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Breaking The Mold: My Lovely Sam Soon and the reinvention of the K-Drama heroine

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My Lovely Sam Soon has reinvented the k-drama heroine, replacing the docile, beautiful princess, looking to marry a rich prince charming, with a hard-talking, overweight pastry chef, who'd easily drink the spoilt Chaebol under the table. After more than a decade of trend-setting stories and fashions, it seems the Korean TV drama has finally given the women a heroine they can relate to.

Starting in Japan in the late 1980s, the idea of TV dramas targeting the younger generation, showcasing their struggles, ambitions and problems, quickly gained a strong following in Korea. Even though the foundation of Korean TV dramas had always been based on family-oriented or historical dramas, reminiscent of American soap operas, those 'trendy' dramas were and still are what leads the Korean Wave. Although the majority of the Korean viewing public marks the late 90s and works such as Star In My Heart (a.k.a. Wish Upon A Star) as the start of this trend, the first seeds of the genre were planted half a decade earlier, with the 1992 MBC Drama Jealousy, starring Choi Jin Sil and Choi Soo Jong.

More often than not, 'trendy' dramas weren't following the trend, they were setting new ones. If you look at the Top 50 rated shows of all time in Korea (or at least from the early 90s onwards, when TNS started collecting realistic rating shares), it's full of trendy dramas, which set up many of the cliches you see acknowledged today. Although Korean movies have always underlined cultural and political movements in the country, such as the 'youth angst' films of the 70s and 80s, commercial Cinema in Korea could never really feel the 'pulse of the nation.' Movies were either formulaic fare or detached (but often excellent) arthouse projects, which only packed a punch if you loved film culture. Even though Park Joong Hoon and other figures emerged thanks to their roles in films, TV dramas were definitely more popular during this period. That is why popular trends in the country have often been attributed to and better represented by TV dramas.

Sometimes, that ability to communicate via popular trends created works with a depth that rivaled that of the most accomplished Korean films. There's no work which better shows the struggle of Korean people during the IMF crisis than the classic TV drama You and I, and the way the monstrously popular drama The Sandglass dealt with the events of the Gwangju Massacre is still inked in many Korean minds today. In certain cases, staying close to popular trends can create wonders. Imagine a show like Ruler of Your Own World (a.k.a. As You Wish), which started as a simple love triangle and became the most poignant portrait of this generation's 'Hongdae Youth.' This tremendously written urban drama featured top notch music from some of the best underground rock bands in the country (including 3rd Line Butterfly and Bulldog Mansion), and excellent acting from four leads who would go on to become major players in today's film and TV Drama scene: Lee Na Young, Yang Dong Geun, Kong Hyo Jin and Lee Dong Gun.

Of course, trendy dramas were not only an impressive mirror of society, but also often created negative stylistic and narrative trends that effected TV dramas for a long time. The obsession over the 'Kongjwi & Patjwi' (a popular Korean fairy tale) syndrome - making many shows a simple cat fight between a poor, good looking heroine fighting against the ugly, rich girl - was one of them. While that sometimes made for interesting viewing, bringing class struggle to the forefront, it was mostly an excuse to make easy targets for sympathy, and was often littered with two-dimensional characters. An inevitable offspring of 'Good Girl-Bad Girl' dramas were the 'Cinderella' dramas, using the similar setup of an ugly duckling in distress finding her Prince Charming. Some of those were actually good, like MBC's 1997 rendition of the story Cinderella, starring Hwang Shin Hyae and Lee Seung Yeon, but the majority were far fetched exercises in substance-less glamour and vapid looks from pretty stars. Although the Cinderella syndrome carried over into the new generation, and became a leading force in 'Korean Wave' TV dramas, the idea of Prince Charming and Cinderella herself have changed over the years, to adapt to new popular trends.

It used to be the poor, angelic girl who grew up with rich foster parents, with an evil sister playing tricks on her (tricks the parents would never find out about until the end), and a group of beautiful, stylish, rich Prince Charmings miraculously all falling for her. That is exactly the set up of shows like Star In My Heart. People went crazy over shows like this, and it was actually one of the first TV dramas to be exported overseas, creating the foundation for the current Korean Wave.

