Monday, June 18, 2012

Big Love: Episodes 1 through 4

These days, the word marathon is more closely related to sitting on the couch than running insane distances (or that city in Greece, even). For me, it usually means devoting a chunk of time to watching a single drama without interruption, as if it were an enormous movie made for viewing from beginning to end in one sitting.

Really, though, that’s not a marathon: it’s a sprint. Rather than being a drawn out over the course of weeks and weeks, your experience of the show is over in the blink of an eye. Knowing you can just hit the play button on the next episode whenever you want unavoidably changes your involvement with the plot and characters: you may be totally immersed in the show for a while, but having easy access to all the answers discourages deep thinking along the way.

I’ve always liked marathon-style viewing of television—waiting until a whole season is available and then devoting all my television time to that one show. But now that I’m watching episodes of Big as they air, I’ve realized I was missing something all this time: curiosity and conjecture and the prolonged tension of having no choice but to wait an entire week to see how things turns out. Big is the perfect show for this, too—it’s exposing its secrets ever so slowly, one tiny but significant revelation at a time. As of episode 4, the characters and overarching plot are still only beginning to come into focus, and each new installment begs to be pored over for hints about what it all might mean.

I’ve only seen a few dramas written by the Hong sisters, Big’s screenwriters, but this show seems pretty significantly different from their recent efforts. A weird fun fact: there’s a fundamental difference between the things described by the words labyrinth and maze. A labyrinth has only one possible path—if you start at the beginning, you will always end up at the end, having inevitably walked the very same way and taken the very same turns. A maze, on the other hand, is full of possible paths; some are dead ends, some are red herrings, and some will take you where you want to go. Greatest Love and My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, the Hong sisters’ last dramas, were labyrinths. From episode 1 you knew exactly where they were going and pretty much how they would get there. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but it is a track record that makes Big’s more open-ended plot feel all the more exciting and surprising. As of episode 4, Big is definitely a maze. Sure, it’s clear that love will be the eventual destination, but it’s not clear how the show will take us there—or who will even be involved. This Christopher-Nolan-lite storytelling, where each new revelation changes everything you thought you understood before, is working absurdly well for me.

Beyond the premise of a young man suddenly finding himself in an adult body, Big doesn’t have much in common with the 1980s movie of the same name. (I do seem to remember that the Tom Hanks version also included a race-car bed, though.) The weird parallel I see here is with The Host, a novel by Stephenie Meyer. It wasn’t much of a book, but The Host had a great marketing hook: “it’s the first love triangle involving two bodies.” In a lot of ways, that’s what Big is shaping up to be: while he’s in Seo Yoon Jae’s grown-up body, eighteen-year-old Kang Kyung Joon is falling in love with Yoon Jae’s fiancée. What this development means for everyone involved—and whether Yoon Jae himself will ever show up at the party—is a complete mystery at this point.

Yoon Jae is one of Big’s many marvels. He’s a huge, complicated jigsaw puzzle just waiting to be put together, but the show is giving him to us one piece at a time with only the vaguest hints about what the finished product might look like. We’ve seen him a number of times—mostly in scenes filtered through the perceptions of other characters—but have yet to develop a sense for who he truly is; all we know for sure about Yoon Jae is that he’s utterly inscrutable. Even during flashbacks to cute couple moments he shared with Da Ran, his expression is unreadable. He might be tentatively happy, he might feel trapped, or he might even be repulsed.

His role in the show’s plot is just as obscure: It’s obvious that Yoon Jae is uptight, emotionally distant, and prone to keeping secrets, but beyond that anything’s possible. Is he a creep who’s leading on one woman while he’s engaged to another? Is he in love with the female lead, but afraid to fully commit to her for some crazy Kdrama reason? Heck, maybe he’s actually the perfect man his fiancée believes him to be.

