Red Balloon: Episodes 1-2 (First Impressions)
This drama is a bit nuts! I don’t remember the last time I met a drama that did in-your-face melo, physical comedy, and satire — and all in the space of the same five minutes. Welcome to Red Balloon.
Editor’s note: If there is sufficient interest, drama coverage will continue with weekly Drama Hangouts.
EPISODES 1-2 FIRST IMPRESSIONS
I was very curious what the tone of this drama would be like. Everything about it sounded like a classic TV Chosun melo, but the genres of “family” and “comedy” were also tossed about. Then I turned on the first episode and was immediately greeted by the same-sounding OST that every melodrama has (if you know, you know). But, then, in the middle of all the melo setup, there really was a ton of comedy.
The most important relationship of the drama is the decades-long friendship of JO EUN-KANG (Seo Ji-hye) and HAN BADA (Hong Soo-hyun). In a flashback we see how they met in high school, and the moments they shared that solidified their close friendship. But for two women that love each other and seem to have a deep bond, they couldn’t be more different.
Twenty years later the women are still fast friends, but our heroine Eun-kang is still struggling to make ends meet. She’s very much the closed book, and it’s a sharp contrast to the heart-on-her-sleeve Bada, who’s sophisticated, well-off, and runs a jewelry company. In contrast, Eun-kang does odd jobs and errands for Bada’s jewelry company — things like making deliveries that put her in situations where she’s put down, scoffed at, and belittled. Even golden retrievers dislike her (and do they really dislike anyone??).
When she’s not being an errand girl, Eun-kang also tutors — and one of her pupils, so to speak, is her absolute waste of a boyfriend KWON TAE-GI (Seol Jung-hwan). He’s been studying for the civil service exam for years, while Eun-kang basically acts as his personal maid and cheerleader. It’s one of the most toxic K-drama relationships I’ve seen in years, frankly.
Now, Eun-kang has a poker face like none other, but deep inside she’s gotta know that Tae-gi is a creep, right? Still, she stays with him, fully expecting them to marry when he passes the exam. She’s 37 and the only way she can leave her parents’ house is to marry, and Tae-gi is it. However, the feeling isn’t mutual. When he passes the exam, he pouts and pretends he didn’t, and then goes out and parties with his friends, telling them how he’s tired of Eun-kang and is going to dump her. Even after she catches him in all these lies, he does nothing more than walk off and leave her with the bill. That is their relationship in a nutshell.
Bada, on the other hand, is married to GO CHA-WON (Lee Sang-woo) — A.K.A. Mr. Perfect. He is kind, good to his family, adores his wife, spoils her way too much, and even takes hit after hit against his pride when people frequently call him a “quack” for being a dermatologist and not a “real doctor.”
Eun-kang, it seems, is madly in love with him, but hides it well. We’re told they met first (before he met his wife), we see Eun-kang remember his favorite brand of instant ramyeon from a million year ago, and later during a game of truth or lie, she all but tells (us) that he’s her first love. However, for the bulk of the episodes we see the two interacting quite comfortably — Cha-won is completely comfortable to drive Eun-kang home as a favor to his wife, to treat Eun-kang’s bloody knee, and even openly laughs that wife loves Eun-kang more than him.
Eun-kang, on the other hand, is our practically silent wall flower, and though there’s not much revealed through her actions or behaviors, it’s clear that there’s so much more to her than meets the eye, and that perhaps a few more hardships is all it is going to take to break her.
Indeed, most of the scenes we see of Eun-kang in our premiere week are her slaving around for other people — not only her lowlife boyfriend, but Cha-won’s (insane) family, where she acts like a strange surrogate daughter-in-law, prepping the food for the family’s ancestral rites when Bada is late with a work appointment. But it’s more than just Cinderella, because Eun-kang’s genuine love of Bada makes it all so much more complicated.
One night both women have the same dream — they are having a double date at a fancy vacation home, and Eun-kang is in the kitchen bringing out a tray for everyone (of course she is). But then, Cha-won flies in out of nowhere and kisses her, and she kisses him back while her friend watches on from the patio. Both women wake up bothered — Bada enough to almost joke about it to Eun-kang, and Eun-kang enough to stew in it, and even imagine it happening when the scene later comes to life (sans kiss).
It sounds really melo, yes, but in the middle of all this is an absolutely absurd amount of humor, mostly coming from the main characters’ extended families. Cha-won’s father, for instance, is always carrying on about how horrible his wife is, and we see his wife and her daughter sneaking home after joint facelifts. These two characters are pure satire — in literally every scene where we meet them they are holding gilded mirrors and admiring their faces, and they value watching their dramas above any other family duty. When Eun-kang is around she picks up their slack (and tutors too), but when she’s not, it’s Cha-won’s brother-in-law JI NAM-CHEOL (Lee Sung-jae) that takes the brunt of it.
Like Eun-kang, Nam-cheol is stuck with a mostly terrible family, and he’s even forced to neglect his own struggling family in favor of his wife’s, where he not only lives, but works as CEO for the family junk business. Except, he’s CEO in name only. He drives a falling apart truck, works very hard, and seems to have nothing of his own, including free will. His story starts in an interesting direction in Episode 2 when Eun-kang’s sister starts working for him — but before any possible
romance adultery, right now he’s mainly a downtrodden character, like Eun-kang.
Here the drama draws a very strong line between its characters: there are the characters that are motivated by greed and desire and will trample on whomever they need to to get their way (Tae-gi, Cha-won’s sister and mother, and to some extent Bada); then, there are the characters that struggle and meet people’s needs rather than their own (Eun-kang, Nam-cheol, and to some extent Cha-won).
But for a drama that has such melodramatic characters and plot lines brewing (so much desire, illicit romance, and deep betrayals on the horizon), it also gives so much room for comedy – and not just the satirical comedy of the mirror-clutching characters, but actual physical comedy. The outside gate falls off its hinge at Eun-kang’s house when she raced through the door, her older brother (another character on the bad/greedy side of the show’s spectrum) literally rolls from his bedroom into the living room for breakfast, and other totally weird things like this. I have to admit, I laughed out loud a ton over the ridiculousness, and I wasn’t expecting to laugh at all over this drama.
That being said, I think I enjoyed the first episode more than the second. I was quite intrigued at the start, learning about the characters, their surroundings, and their motivations.The humor and satire caught me off guard, as did the openness with which the drama is implying Eun-kang’s desire for Cha-won.
The second episode, however, is where I started to feel like perhaps I understood the “family drama” angle going on as well. A lot of time is spent with other generations of the family, and of the two main families in question, every character has a very present supporting role, and their own budding plot line. Not a bad thing at all, just something that we don’t usually see to this extent. Then again, we do have 20 episodes for Red Balloon — and there’s only so much of Eun-kang taking out the garbage, shrugging off insults, and washing other peoples’ dishes that we can stand. The fact that we see into her so little is actually the most interesting part of this drama’s exposition, and I’m glad that the story will mainly be hers, as we watch her refuse to be miserable any longer.
The main question the drama is setting up is if Eun-kang and Bada’s friendship will be able to withstand the impending affair that the drama is foreshadowing endlessly. Where do Eun-kang’s affections really lie? What does she truly want out of life? How much has she just been acting a part until now? It will be fun to watch all of this play out — but not as fun as watching her loser boyfriend get his comeuppance.