Okay, okay, last name switch, I swear. I wouldn’t normally bother to change the translation for a series title as widely known as “Robbers” if I didn’t feel the term(s) misrepresented the actual title. It’s nobody’s fault, of course, since you can’t always be sure what a title refers to until the series airs, and by then people have become used to the working title. But “Robbers” is misleading (who else conjured up images of a rollicking Bonnie & Clyde-esque duo?) in that it’s plural, and the title only refers to Jang Hyuk, who plays a scoundrel and con man. (Of course, you’re all welcome to keep using the title you’re used to.)
I make the disclaimer up front that this is not a full episode recap, nor am I certain I’ll take on the entire series. The reason I’m wary of Bulhandang is that for some reason, it makes me think of 2006’s Lovers — prime candidate as kdrama bait-and-switch material. That series sparkled in its first few episodes, funny and light-hearted and promising lots of romantic-comedy foibles between its main pairing of Kim Jung Eun and Lee Seo Jin. And then it went all tragic and overblown and hysterically emotional. I should also note that my opinions on Lovers fall in the vast minority — most tend to rave about the series, its intensity, and its chemistry — and I’m cool with that. But I found it odd and jarring that Lovers, which treated gangsters and crime bosses with humor and jokey fun, should then shift to making them so life-threateningly dangerous. The mixed tone unbalanced the drama, thought I, which is why I could never get into the dark, somber, angst-ridden second half of the series.
Bulhandang is a far cry from Lovers, but my Spidey sense is tingling, and for that I am wary. After suffering through Lovers, I give fair warning that I’m ready to jump ship at the first indication that Bulhandang is heading into tragic melodrama.
That said, Bulhandang‘s first two episodes were cute.
EPISODES 1 & 2
The “con man” of the series title is Jang Hyuk, who plays KWON OH JOON, a slick, unscrupulous serial grifter who woos rich young ladies and smoothly relieves them of their burdensome cash. But he’s SO good that when it’s time for the couple to part ways, often the girl doesn’t even realize she’s been played. Which is how we start our series, with a cameo from actor (and former runway model) Kim Eun Joo, last seen (?) in 2006’s What’s Up Fox? You can tell right away from Oh Joon’s overwrought, hokey acting that this is all an act — the girl tearily believes they must part because he’s going abroad. And I think the opening scene might’ve worked better if I hadn’t just seen it as the opening scene of Capital Scandal. (SBS, are you running short on ideas? I know you’ve had a crappy year.)
Anyway, then there’s Lee Da Hae as the prettily named JIN DALLAE — Westernized, her name is Dallae Jin, but per the Korean last-name-first order, jindallae is also the name of a flower. She’s a single mother to the young, exceedingly curious SOONDAE, which is a nickname for the girl who’s actually named Yoojin. More on that later.
As a widow and single mom, Dallae’s no longer in the top tier of prize matrimonial catches despite being young (mid-twenties) and pretty, and her prospective-marriage blind date turns up a man who’s not only near-deaf and hard-headed but nigh pushing 80.
But out of pity, she waits until the end of the date to turn him down. He likes her — she’s blunt and honest — but she’s confused and embarrassed and not really all that interested in marrying anyway.
After all, Dallae only agreed to the date because she was pushed by her mother-in-law, and this is one of the more interesting relationships of the series. The two women are so close that they’re much more like blood mother and daughter, which is unusual not just in general but particularly in Korean culture, where the mother-in-law relationship is a notoriously difficult one for a young wife. Along with Soondae, the three females have a very close, loving relationship. So close, in fact, that Dallae feels hurt when suspecting (erroneously) that her mother-in-law wants her to marry quickly so she can get on with her own life. That’s not true (mom’s been acting funny lately because she’s hiding the fact that she started working) but their situation IS interesting and unusual:
Dallae: “If I go on a few dates, find a suitable man and marry, what happens to us?”
Mom: “What else? You’ll join that household, and I’ll live on my own.”
Dallae: “No matter how I look at it, I like things now. I want to live happily with you, me, and Soondae.”
