The first thought that sprung to mind as I watched Giant (SBS, 2010) was that I had seen the drama before. It felt familiar, but not the kind of familiarity that envelops you like an old friend or a childhood haunt. No, it felt like a dreamscape where scenes from a dozen disparate places assail you all at once.
I tried to shake off the thought, but it grew stronger. An opening scene felt like an eerie blend of two long-forgotten scenes from Oldboy (the confrontation) and… Batman (that grotesque make-up). A nondescript office looked just like the tabloid office in What’s Up, Fox; any moment I expected Go Hyun-jung to fling the door open. A group of boys shine shoes on the street and immediately I recalled Count of Myeongdong and… Oliver Twist. Most disconcerting of all, Giant had East of Eden stamped on it, even though I really had no reason to make that association, having watched just two episodes of the latter. That same East of Eden-esque feeling of gloom.
Right off you know this drama is about settling old scores. A man, who looks like he has spent a lifetime submerged in wrinkle cream (note: not anti-wrinkle cream but the opposite), surprises a not-too-surprised younger man in his swanky Gangnam apartment. The air fairly seethes with rage; soon a gunshot will blow open an expansive floor-to-ceiling window, and not a moment too soon, because if not for that fresh gust of wind, the apartment would have exploded from all that pent-up fury as the two enemies eyeball each other.
Then the years roll back and we are transported to government offices, army barracks, train stations and a country in the grips of a freezer-like winter. A man and a woman are out with their three children, she heavily pregnant with their fourth. They chat about mundane stuff (the food, presents for mama) and bigger dreams (land that papa bought, a house to look forward to).
By the end of the first episode the papa is gone, shot dead by a man in shades. By the end of the second episode the mama is gone as well, felled by smoke inhalation. When the end credits for the fourth episode roll around, all four of the siblings (including the baby) have become separated from each other, torn apart by circumstances so heartbreaking you use up two boxes of tissues.
One box to wipe your snot with, and the other to throw at the screen.
Because unless your heart is made of reinforced concrete there’s no way you can watch the little girl (best child actor of the decade) cry out for her lost brother (the oldest sibling) and not stuff your fist inside your mouth to stifle your own gulping sobs. There’s no way you can watch the second brother run down street after street shouting for his lost sister, even as the tears pour down his face, and not want to kill the writer for this sickening turn of events.
Yes, whack our heads with the Rod of Misery until we pass out. But before we do, don’t spare us the Lashes of Cruelty. Have the little ones meet a woman who grumbles at having to feed and house them, and a man who thinks nothing of robbing them (because money trumps everything and the Milk of Human Kindness is overrated). Have them pursued by welfare officials so well-meaning they can’t wait to remove a baby permanently from his older brother.
If you think this is all too much, you haven’t seen what goes on in another family.
The man is some construction company director, with a past. Two women gave him one kiddo each, who grow up using each other for target practice (bull’s-eye is the head; docked points for missing target and hitting a mirror instead).
The first woman said “So long, be seeing you (not)” or maybe it was the other way around and he was one who dumped her. The second woman, every shrill inch of her, hates the first kid, who then runs away to find mama. You expect the daddy to be all worked up over his daughter’s disappearance but he is all cool cucumbers on account of other pressing matters, such as the death of his friend (the first papa mentioned earlier), and land to be bought, sold, constructed upon and whatever.
The runaway kid bumps into the family from our first story and they all sleep together in this sorry semblance of an inn with the broken heating system (now you know how the mama from the first family died and how, in one fell swoop, the writer orphaned four children, FOUR!).
Guess who’s also sleeping in that room?
If you exclaimed, “No way, not the runaway girl’s long-lost mama,” you get no points for guessing rightly because it’s clear as day you’ve watched too many kdramas and have become too well-acquainted with rehashed plot devices. If you scratched your head and feigned ignorance with a “No idea, you tell me,” you’re safe for now.
