If you have 63 hours to spare and would like to spend those hours watching something that puts a smile on your face and a lift in your steps, instead of 3-4 shorter pieces whose collective mediocrity makes you prefer chewing rusty nails as a more humane form of torture, I have a drama to recommend to you. It is one of the best family dramas that I have seen.
Slipping under many people’s radars last year, either because of its genre or because its length made one think thrice before committing, Life is Beautiful (SBS, 2010) is about second opportunities. It is about starting anew with hopefulness that today will be better than yesterday. It is about opening your heart to embrace the strange and the different, no matter how strong your creed or deep-seated your insecurities. It is about family sticking together, through all of life’s ups and downs. It is a drama so heartwarming you forget the chill outside your window, yet it is not so cloyingly sweet that you feel three cavities taking root. It is, above all, unwavering in its realism and optimism.
These are characters that you walk alongside, cheering and occasionally chiding. Some are stubborn as mules and you want to spank them for letting pride, old grievances or just simply a warped sense of righteousness stand in the way of their own and other people’s happiness. Then you realize this is just how life is, that change isn’t something you can pull out of a hat and cloak it around a person who is hitting 50 or 80. You realize, too, that you haven’t once screamed “Get a grip!” at this obstinate bunch because you are too busy slapping your thighs and laughing.
Surprisingly, the funniest of them all is also the oldest. At 87, Grandfather Yang has returned to the family that he abandoned thirty years ago. Fathering more than a dozen children with about half a dozen women, he is naturally hated by his first wife. Allow the philanderer back after all the pain and humiliation he inflicted on her? Over her dead body! But the old man has nowhere to go after being tossed out by Wife No. 6 (who isn’t legally a wife since our patriarch never did divorce his first wife and merely exchanged one mistress for another). So now his sons must feed and shelter him while scrambling to hide him from their mom.
Playing the grandfather is Choi Jung-hoon, an actor I’ve never seen before but who is now entrenched in my memory as one of the most endearing and hilarious grandfathers in a kdrama. His acting is just a joy to behold, with his character effortlessly straddling crotchety and charming. Seemingly reformed after his Casanova days, our grandpa never misses a beat when trading insults, yet he can be sweet and meek as a lamb.
But Choi Jung-hoon isn’t the only veteran who steals the show, the rest shine as well.
As 60-year-old Yang Byung-tae, Kim Young-chul never gives one the impression that he is acting. His character is the kind of father and husband that you dream about, yet everything about him is down to earth and real. When the drama opens, Byung-tae has been married to Kim Min-jae (Kim Hae-sook) for twenty-nine years. Together they have a son, Ho-sub (Lee Sang-yoon), and a daughter, Cho-rong (Nam Gyu-ri).
But there are also two older children in the family, both of them 34 years old, he slightly older than her, the two sharing a special bond because of the similar yet disparate circumstances that made them siblings. Tae-sub (Song Chang-ui) is the son from Byung-tae’s first marriage (which ended when the mother passed away) while Ji-hye (Woo Hee-jin) is the daughter from Min-jae’s first marriage (which ended when she learned that her husband was already married with children).
A new family created from a death and a divorce. Two five-year-olds finding themselves with a new parent each even as they mourned the abrupt loss of the birth parent. In the years that followed, Tae-sub grew more reserved, his relationship with his stepmom marked by a certain wariness and restraint, as though the two were tiptoeing around each other. But as I mentioned earlier, this is a drama about second opportunities. Grandma’s fury when she discovers Grandpa’s presence in the house is nothing compared to the bombshell that Dr. Yang Tae-sub drops on his family one day. Yet it is this bombshell that allows his relationship with his stepmom to enter into a new phase, one of loving acceptance and affirmation. Min-jae becomes a lioness on her son’s behalf.
The scene where Tae-sub reveals to his mom his deepest secret, the one that has been eating him up all these years and which has led him to contemplate suicide, is singularly the most moving scene in this 63-episode drama. Coming a close second and third are Min-jae telling her husband the truth about their son, and Byung-tae embracing his son as the latter kneels and weeps. Never in their wildest dreams could the couple have imagined their oldest child as a gay. And never in Tae-sub’s own dreams could he have foreseen that his parents and siblings would not react in abhorrence but instead form a circle of protection around him. But really, why should a family protecting its own be surprising? As Min-jae explains, “He is my son. I just want him to be happy.” And as Byung-tae says simply, “Tae-sub is my heart.”
Thus we see that Tae-sub’s coming out isn’t the tempest that he anticipated. In fact, the gay storyline is treated in a gentle albeit rather matter-of-fact way, as something that’s natural because gays are born that way, it isn’t just a lifestyle choice. Tae-sub and Kyung-soo’s (Lee Sang-woo) love story isn’t the central focus of the drama, even if it is the one thing most likely to arouse people’s curiosity and lead them to check out the first episode. (Not for a shallow someone, though, who downloaded the drama with glee after learning that the-actor-who-played-sexiest-Joseon-king-ever-in-Eight-Days Kim Sang-joong was in it.)
In an interview that I read after I finished Life is Beautiful, writer Kim Soo-hyun said that she didn’t want “the focus of the drama to be squarely on sexuality; there were a lot more stories to tell.”
And indeed, it wasn’t just the relationship between our gay couple that I eagerly followed as I was watching, it was also the individual and shared stories of the other main characters that I felt invested in. I cared about them, I wanted to know how they would turn out. For example, would Grandma and Grandpa ever make up? Would Uncle Byung-jun, he a fastidious 47-year-old and creature of habit, ever find true love? Could a 48-year-old divorcee, she with a laugh to make your hair stand on end, be the one to sweep Byung-jun off his feet?
