A few preambles before we plunge into the post proper.
First, I’ve just realized that KBS has opted for a less wordy rendition of the title. Instead of The Man Who Can’t Get Married (my previous post on this drama), it’s a more succinct He Who Can’t Marry. I’m all for reducing wordiness (not that I’ve been practising it in my recent posts, alas), so the new title is nice. But my favorite title is still the one coined by my friends: Kimchi Kekkon. A really apt nickname for the drama considering how similar this one is to the J-version.
Second, although the title of the post suggests otherwise, this isn’t a recap. I’m not including screencaps (which instantly saves me several hours) and I won’t go into details of plot developments. It’s really a (ranty) First Impressions piece.
Final preamble. I will make constant mention of Kekkon Dekinai Otoko, the Japanese drama on which He Who Can’t Marry is (completely) based.
Let’s begin with a quick summary of the first two episodes and the main roles.
Cho Jae-hee (Ji Jin-hee) is a 40-year-old architect with his own smallish firm. To the despair of his mom, our hero is adamant he will remain a bachelor forever, snug in his stylish one-bedroom apartment where he lives happily alone and where nothing is ever out of place, not even a pencil. His next-door neighbor is Jung Yu-jin (Kim So-eun), a twenty-something with curls and a chihuahua.
One night Jae-hee is felled by intense abdominal pain, so Yu-jin calls for an ambulance and accompanies him to the hospital. It’s the first time the two neighbors meet, although they have already formed damning impressions of each other through their connecting wall. She thinks he plays his music and movies too loudly and he thinks she and her lover Sanggu make way too much noise when they are a-coupling.
The doctor who attends to Jae-hee is Jang Mun-jung (Uhm Jung-hwa). In her late thirties, she wants to get married and have children, but the passing years have diminished considerably her hopes of finding Mr. Right. Her dad remains hopeful, however, and keeps arranging matchmaking dates for her.
While on call duty one night, a guy is stretchered into the hospital. As patients go, this one is insufferable, demanding to see a male doctor and refusing to listen to her. She has the last laugh, though, when she gets to administer a rectum examination on him. The experience is so embarrassing he sheds tears. That seems to move her because she develops more than a clinical interest in him, evidenced by her moodiness when she thinks he is attached and her relief when she learns he isn’t.
Thanks indirectly to Jae-hee, Mun-jung and Yu-jin strike up an unlikely friendship and the two meet for meals and talk candidly about relationships and guys. Their age disparity isn’t obvious when they are together and giggling like school girls or sisters sharing a secret. The eccentric Jae-hee is a favorite conversation topic, of course.
Despite their mutual indifference, Jae-hee has already risked life and limb to save Yu-jin from alcohol poisoning, thus canceling the debt he owed her when she brought him to the hospital. He also learns that Sanggu isn’t some testosterone-charged boyfriend, he is a dog.
Rounding up their foursome is Park Hyun-kyu (Yoo Ah-in), Jae-hee’s assistant, whose main work is to transform the architectural blueprints into mock-up models. Hyun-kyu also follows Jae-hee to site visits, always an ‘exciting’ experience because there’s no telling what skirmishes his boss will get into with the site supervisor, an older man with a temper to match Jae-hee’s. Although much younger than Jae-hee, Hyun-kyu is like the older brother sometimes, sighing in exasperation at the former’s obstinance and ill manners. If they were indeed brothers, you can imagine Hyun-kyu shaking a finger at Jae-hee and saying, “Wait till I tell Dad!”
On Jae-hee’s second emergency visit to the hospital, Hyun-kyu sees Yu-jin and takes an instant interest in her. Since she is newly single, she agrees on a first date with him but is horrified when the obviously underpaid guy takes her to a fast food joint and brandishes discount coupons that he had painstakingly saved in his wallet.
Working with Hyun-kyu in Jae-hee’s firm is Yun Ki-ran (Yang Jung-ah), the PR manager with the unenviable task of appeasing clients, contractors and anyone else who run afoul of Jae-hee’s exacting standards. When meeting prospective clients, you’ll see her fingers crossed below the table, fervently hoping to seal the project without Jae-hee saying anything to raise the clients’ ire, or worse, stomping off midway. The guy is as tactful as a flatulent elephant and has no qualms telling a client to go find another architect.
Unlike outsiders, Ki-ran knows how to handle Jae-hee but she isn’t always successful, so it’s a delicate balancing act trying to please everyone and ensure there’s a healthy flow of projects. It never fails to amaze her that someone so socially-challenged can create such exquisite houses. He knows the best way to arrange the spaces in a house so that a family can thrive in it, yet he is so averse to marriage? What a weird man.
