Whee! The first episode of Alice in Cheongdam-dong, all for my *hubby* Park Shi-hoo. I had no idea what to expect for this drama, since the synopses that have come out so far don’t really put it in a good light (a hardworking young woman giving up her ambitions just to marry rich?!). I’m hoping for more out of the plot, but until then, I will sit back and hang tight. It is the first episode after all, and plenty must be set up for the future episodes.

We begin with CHA SEUNG-JO (Park Shi-hoo), the Chairman of Artemis brand, giving a presentation regarding luxury goods and female mentality to his managers. His belief is that women in Korea purchase brand-name products to make themselves stand out, but because everyone buys them now, no one could possibly stand out. Therefore Artemis prides itself in being the most expensive luxury item out there. Everyone can have a luxury bag, but they won’t necessarily be able to afford an Artemis bag.

He’s a bit of a jerk about it, as he insults women, thinking them pathetic for trying to look better than others. However, it’s because of their need to outdo one another that Artemis was allowed to survive. Therefore, he wants all the managers to keep raising prices. Even if people complain about the price, he is positive people will buy. “What we are selling is fear,” he explains. “As the prices go higher and higher, people will fear they don’t have the latest Artemis bag and thus look unfashionable without it.” And so, Artemis must be more expensive every day.

Another person in Korea thinks differently though: HAN SE-KYUNG (Moon Geun-young) sits at an interview with GN Design and tells the interviewers that due to her circumstances she could not study abroad. However that did not stop her from learning French on her own, graduating with high marks at a prestigious university, and winning numerous design contests. Her motto is “My effort is my strength,” and she believes that if you work hard and do things the right way, you will always succeed.

One of her interviewers – SHIN IN-HWA (Kim Yoo-ri) disapproves of her off the bat, giving her an overall grade of D. However she doesn’t make the final decision; the interview tapes and assessments are sent to the president of GN Fashion, SHIN MIN-HYUK (Kim Seung-soo), where he can make the final call. His wife, SEO YOON-JOO (So Yi-hyun) sees Se-kyung’s application and smirks at the note on Se-kyung’s motto. She knows Se-kyung from before…

In-hwa is shocked to find out that her brother, Min-hyuk, ordered for Se-kyung to be hired as a one-year temp despite her low grades. She suspects that Yoon-joo may have something to do with it; seems like the sisters-in-law don’t get along.

Se-kyung is thrilled that she’s been hired, sharing the good news with her family. She’s one step closer to her dream! Unfortunately, when she reports to work for duty, she discovers that she won’t be working as a designer. Rather, she’ll be running the errands for the president’s wife. Her manager kindly informs her that she placed last in the interviews, and it’s a mystery to him how she got hired. No one can give her a good answer on why she was hired, and In-hwa won’t reveal exactly why Se-kyung placed last in the interviews.

Se-kyung attends a wedding of one of her college friends, and all her friends congratulate her on finally getting a job as a designer. (Of course, Se-kyung doesn’t reveal what she’ll really be doing.) One of her best friends, CHOI AH-JUNG (Shin So-yool) fully supports her and believes that GN Fashion hired her for her great resume, even though GN infamously only hires people who’ve studied abroad. Ah-jung works for Artemis as well, and tells everyone that the bride really married up, getting all her wedding jewelry from Artemis, and having her father-in-law open up a store for her.

In this world, if you can’t make it as a designer, you marry up. Your in-laws will be rich enough to help you open up a store.

Se-kyung leaves the wedding early, uninterested in the fact that the groom’s single friends will be arriving soon. Ah-jung believes it’s their chance to marry rich. But Se-kyung has her own boyfriend – SO IN-CHAN (Nam Goong-min), a regular joe who’s not wealthy at all and works at Artemis too. He even has to take out loans from the company just to support his ailing mother’s frequent hospital visits. He’s saddled with so many personal burdens that he can’t even listen to Se-kyung’s own depressive thoughts over being last place in the interviews.

When she returns home, she finds her parents in the middle of a fight regarding money as well. Her mother, JUNG YOON-HEE had just purchased their house for fear that the prices might keep rising, even though they can’t afford it. Her father, baker HAN DEUK-GI, can’t pay the bank the amount, which means they might lose the home through foreclosure.

