I recently met up with my (real life) first love. We have both moved on since those oh-so-distant days, and we are now friends so casual I usually forget that I once thought that a light would go out in my life if I never saw him again. And when I do remember I feel a little embarrassed. Nowadays, I even find him a little tiresome when I see too much of him. However, I don’t blame my younger self for having fallen for his wit, charm and mild eccentricity. With the benefit of hindsight I realise it was probably a good thing that things didn’t work out between us, but nonetheless I can’t regret the feelings I once cherished for him, which were real to me then and are now woven into my life’s story.
Delightful Girl Choon Hyang (DGCH) (or Sassy Girl Choon Hyang) was my first k-drama love. I no longer think it is the best thing ever, and if I watched it for the first time today I suspect I might find some plot contrivances tiresome. But it will always have a special place in my heart and I can’t regret the love I lavished on it. I thought it might be interesting to explore what made it so attractive to me at the time, what struck me then, and what qualities might endure (and endear) today.
DGCH is such a classic and has been around for so long, I’m assuming everyone has watched it or else doesn’t mind knowing how it goes, so while I’m not providing a comprehensive synopsis nor discussing detailed plot points, I’m not deliberately avoiding spoilers either. I’ve included one major spoiler, but I’ve marked it so you can avert your eyes if necessary.
First, a bit of personal background: DGCH wasn’t the first k-drama I watched, two-and-a-half years’ ago. That dubious distinction belongs to the very dubious Witch Amusement (WA), which I stumbled upon and starting watching midway. WA was the lure, piquing my interest and opening my mind to the possibility of k-drama NOT being full of tedious weeping and wailing, recriminations and untimely deaths. But it was when I followed the Jae Hee trail to 2005’s DGCH that I fell fully in love.
For the, oh, half dozen or so of you who haven’t watched DGCH, here’s a quick plot synopsis: DGCH is a modern update of the Korean folk-tale of a beautiful and noble village girl (Sung Choon Hyang) and the son of a governor (Lee Mong Ryong) who fall in love and secretly marry. Lee Mong Ryong leaves for the capital to make his way in life, and Choon Hyang falls into the evil clutches of a powerful official who demands that she become his woman, but being noble she would rather die than betray her love. Mong Ryong returns as a secret royal inspector just in time to kick the official’s corrupt ass, rescue Choon Hyang, and live happily ever after.
In 17-episode DGCH (written by the Hong Sisters), Sung Choon Hyang (played by Han Chae Young) is a clever and down-to-earth poor rural girl, Mong Ryong (Jae Hee) is the well-off and feckless son of a police inspector (Ahn Suk Hwan) who is transferred from Seoul to Choon Hyang’s town, and the corrupt official of old is updated as the rich and powerful television producer and talent agent Byun Hak Do (called by Choon Hyang and here henceforth “Ahjusshi”). It is loathing at first sight when our modern-day Choon Hyang and Mong Ryong meet as high school students, but a night accidentally spent together in the same room forces them into a teen marriage-on-paper with the understanding that they are married in name only and that when they are adult they may go their own way. And so we get enforced proximity, lots of bickering ranging from cheerful to embittered, and truckloads of jealousy and misunderstanding. The second male lead, said television producer, is played delectably by Uhm Tae Woong at his most charming and suave (see first photo below). At least, suave until he turns into the obsessive and destructive second male lead from hell. Young Mong Ryong moons after the glamorous and disdainful Hong Chae Rin (Park Shi Eun) (middle photo below), who once Mong Ryong’s attention starts shifting to Choon Hyang decides that after all she must possess Mong Ryong and sets about becoming the evil, delusional, clingy, OTP-wrecking second female lead from hell. Mong Ryong and Choon Hyang’s best friends Dan Hee (Lee In Hye) and Ji Hyuk (Moon Ji Yoon) (last photo below) pretty much set the standard for loyal, no-holds-barred, speak-the-truth pals. So far, so standard set-up.
