Manseh! Thank god for Noh Hee-kyung.
When dealing with mediocre or iffy dramas, I often don’t know how I feel about them until I’m several episodes in; I want to give the drama time to grow on me. With quality dramas, though, you can usually tell right away, and The World They Live In (aka Worlds Within) is giving me very good feelings.
The World We Live In has the indie sensibilities of a few of my favorite dramas, like Que Sera Sera and writer Noh’s previous drama Goodbye Solo. Premise-wise, it may be compared to On Air, but it’s vastly different in execution — it has less ego and more professionalism, ergo it is MUCH more watchable without the shrillness and tantrums.
Will it topple East of Eden‘s solid 30% ratings, or even Tazza‘s mid-teen numbers? Probably not, although it may cut into them. But if it doesn’t become a success, it’ll be a mania drama, and (probably) a well-deserved one. I think this may turn into a show that Song Hye-gyo and Hyun Bin will probably be proud to have done no matter the end ratings.
SONG OF THE DAY
CHARACTERS, RELATIONSHIPS & BACKGROUND
The characters work at a broadcast station, with Hyun Bin as Jung Ji-oh, a PD (production director) at the helm of a popular Monday-Tuesday drama, “That Summer Love.” He’s got a quick temper but we can already see that underneath his hot-headed exterior, he’s a softie, especially when compared to Song Hye-gyo as Joo Joon-young. (I LOVE Ji-oh’s character. I’ll explain why below.)
Song Hye-gyo’s Joon-young is an up-and-coming director who’s not yet at Ji-oh’s level. She’s working on this drama as a second director and has earned a reputation for her skill (as strong or even stronger than Ji-oh), but while she has talent in spades, she’s still pretty inexperienced. She’s so driven that her work often trumps common sense, but she’s not our typical manipulative workaholic, and I’ll explain more later.
Oh, and she and Ji-oh used to date.
Here we have the station chief Kim Min-chul (played by Kim Kab-su), the star of the drama Yoon Young (played by Bae Jong-ok), and two assistant directors Chul-yi and Min-hee (played by Pan Yoo-geol and Lee Da-in). Chul-yi works with Ji-oh and makes mistakes; Min-hee works with Joon-young and has a refreshingly straightforward way of speaking.
Eom Ki-joon is Sohn Kyu-ho, another PD working on his own drama that’s currently in casting, which I think is a sageuk. Currently looking for a female lead, he’s overrun with young starlets with big boobs who can’t act. Jang Hae-jin (Seo Hyo-rim) has already auditioned, but hasn’t heard back from him and takes to hounding him at unexpected times — the bathroom, the parking lot.
Hae-jin is cheerful and persistent, and would probably be annoying if she were wrong about being a “really good actress.” We haven’t seen her act yet, but we can probably bet that she turns out to be good, especially since the other girls are shown to be so bad. Kyu-ho first looks on her with amused detachment, intending to cut her, but she starts to grow on him.
(Side note: There’s something about Eom Ki-joon that really reminds me of Eric (particularly in Que Sera Sera). It’s the way they talk and carry themselves. I’d love to see them playing brothers sometime.)
EPISODE 1: “ENEMIES”
I’m not sure if every episode will have a title and theme, but today’s is “enemies.” In an early moment of tension when she clashes with Ji-oh, Joon-young voiceovers, “The comrade by my side right now can turn into my enemy in one moment. When an enemy is clearly your enemy, that’s not such a dangerous moment. But when you cannot determine whether the person is your enemy or your friend, the situation turns dire.”
Also, a countdown clock indicates how many hours remain until the drama-within-the-drama airs.
We open in the midst of shooting for the drama “That Summer Love.” Ji-oh (Hyun Bin) is shooting on location, while Joon-young (Song Hye-gyo) is at home, preparing for a “reunion party” for her doctor boyfriend. The decorations say “Happy Birthday” but this is really for her relationship, which has now weathered three breakups.
Something goes wrong and the broadcast tape of the next episode is damaged. With less than eight hours till airtime, production is thrown into chaos. Ji-oh apologizes to his boss, station chief Kim, then turns his ire onto Chul-yi, his assistant director who was supposed to check the tape a week ago. This is the first of several times we’ll see Ji-oh’s volatile temper flare.
