Visually stunning, deftly written, and completely engrossing, psychological thriller White Christmas premiered in 2011 as an eight-episode addition to KBS’ ongoing drama special series, receiving lukewarm ratings despite its critical acclaim and a cult following I’m happy to be a part of.
Helmed by PD Kim Yong-soo (Equator Man, Hometown of Legends) and written by Park Yeon-seon (Alone in Love, Wild Romance), this is pretty much your dream team of writer/director duos – and it doesn’t hurt that Kim Yong-soo is just about my favorite PD working in dramaland right now. I love that he doesn’t rely on slick tricks and sticks to the basics as far as editing goes, because who needs all that when you can create truly iconic, mesmerizing images just by the way you compose your shots? That, my friends, is a gift.
Top it all off with a fresh-faced ensemble cast cut off from the rest of the world with an experimental psychopath, and you get nothing less than a masterpiece. Let’s dive right in.
[Note: I’ll be covering this as an ongoing recap series as it was originally aired – once a week – so because we’ll be going on a blast to the past, please refrain from posting spoilers and try to keep the discussion to the episode at hand. It’ll be hard for me, too.]
SONG OF THE DAY
White Christmas OST – Andreas Scholl “Nisi Dominus (Andante)” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Welcome to Susin High, a private boarding school nestled in the middle of the mountains, which houses the top 0.1% of students and is non-affectionately referred to as “Alcatraz.” Its year-round rigorous study program only allows one eight-day break each year, beginning on Christmas Eve.
This is where we begin our story, in a glass prison and architectural maze that takes its inspiration from the famous Louvre Museum, as buses filled with overjoyed students file out of the gate, leaving our protagonist PARK MOO-YUL (Baek Sung-hyun) looking over a snow-covered, yet empty campus.
In voiceover we hear him say, “The story I’m about to tell is about my fight with a monster, and how I had to become a monster myself for eight days to fight it.”
Cameras placed all throughout the school, even in the dorm rooms, follow his every move. He’s a fastidious student without a hair or pencil out of place, but he’s haunted by a black letter he’s kept hidden in his drawer. We find out why when we hear him read the troubling contents:
You tainted me, made me pitiful.
You made me a monster in the corner.
You silenced me.
You ridiculed my false hopes.
You took the only thing I had and put it around your neck.
I held out my hand to you and let you go.
You deleted me from your eyes.
Finally, you overtook me.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
After eight days, walk up the path by the Zelkova tree.
Under the clock tower, you will see someone dead.
The night that Jesus was born, I curse you.
Moo-yul isn’t the only student staying behind, since he and six others are called over the PA system to meet in the cafeteria, where two other students are already waiting. One is YOON EUN-SUNG (Esom), a girl whom Moo-yul curiously passes by without acknowledgment, and LEE JAE-KYU (Hong Jong-hyun) who seems nervous and shy as he prepares the dinner table.
They’re each being filmed and introduced by a smiling boy with a hearing aid, YANG KANG-MO (Kwak Jung-wook), who calls Eun-sung the “prettiest girl in Susin High” and tries to get Jae-kyu to introduce himself, which just ends in Jae-kyu looking around awkwardly, waiting for an exit.
So Kang-mo keeps the scene lively by spinning the camera toward the tall and lanky YOON-SOO (Lee Soo-hyuk), the “Angel Gabriel of Susin High”, with earbuds and an indifferent expression firmly in place. When asked for an introduction, he flips the bird. Ha.
Next up is the impeccably dressed, stone-faced CHOI JI-HOON (Sung Joon), of whom Kang-mo notes: “Isn’t he really something?”
The last student to arrive is one Kang-mo doesn’t even want to film, the smirking bully and class jjang, JO YOUNG-JAE (Kim Young-kwang). That brings the grand total to seven students, plus the one teacher that’s stayed behind to watch over them, the family-less YOON JONG-IL (Jung Suk-won). Phew, that’s a lot of characters at once.
