49 Days had a slow ratings start (8.6%), but when I’m talking about dramas that hook my interest from the get-go, the ratings discussion is really just an afterthought. I was much more interested in seeing whether the drama would be able to capitalize on its promise, and although I approached warily, I found myself responding really well to the first episode.
The story itself didn’t hold many surprises — it was all given away in the promos and premise descriptions — so what made it work was the relationships the drama has built, and the characters who hint at being much more than meets the eye. Even if that means that for this hour, we had to sit through a LOT of Nam Gyuri‘s acting, which ranged from badly stilted to middling. But everyone else? I’m excited.
SONG OF THE DAY
10cm – “Talk” [ Download ]
We’ve covered the setup in all the pre-premiere posts, so without further ado:
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We start out with scenes from modern life in Korea, and the clips converge on a central theme of birth and death. Old life passing, making room for the new.
Playing a guitar on the ledge of a high-rise (because, sure, why not?) is our pretty-boy Grim Reaper (Jung Il-woo), looking over his domain with a detached eye.
Down below, a traffic jam strands three young ladies in a cab, with an engagement ceremony fast approaching. The stressed-out bride — er, fiancée-to-be — is about to lose it; SHIN JI-HYUN (Nam Gyuri) has many nicknames, one of which is “crybaby,” and she’s about to prove its aptness here.
Averting disaster is her stalwart best friend, SHIN IN-JUNG (no relation) (Seo Ji-hye), who urges Ji-hyun and their third friend PARK SEO-WOO (Bae Geu-rin) to make it on foot. When Ji-hyun’s heel breaks, it’s In-jung who gives up her flats and runs on in her stocking feet.
Elsewhere, an architect works at his desk, only looking up when he is reminded that the engagement ceremony is approaching. This is HAN KANG (Jo Hyun-jae), who dresses in his suit and heads toward the venue.
A classic misdirect makes us think (if we haven’t read the plot synopsis by now) that he’s the late groom-to-be, and he tugs nervously at his tie like a bachelor with cold feet. But no, it’s a fake-out: He bursts into the ceremony as it’s just winding down.
The happy couple isn’t greatly disturbed so there’s no big drama here — at least, until we pan back to Kang’s uncomfortable face and realize that no, he’s not the fiancé. He’s the guy who wishes he were.
It’s one of those subtle things we don’t realize right away, but comes through the more we see Kang in the couple’s presence. In fact, the dynamic niggles at my memory… Where have I seen this before? (Aside from every other drama ever.)
Ji-hyun greets Kang with friendliness, but he coldly ignores her and focuses on talking to his hyung, fiancé KANG MIN-HO (Bae Soo-bin). We get the sense Ji-hyun is used to being snubbed but keeps trying because she wants to win Kang over, but he’s not having it. (AH! It’s Love, Actually.)
Case in point: Min-ho asks Kang to hold Ji-hyun’s hand because she keeps tripping over her dress, and he stutters an excuse to avoid it. She’s miffed at his rejection, but Kang is working in self-preservation mode here, and just trying to get along without being found out.
The only person to pick up on something in Kang’s behavior is Ji-hyun’s dad, who looks at him quizzically. Min-ho explains that they met while he was studying for his MBA in the States. Kang is a high school classmate of Ji-hyun’s, and “practically a genius” as an architect.
Now on the other end of the income bracket, we have poor SONG YI-KYUNG (Lee Yo-won), who hunches in her tiny apartment eating a bowl of instant ramyun for dinner, looking like all the life has been drained out of her eyes. She trudges lifelessly to her soul-sucking job at a small convenience store, where she works in a dull daze. Even when a customer tries to engage her with a friendly smile, she looks right through him and dismisses him.
Ji-hyun’s father is called away from the engagement ceremony with an upsetting call, and he stumbles home drunk that night. Guess the news must’ve been bad, because he urges the kids to marry right away — like, this month. They protest, but he reverse-psychologies them, asking, So of a sudden you don’t want to marry, is that it?