With crisis impending, Joon-young rushes out to reshoot. In stark contrast to Ji-oh, she is calm and unruffled, focused on how to fix this rather than exploding. Joon-young will re-create the original scenes (which Ji-oh shot), while Ji-oh rushes to the editing room to work on the new footage as it becomes available. He tells her to forget the impressive last scene they’d shot, and instead get general coverage, nothing fancy.
However, once at the shooting location, Joon-young tells her crew to shoot it the way Ji-oh had shot it initially. She knows they have time and doesn’t want to half-ass it.
The scene — which involves stunt driving between cars on a highway — is shot successfully, and Joon-young calls the “OK,” but almost immediately afterward, the stunt driver careens off the side of the highway. He survives with minor injuries, but this is still bad for production.
While the stuntman is sent to the hospital, Joon-young and her crew rush back to the station while Ji-oh busily edits. They barely manage to finish in time to send the tape to air.
Although the broadcast goes out successfully, Chief Kim vents his fury on Chul-yi for his error, and Ji-oh is chewed out by another superior.
That night, Joon-young heads out to a PC room with Min-hee, sitting idly around while Min-hee plays computer games. In a dejected mood, she ignores her phone calls, telling Min-hee that she’s going to catch hell from Ji-oh tomorrow anyway, so she might as well wait till then.
She’s also ignoring her boyfriend, Jun-ki, who has come home to an empty party after losing a patient on the surgery table. When she finally makes it home in the wee hours of the morning, he’s upset and ignores her attempts to be cheery.
Joon-young tries to make conversation, but he’s icily silent. She starts to defend herself, asking if he’s regretting their decision to get back together, if he’d only agreed because she was pathetic for begging him to come back. She starts to get irritated, but he cuts her off and tells her, “Yesterday, a patient died while I was operating.”
Open mouth, extract foot. She immediately feels bad, but the damage has been done. This is a very clear indicator of what Joon-young’s problem is: her tendency to make things about herself without considering that the issue may have to do with the other person. Oddly, though, I don’t hate her for this, because she’s not actively selfish — she’s more clueless, and that evokes pity more than anger.
In a similar fashion, at the office she’s ignored by a still-furious Ji-oh. The other PD, Kyu-ho, pragmatically tells Ji-oh to let it go because their episode made it on the air and brought in 20% ratings (and marvels at Joon-young’s directing skills), but Ji-oh’s a “matter of principle” type of guy and remains upset. He requests to have Joon-young removed from his production, and says he’ll manage alone till the end. Chief Kim takes her off the drama.
Joon-young apologizes to Ji-oh, admitting that she overdid her desire for a good scene. He yells at her for her lack of sense, telling her that if everyone had tried to stop her, “Shouldn’t you stop and wonder why we’re all telling you to stop?” Instead she stubbornly did things her way and caused an accident.
Joon-young asks him to keep her on the project, saying with cool logic (and too little humility) that he can’t handle all the shooting alone: “Let’s finish the remaining 20 days well. Calm down.” SO not the right thing to say to someone who has a legitimate reason to be pissed off at you. Ji-oh has no sympathy, saying that he’d been up all night in shock after the accident, “But you showed your face at the hospital, turned off your phone, and went home to have fun with your boyfriend. And you tell me to calm down? Let’s end well? Do you even know how many people got screwed over because of you!? ”
In a lovely, bittersweet moment, we see a glimpse back to a younger, happier time when they first got together — they’d been waiting for a bus together when Joon-young turned and kissed him out of the blue. Back then, this was a sweet moment, but now, as we see through Ji-oh’s eyes, the memory has been tainted. He sneers now, “You have to do everything your way to be satisfied — everything.”
(This juxtaposition is an example of an excellent moment of subtle, careful writing.)
Ji-oh refuses to talk to her, so Joon-young follows him into the editing room, defending herself, “I’m really sorry about the accident, but did I know it would happen?” She again asks him to let her back on the team as producer, even if it means taking her name out of the credits.
Ji-oh turns to her and asks, “Are you really sorry?” Perhaps sensing that she can’t BS him, Joon-young answers, “No. Honestly, I don’t know what I did that was so wrong. I was doing my best, so I don’t know what the problem is.” He answers, “That’s why you and I broke up,” and turns back to his console.
He continues to ignore her the next day, so Joon-young confronts him again: “No matter how I look at it, I can’t understand what I did wrong. Tell me.” Still chilly, Ji-oh responds, “Someone got hurt and the broadcast was thrown into chaos because of you. Do you need more reasons? Does the sky have to fall and the earth cave in for you to take it seriously?”
