I have said many a time that I dislike melodrama — as a genre, as a plot device, as a storytelling crutch. Excessive melodrama is what makes makjang dramas popular, but it drives me batty because I hate when stories are emotionally manipulative just for the sake of being emotionally manipulative.
This, of course, excludes quality melodramas. And Will It Snow for Christmas? has all the makings of a true quality melodrama. It displays the hallmarks of the genre, but rather than throwing a barrage of horrible circumstances at its characters in a mess of tragedy porn, the story is rooted in well-crafted and well-thought-out characters.
I reserve the right to change my mind once the adult storylines get going in earnest, because I have often been enthralled with childhood flashbacks and then lose interest when the adults take over. So this drama isn’t yet a home run. But if the rest of the drama shows these characters in as strongly developed a light as in first two episodes, we’re in for a great ride. What a great return project for Go Soo.
SONG OF THE DAY
Kim Sarang – “비 오는 날” (Rainy Day). I LOVE THIS SONG. [ Download ]
CHA KANG-JIN (Go Soo, whose teenage role is played by a fabulously smoldering Kim Soo-hyun) is a new face in town. He arrives with his irresponsible mother and his dullard younger brother, having been forced to drop out of his last school for hitting someone. Kang-jin is a smart kid with a good heart, but his main vice is his temper — he restrains himself admirably, but when he’s pushed beyond his patience, his temper flares frighteningly. His normally stoic nature covers up a lot of pain, which has a few sources. For one, he feels the absence of a father keenly, and even though he’s never met the man, he’s an important person to Kang-jin. His father’s pendant is all that remains, and it’s a keepsake that Kang-jin puts a lot — perhaps too much — store in.
Furthermore, Kang-jin’s mother is an embarrassing flirt, who chose to return to her hometown where it’s clear she has some messy history. Setting up shop as a tea madam, she herself was the daughter of a bar madam, and had a romantic relationship in her youth with HAN JUN-SU, the father to HAN JI-WAN (Han Ye-seul, who is played as a teenager by charmingly plucky Nam Ji-hyun). The man is a doctor of Oriental medicine and is a respected family man.
Ji-wan is in her first year of high school and has a gift for embarrassing herself. She has recently been dumped by a fellow first-year boy and traded for a pretty second-year sunbae, YOON-JU; her ex tells her cruelly that he was only using her to get close to Yoon-ju. Kang-jin is a second-year student who attended four different schools in the past year and a half — but was the #1 student in all of them.
EPISODES 1 & 2
When Cha Kang-jin’s family arrives at the outskirts of town, his mother grimaces at a banner congratulating a local boy for winning a scholarship to Seoul National University. Mama Cha recognizes the name of the parents, hoists herself on her younger son’s shoulders, and cuts the banner in half.
Spotting this desecration is an outraged Ji-wan, who bicycles furiously toward them, only to wind up swerving into the ditch instead. She calls them “robbers” (a lack of imagination can’t produce a more accurate epithet) and threatens to report the vandalism. That’s her brother’s banner they’ve ruined! What have they got against him?
Kang-jin is a stony, silent type who shows no outward emotion, but we sense that he agrees with Ji-wan. He declines to join his family into town (so they head off without him) and offers to fix the banner. Her temper is still flaring, so she rejects his help and rashly shoves him into the ditch, although she regrets it immediately. However, the next time she comes by, she sees with happy surprise that the banner has been mended and rehung.
Being a tearoom madam isn’t quite taboo, but it’s lower-class and embarrassing, especially because of the sickeningly obsequious way Mama Cha acts toward her boss and customers. She flatters the men and accepts their backhanded comments with a tense smile. Kang-jin can’t stand to see her debase herself and hates that she broke her promise to set up a restaurant. But Mom contends that running a tearoom is already a concession — Kang-jin absolutely refused to let her run a bar even though it would bring in more money.
Her boss-landlord is, to put it simply, an asshole. To keep him placated, Madam Cha sweet-talks him, while Kang-jin keeps his temper in check for her sake.