Teach serves wine for the minors on account of the holiday, wondering why the group of seven have stayed behind. Young-jae makes a joke that he didn’t go home because his stepfather will walk in on him while he’s showering, and no one else – especially Eun-sung – thinks it’s funny.
Everyone mostly keeps to themselves during dinner except for Yoon-soo, who arranges beans into a piece of art on Jae-kyu’s plate, making the nervous kid even more nervous when he explains, “It’s my heart.” Yoon-soo’s a bit kooky, but this moment seems somewhat genuine, and hints at some homosexual overtones for his character – or he might just be using everyone else’s fear of homosexuality to deflect attention away from himself.
Teach then tells the kids the school’s ghost story, claiming it’s a true event from eleven years ago about a lone female student who stayed during the Christmas break. It’s telling that the kid who acts the toughest, Young-jae, is the one most scared from the story, and is the first to jump out of his seat when the campus-wide alarm suddenly starts ringing.
A bloody hand grips the school’s front gate as Teach leads a group of students through the snow, his flashlight revealing a man bleeding from the head. They help the man inside, but Jae-kyu curiously stays behind to eye his surrounding suspiciously.
Inside the school clinic, Teach tends to the bleeding man while Moo-yul calls 911, only once he tells them that the man’s injuries aren’t severe, EMS tells him that they can’t schedule a pick-up – a radio news story from earlier revealed a huge highway pile-up, and they’ve got their hands full.
The bleeding man with the strangely piercing gaze has only one contact for Moo-yul to call, but no one answers.
As for the kids who stayed at the dinner table, Young-jae tries to get a rise out of Eun-sung by reminding her that there’s now a ghost in the girl’s dorm, only for Ji-hoon to deadpan that the school became co-ed two years after Teach’s ghost story supposedly took place. Yoon-soo thinks this is the funniest thing he’s ever heard, and his laughter echoes eerily.
Young-jae stalks Kang-mo outside, and gives a pretty confrontational apology for an incident in the past where he broke Kang-mo’s hearing aid and left him deaf for a week. He doesn’t understand why Kang-mo can’t move on, and produces the same black envelope Moo-yul had as proof. Young-jae: “We can use words. How dare you send this?”
He starts shoving Kang-mo around while Kang-mo protests his innocence, and is stopped from doing serious damage by Moo-yul. This gives Kang-mo the chance to pull an identical black envelope from his pocket: “I got the same letter too.”
To add to the confusion, Jae-kyu reveals that he got the same letter. And for that matter, so did Moo-yul.
Kang-mo thinks the letter is a joke and stuck around because of his journalistic aspirations, but Moo-yul isn’t so sure, and Jae-kyu stays oddly quiet. In voiceover we hear the letter’s contents again as the camera pans over the other students, revealing the same black letter in Ji-hoon’s trash-bin, and one on Yoon-soo’s wall.
According to Teach, the school now has state-of-the-art security because of an incident five years ago when a graduate broke into the school, set the teacher’s dorm on fire, and committed suicide by jumping off the roof. The suicide note they left behind decried their three years in high school as a nightmare, to which Accident Man (who’ll now be staying in the teacher’s dorms) replies, “Then the kids here are in someone’s nightmare.”
The next morning, all the students show their identical black envelopes except Ji-hoon, who casually claims he threw his away. It seems like everyone but him stayed because of the envelope, and he stayed just to have some equation-solving quiet time.
No one cops to being the sender, so Eun-sung proposes that they tell Teach so he can find the culprit. No one wants to, because the letter could be real, and no one’s exactly innocent. Eun-sung: “The innocent one will tell the teacher.”
And when Teach arrives, everyone quietly pockets their letters.
We finally get a proper introduction to Accident Man, looking much fresher with a change of clothes. Turns out he’s a psychologist named KIM YO-HAN (Kim Sang-kyung) and he’ll be staying until the roads are clear. We’ll call him Doctor Kim.
