Family Honor (2008/2009) is many things: family drama, romance, comedy, thriller, Go-Stop manual. Its themes are myriad as well: relationships (parent-child; sibling; stalker-stalked; just name it), culture, tradition, revenge, recycling (not of clichés or plot devices but discarded bottles and sundry junk), redemption, coupling.
Of the last you need a notebook to keep tabs, because there are so many couples in the drama you keep wondering when it’s going to be great-grandpa’s turn; surely the writer’s not going to leave our beloved patriarch out of the dating game when everyone else is either hitched or ditched-and-hitched? That’s not fair, is it? After all, even the youngest in the family (Dong-dong; ten years old) has to ward off the advances of a girl who likes him so much she beats him black and blue.
Because it is so many things, and because the opening episode introduces nearly all its characters at once, you might feel like I did when I stood in the middle of New York City’s Time Square the first time, the din confounding me. After two episodes, I had no choice but to do what I normally avoid as a card-carrying spoilerphobe: I read the synopsis and character descriptions, impatiently looking for a family tree that would enlighten me on who’s related to who, and how old everyone is supposed to be. Because there are five generations (FIVE!) all living under the same roof.
At this juncture you might interrupt, you who love the drama and know all its details by heart, and protest: “Not five generations, c’mon. The great-great-grandfather passed away at the beginning of the drama, remember?” And now Thundie, who can’t count to save her life, and who has a love-hate relationship with the drama, nods (even as her fingers are frantically checking the math) and says, “I know, but everyone keeps talking to him even though he’s dead!”
I think it was Episode 40-something when it hit me. Now, I’ve watched many kdramas and have never noticed religion playing a central role in most of them (Shin Don and Love Letter excluded). Here in Family Honor, in the Ha household, a shrine room is the most sacred room in the sprawling old-world house. The family members take their traditional rites very seriously, as they do most things in life, and are often seen praying in the room. But it took more than 40 episodes before I realized that the bedrock of the family, the religion that defines every Ha, is ancestral worship. All along I merely thought the family old-fashioned and even a tad queer. How amiss of me!
In moments of sheer despair, the Ha family members (whether born a Ha, married to a Ha or working for a Ha) turn not to a church or temple for divine intervention. No, they pray to their ancestors. Not cries (silent or shrill) of “Dear God” reverberating through the house, but “Dear Departed Ancestor, help us!”
Fascinating, this invitation to explore a hitherto-unexplored realm, in this family headed by a man who is both a stickler (for ancient rules) and a liberationist. This man, Ha Man-gi (played by Shin Goo), expects a clear segregation of gender roles (men and women eat separately, for instance), but is happy to bend the rules if a this-rule-sucks (or similar) petition is convincingly tabled. Thus, the household is outwardly male-centric (first-born males rule!) but inwardly henpecked. If Milady says the guys must wash a year’s worth of bed linen by hand or no food gets served, the males know running to Haraboji will earn them a “Just do as She says” and little else.
Now, if you think Milady is Halmoni, you are both wrong and right. Wrong if you assume Halmoni = Ha Man-gi’s wife (great-grandma, may she rest in peace). Right if you are Dong-dong and knows the one who truly rules the roost is your new living and breathing grandma, the one just wedded into the family and who got pregnant… out of wedlock! At the age of 50!!
Oh my goodness, surely the honorable Ha family is above carnal shenanigans?
Nah, not a chance. Great-great-grandfather Ha (possibly 90 years old) is not many days reposing in his eternal abode when the family is visited by not one, not two but three bombshells. The Ha twins are divorcing (“We have to be peas in a pod to this extent?”), or, more correctly, being divorced by their long-suffering spouses. Third piece of earth-shaking news? The twins’ dad got his colleague in the family way (don’t you just adore this euphemism?) and wants to marry her.
