I’m impressionable, I admit it. So when three friends whose opinions I value had the following to say about The City Hall (2009), I thought that was a good enough indication for me to avoid the drama.
I was bored to tears by the first episode.
City Hall is an insipid mess, period. Schizophrenic thematic consciousness, squirrelly fairy tale histrionics covering a professional skeleton barely delved into, and even good actors are forced to bastardize their performance. Give it a miss and you won’t lose a thing.
There’s a reason I can’t stand this PD-writer duo. There’s a reason I disliked the Lovers trilogy, and there’s a reason I hated On Air with all the fiery hatred of a thousand burning suns. The first episode of this drama has done nothing but confirm what I’ve felt in the past. City Hall stinks of artificiality and pompousness. It’s one of those dramas that thinks everyone should bow down before it in worship, but winds up just disgusting viewers like yours truly. If City Hall were a person, I’d want to smack the conceited smirk off its face. As it is, all I can do is rage, and wonder how Kim Sun Ah ended up in yet another mess of a drama. I winced, again and again, at the over-the-top acting and slapstick humour.
But I also have a friend who adores the Lovers trilogy, whose Twitter avatar is the On Air couple, and who eagerly awaits each new installment of the City Hall recaps at Dramabeans. Because I love this friend (even though our taste in kdramas differs greatly), I thought I should at least check out the first episode. And so I did.
To my surprise, I instantly liked what I saw. The setting is rustic and that’s always a plus for this city-bred girl jaded with city life and who prefers wide open spaces and the vernacular of village folks. The first scene — an election for the next village head — made me laugh. Like her lead role in My Name is Kim Samsoon, Kim Sun-ah is loud and unladylike, more interested in shoveling food into her mouth than in the election proceedings.
And then he appears.
I’ve not told this to anyone yet, but another of the reasons why I was initially hesitant about watching The City Hall was Cha Seung-won. Now, I’ve not seen him in anything before and have no opinion of him whatsoever, but if you visit Dramabeans as regularly as I do, you would have seen his City Hall image at least once there. What an ugly face, I thought. And what’s with the arrogant sneer, as though he’s God’s gift to womankind? Stop being delusional, Mr. Cha.
It didn’t take long for me to eat my words.
Twenty seconds into his first scene, I stared at him and thought, Hmm, this guy looks really familiar. Those eyes. Where have I seen them before? And then it dawned on me: Cha Seung-won looks like So Ji-sub.
That’s right. The City Hall lead that I had orginally dismissed for looking more like an ugly villain now reminds me of the actor that I love more than any other actor on this planet. The same intense eyelight, the penetrating gaze. All of a sudden I am dumbstruck by how good-looking this villain has become.
Jo-guk (Cha Seung-won) is a politician with his sights on the presidency. The bastard child of the former Speaker of the National Assembly, he has come to Inju City purportedly to serve as Deputy Mayor, but his agenda is much more complex. Seeking to serve his own goals and that of the father who refuses to acknowledge him publicly, his first target is the corrupt current mayor. He will oust the mayor and put in his place a puppet mayor — someone who can be easily manipulated.
Shin Mirae (Kim Sun-ah) is a 10th-grade civil servant in the office of the mayor. Her duties include making coffee for her boss and the assortment of bureau directors who seem to do little other than stand around and gripe. Seven years at the Inju City Hall and her only legacy is that of making coffee which is so personal and divine she should rightly be called a coffee goddess.
Owning little and yet seemingly content with her lot in life (except for a credit card debt left behind by a heartless ex-boyfriend), Mirae has spent all of her 36 years in coastal Inju. Baendaengi (a type of herring) is her mom’s livelihood and baendaengi will soon transform Mirae’s life beyond her wildest dreams: She will win Miss Baendaengi, she will become the Inju City mayor, she will fall in love.
For hopeless romantics, City Hall is the stuff of dreams.
The leading man is tall and dashing, with a roguish and even dangerous charm. If you have a boyfriend like him, don’t bring him home because your mom is going to fall all over him while your dad and brothers are going to eye him with suspicion because he has “player” and “heartbreaker” written all over his face. For a boyfriend such as this, you meet him secretly, along the beach or the river, and you are putty in his hands because he knows exactly the things to say that will stir your heart, his touch is like electric pulses zapping your skin alive, and his kisses… Oh, the way he kisses!
And so I watched, more spellbound by him and their romance than anything else on the screen. The chemistry between Cha Seung-won and Kim Sun-ah is like nothing I have ever seen. He looks at her like she’s the only woman in the world. See how gallantly he wraps his coat around her torn gown, how his hands enfold her as they stand gazing at the Inju that she loves, his head leaning against hers, their hearts beating as one.
