An uneven beginning, but one that got progressively better as the hour advanced. (To be honest, I was feeling that dull sense of bored disappointment halfway through, but at the 45-minute mark things picked up, and the last five minutes had my curiosity stirred and hopes rising. Things take an interesting turn.)
I’m not ready to make a decision yet, because the plot pieces are just getting put into place, and the stuff that draws me to this drama — the school, young aspirants working toward their dream, the rivalries — has barely even gotten any screen time. And yes, I suspect that if you were to decide based on the first half-hour, a lot of people might check out, but that’s mostly necessary background maneuvering; it’s really when they move to the school that things pick up.
SONG OF THE DAY
Dream High OST – “Dream High” by cast members Ok Taecyeon, Jang Woo-young, Suzy [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Oh, god. We start off with a rather self-important telecast of the Grammy Awards, ’cause the first-ever Korean is winning one. In 2018.
The singer is “K,” and therefore a reporter conducts an interview with JUNG HA-MYUNG (Mr. Hallyu, also this drama’s producer Bae Yong-joon), a starmaker whom K has credited for kick-starting his/her career. President Jung is also chairman of the board of Kirin Foundation, which operates Kirin Art High School.
K’s identity is kept a secret from us, and to pique our curiosity, all we are told is that K is in the photo Jung refers to — of our drama’s six leads — back from his/her high school days. The pendant in the shape of a K is a recurring motif linked to both K and Jung.
The reporter asks, “Did you have an inkling then, that K would become a World Star™ who’d win a Grammy Award?”
President Jung takes a roundabout way of answering, drawing a comparison to a billiards game, calling himself the “break shot” — the first shot that sets up the table for the rest of the game to proceed.
A series of images flashes of our leads, giving us an introductory shot of Taecyeon and, sadly, our only glimpse of Kim Soo-hyun in this episode. We land on GO HYE-MI (played by Bae Su-ji, aka Suzy), who is currently enjoying the spotlight singing the Lakmé Flower Duet by Delibes with famous soprano Jo Sumi (one of several star cameos).
In awe is Hye-mi’s friend and toady, YOON BAEK-HEE (Ham Eun-jung), who is in raptures over Hye-mi’s performance. After the show is over, a couple of other girls gossip about Hye-mi, who’s the type of girl who is easily hated — it’s due to a combination of her bitchy attitude and the fact that Hye-mi has everything. Looks, money, talent, and a bright future as a student headed to Juilliard.
Despite her overall snotty attitude, Hye-mi sticks up for her friend when the girls snipe about Baek-hee, calling her “Hye-mi-pa,” which means “Hye-mi’s slipper, who follows her everywhere.” Simple, sweet-natured Baek-hee doesn’t mind being called that, but Hye-mi does, and puts the girls in their place. Which only earns her greater adulation from Baek-hee.
Their walk takes them by Kirin Art School, which brings a sneer to Hye-mi’s lips — which is, by the way, no new look for her. She puts on airs about her superior pursuits in classical music, calling Kirin a cesspool that attracts dung flies. Keeping with the poo metaphor, the people affiliated with Kirin are “pieces of crap.” Such pretty words from this pampered, sheltered 17-year-old.
Kirin is no mere high school, but occupies a halfway point between school and management company, grooming the next generation of pop stars. Many are in training for future debuts, while some are even famous now. For this reason, a celebrity van drives by and a crowd of squealing fans accosts it, no doubt carrying some hot flavor of the month, and Hye-mi and Baek-hee are jostled in the process.
Hye-mi drops her wallet without noticing, and it gets picked up by a passerby. The name he reads on the ID catches the interest of his friend, JIN-GOOK (Taecyeon), who seems to recognize Hye-mi, and he takes the wallet to return. But not before his friend swipes the photo tucked inside, a polaroid of Hye-mi onstage with Jo Sumi.
He follows her to the subway, where he notes with amusement how she covers her face in a mask, then stealthily jumps the stile to avoid paying.
