And last week’s drama premiere cup doth runneth over into this week, with Equator Man standing as KBS’ melodramatic addition to the Wednesday-airing pilots. If you can make it past the jarring musical choices you’re in for a cinematographically dark and twisty treat, with a premise that promises angst of the highest order, and actors who know how to bring the house down. It’s not the newest story ever told, but it’ll be a welcome one for those who want a drama that doesn’t wear a dress.
As far as its synergy with its score goes, though, Equator Man has all the subtlety of a slab of seared meat dropped in the middle of a Whole Foods tofu confectionary. Tune out the vegans crying around you and suddenly it looks way better than it sounds.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Dramatic orchestral music swells as two men take different paths toward the same foe, the scene bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun.
One stops to buy a gun from some shady-looking people, before he confronts JIN NO-SIK (Kim Young-chul), aka Chairman Jin (that’s not going to be confusing for Salaryman fans), who looks over the city from his fancy vista as if it’s all his own private empire. He lauds the beauty of his own house as our resident man-with-a-gun, LEE JANG-IL (Lee Jun-hyuk) tells him that he no longer owns the property he stands on.
Chairman Jin is unfazed, and claims that he’ll get everything he’s lost back, because he never gives up. When his back is turned Jang-il aims for his head: “I’ve written the death note. Both yours and mine.” Chairman Jin scoffs – doesn’t Jang-il owe his success to his helping hand?
KIM SUN-WOO (Uhm Tae-woong) finally arrives to put an end to the standoff. It shakes Jang-il’s resolve, but not by much. Sun-woo’s efforts to get Jang-il to put the gun down only receive a derisive smirk in response. Jang-il: “If Kim Sun-woo had been Chairman Jin’s son, how great it must have been for Chairman Jin. That’s too bad.”
When Chairman Jin challenges Jang-il by saying he’s as foolish and immature as his father (why are you taunting a man who wants to kill you?), Sun-woo finally steps in to force the gun away. Jang-il looks like he’s already dead inside as he aims the gun again – but this time at Sun-woo, who’s stepped between the gun and Chairman Jin. This silent motion is what gets Jang-il more than anything, and his face contorts in sorrow.
We jump back fifteen years to Sun-woo and Jang-il’s high school days. Sun-woo’s perm compared to Jang-il’s hair already tells us a lot about their personalities – Sun-woo is more of the wild child, with Jang-il being the straight-laced smart kid. (If the hair isn’t enough, look at the difference in uniforms. Guess who’s wearing a sweater vest and who isn’t?)
Their class is interrupted when a bunch of gangsters come looking for Jang-il. They try to take him hostage because of his father’s debts, only for Sun-woo to come to his rescue with flying fists. They’re not friends, but Sun-woo claims that he’s protecting his school’s smartest kid. The gangsters seem to know him as the “infamous Kim Sun-woo.”
And Jang-il, who knows that Sun-woo is having the tar beaten out of him, suffers some guilt but still returns to the classroom to take the exam. None of the other students seem at all affected by the incident, and it’s like nothing ever happened by the time Sun-woo returns.
As a way of thanks, Jang-il hurriedly scribbles the test answers down and displays them for Sun-woo to cheat from.
Sun-woo confronts Jang-il outside, who says that he’ll keep showing Sun-woo his answers until midterms are over if Sun-woo will keep protecting him from gangsters. Sun-woo is offended, “Did I ask you for anything?” Apparently he saved Jang-il from the goodness of his heart and nothing more, and couldn’t care less about his grades.
It seems like Sun-woo might have taken advantage of the free answers regardless, as his father later praises his son for improving his grades. They have a cute conversation that shows their close bond, and we find out that Sun-woo’s mother is long dead, which explains their very bachelor-like surroundings.
Turns out that Dad’s sick – and it seems like something serious (when is it not?). As father and son drive to eat some celebratory meat he sees Jang-il and his father by the side of the road – doing what, we don’t know.
