Written for the Korean Quarterly
Full disclosure: “Lovers in Prague” is one of those dramas that will always have a top position on my life list of favorite dramas and I hope that you will say the same thing when you have finished watching it as well. I’ve pressed it on friends who have grown weary of their diet of increasingly predictable and hyper sexed Spanish-language telenovelas and they’ve fallen on it with the eagerness of the long parched finding an oasis of pure water, then they email me after every episode to proclaim their love. “Ah! This is how romance is supposed to be!”
Yes, it’s that good.
Why does this drama resonate so? Let’s explore the many things that it does so well, beginning with the authentic flavor of its opening episodes in the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Too often dramas or movies are set in a location and they are in and out of the place with only a quick nod to the top five places to see. Not so here.
From the red-tiled rooftops to the narrow lanes, from the views of the Vltava River from the Charles Bridge to the wide spaces of the Old Town Square, you feel that the characters inhabit a real place. There are several enduring mental images I carry with me from my own visit to Prague that seem particularly appropriate symbols for the drama: the first are the city’s cobblestone streets and walkways. At a glance they look smooth and sturdy, but make no mistake – if you approach them carelessly (leave the high heels at home, ladies) you’ll end up at the very least with aching feet and at worst with a twisted ankle. They’re complex, rugged, irregular, and durably solid. Kind of like police Sergeant Choi Sang-hyun, played by Kim Joo-hyuk.
Another is the soaring nave of St. Vitus Cathedral and the intricate and glowing stained glass windows. Inspiring, creative, joyful, they remind me of the dedication and hard work of many, and of the resourceful, optimistic, and persistent diplomat Yoon Jae-hee, played by Jeon Do-yeon.
The final image that is incorporated so charmingly into the drama is that of the puppets of Prague. The art of puppetry, both their creation and the stagecraft of puppets, is as much a part of the Prague artistic scene as their devotion to Mozart (who had his first big professional success in the city). When I think of how a simple figure, in the hands of a master puppeteer can be made to perform any number of complicated steps, I think of the special prosecutor Ji Young-woo, played by Kim Min-joon. As the story progresses, the subtle symbolism works its magic on me.
The greatest part of the drama’s success is, of course, due to the excellent work of its strong ensemble cast.
You have a leading man who is dependable, loyal, kind, brave, modest, and yes, manly. You have a leading lady who is intelligent, optimistic, willing to fight for her beliefs, plucky but not childish, and so giving and lovable. The false lover is angry, frustrated, fair-minded (to a point), but unrelenting. And the portrayal by each of these three leads of those characteristics is perfection.
In addition this trio of stellar performances, Yoon Se-ah manages to portray that perfect mixture of pitiable and despicable in the role of Kim Hye-joo, the girl who decides to upgrade her situation in life by pursuing a rich older man, rather than settle for a kindhearted, hardworking police sergeant. Kim Seung-wook has a colorful turn as Sergeant Choi’s partner, whereas Yoon Young-joon shines as Jae-hee’s fellow diplomatic core worker and friend, playing in an unsentimental fashion the part of a handicapped young man. Lee Jung-gil is Jae-hee’s father, the perfect counterpart to Young-woo’s father (played by Jung Dong-hwan), president to evil corporate magnate (the aforementioned rich older man and principal puppet master). Also making a more humorous appearance is Ha Jung-woo as Jae-hee’s bodyguard, and Jang Geun-seuk as her younger brother. With such a talented cast, it’s not remarkable perhaps that they make every scene so memorable.
The Bruiser and the Belle
We first meet our protagonist, Sergeant Choi Sang-hyun as he and his partner are busting heads and rounding up smugglers, earning him an arm injury and a few assorted cuts and a Presidential commendation. He modestly proclaims, when queried by the President about his girlfriend, that Korea is his lover, unlike the young man next to him (Ji Young-woo), also up for a commendation, who remarks that he’s hoping to win a special lady.
