Let’s start this review off with a bold proclamation. After watching the first 24 episodes, I am unequivocally in love with Giant. With that said, I shall attempt to justify my sentiment with a semblance of reason and logic (but if you look at that kiss above, I think it says enough by itself).
The year 2010 has whizzed right by us. Already August has arrived, and our drama consumption has passed the halfway mark. I’ve watched less than a quarter of the K-dramas which aired this year, but through the grapevine have heard chatter here and there about the ones I’ve not watched.
Life is too short, and I am too busy. I watch only what appeals to me, even if something is genuinely stellar. For instance, I’m not planning to pick up Comrades (anytime soon) because war productions are really so hard for me to enjoy. But I’ve been told it’s likely the best drama this year.
Along the same vein, when I give a recommendation for a drama, it’s really to extol its virtues rather than as a push for everyone to watch it. Some genres and subject matters are just not going to be your cup of tea, and I totally get that.
Whatever I say in this review about Giant, take it for what it’s worth – the rabid fangirling of a crazed koala who loves sprawling period epics, and has just discovered her koala-nip.
A PRELUDE TO A DRAMA
I just spent the last few days marathoning a drama that about hit the mid-point in its scheduled run (it just aired episode 24 out of 50). Yes, I’ve been on a warpath consuming episode after episode of Giant, a drama about a man climbing to the top of a heap of power players building up Korean infrastructure in the 70s and 80s, while exacting revenge on the people responsible for his and his family’s tragic plight.
I hesitated to start watching it when it began airing, after being burned watching East of Eden. Then Thundie amusingly shared some snippets of its rather heavy-handed first few episodes, and I hesitated further. Recently word came to me that Giant was getting better and better, and was really firing on all cylinders (so says Thundie!). I made a vow that I was going to catch up before the episode count grew too unwieldy for me to marathon without fear of my eyeballs falling out from fatigue.
Giant has been steadily climbing in ratings, premiering in the high single digit, and as of episode 24, passing the 20 percent mark. That is one empirical indicator that this is not a drama carried by initial popularity and coasting on inertia. It started off slow and under-the-radar, building viewership by using good writing, acting, and execution to convince more viewers to climb on board week after week. With that said, let’s dig into that Giant steak, shall we?
Are you ready to enter the world of Giant?
Giant has already become my favorite K-drama so far in 2010, and barring the complete and utter collapse of its writing in the second half, likely may stay there. Of course, I find 2010 rather lean in great drama offerings, so take my praise of Giant for what it’s worth.
I have no clue how Giant will stack up overall against all other K-dramas, primarily because it’s not done airing yet, and because I haven’t thought so far ahead. But what I have seen is so good, I decided on impulse to write a mid-point review, which I’ve never attempted before.
The two reasons being: (1) it’s a 50 episode drama, and writing a review after it’s done airing might simply sap all my emotional energy, and (2) it’s a 50 episode drama, and I’m hoping that by writing a review now, it may encourage folks who find this genre and subject matter interesting to check it out.
This is not a review as much as I am going to perform inception on you (did I just contradict what I said above about not trying to convince you to watch dramas I review – yes, I sure did, and please accept this as an exception to the golden koala rule).
I am warning you in advance that my goal is to plant a kernel in your head that Giant simply begs to be watched. But I will do so in a way that you will think that you willingly made the decision to watch it. Can I do it? Well, ockoala shares three letters in common with Dom Cobb – in short, I shall try my utmost to succeed.
Bad luck – it sure does suck
For those of you wondering how Giant starts off (and it starts off with so much ill tidings raining down on our hapless protagonists they need a Giant umbrella – har har, pardon the pun), please read Thundie’s first-impressions recap of the first four episodes.
Have you done that? Good, now promptly erase it from your mind. Because while I agree 100% with every word Thundie wrote, the fact that the drama starts off beating us silly with tragedy doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Giant is a 50 episode epic, and with that comes certain requirements that simply must exist in order for the drama to work. How can you make a soufflé if you don’t first make a mess of whisking all the egg whites? After the soufflé comes out of the oven, are you going to begrudge the messy start of this exquisite dessert? I think not.
Like all sweeping period epics, Giant invariably starts with enough pathos, agony, and tragedy to fell five hundred thirteenth century conquering Mongolians. Yes, it’s just a tad over the edge of possibility that so much misfortune can befall each member of the simple hardworking Lee family. But it’s a necessary evil plot requirement, so we accept the bitter (overwrought plot confluences) with the sweet (shockingly touching moments).
I am a very impatient drama watcher/book reader. I almost universally hate set up. I like the meaty parts and I like getting to it as fast as possible. I have even committed the cardinal sin of reading the ending of books then backtracking (I know, I know, sacrilege). Hence, I almost always power through the obligatory period epic/sageuk childhood portions. Giant is no exception.
The childhood portion in Giant actually extends beyond the end of episode 4, which Thundie’s review concluded at, and continues until episode 8. I would have preferred an even shorter portion, but what was written was all presented wonderfully. Let me refresh the set up for you.
Be forewarned that the brainwashing from this point on will be dense with spoilers. I do so because I doubt most of you will watch Giant, but many of you would probably like to hear what happens in this drama (I’m speaking from personal experience when I read something out of curiosity, which is what I’m sure 99.9% of you are doing right now).
