I finally had a chance to give The Great Gye Choon-bin a whirl, which is a standalone episode in the KBS series Drama Special. The story synopsis caught my attention when it was first announced and I like both actors, so I was hoping for a fun hour. The episode turned out to be pleasantly entertaining — full of quirks and characterized by a low-key, indie-film sensibility.
The nice thing about the Drama Special series is that because each story is produced for television but essentially a mini-movie, you are able to tell a whole story without worrying about big hooks, big drama, or big angst. You also get stories running the gamut of genres, and it requires little commitment on the part of the viewer.
SONG OF THE DAY
Epitone Project – “선인장” (Cactus) [ Download ]
Meet WANG KI-NAM (Jung Kyung-ho). He’s an art therapist in his late twenties who runs his own clinic, using artistic exercises as a method of working through emotional or psychological issues. Ki-nam’s personality is unassuming and unassertive, but not in an extreme way. Mostly ordinary. He’s the straight man in this cast of characters, a little bit like Hugh Grant circa Four Weddings where he is surrounded by a bunch of people much odder than himself.
Above is one of those oddballs: it’s one of Ki-nam’s clients, whose clingy love for his girlfriend is the source of much relationship strife.
Ki-nam’s clinic is small and faces financial difficulty, although he’s too proud to ask for help from his rich girlfriend. Or rather, ex-girlfriend. Kind of. It’s complicated, because Ki-nam has broken up with Na-yeon, but she blithely ignores it like he doesn’t really mean it. He doesn’t fight about it, just sort of sighs in resignation. He explains that she’s like religion — once you’ve gotten involved, it’s difficult to go back to secular life.
He sets out today with anticipation, because it’s the first day his new ads are going out. Thus it’s with dismay that he sees the flyers on the bus decorated with hearts and doodles. Furthermore, the vandal has doctored the ad to read “GYE CHOON-BIN ♥ WANG KI-NAM.”
Two schoolkids snicker over it, so Ki-nam goes to the school and demands to know where this Choon-bin kid is. The children point him in the right direction, where the guilty party — dressed in a panda costume — tries to huddle out of sight. Only, she’s not a child — she’s the teacher.
This is Gye Choon-bin (Jung Yumi), who apologizes nicely though she doesn’t seem all that sorry about it. Oddly, she seems to know who he is, even though he’s never seen her before. As she smiles up at him, he backs away, thinking, “What a strange woman.”
To his surprise, he hears from his employee that the whole neighborhood knows that Choon-bin likes Ki-nam. He doesn’t understand how he could be the only one who didn’t know, and with his curiosity piqued, he asks to meet her.
As she waits uneasily for him to speak, she doodles idly on the placemat. I like the way that this show incorporates subtle details, such as this bit with the cafe mat, which reads Cafe Monaco. With a few well-placed characters, it gets modified to kkangpeh mot-nan ko, or “gangster ugly nose,” and Ki-nam self-consciously touches his nose before getting to his point.
He has heard she likes him, which she’s dismayed to hear, but she takes this in stride. He’s expecting her to make some kind of explanation, but instead she merely asks if she can leave now. This reaction puzzles Ki-nam, because she shows no inclination to pursue the matter.
Unable to wrap his head around her noncommittal response, he prods her to explain what she plans to do about this whole liking-him business. She answers that she is content to continue life as usual — she’ll keep liking him, simple as that.
Ki-nam discusses this with girlfriend Na-yeon later, when we are introduced to a new facet of this relationship — she’s married. It’s starting to make sense why Ki-nam has repeatedly tried to break up but hasn’t been able to stick to it.
He tries to break up with her again today, saying he’s for real this time. Na-yeon reacts as normal, which is to say she doesn’t believe him at all, and leaves him with a kiss and an “I love you.”
Choon-bin has one peculiar student, a girl named Sae-rom who’s just as quirky and oddball as she is. Sae-rom has an ongoing battle with a neighborhood ajusshi who sells chicks, calling him a murderer and spraying him with her water gun. When a classmate tells her he likes her, she sprays him with the gun, too.