This is a drama that strives for depth (in characterization and plot) rather than breadth.
It isn’t terribly eventful by drama standards and eschews clichés and overused plot devices. There is nothing shrill or grandiose about the writing. You won’t find birth secrets, amnesia or clingy exes. Lovers do not get separated by interfering parents or by their own angst. They do not go away for years. The closest we have to a villain is Kyung-soo’s mom and even then she isn’t so ornery or wicked that we loathe her. She is after all a mother reeling from her 34-year-old son’s seemingly incomprehensible behavior, he throwing away a perfect life with a wife and child in order to be with the man he loves. But no matter how unrelenting her pressure on Kyung-soo to denounce his gayness and return to a life of “normalcy,” he never once wavers. Watching him and Tae-sub together, the two of them leading a life just as any ordinary couple would, with frequent displays of affection and avowals of commitment, you can’t help but celebrate their love.
Life is Beautiful adopts a slice-of-life approach with each episode looking forward rather than back. There are no flashback scenes (as far as I can remember), a rarity in a drama. Every day is a new day, as the opening scene in every episode reminds us, with the family members waking up and going about their daily lives. Communication is unabashedly honest. As the first to stumble upon her brother’s sexual orientation (she sees the two guys hugging), Cho-rong doesn’t pretend to have seen nothing; no, she tells Tae-sub that she knows and that she will support him. The couples in our drama have no secrets between them. In fact, it is a running joke in the family that no one can keep anything hidden from the rest for long!
If I’m asked for a one-sentence synopsis of the drama, I will tell you that Life is Beautiful is about a family running an inn on Jeju Island. It is as simple as that.
Some of the family members have a career outside of the inn (called a pension in the drama), but each is an ordinary person doing his or her best to live life meaningfully and with a healthy dose of humor, wherever possible. Even the youngest (well, she was the youngest for a good part of the drama), 7-year-old Lee Ji-na (Jung Da-bin), offspring of Ji-hye and Su-il, is precocious beyond her years. Ji-na’s scenes with the enigmatic Su-il (more on him later) are some of the best I’ve seen between a child and her father and contribute to the abundance of familial warmth that this drama exudes.
There are many more things I could tell you about the drama, but since many people have not watched it, I will leave you to discover Life is Beautiful for yourself. Instead, I would like to end this brief review by sharing with you some of my favorite things about LIB. These are not in any particular order.
Besides the writing, which I adore for its frankness and wit and depth, I love the directing and how scenes are filmed to capture the natural beauty of Jeju Island…
… and the intimacy of the drama’s multiple stories. The director is fond of enclosing a scene within a frame, such as doorways or furniture or windows, in order to guide our eyes specifically toward what the characters are doing rather than on the whole composition of the scene. As a result, we feel the impact of the scene more, registering a character’s loneliness more acutely, for example.
Of all the relationships in the drama, I think I love Tae-sub’s relationship with his mom the most. I love how close they become after he outs himself to her. She lights up when he calls or sends her a text message, they hold hands, they are practically sweethearts except he calls her Mom and she calls him “my son,” the pride in her voice spilling over.
This is one family that is not afraid to be openly and physically affectionate. For sure they bicker and fight like any normal family, but most of the time they really do get along. What a relief to be spared a dysfunctional family and its vindictive members, a dime a dozen in dramas nowadays.
One of those who get hugged a lot is Byung-tae. Well, he deserves it, for being such an awesome guy. Just ask his granddaughter Ji-na.
Earlier I mentioned depth in characterization. An excellent example would be Su-il, Ji-na’s father, a character that I can’t quite wrap my brain around. He is the sum of many parts, all of them seemingly clashing with each other and producing a din that makes it hard for us to pigeon-hole him. He is slimy and superficial, but also a dream of a husband and father. He is henpecked beyond belief and seems to really resent how Ji-hye treats him, yet he is devoted to her well-being. Does he love her or does he not? Is his respect for her family genuine or just a bluff concealing ulterior motives?
I can’t decide if I like Su-il, but I certainly love the complexities in his character. Ditto for Byung-tae’s youngest brother, Blabbermouth Byung-gul. Played by Yoon Da-hoon, one of the funniest Korean actors around, Byung-gul is immature and even borderline babyish. See how he cries or clings to his mom, as though he hasn’t been weaned from her breast despite being all of 42 years old. Then see how he charms the socks off tourists and makes them clutch their sides laughing as he shows them the sights off the Jeju coast. Three-dimensional characters, I like!
Actors who played sexy Joseon kings in previous dramas, I like even more!
For a man whose perpetual expression used to be a frown (until one lady came along and turned his world upside down; hey, that rhymes!), Byung-jun sure makes me giggle like a loon. His character starts off being a stick-in-the-mud, which is why his gradual transformation is so funny to watch.
But no one makes me laugh as hard as our grandpa. See how he wards off his wife’s blows or verbal barbs, the latter so sharp they can maim. Then see how she cares for him, cursing and swearing all the way. See how sweet they are together.
Of course there’s no monopoly on sweet. In fact, we have spades of the stuff!
Finally, have I mentioned yet how much I love our taciturn and sensitive Tae-sub? I don’t feel as sore now that Park Yong-woo was ROBBED of the SBS Best Actor award for Jejoongwon. At least it went to Song Chang-ui.
Okay, I’m done. Your turn now. Go watch this wonderful drama unfold on the island of Jeju, where the tangerines are sweet and the wind is strong. It’s a large family with many going-ons. You won’t be bored!