Drama Review: 49 Days to Love and Enlightenment

This review was written for and originally appeared in the Korean Quarterly.

We would think we’re having a bad day should we spill coffee on our new white shirt just as we’re heading out the door for an important meeting. But imagine how much worse that bad day would be if one were to suddenly find oneself dead – and ahead of schedule – before our time! This is exactly the kind of bad day that happens to pretty, vivacious Shin Ji-hyun as she is busy rushing about, handling the last-minute details before she marries the man of her dreams in the drama, “49 Days.”

Penned by Hyun-Kyung So, the writer of recent successful dramas such as “Shining Inheritance” and “Prosecutor Princess,” this tale is a surprisingly deep and spiritual story about life and living with meaning masquerading as a quasi-romantic comedy. There is an element of the transformative Cinderella tale that the author has done so well in those previous works as well.

The drama opens with a sequence of the ordinary life and death moments that naturally occur and, watching over these events is an impatient, brash young Grim Reaper (though he prefers the term “Scheduler”), played by Il-woo Jung. His job is to escort those who make their regularly scheduled appointments with death to their destination in the afterlife. He’s impatient because this is a job that’s about to end; he has just a short time left on his “tour of duty” and he is counting the hours.

Jung Il-woo is The Scheduler

Happily oblivious to the challenges that face a Scheduler, and apparently to many of life’s other, more complicated moments, is Shin Ji-hyun (played by actress and singer Gyu-ri Nam), future bride and a pampered princess. She is blissfully planning involved in the engagement to the ambitious Kang Min-ho (played by Soo-bin Bae).

Aided by her two closest friends, Shin In-jung (played by Ji-hye Seo) and Park Seo-woo (played by Geu-rin Bae), her days are filled with the joyful tasks every bride enjoys. She and Min-ho, you could say, “met cute,” or more appropriately, had a very memorable first meeting when he came to her rescue during an ill-planned camping excursion. He becomes her knight in shining armor and she his champion, having convinced her father to take him under his wing at his company. There is the lavish engagement party, soon to be followed by the wedding at the urging of her beloved father, and life is good.

One who is not thrilled by the bride (or is it just the wedding?) is rising architect Han Kang (played by Hyun-jae Jo). Unfortunately for him, not only is Min-ho his hyung, a former classmate, he must support him as such at the wedding, but he and Ji-hyun too were once former classmates. Every dinner engagement or social event where he is subjected to her blithe and careless happiness appears to be a form of torture for him; he does his best to wriggle out of these events and having anything to with Ji-hyun, but to little avail.

We meet someone else who is even less enamored with life; Song Yi-kyung (played by Yo-won Lee) pays no attention to the world around her, she is a virtual sleepwalker, living a life of meaningless drudgery working in a convenience store. Rather than living, you could describe her as merely existing.

Life holds so little meaning for her that a robbery attempt holds out the tempting promise of a quick death at the hands of the thief. That encounter appears to be the catalyst she needs to make a drastic decision: to end her miserable life. And this action sets into motion the chain of events that ruin Ji-hyun’s day and introduces her to the Scheduler.

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Technically, Ji-hyun’s “alive”; her body is lying in a vegetative state in a hospital, surrounded by her grieving parents, Min-ho, and her friends. Actually, she is dead and it’s up to the Scheduler to fix the screw-up that resulted from her death. She’s got 49 days (in Buddhism, it is said that it takes 49 days for the soul to make it’s journey to its next incarnation) to harvest three pure tears from non-family members to return to her soul to her body or to decide to take the big elevator to the afterlife.

But existing as a soul without a corporeal body is complicated! She can’t walk through walls; she has to wait for someone to open a door. It’s like being a ghost, without the traditional advantages.

The Schedule solves this problem by finding her a host body of someone who is significant to her: Yi-kyung, the woman who triggered Ji-hyun’s fatal accident. But wait: there are rules! Ji-hyun cannot reveal herself to anyone, she can only use Yi-kyung’s body when Yi-kyung’s sleeping (and if she uses time that Yi-kyung would ordinarily be using there is a stern penalty – one day off the 49-day clock), and she’s going to have to earn her own money to use when she’s daytime Yi-kyung.

However, he’s not just all tall, stylish, and snarky – he does give her a special cellphone/countdown clock so she can keep tabs on how much time she has left (because no one wears watches or uses paper calendars any more) and call him using the panic button feature. What’s great fun is how irritated he is every time she uses that panic button!