The flashback to the wedding scene in episode 3 is the biggest argument for Yoon Jae actually liking Gil Da Ran—but even that can’t be entirely trusted. It’s hearsay, after all, told by Yoon Jae’s coworker who witnessed only two of the events included in the flashback. I’ve since rewatched episode 1 and can report that one point of Yoon Jae’s story doesn’t check out: He wasn’t actually in the elevator with Da Ran when she was delivering the flowers. Whether this is an oversight or something meaningful, I can’t say. The other flashback scenes were shot carefully enough so that Yoon Jae really could have been just out of frame, but there’s no hiding big Gong Yoo and his checked jacket in that little elevator.

Where’s Yoon Jae?
 (episode 3) 
Not here...
(episode 1)

With Kyung Joon, on the other hand, what you see is what you get. He’s a cocky, scowling teenage boy who’s never afraid to say what he really thinks. He and Da Ran have an easy, bickering chemistry from the very first time they meet, and I can barely wait to see their mutual attraction evolve into full-blown love. Yoon Jae may be a dreamy unicorn of a man, but it’s impossible to imagine him ever really belonging to anyone but himself. In contrast, belonging to someone is the one thing Kyung Joon hungers for most. One of the most poignant moments in Big’s first episode showed him enviously watching Da Ran and her brother, loving siblings with a close relationship.

When Kyung Joon lost his mother, he lost his strongest tie with someone outside himself. Suddenly relocated to Korea, he’s not making great inroads at rejoining the human race: At his new school, he immediately gets into a fight with his classmates, the people who should be his friends. His aunt and uncle are in Korea, but they don’t live with him or even care about his welfare--his aunt was the one loading frozen pizzas in his freezer in episode 1. She’s not going to be a mother figure for him.

This lack of connection is something Kyung Joon and Yoon Jae share. Both live alone and are isolated from their families in a culture that values shared multi-generational households. And although each is the object of a female character’s passionate love, neither returns that love. (It’s open for discussion in Yoon Jae’s case whether this female character is his colleague, or Da Ran herself.)

Big’s central plot device is another example of their anchorlessness. What greater disconnect can there be than not recognizing the face looking back at you in the mirror? Usually it’s Yoon Jae we see reaching out to someone but failing to actually touch them, first to Da Ran as she’s about to fall down the stairs at the wedding, then to Kyung Joon during the car accident when their bodies are switched. But when he wakes up in the morgue, Kyung Joon also reaches out without making a real connection: only this time, he’s reaching out to his own reflection.

I think it will eventually come out that Yoon Jae and Kyung Joon have one more thing in common: their dad. There have been hints that Kyung Joon’s dad is still alive and somewhere nearby, but Kyung Joon doesn’t seem to know about it. And it may take a child of divorce to notice this sort of thing, but I think it’s safe to say that Yoon Jae’s parents are separated. They’re always discussed individually (per Da Ran, “both his parents live overseas,” not “his parents live overseas”), and while Yoon Jae has pictures of himself with his mom and his dad, he doesn’t have any with his mom and dad. I’m hoping the Miracle picture book will fit into this storyline somehow, maybe having been written by their dad.

The female lead, as is often the way with dramas by the Hong sisters, barely merits discussion. Da Ran is cute and naive and needy and displays only occasional flashes of backbone. It’s easy to see what draws Kyung Joon to her, though. She’s effortlessly nurturing, stepping in almost against her own will to comfort and care for him. From absently handing Kyung Joon his silverware to getting him a school uniform to nursing him when he’s sick, Da Ran has taken on his lost mother’s role. She’s the only person in the world who understands him fully, and it’s increasingly clear that he feels safer in her presence than almost anywhere else. Kyung Joon may not have acknowledged his feelings for Da Ran yet, but he’s stepping in again and again to protect her. Seeing her hurt or taken advantage of upsets him, whether it’s at the hands of the students in her class or her fiancée. And as for Da Ran, she was immediately at ease around Kyung Joon. It’s hard to imagine that this bossy, physically aggressive woman is the same clingy little girl Yoon Jae knows.

