Paradise Ranch is the long-awaited (?) — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say long-shelved — drama starring idol pop star Choi Kang Changmin of DBSK in his drama debut, alongside Lee Yeon-hee. For lots of reasons, there’s been an undercurrent of unease about this drama, with its inability to secure a broadcaster or a timeslot for months, which led to a pretty lengthy time spent in limbo. In fact, the entire drama was wrapped and completed practically a year ago, and there was speculation that it might never see the light of day.
But SBS picked it up for its Monday-Tuesday 9pm timeslot, which has in recent months been home to lighter dramatic fare (I Am Legend, It’s Okay Daddy’s Girl, Dr. Champ). The timeslot hasn’t seen a hit since Wish Upon a Star a full year ago, so I wonder if SBS will continue to slot it with dramas (the other stations don’t air dramas in that slot) for much longer. But that’s a discussion for another day, another post. I mostly mention it because I happen to have seen all the dramas in this hour minus one (Angel’s Temptation) and for whatever reason, I seem to have more lenient expectations of them. I don’t know why.
Paradise Ranch was neither as good nor as bad as I was hoping it to be, which puts it squarely into that category of meh for me. It isn’t horrible — as I was expecting from its awful trailers — but it’s not really that exciting or interesting, either. But it’s also benign enough that it doesn’t really merit heaps of snark, either. Yet. We’ll see.
SONG OF THE DAY
Winterplay – “You’re In My Heart.” This song plays in one scene toward the end of Episode 1. [ Download ]
The story is simple enough: Two young kiddos in love attempt to run away and elope against their parents’ wishes, but due to her age — she’s 19, he’s 21 — they require parental consent. So instead, they return home and beg the adults to agree to the marriage, and surprisingly it’s his grandfather who relents first and convinces the others to let the kids marry.
The couple has their honeymoon period of wedded bliss… and then, inevitably, problems arise (though we are given no specifics in our heroine’s brief introduction). They divorce after six months and go their separate ways.
And then, we’re six years later.
Now for our real introduction to LEE DA-JI (Lee Yeon-hee), now 25, a veterinarian with a specialty in horses. She works at Paradise Ranch, a small farm on Jeju Island where she lives with her father and her pesky younger sister DA-EUN.
Da-ji loves horses but doesn’t actually seem to be very good with them, which is either a weird quirk or a flaw in the writing of the drama. I can’t decide which. Her boss cluck-clucks about her inability to go 10 minutes without getting herself into some sort of trouble, which seems pretty on the mark. She’s bubbly, vivacious, and optimistic, so it’s easy to like her although one wonders how she managed to become a vet, as her competence has yet to be demonstrated.
She is sent by her cheapskate boss to a horse auction in Australia, with specific instructions on what kind of animal she is to buy. As she looks over her top pick, another prospective horse-buyer notices her — her ex-husband, HAN DONG-JOO (Shim Chang-min).
Dong-joo, now 27, is the spoiled, lazy heir to Dongin Group and director at DI Resort, a sprawling new development on Jeju Island that neighbors Paradise Ranch. In fact DI’s presence is encroaching on the ranch’s own — it’s a You’ve Got Mail-esque battle between the little guys and the big corporate power — but the kids don’t yet know the connection.
Dong-joo seems pleased to see Da-ji at first, but his face tightens when he overhears her cooing to her horse about the handsome other horse-buyer standing nearby — his soon-to-be rival SEO YOON-HO (Joo Sang-wook). Da-ji doesn’t think Yoon-ho understands Korean so she speaks freely and admiringly, which makes Yoon-ho smile and Dong-joo scowl.
She spots him and greets him warmly, but Dong-joo’s jealousy has him treating her with iciness, saying curtly that he isn’t at all happy to see her despite six years apart. She’s hurt and doesn’t understand the reason for his coldness, and this adds to the tension when they realize that they’re bidding on the same horse.
Dong-joo has been sent by Grandpa to buy this horse for the resort, threatened with being cut off financially if he refuses. The antagonism he feels toward Da-ji has him outbidding her at every turn, and that raises her hackles. In a fit of pique, she outbids him — and it’s only after the auction closes that she does the math and realizes she’s exceeded her budget by more than triple.
She can’t go home empty-handed, and she can’t afford this horse, so she goes to Dong-joo’s room later to plead with him to buy the horse instead, since he wanted it anyway. He’s still feeling upset and has no inclination to make her life easier, and flatly refuses.
It’s here that Da-ji gets her first glimpse of Dong-joo’s new ladyfriend, PARK JIN-YOUNG (Yoo Hana), an interior designer who seems to be quite free and casual with Dong-joo. Just as Dong-joo felt upset to see Da-ji seemingly flirt with another man, Da-ji can’t help feeling a little put out by this, although she hides it and excuses herself.
Giving us a glimpse of the marshmallow heart under Dong-joo’s prickly exterior, however, later he calls his man back at home to look into buying the horse at the inflated price anyway, which would take it off Da-ji’s hands.
That evening, Da-ji sits at a bar and moans about her predicament. She doesn’t immediately notice the guy sitting next to her — Yoon-ho — who looks at her with affectionate amusement. She’s pretty cute, the way she reads the menu and sing-songs to herself, “Why are you so expensive?” and worries that she’s dead for making the mistake.