Fortunately for Great-grandfather Ha Man-gi, his granddaughter will not be caught dead romping between the sheets with a non-spouse (as Only Son or Grandson No. 2 did, how shameful!). Nor will she ever be accused of being Unfit Spousal Material (like Grandson No. 1, who never even kissed his wife of 13 years, much less bedded her!). No, fortunately for our patriarch, Ha Dan-ah is pious and practically perfect.
Well, almost. I’m docking points for her hobby (she talks to dead people), profession (she spends hours cleaning already-clean artifacts), and singing (like a hyena that’s being strangled). She’s also, in my blighted opinion, insufferably bland (both in characterization and portrayal).
It’s not just that Dan-ah (Yoon Jung-hee) talks to her dead fiancé every night. Talking to dead people is one thing. But it’s another thing to be clinging stubbornly to an almost-marriage that’s more than ten years old. Her refusal to relinquish her grief is the reason why her family walks on egg shells around her even after all these years; her delicate disposition means she must be Handled with Care.
But try telling that to Lee Gang-suk (Park Shi-hoo). He and Dan-ah have a typical rough first meeting à la kdramas, she begging him to give up his seat on the plane so that she can rush back to Seoul from Jeju Island to attend her great-grandfather’s funeral rites, he not giving her the time of day. That of course leads to Hate at Second Sight on her part.
On his part, however, she becomes Object to be Pursued. The reason is because, as a history professor (who is still working on her dissertation entitled Best Ways to Clean Artifacts), she has in her possession the genealogy of a family with a yangban (nobility) past. Gang-suk’s father desperately wants to buy this genealogy.
You see, back in the twilight (and tumultuous) years of the Joseon dynasty, when ancient societal divides were rapidly crumbling, some rich common folks (non-nobility) sought forged genealogies as a fast route to improve their status. They either commissioned these counterfeit genealogies or tried to buy genuine ones from yangban who had fallen on hard times.
Gang-suk’s father, Lee Man-gap (Yeon Kyu-jin), is a nouveau riche. He is a man rolling in dough because of his money-lending business (as an extremely successful loan shark, but never say that to his face), possessing all the (gaudy) trappings of wealth but lacking a family genealogy that can buy him real respect in a society hung up on connections. Simply put, he’s a gate-crasher, a mongrel among pedigrees.
But looking at Gang-suk you could never imagine his father’s sorry past. The guy stands tall and proud; he was the second reason why, for forty-plus episodes, I watched the drama like one addicted. (The first reason, and it wasn’t addiction but sheer respect and love, was Shin Goo; I picked up this drama simply because he was on the DVD cover. PSH and YJH I had never seen before.)
My Gang-suk fixation was not because PSH’s a terrific actor (he’s all right most of the time and even brilliant occasionally, such occasions being terse, tense or nail-biting, but ask him to play silly or coy and the result is your hair standing on end), but because whenever Gang-suk smiles in the drama, rain clouds clear and butterflies come out to play. I was steamrolled by a smile, how easy.
As expected, Gang-suk falls in love with Dan-ah, in the process creating the strangest coupling I’ve seen in a kdrama. I’m not kidding when I tell you that I must have muttered these words at least a hundred times:
These two are so very mismatched.
He’s dashing and she’s dull. He doesn’t do much for a living (the guy rarely goes to the office); she’s married to her work. He pursues her; she bats him off, coldly. His family is flashy and fame-seeking, but hers is all about being humble and simple, eschewing pretense and showiness. He’s a joy to behold on his skis; she finds endless joy wiping her school’s collection of fossilized stones over and over again.
Can you imagine such a couple scarcely able to keep their hands off each other? Can you imagine hugging and kissing scenes so plentiful you stop counting altogether? In some dramas you wait and wait and get one lifeless kiss at the very end of the last episode, just as the credits are rolling. Sometimes you twiddle your thumbs forever and get nothing.
Well, thank your romantic stars for a drama that understands how highly we prize skinship. The pursuit may be somewhat arduous (if you ask Gang-suk, whose rival is someone he can’t even punch or curse, the latter being dead and buried), but once Dan-ah realizes what a good catch Gang-suk is, she can’t get enough of him. After all, who else can tolerate her singing? Why, the sweetie even performs with her!