Clearly there’s some reason prompting them to hurry — I’m guessing it’s financial, related to Dad’s investment business — but he doesn’t divulge it.
The hasty wedding isn’t what Min-ho or Ji-hyun had planned, but they dutifully go along with it, and Min-ho makes his official proposal to seal the deal. Then, they call their wedding party for dinner that night (where, we may note, Kang acts distant toward Ji-hyun but happens to know all of her food preferences).
The happy couple reminisces about their first meeting, which spins us off into a flashback to a hiking trip that Ji-hyun had gone on with In-jung.
What started off sunny and invigorating had turned dark and rainy, and the girls had been separated in the woods. Min-ho had found her huddled and shivering in the woods, and carried her to safety and called an ambulance to tend to her.
Kang is already hating being here at all, and as he listens to this romantic story, it’s all he can do to will his head not to burst. He keeps his arms crossed grumpily and endures the adoring couple.
And while In-jung is the model of the perfect, caring, thoughtful best friend, I suspect there’s more there, too. (Granted, I’m keeping in mind what I know from her character description.)
For example, everything In-jung does and says is perfectly sweet. And I don’t suspect her of being a scheming backstabber (not yet, at least). But she has an overcompensation thing going on, like she’s trying to will herself to be happy for her friend, in the way that Kang is trying to will himself not to shoot himself in aggravation.
The girls go through the wedding plans, with organized In-jung on top of the to-do list. As an example of how sweet but dim Ji-hyun is, she exclaims that her bridesmaids ought to wear the same wedding dress when they marry — ostensibly to save money, but kind of mind-numbingly self-absorbed, no? But her friends are well aware of her cute, simple ways and laugh along with her.
In-jung had until recently been Ji-hyun’s roommate, but upon the wedding, her old room will be turned into a study. Usurped in more ways than one, perhaps?
It’s the dead of night (well past 3am) when Yi-kyung’s convenience store is held up by two robbers wielding a knife. They demand money, but find her contained reaction a little unnerving. Seeing that she doesn’t even flinch, one growls, “Do you wanna die?” She challenges him, “Stab me.”
The cops arrive to arrest the failed thieves, and even the police officer tells Yi-kyung incredulously that she should’ve handed the money over to keep herself safe.
The boys meet up for an early-morning workout session, and Kang asks Min-ho to relieve him of groomsman duties. We can surmise his reasoning for wanting out, but he’s also got his reputation for indifferent detachment working in his favor, and Min-ho assumes he just finds such things tiresome. He lets his friend off the hook, and says that it was Ji-hyun’s affection for tradition that they had persuaded him to join them in the first place.
Min-ho recalls that Kang had been intending to track down a woman once he came back to Korea — which suggests he’s newly arrived — and says that it shouldn’t be so hard to find a person in such a tiny country. Kang deflects this, though, which makes me suspect that he may have been looking for his old friend Ji-hyun. (And, perhaps, found her too late?)
Kang tries to avoid Ji-hyun when he runs into her later, but she follows him and tries again to engage him. She explains that she wants all her and Min-ho’s closest friends to be a part of their big day, and Kang has a double claim — he’s Min-ho’s closest buddy, and also her old friend.
Kang sets her straight, saying that they are NOT friends, thankyouverymuch, prompting Ji-hyun to wonder if he’s still holding a grudge from “that time.” Whatever happened, it’s clear that he IS still thinking of it, while Ji-hyun scoffs that if anyone should be feeling bad over it, it should be her, not him.
Not wanting to delve into old wounds, he tells her flat-out that he doesn’t want to be a part of the wedding party, and that yes, it’s because of her. He assures her he’ll treat her properly as hyungsoo-nim (my brother’s wife), so she can be satisfied with that.
Ji-hyun is hurt by his rejection, and fiddles with her fingers in a recurring nervous tic. She tells her friends that Kang really is a jerk, and they advise her to let go — why does she insist on calling Kang a friend when he hates her? She sighs that as much as he can be a pain in the ass sometimes, she doesn’t hate him.