Kang-jin reports to the main office at school, where the teacher sees his numerous transfers and assumes he’s a troublemaker with horrible grades. The teacher is astonished to discover that Kang-jin was at the top of his class, and is whip-smart. This earns him the admiration of Yoon-ju, the boyfriend-stealer.
Ji-wan’s also in the office for punishment; she threw a baseball at her ex’s head and missed, hitting a window instead. After struggling to hold her bladder, she dashes off to the bathroom — but she runs into a student and accidentally pees herself. In front of Kang-jin.
Kang-jin instantly becomes prime crush material at school — he’s new, he’s broody, he’s smart — and Yoon-ju stakes her claim. Even though she just started dating her boyfriend, next to the newcomer he’s no longer interesting. She’s very forward in admitting that she’s interested in Kang-jin, but he’s unimpressed and turns her down.
However, over the following days, he finds himself drawn to Yoon-ju. (As suggested in the comments, it’s possible that he’s purposely stealing her away just to stick it to her boyfriend, whose brother mistreats Kang-jin’s mother.) When she asks why he keeps looking at her, he answers frankly, “I’m not interested in you, but you keep appearing in front of me. I keep looking at you. It’s strange. If it bothers you, avoid me. I can’t avoid you, so you handle it.”
No surprise, then, that they end up dating. While other girls are heartbroken to have their new crush stolen away so quickly, Ji-wan is still smarting from her humiliation. Kang-jin has seen her at her most embarrassing, AND he has to date Yoon-ju, of all the people in the world! She comes up with a silly plan, but one she determines to carry out — she’ll steal Kang-jin away from Yoon-ju (take that, boy-stealer Yoon-ju!), and then when she’s won Kang-jin over, she’ll dump him (take that, haughty Kang-jin!).
Her best friend thinks she’s crazy, but she goes all out — she showers him with notes, leaves a carton of milk and an egg at his desk every morning, and basically insists that they’re meant for each other. It’s fairly embarrassing stuff, but because she doesn’t actually mean it, she tackles her goal with cheerful aplomb. Every time, Kang-jin coolly ignores her.
One night at the tearoom, the boss is drunk and belligerent. Madam Cha tries to keep him happy, but his nasty temper is difficult to manage. The boss mentions how his little brother is heartbroken because Kang-jin stole his girlfriend, and uses that as an excuse to behave badly. He undoes Mom’s top and he starts to get aggressive, and finally Kang-jin can’t hold back anymore. He steps in angrily.
Kang-jin is pretty strong for his age, and he’s fueled by indignation and shame, so he’s well on his way to choking the life out of the boss. Mama Cha sees that things are about to get out of hand, so she pleads with her son to stop. Perhaps she’s afraid that he’ll get himself into trouble, but it’s got to feel like a betrayal to Kang-jin when his mother bites his own hand to get him to let go.
Ji-wan has come by to make another advance, and witnesses the scene. She can’t help feeling for him and looks at Kang-jin tearfully when he bursts out of the doors feeling frustrated and hurt.
Kang-jin controls his reaction and asks with his usual stoicism whether she really thinks they’re meant to be, as she insists. Suddenly, he swoops in and holds his face close to hers, as though for a kiss, and stops just inches from her face. Then, just as abruptly, he drops his hold and steps away. See? He felt nothing, so she’s wrong.
Kang-jin looks at her in distaste, saying, “We’re not made for each other. We’re nothing to each other, and will never be anything in the future. I’m telling you to butt out of my business and get lost!”
But this encounter has the opposite effect on Ji-wan; witnessing his vulnerability stirs her sympathies, and the almost-kiss pushes that one step further. Overwhelmed by an outpouring of emotion, she exclaims, “I can’t stand it!”
And so, Ji-wan acts. With brash fearlessness, she paints epithets on the boss’s car (“Son of a bitch!” etc).
