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[Music in drama] Centuries-old royal romance regains life

Songs of 'Red Sleeve' depict love unable to be declared

By Lee Jung-youn

Published : April 15, 2024 - 18:15

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"The Red Sleeve," starring Lee Se-young (left) and Lee Jun-ho (MBC)

Some stories become more powerful because they are not told directly.

Having aired in late 2021, the MBC period drama "The Red Sleeve" depicts the story of King Jeongjo of the Joseon era and his beloved concubine, Uibin Seong.

That the story is based on history is intriguing, but the series is remarkable in its focus on the will of the female character even within the patriarchal narrative. It is a departure from the typical Korean period drama formula, especially for one that involves royal romance.

Deok-im (Lee Se-young), who takes pride in her job as a court lady, bravely stays by the side of the vulnerable Crown Prince Yi San (Lee Jun-ho), and helps him become king. She declines his repeated proposals, fearing she would lose her freedom by becoming a concubine. Even after she does become a concubine, she refuses to express her love for the king until the very end. Despite being king, Yi San is the one who wears his heart on his sleeve, as suffers from being unsure as to his concubine's love.

While Deok-im deliberately hides her feelings, the drama's songs convey her profound love.

"I Wish," sung by Wheein of Mamamoo, plays as Deok-im, who had been denying her feelings, meets Yi San in her dream. Realizing that it is just a dream, she reaches out to stroke his cheek, but awakes before she can touch him.

As her tears fall, the lyrics express Deok-im's wish that she has never told anyone: “The thing I've longed for all along is a story that only the two of us can write together, with nothing to hesitate about.” Although she wishes to see him even in her dreams, Deok-im rejects Yi San's confession of love in the scene that follows.

"The Red Sleeve," starring Lee Se-young (left) and Lee Jun-ho (MBC)

Ballad singer Lucia, also known as Sim Gyu-seon, depicts Deok-im’s hidden love through her tearful voice in “Beautiful.” The poetic lyrics and rich orchestral accompaniment draw listeners to the story. “You, who were deeply hidden, slip out and scatter my heart. Finally, everything becomes beautiful. At last I call it love, shedding tears alone.”

The song implies that Deok-im is doing her best to hold back her heart, although she cherishes the king as much as he cherishes her.

The celebrated singer Lee Sun-hee, who has an emotional yet powerful voice, adds a finishing touch to the heart-aching story with "I'll Leave You.”

"I'll Leave You" plays as Deok-im first reveals her feelings for Yi San. The moment when Deok-im unconsciously holds onto his sleeve as he tries to walk away seems like a moment where long-deferred love will finally be realized.

However, the lyrics sadly depict Deok-im’s plight: She is forced to live according to the rules of the royal court when she accepts Yi San's love: "I endured the loneliness with those common words of love, but I hold back tears in your arms. I’ll let go of your hand that colored my world entirely." It plays again as Deok-im faces death, adding depth to the sadness of Yi San, who weeps inconsolably.

"The Red Sleeve," starring Lee Jun-ho (left) and Lee Se-young (MBC)

This series offers a multifaceted look at the soundtracks of hit Korean drama series, shedding light on how the music enriches the stories -- Ed.