Sae-rom therefore spends a lot of time in the “thinking chair” at school, and the adults feel the need to take a different tack with her. Her mother agrees to send her to art therapy, which is a prospect Choon-bin enjoys, because it puts her in more direct contact with Ki-nam.
At the clinic, Ki-nam observes as Sae-rom draws. Choon-bin also busies herself with the crayons, although she scribbles madly to cover it up when Ki-nam peers over at it. (She’d been drawing him.)
Ki-nam goes into an extended analysis of what Sae-rom’s drawing represents, using words like self and attack and actualization. Choon-bin muses confusedly, “But to me, it just looks like a plain chick.” Because it is.
As Ki-nam leaves work later, he runs into them just as a stomach growls audibly, so the trio end up at a restaurant. There, a woman happens to recognize Ki-nam from his sixth-grade class and greets him enthusiastically. She assumes that he’s with his wife and child, and when she turns to greet them, she recognizes Choon-bin, too. From the fifth-grade class. They’d gone to the same school, all three of them.
The woman enthuses about how well this worked out, since Choon-bin liked Ki-nam so much since the fifth grade. Choon-bin cringes to be thus outed and Ki-nam is rendered dumbstruck. He’d had no idea — how could have been oblivious to this all these years? After the classmate leaves, Ki-nam confirms that Choon-bin went to the same grade, middle, and high schools as he did.
He tries to understand why she liked him all those years, and she answers simply, “I like you because I liked you in high school.” When asked why she liked him in high school, she replies, “Because I liked you in middle school.” And when asked why middle school, yup you guessed it: “Because I liked you in grade school.” And then she eats all the carrots.
Oh, Choon-bin. I heart her. (She’s not being a smartass at all, but totally earnest. It’s that 4-D charm that makes her so offbeat and amusing.)
As the trio walk home after dinner, they cross paths with Na-yeon and her husband, and the adulterous plot thickens: not only is she married, but she has a young son, and her husband regards Ki-nam with friendliness. They’ve all known each other for years.
There’s an awkward moment when they ask who Choon-bin is, and Ki-nam answers vaguely that she’s just someone he knows because of work. Na-yeon immediately realizes that this must be the wacky girl who likes him, and looks at them knowingly. (Sae-rom gives her the evil eye.)
Running into her family renews Ki-nam’s discomfort at his relationship with Na-yeon, but she somehow feels no compunction for cheating. When he gets home, Ki-nam tells Na-yeon over the phone that he wants to break up. She doesn’t take him seriously this time either, and he yells in frustration. And then the lights flick off.
This happens with regular frequency at his apartment, and it always spooks Ki-nam. Na-yeon is usually around to turn the lights back on, but tonight he finds himself in heightened anxiety, heart pounding and breath quickening. He fumbles for the light switch but it’s the fuse that’s out, and he tries to keep himself together while he breaks out into a cold sweat.
A bit later, Na-yeon comes by and finds him lying down in the dark, looking sick. She soothes him, saying that she’s here and that it’ll be fine now.
The neighborhood word-vandal has been defacing enough signs to cause widespread annoyance, but the latest case has more dire results. The elderly woman who runs a restaurant sees her sign vandalized, and the angry shock sends her collapsing to her death. The sign had read agu halmum (monkfish grandma), but has been altered to read magui halmum, or “witch-hag.”
An investigator (played by Jo Hee-bong) is on the case, and drops by the art therapy clinic to ask some questions. He’s narrowed down his suspects to someone who has been caught on the CCTV cameras near the vandalized signs: Gye Choon-bin.
The sign changes are mostly harmless, and sometimes nonsensical. For instance, woo pyeon (postal service) gets modified to woo-ri pyeon (our side). So-hwa-jeon (fire extinguisher) is changed to so-hwa-jeh (digestive medicine). Seon-sa yong (for gentlemen) is altered to seon-saeng yong (for teachers). As you can see, it’s minor prankster stuff, but the investigator is taking this very seriously.
Ki-nam defends Choon-bin, admitting that although she’s pretty weird, she’s not the kind of person who would do that.
As Ki-nam leaves his office, he finds that his own sign has been altered. Instead of reading Wang Ki-nam, Art Therapy Center, it now reads Wang Ki-nam, Magic Superpower Center. (Which doesn’t sound too bad to me, frankly. Heh.)
