Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Drama Review: Spring Waltz (2006)


Grade: A+

As the Korean entertainment press is always eager to mention, people tend to have their own ideal type when it comes to prospective romantic partners. For me, this ideal tends to involve dreamy, shaggy-haired boys glistening with exertion behind a piano. It’s fitting, then, that my ideal Endless Love drama focuses on a tragic pianist who as a young boy gives up his whole identity to save the girl he loves.

Now that I’ve watched all four the dramas in this series—Autumn in My Heart (2000), Winter Sonata (2002), Summer Scent (2003), and Spring Waltz (2006)—I have a whole new appreciation for how Goldilocks must have felt in the traditional story. I may have tried them all, but until Spring Waltz none of them was quite right. Autumn in My Heart started off well, but veered into tragedy porn with a self-consciously miserable ending. Winter Sonata was a lot of fun, but was ultimately overstuffed makjang. (Just how many car accidents resulting in amnesia can any one drama hope to get away with?) And Summer Scent, no doubt attempting to follow the slow rhythms of summertime, was only slightly less boring than watching grass grow. (In fact, a huge portion of its running time was devoted to this very activity.)

Spring Waltz, on the other hand, is a sublime and swoony fairytale. It’s cotton-candy luscious and lovely and earnest, but also has just the right amount of gritty edge to keep it from being like drowning in an ocean of treacle. It encapsulates almost everything I love about Korean drama: it’s unapologetically sentimental, intensely romantic, and full of fated love. This kind of starry-eyed storytelling has all but vanished in the West, but I’m utterly susceptible to its charms, however uncool they may be.



If I were to use Dramabeans’ elegant two-part rating system, Spring Waltz’s score would look pretty wacky: objectively, I’ve got to admit that its quality is about 4 out of 10. But on my own personal scale of crack viewing, it comes in at an easy 11 out of 10. As far as I’m concerned, this show is what the Endless Love dramas could have been all along, if not for the soap opera–style melodrama that bogged down the former installments. The youngest, freshest, and liveliest of the series, Spring Waltz is a gorgeous, gleaming daydream of a drama.

In every way, Spring Waltz is better than what came before it, more steady and heartfelt and finely crafted. At last, the sets are beautiful enough to match the scenery; at last, the characters react in relatively sensible ways to the makjang world they find themselves in; and at last the ending won’t make you want to die, whether from disappointment or rage. (Amazingly, Spring Waltz even includes some kissing best described as hungry, an adjective I never thought would apply to anything in this well-mannered series.)

And while Spring Waltz’s pacing may be slow compared to today’s dramas, it’s not painfully so—as was the case with so many earlier Endless Love installments. Instead, it is set at the speed of real life, with just the right mixture of contemplative, silent scenes and narrative movement. The story feels measured and carefully rationed to fill the time available; it’s twenty episodes worth of plot fit into twenty episodes of drama. (This is in marked contrast with Summer Scent, which felt like three episodes of plot fluffed out to fill twenty episodes of drama. When watching it, I actually skipped from episode 7 to episode 20—and I’m pretty sure I missed nothing but pointless back and forth.)

I can see why Spring Waltz wouldn’t work for everyone, especially because its final five episodes fall victim to the awfulness characteristic of the Endless Love dramas—frustrating miscommunication, idiotic levels of secret keeping, and stupid decisions made for unbelievable reasons. But for me this show is about as close to perfect as possible: I always lean toward melodramas that make the mundane seem magical, and that’s just what Spring Waltz does. Its open-hearted tale of love and redemption takes place in a charmingly askew world filled with storybook castles and fields of sunshine-yellow flowers, peopled by gentlemen who gracefully accept second place and only slightly evil witches who eventually come around to the good side.


Like the other Endless Love dramas, Spring Waltz is breathtakingly well-shot and uses nature as a counterpoint to its actors and the manmade world around them: it’s a travelogue of beautiful places and lovely things (however narratively inert they may be). But unlike Summer Scent’s never-ending close-ups of flowers, Spring Waltz uses its stunning backdrops to enhance the action. Even better, someone finally realized that people are fair game: this show isn’t afraid to turn its gaze to its male leads. Their bodies are treated as natural marvels, just like the rainbows and sunsets that set Spring Waltz’s signature look. From muscular shoulders to miraculous cheekbones and sculpted hands, both Jae Ha and Philip are celebrated as objects of desire.