On her way out of her frustrating date with the old man, Dallae accidentally hits the bumper of another car — Oh Joon’s.
Oh Joon, meanwhile, has gotten the tar knocked out of him for messing around with a married woman, and as he notes the damage to his car, he’s confronted by a couple of dim-witted thugs, who are after Oh Joon because he owes them a crapload of money. The gangsters are depicted as mostly jokey, bumbling goons, but they’re also scary enough (to Oh Joon) that he begs for time. They say he’s gotta shore up $30,000 in mere days.
In more plot twistiness, the gangsters are led by this guy above, who’s alternately a fearsome boss to his underlings and a romantic softie when it comes to one woman — Dallae’s mother-in-law. The man is really very cute when he transforms into a bashful, gentle man in front of her. She doesn’t return his romantic affections (there are hints she may, in the future), and has actually only contacted him to sell him insurance. Oh, poor man.
(This is a case where I’m not sure how to take the mixed tone. If the series keeps the gangster stuff light all the way through, I think that’ll be fine… but if they want us to suddenly take the gangsters seriously, I’m gonna have a huge problem with that, given how foolish they seem in their introduction.)
But to show us that Oh Joon’s not ALL bad and amoral, he has a huge soft spot for his older sister — accompanied by a huge sense of guilt. Whether his guilt is for a particular wrong he’s committed or just a general sense of shame, he refuses to see her even though she pleads with him to talk to her. His fierce self-loathing comes out only when she’s concerned; at all other times, his smarmy outer self is firmly in control.
Anyway, Oh Joon calls Dallae to discuss the matter of car repairs — and when he arrives at the café, he overhears her talking on the phone about hypothetically investing money. Dallae’s family is not at all rich — she’s got one savings account that’s about to come due, with which she wants to set up her mother(-in-law, but you get it) with a small shop or café. But Oh Joon just hears the amount she names — $30,000 — and all of a sudden, he sees a way out of his mess. Bingo! Target acquired.
Thus Episode 2 starts with Oh Joon thinking fast to whip up a story to win Dallae’s sympathies. He tells her that he didn’t see her note on his windshield until he was in the car. He stepped out to take it, and was hit full-on by a reckless driver. Solemnly, he thanks Dallae for saving his life.
Dallae buys the story easily enough, but she’s not really interested in extending their acquaintance, so as soon as she clarifies that he won’t hold her responsible for a scraped bumper (what’s the point when the whole car has been totaled?) she laughs in relief, thanks him, and exits. Oh Joon’s left gritting his teeth that she didn’t fall for his magnetic charms.
He follows her out and persistently asks if there’s some way he can repay her. Dallae’s determination to brush him aside falters for a second, and she mentions her name and the bookstore where she works, and says they have a system of customers writing the name of their favorite clerks on their receipts and turning those in. If he wanted to… And then she rushes off in embarrassment, because he bursts into laughter (probably from relief at the simple solution).
So he appears the next day and makes a scene at the bookstore by asking customers for their receipts as they exit the store, then writing Dallae’s name on all of them. He’s totally proud of himself, but the attention is unwelcome, and Dallae’s annoyed by it.
He even tries to wheedle a date out of her (after coming to her “rescue” when she’s stranded without a car or money) and manages to embarrass her into agreeing to three dates — the first in thanks for saving his life, the second to compensate for the bookstore-receipt scene, and the third in gratitude for the two other dates. He even invokes a hilarious parody scene out of I’m Sorry, I Love You, and Dallae says okay just to shut him up.
Oh, and it turns out that the old man was NOT Dallae’s intended date — the old man who showed up was the rich workaholic JIN GU’s father, who was eager to see what Dallae was like. He announces to Dallae’s chagrin that he likes her and wants her to marry his son. Jin Gu, meanwhile, is socially awkward and just as eccentrically blunt as his father, without the old age to excuse him. There are hints that he’s a caring son, but he’s utterly unable to express himself with any nuance or charm. His mannerisms may seem offensive on first glance, but it really seems like he’s just a man who knows he’s weird but unable to do anything about it. (He reminds me a bit of Dwight on The Office, though less aggressively annoying.)