Trouble is… once the two get hitched, that’s also when the tortured (and tingly) tensions between them dissipate and the relationship heads for Destination B (Boring). Our suave and attractive male protagonist suddenly behaves like a testosterone-driven teen, frequently moaning for more kissy-kissy time. His mate, however, is too busy learning the rudiments of Go-Stop, on account of her father-in-law being completely Go-Stop-crazy.
But like I wrote earlier, Family Honor isn’t just about the lead romance. If my memory serves me correctly (and I watched the drama months ago), at least six couples are formed in the course of 54 episodes. Gang-suk and Dan-ah’s relationship gets the most screen time, of course, but the rest are portrayed in sufficient depth and all hold my interest except for one.
Early in the drama, we are introduced to a guy who’s more lovelorn puppy than graduate student. Played by Lee Hyun-jin, Jung Hyun-kyu is a student in Dan-ah’s class who has openly declared his interest in her. His behavior is hard to stomach, simply because I can’t imagine how he, a much-younger student, is allowed to grab his female professor’s hand and treat her with that sort of rough possessiveness. Hyun-kyu is often sullen and grows more sullen when Gang-suk pops up and abruptly becomes Dan-ah’s boyfriend (a fake relationship that Hyun-kyu assumes is real). His constant moping soon wears my nerves thin. Dude, chill.
But more than Hyun-kyu’s borderline psychopathic behavior around Dan-ah, what I found particularly nerve-grating was Lee Hye-joo (Jun Hye-jin) and her obsessive infatuation with Hyun-kyu.
Hye-joo (she’s Gang-suk’s younger sister) is so taken with Hyun-kyu she tails him everywhere and hoards garbage that he throws out, such as empty drink bottles and cans (hence the recycling theme). She watches him constantly and gets herself hired in the same (empty) café where he works part-time. She jumps three feet into the air if he suddenly speaks to her and is giddy with happiness if he smiles at her. Nothing else seems to matter to Hye-joo except being Hyun-kyu’s shadow.
Two stalkers. (There’s one more, but I won’t spoil it for you. It’ll also get nastier, which may or may not involve our resident stalkers, but revenge is one of the drama’s many themes.)
Pretty soon I could not stand any of Hyun-kyu and Hye-joo’s singular or shared woe-is-me scenes anymore and just skipped them completely. But the ones where Hye-joo is with her family I watched (because of Park Shi-hoo, what else?) and am glad I did. How telling that in a drama I liked for the most part (and then rapidly disliked because of reasons I’ll explain afterwards), the most moving scene should involve Hye-joo, a character I found tedious and annoying. I cried only once in the drama and it was all because of her. (And Jun Hye-jin is spellbinding in that pivotal scene, even if the rest of the time she’s like a log.)
Now for the other relationships. Let’s start with Patriarch Ha’s only son, Ha Suk-ho (Suh In-suk). A widower, he is in love with his colleague, Lee Young-in (Nah Young-hee). How their relationship began we have no idea; all we know is she’s pregnant at the start of Family Honor and remains amazingly flat-bellied through most of the drama. That’s quite the feat when you consider everything that transpires in the interim, such as former-enemy-turned-son-in-law Gang-suk morphing from HOT to henpecked. (It bears repeating, simply because it pains me, that’s why!)
I like the pairing of Suk-ho and Young-in. I like that they aren’t staid and strait-laced, and that they are setting a very bad example for their children by begetting a kid in secrecy! Ah, just kidding. But seriously, I believe it’s their coupling that liberates Suk-ho’s three children (two divorced and one widowed, kind of) from their current emotional strictures, and gives them the courage to find happiness with new (and unlikely) partners.
