(Note: much gratitude and thanks must go to 0timelost, cleown, and mead33 @soompi, for their tireless efforts to edit my drafts, create screen caps, edit, do layout work, edit some more, comment, and then do more editing. They didn’t want full credit, but since I am writing the recaps, I get to write that this project would not have happened without them. Thank you so much guys!)
(Second note: a humble and a very heartfelt thank you to Javabeans, for allowing this recap project to bloom).
INTRODUCTION TO CITY HALL.
Let’s get this out of the way: Forget what you heard or might have read about City Hall, the 20-episode SBS drama that began airing April 29, 2009 and ended July 2, 2009, with the irrepressible and incomparable Kim Sun Ah, she of the legendary drama series My Name Is Kim Sam Soon, and a relatively new face to the small screen – the very tall and instantly likeable Cha Seung Won. My emotions with respect to this drama are all over the map, and I’ve never felt this way about any drama series I’ve ever watched.
Still, to be perfectly honest, the first few episodes of City Hall can be difficult to sit through, as the beginning may be a little choppy for some. But for those with the patience to wade through the thickets of an entirely unfamiliar world of rural Korean politics, City Hall might end up being the fairy tale story that is worth waiting for. Bear through these initial episodes and then strap in for one of the best dramas…maybe ever?
This story takes place in the land of the make-believe city of Inju, an unfashionable coastal city in Korea where all politics are indeed local.
EPISODE 1: The Beginning – A Rocky Start
City Hall Episode 1 opens with Election Day for a tiny village in the city of Inju. The village is voting on its Chief, and the vote is 25 to 24, with one abstention… we have a swing vote possibility! Who could it be?
We get our first look at our heroine, Shin Mi Rae, munching on kimchi pancakes.
“Hey, Shin Mi Rae! You haven’t voted!” Mi Rae, a junior secretary in the office of the Mayor of Inju, has learned from an early age that being completely neutral works for her, and she tries to do her best to become one with the food. The candidates immediately try to wheedle her swing vote, but fail to get her to vote at all, as the final tally remains 25 to 24, with one abstention. Mi Rae prefers the taste of fried spicy pancakes over the taste of power.
Civil Servant Rank 10 (lowest rank) Shin Mi Rae spends her days making tea and coffee for everyone at Inju’s government center, and does her best to keep out of the affairs of governance, which apparently, in Inju, means corruption as a daily routine.
But as Mi Rae is serving coffee to the City Council officials, she finds herself abruptly being questioned by irate Council members who are trying to get to the bottom of where Inju’s tax dollars went. Teflon-coated Mayor Go Boo Shil greasily defends himself by stating that he doesn’t even know the meaning of the word “lobbying” (or the word, “chicken legs”) and plays dumb, which apparently isn’t too hard for him.
But with honest Mi Rae being questioned and struggling to find words that would neither implicate the Mayor nor lie outright… Min Joo Hwa, a City Council member and the chief brains behind Mayor Go’s corruption wagon – and honestly, quite a cutie in her own right – jumps in to save the day before Mi Rae is forced to spill the beans…
…which then leads to the typical ending of yet another day in Inju’s City Council chambers. What’s with Korean lawmakers and their penchant for “piling on”?
Following this near-debacle, Council Member Min Joo Hwa tries to browbeat Mi Rae, blaming her for nearly causing the Mayor’s slush fund, *ahem* budget, to be challenged.
But Mi Rae isn’t as defenseless as she appears to be.
“Hey! I may not have graduated from high school or finished middle school, and I may have been a Level 10 Civil Servant for 7 straight years without promotion, but don’t even think you can look down on me.”
But with greater scrutiny over the Mayor’s slush fund coming, Mayor Go needs a new way to make cash to send to his political cronies. The old “we’ll announce a bridge-building project but divert the funds” plan has been used too many times already. City Council member Min Joo Hwa comes up with a new plan: to use the remaining budget for a beauty pageant, rig it so that an accomplice wins, and divert the contest’s prize! It’s a plan so crazy, it just might work…
With the new budget corruption scheme in place, two more characters are introduced, responsible for running the beauty pageant:
Mi Rae’s best friend, admin office worker Jung Boo Mi, a feisty ahjumma and mother of three, and Lee Jung Do, Director of the Culture and Tourism Bureau. Both are honest and hardworking, but are also cynical enough to know what’s really going on in the Korean version of Tammany Hall, and pragmatic enough to keep their eyes facing downward.
Rounding out the initial cast of characters are the mysterious and powerful BB, the man rumored to have handplaced the current President of Korea into the Blue House (the presidential seat of power, like the Korean version of the White House), and his number 1 protégé, Jo Gook.
BB is a man with incredible presence, intelligence and political influence. Jo Gook is his protege, who is working his way up the political ladder at the provincial level (one step above municipal, one step below national). Jo Gook is drawn to BB for the same reasons that all ambitious men have – they are attracted to power… or so it seems?