The weird combination of most TV drama writers being women and most directors being men, always created a weird clash of styles. The first metrosexuals emerged in Korean trendy dramas of the late 90s (think Ahn Jae Wook and his ridiculous haircut in Star In My Heart), but the space in which female characters could move was still limited. A certain evolution of the genre came last year, with Lovers In Paris (a.k.a. Romance in Paris). Sure, it was still the poor girl meeting the son of a Chaebol family, but the details were a little different. This new age Cinderella had become smarter, more interested in developing her career, or at least trying to make one, less dependent on men, and less 'Korean woman in the 90s.' But the show also jumpstarted other negative trends, like the reliance on overseas locations adding glitz and glamour, when subtlety and character development should be the focus. It was a successful show though, loved in Korea and abroad, catapulting Park Shin Yang to a new start in his career, and making Kim Jung Eun an even bigger star.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, hidden away, tucked under the softness of her stuffed piggy is Kim Sam-Soon (Kim Sun Ah). Not particularly pretty or blessed with a perfect body (unlike most Cinderellas), not particularly confident in her abilities as a talented patissier, haunted by memories of her father, and with a mother whose temper is quicker than a KTX. We meet Sam-Soon for the first time as she's being dumped, in bizarre fashion, by her boyfriend. Jobless, she finds out talent is not the only thing needed in today's Seoul. But that's only until Mr. Prince Charming, Sam-Shik (Hyun Bin) discovers her charm, via a 'fake' relationship to fool his hot-tempered mother (another wonderful performance by (Na Moon Hee). Here we are again: poor girl, Chaebol son, bitchy mother. Ooops! They did it again...

...then again, maybe not. If this were a Hollywood film or a soap opera, Kim Sun A would have had to wear the same kind of prosthetics that Eddie Murphy wore in The Nutty Professor, but no. The truth of the matter is that Sam-Soon is a 'normal size Korean woman.' Of course she's not considered normal size if you go down to the chic boutiques in Seoul, where hordes of miniskirt-wearing beauties swan about, shopping for yet more miniskirts. Sam-Soon is like millions of other Korean women, struggling with weight not because she's fat, but because she has to conform to the rules of beauty some facets of Korean society require nowadays. She's a perfectly talented patissier, having studied for a few years in France, and can make a mean cake, but nobody seems to give her a chance. It's just like countless other people who are sitting home watching TV because nobody wants you, unless you're from SNU.

But why has Korea fallen in love with Sam-Soon? She swears a storm, isn't much of a snappy dresser, always ends up drunker than men twice her age, is insecure, constantly daydreams and cannot channel all her wits, charms and talents into a cohesive 'something' which will make her succeed. Hey... that's your answer. Our 'lovely' Kim Sam-Soon is loved because she's just like millions of women out there, with all their charms and flaws honestly and intelligently laid bare. So then, even the trite setup of the story becomes just a formality, director Kim Yoon Cheol makes the drama flow smoothly, and Kim Do Woo's witty writing helps Sam-Soon become a joy to watch. Kim Sun A has done characters like this before, but the way she projects this idea of the real 'girl next door' is something of a triumph in her already successful career. It's not the usual cliche of the 'national sweetheart' winning the hearts of people, there's an underlying realistic tone which often might make silly scenes end up more striking than anyone ever expected.

Hyun Bin, playing the 'Prince Charming', is your usual new age 'metrosexual', but with a few touches of realism. He might be a spoiled rich kid, but has that air of traditionalism, of looking for a side of things which is often in shades of gray rather than the black and white other characters in Cinderella dramas were used to. Although I must confess I still haven't found what's so special about the guy, even if I agree he's a pretty good actor, Hyun Bin eludes a certain charm, different from your usual Chaebol kid. This is not the same old story of a whiny mama's boy who can't lift a finger without spending cash, is completely alienated from the real world, and communicates via his status.

