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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.