And still there is more. Want a camping trip just for two, with only ONE tent? Check. Want bike rides with arms outstretched, like in Winter Sonata? Check. Want giddy splashing in the water (so much more refreshing than the seen-to-death running on the beach)? Check. There’s tango, there’s a yacht trip (again just for two and skippered by him; is there anything the guy can’t do?), there’s him saving her from thugs (gosh, see how his long legs make short work of them) and shielding her from the rain. There’s hugging and more kissing.
Someone pinch me, please. Every romantic cell in me thinks it has died and gone to heaven.
I think it was Episode 15 where it hit me. Like the lizard in my study room who scuttles by once every few days just to remind me he’s still around, and whom I actually stepped on once in the darkness, thus confirming it’s no apparition because I wouldn’t have screamed so loudly if that sickening squishiness was just imaginary, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with the drama but I couldn’t pinpoint the reason because the doubts came and went, like that pesky reptilian thing in my room before my foot touched him.
When I finally realized the reason, I thought at once of a drama I really want to forget.
Back in 2004, my friends were going ga-ga over a drama that would become the first in the Lovers trilogy. Influenced by them (told you I was impressionable) and despite thinking the leading man had a face that will not launch even one ship, I caved in and coughed out more than one hundred US dollars for the limited edition set. I watched the drama, promptly fell in love with the leading man (hmm…) and marathoned the whole series like one possessed.
And then I came to the drama’s last episode.
Have you ever been hoodwinked? Taunted? Made to feel like a complete fool? Lovers in Paris did that to me.
To this day I cannot fathom the drama’s ending; all I know is that it made no sense and that it took its viewers for a ride and dumped them in the wilderness. Oh, I know reams have been written about it, but I was too pissed-off to care. Like the many who felt betrayed and outraged, I could not believe the audacity of the writers. Yes, artistic license and all, it’s just a drama. But you can’t lead your viewers down one path, using all kinds of bait to lure them, and then turn around at the end of the path and say mockingly, “Ha, gotcha! There’s nothing here at all!”
I was a sucker then, and I was beginning to feel like a sucker again. I was so mesmerized (and seduced) by Jo-guk’s charm and charisma, and so enthralled with the unfolding romance, it took fifteen episodes for me to realize it was all wrong.
Look, the guy is engaged. The world knows he has a fiancée. Mirae knows it, too. And yet they carry on merrily, as if it’s morally ethical for an engaged man and a woman who is not his betrothed to stay overnight in the same room (and tent), to engage in so much skinship and suggestive talk, to meet so openly.
If they at least showed some hesitance, if they spared a thought for the fiancée (even though I hate her with the fiery hatred of a thousand burning suns) or even for the townsfolk of Inju, it would make it slightly more acceptable. But no, they carry on their affair blithely. She’s a mayor and he’s a congressman? They are public figures who have appeared in the press? No problem!
Rumors are swirling that they are an item, but for the sake of his presidential ambitions they manage to squash the rumors. He’s still engaged and will remain so because he needs his fiancée if his ambitions are to be realized. And yet… he and Mirae go to Seoul and what do they do? Walk on the streets in broad daylight, nuzzling and kissing, their arms so tightly wrapped around each other a typhoon can’t blow them apart.
I mean, seriously, what do you take us viewers for? Fools?
Go ahead, make the drama so romantic and squeal-worthy we overlook its gaping holes in logic. What’s with BB (Big Brother aka Jo-guk’s retired politician father turned potter turned comeback guy) not trusting his son and treating him like garbage one day and gold the next? Not to sound frivolous, but how did a man of BB’s height spawn a strapping lad like Jo-guk? Whatever happened between the dad and the mom? Was it love, rape, a one-night stand that led to this shameful birth secret that the older man is determined to conceal from the world forever?
With twenty episodes, surely there’s room to plug the holes so that we’re not left second-guessing BB’s strange behavior? I mean… why pottery? Planning to use one of his own pieces as a weapon of murder one day, with his illegitimate son the specific target? (I could not believe my eyes when he threw the vase at Jo-guk, missing him by mere inches.)
And then there’s the wife who has refused sex with her husband for the last two years because his reproductive equipment is faulty. Apparently the writers want us to believe that sexual abstinence in a marriage can tip one not only over the edge into the rails of crazy, but can turn an attractive woman into a total bitch.
Yes, I’m talking about City Councilor Joo-hwa (Chu sang-mi) and her infertile husband Jung-do whom I thought at one stage was in love with Mirae. (Look at all the crossed signals I’m getting because I’m paying too much attention to the tallest actor in the cast!)
This Joo-hwa annoys the hell out of me, so incredibly cartoonish is she (no thanks to the overacting that made even sleeping lizards jump in fright). Is she even real? How is it that she can get away with her outrageous shenanigans (libel, subversion of justice, impersonation of a spoiled child, etc.) and not be exposed? How can the police just march up to the mayor and handcuff her based on trumped-up charges orchestrated by Joo-hwa and her squeaky voice? How is it possible for events to become so ridiculous?