Dad places a call to Chairman Jin, who takes the call even in the middle of a gala (it’s for a politician, which comes as no surprise that Chairman Jin knows people in high places). Dad and Chairman Jin certainly have a history, since Dad finally gets to the point once it seems like a face-to-face meeting is impossible: Chairman Jin’s fiancée may have died giving birth, but the child lived. “He’s your son,” Dad tells him.
Chairman Jin lets this register for a moment before he tells Dad never to call about this matter again.
Sun-woo ends up at the same restaurant as Jang-il and his father, LEE YONG-BAE (Lee Won-jong) who are eating some celebratory meat of their own. Yong-bae knows his son is smart and promises to earn enough money to send him to college in Seoul – but Jang-il knows their circumstances, and says that he’d rather go to a cheaper school.
The restaurant is crashed by the gangsters after Jang-il’s dad, and not even Sun-woo seems willing to lend a helping hand this time. In fact, no one in the restaurant seems remotely shocked or interested in the ruckus going on.
Despite Jang-il’s claims that he’ll pay back his father’s debt, the gangsters still have a lesson to teach to Yong-bae – and they teach it by taking a hot iron to his arm. It’s only then that Sun-woo intervenes.
Sun-woo and the gangsters take the fight outside while Jang-il’s dad tries to run away, completely content in letting someone else fight his battles. Jang-il isn’t the same – he knows Sun-woo is hurting because of him – and enters the fray to help. He goes to town on one guy’s squishy stomach, and Sun-woo is forced to pull Jang-il away before he kills the guy.
There’s a slow motion montage of the two running from their pursuers… to the dulcet tunes of Coldplay? (What? No.) They find the chase exhilarating, and laugh about it together once they’ve successfully escaped.
Turns out that Jang-il’s dad turned to loan sharks to pay off gambling debts he’d accrued after his wife’s death two years prior. Now we’re seeing the difference in the boys’ fundamentals – Sun-woo’s more willing to let things slide, but Jang-il sees what happened as an injustice due to the way people without money – and thus, power – are treated.
Jang-il says that he’s going to become a prosecutor so he can return the favor to the gangsters who branded his father. Sun-woo is more on the side of good, and tells his friend not to do anything for vengeful reasons – but Jang-il doesn’t want to keep living the way he is.
Sun-woo admires Jang-il for not resenting his father and just studying hard, which Jang-il takes as an affront to his pride coming from someone as equally poor as Sun-woo. He tries to skulk off with his pride intact, but the beating he took earlier finally takes effect and he crumples to the ground, unconscious.
Jang-il finds that Sun-woo spent the night by his bedside when he wakes up in a hospital room the next morning, and different name-calling methods don’t work to rouse Sun-woo from his sleep until he finally says: “Sun-woo-ya.” Aww, now they’re officially friends.
They can’t have a class go interrupted, as the principal comes bursting in to the classroom to take Sun-woo to task for beating one of the gangsters so hard he ruptured his intestines. He wants to know who helped Sun-woo in the fight as Jang-il stands outside, debating whether to go in and name himself or not. In the end he doesn’t, leaving Sun-woo to take the blame on his own. (Though it seems like he would have done so anyway.)
Even the principal seems to know that Sun-woo’s covering for someone, but it’s a no-go. Sun-woo will be suspended.
Sun-woo’s dad can’t accept it, and so he prostrates himself before the principal, claiming that he won’t stop begging until Sun-woo is forgiven. Father and son walk together later that night as Dad says that he promised to raise Sun-woo well and make him into a great man. Am I sensing connections to his earlier conversation with Chairman Jin?
Even Dad can’t believe Sun-woo would hurt someone that bad, but Sun-woo keeps his lips sealed. This prompts Dad to apologize that he wasn’t a better father, which prompts Sun-woo to say that everything was his fault. Either way, it’s not the end of his life. Jang-il may have run off earlier, but he’s waited outside for Sun-woo, and watches him from a distance. (Not as creepy as it sounds, I promise.)
