Fusion Sageuk – How Lee Byung Hoon changed historical drama with Heojun

lee byung hoonDirector Lee Byung Hoon has been credited with revamping the sageuk industry in Korea. He became famous internationally when he directed Jewel in the Palace (Dae Jang Geum, 2004). But he made his comeback to directing with the drama Heojun, 2000. Previously, in the 1990s he observed that sageuk was very popular in Japan and had high ratings because it was watched by all ages and gave the Japanese viewers a sense of pride in their country.

But Sageuk in Korea was only watched by the over 40s. For several years he had been overseeing drama production at MBC, but then decided to go back to directing. He told his family that he wanted to direct sageuk. But his daughter was against it because she and her friends thought that sageuk was boring and dull. He decided that he needed to make his dramas appealing to schoolchildren and young adults too.

He made many changes to the form including finding a writer who could write gripping stories with a faster pace, making the language more modern, brightening up the costumes, and changing the music from classical to new age.

His vision worked as Heojun was hugely successful in Korea with viewer ratings of over 6o%. During the filming of Heojun, fans young and old came to the film locations. And for the first time in 30 years in the business, he too was asked for his autograph. Usually TV drama directors are not well known but Lee Byung Hoon had become a household name.


So what changes did Lee Byung Hoon make to the sageuk genre?


Changing dark, dull colours to pastels


First of all, he wanted to tackle the dull and old-fashioned image of sageuk by making the costumes more appealing to young people (who are always interested in fashion). But he also had to remain true to historical research. Up until Heojun, the commoners wore black, white, or brown in the dramas. But according to his research, during the Joseon period lots of them also wore jade, mustard, and blue. So he went to the wardrobe department and asked them to change all the extras clothes to pastel shades. He was met some resistance, but he insisted that colour would brighten the drama.

Since there are different kinds of colour combinations – bright, delicate and subtle, he asked the wardrobe department to come up with a colour chart that they could keep on set and refer to. The colours worn by the actors also changed according to the season. Pink worn during the green summer, blood red after the fallen leaves in late autumn, blue worn when the background is brown in midwinter.

He also considered the lighting during filming and would reshoot scenes to get them brighter, also shooting into the light to get better light. And to make the main characters look more beautiful he always used flowers or trees as background of the frame. Other actresses complained that he only did this for the main character!


pastel shades for commoners


For his comeback to directing, he approached the writer Choi Wan Kyu to work with. But the writer declined as he had no experience of writing sageuk and didn’t feel confident to try it. But Lee Byung Hoon persuaded him, pointing out that he was NOT looking for an experienced sageuk writer. He simply asked the writer to keep the pace of the action fast and write as though the drama were a mini series (and not over 50 episodes long).

He also told him to write in modern Korean and not to worry about writing appropriate language for characters when speaking to the King etc. All that could be changed later if necessary. It was the story that he wanted to focus on as story is what keeps the viewers hooked.

He clearly had a vision of what he wanted. But everything didn’t run too smoothly as for the first episode of Heojun he made Choi Wan Kyu rewrite the script 5 times. And throughout the series he kept saying tashi tashi (again, again) to the point that the writer said he was not confident to work with him again. (But they did work together again).


The composition, arrangement, and selection of music is done by the music director. But this job didn’t become really necessary until the 90s when the copyright laws came into effect. Before this music could easily found and used. It didn’t have to be composed especially for the drama.

But now that music is composed directly for the drama, the quality of dramas has improved. Because before, music would have to be mixed and faded out to fit the scene, but now it’s written to fit the length and mood of the scenes.

For Heojun, Lee Byung Hoon found Korean new age music writers and asked them to write music that children would like. The OST for Heojun was very popular with the theme song Songin sung by Korean famous soprano Sumi Jo.


Making a successful drama is also a team effort, so as well as working with Wardrobe to brighten the colours on set, and liaising with composers and writers to modernise the feel of the drama, the director could also rely on his props staff to pay great attention to detail.

For example there were two sets for the library in the royal hospital, one in the outdoor location and one in the studio in Yeouido. So the props team had to move 3 to 4 thousand books between the two locations.

Lee Byung Hoon told them not to worry about moving all the books every time as this would be too much work. But the props team insisted on doing it. They also insisted on filling the whole set with medicine to make it look more realistic (rather than just filling parts of the set where filming would take place). Thanks to this, the director was able to film more freely.



A good editor can also spot problems with scenes. In the first scene of the drama, Heojun is trying to make a deal over ginseng with merchants from Qing. After filming, Lee Byung Hoon felt unhappy with the scene but he couldn’t put his finger on why, so he just let it go.

But when the editor saw the scene he also felt unhappy with it. He said that Heojun looked too much like a good-for-nothing scoundrel. And as this was the first scene of the drama they had to be careful about the tone and how they were presenting their lead character! The director agreed and realised that he should film the scene again.


Heojun episode 1 (MBC 2000) 


Heojun broke records with viewer ratings reaching over 60%. And fans went further than simply watching it on their TVs at home. On location in Gyeongsando in the south of Korea (whilst filming in Jirisan) the crew were approached by two old ladies, one with a limp, who said in the local dialect that she wanted to see ‘Dr Heojun’. So the actor Jun Kwang Ryul remained in character and knelt in front of her and examined the large scar on her leg. Then he put his hand on her shoulder and advised her to go to hospital. She seemed to really believe that she had met the doctor.

Then the film crew went off to a village in the very south of the country to the set of Heojun’s exile. Here they were met by school children wanting autographs. And Director Lee was also asked for his autograph for the first time in his 30 year career in directing.

For the final episode, the film location was Mokpo.  Here they were met by crowds of fans including several men in suits from Naju (famous for pears) who gave the crew gift boxes of pears and pear juice as a thank you for helping their business – in the drama pear juice mixed with honey was recommended as a remedy for overwork. After that the sales of Naju pears and pear juice went up! Sales of Maesil juice also more than doubled after Heojun gave it to his patients!


Heojun’s funeral (episode 64)


Due to the huge success of Heojun, Lee Byung Hoon vowed that he wouldn’t cast Jun Kwang Ryul or Hwang Soo Jeong in any of his dramas again because viewers wouldn’t be able to accept them in other roles.

Hwang Soo Jeong had been the 7th choice of actress to play the role of Yejin. At first she wasn’t considered right for the role, but she became very popular in Korea after this. Unfortunately, she later lost her popularity when she was arrested for drugs. She lost her innocent clean-cut image and was never able to regain that popularity back again.

After Heojun there was a lot of pressure on the director to succeed in his next project. He continued to use the same techniques that he had introduced in Heojun such as attention to pace, colour, music, and language to direct several more hugely popular sagaeuk including the international blockbuster Jewel in the Palace, MBC 2004. Read more about his approach to directing here.

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