Episode 1 of Accidental Couple (aka Just Looking aka That Fool, 2009) was surreal. Never had I been so simultaneously awed and repulsed. Here was acting at its finest and here was acting so excruciatingly awful I wanted to throw a shoe at the screen.
Imagine the very best tenor in the world giving the standout performance of his life. He opens his mouth to sing and your jaw drops; it will remain on the floor for the entirety of the concert. Then it’s the turn of the accompanying “choir” and your hair stands as you listen to what sounds like seagulls and sea lions cackling and barking at each other. You call that singing?
But behold a miracle midway in the performance.
With eight numbers down and eight more to go, you suddenly realize the discordant noises have disappeared. It’s as if the tenor has sprinkled magic dust on the singers around him. The choir is now singing in tandem, its members’ faces flushed with joy. You take your fingers out of your ears.
See, perfection is contagious after all. You can’t be acting sixteen episodes with Hwang Jung-min and not have his greatness rub off on you. The more scenes you have with him, the more rapidly you are going to improve. How can you not when the man infuses the air around him with such purity? Yes, that’s the word. His acting is so pure in intent and execution it leaves you awestruck.
The magic begins the very moment he appears. This man with the nerdy haircut and the imperfect skin, a school-boy satchel hanging from one shoulder. This nondescript man. For many years now he has worked in a post office, not delivering mail but selling postal insurance. He doesn’t have the gift of the gab, obviously, so he doesn’t sell as many policies as his frustrated chief expects. He loves to sing and for two years has posted a sign-up form for colleagues to start a singing group with him. No one comes forward. He has a crush on a pretty colleague, but she doesn’t even glance in his direction. Not once has he been on a date and his sister despairs that he will ever get married.
One night he attends an awards ceremony for the acting luminaries in his country. His favorite star wins for best acting by a female lead and he is ecstatic. On his way home, still starry-eyed from the night’s events, he sees a car spinning out of control and crashing into a wall. He runs to the car and inside is his idol, that best actress. Please help me, she begs. Please sit in the driver’s seat and act as if you were my chauffeur tonight.
He does as she instructs. And just like that, like a bizarre dream, our hero’s life changes completely.
I sat through the first few episodes of Accidental Couple with a lump in my throat. The tears threatened but never fell; the crying was all internal.
My heart ached for Gu Dong-baek. How I hated seeing him used and misused in an outrageous charade that will advance other people’s political ambitions and illicit passions — people who care only about themselves and not for him. A contract marriage with the actress Han Ji-soo so that her “scandal” with Gu Dong-baek will quell rumors that she and a certain politician’s son are an item.
The politician is running for the ultimate mayorship position: Mayor of Seoul. To win he needs the backing of the gilded in industry, specifically the owner of the country’s biggest media conglomerate. So he gets his son engaged to the media mogul’s daughter. Engagement perks for the young’un, who is schooled abroad and thankfully does not take after his dad in the looks department, include a coveted position in his father-in-law’s company.
Six months is all it takes for the charade to run its course. Once the politician is elected mayor, the son will break off his engagement and marry his true love — the actress whom he has been dating for seven years. That is the plan. To pull it off, they need someone to play the actress’s husband. Someone they can manipulate easily. Someone like Gu Dong-baek.
Contract marriages. Haven’t we seen them in kdramas before? Full House immediately comes to mind, except in that one the gender roles are the reverse. Most of the time the couple enter into a contract marriage because one of them is in dire straits, usually financially. Not so in Accidental Couple.
I concede Gu Dong-baek is not coerced into playing the role of the pseudo husband. He’s her fan. She seems so unhappy and he badly wants to see her smile, to be joyful again. So out of the goodness of his heart he agrees to her request. He just wants to help her, it’s as simple as that. But it’s precisely his pure-heartedness and her and her lover and his father’s collective selfishness that make the whole thing so wrong. How can they get away with such exploitation?