Yoon-soo jumps on the opportunity to get psychological advice, and tells Doctor Kim about a dream he keeps having where a nude male ghost chases him around. It’s hard to tell if he’s being serious or just making a joke, but it’s cute that he lies on the couch all patient-style, only for the rest of the students to pile up on him for fun.
Their antics are broadcasted via security cameras to a laptop somewhere in another dorm, with an occupant we don’t see, but can hear showering.
The mundane task of shoveling snow becomes a fun snowball fight for the students, only Moo-yul breaks from the pack to get some alone time with Doctor Kim. Weirdly enough, when he asks Doctor Kim if he’s really a psychologist, Doctor Kim’s answer is: “For now.”
Moo-yul asks him to do some handwriting analysis on the black letter, making it seem like he has a good idea of the person who wrote it. Doctor Kim gives it a once-over (while Jae-kyu stops in the middle of the snowball fight to eye the pair) and declares that whoever wrote it is in a dangerous state of serious depression and aggression, in need of immediate treatment. I wonder if the dead body bit tipped him off.
Back inside, Moo-yul relates the information to a curious Jae-kyu, while Yoon-soo retreats to his room to take an unmarked prescription. It seems like Moo-yul has taken up the mantle of investigator with Jae-kyu as his sidekick, and questions Yoon-soo about the letter and why he stayed. Yoon-soo: “It’s an honor. Someone hates me so much they want to die. It’s polite to be there when it happens, right?”
But his normal apathetic facade is broken the second Jae-kyu touches his statue of the Virgin Mary, and he orders him to put it down immediately or else the monster in the corner could appear.
This immediately pings on Moo-yul’s suspicion radar, since a line of the letter read: “You made me a monster in the corner.” The answers Yoon-soo casually gives to his questioning are simple and disconcerting – he operates under the belief that the Corner Monster sent the letter, and believes there’s one in every house because that’s what Mom told him. He’s seen it ever since he was kidnapped at the age of five, and one side of its face is blue.
Moo-yul asks if he’s seen it in the dorms, but Yoon-soo says no and looks to the Virgin Mary statue as the reason why.
Moo-yul and Jae-kyu then try going through the record books to see if anyone has a blue-ish facial birthmark, and Jae-kyu happens upon Moo-yul’s page where he put his mother as his role model, only his mother is dead. Aww.
They turn to Ji-hoon next to ask if he knows anyone with a blue birthmark, though Jae-kyu quips that Ji-hoon probably doesn’t even know what his classmates look like. However, Ji-hoon is the one to emotionlessly note that out of the eight black letter sins, “You deleted me from your eyes” fits him the most. So either one person committed all eight sins, or eight different people did.
It’s clear that Moo-yul and Eun-sung have an unsavory past, since he knows everything about an incident she had with a stalker, and she’d ran to him for protection right away. She thinks her actions were thoughtless now, but Moo-yul brings up one of the stalker letters she received which he published in the school newspaper in an effort to stop the stalker, which it did. But it was also a form of ridicule, so Eun-sung’s black letter sin is: “You ridiculed my false hopes.”
She immediately retorts with what she think’s Moo-yul’s sin is: “You took the only thing I had and put it around your neck.” No idea what that means, but we’ll find out.
Moo-yul holds an impromptu meeting with Kang-mo, Jae-kyu, and Young-jae, in the hopes of finding out if there’s a thread that connects them all. The one thing they can’t understand is why there are eight sins for seven people, and the investigation goes awry when Young-jae accuses them of trying to fit him in as the sender.
He confronts Moo-hyul, “Why didn’t you mention Ji-hoon? You try your best, but you can never defeat the born genius. You’re Salieri to his Mozart. You wish he wasn’t around. You want to kill him, right?” His accusation seems spot on, and only made more real when they realize Ji-hoon has been standing in the doorway.
They decide to break for lunch, and file to the cafeteria while Yoon-soo remains hidden and lost in his own world up in the rafters. He rejoins the table later to the sound of them calling him “Angel”, which they then explain to a curious Doctor Kim as being because Yoon-soo got into the school by donating a ton of money.