Song Yi-kyung gets a makeover, thanks to her "soul mate"

Ji-hyun is horrified to find herself in the body of a woman who obviously takes such little care of herself. She doesn’t even own any good shampoo! Taking the pittance of seed money she received from the Scheduler, she wastes it doing things like taking a taxi to visit her body and family in the hospital to see if she can’t start collecting those tears. Strangely, beloved Min-ho the fiancé isn’t doing any crying. This is no help at all!

She later ends up at the restaurant “Heaven,” owned by Han Kang (his office is part of the building as well) where she unthinkingly enjoys her favorite pasta without funds to pay for it. This leads to her finding employment because she’s not willing to take a handout from Kang, and as well finding someone who will become her staunchest ally and friend.

Her nighttime counterpart, Yi-kyung, however, slowly begins to feel like she’s finally going mad. Her hair is clean, she is discovering muscles (Ji-hyun begins her on a self-improvement course), but more frighteningly, she senses Ji-hyun’s presence.

Never having been sold on Yo-won Lee’s characterizations previously, for the first time in “49 Days” she has a role that suits her skills. Where she’s been an annoying “purse-dragger” before unintentionally, now her sleepwalking, depressive state is just what the role demands. Plus, her ability to be bright and cheerful always seemed out of character; here it’s natural that it should seem so as she is inhabited by the sunny Ji-hyun. What’s equally fascinating is how Min-ho is drawn to Yi-kyung, for what seem to be reasons that are equal parts dark and complicated and intuitive.

Bae Soo-bin plays the ambitious Kang Min-ho

For a while, it seems that Min-ho might be so very interested in Ki-yung because his competitive juices were flowing at the idea that there was a woman who could look at his gorgeous togetherness with such scorn, but it seems there is more to this. It is actually very subtle and psychologically valid character-shading, but it’s more likely his attraction is tied to his feelings of what he deserves: a woman who loathes him the way he loathes himself, a woman who has never known the “good” Min-ho, only the wicked one, and who will heap upon his head the abuse he knows he richly deserves. It seems like his contact with Ki-yung makes him want to be a better man.

“Best friend” and betrayer In-jung, on the other hand, reacts oppositely to Ki-yung. The scorn she reads in Ki-yung’s eyes seems to make her want to act more viciously, more decisively towards Ji-hyun and Ji-hyun’s family!

Interestingly enough, the one who doesn’t have that much complexity in the first half of the drama is the Scheduler. This is more than rectified in the second half.

There is a powerful sequence during which Kang walks with Yi-kyung (without Ji-hyun’s soul present) and the two are followed along by Ji-hyun and Scheduler. During a flashback sequence, watching how the four of them once met in the park is astounding. The look on Scheduler’s face as he looks at how Kang, Ji-hyun, and Yi-kyung are lost in thought and deeply, deeply lost in their own sad reminiscences was pitch perfect. He can’t figure out why all three of them are clearly feeling bereft in some way and it shakes him enough so that he emotionally engages with humans – these humans – for a change, and rushes forward to catch the fainting Yi-kyung and is worried about her state.

We know that he has said that he has to be most concerned that nothing Ji-hyun does harms Yi-kyung (it’s one of those rules) but he’s never really shown concern for her before, not real concern. And when he does, and becomes an integral part of the story, it adds an extra layer of depth, enriching it and weaving together the threads of the story.

Shin Ji-hyun (played by actress and singer Nam Gyu-ri)

Along the way there is an evolution to the character of Ji-hyun; you question whether Ji-hyun really was the fragile and delicate princess she seemed. I’m not so sure that I think of her pre-journey as being fragile (there was the girl who wasn’t afraid to stand up for the bullied Kang when she first meets him, and bullies him into eating his mom’s seaweed soup too!), insomuch as more naive and pure of spirit. She was rocked to the core by the discovery of each betrayal that occurs and that maybe makes her seem more fragile, but after a few days of allowing herself time to grieve and despair, she picks herself up (with a chiding kick in the pants from Scheduler) and continues on. She actually shows a surprising resiliency and ability to problem solve through much of the drama.

As for Kang, he is her knight in shining armor, but in a very logical way in accordance with the 49 days premise. It’s as if his actions are very grounded in the real world even as he’s trying to understand this world of the soul that is very incredible to most. But he’s got her back as much as he possibly can, or thinks he can safely do. And wouldn’t we want someone just as lovely by our side?

We need Kang to show us a contrast between emotionally broken people who know right from wrong and who want to love as much as be loved. Min-ho, in spite of his disastrous childhood and home life, was loved by his mother and not in doubt of that love (he returns to the restaurant where he ate with his mother), yet he feels that it’s his right to mess with the love of good, decent people like Ji-hyun and her parents.

