Korean Romance with a Capra Twist

This review of “City Hall” was written for and appears in the Winter 2011 issue of The Korean Quarterly.

There are some dramas you watch and, once finished, you smile thinking fondly of the pleasure you had while immersed in it. There are some dramas you curse yourself for watching and for having wasted your time viewing. Some you may abandon after a few episodes because the plot or acting (or both) are just not your “cup of tea.” And then there are those other dramas, the ones that grab you, shake your heart, capture imagination and live in your memory forever. “City Hall” (SBS 2009) falls firmly in that last category, with its perfect pairing of actors Sueng-won Cha and Seon-ah Kim in a tale that blends the best of Capra and romance.

“City Hall” opens with a rush of information; there is quite a bit of character establishment and scene setting to get through and it is the choppiest part of the drama, but fear not because it settles down nicely by episode three and never looks back. It opens in the seaside town of Inju City and introduces the viewer to level 10 (the lowest grade) civil servant Shin Mi-rae, played by Seon-ah Kim. Mi-rae leads a manic life avoiding involvement in political wheelings and dealings, ducking insults from councilwoman Min Joo-hwa (Sang-mi Choo), taking on odd jobs to pay off credit card debt racked up by an ex-boyfriend, running errands to help the villagers in her community, and making excellent coffee for the mayor and his cronies. She finds comfort and assistance in her friendships with fellow civil servants Lee Jung-do (Hyung-chul Lee), Director of the Tourism Bureau who happens to be married to ambitious Councilwoman Min, and Jung Boo-mi (Soo-young Jung) who works in a public service department.

Into this arena of small city political shenanigans, where the mayor has his slush funds and the council is stacked with his cronies, comes the mysterious protégé of political king pin BB – Jo Guk, played by Seung-won Cha. Who is this BB, as in Big Brother (Il-hwa Choi), and what are his plans for Jo Guk and Inju City? It appears that Inju City has some future significance in BB’s plans and, even though Jo Guk has been on an upwards-political trajectory and this is a major step backwards, when BB orders something done, it happens. “Golden boy” Jo Guk finds himself back in the city of his childhood, Inju City, only this time he is returning cloaked in an aura of mystery, power, and glamour. He’s tall, handsome, impeccably groomed, glib, rumored to excel in every arena, and able to charm birds from the trees, or so it seems. He’s going to have to deal with the current inhabitants of City Hall and position himself to be ready for BB’s next move and it’s not going to be easy.

Unfortunately for Mi-rae, Jo Guk’s first impression of her is not as favorable as hers is of him. She sees the magnificent single man and like many of the women in Inju, she thinks of him as her dream match, whereas he finds her irksome, intrusive, and yes, even a little bit smelly as her many odd jobs don’t allow her time for shampooing her hair. He dismisses her initially as yet another country bumpkin and laughs about her crush on him with his personal aide, Ha Soo-in (Joon-hyuk Lee), every time Mi-rae finds an excuse to catch his attention. He does learn, however, that Mi-rae is a listener (read: eavesdropper) and has access to private meetings in her role as coffee girl and makes plans to use this to his advantage.

Kickbacks and Boondoggles are Comedy Gold

“City Hall” kicks into high gear and never looks back when councilwoman Min convinces Mayor Go to hold a beauty pageant – Miss Baendaengi – and to let Jo Guk run it. It’s their private boondoggle and if it fails or is exposed, it’s Jo Guk’s neck on the line, and if it succeeds, then it’s money in their pockets. They need all the political capital they can lay their hands on too for their bigger plan: to build a new City Hall. That plan will involve property acquisitions, backdoor deals to construct the property, and sweetheart deals with the wealthy citizens and business of Inju City. The indignity of having to run a beauty pageant raises Jo Guk’s ire and he palms off his responsibilities on Director Lee. What really throws him for a loop, though, is Mi-rae’s determination to enter the pageant as a contestant even though she’s in her mid-thirties and not your typical pageant miss. She wants the prize money to pay her creditors and she schemes her way into the roster of contestants.

