Let’s get this out of the way: The first fifteen minutes or so are crap. They’re silly, questionably acted, and a little embarrassing with all the rough English (although the scenes are necessary in a strictly plot-related way). But the rest of the episode (once the story moves to Korea) has its charm, and is actually quite cute, at times laugh-out-loud funny.
I haven’t read the manhwa on which this drama is based, but I’m guessing that most of the key elements have been preserved, and I think the two leads — Im Joo-hwan and Seo Woo — are well-matched.
Granted, one can’t take Tamra the Island too seriously. That would be an exercise in futility, and would probably suck all the fun out of it, anyway. It’s meant to be fun and campy and comic book-y, and you might enjoy it on those terms — just as long as you don’t expect it to be an accurate historical reflection or dramatic piece of art, naturally.
(I notice that the website uses the spelling “Tamra” despite its hangul spelling [탐나], so for the sake of consistency I’ll use Tamra too.)
SONG OF THE DAY
Yoon Sang – “소심한 물고기들” (Timid fish) [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Right away, the storybook motif clues us in to the light, cutesy tone of this drama. The narration gives us the year — 1640 — and a basic explanation of the colonial atmosphere of the times, and the European fascination with the Orient.
William, a young Englishman (played by Hwang Chan-bin, the stage name for French model Pierre Deporte), is one of those people with a deep interest in all things Oriental. This translates into a room full of mostly Japanese pottery, artwork, and random knickknacks.
I guess you could see William as an early otaku; if he were born in today’s age, he’d be your typical Japanophile — you know, the kind of person with a fascination in anything Japanese merely for the sake of it being Japanese.
Today, he is transfixed by a peculiar bowl, which a mystic assures him is full of magical energy… while a little cartoon drawing demystifies its purpose for us: It’s a chamber pot.
But William doesn’t know that, and hugs it as a beloved treasure. His mother deplores his collecting fetish, and has no great affection for William’s friend, Japanese sailor Yan (Lee Sun-ho).
Yan speaks of a soon-to-be-established sea route between Japan and the Netherlands linking Europe with all of the ceramic treasures Nagasaki has to offer. The name “Nagasaki” exerts its pull on a fascinated William, and he sets off to journey there with Yan.
Off the coast of Jeju Island, called Tamra back in those days, a young girl scours the seabed for abalone. Her mother is the leader of a group of women divers, which is divided into three ranks. The girl — Jang Beo-jin — is in the lowest class… and she’s not a very good diver. It’s one reason she is looked down on by the other divers.
Since she has again brought in the smallest catch, her mother gives her the task of delivering the abalone as their offering to the table for a traditional ceremony. Beo-jin does, and after the ceremony is over, the rest of the common folk are allowed to partake of the food used in the ritual. Beo-jin jumps to grab some, as do the rest of the villagers, and in her eagerness to eat she bumps into a newcomer, who glares at her for her carelessness.
This is Park Kyu, a young scholar of the noble class who has been sent to Jeju in exile — for what, it’s not exactly clear, but we can surmise that it’s probably deserved. Kyu is arrogant, snobby, demanding, and seems to have fallen into his share of scrapes in the past (hence the exile).
Beo-jin drops some food at his feet and continues eating, while he looks down at her in disgust. When a crowd of children knock into her, he deflects her away from him — and that sends her crashing into the table, ruining it. She doesn’t notice that she has lost the medallion she had been given in exchange for the abalone, which is like a proof of purchase and acts as exemption from taxation. (Five medallions = 100 fewer abalone that they have to produce.)
Not too far away, William and Yan are aboard a Dutch ship headed for Nagasaki. William listens to exaggerated stories of the vicious natives of the “Eight Islands” and looks forward to gaining more Japanese treasures. He slips away to check on his precious chamber pot, which has been stowed away in a barrel. He doesn’t know that Yan, whom he sees as friend and guide, has actually made an agreement with William’s mother to bring him back to England.
But that’s a moot point, since a storm strikes. While the sailors struggle to remain aboard, William’s barrel is tossed overboard, with him in it.
Beo-jin realizes she has lost her medallion, and guesses that it must have happened when she bumped into Kyu. She remembers him holding a bundle, and figures he must have grabbed her medallion by accident. She seeks him out to recover it, but he has no idea what she’s talking about, and sternly chides her for her lack of respect, calling her uneducated (he’s offended that she speaks to him as an equal, not as a social inferior should speak to her superior).