An initial bucket of tragedy, with a second sucker punch, and third dish of sorrow
Our main protagonists, the Lees, are a hardworking family consisting of Daddy, Mommy, older brother Seongmo, middle brother Gangmo, little sister Miju, and a newly born infant brother. Dad buys a piece of land, and then is killed when he’s inadvertently embroiled in a smuggling scheme. The two men who masterminded said scheme are responsible for his death (one pulling the trigger, the other a willing passive participant).
A flurry of events are thus triggered by the death of Daddy Lee. Namely: the death of Mommy Lee, the splitting up of the three older children, and the adoption of the just born baby. Daddy Lee’s two killers are Hwang Taeseop, the owner of Manbo Construction (hereby calling him Chairman Hwang), and Jo Pilyeon, a director in the Korean Central Intelligence Service (hereby calling him Director Jo).
Big brother Seongmo witnessed his daddy’s murder (poor traumatized boy), and recognizes the identity of his daddy’s killers. He willingly enters the lion’s den as the surrogate son and protégé of Director Jo, growing up to become an agent of the Service, laying in wait to exact his vengeance on that man, and on Chairman Hwang.
Middle brother Gangmo knows not who is responsible for his family’s tragedy, and is taken in by Chairman Hwang to be raised as a surrogate son, growing up to become his right hand man (and compared to his own useless son, the son he wished he had). This makes sense because Chairman Hwang was actually Daddy Lee’s friend (which makes his complicity in the murder all that more horrifying), and he harbors guilt over his role in Daddy Lee’s murder.
Little sister Miju is also separated from her brothers and is sent to an orphanage. She later comes to Seoul looking to find her siblings and pursue her dream of becoming a singer. Once everybody grows up, we’re off to the races. We have our villains, our heroes, and let’s not forget, our sizzling OTP.
Middle brother Gangmo, the leading character in this drama, gets involved in a love triangle with Hwang Jeongyeon, daughter of his surrogate daddy Chairman Hwang, and Jo Minwoo, the son of Director Jo. Oh, what a tangled web of love we weave. So what happens beyond this arguably conventional set up? Let’s dig a little deeper into the drama, shall we?
LEVEL 1 – A DRAMA WHERE YOU THINK YOU’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE
Once you start watching Giant, immediately a feeling of eerie familiarity sets in. Snippets here and there, of tone, of structure, of mood, of plot, of the little things that work so stirringly in a drama to make you sit up and take notice. What are those elements?
1. You have the mortal enemies – two people who have spent what must be their entire working lives at odds with each other. The stakes are high and the consequences of failure even higher.
2. You have a delightful large lower working class family about to be stricken by tragedy. Oh, the little moments of delight before the axe of fate falls on them.
3. You have siblings turned into orphans, who are then individually separated from each other. Until the word orphan becomes synonymous for a child forced to grow up overnight.
4. You have two men who, through avarice and cowardice, cause a man’s death, cover it up, and profit from the crime.
5. One of the men will seek money through governmental power, raising his only son to be just as efficient, ruthless, and calculating as he is.
6. The other man will seek power through making money by building up Korea, taking along his shrill wife, their useless and spineless son, and his proud, intelligent and illegitimate daughter.
7. The powerful man will raise the eldest orphaned sibling as a surrogate son, installing him in positions of governmental power without realizing that boy is coolly plotting his revenge, waiting to pounce on the men he knows caused his father’s death.
8. The rich man will raise the second eldest orphaned sibling as a surrogate son turned right hand man, because the rich man was the friend of the deceased father and is trying to make amends to the dead man’s son that he found.
9. The youngest daughter will find herself in an orphanage growing up, traveling to Seoul as early as she’s able to run away, to find her older brothers, dreaming all the while of becoming a singer.
10. We will have our agasshi and her bodyguard love story, the type of love that grows from childhood to adulthood, from a lifetime of love knowing the differences in social positions for our hero and our heroine.
11. We will have brother unwittingly pitted against brother, because they do not recognize each other, with one brother pulling the trigger on the other.
12. Our long-lost siblings will have one heart wrenching reunion after another, until they have reunited one by one.
13. Our heroine will find herself in an unwanted engagement, sold for her father’s company, to the son of the powerful man.
14. Our hero will find himself framed for a murder he did not commit, forced to go on the lam.
15. Our heroine will track down our hero, convincing him that she will give up everything to be with him.
16. Our hero will discover that the man he thought was a surrogate father actually caused his real father’s death, that the man’s spineless son is framing him, and that he is in love with the daughter of his father’s killer.
17. Our hero will be willingly incarcerated in exchange for a piece of land, selling his freedom for the opportunity to strike back at the rich man and the powerful man, giving up the heroine and convincing himself using every reason in the world they can’t be together.
18. Our hero will survive assassinations, and finally be declared dead so that he can return to the world with a new identity.
19. Our heroine will find out that her step-mother and her craven half-brother caused hero’s supposed death, and she vows revenge on her own family.
20. The youngest sister will meet the son of the powerful man, and they will find themselves unwittingly attracted to each other, unaware of what each other’s real connections mean in the bigger picture of fate.
21. Our hero comes back to the world of the rich man and the powerful man, pretending to be another person, as the two brothers unite to right the wrongs wrought upon their innocent family.
For an avid watcher of dramas across various countries, each of the above plot points have been presented to me at one time or another, sometimes multiple elements appearing in the same drama. For better or worse, sheer originality of idea is not Giant’s claim to fame, nor does it aspire to alter our perceptions of epics or upend the genre as a whole.
What Giant strives to do is take a period epic, construct it with attention to detail and a deft genre-appropriate touch, and present the end result as something a creation all its own. It may take the period genre to a new level by the time it’s done, but it’s already proven that it’s so far succeeded where few other K-dramas have treaded and most have failed. Now that you know what’s happened so far, let’s dig even deeper, shall we, and see how it unfurls.