Kang was not sure of his mother’s love but wanted it all the same and sorely feels its lack; he knows the value of love and friendship and he puts it out there every day for his friends and the woman he’s loved. We need him to show us (and Ji-hyun, of course) that love can be pure and trusted, and not asking for anything in return.

Jo Hyun-jae is the architect, Han Kang

We also need someone who can be that silent (he can’t explain how much he knows to Ji-hyun) and staunch supporter. Just as much as you might say that the Scheduler is Ji-hyun’s non-corporeal guardian angel (of a sorts, albeit grudgingly), Kang is her living angel protector and very much so. He gives of himself completely, without question when he knows something has to be done because that’s what love does.

You could say that he’s also a perfect foil to In-jung too because she is supposed to have loved Ji-hyun and been her ‘best friend’ and yet, before Ji-hyun’s parents know of her double-crossing with Min-ho, she’s shown very little sign of being Ji-hyun’s friend (count her hospital visits, for example).

The story also needs Kang as our explainer/detective, to track down the ‘truth’ of the 49 days and soul transfer, and once that’s done, do those things that physically Ji-hyun cannot do. Like go keep her parents company, investigate Min-ho, and gather business-related evidence. But most of all, the show needs him to be that broad shoulder so that we know that Ji-hyun won’t go crazy.

As for Min-ho… He does very wrong to blameless people and therefore must be punished. If he’d harmed guilty types you could say that he’s a dark kind of Robin Hood and maybe allow redemption, but that is far from the case. Even if, like Judas, he denies loving Ji-hyun, he does care for her, so this compounds his sins mightily.

Writer So gave Bae Soo-bin a terrific role as the second lead in “Shining Inheritance,” and once again gives him the opportunity to excel. Because he can look so innocent, his betrayals have all the more power to shock. Because he is so convincing in his justifications, you begin to sympathize, or at least empathize with his very wrong choices.

The best part of the story is that you see the very same things that made many viewers appreciate “Shining Inheritance” so much at work here, even if in this case the plot is more farfetched. The characters have feelings and behave realistically and the villains make you understand their motivations.

It’s important to note that the story unfolds gradually; you literally will not get all the pieces until the last episode, and once they are revealed it is worth taking some time to explore how well the writer has explored the different characters and the journeys they’ve taken.

Reflecting on the performance and storytelling, both really good; they are played pretty ‘close to the vest,’ and by that I mean that the actors don’t telegraph what’s going to happen next. You feel what they feel in the moment and you can’t predict what will come around the corner. With some dramas there is no such thing as a spoiler, the plots are so predictable that you could practically write the script yourself, but this is not the case here even though it seemed initially as if it might be so.

I feel that the body/soul switching premise in “49 Days” works better than in the popular drama “Secret Garden.” While entertainingly handled, the soul swapping in “Secret Garden” did not provide the emotional impact of the non-soul-swapping emotional connection/love story side of that drama. Here it’s so integral to the plot that we’re like Kang: we know it makes no sense but we see it come to life and it’s so convincing; there is no other explanation for it but that we must believe it – and so we do!

There is some really clever plotting going on in this drama, especially every scene with Min-ho and Ki-yung. The last episode really got me too! When I least expected it, I’d find myself tearing up. There is laughter too, although less so.

It is, when you break it down, a poor little rich girl melodrama, but with such good casting, genuine sentiments, and a fresh spin, it definitely worked for me! With an ability to write realistic human relationships, to take topics that might be clichéd and turn trite in lesser hands and make them meaningful and deep, writer Hyun-Kyung So has proven to be a reliable commodity and “49 Days” is a drama to savor.

Watch this drama on legal sites like Dramafever.com and Hulu.com.

Review: The Jury’s In: “Prosecutor Princess” Wins Hearts

This review was written for and originally appeared in the Korean Quarterly.

Some people choose their dramas because a particular actor or actress has been cast as a lead, others because they are fans of a particular genre (“I never miss a good sageuk”), but there is much to be said for choosing a drama based on its writer. “Prosecutor Princess” is a case in point; while this writer is very much a fan of Shi-hoo Park for his work in “Iljimae” and “How to Meet a Perfect Neighbor,” and was impressed by So-yeon Kim’s work in “Iris” and “Gourmet,” the knowledge that Hyun-Kyung So penned the script made this a must-see. So was responsible for the excellent 2009 melodrama “Shining Inheritance” and another successful outing in one of 2011’s best dramas, “49 Days.” Writer So has a genuine gift for creating characters grounded in honest emotion and substance, and when that is combined with talented and charismatic actors, you know you’re in for a treat.

