New feature: First Episode series!
Time constraints keep us from being able to write “classic recaps” for older dramas, but I thought it would be a fun idea to revisit old dramas to recap just the first episodes. It’ll give us a chance to reminisce on old favorites while also providing an introduction to the shows.
To aid in navigation, I’ve created a new tag (use this: first episodes) so you can sort through all the Episode 1 recaps on this site. (Also, if you’ve missed it, we do have a Tag Index on the site, linked on the bottom of the page.)
For the inaugural post in this series, I’ve decided on a drama I’ve often referenced as one of my emotional favorites, 2005’s Delightful Girl Chun-hyang. We all have those dramas that occupy a special place in our hearts — whether it’s because of a particular character, storyline, or where we were in our lives when we first saw it. This one’s mine.
In case you’re unfamiliar, this is the first series written by the Hong sisters (Hong Mi-ran, Hong Jung-eun), who would go on to reteam with this director in My Girl. They followed that with 2007’s Fantasy Couple, 2008’s Hong Gil Dong, 2009’s You’re Beautiful, and 2010’s My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho. Yeah, they’re busy.
Delightful Girl Chun-hyang (also called Sassy Girl Chun-hyang, which has nothing to do with the movie My Sassy Girl), aired on KBS from January through March 2005. It actually remains the highest-rated of the Hong sisters dramas, enjoying ratings starting in the high teens and culminating at 30%.
SONG OF THE DAY
Delightful Girl Chun-hyang OST – “자유로와” (Come free) by Jiny. I think this song gets across right from the get-go how energetic and fun this drama is. [ Download ]
STORY & PREMISE
Fusion sageuks are all the rage now, but when Chun-hyang first aired, the fusion concept was, if not completely novel, much fresher. The story is a loose modern reinterpretation of the folk tale of Chun-hyang, which has been made into several movies (notably 2000’s Chunhyang) and was parodied in the goofy Story of Hyang Dan.
In the original story, Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong are young lovers in Joseon times who undergo lots of trials and tribulations before ending up happily ever after. Among the problems that besiege the young couple: class differences (he’s a magistrate’s son, she’s the daughter of a gisaeng entertainer, and therefore they Cannot Be), a secret marriage (which includes a separation as he goes off to study in the capital and leaves her behind), and an evil magistrate (who, in hubby’s absence, tries to win her over and punishes her for remaining faithful to her husband).
When Mong-ryong returns to his hometown, he hears of his wife’s straits. He is by now a state official, dressed undercover as a beggar to investigate corruption in the government, and finds the magistrate guilty of many misdeeds. The couple is reunited and Chun-hyang is honored for her virtuousness.
(In the aforelinked Hyang Dan minidrama, the writer plays with the question of Mong-ryong falling in love with Chun-hyang’s servant girl instead of Chun-hyang herself in a hilarious spoof.)
To this end, DGCH incorporates parody sageuk segments at the end of each episode — the series is modern otherwise — which poke fun at the themes of the current episode. The parodies don’t affect the main plotline, but are cute skits that riff off the main events.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We start off in a scene from the Chun-hyang folktale: the virtuous SUNG CHUN-HYANG (Han Chae-young) has resisted the advances of the evil Magistrate BYUN HAK-DO (Uhm Tae-woong), to that man’s ire. Pressed into a fit of jealous rage, Magistrate Byun vows, “If I can’t have you, no one will!” as he holds Chun-hyang prisoner.
Chun-hyang clings to her faith that her loyal husband, LEE MONG-RYONG (Jae Hee), will come for her. He is the young son of a nobleman who has gone off to Seoul, leaving his wife vulnerable to the whims of the magistrate while he studies for the civil service exam.
Mong-ryong lives up to his wife’s faith in him and returns as a government official, and hears of Chun-hyang’s predicament. He gathers his men to storm Byun’s quarters and save her, and an elaborate fight sequence ensues…
…and when he enters to rescue her, he finds her doing just fine on her own, thankyoumuchly. She’s got her captors subdued and shamed, on their knees with their hands raised in the air like errant schoolboys.
And right away we know this isn’t going to be your standard damsel-in-distress-y kdrama. Chun-hyang turns to her bewildered “saviors” and says nonchalantly, “Oh, husband. You’re back?”