Through a torn photo, runaway mama recognizes her daughter and sheepishly returns the wallet that she stole from her kid earlier. She also returns the money that she swiped from that ill-fated family, unaware that she will soon share an end with one of them.
So, just like that, five kids lose their mothers to poisonous gas. Runaway Girl meets her mama, without actually knowing she met her mama. And now it’s too late. Or maybe not, because the writer might decide to bring the mom back as a ghost, or as a look-alike colleague. Nothing in this drama surprises me anymore.
Now, if you’ve read the online synopsis (and I suggest you should not because, man, that thing gives away enough spoilers for at least 40 episodes), you will know that the runaway girl will grow up to become the female lead character. Which means… she and the second brother from that first family are going to be lovers! Which means… let’s give them a memorable first encounter, the likes of which they will never forget.
Except… the two kids have zilch chemistry, zilch. First of all, she looks way older than him, on account of his baby face and her perpetual glum. Second, they have an awkward piggy-back scene that made me guffaw because it’s as clear as three days of blinding sunshine that they aren’t ready to play adults and the writer should STOP making them! Watching them fumble, I thus found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
On one hand, I don’t want him to grow up because he’s such a gem of a find in the register of kid actors. On the other hand, I can’t wait for her to grow up because she’s obviously going through the paces and not finding her footing yet. Or maybe it’s not her fault, it’s just the writing making her so flat and uninteresting a character (aside from the caterwauling and throwing of hard objects at her stepbrother).
Okay, time to leave these two families and their intertwined fates and take you to the other side of town, to the playground of kingpins and saboteurs and inept generals.
Here you will be privy to hush-hush meetings where words like bars (the golden ones, not places where you drink yourself silly) and bugs (military ones, not the creepy-crawlies that bite you) are bandied around. I don’t plan to linger in this place because those scenes aren’t exactly exciting, and in fact some are so stereotypical they would be amusing if they weren’t so gratuitous (that boxing match! that black guy roaring!) and downright insulting (the Americans have brains the size of peas, I get you).
Here is also where you will find the oldest brother from that first family.
After witnessing his father’s death, and after leaping off a train in order to save his family (I know, it doesn’t sound logical), the oldest brother (who is just a teenager, really) is saved by American soldiers and taken to the latter’s headquarters where he will eventually meet his father’s killer. He spends much of his time horizontal on a bed, the first time because of that death-defying leap, and the second time because of an altercation with his enemy’s right-hand man. Suffice to say he gets injured… a lot. Of course that means he can’t meet his siblings at the end of December as they had agreed, on top of Seoul’s tallest building.
Because of some secret document that the Americans have which the Koreans want (sorry, but the significance of that document sailed right over my head, pretty much like how the brother flew off that train), the teen is roped in as a spy for the Americans. His mission? To earn the trust of the Korean chief of security, who happens to be the man who shot the boy’s father. Of course the boy has no idea at this stage that his mom is also dead, and that his siblings have been scattered in myriad places. Just imagine his pain when he finds out. Start stockpiling those dual-use boxes of tissues now.
If you are looking for a light and fluffy drama, don’t watch Giant. Didn’t you see the gigantic “I am all gloom” blinkers emitting from that poster? Aren’t the dark colors themselves a giveaway?
If, on the other hand, you lap up melodramas like ice soda on a muggy day, then make yourself comfortable because this is going to satisfy every weepy gland in you.
You won’t mind the plot contrivances because this is what entertainment is supposed to be like, with characters writ larger than life and plot twists calculated to wring your emotions dry. You won’t mind being taken for a ride, unlike some know-it-alls who poke fun at the drama for being excessively manipulative and who even whine (in their tweets) that the drama treats them like cows being milked! Just wait until the drama finds its groove, unveils its adult leads, and sails right into best-drama-of-the-year territory. All the signs are there (such as atmosphere and some compelling acting); someone just needs to line them in the same direction so that this doesn’t feel like something you’ve seen before, from many different places. Don’t give the naysayers their day!