I would like to preface my comments with an admission.
Because I love Kekkon Dekinai Otoko to the moon and back, I will always compare Kimchi Kekkon with the J-Kekkon. I realize that isn’t fair, but it’s not something I can avoid. Especially with the first two episodes where every plot development is a “Hoho, da same thing!”, it’s just not possible to pretend I haven’t seen the original. But starting with Episode 3 (which I have yet to watch), I hope to be able to just sit back and enjoy Kimchi Kekkon for itself and not as a study in legit plagiarism.
Okay, now for the rants and raves.
As I wrote on my Twitter last week, the first two minutes of He Who Can’t Marry made me miss Kekkon Dekinai Otoko so much I wanted to stop watching and run back to the J-original.
What happened in those two minutes? Nothing dramatic, really. The first minute was promising enough, with kaleidoscopic glimpses of life inside the apartments below Jae-hee’s. Couples, families and friends. Different from J-Kekkon where we are never shown the other apartment dwellers. Then the camera pans to Jae-hee’s bachelor pad and we see him frying a steak. It’s a minute delayed, but we now have Jae-hee doing exactly the same thing as Kuwano Shinsuke in the opening minute of J-Kekkon.
Three months ago when I wrote about anticipating the K-remake, I was still unsure whether I wanted the Jae-hee character to be as similar to Kuwano as possible or to be a fresh interpretation. I now have my answer.
Don’t rehash Kuwano, Ji Jin-hee. You can’t be Abe Hiroshi, so please don’t even try. I’m cringing at how you try to emulate his speech, manner of walking, every little thing. When you do that, you are only inviting comparison after comparison by people who have seen both versions and who think of you as just a poor imitation of the perfect original.
When Abe Hiroshi’s character shuffles across the bridge, whistling as he goes and tapping the railings, his shoulders hunched, he is a man at peace with himself and the world. He slouches because he’s so tall and because he’s not one to bother with appearances. He doesn’t dress like a successful architect but like a man pottering around his carpentry workshop.
Jae-hee, on the other hand, is always smartly dressed. So for him to walk with that slouch and in that halting manner, it’s like announcing to the world that he’s recovering from hemorrhoid surgery! He looks unwell and tired.
What I really want to see is Ji Jin-hee reinventing his role.
Since the first two episodes follow J-Kekkon so closely, the element of surprise that I value in a drama and which makes me such a spoilerphobe is missing. Jae-hee expounding the differences between spaghetti and spaghettini, Jae-hee feeding the dog cucumber, Jae-hee making a baby cry. Mun-jung eating ramyun alone and getting upset when Jae-hee likens her to a rusty car. If the story is the same and so are characterization and every tiny idiosyncrasy, then why should I bother watching the remake when the original is so critically acclaimed?
Let’s toss some fresh ingredients into the pot, shall we? Cook the food in a different way so that a new dish is created, one with a distinct Korean flavor. Above all else I want Ji Jin-hee to own his Jae-hee role so that a NEW lovable and memorable character emerges. Create your own tics, invent your own saunter. Make those of us who have watched J-Kekkon squeal, not shriek. Make your Cho Jae-hee so unique we forget Kuwano Shinsuke for a spell.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that Ji Jin-hee acts poorly. I’ve watched him play the male lead in Dae Jang Geum and Spotlight and he’s a fine actor. But there’s a huge difference between acting and imitating and Ji Jin-hee is doing the latter here. I know imitation is supposed to be the finest form of flattery, but only the truly insecure want to be flattered. I don’t think Abe Hiroshi wants another actor to interpret his role the same way he interpreted it. Use the same premise, sure, but go ahead and tweak the portrayal, please.
So my main grouse with Kimchi Kekkon is the Jae-hee character’s lack of originality. This won’t be a problem for people who have not watched J-Kekkon, but I believe the fact it inhibits Ji Jin-hee’s acting should be cause for concern even for this group of viewers. Nothing stifles creativity more than the pressure to live up to a certain ideal. It’s the same way in writing. You can’t find your own voice if you are constantly copying other writers’ voices. Be yourself!
A second grouse is Uhm Jung-hwa. Now, this took me by surprise because among the cast she was the one I thought for certain would deliver the goods. But two episodes down and I don’t feel any connection with her Mun-jung. In my first Brilliant Legacy recap, I wrote that Lee Seung-gi’s awful nest-like hairdo really bothered me, to the extent I could not concentrate on anything else except his hair whenever it was his scene. Now the same thing is happening in Kimchi Kekkon and this time it is Uhm Jung-hwa’s… mascara. Every time it’s her scene, I’m muttering, “That’s too much mascara on the lower lashes.”
