as the stunningly beautiful evil vampire Gwi. He’s clearly having a great time stalking around the place in his long flowing robes and contemptuously ordering around his mortal pawns, bringing the required gravitas with just a smidgen of tragic loneliness to leaven his cruel machinations. Among the less prominent cast members, Yeo Eui-joo left the biggest impression as the Crown Prince’s close friend Noh Hak-yong, giving a touching performance which seems to be just begging fan fiction writers to invent a romantic past (unrequited or otherwise) with the Prince.
The typical scattering of K-pop tunes are on hand to accompany the drama, with each song (most of them romantic ballads) being used consistently as leitmotivs to represent a particular emotion. None of them are especially period-appropriate (or subtle) in their vocal forms, but the instrumental versions are less jarring. Most of the songs weren’t for me, but I did develop a fondness for Jang Jae-in’s “Secret Paradise”, a jauntily cute piece used to accompany moments of Yang-sun’s carefree happiness. Oh Joon Sung’s score consists largely of suitably dramatic strings, but there was one particular piece built around a base of rolling piano triplets which really struck me, conjuring up mental images of building waves which elevated the drama of the scenes in which it was used.
The story determinedly refrains from locating the plot in any particular century, but its placement within the time span of the Joseon dynasty would suggest that the main action takes place no earlier than 1712. Despite the date’s irrelevance to appreciating and understanding the story, I ended up doing a deep dive into the history of Korean fashion to attempt to narrow it down further. Based on the luscious assortment of clothing worn by Jang Hee-jin (who wears a particularly gorgeous deep green chima in the final few episodes), my guess is that it’s set some time in the 19th century.
But leaving aside all elements of plot, character or fashion, the aspect of the show which appealed most to me was the strong thematic through line about the importance of literacy and the value of escapist fiction. Jo Yang-sun’s defining feature is her love of books and her determination to share that passion with others. Her life as a bookseller is not simply a means to make money, it’s a mission to spread the joys of learning and knowledge across the entirety of society for the improvement of all. She recognises the potential for frowned upon literary forms such as the romance novel or escapist adventure fiction to create a desire to read among those who might otherwise see reading as a trivial skill. She volunteers her time to read to the children in the poorer neighbourhoods, sparking their interest with the pictures and the extracts she reads aloud, creating a generation of motivated readers who will put in the effort to learn for themselves. Escapist literature is shown to have social value as both a temporary relief from a life of drudgery and as an inspiration to the imagination, allowing people to see new options that might never have occurred to them. And then there is the subversive element – the ability to use unrealistic fiction to reveal the uncomfortable truths that a society wishes to conceal, allowing critical ideas to reach a wider audience than a more blatantly didactic (and thus more likely to be censored by the state or avoided by a lay audience) text would. It’s no accident that the first people targeted by Gwi’s oppressive crackdowns are the booksellers, followed soon after by the scholars. Reading and knowledge are inherently valuable, and the attempt to suppress them is sufficient in itself to reveal the regime as flawed. Books as a method of lifting the populace and countering propaganda are a significant influence all the way to the end of the story, eventually infiltrating the narrative to the extent that the second last episode includes several conversations speculating on how the latest volume of the Night Scholar series will end. The series as a whole can easily be viewed as a loving tribute to literacy, and it’s this aspect which sealed my love for the show.