She assumes that Yoon-ho is a horse dealer — he bought 13 horses — although we know (from the character descriptions) that he’s actually an investor and specialist in resort development.
I’d say that Jin-young is much more into Dong-joo than he is in her; he’s friendly with her, but a little uncomfortable with her free affection.
Hence the flare of jealousy again when he sees Da-ji and Yoon-ho together at the horse stables again, this time because the latter has heard her worries and offers to help her out. If she doesn’t buy the horse she bid on, she’ll have to give up the deposit, and that only leaves her with a relatively small sum with which to buy a different horse.
Yoon-ho accompanies Da-ji to look at other horses, and find one that fits the bill. Dong-joo looks on grimly as Da-ji exults with Yoon-ho, and when he gets word that the original horse is no longer for sale, he drops his pursuit of it. It seems he’d only insisted on buying it when it would have helped Da-ji, and now he doesn’t care. Aw. I can see how the marriage fell apart if their communication was always this stunted, even if they had the best of intentions.
And it’s clear that whatever broke them up, it hasn’t killed their feelings. I wouldn’t say they’re still in love, but that kind of baggage doesn’t go away so easily, and later on he walks by with Jin-young on his arm, just as he sees Da-ji with Yoon-ho again. This time he puts his hand on Jin-young’s shoulder, in a taunt-like gesture, making sure Da-ji sees.
She does, but so does the perceptive Yoon-ho, who in return puts his hand on her shoulder. That’s what we call a strategic backfire, and Dong-joo is not pleased.
It’s only when they’re both back in Jeju that they realize that they’re neighbors — or rather, that Dong-joo is now Da-ji’s evictor. He has bought the ranch, intending to usurp the space to fold into the neighboring DI Resort, but Da-ji supposes that he must have been scammed. There has been interest in selling the ranch, but a week ago, Da-ji and her father had bought the house themselves.
While the secretary checks on the contract details, the erstwhile couple have a terse conversation. At least, it’s terse on his end, and he’s surprised to see her here in Jeju, and a vet no less. One must suppose that she’d had different goals for her life — her father repeatedly says he’s sorry to her — but that they didn’t work out.
Alas, they soon discover that Dong-joo’s purchase is legally valid, meaning that Da-ji is the one who’s been scammed. Furthermore, she’s not the only one — all the other residents have been taken in by scam contracts, and are given one month to get the heck out of there before DI Resort kicks them out and begins its overhaul.
Da-ji vows to find out what really happened, determined not to lose her home like this. The editing of this segment hints at the likelihood that our culprit is none other than the charming, suave developer Yoon-ho, who arrives at DI’s offices for a business meeting with Dong-joo.
During the meeting, Dong-joo casts suspicious glances at Yoon-ho, trying to figure out what happened, wondering at Da-ji’s predicament and finding something fishy about this guy.
But Da-ji remains oblivious, and when she runs into Yoon-ho at the ranch (still believing him to be a horse dealer), she lights up in happy surprise and greets him warmly.
As I said, there’s nothing that’s really outright bad OR good about this drama so far. On one hand, that means there’s room to hope that it’ll tap into that elusive quality that gets a drama’s claws into your skin — but on the other hand, it could lead you down that maddening path of hanging in there for a long, painful ride as you hope it becomes more than it actually is.
The plot is fairly standard with its dynamics and love rectangle, and I find myself wishing that the one aspect that sets it apart — the youthful romance and divorce — were explored more. I can see where the drama may want to deliberately keep us in the dark as to what happened, so as to make the reunion more suspenseful, but frankly I’d like to see what made these crazy kids fall so madly in love in the first place. We’re told practically in the same breath that they married and divorced, which gives the romance no weight in my mind. I’m not pulling for them to get together because I don’t know that they’re any good together. Not yet. So more hint of the mystery behind their courtship and separation would have helped.
Acting-wise, I’ll say that Lee Yeon-hee is much better here than she has been in the past. She’s got a gorgeous face and the camera loves her, but she’s been the very definition of anemic in her performances (namely, East of Eden). She does overact the cute here, but like Kim Tae-hee, I think she’s much better being bubbly and sweet than quiet or melodramatic, so I’m more willing to go with this characterization than I was with her other roles.
If Joo Sang-wook ends up being the villainous mastermind type, I’d be all for welcoming it, because otherwise he’s just the perfect prince who swoops in to save the day for Da-ji, which is a plot device I’m really tired of. Yoo Hana has barely been onscreen so I’ll hold off on judgment there, although I fear she’ll be relegated to one-dimensional second lead stuff, which would be a shame because she was so adorable in Sons of Sol Pharmacy. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a bratty character as much as I did her Eun-ji, who was sweet and bubbly.
Sorry to say that I find Chang-min to be the weak link here. He’s not as bad or wooden as some other idols in their debuts, but he IS very awkward with the camera, and you can see that in his self-conscious deliveries. The camera captures his discomfort and unease, and that translates into this weird sense of unease about his character. At least for me. He’s not horrible, but he’s not really compelling, either. At best, he seems miscast for the role of a smooth, spoiled chaebol who doesn’t care about work, since he seems more like the earnest dork with communication problems.
But it’s early days yet. I don’t feel the pull to be invested in Paradise Ranch just yet, but who knows? Stranger things have happened.