So, what made me crush on DGCH, my first love?
Within the first fifteen minutes, we have a parody of the rescue of the Chosun Choon Hyang, a modern-day parody of the folk-loric Choon-Hyang-on-a swing scene, interspersed chase scenes (our heroine chased by police and our hero by school-boys spoiling for a fight), villains in a police station terrified by the police chief rampaging against his own son, a Matrix parody, Mong Ryong panting puppily after Chae Rim Noona, Choon Hyang’s mother asking her for pin money, model student Choon Hyang sleeping droolingly on her school-desk, Choon Hyang vaulting a wall and landing on Mong Ryong (in the course of which he accidentally takes photos of her underwear on his mobile phone – ha!), and Choon Hyang stomping on Mong Ryong’s mobile phone and Mong Ryong stealing hers; all accompanied by a relentlessly cheerful soundtrack. Yeah, I know none of that is particularly original now (and the Matrix parody is pretty darned old). But remember it’s packed into the first 15 minutes of the first k-drama I watched from episode one. How could I not be hooked? Re-watching that opening sequence now, the action scenes seem a bit cheap and scrappy and the acting is less natural than I would like. But that zippy pace is still a winner, and DGCH mostly (but not always) manages to maintain that pace.
Pace is still important to me. I can’t stand the melodrama where there is prolonged agonising and convoluted angst-fests. Even when all else is excellent – writing, acting, cinematography – if the pace flags my interest flags. I can’t stand going round and round the same tired plot circles, wearing a circular path in the plot ground (and a hole in my head). I can’t stand it when things just take too long to happen. Largely it’s because I have a short attention span. But also, a good pace often comes with a good story that progresses smartly from point to point. If recycling is employed, it usually means that there is not enough story to stretch over 16 episodes and the writers ought to just get on their bikes and write more content. A good pace also often means that a show is not insulting the viewers’ intelligence, not spelling out everything labouriously as if we the viewers were dim-witted. Pace is ace!
What can I tell you of he of a thousand faces that you can’t see for yourself? I started screen-capping notable JH facial expressions but I had to stop because there were just too darned many! In fact his face is so mobile I need a better-quality DVD to do him justice in stills.
He also has wonderful comic timing. And no shame or restraint. At times his clowning as Idiot Mong Ryong is so over-the-top I quite blush for him. I like my men competent and I usually have no patience for men who are lazy, petulant, posturing, unthinking or plain stupid. Mong Ryong could be any one of these at times, but JH plays him with so much depth and sympathy I cry with him, cheer for him and ache for him.
Lead Couple Chemistry!
It was only when I watched Han Chae Young’s other dramas (Exhibition of Fireworks and Boys Over Flowers) that I realised that, by golly, this woman really isn’t a very strong actress. So it’s interesting that I found her convincing and charming in DGCH. Even when we have this odd juxtaposition of an arrestingly beautiful and well-built woman housing the soul of a hardworking and innocent school-girl, furthermore tricked out in a lamentable wardrobe designed to reinforce the poor-girl image. Somehow things come together for HCY in DGCH – the character she plays, the directing, and of course her co-star. Theirs is the classic case of the stronger actor carrying the pair, but in a way that we hardly notice because HCY synchs so nicely with JH we’re likely to notice the overall effect rather than the fact that his reaction is dialled several notches higher than hers.
JH and HCY have heaps of chemistry. Mind you, not particularly of the sexual sort. They can’t even kiss with conviction. (Hilariously, HCY is said to have admitted that JH was mad at her because she wouldn’t open her mouth for their fireside kissing scene. Which makes sense, because the man who stars in the movie 3-Iron can’t possibly be shy of a spot of on-camera making out, whereas HCY can’t get into the mood even in the safe pastures of the bubble-gum, rainbow-wrapped Boys Over Flowers.)