Sae-rom has more therapy sessions, but more puzzling than her behavior is Choon-bin’s. She continues to draw during Sae-rom’s sessions, coloring entire pieces of paper with red crayon.
Ki-nam wonders what it’s all about, but Na-yeon just tells him not to get involved with matters concerning clients. Na-yeon regularly fixes Ki-nam dinner, but today he looks down at his plate and starts to explain that he can’t eat carrots. But she leaves the room to take a call and doesn’t hear him. (Ah, a sign that he and Choon-bin are the Perfect Match.)
Later that evening, Choon-bin drops by Ki-nam’s apartment, to his alarm. He asks how she found out where he lives, and her answer is rather unsettling: “I always knew.” He asks how she got here (meaning, What do you want?), to which she replies, “I took the bus.” To his relief, her purpose here is simple enough — she returns the phone he had left behind.
As Choon-bin walks out the building, she notices that the lights shut off. And sure enough, inside the darkened apartment, Ki-nam struggles with his panic attack, lying on the floor breathing heavily.
Choon-bin returns and finds him in a high state of agitation. Choon-bin reaches down to gently pat his face and sings a child’s song to calm him down. Gradually, his breathing stabilizes.
Now back to himself, Ki-nam lights candles, and to give you a sense of how quirky Choon-bin is, she immediately takes a huge breath and starts blowing them out. Then sheepishly apologizes, saying that her reaction was automatic because it felt like birthday candles.
Ki-nam asks if she’s not afraid of being in the dark with a man, but she says no.
Choon-bin: “The light is scarier than the dark. If you get used to the light, you end up looking for brighter light. But you don’t have to do that with the darkness. If you get used to the dark, it’s okay even when even darker darkness comes along.”
As they reach for one more candle to light, their fingers touch, and a current of awareness runs between them, freezing them in place. There they sit, fingers outstretched, until the lights flick back on and Na-yeon walks in.
Choon-bin hastily excuses herself and leaves. Ki-nam starts to follow her out, but Na-yeon stops him and asks how the girl came to be in his apartment. Automatically, he responds, “She took the bus.” (LOL.)
The memory of the touch makes Choon-bin happy, and in a touching gesture that I also find vaguely sad, she wraps up her finger — the one that touched his — in a bandage adorned with little hearts.
Sae-rom gets into more trouble when she again attacks the chick vendor with her water gun (which is filled with vinegar water). Fed up, the man insists on taking this up with the police, where Choon-bin is asked to provide her own guarantor. The officer’s question has her at a loss, however, as she doesn’t have anybody — her parents are dead, and she is unmarried and has no boyfriend.
Without a guarantor she can’t be released, so with some hesitation she calls Ki-nam. He arrives at the station, but more confusion occurs when the officer asks for his relation to her.
Officer: “Is he your guarantor?”
Choon-bin: “Well, no, he’s not.”
Officer: “Is he your boyfriend?”
Choon-bin: “No, well… He’s the person I like.”
Officer: “So he’s your boyfriend.”
Choon-bin: “No, um, well… He’s not my boyfriend, but… he’s the person I like on my own.”
Ki-nam: “I’m her guarantor.”
AW. So sweet.
After her release, Ki-nam asks why she didn’t stop Sae-rom. She answers that she couldn’t stop her, because Sae-rom had been crying.
Choon-bin: “She was shooting the water gun and sobbing. It’s difficult to do two things at once — wiping your eyes while you shoot a water gun, or singing while chewing gum. Wanting to hold something while wanting to let go. Liking something while hating it. So I wanted to help her.”
Ki-nam notices her bandaged finger, and asks if she injured it. Shyly, she tells him that it’s not hurt but wrapped, “like a present.”
After they leave, an officer finds that the police station sign has been altered as well, and now reads “Pervert Center.” The investigator is frustrated to be so close to nabbing Choon-bin but stymied by a lack of concrete evidence, and takes to following her.
Choon-bin doesn’t notice him watching her on the bus, but Ki-nam recognizes the man and steps in to warn her. Muttering so the cop can’t hear, he issues instructions — on the count of three, quickly get off the bus.
