Review: Miracles Happen

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.

One of the boldest and bravest of these performances is that of Woo-sung Jung.Jung Woo-sung is Kang-chil

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.

Han Ji-min is x
Han Ji-min is Jung Ji-na

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.

Reconciliation

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.

Exceptional Performances

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.

A worshipful kiss
A worshipful kiss

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.

Kim Bum, angel or delusion?
Kim Bum, angel or delusion?

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.

Watch “Padam Padam” at Dramafever.com.

Drama Review: In Lieu of Flowers, Just Send the Boys!

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

It cannot be easy being third off the blocks in adapting an iconic manga for television. The Taiwanese hit the ground running in 2001 with their version, making stars of Barbie Hsu and the young men playing the notorious “F4” in “Meteor Garden.” The Japanese brought the comic novel to life in 2005 and had a hit with their telling of “Hana Yori Dango.” So when production began in late 2008 for the Korean adaptation, I approached it with both curiosity and trepidation having seen and enjoyed the prior dramatizations.

The two earlier versions had their own unique appeal and created memorable characters: how could this version possibly compete when you have idols like Jerry Yan and Vic Chou competing for Barbie Hsu’s hand (“Meteor Garden”), or the equally talented and attractive Jun Matsumoto and Shun Oguri chasing Inoue Mao (“Hana Yori Dango”)?

Devoted viewers of Asian dramas surely would have their scorecards out, ready to compare one version to the next. The potential for disappointment, especially when you have to go up against a very recent hit, is high. In its favor, the production team worked with the author of the original manga and received very high marks for their adaptation and casting of the main roles. The author even remarked that the Korean cast most resembled her characters. So, how would this play out? Could the new kids win over the loyalists? And more importantly, can they win the hearts of those coming fresh to the “Hana Yori Dango” story? Time would tell – in 25 installments.

The Fabulous F4

The action gets underway at Shinhwa High School, an exclusive academy for the fabulously rich, beautiful, and socially/politically connected. The school is ruled by the infamous F4, four incredibly handsome young men from various backgrounds. There is Song Woo Bin, played by pop star Joon Kim, from pop group T-Max. He’s the heir to a powerful criminal organization. Next up is So Yi Jung, the talented ceramic artist, played by Bum Kim. The third member of the group is the sensitive musician, Yoon Ji Hoo, played by pop star Hyun Joong Kim, from pop group SS501. Finally, there is the leader of the group, arguably the handsomest of this bunch of flower boys, the scion of an incredibly wealthy family, the spoiled and hot-tempered Goo Joon Pyo, played by Min Ho Lee. What F4 says at Shinhwa goes. Into this privileged enclave waltzes Geum Jan Di, played by Hye Seon Gu, or, more appropriately, in barges in Geum Jan Di on her bicycle, making a dry cleaning delivery.

Jan Di confronts Jun Pyo (again)

Unfortunately, first impressions of “Boys Over Flowers” (also referred to as “Boys Before Flowers”) did not initially make a convert out of this viewer. Perhaps because of a familiarity and fondness for the original story, the early episodes of the drama seemed to take some shortcuts with the plot that make the motivation of the main characters confusing at some points and downright inexplicable at others.

Jan Di arrives at this school as an outsider and interjects herself into a situation in which a young man, harassed by F4 to the point of desperation (though the viewer does not, at this point, have any indications as to just how serious this hazing has been), is about to toss himself off a tall school building. She harasses him too because she needs to have his dry cleaning bill paid, but she also manages to prevent him from committing suicide. This creates “a spectacle” that calls unattractive attention to the school and F4, so in a way to keep Jan Di from calling further attention to herself and the school, she is offered a swimming scholarship, thanks to the machinations of Goo Jun Pyo’s manipulative mother. And so she enters the exclusive academy, lured by the promise of pool time, and proceeds to turn her nose up at the members of F4.

Those new to the story will be only slightly confused by her grudge against the members of the elite group, but others more familiar will feel shortchanged. In prior adaptations (and it would aid new viewers to know this), her character has been a scholarship student for a period of time so she has witnessed on several occasions how F4 has turned the school into a bullying machine with the distribution of a single red card on a victim’s locker. When she stands up to them for the first time it is then clearly a “Very Big Deal.” However, in the “Boys Over Flowers” adaptation, Jan Di appears to come into the school without having known the reach and power of F4, but also with a very big chip on her small shoulders. In an early encounter with Goo Jun Pyo, after her nose is bloodied when she’s being hazed, he sincerely offers her his handkerchief and she snarls at him seemingly without provocation. If this is the director’s idea of “meet cute,” it fails. It’s very difficult to see throughout much of the early episodes where the charm is in Jan Di.

She’s slightly more charming, though, when she inadvertently intrudes on private space – a school staircase – of the more reclusive member of F4, Yoon Ji Hoo. Given to venting her frustrations by shouting into the anonymous air space found in every exterior stairwell, her rantings amuse Ji Hoo, and in a quiet, almost behind the scenes way, he befriends her. His quiet and serene manner, a radical 180 degrees from her own personality, makes her heart go pitter-patter and his knight errantry leaves her swooning over him, her first crush. Ji Hoo, however, sees the interest of his friend Jun Pyo in this “weed,” Jan Di, and is content to play second fiddle. He has feelings for another, an older woman and wishes to pursue her.

