My Lovely Sam Soon: A
Boys over Flowers may be the source of my current Kdrama obsession, but it’s not the first Korean drama I watched. That title goes to 2005’s My Lovely Sam Soon, which found its way to a friend of mine on DVD. We plopped on my couch and devoured all 16 episodes over the course of a single weekend sometime in 2006.
Six years and twenty something dramas later, it’s actually hard to wrap my mind around just how exotic Sam Soon seemed on that first viewing. There was a chirpy Kpop theme song, for one, and characters who studiously removed their shoes every time they entered someone’s house. They ate crazy things like live octopus, dried their hair with fans, and drank coffee from paper cups about half the size of an American small. These are the things that stuck with me in the intervening years, not the show’s plot; I vaguely remembered that it had something to do with a restaurant and focused on a belligerent female lead, but it was the cultural backdrop that really stood out.
Knowing what I know now, I see that My Lovely Sam Soon is the perfect Kdrama gateway drug. It’s a window into another world for American viewers, but a world populated with people recognizable from everyday life. Its characters struggle with their careers and their relationships and their families just as we do—the biggest difference being that they happen to be doing it in Korean. The show doesn’t dwell on the makjang elements in its plot or get bogged down in the ritualized quirks of the standard Kdrama love triangle. Instead, My Lovely Sam Soon turns a naturalistic, real-life vibe and nuanced characters into an addictive romantic comedy with universal appeal. Each perfectly paced hour offers a host of delights, and by the time we got to episode 16, I was sad to say goodbye to Sam Soon.
Back then, Kdrama wasn’t as easy to find and watch online as it is now, so I thought my lost weekend was the end of it. Thanks to the wonders of streaming video, though, Kdrama came back into my life with a vengeance about six months ago. And out of all the dramas I’ve watched since then, Sam Soon really is the one most perfectly tailored for beginning viewers. It even gives Westerners their own on-screen stand-in: American-born Henry, visiting his mother’s homeland for the first time as part of his quest to win the heart of Yoo Hee Jin, the second female lead. Through his eyes we experience the country first-hand: we gape at Seoul’s nighttime skyline, struggle to understand the language of the people around us, and try to figure out just what life on the other side of the world might be like. Henry even gives us the opportunity to watch whole Kdrama scenes conducted entirely in English, which both he and Yoo Hee Jin handle with the aplomb of native speakers. (Even if she clearly learned the language from an Australian.)
Which is not to say that some finer points aren’t lost on someone who hasn’t been steeping in Korean culture for a while. The big bed scene, for example, ends with both participants getting bloody noses. The first time I saw this I’m sure I had no idea what in God’s name it might mean, but on the second viewing it actually made me laugh out loud: I realized that the bloody noses meant the characters were exhausted from lots of hard, strenuous physical labor. (Wink, wink.) Throughout the show, I kept stumbling on moments like this—things that required knowledge to fully appreciate, but were pretty darn fun even if you didn’t really get what was going on. My Lovely Sam Soon works a bit like a Pixar movie; you can enjoy it no matter who you are, because it offers layers of complexity and different interpretations based on your level of knowledge.
My understanding of Sam Soon herself was something that changed almost completely between my two viewings of the show. I remember originally thinking that she was off-puttingly abrasive and aggressive, and wondering why a character like her had been chosen to anchor the drama. Now I see just how special Sam Soon really is, largely thanks to the very things that initially made me dislike her: She’s not the standard Korean-drama doormat, avoiding conflict and letting men order her around. The only person who really tells Sam Soon what to do is her mom—and even then, Sam Soon’s acquiescence is grudging at best. It’s true that the male lead postures just as much as any other and uses ickily sexist tactics to prevent Sam Soon from changing her name. But ultimately she’s the one who makes the final decision, just as she’s the one who’s really in control of their relationship.
The second time I watched My Lovely Sam Soon I also knew enough to appreciate its sensitive portrayal of weight issues. Although to an American Sam Soon looks thin-to-average, the script never lets us forget that she’s actually considered heavy in Korea. But unlike other dramas that touch on body image, My Lovely Sam Soon doesn’t take cheap shots at her because of her weight. (Unlike, say, Dream High and Kim Pil Sook, who is shown with a saucepan in her locker—because is it ever funny that fat people like food!) Instead, Sam Soon is treated as just another person wanting to be happy, in spite of the fact that she also wants to eat. And she even ends up with a toothsome chaebol in the end.
All these years later, My Lovely Sam Soon doesn’t feel dated—the production values are good, the casting and acting are spot on, and the script is funny and insightful. I couldn’t have asked for a better show to lose my Kdrama virginity to in 2006, just as I couldn’t ask for a better Kdrama to watch in 2012.