Drama Review: Second Chances at Living (or Dancing the Darkness Away)

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

When we take stock of our lives and how we’re living, sometimes it’s pleasant to fantasize about what we’d do if we could run away to a desert island. Who would we take to keep us company – no rules, it could be your Hyun Bin or Tae-hee Kim because this is just make-believe. What would we bring? Favorite books? Music? What foods would sustain us?

This is a harmless diversion, but what how would your list change if Fate handed you a different playbook? What if you were told you had just a short time to live? How would you live that last chance at life on your terms? This is the premise for a beautifully produced melodrama that first aired in fall of 2011, “Scent of a Woman,” in which one woman learns that there are indeed second chances at living life.

The story opens with a glamorous woman, frolicking on a golden beach – the castaway in her own desert island fantasy – complete with handsome stranger. But dreams die fast for Lee Yeon-jae, and real life intrudes with a sharp jab. She’s been daydreaming at work at a company event and is soon once again hard at work, at the bottom of the pecking order in her department in a major travel agency. Drab and worn looking, Sun-ah Kim portrays Yeon-jae as a woman who has perpetually put her life on hold, hoping that some how good things will come her way if she works hard enough, is a good daughter, is diligent, and faces things bravely. Over 30 and still living with her feckless, widowed mother (played by Hye-ok Kim) in a rental property, she has scrimped and saved so that someday, maybe, she can buy a house, and a car, and maybe she can find a husband and have a child before it is too late. In short, she’s a doormat.

Co-workers and boss alike dump work on Yeon-jae; she is ordered to find a luxury model car for a special VVIP client to use touring and she’s off to track down the sole remaining model available in the country. Unfortunately, she’s a little too late; it’s just been sold to someone else. Doggedly, she trails him in her taxi to see if she can’t make her pitch and is stunned to see the new owner exit at her workplace. Her bad luck day continues; her taxi is rear-ended, and she’s sent to the hospital for a preliminary checkup. It’s not all bad news though – it turns out that she spots an old classmate – Eun-seok Chae, aka Dung-seok, or “Poopy Pants” – now a doctor at the hospital, and this delights her. Once upon a time, during a bathroom-related incident, Dr. Chae earned his nickname, and, it seems, a helping hand from Yeon-jae. He is, understandably, less delighted with the reunion and resurrection of his nickname. His face a stern mask, he is there to deliver grim news and he does so without any sugarcoating. Yeon-jae has a tumor, it looks serious, and she must come in promptly for a biopsy. Ki-joon Eom is deliciously prickly as the oncologist-without-humor Chae Eun-seok, and although this first meeting is dire, there is a wonderful chemistry between him and Sun-ah Kim that grows stronger with every scene.

Back at the office, it turns out that the mysterious owner of the fancy car is none other than the dishy son of the president, Kang Ji-wook, played by the dishy Dong-wook Lee. It turns out that he’s being groomed to inherit the company and has been parachuted in to a plum position in the company. He’s also been given an efficient assistant to make sure he doesn’t do too much damage. He acknowledges his special status, disarming potential critics, and of course, the ladies in the company already have their eye on him. Too bad he’s been earmarked as part of a family merger with the daughter of another chaebol family, the icy Im Se-kyung (played to the hilt by young actress Hyo-rim Seo). Their future engagement is just a formality.

An awkward "date"
An awkward “date”

Im Se-kyung has an influential customer coming to Korea and this is the perfect plum assignment for her future fiancé’s company. An international pianist adopted from Korea as a child has returned to discover his roots. Certain to represent a lot of bother, the task is dumped once again on Yeon-jae. Undaunted, she accepts the challenge to ensure herself time off for her biopsy. She throws herself into the effort and, even when things go awry, manages to save the day – or so she thinks – only to be shockingly accused of theft by the VIP later. A Not-so Spoiler Alert (the following information is a crucial plot angle, but it’s in the information on the drama and is early-on/pivotal detail.)

To add to her misery, the distressed Yeon-jae has her exam and learns the very worst news; her tumor is cancerous and appears too far gone for surgery. She may have at most six months to live. Faced with that news, she finds the courage to make some radical decisions, beginning with work. She won’t be their whipping girl any longer, tolerating the insults and abuses of colleagues and her petty boss. She won’t apologize to the insufferable Im Se-kyung. She quits!

It turns out that Yeon-jae has experience with terminal illness. Her father wasted away from liver cancer as well when she was a girl and that is not what she wants for herself. To the ire of Dr. Chae, she informs him that she’s not going to have chemo; she’s not going to have treatments and live her remaining days in the hospital. She’s going to live. And she sets off to do so. Her first stop is the bank, to take stock. Having discovered that the glorious island beach of her daydream actually exists – it’s Okinawa – she makes plans for her first and possibly last vacation fling and heads to the Japanese island. She’s going first class too – new clothes, best accommodations – what else is her money good for?

