Originally published in the “Korean Quarterly.”
What if Romeo and Juliet or any other star-crossed lovers took charge of their destiny? Forget vials of poison in the crypt and tragic endings, if they were as intelligent and motivated as the protagonists of the dark comedy “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” they might just have ruled the world!
From the punchy opening chords of the electric keyboard from “Heard a Rumor,” by Jang Kiha and Faces, used as the opening title song, to the scenes of the elegant and expansive Han household being run like clockwork, viewers should immediately be aware that they are not entering into the typical family drama. The atmosphere is one of money, but also of care and attention. The visuals of this drama are one of the most impressive, with a quality usually scene only in the cinema, and that’s particularly appropriate as the drama stars actors who have made their names in the cinema and use their talents wisely and well.
Ah Sung Go may be a young actress, but she has an impressive film resume to her name, including the recent “Snowpiercer.” As Seo Bom, the radical Juliet of the drama, she deftly portrays a character that is practical, but with the ability to dream big, passionate, but with an ability to plan. And she is a fighter, ready to take on any challenge. She will need to be, because the drama opens to introduce her as a fully pregnant, unwed teenage mother and (by necessity) a high school dropout, living with her family in their cramped and worn house in a working class part of Seoul.
She’s supported by her father Seo Hyuk Shik (Hyun Sung Jang) and Kim Jin Ae (Bok In Yoon) as they work to meet ends running an old trophy making store. Her father’s younger brother, Seo Chul Shik (Seok Chan Jeon) helps out in the store and has an active part in the family’s day-to-day life. Rounding out the household is Bom’s older sister, Seo Nu Ri (Seung Yun Gong), who is attempting to make it in the world of television as a news presenter.
The son of the very orderly and richly appointed household seen in the opening credits is Han In Sang, and as played by Joon Lee, the epitome of an intelligent but impulsive, good-hearted and naïve teenager, a natural rule follower… until Bom enters his life! Han Jung Ho keeps the Han home and family under strict management; Joon Sang Yoo plays this role with great zeal. In his late 40s, he is the managing partner and principal owner of a highly influential law firm. He is used to playing the puppet master, making private deals, and wielding his influence. He uses them whenever and however he can, but still considers himself to be ethical and honorable as he is still acting (perhaps broadly) within the law – and he respects the law and at home he believes himself to be the law. His wife, Choi Yun Hee (Ho Jung Yoo), is the perfect counterpart; she should be – years ago she underwent a rigorous selection process and training to be chosen as Han Jung Ho’s bride by his mother. The Han household is run with all the role and class rigidity of a Downton Abbey and through orders given to her secretary, she is responsible for creating the perfect world for her son and daughter Yi Ji (So Young Park) and the daily running of the household. This leaves her time to meet regularly with a group of close friends of the same socio-economic strata; their primary pastime appears to be gossip and stock investments, two mutually beneficial hobbies.
Just as the Seo family is trying to find a way to help their pregnant daughter prepare for the new life that will come, and her future, the Han family is making plans of a very different nature for In Sang. He is to study law and become a lawyer, like his father, and come into the family firm. To that end, his father is taking advice on how to best accomplish this due to a change in the path towards this goal in the Korean education and legal system. It will be best for him to study and pass the civil service exam for the smoothest and speediest entry into this world. His mother is seeking out the advice of a respected fortuneteller, who warns darkly of female distractions and offers talismans, which are placed in key locations around the household.
Unfortunately for the Han’s plans, it’s too late; In Sang is the father of Bom’s baby and this changes everything!
As the story opens, In Sang is desperately unhappy, as he has lost touch with Bom. They had met during a debate/study camp and fallen in love. Being teenagers brought up in good homes with strong societal norms is no proof against raging hormones. But he has no knowledge that this love bore fruit. Perhaps because he senses that all control over his own life and actions is going for good with his father’s plans for his future, In Sang reaches out to one of the team of secretaries that support his father at the law office and begs her for help in tracking down his beloved Bom. Against her better judgment, she provides him with the address to the trophy store. Like a jackrabbit, In Sang is off to find his Bom.