Se-kyung is clearly from a very normal, middle income family that can’t afford all the rich trappings.

She tries to reason that the company is merely giving her a chance, even if she placed last. She managed to still get in, so she has to impress during her one-year stint and then hopefully get hired as a full-timer. After a few years of experience, she’ll branch out on her own and create her own label.

She’ll have to leave it to dreams for now. She arrives at work the following day and greets everyone in the meeting room. In-hwa points out that Se-kyung has a smudge on her shoe. Ouch, right away picking at her clothes already.

Se-kyung overhears that GN Fashion will be collaborating with Artemis in an upcoming project, but she will have no part in it. Rather, she’s given a list of things to pick up for the president’s wife; Se-kyung must review everything with a careful eye before taking it, and she needs to deliver it to her home before noon.

Commence montage of Se-kyung running around Cheongdam-dong, visiting all the brand-name stores and picking up bags and bags of luxury goods. When she arrives at Artemis, she internally ridicules the exorbitant prices on the simple white blouse and the stockings. In the car, she rants on and on about the expensive clothing she’s been told to pick up all day that she doesn’t notice a white car come out of nowhere right in front of her.

Se-kyung fails to brake in time, and she bumps into his car. The first thing she protects is the fine china sitting in the front seat of her car. Then the front bumper of her company car falls off. Uh oh…

Seung-jo comes by to check on her car and make sure she’s ok. But with just a few observations, he makes a snap judgment about her. Since both were at fault, he proposes they take care of their own cars and their own injuries – if there are any. In case she hasn’t noticed, his car is expensive, so she’s probably thinking that she could get a nice sum of settlement money from him, right? And since it looks like she’s a new hire at GN Fashion (because of her GN Fashion parking sticker), and also out of the office, he presumes that she must be a part-timer and not a full-time designer, right? And since she’s got bags of luxury goods in the backseat, she must be shopping up a storm, right? And so now she’s in this accident with him to get even more money from him, right?!

What’s infuriating is that he’s making all these judgments that are half-right and half-wrong, but he won’t let her explain at all.

He then says that the car isn’t his, and that he’s only the secretary to the chairman of Artemis, the very chairman that GN Fashion is trying to impress and work with. If Se-kyung tries to file a report against him, it will look bad for her company, and Artemis may pull out of the collaboration. So Se-kyung wouldn’t do any such thing and try to claim money from him if she values her job, right?

He makes his leave, dropping his business card at her feet rather than properly handing it to her. Before Se-kyung has proper time to vent her anger, she gets a call from her manager about delivering the goods.

Se-kyung arrives at the president’s wife’s house, and is greeted by the maids. They take the goods in, so Se-kyung never gets to see that she’s actually an errand girl for Yoon-joo.

It turns out back in high school, Se-kyung and Yoon-joo went to the same art school together. Yoon-joo had stolen Se-kyung’s boyfriend and made him do a portrait for her for a contest. Se-kyung had entered the same contest and recognized it as her ex-boyfriend’s work, even though it had Yoon-joo’s name on it. Se-kyung confronted Yoon-joo about it in class, but Yoon-joo didn’t care. She said she’ll continue asking the boyfriend to do artwork for her until she finally beats Se-kyung, even if it’s not by her own hand. Her talent is in getting others to do things for her.

Yoon-joo is absolutely shameless, and doesn’t even realize that she looks like a total b—- to the entire class.

Se-kyung may have beaten her in everything back in school, but now, Yoon-joo gets to lord over her because she’s the president’s wife, and Se-kyung is a mere errand girl.

Seung-jo arrives at Artemis headquarters and immediately tells Secretary Moon to have the attorney prepare a lawsuit for insurance fraud in the event Se-kyung tries to claim anything from him for the accident. He then goes up to his office, where Chairman CHA IL-NAM is waiting for him. As he passes by all his assistants, they gush over how cute he is, and how no one knows any details about him except his name: Jean Thierry Cha.

Eh?!