Since he’s not being helpful, Beo-jin grabs his bag to check for herself, and he angrily grabs it back, sending her crashing into him.
The accidental embrace is seen by a nobleman who is also a local official (name: Kim Yi-bang), who scolds Kyu for getting into trouble the instant he arrives. Beo-jin is thrown out without her medallion.
Her mother punishes her, but Beo-jin blames everything on the newcomer: if not for him, she wouldn’t have ruined the ceremonial table OR lost the medallion!
Kyu is assigned to live out his exile with a local family. He would prefer to carry out his exile alone, being fastidious and classist as he is, but this is punishment, not vacation. He’s clearly not used to being ordered around, or having his wishes disregarded, but he’ll have to get used to it.
The person put in charge of his care is Beo-jin’s mother, who doesn’t love this task any more than he does. Furthermore, she’s not at all impressed by his blustering about his rank or class; to her, he’s just another pesky troublemaker she has to watch over. She warns that if he doesn’t listen to her, she won’t accept him. Kyu tries to act as though he’s in charge of the situation, but when it comes down to it, he’s at the mercy of everyone else, and they have no reason to obey his high-handed commands. Cosmopolitan Hanyang city this ain’t.
Among the many things that horrify Kyu are the crude facilities. He’s been having tummy troubles ever since landing on Jeju Island, but can’t bring himself to relieve his pains by using the hole over the pigpen as a latrine.
Beo-jin’s father then offers a cleaner alternative — though not by much. He shows Kyu a portable plank of wood, which he places on the rocky beach, and does his business on it. He flings the board into the ocean, which has a rope tied to it for easy retrieval. This option is also not acceptable.
Beo-jin is late to join her group for diving that day, and hurries out alone, where she sees a hunk of something odd. It’s William’s wig, which she regards with fascination. Seeing more of the same nearby, she hurries to retrieve that, too, only this time the hair comes attached to a head.
William sputters awake, then jerks in alarm (eyeing her knife), while she observes him with cheerful curiosity, particularly drawn to his golden hair. When she hears the group of divers approaching, she acts quickly to stay out of sight. She pushes William underwater, then joins him.
He struggles to surface, having been submerged unexpectedly, and Beo-jin looks at him curiously. She kisses him — I’m not sure if it’s a kiss for kissing’s sake, or an attempt to pass him some oxygen. Either way, she grabs hold of him and helps bring him back to the surface.
They rest on the beach, not understanding each other’s language and communicating by gestures. She thinks he’s a wonderful oddity, while he has no idea where he is and wonders if he’s stumbled onto the dreaded Eight Islands with its fearsome natives.
Beo-jin spears some fish and cooks them, noting how hungry William is, and the smell of cooking fish brings out another local. Beo-jin’s mood grows serious when the elderly man tells her that William will be killed if he’s caught. That’s what happens to foreigners — they get carted off to Hanyang, the capital, and are killed. Even William understands the man’s hand-to-throat cutting gesture.
She can’t have that, so she grabs William and takes her to her personal hiding place, a secret cave. She tells him to stay there, chattering her instructions even though he doesn’t understand a word of it.
There’s a cute moment when she introduces herself (in Korean), and William mistakes her name, Beo-jin, for “virgin.” He wonders, confusedly, “Are you telling me you’re a virgin?”
That sounds about right for Beo-jin, since the only word she recognized was “virgin,” and she nods. Then she asks, “What about you?”
Of course, she means, “What’s your name?” but William figures she’s asking about his own state of sexual maturation, so he answers sheepishly, “Me too.” (Aww! I think that’s so hilariously cute.)
But to Beo-jin’s ears, this means something different, so she responds, “Your name is Me Too?” She leaves him her knife for protection and tells him to stay hidden until she comes back tomorrow, “Got it, Me Too?”
(This adorable scene made the episode worth watching for me. This is an example of the story being silly in a sweet way rather than stupid.)
Now, back to the matter of the missing medallion. Since Kyu isn’t being helpful, Beo-jin takes advantage of an empty household to sneak into Kyu’s room to rifle through his rucksack. However, he walks in mid-search and reacts angrily. Again, Beo-jin asks him to hand over her medallion, and he’s so sick of those words that he just dismisses it and demands that she hand over the book she’s holding.
Only, Beo-jin senses a bargaining chip and scampers off next door, and holds the book over the fire. When he continues yelling at her, she drops it onto the coals.