But they have the chemistry of comfortably bickering siblings. (Lots of bickering. I mean, folks, theirs is Level 10 bickering. I’m hard pressed to think of another pair who can rival them for sheer off-the-scale bicker-revelling.) The chemistry of best friends who know the worst of each other but who love each other anyway. Of two people who are so comfortable with each other they take each other for granted, and who are diminished when they are separated. By the time they finally realise the full extent of their love for each other, so much relational groundwork has been laid I have no trouble buying 100% into this One True Pairing. Of course they must be together, cosmic order demands it.
Lead Couple Chemistry still is and always will be important. Sometimes a show is serendipitously blessed with an acting pair from whom sparks just fly and the show can coast along on pure chemistry and get away with disregarding rhyme and reason. It has to be acknowledged that DGCH doesn’t just coast on its lead couple chemistry (though there’s plenty of that) but also carefully maps out the solid foundation of a realistic relationship – how their initial disdain grows into affection by slow stages, what each sees in the other, how they grow together, how they construct mutual respect and trust, how by small acts each gives a bit of their soul to the other. There is precious little gazing starry-eyed at one another, very little mooning about. Yet, when evil deeds and ill fates threatened to tear our OTP apart, my heart was fit to break.
Laughs! Lots of laughs!
It was a paradigm-shirting and delightful discovery for me that a k-drama could be more about the laughter than about the tears. I now know that the Hong Sisters writing-duo have a notoriously aggressive sense of humour, occasionally to the detriment of their craft (doing all they can to milk the last guffaw), but generally to happy effect.
DGCH’s episode-end seaguk parodies have attained legendary status, and rightly so. They are very funny and very clever, subverting both the Choon Hyang folk-tale and the drama itself, simultaneously.
We also get a number of Hong Sisters-trademark fantasy sequences, which I’m sometimes in two minds about because they can get too silly, but I think that in DGCH they are not excessive.
And re-watching DGCH, I finally “got” the MiSa / I’m Sorry I Love You and Full House parodies. When I first saw them I found them funny but puzzling since I hadn’t watched those shows, but this time round I found them freakin’ hysterical!
Laughs are scattered liberally right through the show. Choon Hyang and Mong Ryong’s back-and-forth teasing generates laugh-out-loud moments too numerous to innumerate. I find it particularly funny that when one is suddenly nice to the other, everyone freaks out, particularly the other: “Why is she not yelling back, what’s wrong with her today?” “Why is he being so helpful, what trouble has he gotten himself into?”
A favourite funny moment is when Dan Hee and Ji Hyuk finally get together themselves – Ji Hyuk says to Dan Hee: “I don’t want us to drag things out and have misunderstandings like Choon Hyang & Mong Ryong.” DH to JH: “Promise me you’ll be steadfast and not mess about like someone we know?” (*glances at MR*). JH: “Of course, I promise.” DH: “Good, we should be ok then!” Haha, see the priceless reaction of CH & MR! How can anyone not love a show that can laugh at itself like this?
Another is when Choon Hyang suddenly realises, to her intense mortification, that her idiot husband-on-paper is actually rather hot. All at once, to the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus (ha!) she can’t take her eyes off him, which totally freaks Mong Ryong out!
Mong Ryong being deliberately boorish with his blind dates was also pretty funny. It’s childish, I know, but I laugh, I do!
A good sense of humour is always appreciated by me. Mind you, a sense of humour is not essential for my viewing pleasure. Glancing down my list of favourite k-dramas, I note that many of them are not in the least bit funny (Mawang / The Devil, Conspiracy in the Court, What Happened in Bali). So making me laugh is not a deal-breaking requirement. What is a requirement is that a show must succeed in what it sets out to do. A melodrama must make me care, a thriller must suck me in, and a romantic comedy can not have lame or cringing comedy. DGCH got its comedic beat right and tickled me pink.
It WAS Pink!
I was fascinated, fascinated, by the amount of pink the male actors casually donned in DGCH, and got away with. I just hadn’t seen that level of flamboyant dressing for men, fully accessorised with man-jewellery, attempted on a television show which wasn’t about fashion (or gay men).