LEVEL 2 – THE SET UP IN A DRAMA IS THE FOUNDATION FOR A ROCK SOLID STRUCTURE
If all the elements in a drama seem vaguely familiar and used before, what distinguishes it from feeling stale and smelly musty? That is where a master scriptwriter must come in and say: “I will give you what you want, because that is what has proven to work and will make you happy, but I will do so in an intelligent and logical way.”
Giant is constructed solidly, like a castle built from the ground up instead of conceptualized from the top down. Take a drama like Bad Guy for instance – watching it makes me feel like someone had a great idea, and then wrote a script around it, akin to trying to shove a too-large foot into a too-small shoe.
Giant is structured in little chunks, appearing to be written piece-by-piece, integrated so that characters are fully fleshed out over episodes and the plot unfurling at a steady pace. While I’ve already laid out the major plot points of Giant, none of what happens feels false or stretches credulity (other than accepting at face value the over-arching concept of fate entwining three families lives together).
When we embrace the premise, the story flows with thought and rational care, allowing us to enter into the world of an era decades past and feel connected with the characters. This is extremely hard to do, so let’s see how Giant does it. [Btw, for those of you who’ve read Serendipity’s side-splitting recap of Episode 2 of Road #1, some of my sub-section headers are going to seem exceedingly familiar].
Build the emotion (aka shove milk the maudlin up the behind of the nearest hack scriptwriter)
It’s not my impatience speaking when I say I really couldn’t wait for the childhood sequence to be over and one with. After I started watching K-dramas, I’ve come to realize that Korea isn’t just the land of soap operas, it’s also the land of child actors. I have yet to see an excruciating child actor performance in any drama (I’m talking about Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace level of bad). The child actors are either mind-blowingly good, or simply quite all right.
All of the child actors in Giant were collectively excellent (some better than others, of course – I’m talking about you, Park Ha Young, who plays little Miju and Kim Soo Hyun playing the young Seongmo), so that has nothing to do with my haste to finish the set up portion of Giant. What spurred my lack of interest in the extremely well-acted earlier episodes of the drama was the initial dose of heavy-handed writing.
I concede all of it was necessary, nay, absolutely essential, in setting up the intersecting lives of the main characters and the inter-weaving storylines of the main three families. But that doesn’t mean I have to fawn over it. I find the suffusion of coincidences, bad luck, and fate all fine in dandy in epic tales, but it still causes a niggling sensation in my brain and my heart – a feeling like I’m being led along like a puppy to my chow.
But Giant takes the initial heavy dose of sadness and then pulls back completely in the early adult sections so that everyone’s lives move on with the specter of their heavy baggage hanging over them. The adult Lee siblings live, laugh, cry, love and lose (all in the first 24 episodes), and we extol in the moments where the release is well-earned.
The emotional fraught scenes are judiciously sprinkled through the plot machinations of the antagonists and the corresponding response of the protagonists. Because we get to experience their plight, we are swept into feeling natural hatred for the villains and natural empathy and a strong protective streak for our Lee siblings, especially for unwitting Romeo Gangmo and his feisty Juliet Jeongyeon.
Logic is not for losers
Giant’s tableau of love and revenge set against Korean infrastructural development unfolds where every plot development naturally follows the preceding one. I did not once go “WTF just happened?” I also rarely if ever thought what happened was too excessively dramatic even within the world of Giant.
Now that is a feat of writing wonder, especially in this day and age where a man can sense his fiancée kissing another guy and teleport from the middle of a war zone to interrupt the make out session, or a bad guy’s idea of revenge is basically macking on all the girls in the family which wronged him.
In Giant, Daddy Lee gets killed because he stood between two greedy men and their lust for money and/or power. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and wanted to do the right thing.
The elder villains of our tale, Chairman Hwang and Director Jo, commit the understandable and unforgiveable sin of trying to make money the easy way. They then continue to compound their bad choices one after another in rational yet immoral ways, forever bound by this single act of horrific violence.
Both of them end up taking in one of the sons of the man they killed. For Chairman Hwang this is especially ironic because he was Daddy Lee’s friend and genuinely wants to take care of the son of the friend he played in role in getting killed. The Hwang family is less tragic but more dysfunctional. Chairman Hwang has a privileged and useless son with his wife, and sired an illegitimate daughter with another woman, a lounge singer.
His wife torments the daughter she did not bear, who reminds her of her husband’s infidelity and represents a threat to her son inheriting Manbo Construction. The illegitimate daughter, Jeongyeon, grows up defiant and stubborn, refusing to cow before her step-mother and allow her spirit to be broken. She also grows up alongside her best friend and ally, Gangmo, a kid who went from a family of six to an orphan pretty much overnight.
How each of the characters grow and change is a series of rational choices within the framework of heightened moments. I kept getting the sense that (1) while my ordinary life would never require me to stand in front of a critical juncture between choosing love or revenge, money or morality, honesty or power, (2) nonetheless these dramatic characters make choices I could see makes sense for them when faced with that dilemma.
Giant shows that you can make a drama imbued with a sense of grandeur and scale, without sacrificing logic, reasoning, and common sense. For example, in a scene when Jeongyeon collapses from shock, it’s because she has already been so battered by a series of tragic events that hearing about utterly reprehensible act committed on the man she loves pushes her weakened body just over the edge.