If City Hall is to be believed, politics is the playground of rogues. Someone like Mirae is a rarity; she really is too good to be true. (Jo-guk is flawed, so we can’t lump him with our angelic Mirae who is governed by nothing but the milk of human kindness.) Everyone else, or at least a vast majority of the clowns who pass themselves off as politicians in our drama, is driven by selfish motives. A new woman mayor gets elected and her subordinates (minus two) stage a revolt because they can’t stand having their former coffee lady as their boss. To win them back, she has lunch at a fast-food joint with their wives, tells a few sob stories, and just like that she’s able to whip the wives into a frenzy. The result? The men come slinking back with their tails between their legs.
It’s so easy? Wow, so much ado over nothing then.
But wait, there’s more. These bureau directors, who used to manhandle her, who despised her so much, now become lambs at her bidding. Of course their jobs are at stake and their wives have pitchforks waiting at home if the men don’t kowtow to Mirae at the snap of her fingers, but the schizophrenic shifts are just laughable. And indeed soon I was laughing, bitterly, because the alternative would be to pull my hair out and I’m not ready to go bald for a drama.
But even forced laughter can’t quell my growing exasperation with the script and the illogical and farcical plot shifts.
Why is Jo-guk’s mom so cold to him, for example? She hates his dad, so she channels her hatred toward him instead? He sets her up in a flower shop and suddenly she’s a warm mom to him? She claims to have been angry with him because he was becoming ruthless like his dad. But apparently she has always been cold toward him and unhappy with the world, so using his political ambitions as the reason doesn’t quite cut it. Even the whole thing about him adopting Rang just to boost his public image doesn’t make sense.
By the end of Episode 16, the scene where Mirae gets handcuffed, I was ready to bail out.
What kept me plodding on, however, were several things.
First, I really love Cha Seung-won’s awesome acting here. Never mind that I’m not crazy about his hair and the eyebrows (did he wax and shape the brows just for City Hall?); they make him look diabolical.
What matters is how convincing he is in his role as a driven politician who falls so deeply in love. I watched My Name is Kim Samsoon a long time ago, but I don’t remember Kim Sun-ah having this much chemistry with Hyun-bin. She and Cha Seung-won don’t even seem to be acting; she practically quivers in his presence. (Can you blame her? Just look at how he gazes at her and kisses her! The guy is truly experienced in the art of wooing.) Not only is he romantic, he is funny and a good sport. I love his campaign speeches and the way he laps up the public adulation. He is so unbashful!
(Despite loving their chemistry and her acting generally, I can’t stand it when Kim Sun-ah acts all coquettish or childish with him. She puts on that fake squeaky voice and my skin crawls immediately.)
Second, I like Jung Soo-young a lot (she played a dimwit in Fantasy Couple and nearly stole the show from the leads) and she’s wonderful here as Mirae’s colleague and friend, Boo-mi. I wish she had more screen time in the second (weaker) half of the drama. She does not overact like she’s got the crazies, which is a relief in a drama with the likes of Joo-hwa whose every scene makes me want to climb the wall.
Also, Lee Joon Hyeok, as Jo-guk’s assistant Soo-in, has strong screen presence. He doesn’t fade into the wallpaper next to his giant of a boss, and even though his character also undergoes that abrupt loyalty shift that seems to plague the political underlings in this drama, he manages to remain likable to the end.
Third, I did find parts of City Hall enjoyable and entertaining, heartwarming even. The Miss Baendaengi contest was all kinds of silly, but it was also funny in places (the stage performances were hysterical). I liked the episodes where Mirae and her team were campaigning for the mayorship. Great camaraderie there.
And of course, the romance. Even if it made me squeal and squirm, I did squeal more than squirm. Some of the romantic scenes I couldn’t get enough of. (A certain kiss in Episode 14, for example? If I watched it more than ten times, which I did, am I forgiven for everything else I’ve written here?)
Finally, I love the soundtrack even if it got a tad intrusive sometimes. Whatever my mixed feelings about City Hall, I’ve been going to sleep the past few nights with the OST playing on my iPod. (I swear!)
To enjoy City Hall to the fullest, I guess I must keep reminding myself that it’s a fairy tale.
Events and characterization do not always have to make sense. If trees can talk and a
dead comatose princess can be resurrected by a kiss, surely Joo-hwa can feel nauseous and have her husband immediately think she is expectant. (Getting hit on the head by a 30kg steel chair, like what one klutz recently experienced, does not lead to nausea, only pregnancy does.) A slighted fiancée can stop brewing vengeful potions and instead turn overnight into an angel loved by grateful Inju folks. Mirae will keep getting elected as mayor and Jo-guk will realize his life-long goal to rule the land. Commute problems between Seoul and Inju can be easily resolved, of course.
In the end, what really matters is that I’ve found the winners of two new categories that I’m adding to my year-end Best of 2009 list.
Best Kiss. Hottest Couple.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Cha Seung-won movies I want to order online. Or have they all been snapped up by City Hallers?