The real magic of the drama begins during the pageant as Jo Guk comes to see the true spirit of Mi-rae and finds himself torn between letting her be a victim of the political machinations behind the contest and protecting her. Events unfold and take the level 10 civil servant Shin Mi-rae and deputy mayor Jo Guk on a very different path, borrowing elements of Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and marrying them with flashes of humor, loss and longing, and deeply romantic moments. Scandal breaks and Jo Guk is tasked by BB with putting a malleable mayor in place; Shin Mi-rae is that perfect candidate and he will be her political Svengali.

The chemistry between Seon-ah Kim and Seung-won Cha as their characters discover love, hope, and new goals makes “City Hall” an incredible pleasure to watch. It’s not always easy; Jo Guk is a very difficult character to trust for much of the drama. He’s manipulative and has been manipulated himself by his bond with BB, a cynical, cold, and power greedy man. He shows himself to be capable of putting his goals ahead of others’ needs and feelings and his use of Mi-rae to serve his goals leaves the viewer unsettled and afraid for the generous and openhearted Mi-rae.

Oh, and he’s not truly a single man either – there is a fiancée in the background (Se-ah Yoon as Go Go-hae) who is as ambitious for Jo Guk as is BB. The viewer is captivated one moment as a scene unfolds in which Jo Guk softens and opens his heart to Mi-rae (a particularly unforgettable sequence involves a camping trip), only to experience heartbreak in another. Kim and Cha make the viewer feel their every emotion and the director has taken advantage of their abilities to convey the intensity of their feelings through the use of very effective close-ups and overlays. It is like a master class for actors: no, it’s more than that – they are Shin Mi-rae and Jo Guk.

The other sub-plots contribute nicely to the overall story arc, especially the uneasy relationship between the less ambitious Director Lee and his overly ambitious wife. His close friendship and loyalty to Mi-rae irritates Joo-hwa and prompts her to some of her more conniving actions, pushing the couple to the brink. Lee Jung-do’s deep-down sadness is counterbalanced by the frenzied shrillness of Joo-hwa has a shared root cause that the story handles well. Over the course of the drama the viewer comes to understand their motivations and see their true feelings.

In fact, the same can be said for each of the characters in “City Hall.” As the story unfolds, each of the main supporting characters’ are given meaning and fleshed out sufficiently so that the viewer is never left wondering why they would behave in a given way.

Politics Is An Ugly Business

The balance of the drama is compelling and does an excellent job with revealing the motivations behind BB’s actions and Il-hwa Choi is brilliant as the evil BB. Se-ah Yoon’s role of fiancée Go-hae is another one that is intentionally chilling and very successful in its execution. The political campaigning and ups and downs of Shin Mi-rae’s new political life incorporate scenes from some of the more dramatic and petty moments of Korean political life, yet will be equally familiar to US viewers familiar with graft, political in-fighting, and electioneering, and other sometimes less-positive aspects of local government. It adds a dose of realism to the romance; all the while it entertains and provides a story for adults.

That said, the political side of the story does not overwhelm the drama. There are moments of playfulness – Seon-ah Kim’s former costar Hyun Bin is referenced for hilarious effect – and there are moments of tender romance, such as the very tall Jo Guk acting as a shade tree to allow Mi-rae to sleep longer. Seung-won Cha uses his deep baritone most comically when he doesaegyo. Seon-ah Kim and Cha sizzle as they perform a tango for her talent routine in the beauty pageant. It is only the desire to see what happens next that will keep the viewer from hitting Rewind on the remote control to watch many scenes repeatedly!

This is not a story of flower boys and pretty girls; this is something that grownups will sink their teeth into. It is also a story that can be watched multiple times and grows richer with each repeat viewing. “City Hall” is most definitely a piece that should find a spot in a drama-watcher’s permanent collection, to be enjoyed over and over again.

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