When, after a spell of being together and thinking she’s comfortable enough with him, he alludes to them being friends and she immediately squashes the idea, my heart cried for him. When her lover, that Kang-mo guy, turns up in Guam unexpectedly and it’s so obvious that our hero is the third wheel, I couldn’t stop the tears this time. What is heartbreaking is how he smiles through the whole charade, how he picks himself up and just plods on. He cries, thinking no one is looking. He keeps looking out for her, protecting her, doing everything she asks of him, like a fool.
But I didn’t just hate how shabbily Gu Dong-baek was treated or the far-fetched premise of the plot. It was also how terrible some of the acting was in the first few episodes. I could not believe one drama could showcase acting that ranged from the sublime to the abysmal… in the lead roles! But let’s talk about the sublime first.
I will come out on a limb here and say that Hwang Jung-min’s acting is so amazing it ranks up there in my all-time Top Three best performance by a male lead in a kdrama, together with Kim Myung-min (White Tower, 2007) and Yang Dong-geun (Ruler of Your Own World, 2002). Such acting comes around only once every few years.
I missed Gu Dong-baek every single second he wasn’t in a scene. Despite being a pawn, albeit a willing one, in a farce that I had strong ethical objections to, he made me smile till I thought I was going to get jaw ache. He was an intoxicant giving me a high; I couldn’t get enough. He made me, an increasingly crappy cynic, believe that “heart of gold” isn’t just an idiom that you bandy around, but that it can exist. Gu Dong-baek’s heart is indeed golden; it is indeed genuinely kind and good.
Unfortunately, the people taking advantage of his goodness are many.
There’s his actress wife, so caught up in her sacrificial lamb role she does not realize how blinded she is. Looking at how easily Kang-mo and his father can manipulate her (the sham marriage is their idea), you would think she is all legs and not much else. (I would kill for those legs, though. Just saying.) Playing her is Kim Ah-joong, in what is my first real look at her. (I’ve seen her, of course, on the cover of my 200 Pounds Beauty DVD. Remind me to watch that at some point.)
If it weren’t for Hwang Jung-min’s spades of awesomeness, I would have fled from Accidental Couple within minutes of Kim Ah-joong’s appearance.
The woman looks fabulous from head to toe, front to back, up close or plastered on the wall in yet another seductive pose. But she can’t act. Put her together in a scene with Kang-mo’s Joo Sang-wook and every flaw in their acting is magnified tenfold. Her acting is as nuanced as a porcupine is cuddly, and he is merely going through the paces. I have no idea what she sees in him because he is essentially emotionless. Everything he does feels like 2% milk, diluted and bland. The guy doesn’t have a single standout scene.
No matter how I hated Sang-hyuk in Winter Sonata, at least I remember him lying on the hospital bed like the pathetic second fiddle that he is, pretending to be dead so that his ex-girlfriend will be so gripped by pangs of guilt she’ll zip back to his side. In contrast, nothing about Kang-mo is memorable. He isn’t so evil that you despise him. He isn’t so angelic (like a certain second fiddle in Brilliant Legacy) that your heart hurts for him. He is just… boring. But what is truly sad is that he remains the same for sixteen episodes. Because he shares so few scenes with the great Hwang Jung-min, that’s why. Not enough opportunity for “iron sharpening iron” to work.
Kim Ah-joong, on the other hand, is the female lead; she and Hwang Jung-min are constantly together. Even if they sleep on separate floors and work in different places (he in a post office and she in another world), they breathe the same air at home. All that togetherness can’t possibly leave her unaffected.
It took several episodes, but after a while I forgot to roll my eyes when it was a Han Ji-soo scene. I stopped studying her legs and features (or taking little mental notes such as “That hair color looks fantastic on her, but I’m sure it’ll look frightful on me.). Instead I laughed when she was being silly, like the time Dong-baek asked her to make him laugh ten times, and I even teared with her when she was giving that press conference. By the middle of the drama (Episode 8 is the episode where everything sort of clicks and the choir members stop looking like they were just plucked randomly off the streets), it is obvious there is a palpable chemistry between our two leads. They look adorable cooking together; they stop looking like an accidental couple.