Kyu grabs it out of the fire, but can’t hold onto it for long, and flings it outside, where it lands on a pile of hay and netting. They panic and douse the fire with water until it goes out — but by then, both book and netting are ruined.
Furthermore, Beo-jin’s parents arrive to witness this. In exasperation at both troublemakers, her mother washes her hands of the responsibility and puts Beo-jin in charge of Kyu.
Alone for the night, William gazes out at the sea, remembering his kiss with Beo-jin. But as he recalls his journey, he grows sadder, and wonders, “Where am I?”
William doesn’t see Beo-jin again until the next day, after she sneaks away to bring him food. She had been instructed to take Kyu with her as she tended to some fruit trees. As usual, Kyu refuses to help her treat the trees with manure, although the mention of dung reminds him of his constant stomach pains.
Beo-jin visits William, and their interactions are friendlier today, and sweet. He insists she share the food, and they eat together.
Meanwhile, Kyu builds up his resolve and convinces himself that he can use a simple latrine. No problem. Everyone does it.
He lowers himself over the pig sty, but at the last minute he jumps up in alarm when a pig noses around near the opening. Nope, can’t do it.
So he heads to the alternate location: the beach. Once again, he gathers his resolve and squats down — but this time he’s stopped by a more welcome sight. Off in the distance is… William’s precious treasure, washed ashore.
Of course, Kyu recognizes it for what it is — a common chamber pot. Finally, sign of civilized culture! He runs off excitedly to claim it. At the same time, William also spies the same thing, and also starts to run after it.
However silly the story, you have to give them credit for making such a large plot point about something as base as a chamber pot, and making it work. It’s one of those things that is mildly amusing at first, though not particularly clever. But when you build on that with Park Kyu’s stomach problems, and call back to it at the end — well, I’ll admit I laughed out loud. Plus, it’s always hilarious to see such a haughty, sneering type lose his cool and race in such an undignified way to claim a chamber pot.
Tamra the Island is silly, goofy, and I’m not quite sure where the story is going. The English-language segments aren’t as horrible as I’ve seen in other dramas, but I still cringed through them, so it’s a good thing they don’t last long. (The parts when William speaks English on Jeju are more bearable; it’s the faux-England scenes I found awkward.)
The characters are versions of familiar stock types, so I’d say it’s a good thing the actors bring their own charm to them. Im Joo-hwan is hilarious as the city slicker stuck in the unbearable backwaters of the island; whereas his character may be annoying when he’s on home turf, as a fish out of water it’s fun to see him trying to cling to his pride, only to find that there’s no currency in pride here.
Seo Woo‘s Beo-jin may be a polarizing character, but I find her pretty darn adorable. She does slip into overacty territory, but this is such a goof of a drama that it’s suited to the tone. It seems to me that there are two types of Korean actresses who do the overly cutesy shtick: you have those who try to act cute but in an annoying, false way, while somehow others are bolstered by their own charm to make the character appealing rather than a turn-off. I think the key is in the actress making the character her own rather than painting-by-numbers and going through the motions to “act” cute. Seo Woo definitely brings her bubbly charm to the role.
The scenery is gorgeous. (The music less so. I liked some of the song selections, but the background score falls flat.) Although there have been many fusion sageuks to grace the airwaves, Tamra‘s island backdrop sets it apart and feels fresh; it gives off a vibe of half-sageuk fusion, half-comic-come-to-life.
I think that’s key; the comic element, I mean. This drama is a whimsical, campy escapade, and you can’t take it too seriously. For instance, if you tried taking Story of Hyang Dan seriously, you’d be sorely disappointed. But as a farcical reworking of a famous folktale, it’s got a fun-loving appeal.
Another aspect I appreciate is the reversal of gender roles: on Tamra, the women are hard-working and tough, at all ages from moms down to young girls. The men are painted a little more cartoonishly, but I think there’s potential for more than just comic relief in the setup that shows them as the weak ones in terms of the gender balance. They cower and defer to the ladies, who, while not quite Amazonian, have agency over their own lives and families. I hope the drama explores that dynamic a little more — they don’t have to make a big issue of it, but it’s a refreshing change.
I haven’t decided whether I’ll stick with Tamra through the end, but I am definitely keen to see a few more episodes. Maybe it’ll be a good antidote to the creepiness of Hon.