Seung-jo introduces himself as such to Chairman Cha, with an added French flair (or so he tries). The two of them extend hands to shake, but neither touches the other. Meaning: neither will accept the other’s offer. Seung-jo dismisses his secretary and then tells Chairman Cha that Artemis will not put their products in “third-rate” department stores. Chairman Cha gruffly says that their store has great potential, and they’ll be opening up new locations in Cheongdam-dong and Myeong-dong.

Well then, Seung-jo says they’ll talk when those locations are built.

Chairman Cha: “Hey you punk, are you cutting me off right now? I’m your father!”

Whaaa?! Seung-jo merely smiles. The feeling’s mutual. After all, Chairman Cha had cut him off first from his inheritance when he had chosen to study art in France and marry a girl that he really loved (rather than his betrothed). This is Seung-jo’s revenge. If Chairman Cha decides to give him back his inheritance, Seung-jo will happily accept it… and then give it all right back to charity. He doesn’t need his father’s help to succeed, and he’s proven it with Artemis. “I’m not the old Cha Seung-jo anymore.”

Chairman Cha growls that his son is not manly enough, being petty with his grudges and totally emotional. Seung-jo smiles brightly; it doesn’t matter because Chairman Cha will be on the suffering end of Seung-jo’s grudge.

As soon as Chairman Cha leaves, Seung-jo sits in his executive chair, and spins around like a little kid. “WHEEE!!!” Whaa? Did my man just squeal like a little kid? What is up with his split personality? The smile’s adorable though.

That evening, Se-kyung meets her boyfriend in a cafe, wailing over her bad luck on her first full day at work. In-chan quietly hands her an Artemis shopping bag. Inside is a very expensive handbag. Se-kyung smiles wistfully; it’s approximately $6,500 in Korea, but approximately $4,750 in Europe. Because it’s slightly cheaper abroad even with the import tax, her friends would go to Europe to buy Artemis bags, even though in the end they would cost more when the airfare and hotel are added in.

This bag is worth more than either of their salaries, so she asks In-chan how he got to buy it. She wants him to return it and get a full refund, since he could use that money in other ways. He quietly says that this will be his last gift to her, and that he wants to break up. Se-kyung sighs. Looks like this isn’t the first time she’s heard it before.

Se-kyung wants a really good reason why he wants to break up now. Is it because of his sickly mother? No – it’s because he’s too poor for her. Ahhhh! Noble idiocy! He tells her to wake up to reality. She’s working in fashion; she cannot afford to wear such cheap clothing because image is everything. She used to wear luxury items but ever since she started dating him, her clothes became cheaper and shabbier. On top of that, he could never afford to buy her nice things to show off. If the two were to get married, they would also end up in debt because of all the expenses they’d have. He wants her to meet a wealthy guy, because that’s really the only way she can succeed in this industry.

Sheesh. Even though he uses hard numbers to prove his point, he’s kind of an exhausting boyfriend. Love is clearly not everything in this relationship.

Ah-jung’s happy for her though. Not only did Se-kyung get a bag out of the relationship, but she finally ended it with In-chan. Ah-jung clearly thought of In-chan as added burden to Se-kyung’s career, and she hopes that Se-kyung will continue to reject him even if he comes crawling back to her. Poor Se-kyung, she actually does love In-chan and had hoped they could work it out.

Meanwhile, Seung-jo is swaddled up in his fur blanket, watching a replay of his father’s reaction on his tablet. Guess he filmed their entire conversation for added satisfaction. He completely enjoys seeing his father’s angry expression: “The petty way is the best way to go!” Such a child.

His friend HEO DONG-WOOK (Park Kwang-hyun) comes by with some drinks and can’t believe Seung-jo really took revenge against his father this way. But Seung-jo adds that the really petty part hasn’t even begun. It’s going to be his revenge against Yoon-joo.

Flashback to Paris 2006, and we discover that Yoon-joo was his ex-girlfriend, the woman he swore to love and gave up his inheritance for. Because he gave up his wealth, Yoon-joo then left him. “Love is not about giving up. It’s about protecting.” And then she straight up tells him that she was only going to marry him for money – not in those exact words, but we get the idea. It’s why she ended up marrying Min-hyuk anyway.