Ji-hyun is surprised to hear Min-ho call Kang sensitive, but he tells her that Kang has dealt with a lot of pain, like the proper k-drama hero he is.
Complicating the dynamic (I’m sure) is the fact that In-jung works for Ji-hyun’s father. Min-ho also works for Future Dad-In-Law, meaning that In-jung is his secretary as well. Eep. I’m sure that isn’t problematic, eh? Especially since her boss’s wife to whom she must defer is her best friend from high school. Even if nothing dramatic were to happen, you get the sense that something’s gotta give, here.
Ji-hyun goes shopping for her bridesmaid’s dresses, taking particular care to find a dress that’ll look pretty on In-jung, since she’s picked out a groomsman to match her up with. She takes the dress with her to have her friend try it on.
Hot Reaper Boy speeds along on his motorcycle, on his way to a scheduled, uh, appointment. Pulling over, he consults his smartphone… er, smartdeathwatchdevice. He’s got five minutes till the scheduled demise of a Mr. Kim Jin-soo, and settles back to wait.
At the same time, Yi-kyung stares dully at her calendar — okay, lady, you’re starting to be a real downer — which is fixed on an old date: March 15, 2006. She puts on a black dress, suggesting that she lost not only a loved one but also herself on that day.
Yi-kyung takes the bus to a particular location, carrying a desiccated rose, not noticing that she is passed by the Reaper or that she is being followed by a man.
She crouches by the road, next to a warning sign indicating a dangerous accident-prone area. A flashback takes us back to some time ago, when the bloodstain was fresh on the road. A young man’s body had hit the ground here.
Making a sudden decision, Yi-kyung rashly steps into the busy road, directly into the path of an oncoming truck. She closes her eyes to await impact.
But a man dashes into traffic to spin her out of harm’s way, and they hit the ground safely.
The truck, on the other hand, swerves to avoid her. What results is a multi-car pileup on the highway, which catches the Reaper by surprise — I bet he thought it’d be a lot easier figuring out where his body would end up, but now he’s got a dozen cars to choose from. The Reaper sighs in frustration, just as the guy in front of him — stuck in traffic in his car — clutches his heart.
Ji-hyun isn’t initially caught up in this nightmare wreckathon, but when a motorcyclist skids in front of her, she swerves to avoid running him over… and that sends her into a truck, the force propelling her out the windshield.
Landing on the ground, her eyes flutter open and she gets to her feet, apparently unharmed. She looks around to get her bearings, glancing over at the nearby car — hers — where people yell at the young woman inside. Which is her.
Shock. Her real body is hunched over and bloody. Ji-hyun tries to touch something, but her hands only ripple into the man in front of her, and nobody can hear her. Oddly enough, one dude looks straight at her, to her relief. But the next moment, he’s gone.
Ji-hyun gets into the ambulance with…herself…and watches her body failing to respond to revival attempts.
In the hospital, Yi-kyung’s rescuer watches over her body. He’s the kindly fellow who’d tried to smile at her at the convenience store the other night, which doesn’t entirely explain his presence but suggests he may have been trying to gain her attention for a while now.
When she wakes up, he’s gone, and she looks just as depressed as she did before. Perhaps even more so, since she’s still alive.
Ji-hyun watches as her parents and Min-ho rush into the emergency room, distraught to see her lying prone and hooked up to machines. They break down as her body is wheeled into surgery, and Ji-hyun screams out to them, but she’s kept strictly on her side of the Great Divide — her voice goes unheard, and her touches are repelled by some cosmic mojo.
Reaper Boy walks through the hall, and Ji-hyun remembers that he’d seen her at the accident site and chases after him. The rules of her condition establish that she cannot travel through solid objects, though, so she has to wait on the other side of a door until a living person opens it for her.
She joins the Reaper in another hospital room, where he awaits his time to step in. Spotting her, Reaper Boy gripes, “Shin Ji-hyun! Why don’t you pay attention when you drive?!”
But before he can talk to her, he’s got a job to do. The man in the hospital bed flatlines, and his soul literally leaves the body just as the doctor pronounces him dead.
