This review was written for Korean Quarterly and appears in the 1st quarter 2014 issue.
Here is some advice before viewing the fantasy period drama, “Arang and the Magistrate”: let the story unfold like any good ghost story told before a crackling fire on a dark and stormy night, but pay attention! There are hundreds of little plot details that are laid out in each episode. In fact, this drama unfolds like a complex mystery novel, or perhaps a better analogy would be painting a picture. You begin with an initial sketch and the composition is interesting, it tells a story, but as the layers and layers of paint are added the image becomes richer and more nuanced. As each incremental piece of the tale is revealed, you become more and more engaged in it, wanting to know why someone is a particular way and what will happen next… and then bam! You get the answers, and they shock you!
In an opening that is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” in which the reader is told that it’s important to believe that Jacob Marley is dead (or else you won’t believe in the miraculous tale that unfolds), the drama begins with a similar explanation. There is something odd about things these days; the barriers between the living and the dead have altered and now ghosts roam freely amongst the living. Oh, and ghosts have the advantage of being able to see humans but not the other way around. Except for one person, that is: a young man by the name of Eun-oh.
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 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.
The drama opens with an extreme close-up of Jung, dedicated to eating a meal of fried chicken with a single-minded thoroughness. Meat is stripped from the bones with precision and no succulent morsel escapes his unselfconscious attention. He eats without passion. A voice interrupts his meal to tell him that Prisoner Yang Kang-chil has a visitor. This is to be his last meal; he is destined for the gallows. Are we seeing, in fact, a story told in reverse?
While this is not the case (we are not after all seeing the story’s final sequence), “Padam Padam” is a richly layered story, with multiple timelines. It demands your attention at all times, though this is never a chore. Watching the various threads of the story unravel and become knit together once again is particularly gratifying. It is a story of redemption and retribution, of courage and despair, of love and doubt, and of miracles.
The Unjust Sentence
Kang-chil is a man who has from the age of 19, spent fourteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Released from prison after serving his time, he makes his way back to Tongyeong and to his home. Along the long route homeward, he meets a stranded motorist, an attractive young veterinarian, Jung Ji-na, played by Ji-min Han, in what must certainly be considered a contender for classification as the finest role in her career. She is justifiably wary of this large, blunt-spoken man, and keeps her distance, only to be challenged later to reconsider her prejudicial first impressions by his candor and lack of aggression.
In Tongyeong, Kang-chil returns to find his mother, played by the incomparable veteran actress Moon-hee Na, working dockside as a fishmonger. She is a living illustration of the pejorative “fishwife” in her shrewish nature, harsh words, and actions. She seems incapable of the tender gesture; life has been cruel to her. Not knowing much of what compassion is like, she has little ability to bestow it on others, even her own son.
Kang-chil has deep emotional wounds, owing to key events leading up to the crime for which he’d been framed, and its aftermath, and holds her partially to blame for his suffering. Yet, she is his mother and he must come home to her. The reconciliation between mother and son is one of the tenderest, painfully honest, and most gratifying of the plots in this drama. Na is equally unafraid to play a character that is hard and scolding. Hers is a voice that could strip paint from wood, yet those harsh words turn out to be her ways of demonstrating her love.
Kang-chil does not return alone to Tongyeong; another prisoner gains release and is “tasked” with keeping an eye on Kang-chil. His task is actually more self-imposed — Lee Gook-soo believes himself to be Kang-chil’s guardian angel. The young actor Bum Kim plays Gook-soo with an impressive maturity. The question is: can Gook-soo actually be an angel?
He is convinced that he is on the path to becoming a bona fide guardian angel and Kang-chil is his responsibility. And given certain circumstances that cannot be described in this review for fear of giving away crucial plot developments, there are reasons to suspend disbelief. Is he delusional? Are those events that transpire miracles, as he claims, or are there other reasons?
Kim Bum brings a slightly shifty and cunning, yet pragmatic tone to his “almost” angel, but it works… oh, it works! His actions at one point were so devious that they made this reviewer (and a friend watching alongside) literally gasp aloud in shock!
A Rehabilitated Life
Life back at home is not exactly easy for Kang-chil, but he and Gook-soo set up as carpenters/handymen and prove that they have a knack for this. Circumstances lead to them undertaking the remodeling of Ji-na’s veterinary clinic. During this period, she comes to learn more about the man that is Kang-chil, and to discover in him a pure heart. He is smitten by the young woman, he has never known a woman, and even though he knows that he’s deemed by society to be unworthy of any woman (let alone one so amazing as she), he looks upon her in wonder and dreams that maybe (somehow), he might be allowed to care for her.