He waits for an opportune moment, then orders Choon-bin to make her escape, pushing her toward the exit.
However, at the last minute she resists, instead of getting off the bus. Ki-nam urges her to hurry so she can lose the cop, but she clings to his hand and says with pleading eyes: “I don’t want to let go. Now that I’ve grabbed your hand, I love it.”
Ki-nam manages to get her off the bus and onto the sidewalk, where she she clasps her hands together, savoring the touch. This means that Ki-nam is hauled in to the police station by the cop, where he defends Choon-bin as being innocent of the latest vandalism to the police station sign. He even vouches for her alibi.
The cop is firmly convinced that Choon-bin is behind the vandalism, in particular the one that killed grandma, but just then they hear that the culprit has been caught. When the arrested person is brought toward the station, surrounded by news cameras, Ki-nam is shocked to recognize the man — his client.
Asked to explain himself, the man bursts out that it was because of love — that his beloved girlfriend dumped him and refused to talk to him, and he had to act out against this hateful world. He insists, “I did it because of love!”
A voice from the crowd counters, “You shouldn’t act like that when you love.” It’s Choon-bin, who argues that when you love, you should just love — don’t bring hate or greed into it.
The culprit answers, “I see you’ve never loved.” Love means wanting more — if you have a finger, you want a toe, and so on. He wonders, “How have you managed to live this long being so lonely, not knowing that?”
There’s something in the sad man’s voice that strikes a chord in her, and Choon-bin recognizes the truth of the words. As Ki-nam looks at her, she looks down at her wrapped finger and mumbles that they should never have touched fingers: “It must be because we touched fingers that I’m hurting.”
He thinks she’s talking about physical injury, but she says in a distressed voice, “I want to stop liking you now.” She hurries away, leaving the finger wrap in his hand.
Na-yeon comes rushing up as Choon-bin leaves and blames this trouble on her, reminding him that she’d advised he stay out of client problems. He asks for some time alone, but Na-yeon ignores that and suggests having dinner together. Pushed to the limit, Ki-nam bursts out that he wants to be alone. She has the nerve to make this about her, saying, “Do you know how hard it is to be carrying on two relationships? Even without you acting like this, I’m struggling enough already.”
Ki-nam’s rather stunned at her self-centeredness, and looks at her in a new light.
That evening, he ignores Na-yeon’s calls, and sits at home in a daze. This time, when the lights flick off, we see now that it’s no accident — it’s Na-yeon at the circuit breaker. She’s the one manipulating the lights whenever she feels the need to keep Ki-nam coming back to her.
Meanwhile, Choon-bin walks home in the rain, which prompts a memory of her childhood:
It was sponsor night at the orphanage, and Young Choon-bin (played by the same girl who plays Sae-rom) had been out in the rain. A young boy found her by the trash can, where she had thrown away the Barbie she had asked for. He had wondered why, and she’d said that she was afraid — if she got the Barbie, she would want another doll, and another. She was only allowed to ask for one thing a year, so she couldn’t keep requesting more dolls every time she wanted one.
The young boy had huddled down next to her, and set his umbrella aside. Young Choon-bin had asked why he was letting himself get wet, and he told her cheerily, “Let’s get wet together.”
And when the camera pans down, we see his nametag: Wang Ki-nam.
I think my heart just burst from the poignancy of that.
As it rains outside, Ki-nam sits at his table of candles, then blows them out one by one. In the dark, he recites the same child’s song Choon-bin had sung to him during his anxiety attack, and tonight he doesn’t succumb to panic.
The next day Ki-nam makes a decision, and shows up at the art gallery where Na-yeon’s exhibit is being held. He tells her once more, “Let’s break up.”
She tries to brush him aside as usual, but he won’t be ignored this time. Refusing to let her get her way, he yells that he hates carrots.
Na-yeon guesses this has to do with Choon-bin and calls her crazy, but Ki-nam points out that they’re crazier for carrying on like this. Na-yeon’s excuse is that they’re in love, but he replies, “If you become bad and disgraceful because of love, that’s not love. That’s just being bad and disgraceful.”