And speaking of objects of desire, I find it kind of funny that Daniel Henney was hired as Spring Waltz’s second lead. The rest of the actors are fine, but Henney really is the human embodiment of all the successes and failures of the Endless Love series. He’s beautiful and well-meaning and so likeable I’d give him a kidney if he asked for one, but his acting is on par with performances I’ve seen on middle school stages. (In fact, it might actually be worse.) Usually I’m immune to bad acting in Kdramas—I can’t understand the language, after all, and the performances are often intentionally stylized compared with what I’m used to seeing on American television. But when Daniel Henney is on screen, in all his drop-dead-gorgeousness, I actually do have the knowledge necessary to access his skills. And they make me cringe, unfortunately. He tries so very hard and I love him so very much, but hasn’t he earned enough as a model to pay for acting classes yet? (It must be said, though, that when it comes to his performance in Spring Waltz, part of the problem must be with its director and scipt. Henney wasn’t this bad in My Lovely Sam Soon: he may be called upon to do more heavy lifting here, but his performance is even more awkwardly lightweight than it was then.)


Seo Do Young as Jae Ha. Yowza.

Daniel Henney as Philip. Double yowza.

Of course, no discussion of the Endless Love dramas—Spring Waltz included—is complete without acknowledging the elephant in the room. However appealing it may be, this series is clumsily amateur in its production. The editing is occasionally bizarre, the costumes and sets are often off-the-rack and cold, and each and every one of its installments allows hanging microphones to intrude into a number of scenes. And let’s not forget that the scripts are full of holes and demand more suspension of disbelief than twenty Hollywood superhero movies.

But even if the Endless Love series doesn’t compare all that well to today’s more polished and professional dramas, it’s still a landmark in the history of Korean television. It was groundbreaking in its international appeal, and even now is seen as one of the foundations of Korea’s reputation as an entertainment powerhouse. (This, I suspect, is why the Endless Love shows are the only older dramas always available streaming on Netflix.) The series also has its own idiosyncratic pleasures: you can rely on these dramas to treat their characters as multi-faceted human beings, not cardboard cut-out plot robots. They all star women who are competent and talented, if prone to making foolish decisions for their men. And each spotlights a tender, bittersweet love story capable of leaving viewers teary-eyed and aching, even all these years after they originally aired.

Flaws and all, I found Spring Waltz to be a disarming delight that was far greater than the sum of its parts.

As a resident of northern New England, the weather in my state is often described as ten months of winter and two months of bad sledding. So I know what spring really is—a reward for having survived the times of seemingly endless darkness. And that’s exactly what Spring Waltz feels like, from its storybook beginning to its deliriously happy ending.

Read the brief review here.

Watch it on DramaFever.

20 comments:

  1. Well, Amanda - you place me in a bind.. because you see, now I reallllllly want to watch this... but I promised myself months ago to watch all the Endless Love drams in order, and I just can't stomach the idea of trying to deal with Summer Scent anytime soon. What to do!? (Favorite translation of "Oh-to-kay?!?!?! Oh-to-kay?!?" *Insert whiny Korean girl voice here*)

    I think that was just a pointless exercise of me trying to say: I'll probably start Spring Waltz sometime this week. :)

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    1. I know you're also a fan of things with a darker, melodramatic bite, so you might really love Spring Waltz. Then again, you might hate it—it was definitely tailored for the Boys over Flowers pleasure center of the brain.

      I think Summer Scent was a case of the production team suddenly having tons of money after Winter Sonata was such a big hit, and then blowing it all on fancy cameras and locations instead of focusing on getting a script together. Maybe you could do an abbreviated viewing—the first three episodes and the last one are probably all anyone really needs to see. And then you could still say you watched them all in order ;)

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    2. Hehe. I do admit that when a drama's well done, it can definitely be worth the kind of melodrama that makes me cry for about 5 hours non-stop. That was me during the first 5 episodes of Autumn in My Heart. Unfortunately, by episode 6 I ran out of tears so by the end I had nothing left and just wished it would end already. Strangely enough, I liked Winter Sonata more, but I never shed a tear - maybe it was because Choi Ji Woo did all the sad/miserable faces for me..