The notice of Sun-woo’s seven-day suspension is up for the whole school to read. Jang-il goes straight to Sun-woo to call him out on his hero/martyr behavior – why is he taking the punishment alone? Sun-woo brushes him off, saying that Jang-il doesn’t owe him anything for the trouble.
Sun-woo: “Did your pride get hurt because you were afraid I wouldn’t think highly of you? Lee Jang-il, until now, you’v never helped anyone or received help from anyone, have you?”
It’s a telling question, because Sun-woo realizes how Jang-il’s lived his life until now. His laissez-faire attitude is enough to cause Jang-il to punch him in the jaw. “Your punch has improved!” is all that Sun-woo says after being hit.
In Jang-il’s mind, Sun-woo only helped him without asking for a return because he thinks he’s above Jang-il on a moral level. This ideological battle turns into a real one that lands both boys on the floor, ready to turn things into an all-out fight until the principal walks in on them.
Jang-il covers for Sun-woo and tells the principal that he offered to tutor Sun-woo to help raise the class average.
This forces both of them to stay at the school late into the night, since Jang-il has taken his tutoring job seriously. Sun-woo’s still in a fit over their earlier scuffle and refuses the help, until Jang-il explains that he’s helping Sun-woo because he wants to, not out of obligation.
Accepting this as a positive step for Jang-il, Sun-woo solves the problem he posed on the board without a second thought. Jang-il wonders if Sun-woo cheated somehow, which prompts Sun-woo to throw a punch that Jang-il catches. Impressed, Sun-woo starts teaching Jang-il to fight – so while one gets tutored in studies, the other gets tutored in street smarts.
Chairman Jin has come to check on a construction job, and one of the handymen is Jang-il’s dad, Yong-bae. Chairman Jin’s secretary explains that Yong-bae has been asking every day if there’s any sort of scholarship his son can receive for being first in his class. This isn’t news to Chairman Jin, who’s already heard about Jang-il’s mental prowess – though by the looks of it, Yong-bae will be fired once the job is complete.
He then attends an awkward dinner with a man who’s brought his entire family along under the pretense that they would be having dinner with Chairman Jin’s family – so when Chairman Jin shows up alone, the man’s wife and children can only sit quietly by the door.
They move their conversation to a private room, which gives Chairman Jin room to demean the man (who’s a stockholder in his company) with veiled embezzlement threats. The man claims his innocence while his daughter, HAN JI-WON (future Lee Bo-young), eavesdrops outside.
Suddenly Sun-woo is on the scene, scrambling from car to car in order to find an open one to hide in. Ji-won goes outside and takes a rock to what we can presume to be Chairman Jin’s car, and breaks the glass of the windshield to see Sun-woo huddled inside.
The men who’ve chased Sun-woo to this point come running, and Ji-won saves his skin by lying about his whereabouts. As a way of thanking her, Sun-woo takes the rock from her and adds a few more holes to the windshield of the car. They share a Meaningful Glance. He tells himself later that he should have asked her name – she was such a strange girl, after all.
It’s raining the next day, and Jang-il ignores his fellow students’ gossip that a pretty new girl has transferred to their school so that he can check over Sun-woo’s answers. While Sun-woo remains asleep in class Jang-il heads outside with an umbrella, and soon finds a girl with a sketchpad and art supplies taking shelter beneath it. She asks for his company (and his umbrella) until she reaches the main intersection, and he obliges.
It seems clear that she’s the new transfer student since she’s directionally challenged – and though she hasn’t been formally introduced, this is CHOI SOO-MI (future Im Jung-eun). He decides to walk her where she needs to go, and time slows down so that they too can enjoy a Meaningful Glance.
Sun-woo tells Jang-il that he’ll take care of the tuition costs if Jang-il goes to college in Seoul, because he’s confident in his ability to make money. “I’m going to make your dream come true,” Sun-woo says. When Jang-il asks him why, Sun-woo simply replies that it’s because he’s Jang-il’s only friend.
