Sweet, indeed. Generally, a film or drama can be evaluated by two separate components: concept and execution. I’m sure we’ve all seen dramas with good concepts but bad execution (they sounded really great on paper but fell apart onscreen), or the converse with bland concepts but good execution. (Corollaries: There are many that lack in both, and a select few that excel in both.)
Anyway, SBS’s new Friday drama My Sweet Seoul (literal translation: My sweet city) has a terribly common-sounding premise (life and love for a 31-year-old singleton in Seoul), but its charm is all in the execution. Its characters are everyday single thirtysomethings, giving the series a slice-of-life feel, and Choi Kang Hee‘s character ruminates a lot — a LOT — on small moments and insights into life. Because of the abundance (I would almost call it excess) of introspection and voiceover philosophizing, I’m not sure how well the drama can be appreciated without subtitles. To pre-emptively answer that question, I don’t know who’s subbing the series or if it will be subbed. I don’t think it’s been picked up yet.
SONG OF THE DAY
My Sweet Seoul OST – “달콤한 나의 도시” (My sweet city) by 8eight
[ Download ]
OH EUN-SOO (Choi Kang Hee) is an employee at a publishing office. At 31, she’s had a decent amount of dating experience, but hasn’t found a relationship that has stuck. Her best friends are cool-headed NAM YOO-HEE (Moon Jung Hee, whom I hated in Air City but like better here) and materialistic HA JAE-IN, aka JANE (Jin Jae Young).
Yoo-hee is the cynical one, happy to call herself cold-hearted (though she seems like a softie underneath her composed exterior). She’s a mid-level employee at a large corporation who dreams of being a musical actor. In Episode 2, she finally bites the bullet and quits her job to pursue her dream before it gets too late.
Jane (in the bridal gown) is high-maintenance and irritating, and frankly I don’t know why the other two count her as a friend. (I’m willing to see if she is given hidden depths, but for now I have no patience for her.) Jane recently broke up with her boyfriend because he hated carrying around her little purses and obeying her every whim; she suggested a breakup to prompt him into repentance. In other words, she played the entitled princess game and it backfired, so she went on a prospective marriage set-up date (a “mat-seon”) and got engaged to a guy she’s known for two weeks. She’s a jewelry designer with her own shop.
As of the first two episodes, there are three men who look to feature prominently in Eun-soo’s love life: serious businessman KIM YOUNG-SOO (Mr. Voice, Lee Seon Kyun), young film student YOON TAE-OH (Ji Hyun Woo), and best bud NAM YOO-JOON (Kim Young Jae).
I see similarities in the characters and relationships to Bottom of the 9th with 2 Outs and Dal Ja’s Spring, so the setup’s a little familiar. But with this kind of drama, I suppose the execution is more important than those commonalities.
EPISODES 1 & 2
Episode 1 starts off with Eun-soo fighting the blues on the day that her ex-boyfriend is getting married. (Analogy illustrated above: She’s the single 31-year-old female on her lonely island.) Not wanting to make a big deal of it, she calls her girls for a drink for moral support, but before she gets to tell them why, Jane hijacks the conversation to flash her new engagement ring. She accepted the proposal of her recent “mat-seon” blind date, and the girls think she’s crazy. It seems like Jane accepted more to get back at her ex than to actually get married.
The girls get called away, so Eun-soo doesn’t get to confide in them and instead scrolls through her address book, thinking of people she could call. As she does, we get a brief dating history of her previous relationships (the guy who suggested going to a motel on the first date, the guy who hit on her while he was married), and we can tell how she feels about them by whether she deletes the number or keeps it.
On a whim, Eun-soo sends a casual “What’s up?” text message to one particular guy, and gets a message back saying he’s at a bar with some colleagues and that she should drop by. She deliberates whether or not to go — Eun-soo is an introspective, indecisive person, as we soon find when are often witnesses to her thought processes. She finally decides to go, but her friend ditches her to leave with another girl, and Eun-soo is left not knowing anybody.
