Incarnation of Money, the newest drama from the Giant and History of the Salaryman team, premiered this weekend to 9.7% ratings. This show carries brushstrokes of both its predecessors with dramatic storytelling and characters whose words can bite. But we need to explore the early years to better understand the present, which is still much of a mystery.
With its low-key promotions prior to the premiere, I was surprised to see the show painted a little darker than I anticipated. It looks like we’ll have to wait a bit before the zany and cracktastic premise comes into the foreground. I just don’t hope we don’t have to wait too long.
SONG OF THE DAY
Jang Jae-in – “그대 위한 날에 (The Day for You)” from the OST [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open at an excavation site as a crane digs into the cold earth. Then, an odd sight: a shower of money falls from above. The workers scramble to stuff as many bills as they can into their pockets and some are trampled to death in the chaos.
Reporters swarm to feature the strange discovery and the prosecutor in charge arrives on the scene. This is our hero, LEE CHA-DON (Kang Ji-hwan), who’s given the rundown on the situation: the rich man, Lee Kang-seok, has been missing for 15 years and is presumed dead. Furthermore, the whereabouts of the only person left on the estate is unknown.
A mysterious call interrupts them and Cha-don thinks it’s a prank caller until the voice asks, “Don’t you want to know what your real name is?” Not the one he carries now, but the ones his parents gave him. Ooh, interesting. If he wants to know, Cha-don can meet him later tonight.
The caller hangs up and the camera pans over to reveal that he’s in the vicinity. His eyes are fixated on Cha-don, and he’s certain that the man before him is the rich heir himself: Lee Kang-seok.
Cha-don contemplates while rolling a coin between his fingers, a habit. He flips it into the air… and a young boy catches it in his hands.
The year is 1997 and a young, bright-eyed Lee Kang-seok (Park Ji-bin) lights up when he hears of his father’s return to Korea. We get a gorgeous shot of the lavish estate as he runs into the bustling house teeming with activity.
Mom oversees these preparations and it’s evident that she’s a kind lady of the house. She blushes in embarrassment when a maid mentions that she’s heard that the chairman has purchased a pearl necklace. Perhaps an anniversary gift?
But from the way Dad (aka Chairman Lee) smiles at a photo of a young actress on the plane, something tells me that Mom isn’t the intended recipient.
Which is how we’re introduced to EUN BI-RYUNG (Oh Yoon-ah) as she smiles lovingly to the man, JI SE-KWANG (Park Sang-min), sleeping next to her.
Bi-ryung fishes for compliments as soon as he wakes but gets annoyed when Se-kwang mentions that she’s also the chairman’s mistress. She whines for a kiss and Se-kwang obliges, though curiously, his eyes remain open. Hm.
At the airport, Chairman Lee greets his son warmly and then sends him away with the driver. He won’t be home for a few more days on account of “important business” to take care of.
Kang-seok is pretty sharp despite his age and he asks the driver about the other woman this time around. He advises the driver to keep his cool in front of Mom because it’s obvious when he’s lying.
(Note: The yet-to-be-named driver is the same person as Cha-don’s mysterious caller, though we don’t know how he fits into the present story just yet.)
So Kang-seok covers when they arrive home and once he’s gone, Mom asks if the chairman has gone to see Bi-ryung. Taking the driver’s guilty expression as her answer, she tells him that Kang-seok mustn’t know of his father’s infidelity. I think it’s safe to say that it’s too late for that.
Mom reaches for her pills (antidepressants, maybe?) and tries her best to keep it together as she recalls a time when a drunk Chairman Lee lectured her in front of Bi-ryung. He chased her out, but not before overhearing a bit of their flirtatious exchange.
As for Chairman Lee, he’s in for a rude awakening when he drops by Bi-ryung’s home unannounced. Clothes and leftover drinks sprawled everywhere, the sound of giggling catches his attention.
He carefully opens the bathroom door and sees Bi-ryung and Se-kwang mid-romantic bath. He doubles back to the car in a rage and contemplates bursting in with a golf club before thinking better of it.
Then he calls Bi-ryung to check in, saying that he’s still abroad. As expected, she pretends that nothing’s the matter and plays true to her mistress role.
Back in his study, Chairman Lee asks his driver (who must also have a law background) if he’s ever seen an acquitted murder case. The man answers no and grows increasingly nervous as the chairman talks while cleaning his hunting rifle.
Then Chairman Lee orders his man to hire an assassin. “Even if you can’t save a dead person, you can buy a living person with money.” The driver nods.
