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.

Continue reading “Drama Review: Second Chances at Living (or Dancing the Darkness Away)”

Drama Review: It’s Not Easy being a 3rd Generation Chaebol

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

What’s a neuroses-riddled chaebol scion to do when everywhere he turns germs or ambitious rivals may be lurking? It turns out; he just needs a little protection!

2011 may be one of the finest in recent years in terms of Korean drama productions, and for rom-coms especially. “Protect the Boss” joins the list of entertaining titles like “My Princess,” “Flower Boy Ramyun Shop,” and “I Need Romance,” and goes to the head of the class with its sharp ensemble acting and clever storytelling.

From Gangster to Gal Friday

From the first episode the tone is set as characters are introduced, beginning with the pixie-like Kang-hee Choi as ex-bad girl Noh Eun-seol. It’s not easy living down a past as a gangster-like teen, but Eun-seol renounced those days and has since worked hard to remake herself and find a job in a white-collar world. (It’s too bad that leading a student strike doesn’t really demonstrate leadership qualities to most interviewers.) She’s gone from one unlikely prospect to another and her most current bad luck runs to a position in a very shady company. This employment misadventure will soon bring her into the orbit of our next protagonist.

Choi Kang-hee as Noh Eun-seol
Choi Kang-hee as Noh Eun-seol

Whereas Eun-seol has nothing but rotten luck in the job world, the same cannot be said for the aforementioned third-generation chaebol, Cha Ji-heon – unless you factor in that his golden job involves working for the family business, where he’s bullied by his father and dogged by his smart, ambitious cousin. Oh yes, and he is completely, excessively neurotic about an increasing list of hang-ups (cannot stand tissues lying on the ground!) Will the axiom about chaebol power and wealth being blown away by a third generation come true?

Playing against his usual manly type, Ji Sung manages to be immature, quirky, part manic, part obsessive, and surprisingly boyish – though he is saddled with an awful curly perm. His Ji-heon is a man trapped by responsibilities (and unnamed burdens); these pressures trigger his neurotic behavior and panic attacks. He either acts out, or fails to act as a company director ought, much to his father’s dismay.

Ji Sung as Ji-hyeon
Ji Sung as Cha Ji-heon

The third member of the ensemble is Ji-heon’s first cousin, Cha Moo-won. Played by Jaejoong Kim, best known as a member of the group JYJ, and formerly of DBSK, his Moo-won is suave, intelligent, dedicated to the business, and eager to put a stake in his cousin’s professional heart. He and Ji-heon take great pleasure in messing with each other and as the story heats up, their rivalry soars to new heights of comedic lunacy. He has the misfortune of being number two in contention for role as heir to head up the Cha business because his father died early, leaving his uncle to assume the leadership role.

Kim Jaejoong as Cha Moo-won
Kim Jaejoong as Cha Moo-won

Through a set of unusual circumstances, leading to a spot of misfortune for Ji-heon’s father, Chairman Cha (in a very funny performance by Young-kyu Park), and for the company, a new position opens up at the company – as Ji-heon’s secretary. Eun-seol spots the chance and applies, but after being ignored (again), the girl who once led a student strike surges forward and she speaks her mind, knowing that she doesn’t stand a chance. Surprisingly, Moo-won is taken with her forthright attitude and senses something in her, some strength of character that he and others at the company can use. It’s also possible that he’s not just looking to use her strengths in a positive fashion; he may also be looking for someone he can manipulate in his ongoing battle for the chairman’s throne. He offers her the position and becomes, in her eyes, not Moo-won but “Moo-god.”

The Resourceful Human

As Ji-heon’s secretary, Eun-seol is challenged by his finicky ways – “You personally must clean the office, my call must be answered by the second ring” – but she quickly becomes his champion, taking his side in a startling elevator confrontation with his father. Chairman Cha is also amused by Eun-seol; perhaps it’s the recognition of one ex-gangster-like character to another. He demands that she do what needs to be done to whip his son into shape to become the heir to the role of chairman. In order to protect her job, it’s up to Eun-seol to indeed “protect the boss” by helping Ji-heon find a way to conquer his personal demons and as well to become the boss.

