Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Drama Review: Family's Honor

Family’s Honor: A-
54 episodes. On American television, that’s two-and-half seasons worth of shows. On British television, it’s more like five seasons. On Korean TV? That’s the standard length for a Saturday/Sunday family show.

I was skeptical that I’d ever make it through a Kdrama anywhere near that long. How could a single show find enough plot to keep anyone coming back for that many episodes, especially with no seasonal cycles of introduction/development/payoff? Well, after three weeks of compulsive viewing of Family’s Honor, a 2008 Saturday/Sunday drama, I’m rounding the homestretch at episode 50, and it’s now clear that I should have trusted in the benevolent overlords of Korean drama from the beginning.

Family’s Honor is nothing less than the television equivalent of a good book, a stack of down comforters, and a steaming mug of hot chocolate (with marshmallows) on a freezing January morning—it’s cozy and comfortable and happy-making to the extreme. Although not high art and certainly not without its flaws, it’s exactly the slow-simmering, everyday, breakfast-to-bed kind of story that Korean drama is uniquely equipped to tell.

Arriving fresh from the repetitive, dull, and frustrating Operation Proposal, I was bound to either love or hate this show. And love it I do: With its homey sphere, spritely pacing, and sprawling storylines, the mammoth 54-hour running time of Family’s Honor feels significantly shorter than Operation Proposal’s piddling 16 episodes. Instead of a never-ending treadmill of navel gazing, things actually happen. Instead of capricious and illogical plotting, the script evolves naturally from what’s gone before, making even the most makjang of turns feel organic. Instead of spineless simps who spend decades waffling about whether to confess that they like someone, this drama’s characters are motivated and smart, working toward their goals at a feverish pace.

Family’s Honor is a leisurely trip through the lives and loves of two Korean families: the staid, traditional Has and the brash, new-money Lees. Naturally the two meet in a shower of sparks in both the boardroom and (eventually) the bedroom, giving the show its central narrative and acting as the branching-off point for subplots involving a constellation of secondary characters. From first wives to firstborns, from housekeeping ajummas to presidents of the board, Family’s Honor graces all of its characters with compelling stories, developing them in small, soap-opera-style chunks throughout the show’s run. (Added bonus: if you dislike someone or their plot, you’re not stuck spending too much time with them.)

One of my favorite parts of the show is the conflict between the two families’ lifestyles—to the Ha family, tradition and decorum are everything. They’re willfully old-fashioned and live modestly and largely outside of the modern world, making their home in a traditional Korean house and respecting ancient customs in everything they do. The Lees are social climbers and cold, savvy businesspeople less than one generation away from poverty. They’re prone to all manner of excess—from obsession with television dramas and lengthy go-stop marathons to ostentatious spending on flashy brand-name goods and frantic jockeying for social position.

To the Lees, the Ha family and their customs are just as mysterious as they are to me. This allows the Lees to stand-in for the viewer, asking the “but why?” questions we so desperately want answered. (For example, I’ve probably seen ten traditional wedding ceremonies on various dramas, but this is the first time anyone bothered to explain why ducks are involved. In the other shows, they’re just been part of the backdrop, not part of the story.)

Also wonderful are the various romantic relationships. During the course of the show, no fewer than six couples get together. Whether they’re meant to provide comedic interludes or ramp up the melodramatic hand-wringing, it’s a breath of fresh air that each relationship moves forward rather than hanging in stasis for an interminable number of episodes, ala many of the 16-hour dramas I’ve watched in the past.