It’s then that she meets Tae-oh, who doesn’t know anybody either and strikes up a conversation with her. He was supposed to meet a film director there (Tae-oh’s an aspiring director), but the man didn’t show up. Eun-soo is immediately attracted to him although she can tell he’s younger than herself, and they move to a quieter bar, where Tae-oh engages her in a personality test: He asks questions like whether she’s the type to peek a look at someone’s diary, or if she crunches her candies instead of waiting for them to melt in her mouth (they’re both crunchers).
Tae-oh’s earnest and adorable, and particularly loves her answer to the question of whether she’s the type of person to look back at a person when parting ways. Eun-soo answers, “It feels like my heart always turns back, but if I don’t think he’ll turn around, I won’t either.” She asks what the verdict is, and he announces that she’s Y’s ideal woman. Who’s Y?, she wonders, and Tae-oh points to himself: Yoon Tae-oh.
They hit it off and Tae-oh’s totally smitten with her. The age difference bothers her — she’s 31, he’s 24 — but she likes him and is just drunk enough to ignore the part of her that insists she’s too old for him. She takes the initiative, and they end up spending the night together. (An example of the witty editing: At first, Tae-oh’s the one to suggest making their way to a motel as they’re making out. But then Eun-soo shakes her head and tells herself, “Let’s be honest now” and we see the scene replay, only this time it’s Eun-soo making the suggestion. Tae-oh’s actually quite respectful and doesn’t proceed until she gives him the signs to go ahead.)
However, in the morning, the mood is strained — mostly because of Eun-soo’s reservations about getting involved with someone so young — and their walk is awkward and silent. He asks for her number, and she hesitates before giving it to him. As they part ways, Tae-oh points up at the sky and tells her, “How old do you think the universe is?” He answers that it’s around 14 billion years old — compared to the universe, they’re practically the same age. That finally gets Eun-soo to smile, and although she doesn’t physically turn back, she watches his figure in the taxi’s mirror as the car pulls away.
Episode 2 starts off with a short bit explaining the symbolism of the chairs in the office, starting with the boss’s fancy leather chair to the section boss’s cheaper chair (at least it has a headrest) to the lower employees’ stiff, broken chairs. The key difference, Eun-soo notes, is that the employee chairs have no headrests — as if to say, your neck is on the line and it’s on its own.
Eun-soo endures a weird lunch with her boss, Director Ahn, during which she’s afraid he’s going to make a pass at her. But it turns out that his interest in her dating status is because he has a man to set her up with on a blind date, and presses her to call him. He makes a crude analogy comparing women to Christmas cakes — they’re no good after the 24th. (Yoo-hee exclaims that she should’ve retorted, “I’m an ice cream cake! I’m frozen cold so I never go bad!”)
Meanwhile, Eun-soo’s still waiting for Tae-oh to call, wondering if he’s lost interest in her since they’ve already slept together. She talks it over with her best guy friend, Nam Yoo-joon, who happens to be Yoo-hee’s cousin. She and Yoo-joon have a great, close relationship — she calls him her (unavailable) soulmate — but because of relationship jealousies, they made a deal to limit contact while one of them is dating. He arrives at her place to announce he’s broken up with his girlfriend, so the two of them excitedly head out to catch up. It’s a strangely cute relationship, although I’m not quite sure how that works.
Yoo-joon surprises Eun-soo by suggesting, half-seriously, that they could just marry each other. Right now, she’s the person in his life who treats him best. Eun-soo lightly responds that he can get in line; she’s got a blind date coming up, and who knows how that’ll turn out.
Speaking of whom, Eun-soo contacts the blind date, Young-soo — and soon realizes with dismay that it’s not a simple blind date (casual and fun!) but a mat-seon, which has a whole other set of connotations and baggage that come attached therewith. (Mat-seons are for people looking to get married, and are conducted much more formally. This screencap — a roomful of single men waiting for their dates — pokes fun at the mat-seon stereotype of people dressed in formal attire meeting in stuffy hotel cafés.)