The story unfolds and begins to make more sense by the third episode, once some of the background information concerning the power of F4 and their hold over the students is clarified and the young cast settles down into their roles. Hyun Joong Kim (Ji Hoo) received some harsh criticism for his performance, particularly in these earlier episodes. To a degree, this can be attributed to this being his first acting role in a drama, but the almost emotionless – some might say “wooden” – performance is something that is also prescribed by the role of Ji Hoo (Hanazawa Rui, in the original manga). The character is described as almost autistic, very withdrawn. It is the outgoing and vivacious Jan Di (Makino) who helps pull him out of his shell. And this is indeed the case as the drama unfolds.

The Perils of Pauline Jan Di

The pattern of the story is fairly repetitive: Jan Di will get into trouble, Gun Pyo or Ji Hoo (or all the members of F4 will pool their talents and resources) work to get her out of trouble.

Those who are sensitive to the insidious aspects of school bullying will find several scenes in which Jan Di is bullied, once even to the point of near sexual assault, appalling and should consider whether to allow younger children to watch this story. There is no denying the attractiveness of the actors, the settings, and the wardrobe, but underneath it all, there is a story of some cruelty. This Cinderella gets to go to a ball or two, but she also faces humiliation on a fairly regular basis. That said; her resourcefulness and optimism go a long way towards making her less of a victim than she might have been. And not every mishap is one caused by someone looking to harm Jan Di. She does a pretty good job of making her own problems!

Hye Seon Gu is a very popular young actress, having created memorable roles in dramas such as “Pure 19” and “The King and I,” but she fails to set the right tone with her interpretation of Geum Jan Di. Her interpretation is often unflatteringly cartoon-like and does not convey the subtle strength and pluckiness of the character. An invincible spirit is not conveyed by shouting, or by screwing up your face into a pout or a grimace.

Yes! I am the cream of the F4 crop!

 

It’s very difficult to see how or when she realizes the heart of Gun Pyo – too often he is all but handing it to her on a silver platter and Jan Di, as played by the actress, reacts with a brittleness that does not convince one that she’s at all interested in the young man. And when one considers the young man in question, it’s all the more puzzling because Min Ho Lee is physically the most attractive of all the actors who have played this role. While he lacks the reckless anger that Jun Matsumoto brought to his interpretation, Min Ho Lee more than adequately conveys the isolation and frustration and longing for love and belonging that is essential to the role. He brings a strength and maturity to the character too, in spite of his relative youth. When, in the latter stages of the drama, he and Ji Hoo are competing for Jan Di’s love, both young men come alive and you feel the dramatic tension, and yes, heat, rise too.

The Good, the Bad, and the Unnecessary (Plots)

As mentioned, this drama is 25 episodes long so there are additional storylines to round out the drama, including a number of jealous girls who want Gun Pyo for themselves and try their best to win his affections. Gun Pyo’s controlling mother (Hye Young Lee) who wants no weedy little Jan Di for her son and will do what she can to pluck that pesky weed from her son’s world, including introducing a pretender for the prince’s hand. The last member of F4, Song Woo Bin, is primarily along as a support system for the gang and unfortunately represents a wasted opportunity.

Also included in the subplots are Jan Di’s parents and young brother (Suk Hwan Ahn, Ye Jin Im, and Ji Bin Park, respectively) who are thoughtless, greedy, and really don’t seem to have that much affection for their daughter or sister. The one plus to their storyline in this adaptation is that they are not as venal as the single mother in “Meteor Garden,” but they are also not as hapless but well-meaning as in “Hana Yori Dango.” Mostly, they are extraneous, but perhaps the greatest sin of omission in this adaptation is the love between family members, so much so that Jan Di would tolerate bullying and other hazards to remain at the school to garner the diploma that would set her family on the path to future success. Instead, her primary motivation for staying at the school appears to be the swim team.

Charming Best Friends

The biggest of the subplots involves Jan Di’s friend, Ga Eul, played by So Eun Kim, who falls hard for the unattainable playboy potter Yi Jung.  So Eun Kim is fresh and likeable, and in fact brings some of the sweetness and strength of character to her interpretation of Ga Eul that is missing in Jan Di. Her resolve and sense of self as she tries to figure out why Yi Jung is the way he is (it’s a brother and a love issue) makes her an attractive character. Her scenes with Bum Kim play beautifully and one could wish for more (and a resolution to their story). Bum Kim is also very appealing as the bad boy with his own secret. When he slants his eyes and gives the viewer (or the love-struck Ga Eul) a wicked sideways glance, you’re sunk. It’s impish and knowing and surprisingly mature.

A knowing look from Kim Bum

This is a very glossy drama with a lot of eye candy for the viewers, especially with the handsome “flower boys” of F4. The work of the production team shows too: every episode looks expensive and polished. The drama filmed on location in New Caledonia, Macau, and Jeju Island, and the sequences at Shinhwa, Gun Pyo’s mansion, Ji Hoo’s home, and Yi Jung’s pottery workshop look and feel high class. Of each of the versions, this one has the best wardrobe and settings.

In spite of some intrusive subplots, or the shampoo, rinse, repeat nature of Jan Di getting into trouble, getting rescued, etcetera, there is a quick and lively pace to the drama. The drama spun off several soundtracks, including the debatable choice of “Almost Paradise” as a theme, that have included a number of popular tracks. Generally, it’s glossy good fun on the surface. The actors should go on to bigger and better things and no doubt will, especially the highly charismatic and telegenic Min Ho Lee. But, when all is said and done, “Boys Over Flowers” is not the one to claim the prize as the best adaptation of the manga. For this viewer, that goes to “Hana Yori Dango.”

Watch “Boys Over Flowers” on Dramafever.com.