From his Kennedy-esque compound, BB suddenly orders Jo Gook to go down to Inju and start doing… something. Jo Gook is bewildered by the clear backwards step in his career (going from the provincial level back down to municipal level, and to a backwater municipality of no consequence like Inju at that), and argues against the plan. An annoyed BB dryly notes that he wasn’t asking, he was ordering. Jo Gook has no choice but to go.
With his rather ambiguous orders to stir things up in Inju, Jo Gook stops by the Provincial Governor’s office and secures a sizable increase to Inju’s budget. With that, he waltzes into Inju with the supplementary budget and a condition – he is to be the appointed Deputy Mayor of Inju, replacing the current deputy.
This part resonates with echoes of a John Hughes 80’s movie – a good-looking, all-star QB with dreams of the NFL is transferred to a hick high school for reasons he can’t understand, and begins by facing off against the class president, his gang of flunkies and the student council / head cheerleader, and meanwhile replaces the current QB, and has everyone asking, “Who is this tall, mysterious and good looking new guy?”
Below, the “gang” of the Mayor, first lay their eyes on Jo Gook, the transfer student star QB.
…and in the middle of all of this, you have your unpopular wallflower girl of integrity and a generous heart, who is stuck in a dead-end low paying job.
Yes, Mi Rae is pretty in pink! (And she thinks the new QB is a hottie!)
To add to the clichés, it appears that Mi Rae has multiple part-time jobs, mainly due to the fact that she, in her unlimited kindness, has agreed to be responsible for the credit card debt of a man who then dumped her. Among the odd jobs she does, some for free, some for pay: delivery person, collecting and delivery of food donations, wallpaper hanger, painter.
A few days later, Mi Rae finds herself being called on to do various home improvement projects on a nice looking house, but when she shows up…
Jo Gook is there. Coincidences of coincidences, it is his house! And every time Jo Gook calls the Inju operator for another contractor, he is connected to Mi Rae. Ahhh, the perils of living in a small town.
So our first concrete story line is beginning to take shape. Chief bully Mayor Go and his brainy cohort Joo Hwa need a new way to run tax money into their political allies’ pockets, and decide to create a rigged beauty pageant, the Miss Baendaengi Contest (baendaengi’s are a type of local herring).
To keep the newly-appointed Deputy Mayor in line, slimy brainy cutie Joo Hwa makes plans on entrapping Jo Gook by giving him the Miss Baendengi Contest to run, since the whole contest is just a money-laundering scheme anyway, and Jo Gook will be inevitably knee-deep in that conspiracy.
And Mi Rae, the poor wallflower who happens to be $16,000 in debt, overhears that the contest has a $16,000 first place prize…
Looks like we might have our first contestant!
Now, I am a pretty big fan of Kim Sun Ah. But I have to say, I was a little underwhelmed by this first episode. Kim Sun Ah’s character, in this first episode, does not seem to be much more than a bundle of clichés. Poor girl with a heart of gold who works multiple jobs and who has but one parent? Check check check. Nevertheless, there is something about the way that Kim Sun Ah shows the inner strength of her character that is quite unique, just makes me want to be on her side and root for her.
From a genre perspective, this Episode 1 has me a little confused as to what kind of drama this will be. Not quite a comedy, not quite a political drama… It is like the PD and staff started with a story of political corruption… but then to stop it from being terminally boring, asked Kim Sun Ah to make it lively. The result is a big fish in a small pond story line, with Kim Sun Ah playing the part of an ungainly small fish who catches the eye of a big fish in all the wrong ways… how will the political story be developed, if at all, from that?
But overall, a choppy first episode is not a death knell for the series. A lot of dramas start a little slowly, as they get caught either trying to do too much or trying to do too little. City Hall seems to be trying to do a little bit of everything, and while it could have been smoother, there are hints at how much better this drama can get, just by looking at the characters.
THE ONES TO WATCH FOR IN THIS EPISODE: BB and Jo Gook.
The BB – Jo Gook relationship and characters are clear standouts in this Episode 1. Both actors, Choi Il Hwa as BB and Cha Seung Won as Jo Gook have so much screen presence; when they are in the same scene together, it can be hard to take a breath. As a point of reference, Choi Il Hwa played the very mild father of Choi Han Gyul (Gong Yoo’s character) in First Shop of Coffee Prince, but the difference between the two characters is startling, as BB just oozes a sense of power and authority here. Just a spectacular job in character creation by Choi Il Hwa.
Finally, I have to add this extra point about Cha Seung Won paying the role of Jo Gook: I’ve never seen a character like him in Korean dramas before. Ultra-smooth, confident and intelligent, arrogant but not arrogant at the same time, Jo Gook immediately draws attention to himself, but not quite in an egotistical manner. It is about time that we had a new type of hero come along, one that doesn’t quite fit the mold of K-drama heroes past.
And best of all, Jo Gook doesn’t look to be the type who will be foolishly caught blind-sided by someone like the Mayor, which is refreshing to say the least, because then I can throw away many of the clichés that follow the lead characters in a Korean drama who blindly never see the blow coming.
ON TO EPISODE 2!