When the boss sees the graffiti, he nearly has an aneurysm from the fury. Ji-wan pelts him with eggs and shit, cursing him for tormenting the lives of those weaker than him. Fuming, the boss beelines to the tearoom and accuses Madam Cha of putting that “little bitch” up to it. Everyone is genuinely bewildered, but Kang-jin hears him swearing about the girl and makes an educated guess.
Kang-jin runs into Ji-wan by the bridge — with a bruised face, probably hit by the boss — and asks, confused and upset, “Why did you do it?”
Ji-wan answers, “Because you couldn’t.” Everybody in town knows what a horrible man he is: “You know it too, but you can’t do anything.” Her immediate concern is for him, and worriedly tells him to pretend not to know her, so he won’t suffer for her actions. When the boss finds them, she urges Kang-jin to run off and insists that she acted entirely alone.
Kang-jin takes her advice and walks away coldly, leaving Ji-wan to deal with the man.
Only, the man strikes her in the face. Unfazed, Ji-wan screams at him, “Hit me again! Hit me again!” The man punches her again, sending her tumbling to the ground. And if there’s anything Kang-jin can’t stand to witness, it’s a man beating on a woman. He clenches his fist and turns back, and takes over the fight.
Like before, Kang-jin is stronger and has the man in a stranglehold. His grip is so frightening that Ji-wan grows scared that he’ll kill the man, and begs him to stop. Her actions have no effect, and the man flails. In the struggle, he grasps the necklace dangling from Kang-jin’s neck, and it goes flying into the water below.
The instant he sees the necklace drop into the water, Kang-jin stops fighting. The necklace is his most treasured item, and he stares in horror at the water. The man continues beating him, but he doesn’t care.
Mama Cha furiously asks her son why he did it. He was doing so well at holding back his temper. Why let go now? Why risk losing everything now?
He answers dully, “I lost it. I lost Father’s pendant.”
Mom can’t believe it — probably because (I’m assuming) she knows that his romanticized image of his father is a bunch of hooey, and that his real father doesn’t deserve that kind of respect. She retorts, “Is that stupid necklace the issue? Your life might be ruined, and you’re worried about that stupid necklace?!”
“I lost Father!” Kang-jin bursts out, “I lost him!”
That just makes her angrier. She says derisively that he’s studying so hard so he can grow up well and find his father, but he wouldn’t even know him if he ran into him on the street. “Give it up, you punk! What kind of father is that?!”
Overcome with emotion, Kang-jin screams furiously, sobbing.
Ji-wan is startled at the intensity of his reaction, in addition to feeling guilty for her part in this.
As a result, the boss kicks Madam Cha out and the family will have to move. Furthermore, Kang-jin’s fate is undecided, as he may face criminal charges.
Ji-wan’s father, Han Jun-su, comes by to tell Mama Cha that everything has been settled. He has used his weight to get Kang-jin’s charges dropped, and he’ll help take over the lease so that she doesn’t have to move.
She registers his kindness, and thinks this is because of his feelings for her. But her smile fades when he says that it’s because of Ji-wan — she had insisted that everything was her fault. Jun-su is a gentleman with a sad, resigned air; we can see why Madam Cha once loved him, but also why they didn’t work out. He says meaningfully that he has forgotten what happened to them (suggesting they had a child together), and that his current family is everything to him.
Ji-wan continues to feel awful for Kang-jin, particularly when she sees him jump off the bridge into the water — he’s searching for the lost necklace.
Now understanding what it means to him, Ji-wan dives for the pendant repeatedly over the following weeks. Her friend thinks she’s still acting on her revenge plan — that she has to win him over so she can dump him — but Ji-wan is determined to recover it for Kang-jin.
The two are also punished at school, and sent to a separate room together to write an essay on their wrongdoings. Gossip links the two together, and Yoon-ju feels threatened. Today, instead of throwing away Ji-wan’s milk and egg offering, he actually drinks it.
He arrives in the classroom to find Ji-wan asleep, and marks up her essay with corrections for words she has spelled wrong. She’s embarrassed again, but he offers to look over her paper before she hands it in.