Wanting to share the details of the ceremony with his fiancée, Sang-hyun calls her long distance in Prague, but is abruptly told by her to forget she ever existed. Alarmed and perplexed by this, he takes off to find her and discover the cause for this turn of events. Arriving in Prague, he spots Jae-hee in a bar and, owing to her glamorous appearance (she’s got an embassy event to attend), assumes she’s an expensive call girl and he’s ashamed that a good Korean girl would behave such a way. Shortly thereafter, however, he’s forced to turn to her for aid when a local makes the mistake of attempting to pick his pocket.
Amused by his brashness, Jae-hee does help him, and intrigued, also agrees to help him find his fiancée. She’s very taken by his loyalty and candor, perhaps because five years ago, someone she cared about (Young-woo), left her with a promise to return but never did. Is the good Sergeant the kind of man who would abandon her? Definitely not. Plus, he’s a dedicated servant of the nation, a man just like her father, driven by principle. She’s more than interested. In return for her help in finding Hye-joo, she needs his help – will he participate with her in a tandem marathon representing Korea? The manner in which he does come to do so is the deciding factor in her falling completely in love with this man. He is never going to be the type to leave her waiting and wondering.
Of course, Sang-hyun has other things on his mind, like a shockingly unfaithful girlfriend, and the ending of the life path he had plotted out for the two of them. To him, he is more likely to believe a dog than another woman, he tells Jae-hee. This is not going to be so simple.
Complicating matters, she is wrapping up her Prague assignment and will be returning to Korea. Will their paths cross? It won’t be easy, diplomats and sergeants don’t tend to move in the same social circles (especially if the good Sergeant Choi has anything to say about it). However, a lucky traffic violation brings them into contact once again, much to Jae-hee’s delight.
An assignment on a special robbery task force also brings Sergeant Choi into contact with the other winner of the Presidential commendation, Ji Young-woo, and a temporary duty roster in the same building where Jae-hee works. Young-woo wastes no time letting Jae-hee know he’s still interested, but there is the unanswered question as to why he never came for her five years ago. He is territorial towards her, much to Sang-hyun’s amusement and annoyance. But Jae-hee has eyes only for Sergeant Choi and puts her campaign to convince him that a woman can be trusted into action.
Chemistry in Action
The roadblocks that the couple face might seem like some unrealistic fantasy plot in less capable hands. Instead, the issues that the Jae-hee and Sang-hyun will have to confront are powerful and emotional moments, thanks to the incredibly chemistry between Jeon Do-yeon and Kim Joo-hyuk. Their banter, their soul-searching glances, their ups and downs are all fascinating to watch. When they’re happy, you celebrate their happiness; when they’re devastated by various turn of events, you are devastated as well.
Kim Min-joon deserves special mention too. I confess when I watched this drama the first time I seriously despised Young-woo for being selfish, blind, and greedy because that’s how I saw the man who kept getting in the way of the two lovers being together. Upon my second viewing, however, I saw more nuances in his role and performance than I’d had the patience to see the first time around. His actions late in the drama are the lynch pins to the surprising resolution to the drama.
If there is a weakness to “Lovers in Prague,” it is the role of Jung Dong-hwan’s “Evil Daddy.” As the man who A) ruins his son’s life (potentially three sons’ lives), B) ruins a young woman’s life, and C) wants to ruin the President, it strains credibility a bit that he’d have that much power and his portrayal is a little formulaic, but all things considered, it’s a minor quibble in what is overall a highly satisfying drama.
Best of all is the gratifying resolution of the drama, unlike the puzzling ending to another title by the same team in the “Lovers” series, “Lovers in Paris.” The ending to “Lovers in Prague” will have you ready to pop disc one back in the DVD player for a return visit to a magical place – or searching online for travel deals to the Czech Republic to see whether the city can be as magical for you as it is for our two lovers. Either option is a very worthy choice!
You can watch “Lovers in Prague” at Dramafever.com.