Cain & Abel: First impressions
Caveat: This isn’t a proper recap. It’s not even a proper review. After catching the first few episodes, I wasn’t intending to write about SBS’s new Wednesday-Thursday drama, Cain & Abel, but I got a lot (a lot!) of emails from people asking what I thought of it and requesting recaps.
The thing is, I didn’t know how I would feel about Cain & Abel going in, but was expecting one of a few scenarios: to love it or to hate it. To be drawn in right away or turned off right away. To be impressed or to be disappointed.
What I did NOT expect, however… was to be bored.
SONG OF THE DAY
Cain & Abel OST – “미련한 사랑” (Foolish love) by G (So Ji-sub) (he’s the rapper) and Chae Dong-ha [ Download ]
Cain & Abel isn’t a bad show. I won’t say it’s good, either, but it’s got its definite strengths. It’s shot well, it has good music, it has a sense of style. And the cast — no complaints there.
What was odd about Cain & Abel for me, then, was that despite all its strengths (and some weaknesses), it left me feeling strangely blank. After I saw the first episode, I sat there wondering why I had no opinion about it. I mean, that’s rare — if you’ve been reading this site for a while, you’ll know I have opinions on the triflingest of details. After an hour of one of Korea’s most-anticipated dramas of the year, starring some really big names and featuring a huge budget, and I feel… nothing?
The characters, in brief
We start off with one of those “My life flashes before my eyes as I die” moments, which then jumps back to how things got started. It is narrated by So Ji-sub, who tells us he was shot in the head and left in the desert in China to die. Frankly I liked this idea better when it kicked off Green Rose, but the sequence is wonderfully shot and has more emotional impact than the next two episodes put together. (I just hope it’s not the best thing about the entire drama.) And then we zip backward to the start:
It’s pretty standard stuff: So Ji-sub plays Dr. Lee Cho-in, the good and considerate doctor (the “Abel” character, although these archetypes are never expressed explicitly; it’s just a cool metaphor, I suppose, to describe the brotherly dynamic but which has no actual bearing on the story). Cho-in goes out of his way to treat his patients well and make them comfortable. Cho-in and Sun-woo aren’t actually blood brothers, although they grew up treated as such; their father took Cho-in in and lavished all his affection on him, leaving little for his biological son. While the brothers maintained a loving relationship, this was not met favorably by Mom/Stepmom, who feels Cho-in is a usurper.
(Dad was hospital director before falling ill, and Mom is on the board as an assistant/deputy director.)
Shin Hyun-joon is Dr. Lee Sun-woo (Cain), who lives right on the corner of Wildly Talented and Too Much Ambition. He returns to Korea for the first time in seven years and has a happy reunion with Cho-in, although his mother (the ice bitch queen) makes no attempt to hide her hatred of Cho-in. His mother’s Machiavellian ways don’t appeal to him, but Sun-woo may be temped over to the Dark Side sooner or later…
Chae Jung-ahn is the girl who’s known them from youth, Kim Seo-yeon. She grew up with a crush on Sun-woo, and saw Cho-in more as a friendly brother type. As they grew older, she grew more in love with Sun-woo, but he’s taken it for granted that she’d always be around. He hurt her and left, and when he returns, he wants to pick up where he left off with Seo-yeon, only to find that she’s fallen in love with Cho-in in the interim — he has stayed by her side and been her source of strength. Of course, Sun-woo’s sudden reappearance shakes Seo-yeon up badly, even as she has just accepted Cho-in’s proposal. And she has a heart condition.
And Han Ji-min is a plucky, perky tour guide, Oh Young-ji, who lives in China and scrimps all her savings to get her North Korean refugee family safely into South Korea. To this end, she has secured South Korean passports for everyone in her family except for herself; she’ll acquire the last when she’s earned enough.
Hospital politics figures largely in this setup, with the board of directors evenly split on plans for an upcoming clinic, which, simply put, places Cho-in squarely opposing Sun-woo and BitchMom (how convenient!). The two hospital proposals are for neurosurgery (representing Cain’s ambition) versus emergency care (representing Abel’s altruism).
Cho-in travels to China to watch a surgery, which both brothers want to perform soon on their father, who lies unconscious with chordoma. BitchMom takes advantage of this to delay Cho-in’s return so he will miss the board meeting and lose support. In the interim, she works on swaying doctors to her side, working closely with another sonuvabitch of a director who hires the thugs in China.
