(thundie: I’m thrilled to introduce my second guest blogger, someone whose gifted writing I’ve long admired. Please welcome Serendipity!)
Hi, I’m Serendipity. Thundie made me an offer I couldn’t possibly refuse: an invitation to contribute to this fabulous blog. This is my first foray into the wonderful world of k-drama blogging, and to stay my nerves I am taking the advice I often dish out to drama writers – just write from the heart. So for my pilot review I’m attempting to articulate why I have been smitten by the 2007 k-drama Thank You (or TY in short). As I’ll be focusing more on the overall effect of the show than on plot, any spoilers there may be are quite mild.
So, come with me. Let us go on a journey.
The journey could be an unexceptional day-trip, one of many which you will take in your lifetime. We board a ferry to an island which is not particularly special. When we think back on this day we will have a vague memory of a pleasant enough time spent wondering over a rustic island. And as the sun sets and we re-board the ferry, we barely register the golden play of rays on the waves as we chat cheerfully with one another and look forward to our own beds. Perhaps we think that while the island suffices for a quick get-away, we are glad we don’t live like yokels in a small town that doesn’t even run to a decent convenience store. Perhaps our clearest memory of the day will be the nice seafood lunch we had, or the crazy joke our travelling companion cracked. And there would be nothing wrong with that. Life is full of inconsequentials, and we can’t be going around finding deep meaning behind every bush.
Or it could be a special day-trip. One that lodges in your heart and mind forever. Years from now, certain vivid memories still cling to you – perhaps the sight of fishing boats as you stood on the pier in a moment of quiet and set off thinking of journeying and destinations and life. Perhaps your companion said something revealing that you can never forget. Perhaps you caught an evocative smell of cooking from someone’s kitchen as you wandered round a corner in the simple little island town. Perhaps it was the way the evening light gilded a cluster of roof-tops that made you think, “Ah, that is beautiful. Life throws up beauty in unexpected places.”
Or it could be a trip that changes your life. At the first, you made the trip reluctantly and it is tainted by tragedy. Then to your horror you make the same trip by chance, and you are appalled and wish for nothing more than to be away. But something from the past reaches out and grabs you and forces you to engage with this nowheresville. Then real people intersect with you and you catch a glimpse of a simpler and richer life than you had hitherto known. Even though you are living below your station and the lifestyle you are accustomed to, you feel strangely more alive and free. You glimpse true strength and devotion, and you are drawn to it in spite of yourself. To your surprise, you find solace for your soul in domesticity. You try to get away from this madness, but you can’t shake off The Island. And by the end of eleven episodes, you are wanting nothing more than to stay on Blue Island with an impoverished and inconsequential family comprising one precocious child, one demented old man, and one young country woman who wouldn’t last five minutes at the kind of Seoul cocktail parties you are used to as a successful and good-looking young surgeon, but whom you find you can’t live without.
And thus, Dr Min Gi Seo made a life-changing journey to Blue Island.
For some, watching TY is like an ordinary day-trip – pleasant enough but not outstanding – and as I said that’s ok. Where would we be if every k-drama we watched were Deeply Significant? Too impressionable and over-sentimental, that’s where! But for me, watching TY was a special journey. It started out as a venture into just another k-drama with no expectations. By the third episode I was swept up into its world. I marathoned it, then re-watched it, and for days I lived on Blue Island, even more abstracted and away-with-the-faeries than usual.
Why is TY special to me? It speaks to me about issues I know I should pay more attention to: Growth, redemption, and the important things in life. Love that is as strong as death. The value of treating people well and behaving well. TY goes about this in an adult and elegant manner, respecting me as a viewer who prefers down-to-earth reality and simple story-telling to vulgar gratification.
TY is not innovative, nor does it set out to wow me. Rather, it embraces back-so-basics story-telling. Its plot is consistent and carefully crafted (as regards the important points) and mercifully non-hysterical. It tells its story with a light touch, measured and laced with poignancy and gentle humour. Every time I re-watch, I notice a new lovingly-placed detail.
The drama is itself about journeys and journeying. Principally it’s about the internal voyage of Dr Min. And to a greater or lesser degree, every other character also journeys. Its tone is reflective and wistful, as is befitting a journey of the soul.