It’s a scene fit for television, but we buy the reason for that to happen. Then the aftermath unfurls in a matter-of-fact and progressive way, clearing the path for the next great twist to follow.
Similarly, all the machinations so far, whether for monetary or political gain, are well thought through and carefully plotted. Kudos to Agent Jo and Chairman Hwang for having a brain and using it, albeit for nefarious and self-serving purposes. It drives me bonkers when the villains are so dumb I want to think for them.
And when a character does things which defy logic, such as every single behavior on the part of cowardly Hwang Jeongshik (son of Chairman Hwang), it make sense within the world of Giant because his character is in fact a complete and utter tool, devoid of a semblance of intelligence or a shred of moral center.
I like that smart characters do smart things, and dumb characters do dumb things – and everyone acknowledges that.
Everything can in fact be subtle within context (nothing too obvious lives over at Road #1, nothing to see here)
Once the childhood portion ends, the drama writing smoothes out considerably, allowing the adult characters room to breathe and the story to flow with finesse. Giant is a drama that knows it has 50 episodes to share a story, and absolutely understands how to pace itself. It neither delays emotional pay-offs (such as the myriad sibling reunions and some pent up OTP goodness), nor does it forget to allow us to enjoy the moment, whether sweet or gut-wrenching.
The drama doesn’t tell you what is going to happen by having useless exposition precede a plot development, but always going from action to scene purposefully, allowing the viewer to process the event.
When I say Giant’s writing is subtle, I don’t mean to equate it to a slice-of-life drama that conveys a story of realism with gentle beats. Giant is a hard-hitting rock in your stomach type of drama, the kind that can make you scream at the screen and gasp for breath. Your heart hurts at times, and soars in happiness in others.
We know everyone’s fate is interwoven so tightly by the death of Daddy Lee that it would be disingenuous to expect anything less than gripping plot twists and tension-fraught plot developments to propel the story forward. What I cannot abide is the subversion of natural character development by a herky jerky plot. Giant has none of that.
The plot moves forward with a steady and sure beat, nothing is carved in stone with the words good, bad, and weird. The bad guys have depth, the good guys have gray, and the weird side characters have simplicity and three-dimension. If you asked me if I could write a review where I give each major character a representative moniker, I cannot do so. That is subtle writing. I connect with all the characters, their fears, their insecurities, their unfulfilled desires.
And the subtlety in Giant is presented keenly when you compare it to other such sweeping epics, which extol in Big Fat Neon Signs of Pathos that drag on and on, and can be repeated ad nauseum. You’ll see what I mean when you watch an episode of Giant, watching moments that are big but feel small, because it’s grounded in the inexplicable real beats of human interaction.
Less shouty and less shooting (otherwise known as: angst does not equal screechy screechy bang bang)
Giant clearly got the message that shouting does not in and of itself convey impassioned feelings. Too many K-drama rely on the cop out that if the person screams the dialogue, it somehow makes it mean something. Uh, hate to break the news to you, buddy, but no. Dialogue only means something because we buy into what the person is saying, and those words feel real to us. Shouting said dialogue doesn’t make it any more impactful.
Giant actually has neither a surfeit of excessive talking from any of the characters, nor is it particularly a moody piece where people do a lot of meaningful staring. The lines flow like conversations that we happen to overhear, even if the moment is dramatic and heightened due to the construct.
Even evil witch step-mom of our heroine doesn’t descend into shrieky makjang histrionics apart from some comparatively toned down bitch antics. The elder villains plot and plot some more on their grand construction and political election schemes, but the sneering and the villainous smirking is relatively par broiled and never over-cooked.
Director Jo tends to skirt at the edge of mwahahaha-moments, but always it’s restrained in the nick of time, and actually has quite a charm of its own. The violence and action in Giant is excellent, guns and fists used when the occasion necessitates it, but never gratuitously.
There is one scene early in the drama when Chairman Hwang tells young Gangmo, who has just been unfairly expelled from school after some machinations of his enemies, that the world is a dirty place and those who play in it must expect to get dirty. But when you get dirty, you must continue to forge on. It’s perhaps his own justification for causing his friend’s death because of his greed, and continuing to soldier on with his own life’s ambitions.
That lesson is embodied in this drama – that the bad things happen and the characters must overcome them. All this is delivered in a manner devoid of scream fests, hair pulling, bitch slapping, and macho posturing. This is an adult drama world, and the power lies in who has the brains to outwit their opponent and be the last one left standing.
LEVEL 3 – A DRAMA WHERE THE IMAGES ARE CRYSTAL CLEAR
You’ve now been told that Giant is a drama where the story is constructed with the little things that push a viewer’s emotional buttons in all the right ways. You’ve also been informed that things aren’t thrown together in a slap-dash way, but layered carefully like a master bibimbap maker would construct his dish.
What about each ingredient? I can tell you that the master bibimbap maker only selected the most complementary elements to layer in his concoction, daring you to quip that normally you don’t like to add mushroom or you individually hate bean sprouts. You’ll eat it all up and ask for more.
No wide-eyed for the win (rather, a fleeting hooded gaze of pain is worth a thousand words)
One of the reasons (and there were many) that Giant’s most recent cousin in the period epic genre, East of Eden, failed so miserably as a good drama was its generally weak acting. With the exception of a few choice actors, the collective group either couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag, or were good actors floundering in their increasingly ridiculous roles.
Giant is afflicted with none of that. I’ve already stated the child actors were great. Well, the adult actors are just as good if not better. When you enter so deeply into a drama’s psyche, you want to do it with people who sell you this particular bag of beans and make you believe it’s magic.