You see, Hayasaka Natsumi (Natsukawa Yui) in J-Kekkon is so loved by viewers because there’s this untouched purity and simplicity about her. Her looks don’t stop you in your tracks, but her personality will loosen your tongue so that you soon find yourself confiding all sorts of things in her. She’s someone you want to befriend.
I don’t feel the same way about Mun-jung. Her makeup makes her too glam; I can’t imagine her as Hayasaka. But that’s okay, because didn’t I say I want a fresh interpretation of the roles? So my problem isn’t her appearance, it’s her personality. I find her rather pretentious, like she’s trying to act youngish when she isn’t, and carefree when she’s actually self-conscious. In one scene with her dad, she makes my hair stand when she suddenly goes all girly and giggly, as if she’s seven years old.
There’s also this little thing called chemistry. It fairly crackles between some actors; the whole atmosphere is alight because of them. Other actors, in contrast, have as much spark between them as water-logged wood and you wish they would stop trying so hard because chemistry isn’t something you can zap into reality. It’s either there or it isn’t. In J-Kekkon it’s the body language that gives it away, that glues you to their scenes. The glow on her face, the twinkle in his eyes. Their words sting, but you know the squabbling is really a front. All their senses are heightened when the other is in the vicinity.
Alas, I don’t feel any chemistry between Jae-hee and Mun-jung. It’s early days of course, with fourteen episodes to go. But in J-Kekkon it was there from the beginning!
Speaking of chemistry, I had a moment of deja vu when I saw who was playing Jae-hee’s brother-in-law. Haha, none other than the king in Dae Jang Geum! That immediately set my thoughts flying. Wouldn’t it be terrific if Lee Young-ae was playing Mun-jung? I could totally see her in the role; she would be more Hayasaka than Uhm Jung-hwa. Also, no worries about chemistry between her and Ji Jin-hee since the two shared many a passionate embrace in that blockbuster sageuk!
Okay, enough of the gripes. What do I like about Kimchi Kekkon?
First, Kim So-eun. She is wonderful as Yu-jin, even better than Tamura Michiru in J-Kekkon. More spunk, more fire, just more personality. This is my first look at her and I’m impressed. I remember getting a lot of hits from people searching ‘Kim So Eun’ online after I posted my J-Kekkon piece and I was wondering, “Who is this actress who seems so popular?”
I liked the Tamura character but felt she was rather shallow and flighty. Cute but not exactly brainy. Yu-jin, on the other hand, is more grounded and opinionated. I love her chemistry with Hyun-kyu and hope that Kimchi Kekkon will go a different route from J-Kekkon and give us a romance between the two.
Second, Yoo Ah-in. Oh, forget trying to act all nonchalant. YOO AH-IN!! Gosh, is he cute or is he not cute in Kimchi Kekkon? I can’t believe how different he is here from his sullen and mysterious turn in Strongest Chil Woo where he played an assassin. He was the best thing in that drama and he is turning out to be the main reason why I’m going to stick around for Kimchi Kekkon. Awesome acting.
I love that Hyun-kyu is so dissimilar to Murakami Eiji. He acts his age and yet he’s like an old soul sometimes with his astute observations and wry remarks. I love that he isn’t pretty like his J-version, that his hair is swept up in that pointy way, like a little pyramid, that his glasses make him look intellectual and nerdy at the same time. I love the way he listens in a conversation, as if nothing else matters but the speaker’s words, even if the person speaking is simply talking about her dog. I love him, period.
Yang Jung-hwa is wonderful as well, and so is the actress playing Jae-hee’s mother (even though she looks like she should be Mun-jung’s mom instead!). Parts of Episode 2 were downright boring (Mun-jung with her dad, for example), but I perked up whenever something was done differently (the adorable kids in that scene with Mun-jung and her dad). I’m less interested in the main couple, which spells trouble of course, for how can I enjoy Kimchi Kekkon if I’m not anticipating every Jae-hee and Mun-jung scene? I will continue watching for a few more episodes and hope things will pick up soon. Still, I’m happy just watching Yu-jin and Hyun-kyu and I’m looking forward to Sanggu doing more than just begging for cucumbers.
In conclusion, on its own Kimchi Kekkon is decent enough with strong acting and solid production values. Sets are wonderful (more showy than J-Kekkon, but that’s not a negative thing) and overall editing is excellent. As a remake it still pales next to the original, but constant hankering after J-Kekkon (and the incomparable Abe Hiroshi) will only mar one’s enjoyment, so grumble your way through the first two episodes and stop comparing after that. I will stick that reminder on the screen when I watch Episode 3 and take it off only if it blocks my view of Yoo Ah-in.