She becomes a mother, a friend, wise counsel, a sounding board, and a problem-solver. Resourceful and plucky, Eun-seol soon becomes his rock; then more like a “rock in his head,” so firmly is she embedded in his mind and heart. And Ji-heon learns that to protect his “boss,” he needs to become more of a man and less of a mouse and to stand on his own two feet.

Moo-won too is won over by Eun-seol’s forthright nature. Knowing that she has a crush on him, he uses this initially to his advantage as a way to push Ji-heon’s buttons.  But what began as an attempt to control and manipulate his cousin turns into something unexpected. Once again he’s coming in number two to his rival and this is not where he wants to be. The question is, how will Eun-seol’s influence shape him? Will he give in to the push at home to sabotage Ji-heon?

A Perfect Foursome

The fourth member of the inner “square” of “Protect the Boss” joins the story a little later on; this is the woman who once broke Ji-heon’s heart, and did a number on Moo-won’s too. Seo Na-yoon marches back into Ji-heon’s life and wants to pick up where she left off, but he’s no longer interested. Thanks to Eun-seol, he’s making progress emotionally, though he’s not yet made the connection that Eun-seol is more than just an employee.

Wang Ji-hye as Seo Na-yoon
Wang Ji-hye as Seo Na-yoon

Immature, indulged, but surprisingly not mean-spirited, Ji-hye Wang’s Na-yoon is more than a little put out that Ji-heon can move on, and then even more so when Moo-won seems less inclined to be a party to her plan to make Ji-heon jealous by agreeing to an arranged match. What really surprises her is that plain, low-class Eun-seol appears to have both men jumping to pay attention, to the point of fisticuffs!

Fortunately, we’re treated to a character who is actually able to grow and learn from her experiences, and who quickly moves from seeing Eun-seol as a rival to a supportive friend. Her time spent taking shelter from her pushy mother in the tiny apartment shared by Eun-seol and her childhood pal Myung-ran (Jae-sook Ha in an amusing supporting role) has to count as some of the happiest days in her life and a real growth experience.

It’s delightful to spend time with characters who can be petty and jealous, but who can see their own bad behavior and repent. Na-yoon is a brat at times, but she’s got a really good heart, much to her mother’s chagrin.

Childish Plots a-Plenty

Along the way, the dynamic duo of Ji-heon and Eun-seol face a number of backroom dealings and plots hatched by Moo-won’s bitter mother. She will stop at little to make her son the one true heir. Played with a brittle intensity by Hwa-yun Cha, Shin Sook-hee engages in quarrels with her former brother-in-law with the same childish pettiness as seen in those between their two sons, and with equally hilarious results. She is a doting mother, a “Tiger Mother” you might say, and however spiteful and detrimental to the family her actions are, the trouble she causes is – in her eyes – in a just and rightful cause.

Of course, the Chairman doesn’t need anyone’s help to get into trouble; taking issue with the way his son was pushed around by some gangster bullies, he pulls on his black leather gloves and shows them who’s the boss – and ends up doing community service to atone for his sins! His long-suffering secretary Jang (Ha-kyun Kim) manages his agenda, protects his boss and does his best to guard the gruff, no-nonsense Chairman from further incident.

Elevator rides fraught with peril
Elevator rides fraught with peril

In addition to exploring the romantic quadrangle, the drama mines comedy gold in the portrayal of the relationship between Chairman Cha and his mother, deftly played by veteran actress Young-ok Kim. Her son may be over 50, but he’s not too old to be taught a lesson, whether it is making sure to finish your meal so you don’t tempt Fate to leave you hungry or how to be a better parent. Trying to stem the tide of quarrels between her son and daughter-in-law keeps her busy in her retirement. Chairman Cha is often clueless with how to handle his sensitive son, but thanks to the efforts of Eun-seol he learns to stop shouting and make the office elevator a safer place to be.

A Personal Touch

One nice thing about “Protect the Boss” is that, even in creating somewhat broad characters, the writer has done a good job adding touches of personality here and there that it’s very easy to understand their actions and empathize.

Praise is due Kang-hee Choi for bringing to life a heroine that is so normal and unspoiled, as well as resourceful in a truly professional way. Ji Sung deserves applause as well for investing himself completely and showing a hero who can be both adorable and flawed, and who discovers courage in a realistic fashion.