Lee Bum Soo is our titular Giant of a male lead, taking on the role of Lee Gangmo with so much charisma and controlled intensity, your eyes stay riveted to him in any scene he is in. He fills the screen with his presence so that you forget that Lee Bum Soo is rather short in stature and lack the facial perfection that an actor like Song Seung Heon is blessed with.
But life is fair, I guess, since my beloved Song Seung Heon couldn’t act like Lee Bum Soo can act even if he tried. Which is why I adore both actors for their natural talent, to look pretty and act well, respectively. Sorry for the digression, back to Lee Bum Soo, who has been given a role that requires considerable evolution of his character, and a performance to keep up with it.
So far the writers have developed Gangmo with deliberate pacing, and Lee Bum Soo is delivering an outstanding performance. So far he’s only halfway to Heaven in unleashing a can of whoop-ass on everyone who wronged him. If and when Gangmo reaches his full potential, I will shriek of delight, excited that a character can be so rich in complexity and angst, and be performed by an actor with Lee Bum Soo’s combination of gravity mixed with playfulness.
Park Jin Hee plays Hwang Jeongyeon, our heroine of this tale, and the undisputed love of Gangmo’s life. I love how Jeongyeon has her own backstory, her own struggles, and her own goals in life (as she transitions from rebellious daughter to revenge-bound Madonna in the most recent episodes).
So far, Park Jin Hee’s performance has been steadily getting better, after initially getting off on an uneven start. Don’t get me wrong, I think Park Jin Hee is doing a swell job, but I found her acting in the earlier adult episodes like she was still understanding and getting a feel for her character. It was a work-in-progress type of performance, but it was never bad even from the get-go.
She and Lee Bum Soo have smoking, sizzling, to-swoon-for chemistry. That, my chingus, even Baeksang-worthy acting cannot conjure. Her character starts off very cold, restrained, and somewhat aloof, and is gradually becoming a hardened yet raging-inside potential femme fatale.
Most of the other younger generation leads are all still getting their groove as well, with the exception of Park Sang Min as big brother Lee Seongmo. He is killing the competition as the best young actor in the bunch (perhaps even including Lee Bum Soo’s performance – but I’m not about to stack brother against brother for comparison just yet). His performance is so rich in little nuances, tightly controlled when he’s wearing the agent hat, gentle and caring when he’s wearing the brother hat.
Seongmo, having known all along what he is doing, has a giant gaping hole in his heart filled with hatred of the men who killed his father and broke up his family, tremendous guilt for his own role in losing track of his siblings, and a self-hatred from having to be buddy-buddy with his enemy. Park Sang Min’s portrayal of all the different facets of Seongmo is brilliant, making you worry for him and weep with him.
Joo Sang Wook, a relative newbie compared to Lee Bum Soo and Park Sang Min, plays devil-in-the-making Jo Minwoo, son of Agent Jo and arch-nemesis to Gangmo. Let me say this: Joo Sang Wook is doing a damn fine job, though he can’t hold a candle to either of the two veteran actors he plays against. Joo Sang Wook is not so handsome he’s coasting by looks alone, so it’s a treat to watch as he digs deeper into his character and tries to balance the complexity of an arrogant, entitled, and uber-competitive young man.
Joo Sang Wook’s arc actually gives him romantic overtures with both Jeongyeon (and he does have chemistry with Park Jin Hee), as well as youngest Lee sibling Miju, played by Hwang Jung Eum (where they have a percolating and simmering connection that is just starting to heat up as the drama heads into its second half).
Hwang Jung Eum as Miju is currently the weak link, if I had to pick someone. But she is still hitting enough of her emotional beats that her performance never feels false or trying. I’ve heard folks complain about both her performance and her character as annoying, and I’m not in accord with either of those complaints.
The character of Miju is unfortunately coming across as excessively naïve and sheltered at this stage in the drama when most everyone else is raging with pent up frustration, anger, and pain. But I take it as her brothers Seongmo and Gangmo are purposely keeping her innocent and carefree, while they shoulder the brunt of the family vengeance plans.
It’s a hard character to play, and Hwang Jung Eum never descends into the cutesy or the over-acting, always aiming to portray the determined and straightforward nature of her character. So far, she is holding her own, and I foresee her stepping up her game as her character grows through success and adversity.
The veterans are doing a bang up job. Seriously, I rub my hands with glee whenever the eviler of the evil duo Agent Jo shows up to school his son Minwoo to be more evil, or to plot his political ascension. Jung Bo Suk as Agent Jo is just a delightful villain to watch, his brain working overtime and his trademark intense eye-stare and patented half-smirk to follow. So far he’s pretty much all evil, but dang it if he doesn’t make me commend his single-minded pursuit of power.
Lee Duk Hwa as Chairman Hwang is so ridiculously fraught with a multitude of human weaknesses that I can’t help but wish he would more black and white so I can flat out hate on him. I can’t hate on this incarnation of a man who wished he can do the right thing, but when faced with greater morality or personal victory, he always chooses the latter. I pity him.
He causes Daddy’s Lee death because he wasn’t strong enough to step up and stop the initial wrongdoing from proceeding. When he discovers that his own son framed his surrogate son Gangmo for the murder of a rival construction firm owner, he first beats up his son for committing the crime, and then cowardly assists in covering it up.
He loathes his son’s lily-livered actions, but he cannot bring himself to turn his son in, so he burns the evidence that can exonerate the young man he has helped raise. He then confesses his moral turpitude to Gangmo, telling him that he has wronged him, and asking for forgiveness and a willingness to give anything to Gangmo for his son’s freedom.