Ignore, if you please, the quick,-run-a-mile synopsis of “heart-warming story about a doctor who falls in love with a brave single mother of an HIV-positive child”. None of that is untrue, but none of that is the point either. Yes, Lee Bom contracted HIV through a negligent blood transfusion and of course this changes her life. But mercifully the story is not about how pitiful she is or how cruel fate is, and considering this is a k-drama the amount of weeping and wailing and beating of breasts over this tragedy is really quite restrained. Mostly we journey with her mother Lee Young Shin as she wrests from the fates a normal life for Bom, and with others as they grapple with their fears and guilt.
Ignore, also, the uninformative and unpromising name of “Thank You”. It actually does make sense, but perhaps not in the way you might expect. One might think that this is a typical Cinderella story in which pitiful mother and child are rescued by the masterful (and usefully medical) hero – hence “thank you” to their saviour on a white steed. But instead this is about how Dr Min learns from the Lee Family how to live life with respect for self and others, and he learns (while visibly pained, haha) to swallow his pride and say “thank you” to people he once considered beneath him. To be sure, it dishes up another trope – saved-by-the-love-of-a-good-woman. But this is no air-headed wish-fulfilment. The set-up is credible and so grounded in real people and real actions that when we finally see Dr Min the famous (and hot) Seoul surgeon quietly begging, begging, this nobody to let him be admitted into her high-maintenance family, not for a moment do I feel incredulous or any urge to roll my eyes. Rather, I’m begging along with Dr Min: Please, Young Shin, please have pity upon him and graciously enlarge your tent, and let him find refuge and rest for his soul.
Dr Min is realised by Jang Hyuk, he who single-handedly saved Chuno from utter aspirational fail. And, let’s be honest, he plays a 21st century, civilised and cleaned up Dae Gil – less enraged and a lot less unlucky, but nonetheless recognisably Dae Gil, the fearsome slave hunter with a heart of marshmallow. Jang Hyuk brings the same 100% acting commitment to TY that he later brought to Chuno. (And the same hotness, it must be said, if not more if you like your men in clean clothes and styled hair rather than unwashed rags and dingy hair.) He fills every frame he’s in with searing intensity. As emotions flit across his face we can read him like a book. Jang Hyuk’s performance is so compelling and heartfelt, I like to think that he dug deep and tapped into his own recent experience of near-disaster and rehabilitation (see attempted draft-dodging scandal).
He is not a tall man whereas our second male lead is rather tall, and normally this would pose a problem. But JH so dominates and radiates so much charisma, even when he has to look up to the second lead to address him and uses his quiet indoor voice, there is never any question who is the alpha dog.
Dr Min Gi Seo is our hero. He would much rather be our anti-hero since he works so hard at being an evil-tempered and disagreeable bad-boy. But we can see that even in his unredeemed pre-Lee Family-influenced state, his heart is not in his bad. Much as he would love to be able to walk away from helping people, he finds that he ultimately can’t. It’s true that he has little patience with stupid people – but that’s a common enough trait of accomplished and embittered people. We are told that this man who kicks dog-houses used to be kind to children until his father made a self-destructive choice Dr Min couldn’t come to terms with. (I don’t really get this aspect of the plot, nor why it contributes to his giving in to despair and going over to the dark side midway through the series. But no matter, as I get that plot logic plays second fiddle to the part this detour plays in Dr Min’s Odyssey.) His anger is further fuelled by his inability to save his girlfriend from dying of cancer (no big spoiler here as this happens in episode one) – this is a triumph of ego over logic, but, again, no matter. (And by the way his deceased girlfriend was a thoroughly decent woman so we may assume she saw something in Dr Min beneath the bratty tantrums.)
Dr Min is the man who appears to have it all but is actually spiritually impoverished. In a significant moment late on the show, having been told that he shouldn’t let his pity for Young Shin and Bom lead him to kid himself and that he should leave Blue Island and go back to the bright lights of Seoul where he belongs, Dr Min muses to (uncomprehending) Grandpa, “It’s not that I pity you, you know. You are people who live life grateful. I’m much more to be pitied. I just happen to have been born into a rich family and to have studied a little more than most people – there’s nothing special about that.” And thus he states the central creed of this tale of redemption.