Jang-il thinks he’s joking, but Sun-woo is completely serious. He’s going to do it.
Jang-il comes upon the new transfer student, Soo-mi, painting alone in the room. When he tells her that she’s good at painting, she cheekily replies, “I’m the best at painting.” Ha, I like her self-confidence – and it’s not unfounded, she is pretty good.
She recognizes him as the boy from the day it rained, and asks about a nearby locale with nice scenery as a way to prod him into an impromptu date. He seems all for it as he tells her they can get there within an hour by bus, and she hands him a drawing – with the caveat that he look at it later to spare her embarrassment.
He does as she asks and goes outside to see it, and it’s a portrait she drew of him in the rain. He immediately goes back in and tells her that he’ll take her to that locale in exchange for her present. A Sunday date it is.
Sun-woo marks the change in his friend, and wonders if something happened to keep Jang-il smiling like a fool.
They come across an eccentric-looking man setting up a sign for his business – and his name is right on the sign, CHOI KWANG-CHOON (Lee Jae-yong). Sun-woo recognizes him immediately as an ajusshi who used to live in his same neighborhood, and now it looks like they’ll be neighbors again.
Sun-woo introduces Jang-il as his friend, which prompts a strange look from Kwang-choon. He wheedles close to Sun-woo as he asks, “Are you sure he’s your friend?” Like he’s seen something he didn’t like just by looking at Jang-il’s face.
Sun-woo asks after Soo-mi, Kwang-choon’s daughter. Jang-il is out of earshot by the time Sun-woo asks, so he doesn’t hear the name.
Meanwhile, Sun-woo’s dad finally sees the doctor and receives some grave news. Presumably left without much time to live, he sits to write a hand-written will and testament.
Jang-il happens to see Soo-mi arriving at her father’s house/new place of business. Kwang-choon is decked out in hanbok and makes a living as a modern shaman, and father and daughter bicker over her being out late. Seemingly distressed at her circumstances (being the daughter of a shaman isn’t the most prestigious family lineage, but it isn’t like Jang-il is the son of a CEO himself), he goes home and crumples up the drawing she gave him.
Unaware that anything is amiss, Soo-mi goes to the meeting place they agreed on for their date, only to realize she’s been stood up once she’s waited too long. Jang-il is instead with Sun-woo in a bookstore, but Sun-woo recognizes someone outside – it’s Soo-mi, who would rather Sun-woo not address her at all.
It’s not clear what sort of past they shared, though they’re interrupted once Jang-il sees Soo-mi, although he acts as if he doesn’t. Soo-mi asks Sun-woo if Jang-il knows her dad is a shaman, surmising that that’s the reason why Jang-il stood her up.
Sun-woo’s dad is acting strange on their walk home, and tells Sun-woo that they’ll be meeting a very important person on his birthday this Friday. “He’ll protect and provide for you from now on,” Dad says. Sun-woo doesn’t understand, and Dad explains that it was something he was going to tell him later in life – but he doesn’t think he’s got much longer, so it has to be soon.
Sun-woo doesn’t understand, so Dad tells him outright – it’s liver cancer, and it’s bad. He seems to register the fact that his father is sick, but refuses to believe that he’s dying and declares that his father will live for fifty more years. Both father and son know it’s a lost cause, but agreeing is easier than confronting the truth.
With tears in his eyes, Dad tells him to make sure to come on his birthday. Sun-woo fires back that he won’t go so he won’t acknowledge his father’s condition, which earns him a slap from his father. “This is the first and last time I’ll hit you. Come out tomorrow.” With that his father leaves him, and Sun-woo falls to the ground in tears, begging his father not to die.
Sun-woo’s Dad goes to meet Chairman Jin at his construction site, and the two exchange tense pleasantries before cutting to the chase – Sun-woo, who isn’t Dad’s blood son but one he found at an orphanage. He adopted him to make up for all the sins he committed working under Chairman Jin in the past.