I cannot hate on Chairman Hwang because I know he will accept his comeuppance in the end. Lee Duk Hwa imbues this man with so much grit and a realization that life’s hard knocks means he can make such a dirty offer for Gangmo to trade freedom and love for a land deed. Only Chairman Hwang doesn’t realize that the only reason Gangmo took the offer is purely to set up his revenge, and not because Gangmo is a man without a moral conscience.
Lastly, but never least, Kim Suh Hyung plays Yoo Gyeongok, the madam of a nightclub where deals are made, and also the birth mother of our heroine Jeongyeon. She is magnificent, a woman scorned and a mother hidden, all nobility and sensuality rolled into one. Her role has so far been more in the shadows, and is decidedly about to enter into the fray in the second half. And I’m simply dying for the sure-to-be-awesome mother-daughter reunion to come.
I first noticed Kim Suh Hyung when watching snippets of one of the makjangiest dramas ever to come out of Korea, Temptation of Wife. She was the evil woman who stole the husband from the virtuous heroine, and her performance was so over-the-top I wondered if shrieking was her natural speaking voice and if her eyes were in fact permanently bulging. I was wrong, for this woman is none other than a class-A exceptional character actress. She is giving a controlled and nuanced performance and absolutely shining against the veterans around her.
LEVEL 4 – WHERE THE DRAMA COMES TOGETHER AND MOVES YOU
I’ve now asserted that Giant has plot elements that hit all the drama pressure points, is thus far written in a logical and reasonable progression, and is being acted with talent and charisma from all involved. If that is not enough to incept you into watching this brewing masterpiece, I guess we’ll have to go a final level deeper.
Once is enough (aka twice is nice only when the drama thinks the viewer is intellectually dimwitted)
Remember watching those dramas that enjoy pretending something is extra meaningful because a character is sitting still, presumably deep in thought (or else the person is on the brink of letting out some air), and then we flashback to what the character is supposedly thinking about. Yeah, that stuff bites. It needs to be used judiciously, and always only in the most appropriate of places.
Giant wisely eschews excessive flashbacking, which actually heightens the present moments, and it more meaningful in and of itself. Take for example an early scene between adult Gangmo and Jeongyeon, when they’re headed home after a rough day and unwinding with some soju. Gangmo gives Jeongyeon the obligatory piggyback ride, and she tells him that he once gave her such a ride (which we saw during the childhood sequence).
Thank heaven the camera didn’t cut to back that scene (wherein I would have screamed “Why?”), but rather allowed this very moment to continue in its lovely way. Jeongyeon tells Gangmo that she wishes this moment would last forever, and that his back is so very broad. She ends with an admonition to Gangmo that he can’t ever desert her, like her mother did. I proceeded to melt into a puddle on my chair.
The drama absolutely understands restraint in overuse of imagery or dramatic moments, electing to allow silence or quiet introspection to allow the viewer to intelligently infer what the character probably is thinking or feeling. I don’t need twenty thousand shots of Gangmo and Jeongyeon looking at each other longingly to know that they have very strong feelings for one another. It’s implicit even when they are butting heads, and that’s what makes the emotions in Giant feel real.
People don’t stand around pontificating on their feelings or announcing their grand machinations. The director effectively uses all the camera depths and angles afforded to him, pulling back when the scene needs to go large like an urban riot, and intimately drawing us into a small room like Miju’s dinky apartment when the scene is about a sister enjoying some long overdue bonding moments with her brother.
Giant is directed by the same director who did Bad Family (which I loved and just wrote a review of), and Robbers (which I have mixed feelings about solely on the writing and acting, but absolutely thought the directing was top-notch and very evocative).
Substance over style (if you reversed it you’ll get a drama everyone is laughing at instead of crying with)
I find Giant a meaty drama, with teeth from almost a dozen major plus secondary characters to sink into. It’s a deliciously hearty meal wherein we’ve only sampled a few dishes in a twelve course bonanza. And I sure do have room for more.
Giant is filmed in a very earthy palate, a throwback to the eras it is portraying, but not nearly as retro-toned as Fashion 70’s was bathed in, or as movie-quality in presentation as Friends, Our Legend. It doesn’t strive to be terribly authentic or overly grandiose. It pays attention to the presentation of the period, but doesn’t drown in the details.
I would be remiss in not pointing out that Giant’s OST is, so far, just good, but not yet mindblowing. I could also stand to never hear the song that includes the wailing of the phrase “loooooving you…..” ever again.
This is the only time I’m going to reference Boys Before Flowers in a review discussing something so wholly on the opposite end of the spectrum as that drama – but Giant can take a cue from BBF and create another OST for the second half of its drama. But please remember to retire “looooooving you…..” no matter what. Thank you for listening to my public service announcement.
Back to the topic of Giant’s presentation style – I am not saying the production is devoid of innovative touches. I’m merely saying this is a drama where style is not used to mask a surfeit of substance. Giant has quite possibly my all-time favorite child-to-adult transition scene in any drama, which is plenty gloriously stylish for my taste. I simply must pimp this out, and share screencaps to boot.
Young Gangmo and Jeongyeon have just left a movie theater when an urban riot erupts around them (don’t ask me the wherefores of urban rioting in 70s-era Korea). Gangmo grabs Jeongyeon’s hand as they run to safety, but she falters and trips on the ground. She cries out “Gangmo-ahhh” and he replies “Jeongyeon-ahhh” as he rushes back through the throng to get her.