For a long time, I was in denial that Kyung Joon and Da Ran would be this show’s OTP. The spark between them is intense (in either body), but for me there’s a slight problem: Kyung Joon in his real body looks like a boy, while Da Ran looks like a woman. Most noona romances involve older characters, so the age difference is a less glaring. The difference between a 25 year old and a 30 year old is mostly their lifestyles, but an 18-year-old highschooler and his teacher-cum-mother? That’s a big theoretical ick, although not necessarily a deal-breaker. The show itself seems to be saying that we can’t discount this relationship—it hasn’t come up in the script yet, but the character charts indicate that there’s also a huge age difference between Da Ran’s parents, who met under similar circumstances. (Without the body swap, I presume.)

And it’s not too late for Yoon Jae to come back and sweep Da Ran off her feet, either. He hasn’t had a chance to speak for himself yet—who knows what he’ll say when he does? I’m betting that he really does love Da Ran, and I can think of a few ways to forgive that packed bag and ticket to LA. Maybe Yoon Jae’s mom lives there, and he intended to visit in hopes of convincing her to accept Da Ran as his wife. (His mom saying they’ll talk about the wedding when they meet in person sounded pretty foreboding.) Maybe Yoon Jae realized he had a half-brother in LA and wanted to meet him. There’s nothing to put the fear of commitment in you like your parents’ foibles and failed relationships, so that could be why he’s so aloof around Da Ran. My money is on the second half of the drama revolving around Yoon Jae waking up in Kyung Joon’s body and realizing he needs to fight for Da Ran. (And, with the way things are going, my eventual death from sheer delight.)

In the early episodes of the show, we’re shown reflections again and again: during the accident, at the morgue, in the bus stop billboard. In my dream world this would be setting the stage for Da Ran’s realization that the Yoon Jae she loves is one dimensional—she’s in love with the idea of Yoon Jae and what he is, not who he is. The body swapping would be her wake-up call, a reminder that what’s on the surface isn’t always what’s true.

So far, I couldn’t love Big more. Its quality may have suffered a bit since its beautifully composed first episode,  but this is a surprisingly touching, funny, and romantic drama that’s just right for compulsive theorizing. I’m already insanely invested in Big’s plot and characters. Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess, but I can’t wait to find out.

(P.S.: Another difference between watching a show as it airs and waiting for it to be completed? Everyone who has a kdrama blog is writing about the very same things at the very same time, and I’m squirmy-uncomfortable about being part of the crowd on this one. My experience of fannish writing is mostly limited to pop music, which was different: even if forty people wrote about the same concert, they were really writing about forty totally different experiences. With television, we’re given a prepackaged experience that can only be milked for so much insight. I’m avoiding other people’s commentary about Big, but what’s the point? I’m sure untold numbers have already written about the very same things I just wrote about. ::sigh::)


  1. This was super well written!! Loved the analogy with the labyrinth and the maze, and it is very true. I am more on team Yoon Jae, even though I really like Kyung Joon's character, I think just because he is the wild card of the show and it would also be a refreshing change from other dramas if it turned out she ended up with the second male lead. It just doesn't happen very often. Plus I love Jang Ma Ri and I think it would be really cute if her and Kyung Joon ended up together. They are similar. Both of them are on about the same maturity level and both have a lot of fight and fire in them. They are both also very smart and sarcastic, plus they have the American thing in common. He also does show some caring and affection towards her, even if at this point it is only friendship (you will see it more when you watch episode 5) I don't know, so far I feel that despite Kyung Joon's obvious feelings for Da Ran, she will ultimitely end up being a mother figure towards him (especially since I agree that I think he is Yoon Jae's brother). and that though she does seem to feel more comfortable with him at the moment, maybe his purpose is to help her to open up and realize that Yoon Jae is not so much better than her as she thinks, but that they are equals in love. I could be overreaching and just projecting my own feelings into my perception(it is hard to be objective). Especially since there are twists and turns each episode that make you question what you though before. However, no matter how it turns out, so far this drama is the best I have seen in a long time and it is definitely different from other dramas I have seen, and I have seen a lot of dramas!! It is not predictable, at least on of the female second leads is not totally evil (I would consider Jang Ma Ri to be a female second lead as well as b*tch doctor lady), and there it is not yet a hopeless situation for the male second lead. What a refreshing addition to kdrama land!! :)