The lead couple is no exception: The Romeo-and-Juliet-style love shared by Gang-suk, the Lee family’s only son, and Dan-Na, the Ha family’s only daughter, begins as quippy hatred, moves to toleration, and finally blooms into no-holds-barred Kdrama pursuit and consummation. I will admit that I wanted a little more for them—early on, their explosive skirmishes are downright hot. For a while there I thought this relationship would be built from different stuff, not the standard piggybacks and “don’t cry in front of anyone but me” discussions that make up the accepted canon of Kdrama love scenes. But even when domestication eventually sets in and turns their love ordinary, it’s still one of my favorites—there’s nice chemistry between the actors and I very much appreciated the show’s willingness to follow them step-by-step through the practicalities of love. Like my beloved Coffee Prince, Family’s Honor doesn’t just get its couples together and leave them there. Instead, a good quarter of its episodes explore the territory beyond Happily Ever After and what it means to live there.

Of course, Family's Honor isn’t perfect. Some story lines are dragged out, some acting is subpar, and the final four episodes are shaping up to be a maelstrom of makjang. For my money its slower-paced first half is much stronger than the second, which succumbs to some Kdrama tropes I could have lived without.

Ultimately, though, this show’s strengths are more than enough to overcome its shortcomings. In the universe of Family’s Honor, there are no true “bad guys,” no irredeemable enemies. Instead, this drama builds a world of flawed but loving characters, exploring in an honest way the ties that bind them to the families they were born into and the families they made for themselves.  

(P.S.: In the interest of full disclosure, Park Shin Hoo and his beautiful smile may have inflated this show’s grade. I’ve happily waded through a lot of crap for that crooked, cocky grin. Brief explanatory pic-spam under the cut.)

Park Shi Hoo Photos Stolen from the Internet
Ranked by relative hotness

4. The bottom of my laptop after surfing PSH photos for an hour 

3. August-afternoon blacktop on bare feet

2. The curling iron you forgot to unplug before work

1. The surface of the sun

(That boy gets a lot of milage out of touching that pretty face of his, does’t he?)


  1. Haha. Sounds like this review of yours was quite colored by Opeation Proposal (I also recently finished snoozing my way through that catastrophe).
    I recently queued Family Honor because of the generally high ratings on DF. And then I realized how long it was! Keep in mind, I watch 5-6 dramas at a time with different sets of people (or with just myself depending on the mood I'm in), so let me just get through Can You Hear My Heart, Winter Sonata, Jewel in the Palace, Protect the Boss, Hong Gil Dong (maaaybe), and then I'll try this monster of a show?? Thanks for the motivational pics though :P

    1. I'm totally OCD about dramas--I watch one at a time, from beginning to end. I'm thinking I may need to experiment with watching things as they air for my boyfriend Gong Yoo in Big, though. IWaiting until the whole thing airs before I start watching seems as unlikely as not checking out my parents' lamely obvious gift-hiding spots before Christams morning.

      Oh. And Can You Hear My Heart? ::Makes Korean drama face:: Even if it hadn't benefitted from comparison to the dreck-i-tude to Operation Proposal, I would have liked Family's Honor about a thousand times more than that show. (Even if its bromance is totally awesome.)

  2. Family Honor definitely one of the best 3 korean dramas that i ever watched. It has best story lines, beautiful soundtrack, great acting skills from all actors & actresses and giving the morality value of life.

    For me the best part is Dan Ah and Kang Suk couple. They are the main reason i hook up with this drama, such beautiful and unselfish couple. Yoon jung hee and Park si hoo really have a natural and amazing chemistry.

    I think Family Honor is the best Park si hoo project all time. Sad it was underrated.

  3. i just watched family honor...for the first time i fall inlove to koreandrama...i would strongly recommend this drama...

  4. This drama is what made Park Si Hoo bump off So Ji Sub from my #1 favorite Korean actor pedestal (and believe me I love, love, love So Ji Sub ssi!) I so loved his character Lee Gang Suk in "Family Honor" that I had a hard time moving onto another drama. I am now watching "The Princess' Man" and loving that too. I will be working my way through all of his dramas - oh joy! I love beautiful and talented Park Si Hoo ssi!!!!

  5. I'm watching this drama at the moment, and am finding it very good. But one thing is puzzling me, and perhaps you could answer it.
    Why does the youngest grandson call his grandfather's sister "gran"

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