As his hand grabs hers, he pulls up an adult Jeongyeon, who is pulled up into the protective embrace of an adult Gangmo. The adults are caught in another riot like their childhood selves, a moment fraught with danger but they remain there for each other. I simply loved this fluid and totally heart pumping transition moment, which was emotionally cathartic and sets up their dynamic even further.
After the riot passes around them (as they hide in a stairwell and pretend to make out to throw the cops off their scent), Gangmo then gives her a look and calls her “Agasshi”, telling her that he’s there to bring her to Chairman Hwang’s party. And immediately we understand exactly what their relationship is like now as adults, because Jeongyeon tells him not to her call Agasshi, and then he throws her over his shoulder and carts her bratty behind to that party. See, it’s still possible to do interesting, creative, and plot-forward scenes, that fit within the narrative and make us tingle with glee.
The drama also doesn’t drag out the necessary revelations, like dangling a carrot in front of viewers for longer than required by plot dictates (I’m talk to you, again, East of Eden). Gangmo has a few close encounters with reuniting with both Seongmo and Miju, but it’s not dum dum dum played for overly dramatic effect. The near misses are like quick flyovers, a brush with destiny that is not to be. The story doesn’t ever rely excessively on this type of angst, instead allowing our poor beleaguered siblings to find one another shortly thereafter.
I appreciate the director for not milking the various Lee sibling reunion moments for a surplus of tears, snot, and wailing (of which all three are certainly warranted). Oh, our Gangmo, Seongmo, and Miju sure can and do cry (a lot), but we’ve waited so long for these moments, the director gives them space to connect and room to breathe in the happiness.
I actually felt rude for invading their space during such a heartfelt and touching reunion, because I had grown to care about these characters so much. The various Lee sibling recognition scenes are all exquisitely done, bathed in both tenderness and intensity.
Yeah, but if all this talk about Giant still makes you think it’s some unwieldy heavy-duty drama that is all about the “you killed my daddy, prepare to die” revenge, then you’re in for a world of surprise. The larger-than-life blood vengeance may be driving our hero in his hero’s quest, but it’s the lovely romance and human moments between friends, foe, and family that keep me riveted to this drama.
As a special Easter egg to everyone, I hereby present a scene that is all about the epic love between our OTP. The exchange in the church between Gangmo and Jeongyeon is enough to make me swear undying love to this drama for giving me this following gem of a scene:
GM: *dragging JY into the church after he fishes her out of the ocean and she screams at him that she loves him* I’m about to leave here. Wherever I go, will you be willing to come with me?
JY: *nods her head*
GM: It will likely be very tiring, and we will face many obstacles. Are you still willing?
JY: *nods her head again*
GM: You have to give everything up: your family, your dreams, even your appearance.
JY: I want to go, with you, it doesn’t matter where we go.
GM: *to the cross* Do you see, from today onward Hwang Jeongyeon is mine. Today, Lee Gangmo will marry Hwang Jeongyeon. I may not have anything to give her, but I will love her more than anybody else. As your witness, I vow to bring her happiness for the rest of her life.
Then they kiss, and I about died of happiness, even knowing this is a brief shot at happiness, and what is around the corner is the hell these two will likely have to go through to finally be together in the end.
Drama, you better give me a Gangmo-Jeongyeon happy ending, or I will personally lead a crusade of the unholy variety on you. In fact, every Lee sibling better get a happy ending, and I’m even open to a redemption arc for devil-in-training Minwoo, as long as he loses a limb to deserve his soul-saving.
For me, the Lee sibling reunions and that church scene were worth the 19 episodes it took to get there. And now the drama is headed for when the shit really hits the fan in the latter half. Do you really want to miss out on the ride? I sure hope not.
Well, now I’ve got to bring you all back from our trip deep into Giant. Let’s see if this will do this trick. Cue fanfreakingtastic three-way Lee sibling hug. Let the ball of happiness lodge in your gut and drop-kick you back to our mundane reality now.
Oh, that didn’t work? How about this gut-wrenching sob session between our brothers, when Gangmo finds out from Seongmo that he is in love with the daughter of his father’s killer, who also happened to raise him. Yeah, I’d be hard pressed to find an even more bitter pill to swallow. Let’s let the stomach punch moment kick us back to reality.
THE KICK – UP WE GO FOR A BIRD’S EYE VIEW
Now that I’ve punted all of us back to a world where tragedy, betrayal, revenge, and soul-searing love stories don’t reside around every corner, does anyone feel a slight sense of letdown? I sure do. Giant harkens back to the grandeur of stories that swell and crescendo with a heightened sense of purpose. When I marathoned up the episode 24, I was swept away into a world I could comprehend its existence and logic, yet it imparted a sense of dramatic wonder.
It’s a chocolate cone in a land of strawberry and vanilla
Rom-coms are a dime a dozen in any year, all of which I happily consume and eagerly anticipate. It so happens that 2010 is a milestone year commemorating the Korean War, so we’ve got war-themed dramas and movies aplenty as well. Furthermore, we’ve also got the occasional thriller, a sageuk or two (or three), the always reliable family dramas, and even a makjang Baker.
Residing all by its lonesome self is Giant – a cousin of no one except the once-in-a-blue moon K-period epic. Hong Kong has inter-generational sagas by the bushel, and without fail every single TVB anniversary production is a sprawling family tale of revenge, birth secrets, love quadrangles, and power plays. But K-dramas only produce a production on this scale every few years, like a fleeting phoenix.