I know now that wardrobe is an integral and important part of k-drama culture, reflecting the Korean love of fashion. And I continue to notice wardrobe. Wardrobe is a fairly frivolous matter and would neither make or break a show. But I’m grateful to wardrobe adventurousness in k-drama as it has gifted us some of our most memorable k-drama moments. Who can regret the gleeful “WTF?” of Prince Shin’s pink, polka-dotted and bowed wardrobe in Goong? Not to mention, Song Seung Heon’s giggle-inducing Dalmatian shirt in Summer Scent? (Thanks, ockoala!) And when wardrobe works, I’m also grateful – I will forget the plot of Personal Taste in a moment, but I’ll always cherish the lovely images of Lee Min Ho in his tailored long jackets, yum.
It was EPIC
Well, it was to me then. Remember, this was the first k-drama I had ever watched (apart from snatches of Witch Amusement, which was hardly an education). So I knew nothing of the conventions of k-romcom.
I had no idea that K-romcoms all end happily ever after, as all romance novels do. And this convention is so strong when it is disregarded (as in another Hong Sisters work, notoriously, which shall remain nameless but you know what I’m talking about) the reaction is widespread outrage and consternation. So in the last episode when Choon Hyang tripped off the roof of a building and Mong Ryong leapt after her, as they fell through the air and reached for each other in slow motion and Choon Hyang voiced over “I guess we were never meant to be in this life”, I gasped and my heart broke into tiny little pieces. Right at this point, freezing the dramatic moment in time, the show segues to the Chosun period and for once the flashback is played totally straight and serious. Mong Ryong sweeps in with his minions (robes a-swirling and weapons a-twirling, to stirring soundtrack) and masterfully rescues Choon Hyang. The defeated corrupt official says to Choon Hyang, “In the next life, I will win you” and Choon Hyang replies quietly and firmly, locking eyes with Mong Ryong, “In this life and the next, I will have eyes only for my husband”. I really believed that the show had killed them both and was going for the Cosmic Thwarted Love which would have to wait for the next reincarnation for another shot at happiness. Even as I went “OMG the tragedy!” I thought “wow, I’m so impressed this show is brave enough to go for broke”. But in a moment we return to modern day and find that they survived the fall. Wow, anyway.
END OF SPOILER
DGCH is primarily a fluffy rom-com, and some of the time it’s frankly not even operating at a serious adult level. But when it can get me believing, even for a moment, that it is about an undying love that transcends time and space, I think it gets to count as “epic”.
Sadly, I think that may have been a once-in-a-drama-watching-lifetime heart-stopping moment for me. More familiar with the genre now, I think I would bring a more analytical and knowing eye, resulting in more distance from the story (“hmm, what plot device are they throwing out now?”) and less likelihood of my going “OMG! OMG! They didn’t! Oh my heart!”. More’s the pity.
“Character development” is such a dull phrase. But in DGCH, character development is fun. Mostly, Mong Ryong develops, since Choon Hyang was all along a resourceful, decent and responsible young lady. Mong Ryong on the other hand started out as a rather feckless young lad, so I feel so proud of him when he finally grows up – when he learns to be tempered and responsible, when he turns his mischievous energy into productive creativity, when he uses his wit to better effect, and when plain-speaking and integrity blossom from his blunt tactlessness and straight-as-an-arrow ways. All the while remaining his unique annoying-and-loveable self. As Mong Ryong kicks ass as a grown man the dynamics of his relationship with Choon Hyang also change interestingly. And after all the Idiot Mong Ryong we have had to suffer, the Cool Mong Ryong is very gratifying to behold.
And character development still floats my boat. Few things in a k-drama alienate me as much as inconsistency and lack of believability in characters. At least as far as Choon Hyang and Mong Ryong are concerned DGCH can still show the way in terms of solid characterisation and relationship development. The second leads on the other hand are rather stock, little more than plot devices on legs; though the uber-awesome Uhm Tae Woong deserves special mention for making his douche-baggery relatable – I curse his machinations, but I can’t hate him.