Joon-young: “He wasn’t very hurt, and the broadcast went out.” She adds, “Why did you break up with me? What’s the problem with me? I don’t want to revisit the past, but you brought it up, so tell me.” He doesn’t answer.
This inability to figure things out is recurring issue for Joon-young, because she has dinner with her boyfriend, who’s facing a lawsuit for his dead client. She sticks up for him by calling the lawsuit ridiculous, but that’s missing the point. Jun-ki interrupts her, saying meaningfully, “A person died. The lawsuit will come later. The person is what’s important.”
Joon-young tells him gently that she knows it’s hard on him, but he cuts her off and says, with finality, “Let’s really end things this time. When these things happen, I need someone who can be by my side the whole time. When I went to you the day before yesterday, I really missed you. I was ready to forget all our past issues and start again. But you weren’t there.” She starts to say she had work, but Jun-ki is tired of breaking up for the same reason.
Joon-young vents to Min-hee about how both Jun-ki and Ji-oh are being impossible, but Min-hee is very matter-of-fact and points out that Joon-young is acting kinda weird. She’d thought it was strange that she, as the PD in charge, didn’t show more concern over their injured stuntman. Maybe this finally gets through to her, because Joon-young visits the hospital.
Once she’s face to face with the stuntman, she starts to feel bad for how she’d behaved earlier. The man is all smiles, and comments how the other PDs have been so thoughtful and caring, which makes her feel worse.
As she exits, she calls Ji-oh (who’s sleeping on the crew bus): “I called to say I understand why you were so mad at me. Why are there so many things I don’t know? How could I say that I didn’t know what I did wrong when a person was injured? What’s wrong with me?”
Now that Joon-young has realized her error, Ji-oh’s anger completely dissipates, and this is when I totally fell for his character, because he hasn’t been giving her hell to be mean or to punish her. Rather, the anger is an extension of his worry — so once she turns her anger toward herself, he’s back on her side. For instance, she tells him it’s late and that he should sleep, to which he answers, “I’m not sleepy” — and then stifles a yawn.
He suggests meeting up to eat, worrying if she’s been eating properly, and she tells him she’ll be at one of their familiar hangouts. Ji-oh hops off the bus with a smile to meet her.
At the bar, she tells Ji-oh that Jun-ki broke up with her again, and asks again why Ji-oh had dumped her. She can’t stand not knowing.
Ji-oh: “If I tell you, will you fix it?”
Joon-young: “I’ll decide after I hear it.”
Ji-oh: “It’ll hurt.”
Joon-young: “Then don’t tell me. I’ll live not knowing. [pauses] Tell me. I’m ready.”
Ji-oh: “I don’t want to tell you, because you’re a good friend.”
Joon-young: “It must be really bad. Tell me anyway.”
Ji-oh: “You’re too thoughtless. And you’re too easy.”
Joon-young: “Which means?”
Ji-oh: “There are times when we should think about others, say when a co-worker is injured. At those times, you are really thoughtless. Easy refers to you going to a new man quickly after ending things with the old one. That’s easy.”
That does hurt. She asked for the truth, but accuses Ji-oh of purposely making it hurt. She stalks off angrily, and he calls after her, “Produce the drama!”
Ready to accept the relationship’s end, Joon-young reminds Jun-ki of her breakup habit — calling at night one week after the break — and tells him to ignore her phone call. But she has one thing to argue about: “When I was shooting, there were times I was lonely and hurting and needed you, too. But I never once asked you to be there—”
“Because you didn’t ask, that hurt me,” he cuts her off. She asks why he got back with her three times if he’d known from the start that they wouldn’t work out, and he answers that he liked her that much.
With tears in her eyes, she tells him, “If I call, answer the phone.” With tears in his eyes, he avoids her gaze and walks away.
And here’s the scene that solidified my appreciation for Ji-oh. Ever since the tape fiasco, Ji-oh has been cold and dismissive of his assistant director, Chul-yi, who has been given the cold shoulder by his peers as well. During lunch, Chul-yi sits away from the rest of the team when the mid-level boss comes by to scold him some more, hitting him on the head and telling him to keep his head bent down (i.e., in shame).
When the boss walks off, Ji-oh sees Chul-yi looking down and feeling awful, and waves him to their table. Now that Chul-yi has been adequately punished, Ji-oh’s anger has evaporated entirely, and he’s once more the friendly hyung, looking after his junior colleague.