When Eun-seol and Ji-heon fall in love, the care these two actors have taken in developing their characters lets us love them as a couple and believe that they love each other so sincerely.

Kudos is due as well to Jaejoong Kim for taking a chance and allowing himself to look perfectly ridiculous every time Moo-won tussles (with unseemly frequency) with cousin Ji-heon. There is not a character out of place in this drama, and that is not something that can often be said.

Ji-heon and Eun-seol
Ji-heon and Eun-seol

This is a well-balanced drama in every respect. Whether evaluating the cast (praised extensively in this review), or the writing that makes the characters come to life and behave in ways that touch you, there are exceptionally few weaknesses. And to this list I would be remiss if I did not mention the fine production values. They clearly took a lot of care with choosing the sets and locations as well – from Eun-seol’s cozy apartment to Ji-heon’s stark bedroom (complete with custom dartboard) to that lovely office wing that Moo-won and Ji-heon shared (with three other hoity-toity secretaries) – it all looked lovely and interesting.

Make time for this charming rom-com and, in addition to enjoying hours of entertainment, you’ll discover that sharing an elevator at the office with the company president will never be the same again!

Watch this drama on legal sites, like Dramafever.com.

Review: Maybe Not My Fantasy Island

An edited version of this review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly.

Before setting sail on the drama best known as “Tamra, the Island,” it’s a good idea to do a spot check on your tolerance for a number of drama tropes.

  • How do you feel about manhwa-inspired dramas, with elements ‘torn from the pages’ of a comic book?
  • Whimsical or nonsensical characterizations?
  • Period dramas that are more interested in having fun with the story than historical accuracy?
  • And lastly, cute and mostly appealing protagonists?

(Okay, the last one cannot be seen as anything but a positive, but your answers to the other questions might impact your ability to enjoy “Tamra, the Island.”) For maximum viewing pleasure, set your expectations setting to “Fun,” “Playful,” and “Low” and you’ll have a very good time on the journey.

An Original Ex-Pat Meets the “Natives”

The drama opens with some cringe-inducing moments as what passes somewhere for the Western world, circa 1640, on the estate of a well-to-do young Englishman by the name of William.

It turns out that young William, played by the French acting newcomer Pierre Deporte, sports not only yellow hair of an improbable hue and (naturally enough, but disconcertingly) a French accent, but a deep and abiding passion for the Orient. His most treasured objects are pottery, with the most prized being a simple, white-glazed bowl. He’s fairly naïve and misguided in his collection it seems, for this bowl is actually a chamber pot, though this he does not know; a mystic assures him it’s magical.

William has great plans; he’s going to join his friend Yan, a Japanese sailor (played by Seon-ho Lee), on an exploratory voyage to Japan. Yan, we come to see, is an opportunist, and has a contract with William’s mother to bring him back home to England as soon as possible. Too bad plans like this go awry; a storm hits the ship and William finds himself overboard, soon to be a castaway on Tamra Island (now Jeju Island).

Once the scene shifts from the laughter-inducing vision of 17th century England and the sea voyage, you might be more inclined to give the drama a chance. There is a reason the Korean government and tourism board is lobbying to have Jeju named one of the ‘new 7 wonders’ – it is lovely. The rocky beaches, the clear waters, the green vegetation… you begin to wish that you could wash up on Tamra Island!

On the island, the locals are introduced, with an interesting gender-reversal twist. On Tamra, it’s the women who rule the roost. The principle income comes from the sale of prized abalone, harvested by the intrepid women divers.

Lead by Jam-nyeo (veteran character actress Mi-kyeong Kim), the women dive to the depths to pluck abalone, clams, and fish to feed their families and use as revenue to pay increasingly onerous taxes cum tributes to the king. There’s an ongoing sense of competition to be the best diver, but sadly the chief’s daughter is not a contender. Beo-jin, played by the impish Woo Seo, doesn’t really care much for the diving and rarely brings up anything worth catching. She’s the butt of jokes amongst the young women for being so inept and is sent to deliver abalone for a ceremonial table and to collect a medallion (a kind of ‘proof of purchase’).