To this day the theme love song from DGCH (I Hope You’ll be Happy sung by Lim Hyung Joo) is in the top five most-played tracks on my iPod. It kinda embarrasses me that I was so into it. I played it in the background at work, I played it on long train-rides, I played it while I reminisced over the essential DGCH plot-points, I drowned in the lush strings, I relished the dramatic rolls of thunder.
Apart from said sappy theme love song, the DGCH original soundtrack is packed with a smorgasbord of catchy tunes. And the original soundtrack is heavily supplemented by random bits of snappy / sappy / climactic / comic music. DGCH’s use of music seems a little heavy-handed and over-enthusiastic to me now. But on first watch I loved it and on the whole I still think it is well suited to the exuberance of DGCH.
DGCH is of course not unique. Soundtracks are an essential part of the k-drama landscape. I’m not entirely sure why k-drama original soundtracks are so prominent. Maybe it has something to do with Asian pop culture being about the whole entertainment package of acting / singing / fan-servicing / idol making. Whatever it is, I’m just grateful to k-drama for populating my iPod with so much listenable music.
Korean History and Culture 101
From a cultural point of view, DGCH was not a bad introduction to Korea. I got customs and costumes of Chosun Korea (love the hats!) as well as modern Korea. I got the sophisticated Seoul versus boondocky town contrast. I got a few class differences: Rich boy sleeps on bed, poor girl sleeps on floor; rich family sits at dinner table, humble family dines on floor. I got a demonstration of what happens by the grave of a loved one on a death anniversary. I was introduced to the social institution of the Korean sauna, and the roadside soju tent.
I was struck by how the importance of filial piety and respect for elders was reflected in DGCH (as they are in all k-dramas) as contrasted with Western television for which these issues are not even on the radar. And the importance of honour and of repaying debts. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Hollywood anymore.
It had Tech
At least, mobile phone tech. Sort of. And I realise that it probably says more about me having been out-of-touch with television than anything else, that I was impressed by how the story used the mobile phone. Though perhaps television was just coming to grips with it, because at times the tech did not make sense. Like when Choon Hyang and Mong Ryong scrambled desperately to make a rendezvous which was to signify commitment (or otherwise). Though the show managed to save the situation fractionally by getting Choon Hyang to chide Mong Ryong, “Silly boy, why didn’t you just call me on my phone?” (And I might have asked her the same question.)
It was Fresh
Well, it was fresh to me then. Emphasis on “was”. I now realise that much of DGCH is trope. If I recommend DGCH it’s not because I think it’s brilliant but because I think it is a good representation of how enjoyable a well-done standard K-romcom can be.
We have a pretty good collection of plot tropes. Take, for the instance, the Time Leap. The Time Leap has become such a staple k-drama device we groan when it is served up yet again. But when I experienced it for the first time in DGCH I was quite taken by it; how in the (convenient) time elapsed our hero and our heroine had re-invented themselves as successful and confident adults. I was taken in by Mong Ryong’s dead-beat karaoke drunk act; I really believed with sinking heart that Mong Ryong had gone down the drain (not being aware of the k-romcom convention that the hero always makes good), and when he cast off his disguise and revealed himself as a hot-shot law-enforcer how I cheered, happily disregarding the horribleness of his shiny suit and the ridiculousness of the situation (folks, as a public service, I can’t point out too often that public prosecutors are desk-bound lawyers and do not go around chasing bad guys).
And the Overseas Separation – another groan, everyone. Not to mention, the Airport Farewell (double groan). And the killingly-near Misses in bus terminals and on streets (triple groan). But two-and-a-half years ago, I lapped it all up. My heart was in my mouth as Mong Ryong ran around looking for Choon Hyang like a man demented, and my heart sank whenever anyone got on a bus or plane (choosing to ignore the fact that nowadays email and phones render such separations impotent). When their buses crossed and they did not look up, instead of yelling at the show “Oh for peter’s sake not that tired old manipulative trick” as I might today, I cried, “Oh, look up! Look up, my dear ones, for the love of God! Argh!”