So Jin Gu orders Dallae around (“We will eat dinner together.” “When will we go see a movie? I have time Wednesday”) and Dallae wonders how it came to pass that she should be surrounded by such persistent, bold, aggravating men.
When Oh Joon tries to claim his first date with her, Dallae tries to brush him off once again. They sit side by side in silence for a moment as Oh Joon launches into his go-to story that’s guaranteed to melt women’s hearts, comparing Dallae to his sweet younger sister. Shedding tears, he puts on his act as a tortured, wounded soul, explaining that he neglected his sister by going abroad, and was therefore absent when she died.
And then he looks over to see whether Dallae is falling for his story… only to see that she’s FALLEN ASLEEP.
It chafes Oh Joon’s pride that Dallae’s utterly impervious to all the tactics he’s got stored away in his bag of tricks — no doubt every other woman has swooned over him.
But not Dallae, who’s nodding off, drifting back to the day she learned she was a widow…
She’d been eating soondae — a dish made of rice, blood, intestines and other lovely ingredients — and eagerly awaiting her husband’s return from a mountain-climbing trip. But instead of her husband, only his friend and climbing partner returned to break the horrible news that Tae Ho had been climbing safely one minute, and the next, there was nobody in that yawning crevasse.
Dallae reacts in disbelief, which quickly turns to grief: “He said this would be the last time he’d go up to the mountain. He’s a man who keeps his word… so I believed him. If I believed him, he should come back too…”
She asks, brokenly:
“It makes sense that a man who lived five hundred years ago is gone five hundred years later… It makes sense that a man who lived two hundred years ago is gone two hundred years later… And there are people from a hundred years ago who are still around a hundred years later… And people from fifty years ago are mostly around fifty years later… But a man who lived one minute ago… who’s gone one minute later… is too cruel!”
Dallae rushes back inside in hysterical tears, and tries to eat the soondae she’d been happily eating a few minutes before. But her pregnancy acts up and she can’t stomach it, and she sobs to her unborn child, “Please, baby, just stay still a moment so Mommy can think…”
And so, back in the present, the Dallae who’s nodding off at Oh Joon’s story (and now we realize she’s faking sleep) says in a voiceover regarding Oh Joon’s sob story:
Dallae: “I understand. But please excuse me, I can no longer bear to see someone else, or myself, in pain. This is a request. Please won’t you stop, and not me why you’re hurting, how you’re hurting, or how much you’re hurting?”
In summary? Lee Da Hae is good, and thankfully has shed the silliness of Hello Miss. I hear people have compared her to her Yoorin role in My Girl, but personally I don’t really see that. Jang Hyuk is also pretty amusing as a sleazy kinda guy, and though his character seems on paper to resemble his bad-boy persona in Thank You, onscreen the similarities are minimal.
I like that the two male leads are vastly disparate, and that neither falls into the category of a typical kdrama lead. One is a shameless scoundrel, and the other is a socially inept, abrasive workaholic whose gentler inner nature has been stifled.
All in all, a nice start to the series. For some reason, I’m hesitant about it, for while it’s probably a better start to a series than Hong Gil Dong, it’s not really as interesting to me. Hong Gil Dong is kinda off-the-wall and crazy, but it’s fresh. The characters here are well-drawn, but the story seems so… inevitable. Come on — who doesn’t know how Bulhandang‘s story will go? Dallae will resist Oh Joon’s overtures, Oh Joon will gnash his teeth in frustration over her indifference, they’ll keep clashing and both will start to fall for each other. Meanwhile, alpha male (or alpha nerd) Jin Gu will start to mellow out and he’ll be good to Dallae, plus there’s the added attraction of him being stinking rich. Then, at a crucial juncture, Dallae will learn Oh Joon was just playing her for money — which will eat away at him gradually and plague him with guilt. N’est-ce pas?
Well, we shall see.