The thugs outsource the surveillance of Cho-in to tour guide Young-ji, who is assigned to keep watch on his movements and report back. She’s been told he’s a no-good, scam doctor, so she has no qualms about pinching his South Korean passport and adding it to her stash. This is also why she sticks to him (or tries to) like a buzzing gnat, because she’s told if she lets him out of her sight, she won’t get paid. As the huge payment will enable her to move her family to freedom, this is a key motivator for Young-ji.
On a side trip to treat poor villagers with free medical care, Young-ji falls ill with appendicitis. Cho-in recommends returning to the city for surgery, but she begs him not to. When push comes to shove, she insists there’s a reason she can’t go to the hospital, and pleads for him to take care of it himself (she’s deathly afraid of the authorities for fear of being sent back to North Korea). He operates on her and, seeing his kindness, Young-ji starts to reevaluate her opinion of him (and returns his passport).
When Cho-in’s absence from the hospital in Korea doesn’t have its intended effect (the emergency center still has strong support), the other director (Mom’s colleague accomplice) instructs the Chinese gangsters to get rid of Cho-in “forever.”
Now convinced Cho-in’s a good guy, Young-ji rushes back to the hospital to warn him of danger. Helping Cho-in puts Young-ji at risk, and the thugs steal her carefully prepared passports, forcing her to run and hide to keep herself safe.
At home, BitchMom overhears the other director making arrangements to dispose of Cho-in’s “body” and fears things have gone too far. She insists the order be stopped, but it’s too late — Cho-in has already been dragged into the desert, shot in the head, and left for dead. The director warns her ominously that they’re in the same boat now.
Sun-woo doesn’t know about the scheme (although you’d think he may have a clue but is choosing not to know), and operates successfully on his father. But from the instant his brother is shot, his grip starts to falter — is his hand betraying him? Are his surgery days over? Is this a bad plot point or symbolic gesture?
And in the desert, Cho-in’s body is found and dragged back to civilization… where he recovers with amnesia???
The first two episodes were pretty bland, despite the competence in directing and acting. Episode 3 was a lot better for all the development between So Ji-sub and Han Ji-min (and oh, the attempted murder), but whenever we head back to the overdramatic hospital politics, the story shifts back into cold blankness. The hospital power play is to Cain & Abel what ghostwriting was to A Star’s Lover, which means it’s already in danger of being dragged out and beaten like a dead horse of an overextended metaphor (much like this sentence). (Also, Ice Bitch Mom may be to the former what Evil Manager Seo Tae-seok was to the latter).
I’ve complained about the excessive use of music in Boys Before Flowers, which is made all the worse because that drama’s music is pretty bad to begin with, or at least very mediocre. Cain & Abel, on the other hand, has beautiful music and score — but I’m finding it just as obtrusive. Too much reliance on music tends to feel manipulative. (I’m thinking “미련한 사랑,” posted above, is going to be Cain & Abel‘s “Paradise.” Three episodes in and I’m already sick of it.)
Cho-in is kind of a straightforward character, and if not for So Ji-sub, I wonder if he’d be at all interesting. He’s just so damn… good. He’s friendly, he’s talented, he’s kind, he’s good with kids, he treats poor patients for free, everyone loves him. No doubt So Ji-sub is very cute as the cheerful doctor, but he’s kind of a Mary Sue.
(To be fair, Kim Rae-won managed to be compelling playing a similarly good guy in Gourmet, but there are a few key differences — Gourmet wasn’t an angsty revenge drama, for one.) I’d hope Cho-in returns from China with an anger condition and a raging desire for some country justice, for the sake of his character and the plot.
I am totally fine being in a minority on this drama. Like I said, it’s not bad. It just doesn’t stir any excitement in me, and I can’t help thinking the great cast is somewhat wasted on a humdrum plot. It doesn’t look like viewers responded as well as hoped in the ratings, but this drama will probably pull in decent-to-good numbers as the second-place drama for its time slot.
When we’re talking story, Cain & Abel is not really that similar to East of Eden, but I see it as drawing much the same audience. Which boils down to: not me.
(Disagree? Go ahead, let me have it!)