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Uncle Samsik: Episode 1 (First Impressions)

As expected of Song Kang-ho’s foray into dramaland, this is a Serious Drama with sophisticated, cinematic styling. It’s full of politicking and power grabs during a turbulent time in Korean history as the country tries to rebuild after war. The high-quality acting, production, and storytelling make it a smooth watch, but its detailed political maneuvering might come off as dry if you’re looking for something more emotionally driven.

Editor’s note: This is an Episode 1 review only. For a place to chat about the entire drama, visit the Drama Hangout.
 
EPISODE 1

Uncle Samsik: Episode 1 (First Impressions)

The premiere episode promises a drama all about men vying for power in a time where the future of the country is uncertain in the wake of war. Everyone is fighting for their vision of progress to win out, sometimes out of civic duty and others out of selfish gain. Our central figure SAMSIK (Song Kang-ho) is not one of the powerful politicians, but he’s an opportunist who’s made himself useful to powerful people and is clawing his way to a seat at the table.

However, things must go awry at some point because we open the drama in 1960 with a secret military operation investigating Samsik, the CEO of Sail Developments, whose real name is PARK DOO-CHIL. He earned his nickname, which means “three meals,” by being known as someone who ensured no one went hungry during the war. The military bring in friends of his, including a man named KIM SAN (Byun Yo-han), for questioning.

We back up a year, which is where our story begins. Samsik is doing well for himself in these turbulent post-war times. He’s well-connected with contacts in the military and the government, and he’s got himself quite the lucrative business making deals under the table. But he’s set his sights higher. Thanks to his ties to the oil business, he manages to achieve his goal: becoming a member of the illustrious Cheongwoo Federation. The foundation is a major cultural force, its money and influence directing politics behind the scenes.

Despite his successes, it’s clear that Samsik’s position is perilous. From what we can tell, he’s a self-made man and doesn’t have a prominent family name to protect him. His tie to Liberal Party assemblymember KANG SUNG-MIN (Lee Kyu-hyung), in particular, is a double-edged sword. They’ve known each other for most of their lives, but Sung-min isn’t the loyal type. He’s more the burn-everything-in-his-path type who doesn’t hesitate to do whatever it takes to protect himself. And he’s done some pretty messed up things.

In his quest for power, Sung-min had AHN MIN-CHUL, the son of the Cheongwoo Federation’s chairman AN YO-SEOB (Joo Jin-mo), killed. Samsik was involved, as was a gangster who wants to transition into politics. When it looks like Sung-min is going back on his promise to help the gangster earn the nomination, the gangster starts threatening him. Sung-min’s response? He instructs Samsik to kill the man. Samsik is hesitant, but he agrees. He knows this means he’s next and his gears start turning.

Then there’s San, a passionate government worker in the National Reconstruction Bureau at the Ministry of Home Affairs. He has a doctorate in economics from the States and was formerly in the military, but he’s stonewalled by his higher-ups who are more concerned with political clout and influence than helping rebuild the country for the common folk.

There’s a whole lot of politicking going on in this drama, but here are some basics, as far as I can make out. The main political battle is between the party of the establishment, the Liberal Party, and the up-and-coming Innovation Party. The Liberal Party – the party of the sitting president – has been relying on aid from the U.S., which the Innovation Party believes is unsustainable. They argue for bolstering the Korean economy through industrialization and self-reliance. The parties also appear to be at odds on how to handle reunification.

This political fight is reaching a boiling point with the upcoming presidential election. The old guard is coalescing around the incumbent president, but challenger JOO IN-TAE (Oh Gwang-rok) of the Innovation Party is leading in popularity with the public.

Uncle Samsik: Episode 1 (First Impressions)

Right from the jump, it’s very clear that this is a male-centric drama, which isn’t surprising given the time period and focus on politics. But I could count the number on one hand of women, even in passing, who have speaking roles. Our only central female character is JOO YEO-JIN (Jin Ki-joo), and she gets to say maybe three sentences in the first episode. All we know about her is that she’s the daughter of candidate In-tae, and she’s close with San (an ardent supporter of her father).

All the political unrest comes to a head at a high-profile event organized by the Innovation Party for In-tae to give a speech. The President’s side hires men, led by the gangster Samsik is supposed to kill, to disrupt the event. Behind the scenes, Samsik gets his own men to fight the disrupters and use this opportunity to go after the gangster. Whether he’s actually planning to kill him or has another goal in mind is unclear.

Uncle Samsik: Episode 1 (First Impressions)

After the speech is cut short and In-tae has to leave for his safety, San takes the stage to passionately argue In-tae’s case on his behalf. He’s a charismatic believer and wins over the crowd by the time he’s done. We end as Samsik stares at San with interest while a photographer snaps San’s photo. It looks like we might have a star on the rise.

Whew, there was a lot thrown at us in one 45-minute episode. This is clearly going to be a politically dense drama; I feel like I only scratched the surface here. It’s well-made and somehow managed not to be overly convoluted despite all the names, political alliances, and historical context presented. While I appreciated the acting, writing, set design, and production, I felt like the drama didn’t give me much of a reason to care about all the politicking. The political landscape was interesting, but I didn’t feel attached to anyone or anything going on – there was nothing to hold onto. That could change as we learn more about our characters and get a clearer sense of the stakes of all this grappling for power. (And maybe even include a woman or two.)

Uncle Samsik: Episode 1 (First Impressions)

 
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Now that I know what this is about, I'll add it to my watchlist.
I love politics. But I'm not exactly a fan of this era in Korean history. Each drama made that has its setting around this time always forayed into the deep tragic melo.
At least this is not romance so no tragic love story.

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I am looking forward to seeing you in the hangout when you do start watching.

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Thanks @quirkycase for taking this one on! I think the drama did a great job presenting how hard times were for all concerned regarding the basics of having enough to eat and getting your voice heard if you were not in the right room. We saw that charisma needs power to effect change and corruption dressed up as respectability at all levels.

I was hooked from the start and I am looking forward to seeing who survived the fallout and became part of the next stage of Korea rebuilding itself.

I think it’s great that we are seeing these elements of Korean history being fictionalised as these were tough times with civil and political unrest playing out globally.

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It would be revelatory if even a dramatisation of the hidden herstory of the Korean women in this pivotal time ever gets the green light.

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We will be getting one soon.
It is already in the works.

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I followed Uncle Samsik as I wanted an historical drama that is not funny and doesn't focus on the romantic part, instead it talks about politics and getting Korea out of poverty.

It is amazing to see how a speech on pizza is so enthralling and mind-opening as one cannot imagine Koreans not hearing or tasting it.

I guess the production team and the script are what bring in the talented A-lister cast (Song Kang Ho and Byung Yo Han) to this. Ohhh...so happy that Disney picks this gem of a drama up.

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Come over to the hangout to talk in detail about the rest of the season.

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I absolutely will try to be active there.

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Who would have thought ‘pizzas’ is the lynchpin in this story?

I love Ep1-5 and look forward to seeing the rest. Quite certain it will become a top drama this year.

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No doubts...it will be our top drama.

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I had high hopes of getting really into this one. I was excited for Song Kang-ho's drama debut. But I can't understand it :( There's too many people and too many things going on at different times, and I don't understand a single thing about politics in Korea. Trying to watch this just makes me feel stupid lol Maybe I'll come back to it, but for now it's unfortunately a skip.

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I’m always looking forward to actor Song Kang-ho’s movies and/or dramas on the small screen. He always delivers in his performances. I enjoy ‘Uncle Samsik’, however, they speak so fast that I can’t keep up with the subtitles. Thank you for the first impression article. It helps me understand the story better.

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