Yoon-joo enjoys her fancy dinner with her hubby, and learns that he will be inviting the chairman of Artemis to their house. With some coaxing, Yoon-joo convinces him to let her throw a dinner party without his sister’s help. Hmm – I want to see this rivalry full-on… Min-hyuk is initially reluctant, especially since they know nothing about this “Jean Thierry Cha” other than the fact that he lived in France. He finally lets Yoon-joo take control over the dinner, but she must promise to make it a success.

Boy will she be in for a nasty surprise. Especially since she has no idea that it could be Seung-jo, because he just arrived in Korea two days ago.

Dong-wook is concerned over Seung-jo’s plan for revenge and even asks if Seung-jo is regularly taking his medication. What? Seung-jo’s childish, and on meds?

Se-kyung visits the hospital to find out that In-chan’s mother is in grave condition. She needs surgery, but because In-chan has not paid off the previous procedure, they cannot schedule the next one. So Se-kyung calls up her sister SE-JIN and tells her to bring the Artemis bag over. Guess who’s getting a refund?

Se-kyung receives her new orders for the day, which involves going to pick up new jewels from a renowned jeweler in France. Nicknamed the “Josephine Collection,” Se-kyung is dazzled by the diamonds worth $150,000. The necklace comes with a warranty card, as well as a personal escort into a limo that will then take Se-kyung to her destination. The necklace’s bag is even perched upon a cushion in the limo. Sheesh – such treatment.

After handing over the jewels to the president’s wife’s maid, Se-kyung goes to return the Artemis bag. Se-jin tries to convince her out of it, especially since the bag is highly prized. But Se-kyung wants the refund issued no matter what, and then receives an urgent call from her manager.

The warranty card for the jewels is missing.

The manager berates Se-kyung at the office, accusing her of trying on the necklace. Otherwise, how else could the warranty card have been lost if it was in the bag? In-hwa discovers this and calls Se-kyung in to her office. She outright asks Se-kyung why she’s working at a job that’s beneath her qualifications. Isn’t it her dream to be a designer?

Se-kyung admits it is, but believes that if she works hard at the company she’ll be hired as a designer. In-hwa assures her that will never happen. It’s not that Se-kyung’s resume is shabby… it’s more that she lacks the “eye for fashion.” She wears cheap clothing and cheap shoes, which makes her seem unfashionable. Even if she couldn’t study abroad, she could have impressed by proving she had fashion sense.

In-hwa believes that Se-kyung’s eye for fashion will never improve. You’re born with eyes, and the circumstances you are in will either cultivate it for a sense of fashion or not. Se-kyung has yet to prove that she has this eye for fashion.

Se-kyung is dismissed to search for the warranty, and so she returns to the jeweler in Artemis’ department store. The saleslady informs her that she can’t issue another warranty no matter what, and it just so happens Seung-jo and his secretary pass by this scene. The saleslady greets the secretary, and Se-kyung sees Seung-jo outside the shop. Mistaking him as Secretary Moon, she begs for his help.

At least he’s nice enough to listen to her story. However, he won’t reissue another warranty. Why should he if it’s clearly her fault for wearing the jewels? Because… she did, right?

Flashback to the limo, and it looks like curiosity got the better of her. Se-kyung put them on, wanting to know what it felt like to wear jewels worth $150,000. While wearing them, the warranty card had fallen out of the bag.

Seung-jo is likewise curious: how did Se-kyung feel wearing those expensive diamonds? She was enthralled by the price, not by the craftsmanship, right? He tsks at her for thinking that having expensive accessories is enough to complete an outfit, which pretty much echoes what In-hwa thought of her eye for fashion.

Se-kyung becomes rude – is clothing all that determines one’s taste for fashion? Must she wear such expensive clothing to prove she has fashion sense? Does it even prove that you do? She calls Artemis a brand full of crap for making people think that they must buy such exorbitantly-priced clothing just to be treated with more respect.