There are many other obstacles in Kang-chil’s way, and not just when it comes to love. He receives devastating news of one kind at one turn, and is pursued by the uneasy individual who was actually responsible for the crime. A further unexpected development comes in the arrival of a young man who claims to be Kang-chil’s son. Tae-joon Choi gives a pitch-perfect portrayal of a teen on the cusp of adulthood who feels resentment and abandonment issues, but who also desperately wants to feel that he belongs. As if this was not enough, the officer in charge of the pivotal crime not only was the brother of the victim, wants his “pound of flesh” from Kang-chil, but is also Ji-na’s father. Hang-sung Jang plays Detective Jung as a hard core, hard –headed career cop not above a little brutality to mete out his own form of justice.
Woo-sung Jung’s performance is amazing on so many levels; it’s hard to know how to stop offering singing his praises. He’s given Kang-chil this gangly stoop and loping walk, and in that physical interpretation, one senses the boy who was confined to the confining and restrictive space (prison) during his peak years of physical growth and development. It’s a small thing, but it’s part of the complete package.
When and actor is called upon to be facially expressive (and in such tight close-ups as are frequently used in this drama), there’s a fine line between overdoing it and honestly revealing your emotions and Jung never crosses the line into “mugging for the camera.” Jung’s Kang-chil is so candid about so many things, but is not above hiding his feelings (the way a convict might), especially about love.
Kang-chil’s simplicity and the fact that you can see his emotions on his face makes you open your heart to him — except when he makes a conscious effort to hide those feelings and you take an emotional step back at the guile on his face. Your pulse will race as much as Ji-na’s must do when Kang-chil challenges her with his questions because he’s so direct and “simple” in his candor. “Why can’t a guy like me love a woman like you?”
Jung is so good at showing Kang-chil’s wonder at this delicate and beautiful woman he has found. In one of many memorable scenes, Kang-chil has to give her a piggyback ride on a long trek back to his truck. He wants her to hold him more tightly (because it will be easier to carry her) and at the same time he’s not beyond talking about how exhausted he is. He does live in the here and now! When he switches to carry her in front he can’t help but look at her with wonder, whereas Ji-min Han’s Ji-na observes him back, almost analytically, as if he’s a foreign specimen, both interesting and confusing. And I love how, when he does kiss her, it’s as if he is afraid to show any sort of real passion, or doesn’t know how to do so (yet), but rather by pressing his lips on hers he’s savoring her softness, the sweetness of her warm breath, the proximity to her small features and he’s worshiping in the pure essence of woman.
Ji-min Han is one of those actresses who I always felt had more to her, but often could be too “cute” in her roles for my liking (such as in “Great Inheritance”). I think she’s never been more beautiful than in this role and I like the real emotional conflicts she faces in trusting Kang-chil (and her ex-boyfriend and father as well). She has her reasons and they’re valid, though Gook-soo’s chiding her choice to believe more in evidence than her intuition hits home. The scene in the lake was a beautiful balance between JWS and HJM. I particularly like the wariness in her eyes…
There are other characters that round out the story; the two most noteworthy are Hang-sang Jang because of the distance he goes to play such a realistic and unsympathetic character as Detective Jung. The other is Jae-woo Lee who plays one of my favorite characters in this drama, but for an unusual reason; he breaks new ground in drama characterization by being a character that is completely normal and credible.
As Ji-na’s ex-fiancé Yeong-chul, the way he’s been written and is portrayed he closely resembles real, occasionally flawed men, not the idealized men of dramas, or villains. He’s a cheater, but he’s managed to stay friends (and perhaps “friends with benefits”) with Ji-na. They behave like two friends who know each other perhaps too well, but who have not let go completely of the feelings they once had for each other. He reacts to Ji-na’s attraction to Kang-chil in a very realistic fashion, by proposing marriage when he gets jealous. He doesn’t want to get married, he’s not the “marrying type,” but heaven forbid that she should move on (and with an ex-con!)
At one point he asks Kang-chil how long he and Gook-soo were in prison with that — “Hey, it’s no big deal, right?” attitude — he knows it is a big deal and he was consciously a little cruel. But he apologizes (because Ji-na told him to do so), but he’s playfully petty to make her apologize when she insults Kang-chil too.