Later, Ji-wan sees Madam Cha struggling with a damaged high heel and offers to fix it for her. Unfortunately, Ji-wan only makes the problem worse, and has to offer her own shoes in exchange and stumbles away in the broken heels.
Kang-jin witnesses this and tells his mother to give the shoes back. She pouts, so he takes off his own shoes and gives them to her, then catches up to Ji-wan as she totters along. With hardly a word, Kang-jin returns her shoes, picks up the heels, and walks off calmly. Ji-wan is startled at first, then touched to see that he’s barefoot.
That night, her brother Ji-yong (Song Joong-ki, adorable as always) appears while she’s giddily regarding her shoes. He’s on break from university, and teases her about that happy smile; he guesses it has to do with a boy.
The two are clearly very close — so close that she used to tell Ji-yong everything. Therefore it’s a surprise that she doesn’t explain about the shoes, as though wanting to keep Kang-jin her own secret. But she shares one detail: “He went barefoot to give me these shoes.”
Yoon-ju is miffed that Kang-jin seems to have dumped her for Ji-wan. So when she catches wind of Ji-wan’s supposed revenge (her friend carelessly lets it slip), Yoon-ju summons Ji-wan during lunch hour, while Yoon-ju is working as a school D.J. Ji-wan arrives while a song is playing on the loudspeaker, taken off-guard when Yoon-ju asks point-blank — is the revenge story true? Did she really approach Kang-jin with the intent to steal him away, then dump him?
Ji-wan doesn’t know that Yoon-ju has turned off the music and is broadcasting their conversation to the whole school, and stutters weakly, “Well… At first…” Feeling ambushed, all she can do is protest, “But now… now…”
The entire student body listens rapt; Kang-jin heads to the broadcasting station. He shuts off the mikes and faces Ji-won: “I didn’t hear a thing. I’m only going to listen to what you tell me.”
It seems clear that Ji-wan was trying to protest that her feelings changed, so he asks her, “How do you feel now?” However, she’s so humiliated and shocked that she can’t answer. Kang-jin presses her to answer, but she rushes out crying.
And so, she misses her chance to confess. Life continues, school goes on, and Ji-wan continues diving for the necklace. One day, the emotion gets to her and she sobs to herself by the riverbank, as though answering his question belatedly:
Ji-wan: “But now… Now, my heart thumps even if I just hear your footsteps. When I open my books, I keep seeing your face so I can’t study. I forgot about revenge a long time ago… I wasn’t even thinking of it… I’d forgotten it all…”
Ji-yong sees his sister crying, and listens as she confides in him. He’s warm and comforting, and gently chides that she should have been honest and told Kang-jin how she felt. But she answers that she felt guilty about his father’s necklace — she can’t approach him until she has made up for him losing it.
Her brother agrees that yeah, the necklace does make things tricky. Well then, he’ll just have to help her — if he finds the necklace, she can tell Kang-jin how she feels. She protests that she has looked for two months, but he assures her that he’s a great diver. He urges her to find Kang-jin right away while he retrieves the necklace.
With a warm smile, he enters the water, and Ji-wan heads off… but when she looks back, something feels wrong. Fear dawns on her face as she wonders why he’s taking so long. Why isn’t he coming up?
Her instincts are right, because Ji-yong doesn’t come back up. He has drowned.
At the hospital, his mother collapses to hear the news, sobbing hysterically. Out of her mind with grief, she says one thing that a parent should never say — and especially when her other child is within earshot — “Take Ji-wan instead!”
So when Ji-wan goes to the river, wearing her mourning white, she’s not only feeling grief at losing her beloved brother but also guilt that she’s the wrong child. Compounding that is the knowledge that her brother dove because of her — and so, when she spots the pendant washed ashore, it delivers an especially strong blow. She breaks down and sobs.