The supposedly 'bad' girl is quite an interesting character, too, perhaps because of Jung Ryeo Won's acting. I was just like most other people, thinking she would be another singer-turned-actress stinking up the place, but she's actually quite good. Her range of expression is believable, and even when the most cliched elements of her character emerge, she treats those in a way that make her character shine, instead of highlighting possible flaws in storytelling. And, finally! A character who has lived for years in America who actually speaks English the way it should be. I couldn't stand anymore pretty people being sent off to 'exotic locations', practicing their awfully accented Konglish off of prompters, never giving the idea they spent more than an afternoon in the place. But Jung is different: she's articulate, her pronunciation excellent, and there's no emotional transition between English and Korean acting (even good actors like Lee Young Ae failed when it came to acting in English, so it's not 'that' easy).

Which brings me to the biggest surprise of the show: Daniel Henney. Look at the recent and past history of Korean films and TV dramas and you find two basic types of foreigners portrayed: the one (mostly Asian) who completely integrates within Korean society, assuming enough language skills to look the part. Think of people like Yoo Jin or Shoo from popular teenybopper group S.E.S. (They are Korean, but grew up abroad, same thing with Ayumi from Sugar). Then there's the Itaewon rejects, people pulled off the streets, who are giving their acting job as much importance as the people who brought them in are giving them. And this only ends up reinforcing stereotypes Koreans have of certain foreigners, and at the same time, the idea that foreigners have of Koreans. How many times have you seen your usual beefcake westerner stinking up the place because of a silly or non-existent script painting him as a simple 'talking cardboard'? Even when intentions are good, like in Kim Sung Soo's Please Teach Me English, the spectrum is so thin you always feel like no foreigner could possibly survive in Korea without amazing efforts, which is not the case, obviously. Well, finally, this drama offers a realistic portrait of a foreigner (albeit with Korean blood) coming to terms with the language barrier, and trying to make an effort to overcome those barriers.

Henry Kim, played by Henney, is the kind of guy you could meet any day on the streets of Seoul. Although the fact he's good looking is often acknowledged, it never becomes one of those annoying exercises in 'reverse exotica' where the western guy (or girl) is just made an object and the person behind is never given a space. I love the fact the guy is not portrayed as a macho beefcake Yankee coming to Korea to steal our hero's girl, and sometimes you actually feel the other way. Jung's character could realistically make a better choice staying with Henry, but how that situation ends up, I'll let you find out. What's important is that through good acting and especially intelligent writing, for perhaps the first time ever a realistic portrayal of a foreigner in Korea has been made. Which, you'll agree, is a step in the right direction. Now let's see if it can happen the other way around (although based on Kim Yoon Jin and Daniel Dae Kim's stereotypical performances in Lost, I'm afraid that's still merely a mirage, though I'd be happy to be proven wrong).

As a longtime lover of Korean TV dramas, though, the salad dressing is often the main course for me. As always with really good shows, the supporting characters often upstage the leads. Kwon Hae Hyo, theater-trained, with a great sense of humor and majestic delivery, creates another one of his eccentric yet life-like characters. Lee A Hyun is solid as Sam-Soon's older sister, with a progressive view of one night stands and married life in general; the vets Na Moon Hee, Yeo Woon Gye and Kim Ja Ok are simply a riot, making many memorable scenes stand out. Then there's little Seo Ji Hee (a.k.a. the cutest girl even seen in a Korean drama), who shows Korea has a bright future, judging by the quality of its child actors.

Of course you have to understand the kind of demographics this show targets, so you'll excuse a few moments of deja vu, a few tropes of the genre inevitably marring some scenes, but I'm very satisfied with this show. It's intelligent, it balances realistic characters with quirky situations, it never lets melodramatic shenanigans stink up the place, and rarely lags. And even better, it's funny in a way other TV dramas fail to be, because it makes you laugh about things you can relate to. If you've never seen a Korean TV Drama before, I'm pretty sure this will be a good introduction.

Originally published by

Published November 12, 2005

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