Thus the older twin, Ha Soo-young (Jun No-min), who for some odd reason has been a closed shell incapable of open affection, now finds himself pursuing a relationship with a woman who fails every criteria dictated by the Ha ancestors. Oh Jin-ah (Shin Da-eun) is a cleaner. She is poor and orphaned. She is also much too young. A few more wrinkles and Soo-young can pass for her dad or uncle.
Oh, to hell with the old rules! He will woo her. He will wed her.
And so we have one of my favorite couples in Family Honor. Theirs isn’t a dramatic relationship (like Gang-suk and Dan-ah’s, and I’ll elaborate later). Their scenes together are mostly quiet, because they are two calm souls not given to much chatter. Shin Da-eun, who played a small role in I Am Happy (aka Happiness), gives one of the stand-out performances in the drama as a young woman recovering from a broken relationship, who then falls in love with a much-older man who shows her more kindness than she has ever received in her life. Marrying him brings a new set of pressures, because the wife of a first-born Ha son must shoulder many responsibilities. But Jin-ah finds her life’s calling in her new role. The glow on her face is unmistakable and moving (although not as apparent in the above image, oops!).
In contrast, Na Mal-soon (Maya) is a fish in an unfamiliar stream, her entrance into the Ha household marked by hiccups and hilarity. She and Ha Tae-young (Kim Sung-min) start off on the wrong footing, with searing ill impressions of each other. She thinks he’s a philanderer; he’s sure she’s a perverse policewoman whose sole delight in life is ticketing him. Naturally, and in typical kdrama fashion, the two bickerers fall madly in love.
Kim Sung-min, who was hysterical in Fantasy Couple as a henpecked husband and cat-hater, provides much of the drama’s laughs here as Tae-young, father of the family’s precious youngest first-born son, Dong-dong (Park Joon-mok). He is as loud as his twin brother is quiet; the guy is an open book with a temperament to match the boyish and boisterous Mal-soon. Given his, ahem, ‘experience’ (genuinely hurt and bewildered by his ex-wife’s refusal to forgive him for his adultery), it’s no wonder he’s an exemplary suitor this time, bearing food and tenderness when Mal-soon lands in hospital with a broken arm. The role is clearly a stroll in the park for Kim Sung-min.
Maya, on the other hand, is painful to watch. She overacts so much (every emotion magnified fivefold on her face, her eyes two slits from the sheer effort of emoting), I wanted to quit the drama several times in the early episodes. It doesn’t help that her scenes are repetitive (she’s in the hospital forever, even though her arm injury hasn’t affected her ability to move or swear one bit).
But the thing about Family Honor is that everyone eventually settles down (and I don’t mean this in the marital sense). Somewhere in the middle of the drama, Maya actually stops acting like everything is a big deal. You quit wanting to hurl a shoe at her good arm. (Park Shi-hoo settling into domesticated and ‘unhot’ territory is another issue.)
Like Maya’s acting, Gang-suk’s ‘backward transformation’ (I liked him so much more at the beginning and so much less at the end, ahhh!) and Gang-suk and Dan-ah’s coupling (they turn me on and off, simultaneously), Family Honor was a mixed bag for me.
As I mentioned earlier, I bought the drama for Shin Goo and loved him here. But compared to his awesome turns in Ruler of Your Own World and Thank You, his Ha Man-gi is a decidedly small and uneventful role. As head of the family, he spends much of his time sitting in his room; he is wise and kind; he and Dong-dong make an endearing pair; he harbors one birth secret too many.
And you thought a family with an aristocratic history could get away without skeletons in the closet? Ha!
Turns out there’s a reason why his sister, Soo-jung (Park Hyun-sook), is thirty years younger than him. Turns out Ha Man-gi himself isn’t what we think. Turns out…
Oh, enough. Birth secrets I can deal with, if they are dished out realistically. This is a family drama, so why watch if there’s no drama in the family, right? But, as though someone forgot momentarily to turn off the faucet, the rehashed plot devices start gushing forth in the last one-third of the drama, even as pacing slows. There’s amnesia. Traumatic childhoods. Revenge! Stabbings! (Note the plural form of the word. Note my screaming when the second one happened.) A court trial. Company mergers and in-fighting. Marathon Go-Stop sessions (and I toss this one in, not because it’s been done to death in other dramas but because it’s done to death here). Our male lead finding redemption for dastardly acts of old. (Wait, wait. Gang-suk has a past, too? No!)
