This review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly.
It is a rare and precious drama that, upon viewing, can make one’s pulse beat just a little faster than normal, from the opening moments through to the final scene. Cable network jTBC performed that miracle with the exceptional “Padam Padam… The Sound of His and Her Heartbeats.”
It is clear from the opening scene that this will be no ordinary story, told in no ordinary way, nor performed by ordinary actors. If it were simply a case of a great story, many viewers of television dramas would be delighted at being treated to a novel and imaginative tale. Yet this is perhaps the least of the not inconsiderable treats provided by “Padam Padam.” It brings to the screen an incredible visual style, cinematic in its scope, as well as beautiful and unique locations in and near Tongyeong, South Korea. But it is the excellence of the performers who make up the drama’s cast that bring these other components to brilliant life and make it unforgettable.
The drama opens with an extreme close-up of Jung, dedicated to eating a meal of fried chicken with a single-minded thoroughness. Meat is stripped from the bones with precision and no succulent morsel escapes his unselfconscious attention. He eats without passion. A voice interrupts his meal to tell him that Prisoner Yang Kang-chil has a visitor. This is to be his last meal; he is destined for the gallows. Are we seeing, in fact, a story told in reverse?
While this is not the case (we are not after all seeing the story’s final sequence), “Padam Padam” is a richly layered story, with multiple timelines. It demands your attention at all times, though this is never a chore. Watching the various threads of the story unravel and become knit together once again is particularly gratifying. It is a story of redemption and retribution, of courage and despair, of love and doubt, and of miracles.
The Unjust Sentence
Kang-chil is a man who has from the age of 19, spent fourteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Released from prison after serving his time, he makes his way back to Tongyeong and to his home. Along the long route homeward, he meets a stranded motorist, an attractive young veterinarian, Jung Ji-na, played by Ji-min Han, in what must certainly be considered a contender for classification as the finest role in her career. She is justifiably wary of this large, blunt-spoken man, and keeps her distance, only to be challenged later to reconsider her prejudicial first impressions by his candor and lack of aggression.
In Tongyeong, Kang-chil returns to find his mother, played by the incomparable veteran actress Moon-hee Na, working dockside as a fishmonger. She is a living illustration of the pejorative “fishwife” in her shrewish nature, harsh words, and actions. She seems incapable of the tender gesture; life has been cruel to her. Not knowing much of what compassion is like, she has little ability to bestow it on others, even her own son.
Kang-chil has deep emotional wounds, owing to key events leading up to the crime for which he’d been framed, and its aftermath, and holds her partially to blame for his suffering. Yet, she is his mother and he must come home to her. The reconciliation between mother and son is one of the tenderest, painfully honest, and most gratifying of the plots in this drama. Na is equally unafraid to play a character that is hard and scolding. Hers is a voice that could strip paint from wood, yet those harsh words turn out to be her ways of demonstrating her love.
Kang-chil does not return alone to Tongyeong; another prisoner gains release and is “tasked” with keeping an eye on Kang-chil. His task is actually more self-imposed — Lee Gook-soo believes himself to be Kang-chil’s guardian angel. The young actor Bum Kim plays Gook-soo with an impressive maturity. The question is: can Gook-soo actually be an angel?
He is convinced that he is on the path to becoming a bona fide guardian angel and Kang-chil is his responsibility. And given certain circumstances that cannot be described in this review for fear of giving away crucial plot developments, there are reasons to suspend disbelief. Is he delusional? Are those events that transpire miracles, as he claims, or are there other reasons?
Kim Bum brings a slightly shifty and cunning, yet pragmatic tone to his “almost” angel, but it works… oh, it works! His actions at one point were so devious that they made this reviewer (and a friend watching alongside) literally gasp aloud in shock!
A Rehabilitated Life
Life back at home is not exactly easy for Kang-chil, but he and Gook-soo set up as carpenters/handymen and prove that they have a knack for this. Circumstances lead to them undertaking the remodeling of Ji-na’s veterinary clinic. During this period, she comes to learn more about the man that is Kang-chil, and to discover in him a pure heart. He is smitten by the young woman, he has never known a woman, and even though he knows that he’s deemed by society to be unworthy of any woman (let alone one so amazing as she), he looks upon her in wonder and dreams that maybe (somehow), he might be allowed to care for her.
There are many other obstacles in Kang-chil’s way, and not just when it comes to love. He receives devastating news of one kind at one turn, and is pursued by the uneasy individual who was actually responsible for the crime. A further unexpected development comes in the arrival of a young man who claims to be Kang-chil’s son. Tae-joon Choi gives a pitch-perfect portrayal of a teen on the cusp of adulthood who feels resentment and abandonment issues, but who also desperately wants to feel that he belongs. As if this was not enough, the officer in charge of the pivotal crime not only was the brother of the victim, wants his “pound of flesh” from Kang-chil, but is also Ji-na’s father. Hang-sung Jang plays Detective Jung as a hard core, hard –headed career cop not above a little brutality to mete out his own form of justice.