Another star cameo features Kim Hyun-joong playing himself — or a version thereof, as his character is one of Kirin’s most successful alumni. He has a good relationship with President Jung (carrying that mysterious K pendant), whom he greets warmly upon his exit from the plane, not having realized they were on the same flight. Their public reunion attracts the level of interest that, well, a real-life one between Kim Hyun-joong and Bae Yong-joon would attract.
Hye-mi is accosted by a loan shark, as her father has recently lost everything due to the failure of his business and is drowning in debt. To steer clear of the sharks, he has been on the run, leaving his children at home alone while he hides from his debt collectors. Gah, what IS it with egregiously irresponsible fathers in K-dramalandworld?
The man cheerfully tells her that she’s on the hook for daddy’s debts — she can repay with money or her body. What’ll it be?
She decides neither and makes a break for it, losing one shoe in the process, while he just laughs because she’s cornered.
His henchmen advance on her…until out of the blue, one is kicked aside.
It’s Jin-gook, here to save the day, having followed her here. He tosses Hye-mi her wallet, swipes one of the goons’ wallets, and fights them off with ease. (This scene is shot prettily, but sort of a waste of fancy editing; it’s like using high-tech shots to illustrate a schoolyard tussle.)
Jin-gook leads the loan sharks on a chase through city streets and into the subway station, where the leader finally catches up to him. He’s about to get a fist to the face, when out of nowhere flies a shoe, hitting the loan shark in the face. Jin-gook slips away and boards the subway train just as it pulls away, and in his haste runs right into his helper — Hye-mi, who’d given up her remaining shoe to give him a chance to escape.
Jin-gook smiles a bit bashfully and starts to ask if she remembers him — from that time? with the yogurt? — but Hye-mi cuts him off and demands her picture back. He has no idea what she’s talking about, but she smirks that he probably took her photo because he’s a pervert, acknowledging that she did look pretty good in it.
I do enjoy that Jin-gook, who had previously been eyeing her with curiosity and potential attraction, now loses all interest in her and turns away, flatly ignoring her accusations. Looks only last so long, but a toxic personality is forever.
Now for President Jung’s triumphant return to his home base at Kirin High…which isn’t really so triumphant after all. True, everyone bows respectfully and greets his return with excitement (particularly the students), but there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the teachers — in particular one underminey department head, Shi Beom-soo. You may recognize him from a similar role in Secret Garden as the second-in-command who’d dearly love to spot a chink in his boss’s armor to send him packing so he can take over. He fulfills the same purpose here, and though he greets President Jung deferentially, in actuality he resents losing his position of power.
President Jung acquaints himself with the changes that have occurred in the three years he’s been working in China. Many of the changes are not to his liking, such as Shi Beom-soo’s pushy attitude that has led some young trainees to injury.
President Jung makes a few immediate changes, beginning with the upcoming auditions for new applicants. Not only will he be part of the judging panel, he wants to make it an open audition.
Now it’s Hye-mi who follows Jin-gook, intent on retrieving her photo, and she makes enough of a pest of herself that he grudgingly brings her back to his basement dance studio (he recalls that his friend took the picture).
Jin-gook is part of a crew of b-boys who practice here and perform on the streets; it seems they’re all somewhat displaced kids, including Jin-gook himself, which we’ll get to in another minute.
Hye-mi demands her photo back from Jin-gook’s friend, and the guy teases her to comment on his dancing skills first, fishing for a compliment. She knows it and she doesn’t care to oblige, so she calls his dancing vulgar and him a coarse thug. Naturally that pisses him off and he gives her the whole, “You called me a thug? Let me show you how a thug really acts” routine.
His aggression veers close to getting out of hand, so Jin-gook steps in and reminds his friend that the Kirin auditions are coming up, and getting worked up won’t do them any good.
That calms him down, but Hye-mi never met a pot of shit she didn’t like to stir, and she sneers at him for wanting to go to that “shithole” of a school.
She stalks out in her superior way, but even so, Jin-gook follows her out to offer her the shoes off his feet, since she lost both of hers. What does he get in return? A shoe to the head; Hye-mi calls them stinky and rejects the offer, opting to walk home wearing scavenged tissue boxes instead.