With the tone established, we zip forward to “real life”:
Now in modern times, Sung Chun-hyang is a plucky, smart high school student who works multiple side jobs to help support herself and her mother. (Mom’s a well-meaning but flighty cabaret singer, and Chun-hyang is really the mother in this relationship. Mom was a gisaeng in the original tale, and nightclub singing is their way of modernizing her lowly status.)
One of Chun-hyang’s jobs is delivering newspapers; another is a side gig at the famed Gwanghallu Garden in her hometown, the southern city of Namwon. She and her friends take gimmicky tourist photos with visitors, but that’s technically prohibited, so she gets chased out of the gardens by a guard.
A few hours north in Seoul, a troublemaking Lee Mong-ryong gets into one last fight to cap off his Seoul experience. He may be decent at the core, but he always manages to attract trouble, and he’s been kicked out of numerous schools.
His fighting skills and laid-back James Dean attitude probably account for why guys like to pick fights with him — they want to wipe the smirk from his face, but he’s too good a fighter and usually ends up winning. For this reason, his family is moving to Namwon.
Mong-ryong tries to avoid the inevitable fight, but he can only hold back for so long, and he gets caught up in the fight. Mong-ryong’s father is particularly disappointed in his son’s constant imbroglios, not least because he happens to be a police chief. Understandably, he does not take this latest fight well.
Mong-ryong is rich, spoiled, too cool for school, fashionable, and a bit conceited. To a spoiled Seoulite like him, moving to Namwon is the same thing as being exiled to a remote backwater.
He’s most bummed about leaving behind HONG CHAE-RIN (Park Shi-eun), who is his neighbor, family friend, and first love. Pretty and rich, she’s a year or two older than him, and Mong-ryong tries to make his move and confess his feelings. Alas, he arrives at her place just as she’s being dropped off by her boyfriend, and he loses heart.
Off to Namwon it is. Mong-ryong tours the dumpy town with derision. At Gwanghallu, he starts shooting a video with his phone to send to Chae-rin.
Just then, a figure shoots up over the wall and into the air… and crashes down on him. It’s Chun-hyang, here at the gardens to resume her side job (she’s climbed over the wall to avoid paying an entrance fee).
She lands on top of him, and as they both catch their breaths, she hears a clicking sound. It’s Mong-ryong’s cell phone, and he’s inadvertently taken upskirt photos. Oopsie.
Chun-hyang grabs his phone to see the damage, calling Mong-ryong a pervert. He defends himself, but when she sees how bad the shots are, she stomps on his phone in retaliation. Infuriated, he demands recompense for the damage, to which she snorts that he’s got no grounds for complaint given his perverted behavior.
Both kids have done questionable things and would rather not take this to the police, so Mong-ryong resigns himself to a broken phone. He demands the use of hers so he can at least call home; she owes him that much. Distrustfully, Chun-hyang hands it over, and Mong-ryong calls his mother… while inching closer and closer to the curb.
At the last minute, he hops into a taxi. Chun-hyang chases after him but has to give up and calls from a pay phone (remember those?). He tells her smugly to call him once she’s gotten his cell phone fixed — till then, he’s holding her phone hostage.
Thing is, Namwon’s a pretty small town, so it’s not long before Chun-hyang locates him. She sees him first, and calls him with her friend’s cell phone. Mong-ryong, feeling smug, taunts her some more, not realizing that she’s walking just a few paces behind him.
A chase ensues, and Mong-ryong barely makes it home before being caught. Fuming, Chun-hyang has no option but to take his phone in for repair.
Once it’s fixed, she calls Mong-ryong to meet at Gwanghallu. Over the phone, Chun-hyang strokes his vanity by telling him that his gadget is pretty neat — it’s got all these extra features, and she didn’t even have to pay to get it fixed because it was covered by his plan.
Mong-ryong’s smug smile disappears when Chun-hyang informs him that he can keep her cheap phone. She’ll use his.
Instantly, tables are turned, and it’s Chun-hyang’s turn to gloat. She makes taunting faces at him, safe from the busy highway that separates them, and boards a bus to escape. Ha!
Mong-ryong’s first impulse is to get even; he starts making long phone calls to rack up her phone bill. Then he hears from a friend that Chae-rin tried calling him — only to get some strange girl on the line — and Mong-ryong is suddenly upset. Not his Chae-rin noona!