Bus ride to film shoot. Joon-young is feeling quietly angry at Jun-ki for breaking up with her, at Ji-oh for previously dumping her, at men in general, but most of all — and this is key — at herself for not understanding why.
She challenges Ji-oh for calling her “easy,” asking if he likes to live complicatedly instead, dating a married older woman.
They bicker back and forth a little, but the bite is gone from their tone. When Ji-oh leans his head back, Joon-young puts her scarf behind his head as a pillow, and he replies that he’d prefer her shoulder.
She offers her shoulder, and he leans on it. With his eyes closed, Ji-oh advises her to call Jun-ki and get back with him: “He seemed like a good person.”
Joon-young tells him, “Jun-ki cried. Not a lot, just a little.” Without opening his eyes, Ji-oh answers, “Men are weaker than we seem.”
She answers, “It’s annoying. And I miss him.”
And then, they film.
I haven’t decided yet whether Song Hye-gyo is doing a better acting job than previously — that remains to be seen — but I DO think that this character is much more suited to her abilities than the previous ones she’s attempted. She is much better at this professional woman who is emotionally a little slow on the uptake. By which I mean, Joon-young isn’t malicious, she’s not cold-hearted, and she’s not necessarily Machiavellian, even if she is super-career-oriented. Rather, she tries to understand the emotions of others (what we might call “normal” emotions), but it’s almost like she’s missing an emotional chip (call Brad Pitt?). So she can try to mimic others’ behavior, but she doesn’t feel or think of things like other people do — or at least it doesn’t come naturally to her.
These qualities are actually very similar to what I’ve felt about Song’s acting style in the past. I don’t think she’s a BAD actress, but there are times when she’s just not empathetic. She doesn’t really feel like she’s embodying her characters — it’s like acting is an out-of-body experience for her. In this sense, she fits right in as Joon-young. What will be interesting to note is whether she (and Joon-young) can grow out of that as the drama progresses.
Hyun Bin is also, in my opinion, better suited to this role than he was in his past ones, or maybe he’s just matured. I never fully *got* him in My Name Is Kim Samsoon, because I thought he wasn’t quite 100% emotionally there, either. He’s doing a good job so far as Ji-oh, though, and I really dig the character.
The music is great: sometimes spare, sometimes tense. It definitely has a different feel from the “glossy” type dramas out there, and reminds me most closely of Que Sera Sera, both in music selection and in direction.
I appreciate that we start off the series in media res, which is to say, in the thick of the action. We don’t see when these characters meet; we jump right into their relationships with all their baggage and issues there in front of us in a tightly wound-up knot, and we get to unfurl it bit by bit. The great thing about these types of beginnings is that we don’t have to deal with the question of when the two lead characters will fall in love and figure out that they are Meant To Be. Instead, we see the surface of their relationship now — seemingly cordial, seemingly all tidy and organized and “dealt with” in the past — and we will then have to figure out where it went wrong, and if they will be able to reclaim their relationship.
But most importantly, I care more about the characters’ growth than wondering who ends up with whom and why. Because, The World We Live In is not necessarily a drama to watch for plot. It’s a drama to watch for the acting, the relationships, the interplay, and the writing. And it’s a drama that lives in its quiet moments as much as it does in the quick dialogue.
It also has a lovely way of dealing with quiet, in-between moments. Kind of like how My Sweet Seoul found a way to make the mundane seem beautiful.
This is a Noh Hee-kyung drama, so there are no careless actions. For instance, after Jun-ki tells her that their breakup is for real this time, Joon-young goes home and sees a photo of them together. She picks up her toothbrush, then stops as she decides to rip up the photos, then returns to brush her teeth. Then she remembers more photos, throwing them to the floor and stepping on Jun-ki’s face as she walks off. She tries to sleep, tosses and turns, and gets up to reassemble the torn photos. All done without a word. Just little beats built up in brief images, threaded into a quiet narrative.
Another example is in the end scene on the bus: Ji-oh and Joon-young talk in a casual tone, which belies the fact that they’re really saying Very Important Things about what really was going on when their relationship failed. He talks with his eyes closed, as though asleep but not really. Then she closes her eyes, and he opens his. It feels like they are both really attuned to each other but still missed each other in a perfectly mistimed moment. These are tiny details, but they have an impact, and no moment is wasted.