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Kim So-yeon and Park Shi-hoo

 

One of the hallmarks of a So story is the natural and progressive growth that characters will experience during the course of the story and “Princess” is no exception. The story begins by introducing us to new lawyer Ma Hye-ri (So-yeon Kim) who will clearly not fit the stodgy image of most lawyers. She attends her graduation ceremonies in a wardrobe fit for Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City,” like a peacock amongst the crows, and shows a frivolous side in her actions as well. She’s opted to join the Prosecutor’s office but, rather than attend the new lawyer orientation session, she treats herself to a shopping trip — one with a very specific agenda — to score some pricey designer shoes at an exclusive auction to be held at a ski resort. She’s aided and abetted in this by her mother (played by veteran character actress Hee-kyung Ae), who endures a few insults from Hye-ri’s father (Jung-woo Choi) gladly if it means that her daughter is happy.

“Crime” doesn’t pay

Hye-ri’s plans, however, don’t run smoothly. While at the resort her belongs, including cell phone and wallet are stolen, and someone has mysteriously cancelled her room reservation, stranding her and leaving her without the wherewithal to pursue her desired objective: a pair of designer Gioberni shoes. Someone else is occupying her room, an attractive young man by the name of Seo In-woo, who in learning of her plight offers to share the room with her — and his date. She assumes he means for illicit purposes and stalks off, but attends the auction all the same and attempts to complete her mission. Now we see how she managed to get through law school; the girl is single-minded, dedicated, and resourceful. Unfortunately, she’s not the only one interested in the auction. It’s also the scene of a prosecutorial investigation, looking to capture a high-end counterfeiter. This stakeout is headed up by Prosecutor Yoon Se-joon (played by Jung-soo Han, who most recently made hearts flutter in “Chuno”), a dedicated, action-oriented, and single-minded individual. To say that things do not go as intended for Hye-ri and Prosecutor Yoon would be an understatement. Only (perhaps) Seo In-woo got what he came for this evening!

Back to the city, Ma Hye-ri reports to the Prosecutor’s office in her completely inappropriately high fashion, high heeled wardrobe to take up her assigned position and, sure enough, it happens to be the same one where Yoon Se-joon is a lead prosecutor. Still stinging from his failed stakeout thanks to events that unfolded and her role in them, he pretends to not recognize her. There’s something else going on as well, having to do with that level of recognition, could it be attraction? Interest? Whatever the emotion, he bottles it up well and maintains a stiff, all-business approach, though he’s dismayed to learn he’s assigned to be her lead in the office. This doesn’t sit well with another prosecutor, Jin Jung-sun (Song-hyun Choi), who is the female counterpart to the flashy Hye-ri, appropriately dressed in suit, stodgy glasses, and sober haircut. This solid, respectable citizen and civil servant has a beating heart under her drab clothes and it beats for the widower Se-joon.

Role Model, Mentor, and Man of Mystery – Lucky Hye-ri!

As Hye-ri’s professional career begins on a less than enthusiastic welcoming note, we begin to see a little more of Seo In-woo’s background unfold. He’s apparently also a lawyer, one who picks and chooses his cases based on his own inclinations — and rarely loses a case. For some reason he’s very interested in Hye-ri, and has been keeping a close eye on her actions, with the assistance of his colleague Jenny Ahn (Jun-ah Park). At every turn he puts himself in front of Hye-ri, acting as savior, friend, sympathetic shoulder, and you could even say as a mentor. Because Hye-ri needs a mentor. While she knows the law, she has a blind side to understanding the human side of the law. And she also has a fairly blithe disregard for many of the “do it for the team” side of the workplace, especially a Korean workplace. She refuses to work overtime as she’s a civil servant (there will always be more work, she’s not paid overtime, if they have more work to do they should hire more workers, so why bother?) and puts her well-shod foot wrong in a few cases, leaving her ostracized. In fact, in short order no one wants to work with her and she’s shuttled off to her own office and given no work to do in the hopes that she’ll quit. In-woo, for mysterious reasons, can’t have this and steps in to give her work and guide her into being a contributing member of the prosecutorial staff.

You could say that this drama is fundamentally a mystery, masquerading as a fluffy romance — at least it seems to be a fluffy romance initially, with Ma Hye-ri in her flirty skirts, sky-high heels, and girly office accoutrements. (And oh, how her two assigned staffers hate the ridiculously feminine touches all around them!) But little by little secrets are revealed about each of our characters. Why is Hye-ri so certain that you can’t count on the love of others so you must love yourself first and foremost? Why is her mother obsessed with her weight?