So, who is this paragon Young Shin? She is a woman who has lived all her life in a small island agricultural society. She is extremely kind-hearted, somewhat absent-minded, and pleasant-looking enough in an unspectacular way. We’ll never know whether she is book-smart or not, because she never has the opportunity to play with books having gotten pregnant young and unmarried and opted to keep her baby. Orphaned long ago, she works as many jobs as she can to put her younger brother through university and to care for her daughter and her senile grandfather. She hides her child’s HIV-status from everyone upon the advice of the local doctor and nurse who are wonderfully sympathetic but don’t trust the villagers to be open-minded – a dubious decision, perhaps. In any case, having chosen her course, she goes about life’s challenges with ingenuity and single-mindedness. Her household is filled with laughter and her family has a firm moral anchor. She is somewhat passive, but personally I don’t mind because the stereotypical “spunky” or “feisty” k-drama heroine can be oh so irritating. But I don’t think Young Shin is a complete doormat either. When outraged by Dr Min’s behaviour, she casts off her biddable-woman persona and roundly tells him off or throws him off her premises (by a series of accidental events and by his contrivance, he has become her tenant). And she can get tired of it all, and her courage and self-belief can fail her.
Still, the whole package taken together, I have to admit she’s somewhat saintly. In truth, I personally relate more to the flawed Dr Min than to Young Shin. So it’s notable that I like her so much. In real life I would be happy to befriend Young Shin. I think I could be myself with her and we could have fun. I’m not sure Young Shin could have been pulled off by an actress less natural and endearing than Gong Hyo Jin.
I’m not going to give you a plot synopsis, because plot is not the point of TY. Even so, the plot works by and large and trots along at a decent enough pace. I really like that it doesn’t have over-dramatic moments or plot convolutions. There are some misunderstandings, but they generally get cleared up in a reasonably timely fashion. Difficulties and disasters are real problems of human life, not artificially-induced melo ones.
Perhaps you fear that TY is precious and moralistic. You’ll just have to believe me when I say it is instead pleasingly uplifting and life-affirming. Now, I know that sounds corny and that there is thin line between “uplifting” and “pretentious”. I can’t quite explain how it stays on the right side of the line. Perhaps it helps that the emotionally intense moments (and there are quite a few) are not over-indulged but are balanced with a fine sense of humour, usually at Dr Min’s expense: I love that his money and status often counts for nothing in the Blue Island World. For a drama that features an HIV-positive child for crying out loud it has a lot of LOL moments of the good-humoured variety.
No k-drama is complete without romance. While TY is not primarily a love story, I enjoy the way the romance gently unfolds. Love-talk is spare and skinship is rare. Bom, lucky girl, gets more intimate bonding time with Dr Min than Young Shin does.
Dr Min and Young Shin start out by teasing and scolding in typical k-romcom fashion (mostly, he teases and she scolds). Over time their, actions and attitudes betray that they are drawing into each others’ orbits.
After the initial obligatory rocky start, Young Shin and Dr Min see the tender parts of each others’ hearts, lend each other inner strength and bring out the best in each other. It’s more than physical attraction (though we are talking Jang Hyuk and Gong Hyo Jin here so we definitely have that). But fear not: the show tosses out enough crumbs by way of delectably romantic scenes to keep the shippers among us happy (and I have manfully resisted the more spoilery screencaps).
It’s debatable who benefits more from this relationship. The world at large would think that Young Shin has more to gain by snagging this eligible and resourceful man. Young Shin annoyingly buys into this one-sided viewpoint in self-deprecation (though one can hardly blame her, I’d succumb to self-doubt myself if Dr Min whirled into my life). And it has to be said that if your biggest challenges in life are senile dementia and AIDS, it’s terribly handy to have a doctor around the house, and a moneyed one to boot. On the other hand Dr Min receives a priceless gift from Young Shin, as the Lee Family surrounds him with warmth and safety so that he can gradually release his death-grip on his heart, and embrace compassion and hope.
K-dramas have a tendency to have unsubtle soundtracks which dare you not to notice them. TY is no exception. Sure the music can be sappy, but it’s also very evocative. Months later, hearing the soundtrack I can still smell the salt air, hear the waves, and feel the bittersweet yearning.
The look of TY is plain and commonplace, as is fitting since it is about the trials of common life and the value of common people. It captures the essence of Blue Island, with skilful use of lighting. Even though TY is not particularly beautiful, I like watching it in high-definition to catch the sound of the sea and to see the special quality of island lighting.
TY is notable for its absence of villains or saints – everyone has virtues and everyone has flaws. Beyond our luminous leading couple, among the talented cast there’s someone for everyone. Seo Shin Ae has been much feted, deservedly, for her assured turn as the eight-year old HIV-positive Lee Bom. I warmed to her – which says a lot because I’m usually allergic to cute onscreen children. Fortunately her cuteness comes across as fresh, even a little bratty, rather than artfully dimpled or precious. Grandpa Lee is perfected cast and perfectly realized by Shin Goo. He brought back to life my own beloved grandfather who was senile in his last years, and this as you may imagine hit me real hard – I don’t think I’d had such a good, cathartic cry to grieve for my granddad since his funeral a couple of years ago.
