I neither hate war epics nor do I love them. I neither anticipated this drama nor dreaded it. So when I say I came into this with zero expectations, I mean it literally. I know there’s a lot of hype surrounding this drama, but me? I’m not about the hype. In my book, either the show delivers or it doesn’t, and that should be the end of the story. I watched the first episode, and well…let’s just say, it left an impression. What follows isn’t a standard recap; it’s a review, which means it won’t cover all the events of the story as they occur. You’ll see why. So without further ado, welcome to:
Ultimate Fighting Championship: Road No.1 vs. Girlfriday
One Show. One Recapper. No Rules.
EPISODE 1 REVIEW
We open with an historic crawl. Oh, like Star Wars? No. Not like that. This isn’t about the story; it’s about the drama and how important it is, complete with still photographs from the show. Okay, wait a minute, you may ask…But we haven’t seen the drama yet.
So before I’ve even seen one second of actual show, I’m getting the Ken Burns docu-treatment of the War, using FICTIONAL footage from the drama as the “history.” Is this someone’s idea of a joke? I would really, honestly, have preferred a documentary. Like six hours long, all still photographs. Because this? Insults my intelligence.
The message itself is nice, and here’s the thing: if you had put it at the end, over the final image of the last episode, as your goodbye and thank you, and your Big Takeaway Message of Unity and Anti-War, I would have indulged you, Show. Fully. I would have had a tear in my eye. Or something.
But you can’t start your drama this way. Why? Because I don’t care yet. You haven’t earned it. I don’t even know your main characters, or what you’re about, and I certainly am not going to look favorably upon you now, with your very self-important Preamble.
Now do you see why this can’t be a standard recap? We’d be here all day.
We finally get our start in a current-day war memorial, where an old man (played by veteran all-star Choi Bool-am) in a wheelchair comes to visit one name, etched in marble. The name is Lee Jang-woo. He caresses the name over and over with his hands, saying that he couldn’t return because he wanted to pretend that his friend was still alive.
It’s not a new beginning, for anyone who’s seen one Hollywood war film—ever. Choi Bool-am does bring the scene some cache and dramatic weight, but what intrigues me the most is the time spent on the name, carved in stone. I sense this isn’t the last time we’ll be visiting the importance of that name, and what it means to the man in the chair. One dramatic arc foreshadowed? Check.
We then go back in time to 1948, in the middle of a battle. Lee Jang-woo (So Ji-sub) is leading a small group of men in a last-ditch, hold-the-line sort of battle. It starts with gunfire, leads to spearing and spilling of guts, and ends in bombs. So…we’re not going to spare any blood. Got it.
Jang-woo directs his men to a suicide mission, and goes at it, warrior style. And here’s where I start to get a little niggly about the acting. Perhaps it’s the rain. It’s got to be impossibly difficult to act subtly in the pouring rain, knee-deep in mud. Right?
Jang-woo is heroic, to be sure, but it’s not enough, as they get bombarded on all sides; he horrifically watches everyone die around him, and in the end he himself is left for dead on the battlefield. I will hand it to you, Show. You are definitely not pulling any punches when it comes to the horrors of battle.
As he lies there, bloodied and near death, he thinks back to his childhood. A flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback…you’re starting to show your soft underbelly, Show. Don’t be surprised when I wipe the floor with you.
In the even-more-distant Past, Jang-woo is the servant boy to a family of three children. The middle child is Kim Soo-yeon (who will later be played by Kim Ha-neul), and it’s clear that the boy has a crush on her. She treats him kindly in contrast to her siblings, and he silently adores her.
One night, he gets caught peeking in on Soo-yeon bathing (all in the name of artistic inspiration), and Soo-yeon’s older brother slices into Jang-woo’s hand as punishment. Soo-yeon nurses his wound, and the two of them bond. They become fast friends, and he falls more in love with her.
I know it’s hard to judge chemistry between children. But I’m not looking for romantic chemistry here. I just want a connection. But here’s what’s wrong with this whole chunk of story: it’s too fast, and they cast a kid to play the silent Jang-woo, who can’t convey the full range of emotions that we need. It’s a mess of a sequence. I’m supposed to start caring about the main couple and feel the epic-ness of their fated-to-be-romance. I get it. I just don’t get it.
We barrel on through to their teen years, where Kim Ha-neul and So Ji-sub start playing their characters’ younger selves, happily in love. Here they get to have cute moments declaring their love, and it’s played well, so things are starting to look up.
But then we skip right to Jang-woo, heading off to war. Okay, wait. Hold it.