Beo-jin completes her task but along the way bumps into (literally) a young man, Park Kyu. He’s been sent to Tamra as an exile for some unexplained reason and he’s a proud, haughty young scholar of the noble class so their first meeting is not an auspicious one. She loses the medallion (he picks it up, not knowing its significance), and a friction-filled relationship is formed. They’ll have plenty of chances to hate each other, though, as Park Kyu, played most appealingly by Joo-hwan Im, has been assigned to be housed at Beo-jin’s house.

The eventful day isn’t over for Beo-jin; she heads back to the beach and stumbles upon William and brings him safely to shore. They meet an eccentric older man who warns her that foreigners, if discovered, are killed, so as Beo-jin’s found William and decided to keep him, she installs him in her secret cave hideout to protect him.

There’s a fairly innocuous but childish play on words as the two introduce themselves; William mistakes Beo-jin’s name. He thinks that she’s telling him that she’s a virgin – they are, after all, alone in a cave and a young man and a young woman dressed in her fairly skimpy, romper-like ordinary clothes, shockingly bare-legged for the period. He replies “me too” and she thinks that this is his name.

This same sort of willful abuse of language is repeated a few days later when Park-kyu stumbles upon William; only in this instance William mistakes the scholar’s name for a common vulgarity. These misunderstandings are resolved as William proves to be an extraordinarily gifted linguist, picking up Korean in record time.

Good Things Come to an End

As is the way with secrets, scatterbrained young misses, impulsive young Englishmen with French accents, and nosy, dissatisfied young exiled scholars, it’s just a matter of time before William’s existence is revealed to the villagers who are a very accepting bunch (as a general rule).

Park-kyu learns to unbend and begins to see the charm of the natural rhythms of the island and, when things start to go missing, like horses intended for the king, or abalone, he gets involved with the investigations. The story begins to explore further the mystery and the friendship between the three young people. Park-kyu and William are both charmed by the bubbly and naïve Beo-jin, though Park-kyu is reluctant to admit his attraction. Beo-jin, on the other hand, is fascinated by “Hwil-i-yam” and is more than a little in love with him. This three-way relationship is put to a test when William is ultimately discovered and sent to the capital to face his ‘crime’ of being a foreigner.

The relative charm of this drama hinges on the likability of the young cast. Pierre Deporte, as an acting novice acquits himself passably well, though there are frequent times where he seems out of character. It’s as if he’s observing the situations his character is in as if he’s modern-day Pierre and this takes the viewer out of the moment too. Comic book based dramas and comedies in general work best when each member of the cast is fully invested in his or her character, no matter how ridiculous it may be. He does not have the performance experience to do that and it brings the story down at times. When he’s more passionate about his actions he succeeds better.

Woo Seo is charming or annoying, depending on how much you appreciate her pouty/cute approach. When she’s not pushing the aegyo, she’s very winsome and appealing. The rest of the time I found her tiresome.

The one who really shone though in this drama was Joo-hwan Im. His aloof yangban with a heart of gold waiting to be discovered was amusing and touching. He was convincing as a young man struggling to mature, figuring out the meaning of what it is to care about someone and something, and to take action was the heart of this drama for this reviewer.

Sketchy Plots and Sketchier Villains

The not-too-engrossing questions revolve around how to extricate William from the “Perils of being a Foreigner” and a mysterious and sinister merchant group, headed up by the beautifully robed but vengeful Seo-rin (Seung-min Lee).

How will Park-kyu work things out for everyone? What further trouble can William get into? And will Beo-jin save the day? You’ll have to take a trip to Tamra Island to find out!

Note: “Tamra, the Island” aired originally as 16-episodes, however there is a director’s cut 20-episode version available. The latter will no doubt fill in some of the gaps caused by the forced editing to make the shorter version.

This drama is available for viewing on Dramafever.com.

Drama Review: 49 Days to Love and Enlightenment

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

We would think we’re having a bad day should we spill coffee on our new white shirt just as we’re heading out the door for an important meeting. But imagine how much worse that bad day would be if one were to suddenly find oneself dead – and ahead of schedule – before our time! This is exactly the kind of bad day that happens to pretty, vivacious Shin Ji-hyun as she is busy rushing about, handling the last-minute details before she marries the man of her dreams in the drama, “49 Days.”

