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Hanbando / Korean Peninsula: Episodes 1-2

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Rather than a recap, this is more of a first impressions/summary of the first two episodes. In fact, the first two episodes were short enough that I don’t think it merits a full recap. If you’re a fan of IRIS and ATHENA, you might enjoy this one. If you love Hwang Jung Min, you’re probably bound to watch this no matter what. I’m none of the above, but I sure am an action/political thriller junkie!!

The Premise

We begin with a recap on the Korean War in 1950, and how it tore a peninsula apart. Peace talks have been ongoing, and in this drama’s reality, Korea is edging ever closer to unification. If you have the South Korean President KANG DAE HYUN played by Lee Soon Jae, any leader is gonna want to be allies with him; he’s the High Kick grandpa! In an effort to mediate the process towards One Korea, both President Kang and Supreme Leader KIM TAE SUNG (Seo Tae Hwa) have begun an offshore project to find a new source of energy for all.

This new source of energy is methane hydrate, to be found in the deep depths of the ocean. The offshore base is headed by SUH MYUNG JOON (Hwang Jung Min), a fair-minded scientist who treats his workers well no matter which Korea they came from. It’s a good thing he’s so strict too; his workers all like to battle out their rivalries at any moment, from morning exercises to break time for a soccer game. But they all love and respect Myung Joon, especially North Korean driller PARK KWANG TAE (Choi Jae Hwan), who is Myung Joon’s favorite.

Also on this base is LIM JIN JAE (Kim Jung Eun), a scientist from North Korea whose father is in the government. While it’s not yet defined exactly who her father is, my guess is it’s LIM CHUL WOO (Park Chan Hwan), the North Korean diplomat/envoy to South Korea. Jin Jae and Chul Woo both share a similar aspiration for peace along with Supreme Leader Kim Tae Sung. However, they are surrounded by others who would rather keep the two countries apart – notably, JO GOOK CHUL (Jung Sung Mo), who is in charge of the military and therefore holds a lot more power than others would like.

 

But Myung Joon isn’t the only one there to help keep the peace between his men. North Korea has a small team of soldiers, headed by MIN DONG KI (Kwak Hee Sung), who looks to harbor a tiny crush on Jin Jae. South Korea has their men in black, headed by NIS agent KANG DONG WON (Ji Hoo).

The Episodes

In an act of goodwill between the two countries, North and South Korea have combined their soccer teams for one team to represent Unified Korea in the World Cup. Kim Tae Sung and Kang Dae Hyun have also come together in Seoul to meet for the summit talks. While the Supreme Leader is away, Jo Gook Chul will play: he assembles his special forces for a special attack.

Meanwhile on the North-South Co-op Research Base, there’s an emergency leak. One of the pipes have burst, and all the workers rush down to the pool to help fix the situation. Myung Joon is the quickest to act, and he’s already in his wetsuit and getting his oxygen tanks. Jin Jae tries to stop him, saying that they just have to wait 40 more minutes for the professionals to come back on the base. That’s 40 minutes too late for him, and he descends into the waters using a metal elevator.

Of course once his men realize he just went ahead alone, they freak out and start rushing to get their things together. Two of them go down the elevator – but the gates are stuck! Instead of taking the time to help open the gate, Myung Joon leaves them inside the elevator and goes to find the broken pipe himself.

He tries to cover up the hole with a metal plate and weld it shut, but the force of the bubbles only makes the hole expand. Thrown back by a sudden blast, Myung Joon’s oxygen tanks get stuck in another set of pipes. Sigh…Good job leader – this is why you should never act alone. Myung Joon quickly frees himself from the straps and swims forward, using whatever saved up oxygen he has to finish the job.

Worried about him, Jin Jae hurries to get a suit on too, but Dong Ki stops her. She shouldn’t help, and South Koreans should stop acting like they’re heroes.

Myung Joon only has so much air inside him, and he faints in the water, unable to completely finish welding the metal piece. His men all freak out again, and the elevator with the two other workers is finally raised so that they can fix the door. (Why didn’t you do this ten minutes earlier?!)

But just when you think all hope is lost, Myung Joon is revived; it’s Dong Ki, acting all hero-like. He gives his oxygen tank to Myung Joon and hands him back the welder, then floats back up to the surface. Myung Joon finishes his task, and he swims back up, this time popping up near the research center’s base platform. Everyone celebrates his miraculous victory while the silent hero, Dong Ki, watches from the distance.

When Myung Joon is dried off and changed, he sees Jin Jae waiting for him on one of the decks. And she slaps him. Nice. He walks off coolly. Jerk. She catches up to him, and orders him to go to the pressurized chamber so that he can recover from his quick resurfacing to the top.