Reaper greets Dead Man and leads him away, where a celestial portal opens up with a wave of the Reaper’s hand. Dead Man steps inside the elevator, on his way to the After.
The Reaper indicates that she should follow him, and he takes her to the rooftop for a chat. She asks if he’s the Angel of Death/Grim Reaper, but he’s indignant to be called such a passé term: “I’m a Scheduler.” His job is to be there when a person’s scheduled lifetime is up.
She asks if she’s dead, which he confirms. Although his work today hadn’t been about her, thanks to the accident, the plans had a last-minute hiccup: “It’s the case we Schedulers hate most — when our Schedules get messed up!”
Well, sooor-rrrry Mr. Snippy! It’s too bad that death was so inconvenient to you.
Ji-hyun wasn’t scheduled to die today, and Mr. Not-A-Reaper explains that every so often, a troublemaker arises to mess things up. Like today’s attempted suicide.
If there’s anything worse than dying, it’s finding out that you weren’t supposed to die. Ji-hyun clings to hope that he’d made a mistake, insisting futilely that she can’t be dead.
And true, Ji-hyun’s not dead yet, not technically. But she is as good as gone, and the Scheduler shows her what he means by taking her to her hospital room.
Her friends burst in, in shock and grief, and listen in horror as the doctor declares her body in a vegetative state; she’s “practically brain-dead.”
The Scheduler tries to lead Ji-hyun away. She freaks out, thinking he’s about to guide her to the hereafter, she tries to run. But you can’t cheat death, and there’s no escaping him.
He tells her he won’t force her on that
stairway elevator to heaven. Which means, she’ll have to decide to get on it herself.
So he lays out the deal:
In his time as a Scheduler, he’s had two previous cases like hers, where the people died as a result of someone else’s unexpected action. She has two options: Either decide that she’s ready to move on to the afterlife anyway, or find three people in the world who truly love her. This she can prove in the form of tears shed while thinking of her.
The rationale is: Those tears indicate that this is a life with enough value to grant another chance.
The Scheduler adds caveats — family members are excluded — but Ji-hyun is thrilled, since this plan seems pretty easy to her. After all, her hospital room was host to more than three tears already.
But the Scheduler smirks — not all tears are created equal. She must collect three pure tears. To illustrate, he takes her to a funeral and instructs her to observe carefully the tears of the attendees.
The Scheduler describes what she’s seeing: That lady sheds tears of pity, that one is crying in consolation to herself, and the other lady is forcing them out of courtesy. When the tears drop, they dissipate into a puff of color, indicating that they’re not “pure” tears of love. By contrast, pure tears of love burst into a flare of white mist, as demonstrated by one funeral-goer. That woman, therefore, truly loved the deceased. Too bad she’s her sister, which would negate her tears in Ji-hyun’s case.
On the other hand, the deceased’s husband cries green tears — they’re sad, but still tinged with hope for his own future. The Scheduler tsks-tsks as he looks over the other color-tainted tears in the room, sighing, “Humans sure are complicated.”
Still, Ji-hyun is confident she can accomplish this in her allotted 49 days, and accepts the task.
Next, the Scheduler takes her to the convenience store and briefs her on the profile of the woman whose body she is allowed to use: Yi-kyung is 28, grew up in an orphanage, and graduated from university after studying hotel and tourism. She worked in a Seoul hotel for two years, was unemployed for a year, then had a string of convenience store gigs.
Ji-hyun doesn’t approve of her Body — that disheveled hairstyle, and those clothes! — but the Scheduler tells her that this woman is connected to her. He doesn’t clarify what Yi-kyung’s critical role was in determining Ji-hyun’s own fate.
Ji-hyun is instructed to act only after Yi-kyung falls asleep, so she waits in Yi-kyung’s dingy apartment till her host comes home from her graveyard shift.
Once Yi-kyung falls asleep, Ji-hyun hovers over her as her soul is absorbed into the body. Moments later, Yi-kyung awakens — or should I say, Ji-hyun’s Soul In Yi-kyung’s Body. (We need a name for this. Ji-hyun-kyung? Ji-hyun’s Soul? The Host?)