There’s new conviction in his voice today and Na-yeon realizes he’s serious. Her whole demeanor grows cool and she agrees to the breakup, holding out a hand for a shake. She wishes him happy, and he wishes her the same.
However, a few moments later Ki-nam revises his opinion: “No, I lied. Don’t be happy right away. You’ve always gotten what you wanted. Try having it tough for a while.”
He makes a flourish with the pen in his hand and walks off… as Na-yeon looks at her exhibit poster. Which has been vandalized. HA! (He has added a character to her name; it doesn’t really mean much, but is his way of retaliating.)
He heads home and remembers Choon-bin’s red drawings, and starts putting them together. When he’s done, he sees that they were part of a larger picture: a gigantic red heart.
Choon-bin receives a package, which turns out to be a book. It’s a copy of The Great Gatsby, but the title has been modified so that now it reads “The Great Gye Choon-bin.” Inside, Ki-nam has written:
“If you turn on the lights just once, I’ll make things brighter for you. Will you try courage this once?”
With that, Ki-nam starts running to the school, just as Choon-bin starts running to his clinic. After missing each other along the way, they eventually both find themselves at the bus stop, out of breath from running.
Ki-nam has something to show her, and takes out a piece of gum. As he chews, he starts singing, eliciting a quizzical look from Choon-bin. He explains, “You can do two things at once. It may be tough, but it’s do-able.”
At that she smiles, understanding that his message is meant for their relationship, too.
Ki-nam: “You hate me, don’t you?”
Ki-nam: “But… do you like me anyway?”
That’s enough to melt the ice, and as she leads the way, he falls in step beside her. Upon her prodding, he takes her hand and they continue on their way, swinging their arms together.
The Great Gye Choon-bin surprised me by being more intricately plotted than one might expect of a one-hour special. Some bits early on seem played for humor and quirk, but end up actually playing into the larger narrative in a nicely subtle way.
Example: Ki-nam hates carrots, Choon-bin likes them, Na-yeon doesn’t even know he can’t eat them despite being with him for years. This tells us the character dynamics right there, but I appreciate that the drama didn’t hit us over the head with the connections. It just presents them for us to take in without a lot of fanfare.
The heart theme is simple enough, but I like that hearts are woven through the episode to be a recurring motif. The first time Ki-nam and Choon-bin meet, he protests about the hearts drawn on his flyers, “which are red, at that.” Choon-bin points out that all hearts are red. And in the end, her red crayon drawings add up to one large heart.
Most importantly, I loved the way their fears and personal issues intersected. Choon-bin seems content with her life, but it’s because she’s never considered the possibility that life could be more than that. She is afraid to wish for more for herself, and has perfected the art of keeping her expectations low, so as to be able to meet every one of them. But the one thing that ruins that carefully established equilibrium is love — the real kind, not this admiration-from-afar — which brings most people equal parts hope and fear. But as Choon-bin is afraid to hope, all it leaves her is fear.
That’s not too far off from Ki-nam, who knows what he has isn’t making him happy but is unable to break free from Na-yeon’s stronger will. I found it quite interesting that she was the one manipulating the lights all this time, shackling Ki-nam to her with his fears rather than his love. So when he overcomes those fears, he’s free of her.
The light/dark conversations are an interesting way to tie in Ki-nam’s and Choon-bin’s fears — they aren’t the same, but they’re able to help each other through. Choon-bin is able to help Ki-nam stop fearing the dark, and Ki-nam shows Choon-bin that wanting more for yourself isn’t a bad thing. His note to her at the end is a lovely callback to her confession earlier, that the light makes one want more light, and she doesn’t want to deal with the pain of wanting what she can’t have. So he assures her that if she can find the courage to trust him, he’ll give her that light.
The spare indie-film vibe of The Great Gye Choon-bin allows for nice pauses in conversation, giving the characters and the plot room to breathe. What is great about Drama Special is that it allows for small stories free from the expectations that come with star projects, and focuses on human relationships.
And the actors! Jung Kyung-ho is sweet and affable as an everyday guy whom you want to root for, while Jung Yumi is perfect at playing this earnest, sincere character with a decidedly off-kilter way of looking at the world. All in all, this is a cute, poignant way to spend an hour.