She finds that the loan sharks have paid a visit to her (upscale, nicely furnished) home, which is in the process of being repossessed for her father’s debts (hence all the red tags on the household items). Thankfully they haven’t harmed her precocious little sister Hye-sung (that adorable weird girl from The Great Gye Choon-bin!).
She gets a call from Dad, who has decided to flee the country. He’ll be appealing to an aunt in Canada for help, but that means when the house is repo’d, his daughters will be homeless. He directs Hye-mi to someone who will surely agree to take them in for the next month or two — but when Hye-mi hears his name, she immediately refuses. Not HIM!
He’s KANG OH-HYUK (Eom Ki-joon, who’s so bumblingly cute here), a teacher at Kirin, although perhaps the least-respected one, by both teachers and students alike. Still, Hye-mi doesn’t have a lot of options, so she tracks him down (and breaks his car’s sideview mirror for good measure).
It’s a combination of Oh-hyuk’s timid nature and his guilt complex that has him eager to placate Hye-mi, because as she so vocally reminds him, HE’S the bad guy here, the homewrecker who seduced her mother and caused her parents to divorce. He’s not proud of that history and hurries to hush her everytime she mentions it, and buys her an extravagant lunch.
She announces the situation: Her father is ruined, so she and her sister will be living with him for the time being. She frames this not as a request, but as an “opportunity” for him to redeem himself for his sins, and he uneasily agrees.
But his cowardice gets the better of him, so he acts on an impulse and ditches her instead, driving away.
Hye-mi has too much pride to admit her situation to anybody, so Baek-hee is under the impression that all is normal in the rich, privileged Go household. When the loan shark comes to school, Hye-mi therefore doesn’t dispute Baek-hee’s assumption that he’s her new chauffeur, and reluctantly goes along with him — to her, this is the lesser of two evils.
Back at her house, the loan shark lays out her options. It turns out that when he told her to work off the debt with her body, he wasn’t trying to pimp her out — at least, not in that way. Instead, he tells her that where other thugs just use their fists on non-payers, he chooses the smarter path that allows him to recoup the debt.
He has done a background check on her and sees that she’s a talented singer headed to Juilliard. That’ll take too long for her to reach success, but with a few tweaks to her trajectory, he might be facing quicker repayment. Namely, if she goes to Kirin and makes it as a singer, she could be earning money a lot sooner. So, his conclusion: Go to Kirin, put out an album, “hit the jackpot like Lee Hyori” (lol), and pay back the debt.
Hye-mi glowers, not at all about to agree, until he smilingly reveals his Plan B: If she refuses, he’ll just move on to the next in line. Meaning, little sis Hye-sung.
There’s family drama in Jin-gook’s background, too, which we’re given a glimpse into as he reacts to a newspaper article about some highfalutin businessman. Jin-gook’s jaw tightens, indicating there’s bad blood there.
(This info isn’t in the drama proper, but according to the website profiles, Jin-gook’s father is a rich businessman, Chairman Hyun. Jin-gook’s own real name is Hyun Shi-hyuk, and he was abandoned by his single mother at an orphanage as a young child, then taken in by the chairman. He was raised in that cold environment until he ran away at around the time he would have been a first-year in high school, and changed his life and his name. Clearly he prefers his freedom despite his extreme poverty — his friend cooks ramyun on an upside-down clothing iron.)
Hye-mi thinks over her options, recalling how happy she was when she was given the chance to sing with her teacher, Jo Sumi, knowing that she’ll soon be giving that dream up for a much lesser (in her estimation) reality.
Still, she doesn’t really have much of a choice, and so, after indulging in a bit of tears alone, she puts on her bitchface (it’s her shield, really) as she announces to Baek-hee that she has decided to audition for Kirin instead.
Baek-hee is thrilled, because while she couldn’t follow Hye-mi to Juilliard, following her to Kirin is a much more viable option. After all, she’d followed her friend all these years to various lessons, so she’s had some training as well. Surely she has a shot at Kirin?
Baek-hee persuades Hye-mi into auditioning together for their first round, for which they will have to practice together.
On audition day, Hye-mi is utterly unruffled, scoffing to her sister that nerves are for people without talent, while she knows she’s golden. You know who else isn’t affected by nerves, Hye-mi? Sociopaths.
