[Changing Tastes] The more the merrier
The Return of Iljimae
My introduction to K-dramas was pretty typical and included romantic comedies such as You’re Beautiful, Coffee Prince, and Boys Over Flowers. Part of the fun of those early dramas was becoming invested in the the main characters. Eventually, I came upon a large-scale drama with a huge cast and I started to appreciate how the many major and minor characters could enhance my drama experience.
The drama that pointed me in the direction of the large ensembles was from 2009, The Return of Iljimae, a sweeping saga of a legendary hero that starred Jung Il-woo. I decided to try this drama because I wanted to challenge myself with something other that my usual romantic comedies.
The Return of Iljimae was the first historical drama that I ever viewed and I’ll admit that I struggled to keep up with the genre and its large cast. By the end of what I thought was a whopping twenty-four episodes, I had to marvel at the many actors and actresses of all ages who had played a role in the drama, both large and small. There were two supporting characters that stood out and they quickly became my favorites: Dol-yi, an orphan played by a young Lee Hyun-woo, and Mr. Bae, the grandfather-like, self-appointed biographer of Iljimae, portrayed by actor Kang Nam-gil.
The Return of Iljimae
At several points, it felt as if The Return of Iljimae was too ambitious for me, but the chemistry between the experienced Kang Nam-gil and the young Lee Hyun-woo helped me stay with the saga until I was caught up in the story. When I reached the finale, I looked forward to the final scene for these two characters, who had often served as comic relief. Their last exchange took place after a reunion between the young boy who had been taken captive during a war with China, and his mentor/father figure, who traveled all that way to find him. It turned out to be an unexpectedly touching scene and I was impressed that the drama recognized these two characters with such a poignant send-off.
I realized that part of the charm of The Return of Iljimae was its large cast, which I felt added to the sweeping nature of the saga. With so many characters and multiple side plots, the story had a complexity that I enjoyed. In addition to the main characters who anchored the drama, there were many more who brought an authenticity to the story. Because of the extra episodes, the characters of Dol-yi and Mr. Bae had enough screen time so that by the time their final scene came around, it had a powerful effect. I was suddenly interested in other dramas that featured larger casts, even though they usually exceeded what I thought was a comfortable sixteen episodes.
Even though I struggled with the length of The Return of Iljimae, I was willing to try another drama with an ambitious cast of characters and chose I Heard it Through the Grapevine. It turned out to be more melodramatic than I like, but I was so impressed with the cast that I returned week after week until the drama was over. Eventually, I found my way to Answer Me 1988.
Answer Me 1988
What I thought Answer Me 1988 did really well was to make use of small scenes that felt natural, because everyone lived in the same neighborhood. Early in the drama, after Deok-sun’s father has to deal with the death of his mother, he and Taek run into each other on their way home. When Taek offers his condolences, he tearfully admits that he still misses his own mother every day, even after many years. I thought the quiet scene was a unique opportunity to bring together two characters who shared a similar loss. It presented Taek without the protective cocoon of his childhood friends and revealed his sensitive nature. That scene represents some of what large ensembles have the potential to offer, a unique pairing that provides a noteworthy perspective into a character.
Eventually, I turned my attention to the fifty-episode dramas that populate the weekends. With their large casts and multiple story lines, I thought that they held much promise. My initial attempts didn’t get me very far until I gave the family drama All About My Mom a try. One day I jumped into the middle of this drama and quickly became caught up with the trials and tribulations of the Lee family. That was followed by Five Children, where I realized that weekend dramas not only provide great roles for a number of seasoned actors, they allow supporting actors to tackle more significant parts.
When I remember Five Children, I think of the roles filled by Shin Hye-sun, Sung Hoon and Ahn Woo-yeon. Previously, I had only seen these actors in small supporting roles, but the weekend drama gave them much more to do and they made the most of their opportunity. Once it concluded, they went on to larger roles in other dramas — Shin Hye-sun in Forest of Secrets, Sung Hoon as the romantic lead in My Secret Romance, and Ahn Woo-yeon as the young Bum-gyun in Circle. It turns out that the ensemble nature of weekend dramas gives young actors opportunities that they don’t get in a drama with sixteen episodes. For me, it was exciting to witness the work that allowed these actors to graduate from small roles to larger, more challenging ones, thanks to a family drama like Five Children.
Once Five Children ended, the family weekend drama became a fixture in my viewing experience and I added Laurel Tree Tailors and Father Is Strange to my list. Father Is Strange has been particularly meaningful because it stars Lee Joon, whom I first encountered in Heard it Through the Grapevine all those dramas ago. His portrayal of the many facets of Ahn Joong-hee has me waiting impatiently for the weekend.
As is typical of these types of dramas, there are many supporting characters who contribute to the overall feel of the show, and I know the story wouldn’t be the same without them. In Father Is Strange, the Byun family’s grandmother and her youngest grandson, Min-ha, have the sweetest relationship — in fact, Min-ha has a great relationship with everyone because he really loves his family. His calm, positive attitude serves as a counter-balance for the situations that his relatives get themselves into. His is one of those supporting characters that I end up invested in, and it’s what attracted me to these large ensemble dramas in the first place.
I never expected that my attempt to widen my horizons would eventually lead me all the way to family dramas, but I’m really glad that it did. Even though it’s a greater investment as a drama fan, I think the rewards are worth the trouble because more episodes plus more characters equals more to appreciate.
Father Is Strange
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- [Changing Tastes] Rom-coms without the rose-colored glasses
- [Changing Tastes] From someone who doesn’t like change
- [Changing Tastes] My dad always said I’d learn to appreciate history someday
- [Changing Tastes] I’m sorry for ever doubting you, family dramas
- Theme of the Month: How have your K-drama tastes changed over time?
- What’s your dramaland catnip? Tell us your stories!
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