This. Will. Not. Do. Immediately, he calls Chun-hyang’s friends to track her down. Her best friend Dan-hee is appropriately suspicious and gives away nothing, but the good-natured and slightly dense Ji-hyuk tells him they’ll be at a nightclub that night, celebrating Dan-hee’s birthday.
Mong-ryong arrives at the club, disdainful of the rural bumpkins’ idea of partying, sneering at Dan-hee and Ji-hyuk’s moves as they compete in a dance contest. The sight of a pretty girl on the dance floor has him momentarily intrigued — until he recognizes that it’s Chun-hyang, that shrew. (Note: The dancing is awful, but supposed to be good. Some suspension of disbelief necessary.)
They go outside and switch phones. Chun-hyang is horrified to see how many phone calls he’s made — she didn’t make a single call on his — but Mong-ryong is fixated on Chae-rin. He calls her right away to assure her that the girl who answered the phone is a nobody, just someone who found his phone. It’s immediately clear, even to Chun-hyang, that he’s in love with Chae-rin, but that she isn’t in love back.
They go their separate ways, intent on never seeing each other again. But of course that’s a silly thought; don’t they know they’re in a kdrama?
Morning roll-call at school. A new kid zooms in late on his motorcycle, eliciting lots of whispers from the students (admiration from the girls, jealousy from the guys). Chun-hyang realizes to her shock that she recognizes the punk — Mong-ryong.
Both Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong are called into the admin office — she to help the teachers, he to be scolded on the rules prohibiting motorcycles at school. Used to getting into trouble, Mong-ryong is indifferent to the lecture. He is, however, surprised at how sweet and dutiful Chun-hyang is to the teachers. She smirks to hear that his class ranking is #280 — out of 300. She, on the other hand, is used to being #1.
Ji-hyuk recognizes Mong-ryong as the guy who harassed Chun-hyang at the club, and sticks up in defense of his friend. Ji-hyuk challenges the newcomer, but as we’ve seen, Mong-ryong certainly isn’t one to back down from a challenge. News spreads quickly of the impending brawl.
The fight commences, both sides doing a pretty good job of holding their own, until Chun-hyang arrives to break up the scene.
She shouts at Ji-hyuk not to fight at school… but trips on her mop and goes down. Taking Ji-hyuk’s pants with her.
The sight of a de-pantsed Ji-hyuk stuns everyone into silence. The humiliation is made worse by the fact that Ji-hyuk is in love with Dan-hee, and she saw the whole thing. (It’s a one-sided thing; Dan-hee merely sees Ji-hyuk as an adoring puppy.)
Mong-ryong feels so bad for his opponent that he finds himself, ironically, being the guy who comforts Ji-hyuk in the aftermath, and the way he awkwardly consoles Ji-hyuk is one of my favorite things ever. There’s something about abject humiliation in front of a girl that evokes a sense of male solidarity.
Inadvertently, the fight has become a bonding experience for the boys. Therefore, while Mong-ryong is not met with a warm welcome by his new classmates (new alpha male in their midst!), Ji-hyuk invites him to sit next to him. Friendship sealed!
In the girls’ class, Dan-hee (and all the girls, save Chun-hyang) is impressed with the new guy and eager to learn more about him.
That night, Chun-hyang is off to collect Mom from her job at a local nightclub. A gang of roughnecks intercepts her in the parking lot and starts to make leering passes. Chun-hyang holds her own, but she’s outnumbered and the situation looks like it will escalate… which is when Mong-ryong sees the scene and pulls up on his motorcycle.
He pulls Chun-hyang away and tries to avoid confrontation, but the guys don’t take kindly to their fun being interrupted. They escalate the fight, and Mong-ryong lashes back in self-defense.
It’s this brawl that greets Mong-ryong’s father and Chun-hyang’s mom as they come outside. (Dad is inspecting the club as the new police chief.) Both are embarrassed to see that their kids are involved.
Immediately, Chief Lee assumes his son has caused more trouble and yells at him. Indignant at being unjustly accused, Mong-ryong storms off, while Chun-hyang speaks up and tells Dad that Mong-ryong was helping her. Dad is mollified by her earnest defense that Mong-ryong was blameless, and a bit impressed with her mature response, too.