Kang-jin comes upon her as she trudges home. He doesn’t know what to say and asks whether she’s eaten, and offers her milk and an egg. It’s a sweet, sad reversal, because today it’s Ji-wan’s turn to reject the offering. Kang-jin has done nothing wrong, but finding his pendant was a cruel blow for Ji-wan — what a poor exchange for her brother’s life. So she throws the egg to the ground and pours out the milk.
Ji-wan starts to walk away, and he blurts, “I like you. Like you like me, I like you too.” But Ji-wan stonily tells him that that’s not true.
Ji-wan: “I’ve never once liked you. I only pretended to like you to get revenge.”
Kang-jin: “Don’t lie.”
Ji-wan “It’s not a lie. I hate guys like you the most — mean, selfish, and rude! Your mother is a tearoom madam who flirts with men! My mother told me that people should play with their own kind. That I don’t belong around people like you. That I shouldn’t even associate with someone like you. I must have been momentarily crazy.”
The awfullest thing about this moment is, you can’t even hate her for breaking his heart. Just as you can’t blame him for exacerbating her grief, either.
And then, we’re eight years later.
A construction site has just had a bad accident — but for the quick action of one employee, a man would have lost his life. That employee (a grown-up Kang-jin) waves off the mention of his heroism and fixates his ire on someone else — the hungover director who has just pulled up in her chauffeured car. This is LEE WOO-JUNG (Sunwoo Sun), and she could care less about the details of the accident or actually running her company properly. As a chaebol, she’s only in her position because of daddy’s influence.
Kang-jin is the leader of the design and planning team of Bumseo Group, and he spits out scorn for Woo-jung’s carelessness. This was a 100% avoidable scenario, one that she had repeatedly been warned about. But she was always drunk or refused to listen to the reports, and today someone almost died.
Kang-jin’s speech pisses her off, and she is irritated to find out that he’s a respected and highly competent employee, one who was fiercely scouted to their company.
Kang-jin is handsome and successful, and things are just getting serious with his girlfriend, who prods him to meet her father so they can announce their plans to marry. Instead, Kang-jin takes her on a drive to meet somebody — and surprises her by pulling up to observe a loud tea madam talking up her male customers.
Without a hint of shame, Kang-jin tells her that this is his mother. Contrary to the last time we saw him, he greets his mother warmly and openly, and introduces his girlfriend. She can barely manage a polite bow. It’s clear her love doesn’t extend to his family, and she leaves.
His brother says that Kang-jin shouldn’t have introduced her to their mother until he was safely married. Better yet, he should pretend to be an orphan, and even his mother promises to dress conservatively the next time. But it seems more likely that this was a test, and Kang-jin anticipated that his girlfriend would bail. He says without any bitterness, so what if his mother’s a tearoom madam?
I may well be reading too much into it, but I can’t help thinking that Kang-jin is measuring his girlfriends against Ji-wan, and they all fail his test. Ji-wan had said all those harsh things but we know she never held his background against him; in contrast, these pretty Seoul girls think they’re so nice but all leave when they find out about Kang-jin’s family. This is the third one to bolt, in fact.
The reason I say that is because it’s clear he still misses Ji-wan as he visits her parents’ house and remains in the shadows. We find out that she had run away from home, and now her father never locks his front gate, just in case she comes back.
Back to work. Kang-jin’s co-worker takes him to a nearby cafe for lunch, where the co-worker gossips about Woo-jung, whom Kang-jin angered. Woo-jung was actually fine before she was dumped by their colleague/superior, PARK TAE-JOON (Song Jong-ho). After that, she started drinking and acting out. Of course, Tae-joon (far left) overhears the gossip.
Tae-joon is also getting engaged this weekend to a woman who works at the cafe. However, most work people are afraid of going for fear that it will offend Woo-jung, who is the more senior of the two.
Kang-jin isn’t invited to the engagement party, but his co-worker falls ill at the last minute and begs him to show up on his behalf. He’s afraid that his absence will be interpreted as a deliberate statement, so Kang-jin agrees to the formality.
As it happens, the event is nearly empty and the fiancee sits off to the side, quietly waiting for her fiance to show up.
