Thursday, November 21, 2013

Drama Review: Flowers for My Life (2007)

Grade: A-

Black romantic comedy with hints of melodrama

What it’s about
Having grown up in a funeral home, Ha Na is immune to the range of human emotion. Money is the only thing she really loves, so she comes up with a scheme: She’ll find a terminally ill guy who also happens to be fabulously rich, marry him, and then inherit his fortune after he goes to the great beyond. But nothing goes according to plan from the start, and things only get worse when she meets Dae Bak, a man with ulterior motives of his own. Pennyless and on the run from gangsters, he’s taken on the identity of a wealthy dead man. When she discovers that Dae Bak has been diagnosed with incurable cancer, a deceived Ha Na adopts him as her lucky stiff. The problems? She doesn’t know that he’s even poorer than she is. And he doesn’t know that he has cancer.

First impression
A long string of romantic comedies has left me longing for something grittier. And what’s more gritty than a drama about a girl whose first love is money, followed closely thereafter by dead people? (And unlike today’s spate of supernatural dramas, they’re real dead people—the kind that mostly just lay there.) I’ve had my eye on this show for some time, thanks to a positive review on the Dramabeans rating page. Their recommendations have never let me down before, and based on the quirky, realistic vibe of this drama’s premiere, they’re not going to start now.

Final verdict
Part workplace comedy, part romance, and part tear-jerking melodrama, this show is a strange delight. It’s also one of the few examples of a drama that actually improved during its running time, growing from a silly farce to a thoughtful consideration of death, dying, and the people left behind.
Featuring love triangles, epic miscommunications, and birth secrets, the plot sounds standard issue. But thanks to its unfailingly quirky presentation, most everything about Flowers for My Life feels fresh and new: Its setting in a small-town funeral home helps, as does its relaxed, slice-of-life approach to storytelling. Thankfully, the show’s bracingly casual tone saves it from turning into misty cancer porn like Autumn in My Heart. Even in the face of tragedy, it never looses its light heart and matter-of-fact certainty that dying is just another part of living.

Also wonderful are its indelible cast of characters—from parents who punish their daughter with time out in a coffin to a work-averse slacker who becomes the best, most respectful mortician you could ever hope to find. Its female lead, in particular, is a revelation. She’s no girlie Kdrama heroine tottering around on high heels and wailing “Oetteke” at every turn. Instead, she starts off as cold and calculating, an alien dispassionately observing the world around her. Nothing fazes Ha Na: as a teenager, she earned pocket money by hunting down dead bodies, and as a woman she stored her lunch-break kimchi in a refrigerator intended for a morgue’s recently deceased. As the show progresses, Ha Na blooms, forming ties to the people around her and realizing that she, too, is capable of love.

Genuine, heartfelt, and featuring nary a product placement, Flowers for My Life is a remnant of that intriguing era before Kdrama got glossy and turned into big business. It’s eccentric and charmingly personal in a way that’s almost unheard of today.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. My relationship with this drama went from Like to Love when I realized that the female lead’s obsession with death was being showcased by her stack of tragic dramas on VHS—including the unremittingly depressing I’m Sorry, I Love You. She even quoted a particularly horrifying scene word for word. That’s my kind of girl.

Episode 1. Although this show deals with dark themes, it’s every bit a Korean comedy. There are madcap chase scenes featuring nonthreatening gangsters, visual gags about constipation, and a ridiculous lack of communication that sends the plot spiraling off in unexpected directions. It’s just that it also includes random men being crushed to death, cancer diagnoses, and a cold-blooded heroine who couldn’t care less about them.

Episode 2. And with the arrival of the second male lead, so to comes a crippling case of second lead syndrome. Kim Ji Hoon looking all young and handsome will do that to a girl.

Episode 3. I like 70s easy-listening from America as much as the next girl, but I don’t get why it makes up this show’s soundtrack. Even weirder, the score seems to be klezmer.

Episode 3. This drama’s female lead is an odd duck. She’s like a cross between Jane Eyre and the character Suzy played in Dream High. There’s nothing cute or affected about her—she just is what she is in all her robotic candidness. And why is it that no Kdrama girls these days wear clothes like regular people? No matter what their role, they all seem to be in fussy, fashion-forward clothes that I can’t imagine seeing in the real world. In this show it’s all jeans and t-shirts. (And suspenders, inexplicably.)

Episode 3. You hardly ever see a Kdrama female lead in active pursuit of a guy, but this one sure is. She isn’t much like other girls in any way, really. She investigates wrist grabs, wears boyish clothes, and searches for a mate based solely on fiscal concerns with no interest in romance. Well played, Ha Na.