That night, Se-kwang catches a lone paparazzi sneaking pictures of Bi-ryung just outside her home. He’s able to snatch the camera before the perpetrator flees. As he develops the photos, one of them catches his eye: the chairman leaving Bi-ryung’s house earlier that day.
He gets a call from Chairman Lee, who answers that he’s still in the States. The chairman keeps the topic light, talking about hosting a birthday party when he returns to Korea.
But soon afterwards, Se-kwang gets another call from the driver who hurriedly tells him that Chairman Lee has returned and placed a price on Se-kwang’s head. Se-kwang suggests that they meet.
The day of the Chairman’s birthday arrives and Kang-seok mischievously sneaks a bite of food as the staff prepares for the party. It’s sweet that Kang-seok is so loved and doted upon by his parents.
Chairman Lee loads his hunting rifle as his right-hand man informs him that Bi-ryung and Se-kwang will be brought into the study and the fireworks that evening will muffle the shots.
Mom walks in with her husband’s herbal tonic and when the chairman grumbles about taking it, the driver insists that he keep up his regimen. He keeps close watch as the chairman consumes it.
Back at the party, Kang-seok runs over to greet Se-kwang, whom he affectionately calls “hyung.” Kang-seok mentions that he saw Se-kwang earlier and asks where he was in such a hurry to get to. Se-kwang deflects the question with an excuse that he went to see the Chairman.
Their relationship is adorable as Se-kwang scolds Kang-seok about his grades and puts him in a headlock. Chairman Lee arrives and Se-kwang wishes him a happy birthday. Bi-ryung arrives moments later and when the chairman asks if she’s dating anyone since she looks especially pretty tonight, she coquettishly laughs it off.
He introduces Bi-ryung and Se-kwang to each other and casts a suspicious eye as Bi-ryung says that she recognizes his face from an errand for the chairman. She lets out a little laugh once Chairman Lee’s back is turned which doesn’t go unnoticed by Kang-seok.
The two women in Chairman Lee’s life meet at the bottom of the stairs and Mom immediately notices the pearl necklace around Bi-ryung’s neck. Mom purses her lips as Bi-ryung freely rattles on about how the chairman clearly favors her.
She leans in to whisper in Mom’s ear, “He said there wasn’t any birthday gift in the world quite like me.”
Mom stands her ground and replies that she was the one who extended the invitation. But Bi-ryung just uses that to mock her, laughing at Mom’s devotion to the chairman. Kang-seok watches this exchange at a distance.
Kang-seok walks into the party as his father delivers a thank you speech in front of his guests. He notices Bi-ryung reach for Se-kwang’s leg and Se-kwang immediately remove it.
He bounces over to her table when the speech wraps up and everyone gives their birthday wishes to the chairman. He asks for an autograph, exclaiming that he’s a huge fan of Noona’s ever since “that movie.” Bi-ryung’s surprised that the chairman’s son has seen it at all, since he’s a minor (Was it erotica? Ha, this kid cracks me up.).
She tries to give him an autograph but notices that the pen doesn’t work. Kang-seok examines the pen for a moment before deliberately squirting some on her dress. She flips out.
He hilariously grabs a napkin to graciously help her (and his hands are near a questionable area) and then tugs at her necklace so that the pearls scatter to the floor.
That forces Bi-ryung to crawl on her hands and knees under the table where Kang-seok joins her. Now Kang-seok drops the charm and tells her flatly, “Ajumma, do you know you made a mistake?”
She takes offense but Kang-seok interrupts her – she shouldn’t have let him catch on that she’s Dad’s mistress. “Just wait and see whose son I am.” He warns, “I’m confident that I can put you through about a thousand times more pain than you caused my mother. Should I give it a go?”
Kang-seok continues that Dad is pretty impatient and that all the other women left after they got what they wanted from him. Bi-ryung’s left speechless. He gives a little smirk and before he leaves, flips the contents of the table over Bi-ryung’s head. HA.
The party emcee announces that the fireworks will start shortly and Kang-seok notices Se-kwang talking with the driver. Se-kwang heads up to the chairman’s study as planned where Bi-ryung is already present and changed into a new dress. She gets up to excuse herself but Chairman Lee convinces both of them to stay.
Chairman Lee expresses his gratitude to the two of them, calling them the two good decisions he’s made in his life. Bi-ryung says that she would have never been able to become an actress, let alone get an award without the chairman’s help. “I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t grateful.”
Hanging on the words “wouldn’t be human,” Chairman Lee takes his hunting rifle from the rack. Bi-ryung gapes when he says it’s used to hunt pigs, feeling sorry for the poor animals. But the Chairman has a different perspective: “They aren’t even human.”