Penned by Hyun-Kyung So, the writer of recent successful dramas such as “Shining Inheritance” and “Prosecutor Princess,” this tale is a surprisingly deep and spiritual story about life and living with meaning masquerading as a quasi-romantic comedy. There is an element of the transformative Cinderella tale that the author has done so well in those previous works as well.

The drama opens with a sequence of the ordinary life and death moments that naturally occur and, watching over these events is an impatient, brash young Grim Reaper (though he prefers the term “Scheduler”), played by Il-woo Jung. His job is to escort those who make their regularly scheduled appointments with death to their destination in the afterlife. He’s impatient because this is a job that’s about to end; he has just a short time left on his “tour of duty” and he is counting the hours.

Jung Il-woo is The Scheduler

Happily oblivious to the challenges that face a Scheduler, and apparently to many of life’s other, more complicated moments, is Shin Ji-hyun (played by actress and singer Gyu-ri Nam), future bride and a pampered princess. She is blissfully planning involved in the engagement to the ambitious Kang Min-ho (played by Soo-bin Bae).

Aided by her two closest friends, Shin In-jung (played by Ji-hye Seo) and Park Seo-woo (played by Geu-rin Bae), her days are filled with the joyful tasks every bride enjoys. She and Min-ho, you could say, “met cute,” or more appropriately, had a very memorable first meeting when he came to her rescue during an ill-planned camping excursion. He becomes her knight in shining armor and she his champion, having convinced her father to take him under his wing at his company. There is the lavish engagement party, soon to be followed by the wedding at the urging of her beloved father, and life is good.

One who is not thrilled by the bride (or is it just the wedding?) is rising architect Han Kang (played by Hyun-jae Jo). Unfortunately for him, not only is Min-ho his hyung, a former classmate, he must support him as such at the wedding, but he and Ji-hyun too were once former classmates. Every dinner engagement or social event where he is subjected to her blithe and careless happiness appears to be a form of torture for him; he does his best to wriggle out of these events and having anything to with Ji-hyun, but to little avail.

We meet someone else who is even less enamored with life; Song Yi-kyung (played by Yo-won Lee) pays no attention to the world around her, she is a virtual sleepwalker, living a life of meaningless drudgery working in a convenience store. Rather than living, you could describe her as merely existing.

Life holds so little meaning for her that a robbery attempt holds out the tempting promise of a quick death at the hands of the thief. That encounter appears to be the catalyst she needs to make a drastic decision: to end her miserable life. And this action sets into motion the chain of events that ruin Ji-hyun’s day and introduces her to the Scheduler.

49_2

Technically, Ji-hyun’s “alive”; her body is lying in a vegetative state in a hospital, surrounded by her grieving parents, Min-ho, and her friends. Actually, she is dead and it’s up to the Scheduler to fix the screw-up that resulted from her death. She’s got 49 days (in Buddhism, it is said that it takes 49 days for the soul to make it’s journey to its next incarnation) to harvest three pure tears from non-family members to return to her soul to her body or to decide to take the big elevator to the afterlife.

But existing as a soul without a corporeal body is complicated! She can’t walk through walls; she has to wait for someone to open a door. It’s like being a ghost, without the traditional advantages.

The Schedule solves this problem by finding her a host body of someone who is significant to her: Yi-kyung, the woman who triggered Ji-hyun’s fatal accident. But wait: there are rules! Ji-hyun cannot reveal herself to anyone, she can only use Yi-kyung’s body when Yi-kyung’s sleeping (and if she uses time that Yi-kyung would ordinarily be using there is a stern penalty – one day off the 49-day clock), and she’s going to have to earn her own money to use when she’s daytime Yi-kyung.

However, he’s not just all tall, stylish, and snarky – he does give her a special cellphone/countdown clock so she can keep tabs on how much time she has left (because no one wears watches or uses paper calendars any more) and call him using the panic button feature. What’s great fun is how irritated he is every time she uses that panic button!