Episode 4. So this drama is moving along as a rom-com should—the lead couple is growing closer, love triangles are being established, people are interrupting romantic paddle-boat dates by falling in rivers and drowning. But all this while, somebody who has cancer isn’t getting treated, thanks to a standard-issue melo miscommunication. I know you need to get your love story going, but how about showing a little mercy?

Episode 4. I don’t get why fiction is riddled with people who bemoan not being able to cry, like this show’s female lead. Take it from me—crying easily isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I can cry at anything, or nothing, in the drop of a hat. (Hey, maybe I should have been an actress! I’ve got the sobbing skills required on Korean television, if nothing else.)

Episode 6. Here’s another new Korean word to add to my (pathetically small) vocabulary: daebak, or jackpot. As in, “Gong Yoo just asked for my phone number. Daebak!” I knew this word was used for “great,” but I didn’t realize how multi-purpose it could be.

Episode 6. Only in a Korean drama would a bungee jumping scene immediately follow a young woman suggestively saying to a young man, “Let’s do something you’ve always wanted to do today. Anything at all.“ On American TV, I can’t imagine an offer like that resulting in anything even remotely family friendly.

Episode 7. If I walked into a room and found my husband canoodling with some strange woman, you know what I wouldn’t do? Freak out at her. Someone’s at fault in this scenario, but it’s not her.

Episode 8. 2007 was a good year for diverse types of female leads in Korean dramas. There were girlie-girls like Dal Ja from Dal Ja’s Spring, total tomboys like Eun Chan from Coffee Prince, and average girls like this show’s Ha Na. Nowadays it always seems that female leads are insanely polished, a la the women in Cruel City, or fashion victims played for comedy value, like Yoon Eun Hye in Mirae’s Choice.

Episode 10. So not to be cold or callous or anything, but I’m intrigued by the possibility of Ha Na having a happy ending with both male leads, even if that means one of them dies. The script set up the possibility episodes ago, back during the discussion of the three-person burial.

Episode 10. I guess I understand that the female lead’s suspenders are a purely fashion-based accessory. She not only wears them with an untucked shirt: in one instance they’re actually fastened to an oversized t-shirt rather than her pants.Vestigial suspenders—2007’s weirdest fashion statement?

Episode 10. I imagine all the groaning and heavy breathing at the end of this episode was meant to sound like someone falling sick. They should have done some more rehearsing, though, because it mostly sounded like something deeply NSFW was going on.

Episode 13. I’m not sure whose priorities are out of whack, but I never understand why near-death Kdrama virgins who are madly in love don’t just get on with it. I don’t care if he’s practically your brother, Autumn in My Heart girl. He’s smoking hot, you love him more than I love Korean drama, and the clock is ticking. Like Nike says: just do it!

Episode 16. I just realized that this show features two actors who would go on to have big roles in tvN’s Flower Boy series: Kim Ji Hoon from Flower Boy Next Door and Lee Jong Hyuk from Cyrano: Dating Agency. I love spying stars in their earlier roles—these two even seem to have avoided the plastic surgery fairy in the intervening years, which is no small feat for a Korean actor.

Episode 16. I cried more during this episode than the show’s characters did. That seems unfair somehow.

You might also like
Scent of a Woman, for its clear-eyed exploration of a terminal diagnosis

Dream High, which features Hye Mi, one of Kdrama’s most appealingly chilly protagonists


  1. Ooohh, thank you for the review! I've always passed over this one with regrets because I LOVE Cha Tae-Hyun. I think he's a brilliant actor and have barrelled through so many of his films (still not finished them all) that I haven't even made a dent in his dramas. How did he ever get married and have kids working so much? anyway, the description on Dramafever is pretty bad so I've put it off till later. I need to learn from you and others to read more reviews before I just skip a show. BTW, so happy that he's staying on with 1N2D for another season! He's just so lovable. :) I think he sounds like a little old lady when he laughs!

  2. Huh. Well this sounds different. *queues it*

  3. Oooh! This looks really great!!! I think I shall add this to my list of dramas to watch!

  4. i watch this a long time ago and stop at episode 6 ... cos i dont understand what is going on .. its kinda boring for me and i dun understand why you rated this A

  5. I just started watching from re-reading a review at DB too. Love the first episode! Made me laugh out loud at all the dark comedy scenes. I'm looking forward for 15 more episodes! Thanks for your review.

  6. Where do you watch Flowers For My Life? I don't see if available on Dramafever or Viki. Thanks!

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  9. Episode 1 notes: Are you sure the stack of VCR tapes is about her obsession with death? I think they were really about her trying to learn how to cry, so she could pull off her scam better.