      Per yor comment below, it definitely takes a sadist to get through these - I might take your suggestion on Summer Scent, just to say I tried. The funny thing is though, I really like crying through some dramas - I always want to find something else that is completely cry-worthy. I know I'm weird. I just really get in the mood for a cry fest somedays, only it's so hard to find something that good and that deep emotionally! I haven't cried so much since Autumn in My Heart, and when I finished the second season of Doctor Who. I want to be that sad again!! (I'll take all suggestions - but apparently not every 'tearjerker' show is that awesome. :(

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    3. I felt the same way about Autumn in My Heart...partially, I think, because for once the child actors were genuinely good. That drama's setup was sad in an interesting way, too, while the finale was just like any other disease-of-the-week ending. Also, the fact that the couple had this totally sexless love (for lack of a better phrase) really turned me off. It was supposed to be sweet and courtly, but it just felt cold and disingenuous, so I had kind of checked out of their relationship by the time the tragic ending got really tragic. (How could the female lead's first conclusion after visiting the doctor not be "Well, I better shag that oppa of mine rotten while I can"?)

      I also liked Winter Sonata better, but thought it was less emotionally powerful. It was so plotty that you were whisked right through all the sadness.

      I love a good tear-jerker now and then, too. The Kdrama that made me cry the most was probably Who Are You?. Even though it was mostly played for laughs, the whole dead dad thing was too much for me.

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  2. I don't think I can sit through the other Endless Love dramas. I know myself, and I am enjoying Spring Waltz, but it is right at the threshold of the amount of overly serious melodrama I can handle, so if the other ones are worse I won't be able to tolerate them. But I am glad I am at least watching this one, I should probably finish within the next two days or so. I have been unusually busy and haven't finished as fast as I normally might (I have also been watching 3 dramas at once because 2 are currently airing.

    I agree with you that Eun Young is actually a capable and competent and not annoyingly ditzy and spineless female lead. Jae Ha is also a really interesting lead. I nicknamed him Dracula because he is all brrody and mysterious and he is always playing the piano in a minor key in a dark room, and in some scenes the room has even been lit with candles. It makes me giggle every time I see it lol. But despite his broodiness he also has a ridiculously infectious smile, so his softer side is very enjoyable too. So for me both of the leads are interesting. That is part of what makes the show enjoyable for me despite the fact that it is a little more serious than what I normally watch. After reading your comment about the last 5 episodes I am bracing myself, because that's about where I'm at right now. I'm on 14 I think. I may end up having to skip a little if it gets too bad, but so far the back and forth drama hasn't been too awful so I am holding my breath.

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    1. LOL. The whole of Spring Waltz is giggle-worthy, really. And yet, I loved every minute.

      Compared to the rest of the Endless Love dramas, this is a walk in the romantic-comedy park ;) The others are insanely over the top and full of awfulness of all kinds. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy them...but it definitely takes a special kind of sadist to sit through them. Here's all you need to know about this series, in a nutshell: babies were switched at the hospital, there were three different cases of amnesia, like ten car accidents, two attempted rapes, multiple sets of (sort-of) siblings falling in love, evil parents, suicidal ex-girlfriends, and one female lead who just happens to have been implanted with the dead girlfriend's heart (and then pretends to be dead).

      Good luck with the last five episodes—you'll recognize a lot of the plot twists if you make it through, because they've been used to death ever since. If you can't take it, just skip to the last episode, which at least has a lovely ending :)

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    2. Oh...and did you hear Gentleman's Dignity got pre-empted by the Olympics? The finale is put off for two weeks, I think. (Eeek! I'm looking forward to watching this, but am glad I didn't start, now.)

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  3. I just laughed SOO hard when I read your nutshell summary of the other endless love dramas. Yeah I think that definitely makes up my mind for sure, I know I cannot sit through that lol.

    I had read that AGD may be postponed, but then I never found anything definite after that so I wasn't sure. I'll search again and see if I find anything. It will suck if that is the case for sure, but alas I will survive by watching other dramas in the meantime ha ha. They better not screw up the ending or I will be heartbroken!! But they haven't disappointed me yet, so I think it will be okay. Stinks that I will probably have to wait 2 weeks to find out... One thing I know you will appreciate when you watch it because I've heard you mention it before, is there are a ton of kpop-culture jokes and cameos that a few months ago I wouldn't have picked up on, but now am familiar enough with all of it that I can understand and appreciate them. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing lol.

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    1. Getting the Kpop in-jokes is an awesome thing! (If you're comfortable with drama addiction, anyway.) The other day the perfect example of how far I've come occurred to me: Shining Inheritance was the third or fourth drama I watched, and when the lead and her brother went to stay at the sauna my interpretation was that it was a Korean homeless shelter where they forced people to wear uniforms ;) How uninformed I was back in the old days...