Showcasing the South
Finally, the setting for this drama is incredibly effective, from the harbor views, the hilltop home of Kang-chil’s mom, to the abandoned mill that becomes his workshop, it’s all beautifully selected, framed, and captured for us to enjoy. Gorgeous! The direction of “Padam Padam” also deserves special mention.
Every episode includes camera angles and techniques that would deserve praise in high budget films. A small yet pivotal scene at a traffic roundabout was one of the most film-like sequences I have ever scene in a drama and I can’t think of any other time that I’ve seen a roundabout ever used like this. It is a tension-filled moment that will have you on the edge of your seat, waiting and cringing with anticipation. I swear that my heart was pounding like a bass drum! Equally, there are small, quiet moments of companionship and trust that will resonate with their beauty and emotional honesty.
That a small cable network has managed to produce what must surely be one of the finest dramas of 2012 is a remarkable achievement. “Padam Padam” is a drama to be savored and remembered. The drama is currently available on Dramafever.com and hopefully will be made available on DVD as well. It deserves a place in the discerning drama viewer’s permanent collection.
This review was originally written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly
Watch one episode and an hour later you’re hungry for more!
The question is: will you be hungry for more of the drama’s sweet Romeo and Juliet story, its tale of a plucky, hard-working girl, or for Chinese food? With “Delicious Proposal,” the answer could easily be “yes” to any one of these. Add yet another possible enticement to the mix with the chance to see some of the earliest work of major stars So Ji-sub, Son Ye-jin, and Kwon Sang-woo and you have a very tasty proposition indeed.
The story opens with a young man trying to find his place in the world – and gainful employment. Kim Hyo-dong (played by Jung Joon) has been raised by a single father and has lived most of his entire life behind the family restaurant where good food is everything, even if the business isn’t exactly thriving. Hyo-dong has little interest in cooking however, even if the restaurant bears his name. He has his sights set on the more exciting, action-packed world of being a professional bodyguard. Through a series of misfortunes however, he’s soon parted from his promising new career.
Hyo-dong is headstrong and impulsive. When he learns that his father’s assistant chef quit and had the nerve to set up at a competing restaurant, making some of the same dishes learned while working at Hyo-dong Restaurant, he takes it upon himself to go and raise a ruckus. He has to make a dash though when reinforcements are called in and during his escape he chooses the open trunk of a nearby car in which to hide. Before he can wait for the thugs pursuing him to leave, the vehicle’s owner returns and sets off with him as an unwitting passenger. Upon arriving home and opening the trunk, young Jang Hee-ae (Son Ye-jin in her first role) is startled to find a young man inside. For his part, Hyo-dong is smitten with the lovely and demure lass who was his rescuer. It takes some doing for him to reassure her, but he manages to calm her and return home. And so begins the Romeo and Juliet portion of the story…
Hyo-dong and Hee-ae (Jung Joon and Son Ye-jin)
In another part of town, Ma Shi-nae (So Yoo-jin) has come to Seoul in order to make her way in the world and to escape those who are pursuing her for her family’s debts. She’s got a way with cooking and is frugal and hard-working, setting up a market stall to sell items and homemade soup. While on a shopping expedition for the stall, she inadvertently intrudes on Hyo-dong stripped down to his pants in a dressing room as he’s trying on a suit for his job interview. This embarrassing first day’s meeting doesn’t end there: later that evening he spots her as she’s forced by desperation to use a dark alley for a latrine!Neither are exactly the most auspicious circumstances in which a young man might first meet not one but two attractive young ladies. Fate, however, brings these three together and a bond of friendship is forged and tested over the course of the drama.
Hyo-dong’s father, Kim Kap-soo (veteran actor Park Geun-hyung), is a respected and highly trained chef who prefers cooking the humblest dish over the finest banquet – provided it can be done with love and care for an appreciative customer. He manages to eke out a modestly thriving business despite having lost his sense of smell – a calamity for a chef – during a disastrous fire years earlier. Kim Kap-soo and Jang Tae-kwang (Kim Yong-gun) escaped the orphanage together and apprenticed as chefs, but Tae-kwang struggled to win the approval of their master. His jealousy led to the accident that caused the fire and he fled in shame, a feeling that later turned to resentment. Jang Tae-kwang is now the proprietor of a chain of restaurants and it is his plan to open one of these in direct competition with his old friend’s establishment and drive him out of business. There’s another major problem: Jang Tae-kwang is Hee-ae’s father.