At school the next day, Chun-hyang thanks Mong-ryong for helping her, and they strike a truce of sorts. Mong-ryong unknowingly makes a barb about her father, then finds out that he’s dead, which makes him feel guilty. But she waves it off easily, and this exchange shows the first sign of thawing on both their parts.
Now for Byun Hak-do. Although Byun is an outright villain in the folktale, this real-world version is slightly more complex as the president of an entertainment company, which makes him rich and powerful. He’s cool and smart, and very good at his job.
He’s also working on a new film project that will take him to Namwon. Cue the coincidence-o-meter…
Having worked out their differences, Mong-ryong visits Gwanghallu again, where Chun-hyang is working another job fishing leaves out of the pond. In his boyish, pestering way, he shakes leaves into the pond, enjoying annoying her to get her attention.
On the other hand, Chun-hyang doesn’t take kindly to him having fun at her expense. She stands up in anger as though to come after him, only to remember she’s in a boat. Splash! She topples into the pond.
This time Mong-ryong feels really bad (he meant to poke, not actually cause trouble), particularly when she informs him, teeth chattering, that while he came here to goof off, she came to earn money. He defends himself lamely, but gives her his jacket.
He feels even guiltier as he’s hanging out with Ji-hyuk later, and hears that Chun-hyang is now bedridden with a cold.
Mong-ryong prods Ji-hyuk into visiting Chun-hyang so he can tag along, and sheepishly checks on her. She’s laid up in bed with a fever, and Dan-hee is spending the night because Mom is off to a gig that’ll keep her away till tomorrow.
The kids wind up playing Go Stop while Chun-hyang sleeps, and get caught up in their card game. Thirsty, Mong-ryong rummages in the fridge for a drink, finding an unmarked bottle and drinking the whole thing, not realizing it’s homemade wine. While Dan-hee and Ji-hyuk continue playing games, Mong-ryong starts feeling sick; he curls up outside and falls asleep.
The others make so much noise that Chun-hyang kicks them out, telling them to go home. Not seeing Mong-ryong, they assume he already left.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Mong-ryong half-awakens from the cold, and stumbles inside groggily.
Meanwhile, the nightclub roughnecks find Mong-ryong’s spiffy motorcycle parked outside Chun-hyang’s house, and decide to take it for a joyride. They tear through town, spying an easy mark outside a hotel, and snatch his bag — President Byun’s.
When Chief Lee hears that the thieves were on Mong-ryong’s bike, he practically has an aneurysm. Mong-ryong’s parents attempt to contact him all night, but as he is knocked out from the wine, they get no response.
In the morning, Chun-hyang’s mom arrives home and checks upon Chun-hyang… and starts screaming when she sees the boy lying next to her, half-naked.
In the confusion, Mong-ryong is chased outside, grabbing his clothes on the way, trying to avoid being hit by Mom’s broom of fury while Chun-hyang shouts, “Nothing happened, I swear!”
It’s this scene that greets Mong-ryong’s parents, Ji-hyuk, and a schoolteacher when they arrive at Chun-hyang’s house to trace Mong-ryong’s whereabouts.
The lovely maiden Chun-hyang enjoys being pushed on a swing by her servant girl Hyang-dan (Dan-hee in modern times). From a distance, the young nobleman’s son, Lee Mong-ryong, catches a glimpse and is intrigued; he instructs his servant Bang-ja (modern-day Ji-hyuk) to fetch the girl.
Despite her demure appearance, Chun-hyang is fully aware of the young lord’s presence and is doing this deliberately to gain his attention. Spying Bang-ja approaching, she smiles in satisfaction: “Lee Mong-ryong, I’ve got you now!”
Before this drama, Han Chae-young had a few secondary roles (Autumn Fairy Tale, Beijing My Love), but this is the vehicle that shot her to mainstream appeal. The director went against type and chose to strip Han of her trademark “sexy” image, reinventing her as a resilient, plucky, cheerful character instead. (He was successful in this, because Chun-hyang’s character, while very pretty, never strikes me as overtly sexy, unlike almost all of Han’s other roles.) Jae Hee had a number of films in his bag (notably Kim Ki-duk’s 3 Iron); here he demonstrated not only his awesome angst-emoting skills, but also his gift for comedic timing and a whole catalog of hilarious facial expressions. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s been as good since, which I blame on bad project choices.