Choi Seok Hyun is Young Shin’s old flame and our second lead. He may have a tendency to take the easy way out, but he’s a good man at heart. His worst fault seems to be an inability to take decisive action. He may win viewers’ sympathy and Shin Sung Rok does an excellent job (though personally I can’t get too excited about him). But Seok Hyun’s dithering is a fatal flaw and in the TY scheme of things he is the one who hesitates and is lost. By the end of the series, the world just passes him by. Quite literally. As he sits in his parked car indulging in regret, drama is unfolding along the road right in front of him but he is paralysed and takes no part. Seok Hyun’s tale is of a man who finally realizes what is important to him, but too late.
Seok Hyun’s fiancée (Kim Sung Eun) is a nice enough young lady (if clueless about appropriate attire for Blue Island). There is nothing wrong with her and in any other situation she would do fine. But she is just an ordinary Seoul woman, no match for our Young Shin. In the end, neither we nor Seok Hyun can bring ourselves to care about her.
At first I didn’t have much interest in the un-extraordinary minor characters, but on re-watch they have grown on me. The ditzy local nurse who has a melt-down every time there’s a crisis (which is very often with Dr Min on Blue Island as he carries medical emergencies in his train, much as murders follow Miss Marple around) starts out being comic relief but by the end of the story is the solidly dependable one. The local doctor who nearly failed med school and faints at the sight of blood may seem like a mere foil for the cool Dr Min, but he earns our respect with his moral steadfastness, teaching Dr Min a thing or two in that department, and we are happy for him when he finds his place on the island.
The ahjumma who carries an unlikely torch for Grandpa is a bit annoying but you may come to appreciate her humanity and her truth-speaking. Seok Hyun’s mother is extremely annoying, but once I was able to understand that this was how a weak and disappointed old woman copes with life I was eventually able to be in charity with her.
Finally, just to prove that I haven’t completely lost my marbles over TY, I’m not blind to its faults. The “action scenes” (accidents, hospital emergencies) are atrociously filmed. The fakest fake blood and least realistic surgery scenes you ever did seen (mercifully for the faint of heart). It employs its fair share of clichés. For instance, not only do Dr Min and Seok Hyun take Showers of Self-Loathing, Dr Min even has a Bubble Bath of Despair (doubtless, more post-military service Jang Hyuk-fanservice, but who’s complaining). There’s reckless driving to indicate that the driver is troubled. There’s a rather arbitrary fight scene, which appears to serve no purpose other than to show off Jang Hyuk’s martial arts prowess. It’s a little simplistic on some points (You know, Dr Min, it is possible for one to do the whole successful Seoul businessman gig without becoming a totally soulless bastard). It contains a great big plot gap in the unexplained disappearance of Young Shin’s brother (though, probably no one cares and he would have cluttered up the story-board anyway). And is or is not the Lee residence right on a beach? If so, why does no one ever step onto it, is it full of toxic waste or something? And whatever happened to the plans to take over the island and turn it into a giant resort? Evidently, the show doesn’t care about mere trifles such as geography and event consistency. Personally, I’m not too bothered by the lack of attention paid to such externals because it seems to me that TY is less a drama than a fable, more about the interior than the exterior.
It wasn’t until I took screencaps of TY for this review (my fourth watch in as many months, and still a pleasure) that I was struck by how often it features people walking along Blue Island’s roads.
And how often people look out to sea as they ponder life (principally Dr Min, but not always). Fitting, isn’t it, for a drama about journeys?
Come. Come with me. Let us savour the salt in the air, watch the travelling curls of waves and feel the wind playing in our hair. Come, let us journey to Blue Island.
Thank you for reading to the end of my maiden attempt at a k-drama review. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing. I would love to hear from you and what you think of Thank You — Love it? Hate it? Think I’m smoking dope? Think I’ve let my Jang Hyuk-love blind me to the fact that mean Dr Min is no better than a feral dog who has swaggered along to pee all over the place and dominate Young Shin? Think that what I fondly imagine is Gong Hyo Jin’s understated elegance is actually wooden acting? Think I’m too impressionable to believe that the down-to-earth feel is due more to authenticity than a pathetic budget? Bored by nothing much happening on Blue Island? Drop a comment!