He later reports to Chief Secretary PARK DO MYUNG (Jo Sung Ha!) about the incident, and reassures him that all will be back to normal by the following day. But not all is peaceful on this little base – Dong Ki is pressuring Jin Jae to steal the core technology for the methane hydrate. The only person with access to it is Myung Joon, and he keeps the information locked up in his safe on a disk drive. Dong Ki claims it’s an order from the top, but Jin Jae is highly doubtful. Would her father and Kim Tae Sung really jeopardize potential peace by ordering this?

Oh, and did I mention that Myung Joon and Jin Jae are in love? Myung Joon even had a ring sent over to him via post, and he keeps it in his pocket, waiting for the right moment to propose.

The characters that really grab my attention are the workers – especially the rivalry between the North and South Korean workers. Kwang Tae, along with JO GAP SUK and KIM HO TAEK are the oddball trio – comedic in their desperation for some chocopies, fervently respect Myung Joon, and love a good fight against the South Koreans. In fact, as they all watch the World Cup game together, both sides scream their own cheers for their players – even though they’re on the same team!

But back to the core of the story – which is Jin Jae and whether or not she’ll steal the information. She approaches Myung Joon about sharing the core technology with her as an act of trust and goodwill. However Myung Joon says that he can’t disclose the information to her. When peace and unification occurs, the disclosure will happen automatically, so she might as well wait till then.

But Jin Jae twists his words and makes it personal: it’s not about the political situation they’re in, but it’s because he can’t trust her. Yeah, yeah, whatever – Myung Joon’s just following the rules, lady.

The CIA East Asian department detects movement by the border on the North Korean side and immediately notifies the South Korean government. They think that the summit conference was just a ruse for this attack. Kang Dae Hyun’s generals want to act, but he stops them. He wants confirmation from Kim Tae Sung first, as he doesn’t believe the Supreme Leader would order such a thing.

Just as tensions rise between the two countries, so do the tensions in the lunch room of the North-South Co-op base. The soccer match they’re watching is heating up, and the men all get into a fight over which Korea has the better players. When the TV loses reception at a crucial moment, it devolves into a schoolyard brawl, and so Min Dong Ki marches in with his team and fires his gun to restore order. That alerts Dong Won and his team, and they end up in a standoff.

Trust Myung Joon to come in between the guns and order the two to stand down. Neither side dares to, since they really hate each other, but order is restored when the TV gets its reception back. Who knew TV could be so powerful? And what’s more, the Unified Korea team scores another goal, and everyone goes back to hugging each other.

Meanwhile, Chul Woo is trying to order the other officials to revoke their orders. They openly defy him, refusing to stop the troops from moving. Little does he know, each and every one of these officials are defying him because they have a gun to their head: Gook Chul.

Kang Dae Hyun continues with his celebratory banquet with Kim Tae Sung, and they receive a report from Myung Joon at the base. In front of everyone that is important, Myung Joon reports that starting tomorrow, the base will begin producing methane hydrate by drilling it from below the sea and processing it. The energy source will be so powerful that Koreans won’t have to worry about energy for the next 100 years. Quite an achievement, no?

So that evening, the research base hold their own party. While Myung Joon makes sure that his oddball trio doesn’t drink too much soju, Jin Jae wanders around alone, wondering whether she should betray her country or betray the man she loves. She spies Myung Joon scribbling on a piece of paper, and when he hides it from her, she becomes suspicious. He really doesn’t trust her, does he?

Myung Joon and I become exasperated – really?! This issue again?! How long have you known each other?! 10 years?! And now you’re wondering if he has trust issues!? Well – all this doubt in her mind certainly helps her decide to steal the technology.

That evening, the oddball trio is supposed to be on watch and check the equipment. However, they get tempted by a little bottle called soju, and go off into their rooms for a bit to drink and sing. One of the scientists, GOO YEON CHUL, takes the opportunity to sabotage the pipes and plant a bomb on one of the underwater pipes – all under Dong Ki’s supervision.

And then we meet PARK HYE JUNG (Jo Yi Jin), an infamous reporter who isn’t afraid to pester people until she gets a story. Her father is also friends with Do Myung, so when he sees her outside Blue House making a report, he greets her like a surrogate daughter.

Her next story is the methane hydrate research base, and so when she arrives via helicopter on the day of the production launch, she expects a warm welcome. Rather, Myung Joon gives her the cold shoulder. He invited her over because he was interested in her. To him, she sounded like the laziest reporter on earth who doesn’t do proper research. Her proposal for an interview included all the restricted and unsafe locations on the base; if she had done her homework, she would know not to ask for those interviews. He kicks her out of the control room – that room is restricted for the next hour. Heh.

And then suddenly, we have war. North Korean warships blasting off their long range cannons at South Korea is a practical declaration of war. Once again, Kang Dae Hyun stops his troops from firing back.