And lots of character trope as well. The bad boy who is more misunderstood than bad. The brave and resourceful poor girl. The spoilt entitled rich girl. The power- and lust-crazed Ahjusshi whose heart was captured by said fresh and unassuming poor girl. The long-suffering best friends. Mong Ryong’s fearsome fire-breathing father turning into the world’s most awesome dad-in-law (and dad). Mong Ryong’s mother being unremittingly shallow and materialistic. None of them are particularly original. But to the credit of the writing and the all-round competence of the cast, all of them are believable.
And little did I little realise it then, but it introduced me to a slew of k-drama clichés, new to me then but now oh so familiar. The improbable boy-falls-on-girl accidental kiss. The grab-from-danger at the pedestrian crossing (witnessed by dismayed second lead). The use of glasses by (young and surely not long-sighted) people to indicate that they are studying hard, or alternatively, doing well in their career. Significant Symbolic Objects – a mobile phone decoration Choon Hyang made for Mong Ryong (cheap but treasured, signifying their innocent attachment to one another) and a diamond necklace Ahjusshi tries to foist on Choon Hyang (signifying the empty extravagance of his infatuation and his eventual corruption). The infamous wrist/arm-grab. The brooding on river banks. The pitiful dragging about of trolley bags. The handshake pulled into an emotional hug. The drunken piggy-back ride home. The reckless traffic lane changing to indicate that the driver feels frustrated in love. The emotionally-charged meeting on a pedestrian crossing.
Mind you, DGCH aired in 2005 and maybe a lot of this was fresh at the time. I have a feeling that DGCH may look a little tired now because so many shows have copied its more effective turns (and also because the writers and the director recycle their favourite tricks).
Even first time round, I was aware of DGCH’s faults – the sense of humour that verges on juvenile, the pace sagging in the middle of the series, the OTP’s exasperating inability to communicate clearly with one another, their head-desking gullibility in listening to the evil second leads’ manipulative lies, the tortured misunderstandings as plot devices that run on for too long, and Mong Ryong’s headache-inducing swings between being awesome and being infantile.
When I return to DGCH as a more experienced viewer, not surprisingly I’m not nearly as smitten as I first was. DGCH’s faults are more glaring than before. And some things really haven’t endured. Now that my drama watching has ranged wider, DGCH seems pretty unsophisticated. I find the humour a little too loud at times, and the soundtrack too in-my-face. Even the pacing isn’t quite as zippy as I recall. But some things have endured. Like the awesomeness of Jae Hee, especially when he is doing his quieter smouldering rather than his maniacal capering (Please, JH, pretty please, pick a good project now you’re out of the army, and a cool-headed director who can curb your worst excesses). It can still make me burst out laughing. The plot is well-constructed and coherent, even if it may sometimes seem to serve “effect” more than “sense”. And even in the midst of my rolling my eyes at the spectacle of misunderstanding upon misunderstanding heaped upon our OTP, the raw pathos of their troubled young love still has the power to constrict my heart. It shouldn’t be legal for a show to switch so giddily between comedy and tragedy, but DGCH seems to get away with this by sheer audacity and charm. For the record, when I re-watched DGCH to write this review, I didn’t fast-forward through anything, not a single minute.
When I’m not dazzled by Jae Hee’s performance I have to admit that Uhm Tae Woong’s Ahjusshi was probably the more sensible choice for Choon Hyang. Before he went postal from rejection, he was the reliable grown-up when Mong Ryong was an adolescent liability. But Mong Ryong was Choon Hyang’s first love. And first love is not about logic or wisdom. First love is about a special connection in time and space, and there’s no denying the special power of that magic.
DGCH would not be my top pick today. I have surely moved on from the flush of first love. But it will always have a special place in my heart as my First K-drama Love, and I’ll never be ashamed of having loved it.