Friday, January 16, 2009

Thank You (고맙습니다)

I think I watched this show almost all at once, sometime last year. (To the best of my recollection, between "The Golden Compass" and "The Mummy" ... I think ...) I mention this because although I don't remember when exactly I watched the show, I do remember that I was exhausted and melancholy, in a sort of funk (a few months of 6-day weeks and 12-hour days can do that to a girl).

When my mother rented all the videos for this show (16 episodes) and asked me to watch it with her since I was staying at her house to get away from L.A. for a while, I was reluctant. The way she explained the plot made it pretty unappetizing: "A little girl has AIDS. Her mom's trying to deal with it."


Not the way to market a show to a girl in her 20's.

Since I was staying at her house and not working, I couldn't really get away from the show when my mom was watching it. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I started watching, without any investment at all and with quite negative preconceived notions.

Lo and behold, the show sparked around episode 7 or 8. The absolutely stifling melodrama of the first few episodes almost killed me.

The plot was deceptively simple- a single mom (very young) is raising her daughter while also caring for her grandfather, who seems to have Alzheimer's. I don't remember them ever saying flat-out that he has Alzheimer's, but his behavior is consistent with it, including a few heartbreaking incidents when he regains his memory and thoughts and tries to leave his family to make things easier for them. (Oh, the tears I shed ... this actor (신구) was simply amazing).

The twists to the simple plot came quickly, though. The little girl has AIDS (I called her Watermelon because her face, with the bangs she had, looked wider than it was tall, but her character's name is Spring, ). I have never seen an AIDS patient in a Korean drama before, because Koreans are (let's face it) prejudiced against weakness and disease, but particularly weakness and disease that is considered ... low. Since AIDS is associated with promiscuity and Koreans are wary to let anything promiscuous wander into their melodramatic televised world, it was a surprising story point.

Another twist (the irritating twist) was the fact that the mother never told anyone who the father of her daughter is. That's right, she's not a widow (acceptable for Korean TV) or a divorcee (acceptable for Korean TV if hubby was abusive), she was a single parent from the beginning. Brave, brave woman, especially in a small country town. The reason this twist irritated me was because the father of the little girl (everyone in town knew. Seriously.) and his whole family were obnoxious and priggish. YES. Priggish. His mother was not only priggish but also piggish:

I love the actress, she's terrific, but oh! this! character! The writers combined every shrew they'd ever met into one person. Must have been a fun part to play, but I didn't need the aggravation of watching her mince around in every episode.

Sorry, I'm done ranting.

The conflict in this show really came about because of the way that Spring contracted AIDS. She had gotten into an accident, and a doctor (intern? resident? someone in a lab coat) had given her a transfusion with tainted blood. Tragic, yes.

In the melodramatic spin that all things must take, the doctor that performed the transfusion is dying, and her last wish is to go see the little girl whose life she had ruined. So the doctor hobbles sadly onto a boat with a teddy bear, her present for the little girl (a teddy bear?? that's IT?!?), while her long-suffering boyfriend follows, protesting.

This long-suffering boyfriend is, of course, one of the main characters, scarred by the death of the only woman he'd ever loved. (That might not be true ... I might be embellishing for dramatic effect). He's a genius of a doctor, apparently, but brash and rather cruel (there is a pretty hilarious bit in the beginning of the series where he's outright mean to a couple little kids, which I found funny because I am a horrible person). As soon as I saw him, I knew he would somehow be affected by the little girl and his cold, cold heart would melt by the end of the show.

The sweet, caring mother (공효진 does a fantastic job, because she could have been really saccharine, tooth-decayingly sweet, but manages to portray real kindness with hints of human frustration) is obviously working her fingers to the bone, caring for a small child with special needs and a grandfather whose mental condition diminishes daily. She needs a break but can't have one and always works with cheer and determination, despite everything she's gone through.

It should be pretty obvious from what I've written as to why I watched this show: the actors.

Everyone, from the little girl to the old grandfather (okay, okay, even the girl's father's shrill family) was cast superbly and really played their characters with commitment.

The story was a bit slow and focused greatly on the characters and their development (I appreciated that a lot). The way the mother and child lead the grandfather around and give him Chocopies (a kind of Korean moon pie), which he loves dearly. The way the mother boils ramyeon for the family dog, who's a picky eater. (She added eggs when the dog was being really picky, because the dog really liked eggs).

It's a very charming little show, set in a run-down little town.

The way the characters and their personalities (flaws as well as attributes) unfolded was well done, believable. I wanted to know these people and hold their hands and eat Chocopies with them. I wanted to be the mother's friend, to buy the little girl candy, to hug the grandfather and give him more Chocopies than he could ever eat.

It's rare that I'm still thinking about the small moments in a drama six months after I've watched it (probably closer to a year, really), but this drama stayed with me. I think about the way the mother talked to her daughter, like a person rather than a child. I think about the way that the little girl spoke to her great-grandfather, like an adult to a child. I think about the way that the doctor generally sat in silence, watching everything going on around him. I think about the teddy bear, the toy that stayed in the show from beginning to end.

Most dramas have some sort of strict storyline that they follow which is easily explained (1. girl meets boy. 2. boy and girl fight. 3. boy and girl make up. 4. another boy comes into the picture ... etc.), but this show is not at all like that. It's almost like the writers took a slice out of some people's lives and just aired it, with some dramatic flourishes here and there.

Such a poignant, sweet show. Not the easiest show to watch (explaining AIDS to a child? an elderly man with Alzheimer's?) but definitely worth the time.