Song Yi-kyung gets a makeover, thanks to her "soul mate"

Ji-hyun is horrified to find herself in the body of a woman who obviously takes such little care of herself. She doesn’t even own any good shampoo! Taking the pittance of seed money she received from the Scheduler, she wastes it doing things like taking a taxi to visit her body and family in the hospital to see if she can’t start collecting those tears. Strangely, beloved Min-ho the fiancé isn’t doing any crying. This is no help at all!

She later ends up at the restaurant “Heaven,” owned by Han Kang (his office is part of the building as well) where she unthinkingly enjoys her favorite pasta without funds to pay for it. This leads to her finding employment because she’s not willing to take a handout from Kang, and as well finding someone who will become her staunchest ally and friend.

Her nighttime counterpart, Yi-kyung, however, slowly begins to feel like she’s finally going mad. Her hair is clean, she is discovering muscles (Ji-hyun begins her on a self-improvement course), but more frighteningly, she senses Ji-hyun’s presence.

Never having been sold on Yo-won Lee’s characterizations previously, for the first time in “49 Days” she has a role that suits her skills. Where she’s been an annoying “purse-dragger” before unintentionally, now her sleepwalking, depressive state is just what the role demands. Plus, her ability to be bright and cheerful always seemed out of character; here it’s natural that it should seem so as she is inhabited by the sunny Ji-hyun. What’s equally fascinating is how Min-ho is drawn to Yi-kyung, for what seem to be reasons that are equal parts dark and complicated and intuitive.

Bae Soo-bin plays the ambitious Kang Min-ho

For a while, it seems that Min-ho might be so very interested in Ki-yung because his competitive juices were flowing at the idea that there was a woman who could look at his gorgeous togetherness with such scorn, but it seems there is more to this. It is actually very subtle and psychologically valid character-shading, but it’s more likely his attraction is tied to his feelings of what he deserves: a woman who loathes him the way he loathes himself, a woman who has never known the “good” Min-ho, only the wicked one, and who will heap upon his head the abuse he knows he richly deserves. It seems like his contact with Ki-yung makes him want to be a better man.

“Best friend” and betrayer In-jung, on the other hand, reacts oppositely to Ki-yung. The scorn she reads in Ki-yung’s eyes seems to make her want to act more viciously, more decisively towards Ji-hyun and Ji-hyun’s family!

Interestingly enough, the one who doesn’t have that much complexity in the first half of the drama is the Scheduler. This is more than rectified in the second half.

There is a powerful sequence during which Kang walks with Yi-kyung (without Ji-hyun’s soul present) and the two are followed along by Ji-hyun and Scheduler. During a flashback sequence, watching how the four of them once met in the park is astounding. The look on Scheduler’s face as he looks at how Kang, Ji-hyun, and Yi-kyung are lost in thought and deeply, deeply lost in their own sad reminiscences was pitch perfect. He can’t figure out why all three of them are clearly feeling bereft in some way and it shakes him enough so that he emotionally engages with humans – these humans – for a change, and rushes forward to catch the fainting Yi-kyung and is worried about her state.

We know that he has said that he has to be most concerned that nothing Ji-hyun does harms Yi-kyung (it’s one of those rules) but he’s never really shown concern for her before, not real concern. And when he does, and becomes an integral part of the story, it adds an extra layer of depth, enriching it and weaving together the threads of the story.

Shin Ji-hyun (played by actress and singer Nam Gyu-ri)

Along the way there is an evolution to the character of Ji-hyun; you question whether Ji-hyun really was the fragile and delicate princess she seemed. I’m not so sure that I think of her pre-journey as being fragile (there was the girl who wasn’t afraid to stand up for the bullied Kang when she first meets him, and bullies him into eating his mom’s seaweed soup too!), insomuch as more naive and pure of spirit. She was rocked to the core by the discovery of each betrayal that occurs and that maybe makes her seem more fragile, but after a few days of allowing herself time to grieve and despair, she picks herself up (with a chiding kick in the pants from Scheduler) and continues on. She actually shows a surprising resiliency and ability to problem solve through much of the drama.

As for Kang, he is her knight in shining armor, but in a very logical way in accordance with the 49 days premise. It’s as if his actions are very grounded in the real world even as he’s trying to understand this world of the soul that is very incredible to most. But he’s got her back as much as he possibly can, or thinks he can safely do. And wouldn’t we want someone just as lovely by our side?