    1. I couldn't agree more about Big being a fabulous addition to the Kdrama canon—it's shaping up to be the drama of the year for me. (I feel like I'm defective because I like it so much more than Queen In-hyun's Man.) There's just something about the story and the characters that works for me in a really fundamental, cracktacular way. I'm pretty sure that I'm completely unobjective, though: My passionate love for Gong Yoo isn't something I can turn off an on ;)

      I could see myself joining team Yoon Jae, too, when he finally shows up. Kyung Joon is just so young...the only way they could pull off Da Ran ending up with him is a major time jump, with them reconnecting when he's in his early twenties.

      I also love Ma Ri. When she stepped off that airplane to the theme from Terminator 2, my heart was hers forever.

      I can't wait for episode 5 to be added on Dramafever! ::dies of impatience::

  2. Oh, thanks for the ep. 3 versus ep. 1 elevator scene recap. I was mildly curious about that.. Could it really be a slip though? Somehow, I doubt they shot that on accident.

    Question for you (Since you're blogging on the same thing everyone else is - not that I have any probelm with that whatsover): most commentators I've been noticing complain most about the lack of common character traits between Kyung Joon and and KJ in Gong Yoo's body. Specificially, that Gong Yoo is acting more "childish" that KJ did before the body swap. The commentary is that Gong Yoo is overacting, and not truly capturing the essence of KJ. Now maybe it's my love of Gong Yoo, but here's my theory: Gong Yoo didn't get his part wrong. Shin Won Ho just didn't act as good as Gong Yoo during his so-far short-lived run in Ep. 1. ???

    1. I'm someone who's all or nothing—when I love something, I can barely see its flaws (e.g., Big), and when I hate something, I can't see anything good about it at all (e.g., Secret Garden). Which is why I haven't touched the Kyung Joon conundrum with a ten-foot pole ;)

      There's definitely a huge disconnect between pre- and post-body swap versions of the character. As played by the original actor, he was a typical teenage boy: obsessed with being cool and in control. As played by Gong Yoo, he's more like a twelve year old. Everything he does is showy and over-the-top, and he usually fails to retain even the tiniest smidgeon of cool. (The alcohol scenes in particular were just foolish. I don't know how they do things in Korea, but this is a kid who's spent most of his growing-up years in LA. He would have had easy access to things a lot more powerful than a glass of beer.)

      In spite of this weird gap between Kyung Joons, I still love both versions of the character. I imagine that the Kyung Joon we originally saw was on his best behavior because he was uncomfortable and nervous starting a new school in a new country. When the you-know-what hits the fan—which most certainly happened between Kyung Joon incarnations—people tend to drop their masks and act how they really feel, which might explain his surge of childishness. Also, the more comfortable he gets around Da Ran, the more he's put off his guard. They've bonded, so with her he feels comfortable really being himself. (As an added bonus, he gets to torture her with immature behavior.)

      I suspect that we've seen the last of Gong Yoo's goofy side in this show (::sniffles::), but I still wish there was some way the plot could account for the discrepancies between his Kyung Joon and the one created by the original actor. I don't know that either of them are doing a bad job, but maybe the original Kyung Joon really should have played up his youth a bit more in the first episode. If Gong Yoo played the character the same way, cool-as-a-cucumber Kyung Joon would be indistinguishable from distant-and-chilly Yoon Jae. Also, we didn't really see Kyung Joon much before the switch. Really, we don't know much more about him as himself than we do about Yoon Jae: All these crazy circumstances haven't allowed time for their genuine personalities to shine through.