I’m already starting to feel it, and I’m barely a third of the way in: you’re cramming in WAY too much backstory, WAY too fast, for me to emotionally engage. You know what I call this? Backstory whiplash. And you’re giving me a serious case of it, Show.
Jang-woo heads to war, leaving Soo-yeon in a puddle of tears. She whines that he can’t leave her; he tells her it’s his way of taking responsibility for her, to support her dream of becoming a doctor. She doesn’t care. He leaves, he turns back, he leaves, he turns back…he kisses her, and then he leaves. The camera pulls back, there’s CG flowers, and it all SEEMS like it’s grand and epic…but inside I feel…NOTHING.
Here’s why: I feel like you’re forcing me to have emotions that I’m not feeling. It’s a very strange disconnect, between the very high-octane emotional output from the actors and the music and the effects, with my very low-level of emotional engagement with the characters.
You’re being inordinately picky, Girlfriday, you might be saying. It’s because your heart is an icicle encased in frost, you might contend. But take for example, the farewell scene in Episode 4 of Cinderella’s Sister. Why does that goodbye feel epic, and turn everyone, including yours truly, into a puddle of goo? For the very same reason this one doesn’t.
They spent TIME building up that relationship, so that we cared, to the depths of our hearts, when Eun-jo crashed to the ground in tears. Soo-yeon’s tears in comparison feel unearned, and therefore inauthentic. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying the actor’s tears aren’t genuine. I’m saying that the characters’ emotions ring false to me, because I’m not where the drama wants me to be. You’re going too fast, and you’ve left me behind. End result? I see why you’re sad, Soo-yeon, but I’m not sad with you.
And to me, that’s the difference between a 10 and a 2. It’s everything. Because if you’ve lost me in the first hour, there’s no getting me in the back nineteen.
The rest of the episode follows this same whiplash trajectory—we zoom past the battle and Soo-yeon’s years spent waiting for Jang-woo to return, and the news that he has died. As a doctor in her hometown, she meets Shin Tae-ho (Yoon Kye-sang), who falls immediately in love with her. We fast-track to the eve of their wedding, which is of course the same day that Jang-woo returns, alive and well.
I’m not even exaggerating about how fast these events occur. It’s mind-boggling how they expect anyone to emotionally engage when the meet-cute/courtship/wedding/tragic twist lasts all of ten minutes. My instinct is that if this were handled differently, I’d immediately have a second-lead crush on Tae-ho. As it stands, he’s barely a plot device.
Once we’ve got all three legs of the love triangle established, I’m thinking that we’re due for some great dramatic stuff. Surely, the reunion, the misunderstandings, the dead-undead-love-of-her-life-returning-at-the-moment-of-truth will force her to confront something…anything…
Alas, the things I’m looking for do not exist in this drama. I’ve come to realize it now. Instead of a layered, tortured heroine who loves both men…we get blank sad expressions and declarations of…nothing. No declarations. Instead of a hero who went to battle with hopes and dreams and returned a haunted shell of a man…we get petulant Jang-woo who shouts at Soo-yeon, and declares to Tae-ho that she is his woman forever.
It’s actually hard for me to separate the acting from the writing in this case, because I don’t know which is the cause for my grief. Are the performances wooden, or is it the stilted dialogue? Are they shouting because it seems more dramatic? Because it doesn’t; it seems more strained. I’m going to say it’s probably a heady combination of both, because I think these actors are capable of more, but at the same time, I would have felt more if I had been given moments of subtlety and smallness.
Needless to say, by the time the war breaks out, I’m thinking, Thank you, stars, for the bloody WAR!
Thus, on the eve of Soo-yeon and Tae-ho’s wedding, the day that Jang-woo finally returns to his love, both men must leave for war.
If I had twenty episodes in which to establish the Most Tragic Love Triangle Of All Time, I’d spend more than twenty minutes on the setup. In fact, I’d spend at least four to five episodes on it, and blitz the war in just as things were getting good, to muck things up in a dramatic way. Why? Because otherwise who the hell cares?
You’re already employing the flashback-Russian-doll trope. So why not show bits and pieces of the war, while flashing back in a slow, well-plotted way? Because it’s hard? Or is it because you’re relying on story conventions and plot devices to carry your narrative, without actually doing any of the work to bring your world to life?
I’m sure you’ll have some amazing big-budget scenes and uplifting war stories throughout your run. I’m sure lots of people will find you riveting and start their ‘shipper wars. And I’m sure you’ll have viewers who won’t kick you in the family jewels while you’re down. Too bad I’m not one of them.
Girlfriday: 1 / Show: 0