Coincidentally, Ji-wook has been sent to check out potential vacation packages on Okinawa. Set to do the very bare minimum cursory once-over, with his able-bodied assistant picking up the slack, Ji-wook is spotted by Yeon-jae and, unable to resist, she has fun stalking him. He is, she’d confessed to her girlfriend Hye-won (Hyun-jin Sa) when she’d first seen him, the kind of man she’d like to seduce. Now, in her fantasy world, on her once-in-her lifetime trip, there he is, as if it was meant to be! He runs into her without recognizing the formerly drab office lady now dressed in a very cute hot pink bikini, or expensive sundress, and mistakes her for a tour guide. Practicing her new motto of “carpe diem” (because who can it possibly hurt?) she goes along with him and shows him how to enjoy a vacation.

The delightful days on Okinawa must end, unfortunately, and they come to a screeching halt with the arrival of Se-kyung. She has no trouble identifying Yeon-jae and the misunderstandings between Ji-wook and Yeon-jae begin. Well, make that Ji-wook’s one-sided misunderstandings. Yeon-jae has more important things to worry about, like cancer, and dying, and making sure that her mom is taken care of than to worry about a man who seems unwilling to listen to her, let alone believe her.

The trip has done one important thing though for Yeon-jae; she decides to confront her concerns and begins by creating her “bucket list” of things to do (before she dies). Some of these are seemingly trivial (meet an idol), some of them are small things, but they will touch you deeply. They are very worthy goals. And she enlists the help of her old school chum, the bedside-mannerless Dr. Poopy Pants to help her fight her illness. She’s not without her fears, but she takes them on.

Another awkward "date"

The drama’s title, “Scent of a Woman,” is inspired by the movie of the same name and a memorable tango scene featuring Al Pacino. One of Yeon-jae’s wish list items is to take dance lessons, the result of a sublimely touching moment on Okinawa. The tango, that sensuous and difficult dance that requires balance, precision, and grace becomes a metaphor for the way Yeon-jae navigates her way through the story.

Even as she faces physical challenges she becomes stronger, her backbone lengthens and becomes more supple as she stands up for herself, much the way a dancer straightens and assumes the starting position as she meets her partner. The tango metaphor applies equally to the give-and-take, parry-and-thrust of the relationship between Yeon-jae and Ji-wook. He is drawn to her almost against his will, pulls back and increases our tension, then draws her to him. It is very much like the serpentine figure eight footwork of the dance, with twists and turns along the way. The dance also inspires a few sequences that will have your heart palpitating as much as Yeon-jae’s and Ji-wook’s do – the tango is the dance of love, after all.

Another awkward evening!

As much as the drama does a fine job letting the story of Yeon-jae and Ji-wook unfold, challenged as it is by the specter of a spiteful fiancée and disapproving fathers, there is also the terrific work done telling the story of Yeon-jae and Eun-seok. It turns out that Ji-wook is not the only one who was smitten by Yeon-jae’s kind heart and indomitable spirit. But beyond that, he’s her doctor and her friend. And it’s refreshing to see a physician role in a drama where he’s not a: a genius, b: a miracle worker, c: saintly, or d: a blabbermouth. This is a man who appears to have read HIPAA and he protects his Yeon-jae’s privacy and defends her. But he’s also, as has been mentioned, tactless and has zero bedside manners.

Ki-joon Eom blinks like an owl behind those round-rimmed spectacles and delivers the most thoughtlessly callous remarks because in his mind it is crueler to be kind. There is no point in lying when the truth will arrive soon enough. In a way, his tough love approach to medicine is exactly what Yeon-jae has practiced. Fans of dramas will appreciate the dilemma of the second lead syndrome: you have an excellent, interesting candidate in love with the heroine (or hero) but Fate has other plans in mind.

I can't wash that woman out of my hair

With a drama that begins with a death sentence, you might be tempted to avoid “Scent of a Woman” for fear that it will be one of those weepy, tear-jerker, excursions to Melodramaland that manipulate your feelings at every turn.

Fortunately, while this drama does deal with serious emotional issues and you will no doubt shed a tear (or twenty), it does so with thoughtfulness and a caring heart. It provokes an interesting dilemma: Yeon-jae makes some decisions that can be seen as selfish (though she’s not doing so with intention to hurt), but does the fact that she is dying give her carte blanche to make those decisions, even when they impact others?

You may find yourself wondering too how you would face the situations in which Yeon-jae and Ji-wook find themselves; how do I live my life to the fullest when I may leave someone behind to suffer, or how do I say good-bye to someone? These are questions we all will face, or have faced already in our lives, and the way “Scent of a Woman” dramatizes the choices is sensitive and well done.

Realizations

There is a surprising amount of optimism, and some genuinely heartfelt positive affirmations in this drama. The love story between Yeon-jae and Ji-wook is tender and real – Sun-ah Kim has the uncanny ability to create intensely personal and credible chemistry with her costars and she and Dong-wook Lee are beautiful together. She is also equally delightful with Ki-joon Eom.

It must also be said that Dong-wook Lee and Ki-joon Eom have a thoughtful, realistic relationship and work very well together as the two men who care very deeply about the wellbeing of the special woman in their lives.

Place “Scent of a Woman” on your list of dramas worth seeing. As with any such list, the goal is to enrich and this is a story that definitely will do so.

You can watch this drama legally on sites like Dramafever.com.

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