Eun-soo finally gets a call from Tae-oh, who asks her to see a movie the same evening as her mat-seon. She hesitates, but she really does want to see Tae-oh, and agrees to the date.
Eun-soo’s date with Young-soo (Lee Seon Kyun) is awkward and stilted, with both of them asking the typical first-date questions in a cleverly edited sequence (cutting from answer to answer, without hearing the questions asked). He’s the CEO of a small organic and health-food company whom Eun-soo finds rather dull; but while she isn’t initially attracted to him, she doesn’t want to reject him either. We slowly see that Young-soo may be boring at first glance, but he’s got an understated appeal and dry sense of humor that doesn’t come out immediately.
Young-soo suggests moving on to dinner (the standard mat-seon operating procedure) but Eun-soo tells him she has plans. However, she’s starting to feel interest in him and doesn’t want him to think she’s rejecting him, so instead of saying she’s on her way to another date, she lies and says she has to attend the birthday party for her friend’s baby.
Young-soo drives Eun-soo to her “party,” and along the way, she notices how he eats his candy: “I’m in the car of a man who’s a candy-melter, on my way to meet the man who’s a candy-cruncher. Ugh, I feel like a two-timer.”
She turns away guiltily as Tae-oh walks in front of the car on his way to meeting her.
Eun-soo and Tae-oh enjoy the movie, but Eun-soo starts feeling misgivings again when Tae-oh runs into a friend who calls him “oppa.” It’s not quite jealousy, but it reminds Eun-soo of their awkward pairing — the girl’s much closer to his age — and she becomes withdrawn.
Tae-oh senses her mood, and asks her why she didn’t call him. He’d lost his phone — and therefore her phone number — and called numerous people in an effort to find it. Realizing that he wasn’t just playing with her emotions, Eun-soo feels relief, and they walk back comfortably to her place.
Eun-soo fights the urge to invite him up to her apartment — aided largely by the fact that her place is an utter mess — and cuts the night short, leaving him to walk back home. She tells herself, “Not inviting a man in is a promise I made to myself.” She tries to convince herself she did the right thing, but at the last moment, she’s struck with regret.
She races to the window and calls out Tae-oh’s name just as he’s about to walk away.
The director is very good. I was expecting the direction to be solid because I’d liked his film I Wish I Had a Wife, which had a pleasantly melancholy, indie vibe that focused on small moments and subtle emotions. He gives us what we rarely see in dramas these days — and in broadcast television in particular — which is scenes that breathe. Trendy dramas and action series are usually fast-paced and all about movement (although they’re not nearly as ADD as American television, which gets more frenetic every season). But My Sweet Seoul, which I’d describe as halfway between trendy and indie, allows room for a lot of silence. In good way, at least for now.
The drama also plays with chronology more than other mainstream dramas, making lots of quick flashback cuts and occasionally “breaking the fourth wall” — i.e., when a character addresses us, the audience, as though they’re aware they’re putting on a performance. These little devices are cleverly used, creating the effect of being inside the head of our main character. That intimacy with Choi Kang Hee’s Eun-soo is further reinforced by her liberal use of voiceover.
(Note: I like the use of silence and voiceover, but I think the series walks the edge of going too far with both, and hope that it restrains itself on both counts. What works well in a 2-hour indie film doesn’t necessarily hold up as well over a 16-episode miniseries.)
In its pacing and tone, My Sweet City is a more thoughtful brand of drama, although I don’t mean to suggest the series is boring. It’s very cute and watchable, but more like Alone in Love or Goodbye Solo. It’s not flashy and overt like My Girl or Goong, that’s for sure.
In conclusion? I think I’m going to like this series and I’ll be checking out next week’s episodes. I approach with hopeful caution.