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    2. LOL...a homeless shelter where you have to wear uniforms! I nearly spit my drink all over my monitor. :)Getting the in-jokes is great, though there are many that go over my head.

      I just hope one of these days I can figure out why people get mad in certain situations and not in others (when I think they should). Watching White Tower right now and was again scratching my head at someone's anger that seemed uncalled for and other people's failure to be angry when the situation warranted it. How do they sort out who gets to be the asshole and who gets to be the doormat?

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    3. LOL...asshole/doormat status seems to be decided based on age/gender/rank, I think. Which is why characters like Sam Soon from My Lovely Sam Soon are so great. She's an equal opportunity asshole, as I myself aspire to be ;)

      I still don't get why the uniforms are necessary at the saunas. What's wrong with people sweating in their own shorts and t-shirts?

      This sort of stuff is half the reason why I love Kdrama so much...down to the most basic things, it's a whole new world to discover.

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    4. That's one reaseon I love it too. There are just some things I'll never be able to understand. Things like the kdrama overlords' apparent love for the movie Love Story and the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Both of the have been mentioned or featured in numerous dramas and I have to say that I'm disappointed in the overlords' taste. If I hear that song or that stupid line from Love Story (you know the one) one more time, I might hurl. They are also enamoured with the movie Leon (or The Professional), but I find that one acceptable.

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    5. It's funny to see American culture filtered into Kdramas—in its homeland, Love Story was completely forgotten about 2 years after the movie left theaters. And yet it still seems to come up all the time in dramas, as do random musical references like the X-files and Terminator theme songs.

      One of my movie geek friends was discussing Leon the other day, and literally the only reason I'd heard of it was because it came up in Who Are You =X I didn't admit this, so he now thinks I'm smart and well-informed instead of freakishly obsessed with Asian television. Go me.

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  4. Ha ha ha!! I thought it was weird when I first saw a sauna scene too. I am loud and proud about my kdrama addiction, whether I should be or not, it's who I am lol.

    OMG!! The ending of Big was awful, it was happy, but it was slow and left a million things unanswered and I have another huge gripe, but I don't want to spoil it if you haven't watched it yet so I will wait to complain further until I know you guys have seen it.

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    1. I'm going to hold off watching Big until this weekend, I think. It's such a pity that it imploded--they had great materials but just lost their way by around episode 7. If only the Hong sisters had let us critique the script, this never would have happened ;)

      I'm glad you liked the end of Spring Waltz. It could not possibly be more different than all the other Endless Love endings, which are like a catalogue of awful things. Hooray for wedded bliss, Kdrama style!

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    2. I'm kinda glad I never even started watching Big. The Hong sisters have let me down too many times for me to get really excited by one of their projects, though I did love Best Love. I know a lot of people didn't like the Dokko Jin character, but I loved him. He wasn't nearly as wacky as people talk about. Compared to many characters in kdramas he seemed almost normal to me. But maybe that's just me.

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    3. I loved Gumiho just because I loved Gu Mi Ho's character so much and I love Lee Seung Gi in all his adorable nerdiness, but every other Hong sisters drama has been terribly disappointing for me, and Big was the worst disappointment of them all. I am swearing them off for good now.

      Amanda, I looked at your top 10 and decided to start watching Que Sera, Sera while I am waiting (for a painful 2 weeks) for the last 2 episodes of A Gentleman's Dignity to air. I only watched the first episode yesterday, but I like it so far. I didn't realize Jung Yoo Mi was in it. I've seen her in The Crucible and Rooftop Prince and she was great in both of those!

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    4. None of the Hong sisters' dramas have really rocked my wold—I liked You're Beautiful and Greatest Love a lot, and enjoyed Gumiho. But I still expected better from them when it came to Big. How could they have wasted what really might have been a great story and what was definitely a great cast? I still haven't watched the last two episodes, and am not looking forward to them :b

      I'll be interested to hear what you think of Que Sera Sera, Julie. It's not at all the standard Kdrama romance, but there's something really compelling about it. And that Eric grew on me a lot...

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    5. OMG!! Okay so Que Sera, Sera is definitely my kind of crack. I am on episode 6 and am officially obsessed with it!! It is so freaking good!!

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  5. I just watched the last episode of Spring Waltz!! You were right, it had such a wonderfully happy ending!! So sweet and adorable :)

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