Woo-sung Jung’s performance is amazing on so many levels; it’s hard to know how to stop offering singing his praises. He’s given Kang-chil this gangly stoop and loping walk, and in that physical interpretation, one senses the boy who was confined to the confining and restrictive space (prison) during his peak years of physical growth and development. It’s a small thing, but it’s part of the complete package.
When and actor is called upon to be facially expressive (and in such tight close-ups as are frequently used in this drama), there’s a fine line between overdoing it and honestly revealing your emotions and Jung never crosses the line into “mugging for the camera.” Jung’s Kang-chil is so candid about so many things, but is not above hiding his feelings (the way a convict might), especially about love.
Kang-chil’s simplicity and the fact that you can see his emotions on his face makes you open your heart to him — except when he makes a conscious effort to hide those feelings and you take an emotional step back at the guile on his face. Your pulse will race as much as Ji-na’s must do when Kang-chil challenges her with his questions because he’s so direct and “simple” in his candor. “Why can’t a guy like me love a woman like you?”
Jung is so good at showing Kang-chil’s wonder at this delicate and beautiful woman he has found. In one of many memorable scenes, Kang-chil has to give her a piggyback ride on a long trek back to his truck. He wants her to hold him more tightly (because it will be easier to carry her) and at the same time he’s not beyond talking about how exhausted he is. He does live in the here and now! When he switches to carry her in front he can’t help but look at her with wonder, whereas Ji-min Han’s Ji-na observes him back, almost analytically, as if he’s a foreign specimen, both interesting and confusing. And I love how, when he does kiss her, it’s as if he is afraid to show any sort of real passion, or doesn’t know how to do so (yet), but rather by pressing his lips on hers he’s savoring her softness, the sweetness of her warm breath, the proximity to her small features and he’s worshiping in the pure essence of woman.
Ji-min Han is one of those actresses who I always felt had more to her, but often could be too “cute” in her roles for my liking (such as in “Great Inheritance”). I think she’s never been more beautiful than in this role and I like the real emotional conflicts she faces in trusting Kang-chil (and her ex-boyfriend and father as well). She has her reasons and they’re valid, though Gook-soo’s chiding her choice to believe more in evidence than her intuition hits home. The scene in the lake was a beautiful balance between JWS and HJM. I particularly like the wariness in her eyes…
There are other characters that round out the story; the two most noteworthy are Hang-sang Jang because of the distance he goes to play such a realistic and unsympathetic character as Detective Jung. The other is Jae-woo Lee who plays one of my favorite characters in this drama, but for an unusual reason; he breaks new ground in drama characterization by being a character that is completely normal and credible.
As Ji-na’s ex-fiancé Yeong-chul, the way he’s been written and is portrayed he closely resembles real, occasionally flawed men, not the idealized men of dramas, or villains. He’s a cheater, but he’s managed to stay friends (and perhaps “friends with benefits”) with Ji-na. They behave like two friends who know each other perhaps too well, but who have not let go completely of the feelings they once had for each other. He reacts to Ji-na’s attraction to Kang-chil in a very realistic fashion, by proposing marriage when he gets jealous. He doesn’t want to get married, he’s not the “marrying type,” but heaven forbid that she should move on (and with an ex-con!)
At one point he asks Kang-chil how long he and Gook-soo were in prison with that — “Hey, it’s no big deal, right?” attitude — he knows it is a big deal and he was consciously a little cruel. But he apologizes (because Ji-na told him to do so), but he’s playfully petty to make her apologize when she insults Kang-chil too.
Showcasing the South
Finally, the setting for this drama is incredibly effective, from the harbor views, the hilltop home of Kang-chil’s mom, to the abandoned mill that becomes his workshop, it’s all beautifully selected, framed, and captured for us to enjoy. Gorgeous! The direction of “Padam Padam” also deserves special mention.
Every episode includes camera angles and techniques that would deserve praise in high budget films. A small yet pivotal scene at a traffic roundabout was one of the most film-like sequences I have ever scene in a drama and I can’t think of any other time that I’ve seen a roundabout ever used like this. It is a tension-filled moment that will have you on the edge of your seat, waiting and cringing with anticipation. I swear that my heart was pounding like a bass drum! Equally, there are small, quiet moments of companionship and trust that will resonate with their beauty and emotional honesty.
That a small cable network has managed to produce what must surely be one of the finest dramas of 2012 is a remarkable achievement. “Padam Padam” is a drama to be savored and remembered. The drama is currently available on Dramafever.com and hopefully will be made available on DVD as well. It deserves a place in the discerning drama viewer’s permanent collection.