Eun-sung has been picking on Young-jae the entire meal, though they’re interrupted when Kang-mo wonders about a murderer who’s still at large, as told to him by the news on the radio. There’s no motive for his murders that they can tell, and Young-jae simply passes it off as the murderer just being crazy.
He remarks on something we hear in the news a good deal – the interviews with the murderer’s neighbors, where they’re always baffled because their murderous neighbor was “always kind and quiet.” Eun-sung shoots back at him, “If you got caught doing that, this is what I would say: ‘Well, I knew this would happen one day.'”
Young-jae’s gaze goes dark. “I don’t think you’d say that. If I did such a thing, you’d be the first victim.” Dude, not cool. I know she’s not being cool, but not cool.
Ji-hoon finally asks, “Are monsters like him born that way, or are they raised into monsters?” He argues that murderers must have problems be they natural or learned, and their tendencies could be the result of a brain malfunction or something in their DNA. Basically, if murderous intent is a disability, is it right to punish them?
Then he argues that even if monsters aren’t born, if they’re made by alcoholic fathers or irresponsible mothers, is it their fault?
Then it’s Doctor Kim who asks, “Do you think that criminals shouldn’t be punished then?” And Ji-hoon almost scoffs, of course they should be punished for society to function. That wasn’t his point, “I was just considering whether such ethical, emotional criticism is right,” indicating toward Young-jae.
“It is,” Moo-yul finally responds. Ji-hoon’s brows furrow as he asks why. Moo-yul: “Even if he has problems in his brain or if he was raised in bad conditions, he chose to kill even though he knew it was a crime. If he chose to commit a crime, he should be criticized.” Ji-hoon starts cutting in about how hormones affect brain activity, only they’re interrupted by a late arrival.
And all of it is watched from that laptop in that mysterious dorm room, and we get a partial view of its red-haired, gum-chewing, rock-music-listening occupant.
Doctor Kim finds Yoon-soo after lunch and apologizes for asking about his nickname. Yoon-soo gives a normally weird Yoon-soo reply: “It’s okay. It’s my fault for being born into a rich family.” And he’s not being sarcastic, he means it.
Back in his room literally covered in mirrors, Yoon-soo overlooks his previous unmarked pills and goes for some extra unmarked pills, the kind that come in a velvet-lined secret box. Eek.
Eun-sung visits Doctor Kim in the nurse’s office, complaining of a headache. He hands her medicine, and she notices the huge scar on his palm. He brushes it off as the work of a stalker – sometimes patients become obsessed with their doctors – and smiles secretly when Eun-sung asks about the fate of his stalker, clearly thinking of her own.
We check back in with Yoon-soo who, to put it simply, is tripping balls.
Moo-yul and Jae-kyu try to check the internet for the ‘monster in the corner’ and come up with nothing, concluding that Yoon-soo’s mother must have made the story up. That’s when they hear the sound of breaking glass, and rush to Yoon-soo’s room to see him smashing all of his Virgin Mary statues into pieces.
“It’s all useless now,” Yoon-soo says. “It’s here already.” And one of his many mirrors reveals the image of a small boy huddled in the corner, half of his face blue.
Doctor Kim tells Eun-sung the secrets he uses to get patients to open up, like bringing up the weather or how he almost died in the car crash. Even knowing all this, Eun-sung makes a conscious decision to open up and play the game, eventually asking about the car crash just like he knew she would.
After finding Yoon-soo’s secret drug stash, Moo-yul asks him to describe the monster in the corner. Yoon-soo says it’s usually a child, with one exception – and we flash back to a school trip in Japan, where Yoon-soo was frightened out of his mind by a mysterious man advancing on him with half of his face blue… only he dropped a wallet, indicating his basis in reality.
Doctor Kim opens up about his car crash, only he begins to tap his pen like a metronome as he sings the folk song he claims he heard just as his car was flying off the cliff.