It’s the same with Lee Chung-ah and Baek Sung-hyun: Hwang Jung-min’s magic finding its way to them, teaching them that anyone can act like the crazies gotten you, but real acting is all about control.
The last time I watched Lee Chung-ah was several years ago in Temptation of Wolves. Her acting was nothing to shout about then, even as the female lead. But in Accidental Couple, watching her in the first two episodes was like nails on a chalkboard. I wanted to reach into the screen and tell her this (before gagging her): Have mercy on your viewers. Find another profession. Anything but acting. If Kim Ah-joong is bad, you are worse.
By the end of the drama I loved Lee Chung-ah’s Min-ji. She made me giggle and laugh out loud. She was that gust of wind sweeping into a room the instant the windows were opened, dispelling the stale air and making one feel suddenly rejuvenated. I loved how she fussed over her brother, how she idolized her famous sister-in-law, how her jaw dropped at her brother-in-law’s abs.
Ah, that brother-in-law. That Sang-chul. Han Ji-soo’s brother back from Australia, supposedly, but behaving like he just emerged from acting lessons taught by really incensed gorillas. How else to explain why the guy is a walking ball of rage? First Lee Chung-ah and now Baek Sung-hyun. What’s with the overacting at the start?
But the same transformation takes place as well and soon I was marveling at the writer’s cleverness: make Sang-chul Kang-mo’s unwitting antagonist, yes! Whereas Kang-mo is trying to drive Dong-baek and Ji-soo apart, Sang-chul will make them fall in love and become a real couple. The result is some of my favorite scenes in the drama: bantering, shopping, snuggling together. I love our Dong-chul couple!
Thus, as first impressions go, the first episode tossed out enough bad acting and shenanigans to make me want to bail out, and I would have, normally. But I was so drunk on Hwang Jung-min’s portrayal of Gu Dong-baek.
This isn’t my first time watching him; the first was long ago in that wonderful action noir, A Bittersweet Life. He was a revelation there as the villain; I still shiver when I remember his sneer and that facial scar. But Lee Byung-hun was so riveting there as the lead, I didn’t pay enough attention to Hwang Jung-min. Still, he was unforgettable. Other movies followed: Waikiki Brothers, You Are My Sunshine, A Lovely Week. He always delivered, playing every sweet or sinister character with passion and panache. But I never really fell in love, not until Accidental Couple.
If I can give only one reason why I am so smitten with Hwang Jung-min here, it is that he plays his character with so much heart. Every little thing he does — whether he is smiling or crying, leaping into the ocean or playing board games — is so heartfelt, so sincere and earnest. We forget that he is acting; we think that he is indeed Gu Dong-baek.
But although I love everything about Hwang Jung-min in this drama, I do not love everything about Gu Dong-baek. Especially after he fell in love with his fake wife, he seemed more subdued, nodding in agreement more often than I felt necessary. He was less carefree than before; he walked with less lift in his steps. I particularly dislike that side-plot with Kyung-ae, that annoying colleague that he had a crush on and who decided belatedly that she was going to reciprocate. The whole thing about her holding our couple to ransom was just so stupid. Just as the drama was moving at a trot, she emerged and slowed everything to a crawl.
But in the end, all the little annoyances don’t matter. You don’t need more than one reason to watch Accidental Couple, and this one reason alone will make up for all of the drama’s shortcomings. Silly office bickering becomes watchable, the camaraderie in that post office making me feel all warm inside. I stop cringing at unrealistic plot twists and wait gleefully instead for that happy-ever-after that I know will come. Gu Dong-baek’s too good of a man not to be given all the happiness that he deserves.
It’s been a long time since I watched a drama at this pace: devouring sixteen episodes in two days with no fast-forwarding. A simple Cinderella story of a mismatched couple falling in love against all odds. This story reached out and grabbed me. I don’t know if Accidental Couple will make my Top Five best dramas of the year, but I do know that I’ve found my Best Actor.