To prove her point, Baek-hee is all ajumble with nerves, and pauses at the gates to offer up a series of prayers. When asked what she prayed for specifically, Baek-hee smiles sweetly and says that she wants them both to pass the auditions together.
It’s like an episode of [Insert Country Here] Idol as the Kirin board evaluates all their auditionees, who range from b-boys to guitarists, Korean folk singers, ballet dancers and vocalists. Some are good, some… not so good.
It’s here that we get our first glimpse of JASON (Jang Woo-young), who frankly pulls in marks for most embarrassing showing. It’s not just the awkward English (I can overlook that, as long as he’s not busting it out frequently) but the hammy acting as he lounges like God’s gift to spoiled teenagers, acting haughty with Jin-gook’s friend and winking coyly to a girl (albeit one dressed up as a sushi roll).
And then, it’s time for Hye-mi and Baek-hee. The latter is nervous and meek, the former all bored confidence. They sing a duet, which I’m sure will have an official studio version and is probably titled something like “I Have a Dream.” The following clip is ripped from the episode. [ Download ]
Toward the end, Baek-hee’s emotion-filled rendition has her adding a few vocal frills, which earn her a sharp look from Hye-mi, who is Not To Be Outdone. In response, Hye-mi gets carried away, ending on an overwhelming crescendo showcasing her classical chops.
The teachers look suitably impressed, as do the auditionees watching outside on the TV monitors. President Jung asks in his quiet, unassuming way how they would respond if only one of them passed, and the obvious assumption is that Hye-mi is the stronger singer. Baek-hee bursts out that that will not do! They promised to stick this through together, so they absolutely must both pass! Please pass both, or neither.
Jung tests her — what if she were the one who made it? Then how would she respond? She sticks to her guns, saying that if she passed instead of Hye-mi, she would turn it down.
At this point, Hye-mi speaks up, saying bluntly — harshly — that this arrangement doesn’t extend to her. While Baek-hee has come to this understanding on her own, she never promised to go down for her friend, and she won’t.
Baek-hee is stunned, and says pleadingly that they were supposed to go together, grasping her friend’s hand in entreaty. Hye-mi shakes off that hand — which President Jung sees with narrowed eyes — and declares, “I have no intention of failing because of her. I’ll stay.”
Now President Jung sets them straight: The one who passed is Baek-hee, not Hye-mi.
That takes both girls by surprise — neither had even considered this option — and Baek-hee gapes, while Hye-mi has to reconfirm that she heard right. Her shock turns to anger as she accuses Jung of having no right to judge, and no musical talent or discernment of his own. She yells shrilly that this is utterly incomprehensible and turns her scorn onto her (former?) friend, insisting that Baek-hee has no business passing.
Hye-mi: “She just followed me here! She’s absolutely nothing! I’m first-rate, and she’s third-rate!”
It’s in the middle of this diatribe that Baek-hee’s disillusionment is complete, her reaction shifting from astonishment to hurt betrayal.
While everyone else is appalled at Hye-mi’s behavior, President Jung maintains his cool, and offers her a second chance to test her worthiness. They both agree that the results of this round will be indisputable.
He takes a seat behind the piano and begins playing a variation on a familiar tune. The melody is immediately recognizable as Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and Hye-mi recognizes that he’s playing a mash-up with a second song… but what is it? Stravinsky? Mahler?
In fact it’s a humble Korean trot song, called “사랑밖에 난몰라” (I Only Know Love). It’s a famous tune, one that most Koreans would probably recognize within the first few measures (I barely know a handful of trot songs and I recognized it, which shows you how well-known it is). The version below is sung by Horan (Download), although you can also download the original by Shim Soo-bong (Download).
In fact, the other teachers murmur that this is too easy a test, and that President Jung is sure to lose. Yet when he stops playing and challenges Hye-mi to name that tune, the best she can do is hazard a guess: Saint-Saens?
President Jung smiles to have his point proven, then asks Baek-hee, who correctly identifies the song. Watching from outside, Jin-gook guesses that her downfall was in not even allowing for the possibility that he’d mix Gershwin with a common trot song.