Now our scenes with Yoon-soo and Eun-sung begin to intercut at a faster rate, just as Yoon-soo reveals that he gave the Monster in the Corner its name, and says that it likes Eun-sung. Yoon-soo: “It will probably eat her up.”
We flashback briefly to reveal Yoon-soo passed out on the school trip, in full view of the wallet the ‘monster’ dropped with a picture of Eun-sung inside, just as Eun-sung gives the go-ahead to tell her story to Doctor Kim.
A child’s voice now sings Doctor Kim’s folk song as Eun-sung walks out in a daze, as though Yoon-soo’s monster in the corner were singing it. Hide so I can’t find you, hide so I can’t find you the lyrics go, as Eun-sung finally stops at the clock tower, while Moo-hyul and Jae-kyu run to find her.
In voiceover we hear, “The gates to heaven open wide on Christmas. The worst snowstorm ever and seven letters. After seeing the results, things that seem unrelated come together to form one, and unimportant moments all feel like destiny. We’d find out later that the monster was already with us. We’d let the door open for the monster to enter.”
Moo-yul, Jae-kyu, and Kang-mo start running through the snow toward the clock tower, and the camera pans to reveal Eun-sung lying still near its base. The snow around one of her wrists begins to grow red – she’s cut them.
Back in the mysterious dorm room, we finally see the face (and muscled torso) of its occupant – we’ll come to know him as KANG MI-REU or Mad Mi-reu (Kim Woo-bin) – as he literally throws in the towel.
This first episode did a fantastic job of setting up our core group of characters within a genuinely haunting and atmospheric vibe, helped in part by the cinematography, architecture, and stark lighting. There’s a certain kind of lifelessness that filters through every shot that also helps to bring cohesiveness to the production – the title White Christmas isn’t just for show, in case the pervasive snow-covered surroundings didn’t clue us in.
However, this drama did go through a title change before airing, and was originally titled Monster, which was probably more fitting in hindsight. I found it interesting that during an interview about the show the scriptwriter said that she’d pushed to cast only tall boys, and cared more about their height than their acting ability. This normally raises some red flags but it’s a tactic that totally works here – most of the actors are green, but the directing, and especially the writing, elevates them into something more.
So why tall actors? There’s definitely a uniformity factor going on, although each character has a chance to show their very different personalities, whether through subtle speech patterns (Ji-hoon’s very monotone line delivery) or overt actions (Young-jae’s bullying tendencies). I think that it’s also an interesting testament to how thought-out every facet of the production is, even down to the look of the actors compared to the crisp lines that make up their glass prison. It’s as if they want us to take the sameness of the body types at face value so that they can then prove, We’re all the same, yet we’re different.
I like that everyone starts out as strangers or acquaintances at best, with Moo-yul and Eun-sung as the only characters with tangible past ties, even though they barely associate with each other now. Moo-yul becomes oddly entangled with getting to the bottom of the black letter, and I loved that one of the most telling bits of dialogue in the episode dealt with Moo-yul’s hero complex being an overcompensation for his lack of natural genius as compared to someone like Ji-hoon.
Moo-yul is the character we can relate to most because we see the most of him, but even then, there are a lot of question marks surrounding him. The stalker incident with Eun-sung was especially troublesome, and while Moo-yul doesn’t seem the type to set up some sort of grand stalker conspiracy, there must have been something that happened between him and Eun-sung for her to turn out the way she did.
Which brings us to the question of the hour, and one that Ji-hoon poses – are monsters born, or are they made? I really wanted to hear the rest of his debate with Moo-yul, since it’s a question that has a universal end (as Ji-hoon says, monsters should be put away for society to function) but controversial beginnings. We have our semi-obvious monsters like Young-jae, and even Eun-sung to a degree, leaving everyone else as a cipher, especially the new resident psychologist.
There are so many questions propelling us forward and so many unexplored connections that I’m grateful for the pretty simple setup of locking a group of people up together with no foreseeable exit, because the conflict is already rife with possibilities and the overarching question so existentialist in nature. Are we merely what we were born to be, or are we the consequences of our own choices?