If Giant was a bedraggled phoenix that could barely fly higher than my backyard fence, I would decree that regardless of its rarity, this phoenix ought to be missed. Luckily for us all, Giant unfurled its wings tentatively, but showed it glorious visage for all to see, and is currently sweeping into the air with a determined and steady flight. This is one phoenix that is sheer joy to behold.
There is no black or white, only everything in between
Giant toggles equal parts family, intrigue, and romance, all united by a story that treats its viewers as intelligent and open to being challenged. The villain in East of Eden was so vile and evil, he aborted his mistress’ baby, ferrsakes, and then proceeded to eat it (okay, I made the last part up, but you get my drift – he was so evil he even had a full head of white hair at like 50 years old).
No such character exists in Giant. Even Agent Jo doesn’t strike us as a man who drinks evil milkshakes for breakfast and then proceeds to skin puppies and wear their fur as a coat. Agent Jo is a ruthless man, for sure, and he reminds me of BB from City Hall, if BB lived in the era where Giant takes place.
Ruthless, calculating, reprehensible, yes, but daring us not to understand his motives for smushing faceless obstacles and crushing nameless foes. He dares us to not acknowledge that perhaps there have been many a powerful man who have done that and worse in his ascension to the pinnacle, and so we watch him with loathing and wonder at what he will do next. Too evil doth a writer make a villain, the more the viewer will laugh at said villain.
And don’t get me started on villain number two, Chairman Hwang, or as I like to think of him really, Daddy Hwang. He’s playing daddy to his pathetic son (who he acknowledges and berates as pathetic), the surrogate son he wished was his real son, Gangmo, and the daughter he wished wasn’t illegitimate.
Chairman Hwang is less a mastermind as he is a man of convenience, opportunistic, and willing to justify an end by decreeing that the world is dirty and he is simply playing by its rules. While one cannot say that Chairman Hwang could ever atone for his crime of his involvement in Daddy Lee’s death, without him Gangmo may not have survived to adulthood.
He also happens to be Jeongyeon’s dad, and right now I see barriers and obstacles by the dozens, whether external or self-erected, between our OTP. And I weep, because I wish people could learn from their mistakes, and stop compounding their sins. I foresee that ultimately Giant is not about revenge, but about forgiveness and amends. That is what will get all our major characters to find closure and be able to move on.
However, I will boldly state right here and now that I will never, repeat, never accept a redemption arc for spineless, gutless, cowardly Hwang Jeongshik (Kim Jung Hyun), who is thus far the most repulsive character in the entire drama for me (not to mention sports the most unintentionally hilarious outfits ever known to man).
Unlike Agent Jo, who willingly discarded his conscience for calculated gain, or Chairman Hwang, who wrestles with right and wrong and frequently chooses wrong, Hwang Jeongshik is a man who hurts others because it makes him feel powerful, and runs away from anything resembling responsibility or bravery. And that, my friends, makes him my personal enemy number 1, and the man I’d like to see roasting on a spit in the fires in hell.
Some thoughts going forward
Our Lee siblings, and Jeongyeon, are also headed on the stairway away from Heaven and towards the darker parts of human nature as they enact their revenge plans. I love seeing our hero flirt with anti-hero status, and I trust the drama will intelligently navigate this treacherous course of finding oneself doing bad things for good reasons.
Poor Seongmo is already one foot down that road, and Gangmo and Jeongyeon (and likely Miju) are about to join him. And I seriously cannot wait. Like, if I had to give up 13 weeks of my already fleeting youth for a chance to marathon the remaining 26 episodes today, I would gladly do so.
In conclusion, through the course of 24 episodes, I laughed, I smiled, I cried, I cheered, I seethed, and I raged, I don’t think it merits stating the obvious, but what the heck, let’s state it anyways – this drama hit all the right spots for a viewer like me. And I have 26 more episodes to look forward to. Aren’t I a lucky lucky koala? Now wouldn’t you like have a little bit of this luck rub off on you?
For those of you itching to dive right into the good stuff, start watching around the middle of episode 8. Though you will miss some excellent acting by the child actors, and the laying of character foundations, it’s not so terribly convoluted you won’t be able to catch up to the story by skipping it. Of course, I do hope you realize I am in no way, shape, or form encouraging the skipping of drama episodes. Likewise, I did not just tip you into deciding to watch Giant. Nope, I think you made that decision all by yourself. 😀
This is one review that’s going to have to wait 13 weeks to see if it stands the test of time. After that, you will see either an end-point review gushing about how the just-completed Giant was the best K-period epic of all time, or a review tearing apart everything I just wrote because the writer took a sabbatical and a chimp (or M. Night Shyamalan) was imported in to the write the remaining 26 episodes.
Leaps of faith have been taken under lessor odds, and I feel like my decision to write about Giant now in glowing terms will surely be validated. If it comes back and bites me in the arse, please do be kind and send me some butt cream courtesy of Thundie.
Finally, I shall gift you all with a Giant haiku for your journey, summing up what has happened so far in this drama:
Fate led siblings astray
Reunion and revenge billowing
Descending Winter chill
As an encore, have a couplet with my prediction of the Giant future:
Brothers united, for triumph over those who pain have brought
Love is the answer, freeing them all from destiny’s knot
[Please give a special round of applause to Thundie, who so graciously agreed to assist me in procuring and selecting screen caps of Giant for this review. This review couldn’t have come together without the screen caps to accompany it, and I certainly lack any ability to make these, so a big muah for Thundie!]