In any case, Ji-hyun’s Soul gets up in her unfamiliar body, and acquaints herself with her new (temporary) home. Trembling in excitement, she declares tearily, “I’m…Shin Ji-hyun!”
We’ve already established that I love the premise of 49 Days. There’s something about that category of Second Chance At Life stories that really works for me — it’s a universal theme, and one that everyone ought to be able to relate to. There’s a dash of whimsy in the idea, but it’s not a far-fetched work of fantasy — I think this drama is really more about the real-world aspect than the supernatural element of Reapers and souls and the afterlife.
Plus, I LOVE shows like Dead Like Me — which is fabulous, if you haven’t seen it already — and Flowers For My Life and Who Are You?, which play with the idea of learning to live through experiencing death.
Then there’s the bit where Ji-hyun’s host happens to be this Walking Dead of a character. I appreciate this choice from several angles, the most basic one being that these two almost-dead girls will somehow renew life into each other, in a metaphorical AND literal way. It’s what Who Are You did so well, in explaining why the host body was chosen. A drama like this needs some concrete rules (you always need rules when you’re dealing with fantasy elements, otherwise you just lose all grasp of reality), and if the choice were arbitrary, we’d have some tricky moral areas to deal with. (Such as: Is it fair, or ethical, to hijack a random stranger’s life, even temporarily?) But Yi-kyung is directly responsible for the crash(es), so it makes sense that she would be host to Ji-hyun’s second chance. I’m willing to go with it, because the drama establishes that Yi-kyung hijacked Death. The rule works for me.
It also suggests that Death isn’t always prescribed, which is a thought I like. It means that not all deaths are preordained by some elevator-wielding God, and that you have a choice to divert the course of events with a (rash, impetuous) act of free will. Cold comfort, maybe, but oddly reassuring nonetheless.
As for the characters:
As I said, we all know how this story gets going, so what carries the episode is really the characterizations. Often a drama will have actors I love playing characters I most decidedly do NOT love. That makes me sad. While it’s too early to weigh in yet on 49 Days, I like that so far, everyone seems normal and fair, just dealing with their personal struggles in their quiet way. I can see In-jung turning into a cold bitch, but if she does, I think we’ll get to see her develop into that, rather than landing there fully-formed with a slitted eye and an evil cackle. Seo Ji-hye is a lovely, nuanced actress so I’m looking forward to what she does.
Lee Yo-won is an actress I’m not super excited about, but based on the few minutes we see of her as Ji-hyun, I think she’s got the ability to cover the range needed, going from washed-out and leaden to bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in (literally) the blink of an eye. She’ll need to be sharp and smart with her transitions to carry this role, and I think she’s equal to it.
As for Jo Hyun-jae — I confess that I haven’t liked a lot of his roles before. It’s a case of liking the actor but having his characters leave me cold. But I LOVE where they’re going with Kang, even if it’s super-obvious what’ll happen and loaded with a fair number of cliches. I do suspect that with a different actor, he might not be as relatable or sympathetic, though, and I’m liking what he’s doing with his eyes. Maybe it’s from the maturity that comes with undergoing military service, or maybe it’s from his father’s death, but he’s got this haunted, sad look about him that seems new, which really works those heartstrings.
I’m not actually a huge fan of Love, Actually, but there’s something super compelling about that romantic conflict — of loving your best friend’s girl, and wanting them to be happy, and stepping back to avoid trespassing on that.
Only, in true k-drama style, here we’ll get him his heart’s desire, kind of. (They’re setting him up with Yi-kyung, but it remains to be seen whether it’s Yi-kyung proper or Ji-hyun’s Soul In Her Body). Plus, the drama paves the way for him to do so without guilt because we’ll have Ji-hyun’s fiancé (presumably, I’m guessing from promos) reneging on his love to the heroine first. (In Min-ho’s defense, he does think she’s not long for this world. Then again, maybe that’s added indictment, not defense.)