The mother-in-question is one that Chairman Jin claims betrayed him with a man named Moon Tae-joo, though Dad claims that it’s all jealous nonsense. But Dad was forced to serve jail time with the aforementioned Moon Tae-joo because of Chairman Jin, which caused the rift between them.
Still, Dad’s willing to overlook it if Chairman Jin will help Sun-woo. Chairman Jin is convinced that the child isn’t his because his mother ran away with another man – and we can see that his jealousy problems are at dangerous levels, as he even accuses Dad of sleeping with his fiancée. He’s clearly thinking that his former fiancée was a loose woman, which seems to be a hell of his own making.
This is the turning point for Dad, who’s done begging. “I wish that child was Moon Tae-joo’s,” he tells Chairman Jin. “But Tae-joo wouldn’t do that. That’s why he loved your fiancée… he’s not a man like you.”
Dad gets hit, and realizes that Chairman Jin’s bad ways haven’t changed. So he changes his mind about handing Sun-woo over, claiming that it would be better for Sun-woo to be an orphan. Chairman Jin’s tune has changed as well – now he wants to find Sun-woo – and after some threats to expose Chairman Jin’s corruption, the two men end up in a brutal fight.
Chairman Jin gets the upper hand by putting Dad in a chokehold, and holds on until Dad stops moving. He notices belatedly that Jang-il’s father has seen everything through a window. Uh oh.
Our two boys are on their way for a birthday bash – or rather, Sun-woo is trying to ditch Jang-il to go solo. But as he walks the mountain trail he bumps into a hanging set of legs…
…And he looks up to find his father, hanging from a tree.
(Now that’s how you end an episode.)
I mentioned it in the opening but first things first: The music was a horror show. It’s everything you never want to hear in a drama, ever. At times overpowering enough to drown out entire scenes and at times so dramatic that it made the show seem like a parody of itself, it was enough to make some scenes nearly unwatchable. (Is there an award for the Most Egregious Use of Coldplay?)
The reason it’s upsetting is that the scenes are actually good if you imagine them on mute. I know, not the highest praise, but it counts. We’ve got actors working their bums off to deliver compelling performances, so I legitimately felt bad every time a bad musical cue instantly took me out of a scene and/or caused unintentional laughter. I wanted to be there with the characters – I just wish the music had backed off a little so I wouldn’t have had to try so hard.
That being said, bad music is fixable. If you remove it from the equation we’re not faced with any glaring problems, so the show is off to a good start. I’d been excited for Equator Man since we started getting sprinklings of press information, even if it wasn’t as hyped as some of its competitors. I pledged love for director Kim Yong-soo after White Christmas, which I watched only recently but was amazed at the moody, atmospheric visuals, and how he managed a feat like that with such a green cast. Now that he has a seasoned cast at his disposal, my expectations are high once we get to see more of the adults.
And as far as the adult cast we already have in place – Kim Young-chul! – so far, so great. To be fair, it’s probably hard to go wrong with him, and I already like that we’re seeing shades of psychosis that are so subtle I might be imagining them. Even if I am, the fact that I can read so much into a performance is a good sign. I’m also a fan of all the other veterans in this show, who consistently deliver.
As expected, the cinematography is in top form here. It’s beautiful without being overly self-indulgent (some slow-motion deep connection scenes aside), and grittier than your usual drama – Padam Padam is the closest I can equate it to as far as recent memory, but even Padam Padam had some directorial excesses. Here, the camerawork remains subtle, conveying the dark mood with an art house flair. I like.
The mood is consistent, and the production (sans the music, of course) feels assured. We’re in for a dark and revenge-y ride. I’ve been floating around without a show to really sink my teeth into since History of the Salaryman, so further recaps aren’t a sure-fire thing until we finish out the premieres (which is pretty much just Love Rain at this point). But I can already take a guess that the boys’ friendship, and their inevitable breakup, is probably going to make me cry like a little girl. I can’t tell if that’s something to look forward to or not.