Of course, being confronted with the very visible results of their teenage passion is a shocker for In Sang, but when challenged by Bom’s father, he drops to his knees and promises to do the right thing. The relief is palpable for the Seo family, as Bom had refused to name the father, and here they are presented with a respectable young man who, though young, looks like a great catch.
The young couple, reunited, head off to introduce Bom to her future in-laws, which will be, as you might imagine, an unwelcome surprise – even more so as not only do they meet Bom, but their grandchild, as she goes suddenly into labor during this awkward first meeting.
This is not what the Han’s envisioned for their only son. Plans are put into place to whisk In Sang out of the household and into a study studio run by and guarded over a prized tutor; he will be a virtual prisoner there until the civil service exam. Bom can possibly be bought off (after they first run a DNA check) and this messy business will all be over. They are in denial over what has happened, but take steps to make sure that no word of this spreads. They did not plan, however, for having such a rebelliously in love son in In Sang, who makes his great escape and runs back to be with his Bom and his baby at the first opportunity. Nor did they plan on having a daughter-in-law with the observation skills and intelligence of Bom. She discovers that knowledge is power, and power wielded with judicious care is a very good thing.
The romance of Bom and In Sang is delightful because of the contrasts in the characterizations given by Go and Lee. She is demure, principled, and fiercely loyal, and emotional in a quiet way, but you see in her the potential to be not just the woman behind the man, mapping out his path, but someone with the potential to rise to the top herself, if she chooses. She is not in this relationship for the power and wealth though, she’s here because she loves In Sang and she loves their baby. In some ways, Bom is like Han Jung Ho, only with a heart. Lee makes In Sang come alive every time he impulsively plants the inexpert kisses of a teenager on Bom, or tenderly plays with his little baby. He is the potential radical, smart, but impulsive, and not as given to planning as Bom, except where his freedom to be with her is concerned. They are a perfect couple.
As a counterpoint, there is the marriage of Jung Ho and Yun Hee, brought about by tradition and class, rather than any passion. You feel that they envy (or at least Yun Hee does) the attraction and desire to be together that hums through the younger couple.
There are other storylines running through the drama, such as the active assistance the household provides to Bom and In Sang in trying to be together, even though this is seen as a form of subversive behavior. The tutor and Yun Hee’s secretary have to decide where their loyalties lie as well: with the Hans in the case of the tutor, and with the tutor in the case of the secretary. The supporting cast here does a great job of bringing to life these roles as well.
In the law office there is another set of supporting players and how they contribute to the overall plot. Jung Ho commands three secretaries; a male aide and two female secretaries in the office, and it is the two women who contribute most to the plot. The senior of the two is Jung Ho’s chief messenger and provider of suggestions for how to control Bom and her family, whereas the younger has her own history with the family, and a personal mission that involves Bom’s uncle.
The circle of friends surrounding Yun Hee round out the complex plot serving as a type of Greek chorus at times, as they gossip about her and ultimately make her question what friends are and who she is.
“Heard It Through the Grapevine” will surprise the viewer who is looking for the makjang birth secrets and evil villains type of melodramas, with the spoiled chaebol prince and Candy heroine. The characters are fresh and well described, and the plot is intricately woven. Each of the 30 episodes immerses the viewer in a world of the elite in a way that is as different from the typical as can be, from the naturalistic lighting of the sets, to its handling of the social classes. It offers memorable, recognizable characters and the actors bring them fully to life. For this reviewer, it was one of the best dramas of 2015, and felt like less like a studio-produced television drama and more like an extended movie with the best in production values and performances. Don’t let this one be just one you heard about, seek it out and fall in love with young lovers again.
“Heard It Through the Grapevine” is available on Dramafever.