But it all ends happily, and not a moment too soon (my patience by then thread-thin on account of the abovementioned). Two socially disparate families remain exactly as they were at the start of the drama, socially. Their houses remain the same. Gang-suk’s mother will never be classy, just as Mal-soon will never be lady-like. No amount of training can make Dan-ah a nightingale. Her siblings and their spouses love her dearly, but don’t ask them to sit and hear her sing.
Dan-ah’s off-key shrieking I could put up with, early in Family Honor. After all, it’s just another comical moment among many, in a drama I thought was utterly charming (after a confusing first episode). But then the dramatic twists start multiplying and abruptly a sweet family drama turns into a ‘thrilling’ whodunit. A third stalker appears and spills blood once too many times, the hospital trips multiply, the cries to Dear Departed Ancestors grow louder.
I said earlier that I have a love-hate relationship with the drama. It’s mostly love (in a mild form), although the final eight or ten episodes left me squirming like worms in a bucket. Besides Shin Goo, I loved Kim Young-ok as Yoon Sam-wol. What a different role from her sailor-mouthed granny in Assorted Gems! Here she’s a mild-tempered housekeeper with infrequent scenes; I wished she could have played a more dominant role as Shin Goo’s wife instead. Still, many of her scenes are touching, because Family Honor scores strongly in its depiction of familial ties. Sam-wol may not be kin in the strict sense of the word, but she’s like a grandma and mom to the Ha family. It’s to her that Dan-ah turns when the objections to her marriage become too strident.
Hold it one sec. Who’s objecting to Dan-ah and Gang-suk’s relationship? Surely not his family, so bent on climbing the social ladder of acceptance? But indeed his mom says, “Marry her over my dead body.” The reasons are pretty ridiculous, the mom’s hysteria even more so. In a drama of this length, there’s plenty of room and time to build The Great Wall of Obstacles Threatening Our Happiness. I breathe a huge sigh of relief when the wall eventually falls. I even grow to be quite fond of Gang-suk’s mom; beneath her needy and crass facade is a woman who has never recovered from a tragic loss.
What strikes me in the end, despite certain shenanigans and unsavory plot turns, is the warmth that this drama exudes. Everyone is flawed to some extent (even precocious Dong-dong, who can be downright rude to his dad), but within the family everyone sticks together. You don’t want to associate with Gang-suk’s family at first (you’ll make an exception for him, of course) because the parents are overbearing and so pretentious, and because their daughter is a nutcase in the making. Then you observe how they love Hye-joo; you learn the reasons for their social neediness; you feel their desperation when their past catches up with them. Soon you’ll come to love this family, as I did. Why, you may even love them more than the Ha family!
But if you watched 2004’s Sweet 18 and enjoyed, like I did, the blend of new and old-world settings, the elaborate rituals (marriage, death, etc.), the struggles of straddling ancient clan conventions and the demands (and temptations) of 21st-century living, you will like Family Honor.
In fact, so sure was I (after watching just ten episodes or so) that people would love this drama, I went and bought a second set. Now you have a chance to win it.
If you write a paragraph (of any length) and include in it certain words (see below), if you can make me laugh out loud, if you can convince me that you are the rightful owner of this three-volume and nearly-four-inches-tall DVD set with excellent English subtitles, you stand a very good chance of being the winner.
You can write about anything, but your paragraph MUST include these words:
Family Honor; Shin Goo; blood; Park Shi-hoo; babies; Go-Stop
Closing date for our Family Honor drama giveaway is July 20, 2010. I can’t wait to read your submissions. Happy writing!