Best Show on Korean Television

Last year I referenced the show Famous Chil Princesses (소문난 칠공주) in my paean to everything great about living in Korea along with the Divorce Court-style reenactment show Bubu Clinic: Love and War.  Unfortunately I never got a chance to blog about Chil when it was on, because it really is to Korean TV what the Wire or Battlestar Galactica are to American cop and science fiction shows, respectively.  Chil takes the familiar tropes and stock characters of Korean dramas and imbues them with such depth and life that it’s ruined me for other dramas.

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Chil Princesses revolved around a career military man, his wife and their daughters.  Each daughter’s name contained the syllable ‘chil’, hence the show’s name, which is a play on an old Korean fairy tale or something about seven princesses (chil gongju).  Anyway, while the setup is absolutely standard, the show goes places that Korean shows never dare.  The cute, stuck up princess on the show (above in the pink) undergoes a transformation, leaves her perfect husband, and goes off to a small town to be a nurse in a tiny doctor’s office.  She learns to be less self-centered and grows as a person into a fully developed, caring feeling human being.

When her mother finds out where she is and goes to see for herself, she finds her daughter in a nurse’s uniform, happily helping an old woman into a car.  She weeps with pity for her daughter, oblivious to her change for the better, and only wants her to go back to her vapid, well taken care of former self.  It is such a powerful scene, to see something that we’ve been led to believe is a good being perceived by another character whom we know to be a complex thinking human being as a tragedy.

Your average Korean drama consists of heroes and villains, tragic figures, cartoonish subhuman comic relief and Christ-like perennial victims.  Chil took characters who could have easily been played that way and explored their motivations in a way that I haven’t really seen done.

One of the daughters (front left, played by Kim Hye-seon, 김혜선) is working at a chicken hof with a divorced man, played by one of my favorite Korean actors, An Nae-sang (안내상).

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An’s ex wife is played by another one of my all-time favorite actresses, Kim Hee-Jung (김희정)

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Hee-jung plays a character who at first seems to be the same shrieking, money obsessed uber-bitch who populates most of the dramas in Korea.  She comes into the hof while Kim Hye-sun is working, demands money from the till, commands Hye-sun to serve her, and on and on.  Hye-sun eventually marries An Nae-sang and the two women clash over how to raise An’s children.  Eventually Hye-sun wins over the children, and Hee-jung is left out in the cold.  She is forced to confront the terrible person that she is and to undergo real and permanent change.  The trajectory that her character takes made Famous Chil Princesses one of the best shows I’d ever seen in Korea.  Not only that, but I originally know Kim Hee-jung from my other favorite Korean show, Bubu Clinic, in which she played some of the most deliciously evil characters of all time.

Now the creative team behind Famous Chil Princesses is back with the equally excellent although slightly less accessible First Wives Club (조강지처 클럽).  I say it’s less accessible because, as a foreigner, it’s hard to put up with a show in which the main character is a sneering, miserable ajumma who never has a kind word for anybody and goes through the world making that ‘You want to throw down?’ face that ajumma’s sometimes make and going ‘Ung?  Ung?’ (응? 응?) a lot.  I am talking about the character played by Kim Hye-sun, Han Boksu (for those of you who don’t speak Korean, her name means ‘Spite Revenge’).  Inexplicably (to me, who both doesn’t understand a good 10% of the show and hasn’t seen every episode), this scary fishmonger is married to a handsome doctor.

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But eventually, after having two kids, they drift apart.  He falls in love with another woman and she eventually finds another man who’s more warm and caring than her husband.  She demands a divorce, which they get in secret.  His father found out about the divorce the other day and her mother found out last night.  Their reactions reminded me of the mother from Chil: They both thought their children should stay together, even though they were telling them that they wanted to get divorced and that it was for the best.  A theme runs through the two shows, that what’s best for people today is not necessarily what the older generation and society might think.

But actually that story failed to capture my attention at first, because of the shrieking, snarling Han Boksu character whom I have none of the engrained cultural tolerances necessary to put up with.  Again, the much more interesting story involved An Nae-sang and Kim Hee-jung.  An plays Han Won-su, Han Boksu’s brother.  This is the kind of role that Korean television occasionally offers up which allows well-known actors to essentially play human cartoon characters.  An essentially gets to play a role so hammy, so ridiculously over the top, that he practically leaps out of the television.  He waves his arms, he sneers in contempt, he threatens, he appears to be having an absolute ball and he gets most of the laughs.

Anyway, he’s married to Na Hwa-shin, played by the sort of boring O Hyun-jung.

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Anyway, he cheats on her with none other than Kim Hee-jung

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But whereas in the rest of Korean television typecasting is the norm, the creators of First Wives Club go in the opposite direction.  Kim’s character, Mo Ji-ran, is a sweet and loving girl who gives up everything for An.  He and his wife separate and he takes up with Hee-jung, which is fine until his wife’s boss, a handsome, charmingly bland rich guy, falls in love with her.

An’s reaction is explosive.  He can’t stand to see the woman that he cheated on with another man.  He starts to resent Hee-jung and curse his bad luck.  He wants his first wife back.  He blusters and threatens and freaks out.  Hee-jung is oblivious.

The brilliant thing about the show is that most shows would deal with this situation totally from the wife’s perspective: she was married to a terrible husband who cheated on her, and now she’s finally found happiness with a good man, but this evil lout is coming to drag her back down with him.  First Wives Club plays it both ways, leaving the audience conflicted and really thinking about other human beings’ emotions, instead of the standard fare which presents non-main characters as obstacles, objects and comic relief, which is sort of like how people view strangers in public places here.

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~ by Joshing on May 12, 2008.

One Response to “Best Show on Korean Television”

  1. Wow, you sure hit the nail with this post! 문영남 as far as I’m concerned is the best drama writer at this moment, which I admit isn’t saying much but still, his shows are inevitably good. Did you see 장미빛 인생? Similar story with equally cynical characters played to perfection. The only difference is the huge difference in acting ability between 최진실 and that unfortunate miscast 오현정, the only downside to this show. And 김혜선 is frikken awesome!!!

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