Hyo-dong, no longer in the bodyguard business, discovers that Jang Hee-ae is interested in cooking and will be attending cooking classes. This is the perfect opportunity to get close to her: he enrolls as well, much to the amazement of his father. How could a boy who wanted nothing to do with the restaurant now want to learn how to cook? It turns out that Hyo-dong has an incredible sense of taste and is a natural in the kitchen, perhaps because he innately understands the golden rule of cooking passed down from his father’s master to his father and now to him: you must cook with love in your heart. And Hyo-dong is in love. Fortunately for him, Hee-ae returns that sentiment. Unfortunately for Ma Shi-nae, her
interest in Hyo-dong is not reciprocated. He only has eyes for Hee-ae; in fact, he’s blissfully unaware of the other girl’s interest in him. Of course, neither of the lovebirds knows the real problem that lies ahead. What will happen when their parents learn of the relationship and who their respective fathers are?
Shi-nae making her opinion known (So Yoo-jin)
The hardworking Shi-nae does not go unappreciated however. Hee-ae’s older brother Hee-moon (So Ji-sub) spies her on a visit to the family restaurant and is captivated by her forthright and open manner. It’s a pity that he’s a stuck-up, business school type who hasn’t figured out that you don’t buy the affections of a decent young woman. Maybe he can’t be blamed entirely for that ill-conceived notion: he’s pursued relentlessly by the vain and greedy Hong Ju-ri (played by Hong Soo-hyun) and she would be only too delighted to receive that type of attention. His greatest flaw though as a character is that he’s slow to learn. When Ma Shi-nae finally delivers an important message to him, one is left applauding and at the same time wondering if it had never occurred to Hee-moon that he’d been in the wrong.
Rounding out the cast is another actor in one of his earliest appearances in a drama, Kwon Sang-woo, as Choon Shik, a motorcyclist-turned-deliveryman who joins the team trying to save Hyo-dong Restaurant from going under at the hands of the competition from the Jang family’s Golden Dragon. Another team member is Park Yung-guk (Kim Gyu-chul), one of the cooking school classmates with no gift for cooking but a willingness to lend a hand. Jun Su (played by Ji Sung) is Hyo-dong’s friend and support system, also enamored of Ma Shi-nae, and does what he can to help beat the competition.
In addition to the pressures of the Golden Dragon and Jang Tae-kwang trying to defeat his one-time friend, the small restaurant faces additional financial burdens due to the misguided investments of Yun Chil-sung (Park Kwang-jung), Hyo-dong’s uncle by marriage and a hairdresser by avocation. His patiently suffering wife, Kwon Mi-sook (played by Lee Hye-sook), is equal parts tolerant and frustrated, but she throws herself wholeheartedly into the efforts to save the restaurant. A nation-wide cooking competition just may be the key to success, with its $100,000 grand prize. It’s up to the chefs of Hyo-dong’s Restaurant and the Golden Dragon to make it to the finals.
Fabulous food, specifically an extensive variety of Chinese food, from the simplest of noodle dishes to elaborate banquet dishes complete with intricate hand-carved garnishes, also plays a starring role in this drama. Everything revolves around food: cooking it, selling it, delivering it, planning meals, competing restaurants, food competitions, cooking school, and of course simply salivating over the beautiful food that appears regularly onscreen.
Son Ye-jin, So Yoo-jin, Jung Joon, and So Ji-sub
There are portions of this story that move a little slowly, in spite of this being only 16 episodes. You could also describe the story as “comfortably predictable,” but on the whole, the characters and the plot are both likeable and entertaining. The real charm of the drama is the work of the young cast, particularly Jung Joon as Hyo-dong and So Yoo-jin as Shi-nae. They bring a freshness and sincerity to their roles that makes their characters seem credible and realistic. When Jung Joon is cooking away and the flames are leaping up under the wok there is this intense look of concentration on his face that tells you he’s completely focused on his cooking, just as Hyo-dong should be. The same is true for So Yoo-jin’s Shi-nae. Son Ye-jin is not as challenged by her role as the ingénue – this is a pleasant performance but not a breakout performance. So Ji-sub, on the other hand, manages to convey the haughty young heir, assured of his wealth, position, and good looks with perfect confidence.
One final bit of advice before watching “Delicious Proposal” – don’t watch this hungry or you’ll be on the phone to your nearest Chinese restaurant before the episode is over!
“Delicious Proposal” : MBC 2001. 16 episodes. Available on Netflix and from YesAsia.com