      As for me, I love the drama too much to care ;)

  3. I feel the same way, that if Gong Yoo did not play up his youthfulness, that his character would have been not much different than Yoon Jae's and the show would be much more boring. I would also like to point out that Kyung Joon has made it very clear that he does not care about Yoon Jae's body, and so therefore is free to lose the cool facade and be messy and crazy because he is not ruining his own reputation, but Yoon Jae's, who he probably cares even less about since he has feelings for Da Ran. Plus I also just think that the actor who played young Kyung Joon is a newbie and does not know how to spice things up like Gong Yoo does. But as Amanda is, I am totally biased towards Gong Yoo and cannot get enough of his acting. I love his facial expressions, they are the best part about him as Kyung Joon.

    1. Kyung Joon being liberated by being in somebody else's body is a good point.

      Also a good point? That Gong Yoo is incredibly wonderful in this role, even if he's being a bit more hammy than necessary. My love for him as Han Gyul is Coffee Prince quite literally knows no bounds, but he was sort of the weak link in that show, acting wise. He may have gotten by on the devilish twinkle in his eyes back then, but nowadays he has actual acting chops to back it up.

  4. Well to me, not too many people can act like Yoon Eun Hye, so being put opposite her is no easy task. However, one thing he really had going for him in Coffee Prince was his adoring look. He did a great job at looking like the most adoring boyfriend on the face of the earth lol. It was so cute!! I don't know, I really loved everything about Coffee Prince, and it was my first kdrama so I can't really bring myself to say anything negative about it or Gong Yoo lol. But I am definitely loving him in Big, he is hilarious!!

    1. Yoon Eun Hye really was spectacular in Coffee Prince, wasn't she? That wasn't my first drama, but it is my all-time favorite television show. Gong Yoo's look of love was a key component in it being good--just like Big.

    2. (Should have known this would digress into a CoffeePrince<333 discussion)!

      My two bits on that though: I was unsure of how much I would like Gong Yoo upon first starting up Coffee Prince - all it took was his adoring/charmers smile that even works on his his mom and grandma, and I was in love. It is a little bit hard now to picture what I presume to be Gong Yoo's natural charm as an actor when he's playing such a role - but really, we don't need our brains here, right? It's him and he's still wonderful to observe.. I even my memories of Han Gyul diluted a bit by Biscuit Teacher, but that show did nothing to remove my love of GY, and at this point, not even Big will change that either.

    3. I can remember literally thinking "Oh, I probably won't like this drama much...the male lead isn't particularly hot" the first time Gong Yoo appeared in Coffee Prince. (Why yes, I am that shallow!) But his charisma and grandma-wooing skills won me over almost immediately. Now it's impossible to say if I can't tear my eyes away from him whenever he's on screen because (1) he's a good actor or (2) he's Choi Han Gyul.

      You know what would cause my brain to explode (and possibly a tear to appear in the space-time continuum)? If Yoon Eun Hye did a guest spot in Big. She was totally in Personal Preference for 2 seconds, so why not here?

  5. That's so funny, I thought the same thing!! I was like "this guys is kind of weird looking" when I first saw him, but then after watching him interact with Eun Chan and his grandmother I thought he was the hottest thing to ever walk the planet. How does that happen?? The man has a gift!! Lol. I think he could be the ugliest person on the planet and charm his way into women's hearts. Well they are always talking about charisma on kdramas, and he has certainly got it :P That would be awesome if Yoon Eun Hye made an appearance. When I saw her on Personal Taste I was freaking out lol, even if it was for only like 2 seconds. I am dying for her to come out with a new drama. It's been too long since Lie to Me. But I think she chooses her dramas pretty carefully, so maybe she is just waiting for the right one to come along.

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