He cocks the rifle and points it at the two, demanding to know why they betrayed him. Did they think they could get away with it? Bi-ryung cowers and latches onto Se-kwang.
Chairman Lee’s breathing becomes increasingly labored as he continues to talk. Referring to this as no different than “hunting beasts,” he bids them farewell and pulls the trigger. Bi-ryung screams.
At the same time, fireworks burst in the night sky and the guests ooh and ahh at the pretty lights.
But back in the study, Chairman Lee panics – the rifle is empty. And then Se-kwang takes out the bullets in his pocket, “Are you looking for these?” Enraged, Chairman Lee lifts the rifle over his head. But he staggers and falls backwards.
Outside, Kang-seok asks the driver if his father and Bi-ryung are inside the study. The driver scrunches up his nose which tips Kang-seok off that he’s right and marches inside.
Se-kwang walks over to the chairman’s collapsed body and asks, “Do you remember? A long time ago… the man who killed and went to prison for you.” That man caught a violent illness in prison and died. A realization dawns on the chairman and Se-kwang continues the thought, “That was my father.”
He tells the chairman that people will think that his wife was his murderer (a flashback shows us how Se-kwang poisoned the tonic and the driver emptied the rifle) and that his son won’t get a cent of the chairman’s fortune. Chairman Lee breathes his last.
Bi-ryung panics – is he dead? She runs out but sees Kang-seok walking towards the study with determination and runs back in. Figuring that seeing the both of them will cause further suspicion (No kidding, Sherlock), Se-kwang slips out and jumps to the adjacent balcony.
Kang-seok opens the door and he runs over to his father, ignoring Bi-ryung’s cries that he’s dead. Shaking him, Kang-seok desperately cries for his father to open his eyes. Se-kwang enters moments later and pretending to be completely shocked, he suggests they call the police.
But suddenly, Chairman Lee shows the slightest sign of life and his finger twitches. Se-kwang and Bi-ryung exchange looks of shock.
Chairman Lee is rushed to the hospital and his family cries as he’s wheeled into surgery. Mom assures Kang-seok that everything will be fine as the driver shifts uncomfortably.
The investigation begins at the estate and Bi-ryung shouts her unwillingness to comply a little too loudly before catching Se-kwang’s eyes and quiets down. We learn that Se-kwang is currently a judicial apprentice and it immediately commands respect in the eyes of the police.
The Betrayal Trio gather at the Han River where they discuss that Chairman Lee is currently in a coma – he could either wake or die. And obviously, things would turn problematic if the chairman survived.
Se-kwang heads to the hospital and slips into Chairman Lee’s room unnoticed. He stands there alone, taking in the sight of the chairman lying there. He places a hand over the life support button, about to press it… and the door opens. It’s Kang-seok and Se-kwang immediately shifts gears to comfort him, tell him that the chairman will pull through.
But it’s bad news for Mom who’s currently being taken by the police. Bi-ryung doesn’t miss an opportunity to make another jab and is met with a slap to the face. Mom accuses, “Wasn’t it enough that you stole my husband? You had to stoop this low?”
Bi-ryung’s eyes widen: does Mom think she killed the Chairman? But Mom isn’t one to be trifled with and tells her, “Even if you fool the world, you can’t fool me.”
Now it’s Bi-ryung’s turn to slap Mom and she cries that it’s Mom’s fault that she’s even involved in the investigation. The police break it up before a fight ensues and Bi-ryung huffs that Mom is likely to be the killer.
Se-kwang surveys the situation and tells the driver that they’ll have to bide their time for now. But the driver says that the case has already been handed over to a prosecutor.
Said prosecutor is KWON JAE-KYU (Lee Ki-young) who groggily wakes at his desk and swigs a mouthful of liquor. Ha – already he’s a hoot. Prosecutor Kwon heads to the investigation room where Mom defends her innocence, crying that she’s been framed. The cards are already stacked against her because of her strained marriage to the chairman.
Prosecutor Kwon doesn’t blink an eye at her pleas; he’s heard it all before: It’s unfair; I was framed; I didn’t kill them. But he notes that those eventually turned into: I did wrong; I made a mistake; go easy on me. And to those people, he told them that he’d make sure they got maximum penalties.
Things are just as difficult at school as Kang-seok’s buddies goad him, asking if the rumors written in the papers are true. One kid insists that Kang-seok can confide in him since they’re “friends,” and Kang-seok turns to him with a smile, “Who says you’re my friend?”