The Supreme Leader is informed of the situation, which completely appalls him because he didn’t order such an attack. (Chul Gook did.) Because of this, the summit talks are called off, and Kim Tae Sung rushes back home to figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile Kang Dae Hyun’s political opponents (who want to beat him in election time) are hoping that this fiasco will make him lose popularity with the people.

Just as things are falling apart politically, there’s an explosion on the research base. All the workers, including Myung Joon, hurry to lower the pressure in the pipes and control the damage. Jin Jae is rushing to go help as well, but Dong Ki stops her – they had planted this diversion so that she could go to Myung Joon’s office and steal the core technology.She heads over, but doesn’t find the disk drive that holds all the information on his desk.

Once the damage is under control, Myung Joon turns to berate his oddball trio. They should have checked the pipes and made sure everything was in proper working order. If they did their jobs, no one would have gotten hurt, and they wouldn’t have had this fiasco (with a reporter on deck, to boot!). As much as it pains him, he fires all of them.

Some of the North Korean scientists get riled up, thinking that Myung Joon is just being biased against North Koreans. However, Kwang Tae defends Myung Joon’s decision; though he, Gap Suk, and Ho Taek are deeply sorry, they know that if a South Korean made the mistake, Myung Joon would have fired him too. Sticking to his decision, Myung Joon walks away.

Back in his office, Jin Jae looks around the room and notices a photo of him and his daughter hanging crookedly on the wall. She lifts it up, and reveals the safe. Determining that the password must have about 4 digits, she begins running through her mind all the possible combinations Myung Joon could have used.

Well – she better hurry, because Myung Joon is on his way to his office. DUN DUN DUN!

Impressions:

This drama is like IRIS in concept and ATHENA in storyline, but with none of the tension. Episode 1 and 2 had plenty of overlap plot-wise, and it was mostly a set-up for bigger things to come.

I’ll start with the good points about the drama. For starters, I’m now kind of curious now how Myung Joon ends up being the president of all of Korea (according to the drama’s synopsis), since he’s just the head of a research base right now with little political inclinations. I’m also curious at how Chul Gook’s little military stunt will affect the whole unification issue. He’s pretty much destroyed the fragile trust between the two countries, so something remarkable needs to happen for the two countries to unite. I hope the drama is not about how the two countries will unite, but what happens after the two countries unite. If we’re going to be in this fictional world, then I’d like for it to be as fictional as possible. I’d like to see how reunification would change Korea and the rest of the world; there’s plenty of drama there that would be more creative than your usual “spy-and-steal” fare.

Now on to the bad – and yes, there are bad sides to it. I will start with the leads, Hwang Jung Min and Kim Jung Eun. The two of them have little chemistry, and I can’t believe for one second that they’re in love. Though we get flashbacks of the two of them courting (as one would if you’re both highly intelligent scientists stuck on an industrial offshore base), they treat each other quite coldly and indifferently in the present time. Did they break up? Or are they hiding their relationship from their coworkers? Either way, I would expect a little more affection between a couple that’s about to be engaged.

Also – Kim Jung Eun’s acting? I expected more from her. She was more believable as a lawyer’s wife-turned-rock star in I Am Legend than she is a scientist with conflicting loyalties. She always looks like she’s about to smile… even during serious moments.

The pacing of this drama is inconsistent as well. While I want to feel the tension of the situation, the frenetic jumping between scenes and locations makes me lose my focus. Who is that again? Whose side is he on? What just happened? Why is she in that room? Is this happening at the same time!? There are also overlapping scenes and dialogue from episode 1 to episode 2, so for the first fifteen minutes of episode 1, I kept wondering, “Why am I watching this again?” I don’t feel the tension or the anticipation that I think I should from these scenes, and it doesn’t help that there are plenty of slow moments where Jin Jae and Myung Joon stare at each other from a distance.

There is simply something off in the way that the story is being told. Perhaps the writers want to place us right in the middle of things – a way to “cut to the chase.” But they are also giving both the romance and the political thriller sides equal attention, which is a bit unwieldy. I would have preferred if they really set up the political situation, and made the romance a smaller part of it. Maybe they’re trying to make the romance between Jin Jae and Myung Joon an allegory to the ties between North and South Korea; the research base and the two countries are already allegories of each other. Unfortunately, I’m already getting annoyed by Jin Jae’s constant, “Do you trust me?” questions.

I honestly didn’t have high expectations with this drama, but I really wanted to tune in anyways. It’s a drama that I usually would go for, based on my past viewing history, and it is beautifully shot. However, I won’t be recapping this series. I do hope it gets better, because it has a promising premise. But my hopes aren’t that high.

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