He’s right on the money, because Hye-mi bursts out that it wasn’t fair: “How can you mix Gershwin with crap like trot?” (At least she has the presence of mind to realize that last bit was out of line, and she shuts up.) President Jung sets her in her place: “This school does not accept third-rate.”
President Jung: “I consider first-rate to be students who are talented and work hard. Second-rate are those who don’t have talent but work hard. And third-rate…”
Hye-mi: “Do you think I have no talent and don’t work hard?”
President Jung: “Third-rate… are students who are prejudiced.”
Hye-mi reels as this sinks in, and Baek-hee smiles at the irony. Delicious. Having recovered from her hurt, she says in a taunting voice, “Now that I think about it, you’ve always been first place. How does it feel, being third-rate?”
Now President Jung’s voiceover resumes from the opening scene, picking up from that billiards metaphor.
President Jung: “The moment the break shot is made and the balls scatter, the game begins. That’s the same with important changes in life. When you hit a moment that is as sudden as the break shot, your orderly life scatters in mere moments. In front of such change, most youngsters find themselves confused and scared. If I could go back to those points, I’d like to tell them: ‘The game has begun, so don’t be scared, and enjoy it.'”
As he narrates, Hye-mi walks out, having lost this fight. But she makes a sudden decision, whirls around, and beelines straight for President Jung again.
For a long moment it seems she’ll issue another angry challenge, or throw a tantrum… but she shocks everyone by humbling herself and kneeling in supplication.
She pleads, “Please. Save me.”
As I said, the first episode was uneven. Not completely bad, but not really all that good, either. At least, not till the last fifteen minutes or so, when it kicked things up and gave us some strong moments.
What I find lacking at this point is the tone, which tends to overdo everything. Instead of stately, it’s self-important on the verge of pompous. Instead of merely dramatic, it goes for Grandiose. (Everyone gets a hero shot with gorgeous backlighting, and some even merit super-slow-motion action moves — despite a lack of actual action.) It sort of puffs itself up, and that makes me laugh — it’s a little cheesy.
But what it lacks for in tone and plot, it makes up for in high production values — the drama really looks great. The lighting and camera work make for a lovely visual palette — not to mention that the pretty, pretty idol faces aren’t exactly hard on the eyes, either.
Characters are at the heart of any drama, so it’s when the drama actually focuses on them that I grew interested. I wasn’t bothered by Hye-mi’s Uber-Brat routine, although it makes her very hard to root for — but in this episode, you’re not really supposed to root for her. It’s why that smackdown is so satisfying in the end — which then heightens the moment when she actually humbles herself. If she’d been softened too much, those moments would’ve lost their impact. Now, the trick is to then turn her into a likable lead, because yeah, she IS the lead. At this point she could drop off the screen and I wouldn’t care about her in the least, so that’s the new challenge.
I know some fans were bemoaning Eunjung getting a “second lead” role instead of Suzy, but I had a feeling she’d be a pretty pivotal character with plenty of development, since the promos for this drama featured the prominent copy about “stealing dreams.” I love this idea of Hye-mi creating her own worst enemy, because if she’d been the least bit gracious, she would’ve had a die-hard loyal supporter for life. Of all the idols in this episode, Eunjung/Baek-hee was my favorite (and I say that having had mixed feelings about her bumbling character in Coffee House), so I just hope that Baek-hee won’t turn too mean, now that she’s set up to be Hye-mi’s big rival. Although I fear my worries are well-founded, given how quickly Baek-hee taps into her inner diva. Bitchy, I can deal with (and enjoy!). But if she tries to out-Hye-mi Hye-mi… yeesh. Diva overload.
On the acting front, Taecyeon and Suzy are just serviceable, the latter seeming slightly stronger than the former. Woo-young I found laughably bad, but I hold out hope that he’ll be much better when acting in Korean. But really, I’m just dying for some Kim Soo-hyun.
All in all: I’ll keep watching with a hopeful eye, though I’m far from sold yet. I hope it drops some of its cheesy over-the-top-ness and focuses on the kids, because I do love me some high school drama. On television, that is. The real-life kind can go suck it.