The kid scoffs and calls Kang-seok “a son of a murderer,” which ignites Kang-seok’s temper and he proceeds to start beating the living crap out of the kid.
Kang-seok sits by the field later and recalls a time he came home from school with a black eye. It seems like Kang-seok was the instigator and Mom cries that the victim lost a few teeth. Dad declares, “Do you fight to lose? You fight to win.”
Dad argues that they have to hand over a handsome settlement fee for the victim’s family. He then gives a word of advice to his son: Don’t study and have the smart kids do your bidding. That’s terrible advice but this is also coming from the man who believes that you can do anything with money.
Only more bad news awaits Kang-seok at the hospital: Chairman Lee is now brain-dead. Kang-seok doesn’t believe it and refuses to consider the thought of taking his father off life support.
The driver visits Mom to deliver another set of bad news: the chairman has changed his will and there are a few prime properties he’s left to Bi-ryung. Mom asks him to change it – Bi-ryung can’t get a cent of the chairman’s fortune.
The driver protests that it’s a difficult process and Mom cries in desperation. After the will is changed and she is found innocent, she’ll take her husband off of life support. Unbeknownst to her, that statement is recorded and the driver tells Se-kwang that it’s enough to incriminate Mom.
But Se-kwang disagrees, saying that they have to make sure Mom goes free. Didn’t he hear what she just said on the tape? The driver’s eyes widen: “Turn an attempted murder into a murder?”
Mom’s trial begins and Prosecutor Kwon lists the effects of a powerful neurotoxin (tetrodotoxin) to the court. Traces of the toxin were found in the tonic and the chairman’s arthritis medicine which suggests poisoning.
His ego-puffing speech keeps getting undercut by Se-kwang who keeps sneezing and interrupting him, ha. Se-kwang objects to the claim and Prosecutor Kwon states that even small traces can be fatal.
Se-kwang begins his cross-examination, pointing to Chairman Lee’s chronic sinus symptoms. There’s an antihistamine in the arthritis medicine… and the symptoms are the same as tetrodotoxin.
Prosecutor Kim starts to object but Se-kwang throws his words back at him, “Even small traces can be fatal. I believe you said that earlier, Prosecutor.”
Citing inconclusive evidence, Se-kwang argues that the Prosecutor has no grounds to charge the defendant that she deliberately attempted to murder the Chairman. Therefore, Mom must be declared not guilty. Kang-seok gets up and applauds.
Everyone is on edge as the judge delivers the verdict…
Interesting. Like I mentioned before, I came in with little expectations for this drama given the few promotional materials prior to the premiere. Granted, the show came with its own drama-outside-the-drama with waiting for its lead actor to start work. What we did know was a potentially zany and hijinks-filled premise, which was absent in the first episode. It’s like we came dressed in our silly Halloween costumes and arrived at a black-tie formal banquet.
For the premiere itself, I found it a bit underwhelming. Take that with a grain of salt since I think getting one minute of Kang Ji-hwan in an hour is 59 minutes too short. The story moved along quickly but because we saw introductory snippets of our characters, it was both easy and difficult to place them within this world. For example, we were sporadically introduced to the mysterious caller who was the chairman’s right-hand man/driver/assistant/lawyer in the past who was never named in this hour. Then Ji Se-kwang (Park Sang-min) grew up in the chairman’s care who is Bi-ryung’s lover who we later found out studies law. Are you as confused as I am?
That’s not to say that there weren’t positive notes to pull from the episode. It was a breath of fresh air to see that Lee Kang-seok had a happy childhood with loving parents who doted upon and cared for him. We commonly see so many strained and tension-filled father-son relationships in dramaland that it’s so nice to see Kang-seok unconditionally love and care for his father. Park Ji-bin puts on a stellar performance here to show us a young and mischievous Kang-seok with charm and a sharp tongue. There are shades of interesting character developments there and I hope that those fun and lovable qualities are still evident in adult Lee Kang-seok/Cha-don as well.
I’m hard-pressed to hold too much against this show because filming began just short of two weeks ago. However, it certainly does make me nervous to think that the production (slated for 24 episodes) will hit the inevitable live-shoot much faster than other shows. It makes me wonder if the premiere sought to explore our hero’s childhood more in depth to perhaps buy some time for our lead actor. And yet, I still have faith even if it turned out that wasn’t the reason, the Giant/Salaryman team have proved time and time again that they’re more than able to set up a large world of epic proportions.
Right now, the overarching question in my mind (even more than Mom’s verdict) is: how did Lee Kang-seok become Lee Cha-don? And why doesn’t he know it?
We’ll have to wait and see.