We need Kang to show us a contrast between emotionally broken people who know right from wrong and who want to love as much as be loved. Min-ho, in spite of his disastrous childhood and home life, was loved by his mother and not in doubt of that love (he returns to the restaurant where he ate with his mother), yet he feels that it’s his right to mess with the love of good, decent people like Ji-hyun and her parents.

Kang was not sure of his mother’s love but wanted it all the same and sorely feels its lack; he knows the value of love and friendship and he puts it out there every day for his friends and the woman he’s loved. We need him to show us (and Ji-hyun, of course) that love can be pure and trusted, and not asking for anything in return.

Jo Hyun-jae is the architect, Han Kang

We also need someone who can be that silent (he can’t explain how much he knows to Ji-hyun) and staunch supporter. Just as much as you might say that the Scheduler is Ji-hyun’s non-corporeal guardian angel (of a sorts, albeit grudgingly), Kang is her living angel protector and very much so. He gives of himself completely, without question when he knows something has to be done because that’s what love does.

You could say that he’s also a perfect foil to In-jung too because she is supposed to have loved Ji-hyun and been her ‘best friend’ and yet, before Ji-hyun’s parents know of her double-crossing with Min-ho, she’s shown very little sign of being Ji-hyun’s friend (count her hospital visits, for example).

The story also needs Kang as our explainer/detective, to track down the ‘truth’ of the 49 days and soul transfer, and once that’s done, do those things that physically Ji-hyun cannot do. Like go keep her parents company, investigate Min-ho, and gather business-related evidence. But most of all, the show needs him to be that broad shoulder so that we know that Ji-hyun won’t go crazy.

As for Min-ho… He does very wrong to blameless people and therefore must be punished. If he’d harmed guilty types you could say that he’s a dark kind of Robin Hood and maybe allow redemption, but that is far from the case. Even if, like Judas, he denies loving Ji-hyun, he does care for her, so this compounds his sins mightily.

Writer So gave Bae Soo-bin a terrific role as the second lead in “Shining Inheritance,” and once again gives him the opportunity to excel. Because he can look so innocent, his betrayals have all the more power to shock. Because he is so convincing in his justifications, you begin to sympathize, or at least empathize with his very wrong choices.

The best part of the story is that you see the very same things that made many viewers appreciate “Shining Inheritance” so much at work here, even if in this case the plot is more farfetched. The characters have feelings and behave realistically and the villains make you understand their motivations.

It’s important to note that the story unfolds gradually; you literally will not get all the pieces until the last episode, and once they are revealed it is worth taking some time to explore how well the writer has explored the different characters and the journeys they’ve taken.

Reflecting on the performance and storytelling, both really good; they are played pretty ‘close to the vest,’ and by that I mean that the actors don’t telegraph what’s going to happen next. You feel what they feel in the moment and you can’t predict what will come around the corner. With some dramas there is no such thing as a spoiler, the plots are so predictable that you could practically write the script yourself, but this is not the case here even though it seemed initially as if it might be so.

I feel that the body/soul switching premise in “49 Days” works better than in the popular drama “Secret Garden.” While entertainingly handled, the soul swapping in “Secret Garden” did not provide the emotional impact of the non-soul-swapping emotional connection/love story side of that drama. Here it’s so integral to the plot that we’re like Kang: we know it makes no sense but we see it come to life and it’s so convincing; there is no other explanation for it but that we must believe it – and so we do!

There is some really clever plotting going on in this drama, especially every scene with Min-ho and Ki-yung. The last episode really got me too! When I least expected it, I’d find myself tearing up. There is laughter too, although less so.

It is, when you break it down, a poor little rich girl melodrama, but with such good casting, genuine sentiments, and a fresh spin, it definitely worked for me! With an ability to write realistic human relationships, to take topics that might be clichéd and turn trite in lesser hands and make them meaningful and deep, writer Hyun-Kyung So has proven to be a reliable commodity and “49 Days” is a drama to savor.

Watch this drama on legal sites like Dramafever.com and Hulu.com.

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.