Finally, a half hour late, she receives a phone call. She answers, then gets up to address the attendees. Hiding her disappointment, she puts on a cheery face and thanks everyone for coming, apologizing for the inconvenience. And when she states her name — Han Ji-wan — Kang-jin snaps to alert and stares in shock.
I’ve seen a number of dramas where I found the childhood portions more compelling than the adult story, which is why I’m approaching with some caution. Tazza and Strike Love are two examples where the early episodes were great and built up a lot of goodwill for the adult characters. They’re also two dramas that I found more interesting with the kids than the adults. And then there’s East of Eden, where Kim Bum did such a fantastic job that when Song Seung-heon took over, I actually felt affronted that he’d gotten the character wrong. He totally missed the intensity and nuances of Kim Bum’s performance!, I thought.
All this is to say that Kim Soo-hyun and Nam Ji-hyun do such a solid job establishing their characters that the adults owe them one. I did cheat a little and watched Episode 3 but I won’t mention it here; I’ll just say that I think Go Soo is solid and has a lot of good stuff to work with. He also has wonderful eyes. (I love actors with wonderful eyes.) And I actually have a lot of hope for Han Ye-seul, which I hope is not just wishful thinking. Nam Ji-hyun gave her a cute, klutzy charm, which helps a lot in establishing adult Ji-wan’s mix of brightness and vulnerability.
As I mentioned, the characters are well-developed and well-acted. Take Madam Cha, for instance. She could be a one-sided character as a flighty mother, but she’s thoughtfully acted by Jo Min-soo (whom I remember most strongly from Sandglass). It’s a difficult role to play, but she gives her depth.
Case in point: seeing the Han family portrait fills her with anger over what she never had and hurt pride that she’s just as happy as Jun-su. She goes home and insists on her own family portrait, ordering her sons to smile, and the result is a pathetic facsimile of the life she’s trying to imitate.
Then there’s the matter of the Big Split between our leads. I knew Song Joong-ki was going to die (thanks, spoilermongering Korean media) but it doesn’t diminish the effect that it has on the story. I love the source of Kang-jin and Ji-wan’s conflict, because it’s not a simple misunderstanding. It’s not a black-and-white case of social differences or interfering parents or jealous exes.
These two kids have innocently, unintentionally been wronged and done wrong at the hands of the other. If not for Ji-wan’s crush, her brother wouldn’t have tried to find the necklace. If not for Kang-jin’s attachment to his necklace, Ji-wan wouldn’t have felt the need to retrieve it. If not for Ji-wan’s graffiti, Kang-jin wouldn’t have lost it. If not for Kang-jin’s mother and his temper and her boss, Ji-wan wouldn’t have felt compelled to vandalize the jerk’s car. If not for Ji-wan’s father, Kang-jin’s mother wouldn’t have borne a decade of bitterness. And so on, until the sins of the parents spill into their children’s generation.
The moment when Ji-wan rejects Kang-jin’s confession is one of those wonderfully awful moments. Like I said, you can’t blame Ji-wan because she has just found the necklace that her brother died over. And for what? For Kang-jin’s favor? A week ago she would have done anything for it, but now that her brother is dead, it must feel like an insult to finally win Kang-jin’s affection. It’s bad enough that she finds the necklace after her brother dies — as if to say that this was the trade. But worse yet, Kang-jin gives his affection freely without the necklace, making her brother’s “sacrifice” for nothing. It’s doubly cruel.
Kang-jin doesn’t deserve her tirade — particularly when she doesn’t even mean it — but she doesn’t deserve to lose her brother, either. Life’s not fair, right? I love this conflict. It’s heart-wrenching but it’s well-set-up, and it makes you really, really curious to know how they react when they meet as grownups.
Most of the comments that came out of this drama’s premiere weren’t just positive, but positively glowing. I’m still taking a hesitant approach; I remember being utterly enthralled with A Star’s Lover‘s first four episodes, but by the end I was so frustrated it drove me crazy. However, I will add my voice to the crowd and say that this could be a great drama.