I used to credit PD Jeon Ki-sang for giving this drama a lively energy with its directing and editing, but after the atrociousness of Witch Amusement and Boys Before Flowers, I have since revised my opinion; perhaps Chun-hyang owes its visual appeal to his co-director or a skilled AD.
Plus, the Hong sisters do romantic comedy like nobody’s business. This drama remains my favorite of theirs; with DGCH, they struck the right tone of young-love sweetness undercut with a constant stream of comedy, which keeps it from getting too sugary-sweet.
I’m not sure what it would feel like to watch this drama for the first time now, because the context is different. Some plot points that have become common cliches were less familiar back in good ol’ 2005; when I watched DGCH, I wasn’t bothered by some points that might elicit different reactions today.
But more than anything, I find myself being forgiving of DGCH because of the very premise — a modernized retelling of a famous story (and I’m a sucker for updated folk and fairy tales). Being an adaptation doesn’t excuse poor storytelling (e.g., Boys Before Flowers), but it does make me more understanding of a few stretches once I realize that they’re built into the premise. For example:
Some SPOILERY bits for future episodes (though no big ones):
The entire drama is predicated on the fact that these two kiddos marry young, which is a key point in the folktale. And forcing high schoolers to marry requires a lot more plot maneuvering than the original story had. Knowing this, I’m satisfied with how the drama brings about this result, and willingly accepted that as a basis for the drama.
Then there’s Byun Hak-do (Uhm Tae-woong), whose character in DGCH is more sympathetic than the wicked magistrate of the original story. In the first half of the drama, Byun is charming and dashing and totally won me over — I rooted for him for a while, preferring him to Mong-ryong’s immaturity. Some people find the age difference creepy — he’s around 30, she’s 20 through most of the drama — but you can imagine how that gap wasn’t such an issue several hundred years ago.
As the romance progresses, the story requires Byun to cling to Chun-hyang, and that’s where things get exaggerated. Even knowing he had to be that way, there are points when he gets way too possessive; I chalk it up to him being a faulty adaptation more than anything.
What I love about this drama is its bright sense of humor, zippy pacing, and endearing characters. A particular favorite story thread is the relationship that develops between Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong’s stern father; he’s at his wits’ end about his wayward son, but sees the goodness in her and senses that she can straighten Mong-ryong out.
Mong-ryong and Chun-hyang’s romance is more of the bickering kind than the lovey-dovey kind, but it’s also one of the better examples of bickering courtship that I’ve seen, peppered with wonderful chemistry and a healthy dose of humor. The problem with this kind of dynamic comes when the couple fights excessively and ends up yelling at each other all the time (Full House), or when they don’t fight or engage enough so you have periods of coldness separating them (Playful Kiss). Here, there’s always a reason for the bickering, and that thread of emotion — whether it be concern, jealousy, embarrassment, guilt — keeps it grounded and enjoyable.
I don’t think it’s spoiling things to say that DGCH has one of my favorite endings for a rom-com drama. It’s got enough happiness to give you the warm fuzzies, but isn’t so fanservicey that it feels out of step with logic (ahem, Sungkyunkwan Scandal).
On top of that, this is probably the Hong sisters drama with the least slapstick comedy — I find that the Hongs (as much as I love them) overdo broad comedy in their later dramas, but here they’re more restrained. It’s a big plus in my book. There’s no romance between an older couple, which is a relationship featured in almost every other Hong sisters drama (minus Hong Gil Dong), and while I appreciate the sentiment that romance doesn’t stop at 40, their handling of the secondary couple tends to take that extra step into ridiculous. Leaving that out here streamlines the narrative and focuses on the couple we really care about.
Caveat: If you’ve seen other Hong sisters dramas, you’ll probably recognize a few of their favorite tropes in this one, which may affect how you feel about this. For instance, My Girl will always come in after DGCH in my books because they did that drama after this one, so the elements they chose to recycle feel… well, recycled. I suspect that you’d feel that way about whichever one you saw later.
But no matter; Delightful Girl Chun-hyang remains in my list of favorites, and is always a go-to for a rewatch. In fact, I think I’ll go watch more of it now.