Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Drama Review: My Sweet Seoul / Padam Padam

My Sweet Seoul: B-
Padam Padam: A

Writing a Korean drama must be a little like playing the board game Clue. You shuffle a few standard-issue cards and—Viola!—a whole new script is born. Instead of Suspects, Weapons, and Rooms, though, the groupings would be something like Characters, Conflict, and Result. You shuffle your cards and pick one from each category: Pseudo-siblings; Fall in love in spite of family objections; Death? You’ve got yourself Autumn in My Heart. Shuffle and pick again: Pseudo-siblings; Fall in love in spite of family objections; Love? That’s One Fine Day. Another shuffle and pick: Chaebol and poor girl; Fall in love in spite of family objections; Love? Two for one—you’ve got Boys over Flowers and Flower Boy Ramen Shop.

Somehow, though, Korean dramas prove again and again that the total of a show is more than the sum of its plot and characters. No matter how many common elements they may share, most dramas manage to put their own stamp on the proceedings and create something that feels almost wholly unique. My Sweet Seoul and Padam Padam are perfect examples of this: although both clearly picked the same conflict card—Male lead is imprisoned after causing tragic death of young friend—it’s hard to imagine how two shows could be more different.

My Sweet Seoul (2008) starts out as just another career-girls-in-the-city love story in the vein of The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry and I Need Romance. Like these later shows, Seoul revolves around the personal and professional lives of three thirty-something friends, but it’s less of a romantic comedy and more of a pleasantly low-key, naturalistic melodrama. One of the friends learns the hard way that marrying for something other than love is unlikely to lead to a happy ending, another quits her high-powered corporate job to audition for musicals, and the lead falls into a tumultuous physical relationship with a younger man.

Oh Eun Soo, said female lead, impetuously sleeps with this younger man after meeting him at a bar, and spends the first half of the drama struggling with their relationship: Will his puppyish adoration ever really win her heart? Can she handle dating a student who’s drifting through life without a plan for the future? Their relationship is fun to watch; it’s cute and tender and driven by a powerful sense of chemistry between the two actors.

While focusing on this noona love story, the show keeps its biggest attraction (for me anyway) on the back burner: Coffee Prince’s delicious Lee Sun Gyun, who plays a client Eun Soo works closely with. And this is where the old Clue card comes into play: even as Lee’s Kim Young Soo comes to care about Eun Soo, his tragic backstory prevents him from fully sharing himself with her. And the tragic backstory? Two-thirds of the way through this amiable, slice-of-life drama, we realize that Young Soo was responsible for the accidental death of his childhood friend and spent his twenties in prison for it.

The drama might have survived this major tone shift to hardcore melo, if only Eun Soo and Young Soo had ever managed to feel like they really belonged together. The script wants their slow, measured courtship to be a mindful, spiritual counterpoint to the spontaneous, headlong rush of Eun Soo’s relationship with her younger man. But ultimately Eun Soo seems to lose her backbone whenever Young Soo appears, turning tongue-tied and passive. All in all, the late-arriving shocker of Young Soo’s background is not a Clue card well-played, and the drama suffers for it.

While My Sweet Seoul uses its Conflict card as a last-minute twist, Padam Padam’s plot hinges entirely on its male lead’s imprisonment and the mystery surrounding his friend’s death. Far and away my favorite drama of recent memory, it’s a grown-up, absorbing story full of passion, intrigue, and cute animals. (No joke.)

With a big, complicated plot and cast of (practically) thousands, Padam Padam might have been confusing in lesser hands. But its creators use these raw materials to tell a powerful story of everyday miracles, deftly interweaving satisfying storylines for each of the show’s main characters. Unlike many dramas, it also finds a way to seamlessly incorporate action and supernatural elements into its realistic, gritty universe. And even more impressively, these elements actually contribute to the story’s emotional heft rather than distracting from it. If Padam Padam had been made for American television it would almost certainly have gotten bogged down with big-budget car chases and angel special effects, but in true Korean drama fashion, this show never loses sight of its primary goal as a television program: to tell a meaningful, memorable story.

What makes this story so great isn’t simply its compelling plot—also key is the drama’s nuanced cast of characters, all of whom grow and change throughout the show’s twenty episodes. Jung Woo Sung is disarmingly boyish, reckless, and vulnerable as he enters the world as an adult for the first time. Kim Bum is all sunshine and charming smiles, always optimistic and hopeful in spite of the ever-darkening world around him. And then there’s Jang Hang Sun as the female lead’s abusive, violent father. Instead of coming off as a one-note villain, his character is a deeply flawed man who’s also deeply blessed—his love for his family and quest for the truth ultimately save the day.

Padam Padam isn’t just substance, either—it’s also full of some of the most amazing locations and camera work I’ve seen in any Kdrama. Most Korean shows get by with workmanlike cinematography, using the same old shots, the same old angles, and the same old settings. But this drama never misses an opportunity to do something special, from its impressionistic sunsets over the ocean and dark nights exploding with fireworks, to the visceral, stomach-turning swirl of an in-progress car accident.

It goes without saying that a strong plot and amazing acting are two of the most important building blocks of a good drama—and Padam Padam has them both. But its craftsmanship really shows in all the little details: Resident angel (or not) Kim Bum wears a never-ending collection of Batman and Superman t-shirts, betraying his self-identification as a flying superhero. An ever-changing wall of graffiti regularly features a  graphic, brush-stroke angel that none of the characters seem to notice. And even the bridges built by the lead in an attempt to impress the woman he’s wooing are more than they seem: They span a manmade streambed that is notorious for injuring the local wildlife, but instead of being simple, straight stretches above the water, each bridge takes a meandering, multi-angle path. Even as you watch the first rabbit tentatively hop its way across, you’re left wondering why a professional carpenter would build something so irregular and awkward. But then, many episodes later, it becomes clear: when the lead couple finally admit they belong together, they’re standing on a staggered walkway that echoes the shape of these animal bridges, a reminder of their history together and a physical embodiment of protection and love.

From its basis in a standard Kdrama Conflict card shared by who knows how many other shows, Padam Padam grows into a romance, mystery, family drama, and tale of both the natural and the supernatural. And television doesn’t get much better than that.


  1. It drove me CRAZY that no one ever mentioned the angel graffiti. And I never noticed his tee shirts!! I've added My Sweet Seoul to the (ever-growing) list.

    1. I kind of loved that the angel was never discussed—it was like an easter egg to reward people who were really watching. Did Kim Bum's character draw it? Are the neighborhood kids into angels? It's all a mystery.

      (I thought it was weird that the snow scene in the last episode didn't involve anyone making a snow angel, though—but maybe that's not something that translates into Korean?)

      My Sweet Seoul is low-key fun, but the end is kind of a drag. I wouldn't put it at the top of the list ;)

  2. The bottom of my list is so very, very far from the top of my list...and the distance grows daily!

  3. Just watch Padam Padam and now I can't forget about it (sigh). This drama increase my expectation for Korean drama because I'm not a fan of Korean drama. So Padam Padam is exceptional for me. Absolutely amazing especially the lead actor and actress.

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