Seung-jo smirks; Artemis has only touched upon women’s mentality of needing to outdo one another. If anything, it’s this female instinct that’s driving his business and not the other way around. He advises her to blame that, or blame her circumstances that prevented her from buying such luxury goods. Those “circumstances” he’s asking her to blame are her loving parents, and finding that the last insult she can bear, Se-kyung leaves.

She sobs outside the department store, going through all the insults she’s had to bear today in her mind. She calls up In-chan, hoping that he could comfort her. Instead, he asks that she never contact him again, or even visit his mother. Nothing will change about their relationship. Se-kyung cries even harder: everyone keeps telling her that she can’t change her position in life, which is incredibly infuriating. Is there really nothing hard work can solve?

Se-kyung really ends it with In-chan, and heads home to her parents’ bakery to find them analyzing a rival bakery’s loaf of $2 bread. Despite their hard work, they can’t beat discounted bread. She looks through all her sketch books and finally types up a letter of resignation.

It becomes a letter of apology to In-hwa instead. In the letter, she acknowledges that she may never get her big break in the company, and because of her circumstances she may never rise past being an errand girl. She only promises that she can work hard, because that’s all her circumstances in life can allow her to do.

She arrives at work the next day without the warranty still, but before the manager can yell at her, they receive word that the president’s wife has arrived at the office. Everyone quickly checks their makeup and changes into high-heeled, fashionable shoes. They primp up and then stand by the door, ready to greet her.

Looking down, Se-kyung can only notice the wife’s high-heeled shoes, her silk dress, her cashmere coat, her python clutch, and her jewels. This woman is elegant, and hundreds of leagues above her.

The wife stops in front of Se-kyung. “Han Se?” she calls out, using Se-kyung’s old high school nickname.

Se-kyung looks up, and all her coworkers stare, startled. Se-kyung: “Seo Yoon-joo?!” And Yoon-joo smiles. I think everyone else is more shocked that these two people from seemingly different worlds know each other.

Comments:

Honestly, it’s not a terribly exciting episode. However it really sets up the world for us. Cheongdam-dong is an incredibly shallow place, where luxury goods and money can buy you a reputation that you do not really hold. It’s a strange world to be in, and I myself feel like an “Alice” in it, especially since I’m so frustrated with everyone’s misconception about Se-kyung.

Admittedly, we never see Se-kyung’s “amazing” fashion sense. We’re never clued in because we don’t really get to see her designs in life, nor do we see it reflected in her clothing. I am hoping that she really does have an eye for fashion, thus disproving the point that you need expensive clothes to have it. All this discouraging talk about her abilities now makes her motives for becoming a “Cheongdam-dong wife” make more sense, but it also infuriates me more. So… Se-kyung is just going to be like everyone else and join this game? She’s not going to fight the system and prove her abilities to the fashion world?! I’m hoping she does, and I don’t want her to be a Cheongdam-dong wife. It goes against all her principles.

This drama feels like the beginning half of The Devil Wears Prada, because she’s trying so hard to hold on to her sense of self, but could very well lose. In-hwa also seems strangely kind, even though she might technically be considered Se-kyung’s foe. We know that Yoon-joo is definitely the antagonist here, but not In-hwa. She’s enemies with Yoon-joo (which would make her a friend to Se-kyung), but insults Se-kyung’s style (which would make her an enemy). And yet she kind of gives Se-kyung advice on how to improve her standing. I don’t know what to make of her, but I hope In-hwa isn’t a shallow person; I just hope she’s a smart woman who knows how to play the game of fashion.

Hands down though, the most interesting character is Seung-jo, and no I am not being biased. He’s a petty man who’s privately a child, and publicly a hard-ass about making money. He knows what sells and how to sell, and he’s relentless and vicious in choosing whom to work with. He’s a jerk, and yet utterly childlike. And he’s on medication. What? I find it interesting that he’s a rich man motivated by revenge, but this is not like your typical melodrama. But perhaps I am a bit too influenced by his previous roles (The Princess’ Man and Prosecutor Princess, anyone?) I’m really interested in how he’s going to enact his revenge against Yoon-joo and how he may change because of Se-kyung’s beliefs. I started watching this series for him, so I’ll continue for him.

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