The answers to those questions reveal a particularly poignant and contemporary touch to the story; the way people are treated in a relationship shapes their perceptions of relationships in the future. The marriage you see your parents’ having informs your view of your own potential relationships. It’s a smallish detail in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one of those character and plot points that goes a long way in helping the viewer understand why Ma Hye-ri acts the way she does and makes her growth as a person all the more meaningful. Early on you could say that the plot takes a few cues from “Legally Blonde,” but by the midway point in the drama the differences become more distinct and for a simple reason: Hye-ri does not really see herself as a beautiful person with a brain. She is someone who’s worked hard to make the most of her attributes, both physical and mental, but doesn’t have the blithe confidence of Elle Woods, as you will discover. This makes her progressive improvements in her career more plausible and the character more likeable.

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Park Shi-hoo confuses and bemuses Kim So-yeon’s Prosecutor Princess

Even more significantly, the flow of the story brings us more and more curious behavior from In-woo and then finally the tide turns and we begin to get the details on how and why he’s acting the way he does. Why exactly is he so interested in Hye-ri to the point of deserving an order of protection writ against him for stalking (which of course does not really happen because if he didn’t follow her every move, how else would we get to see how absolutely adorable he is?) Best to let you discover this for yourself: telling would be spoiling!

The story comes complete with a sort of love quadrangle: In-woo obsesses over Hye-ri; Hye-ri comes to have a serious crush on the dedicated Se-joon; Jung-sun longs to have Se-joon look her way too; Se-joon is kind of hung up on his deceased wife who happens to have looked a lot like Hye-ri, but he respects Jung-sun as a colleague and mother figure to his young daughter; and Hye-ri feels very comfortable with and relies upon In-woo. Is that complicated enough? The beauty of it is that Writer So manages to make the stories work and the actors bring the characters to life.

So-yeon Kim reveals a deft touch with the rom-com genre and is successful with playing a woman who is not cool, elegant, or a North Korean assassin. She’s smart, but kind of a screw up. She’s warm-hearted, but lacks a certain amount of common sense. She’s got great instincts for the law it turns out, but she’s also sometimes shortsighted when it comes to planning. It seems like Kim’s trying too hard to play ditzy and frivolous and that may turn off some viewers (as it did some friends of this writer), but once she starts relaxing into her role as a prosecutor, So-yeon Kim let’s us see that sharp brain of Hye-ri’s as it starts to click. The reasons for hiding that brain come to light and we are let into the character’s inner world of hurt thanks to Kim’s performance, just as we come to see the day-to-day bravery of the young woman to cope with heartache and cruel expectations.

Stop! Thief! (No… Don’t!)

Shi-hoo Park is a well-known scene-stealer — he’s twice been cast as the second lead and ended up with the girl due to changes in the story in previous dramas — and it’s clear to see how and why he’s moved up to first lead position. With such a handsome contender as Jung-soo Han, who brings a smile to any girl’s face with his cheekbones and stellar physique, it seems that he’s the primary candidate for the love interest. But Park has a way of sneaking up on you and making you connect with him emotionally.

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Known scene-stealer Park Shi-hoo and gorgeous Kim So-yeon shine

 

When we first see him in the drama there are times when he’s almost creepy, and others when he’s definitely creepy! There’s that smile of his when he is trying to charm Hye-ri, or deflect her attention — it’s just a little… off. It’s the right touch to make us suspicious of him, and so we should be. But as we learn that he’s carrying some serious and painful secrets of his own and his face takes on a more guarded and tentative expression, or one that slips and reveals his truthful feelings, then all bets are off on who’s going to get the girl! The question is no longer whom, but when (and maybe how). It’s maybe a strange thing to say, but one of the things that Park excels at is looking anguished, so storm clouds on the horizon in a drama mean that he’s going to break your heart and make you swoon just a little bit more!

As with the prior year’s “Shining Inheritance,” this drama deals with a “sins of the father” storyline and raises the issue of filial duty. It’s the central driver for “Prosecutor Princess,” in fact, and represents a satisfactory mystery. It unfolds at a fairly rapid pace in the latter episodes, but the pacing does not seem to rush the impact of the story. You’re not left wondering how things happened and why, and for those who prefer to have dramas that focus on the relationships-side of the story, this tidying up of that aspect of the plot allows a satisfying amount of time to allow our protagonists to sort themselves out romantically.

And at the end of the case of “Prosecutor Princess,” the verdict is in: it’s entertaining and well-spun yarn with performances from a telegenic and likeable cast, well worth your time. Make plans to see it, and if you haven’t already had the chance to explore the works of Hyun-kyung So, add “Shining Inheritance” and “49 Days” to your viewing list as well!

Watch this drama legally at Dramafever.com!