This drama is maddening. Just when I thought I’ve read it right, it proves me wrong. When I thought I wouldn’t last five episodes, it gives me a fifth episode that has me replaying a scene five times and counting. A couple I thought duller than a thesis on the medicinal properties of wood is now burning up the screen. A gisaeng house I didn’t care about has me wringing my hands now in worry because its fate hangs in the balance. I’m fast-forwarding scenes and re-watching others. I want to bail, because a sixth sense warns me that New Gisaeng Story (aka New Tales of Gisaeng, 2011) is going to make me pull my hair out and then some. But still I watch transfixed, one episode after another (finished Episode 14 yesterday), even though this seemingly drunk careening means I’ll soon be all caught up and chewing my nails waiting for new episodes to air.
I blame one person (and him alone) for my
Of all the lead actors available, the drama has to find a newbie whose chiseled features are unique and yet somehow familiar? I watch him and get Beautiful Days flashbacks of a Lee Min-chul played by Lee Byung-hun. That same smoldering gaze. I see his gait and think, “The guy’s so aristocratic-looking, he would have made a fantastic Prince Shin in Goong.” *ducks frozen swill hurled by incensed Joo Ji-hoon fans*
I mean, where did Sung Hoon come from? The man has no prior drama or movie to his name. Did he audition for his Ah Da-mo role or did the writer spy him in the gym one day and gasp, “Oh. My. God. Did you see that? I’m totally writing a drama called New Gisaeng Story and casting this hottie as the lead.”
Speaking of the writer, I have a few choice words for Im Sung-han on account of how her previous drama ended but will incubate them until her current drama is over. Forgiveness needs to be earned and can swing two ways. Getting Michael Blunck to reprise his role in said previous drama, and having him actually talk about said role (“Ho ho, I’m not just Kyle in name, I’m the same Kyle!”) is not funny at all and only serves to rekindle old wounds. On the other hand, a sweetener like Sung Hoon goes a long way in dispelling memories of cop-out finales.
Because, you know, this newbie can act. His inexperience may show in places; I’ve also yet to see him cry. (Want to prove you can act? Show me how many ways you can work those tear ducts without me hailing a cab in fright and fleeing to the hills. Sung Hoon did pull off a close and convincing semblance of tearful, though, as you can see from the image above.) His character hasn’t gone berserk; his world hasn’t collapsed, yet.
In other words, he hasn’t really been stretched in the fourteen episodes I’ve watched. But there’s promise here and it shows in small and telling ways, like a raised brow when Da-mo’s annoyed, or a slight smile that’s bemusement, affection, and quizzicality all at once. All portrayed most naturally. There’s also that deep, deep voice. And the eyes.
Playing Da-mo’s love interest is Im Soo-hyang. Her Dan Sa-ran is the stuff of dreams: tall, beautiful, elegant, educated, well-mannered. She cooks and cleans; she dances most gracefully. She’s the daughter you can count on, the student to make you proud, the girl to stop Da-mo dead in his tracks. She’s also mind-numbingly boring.
Sa-ran reminds me of Yoon Jung-hee’s Ha Dan-ah from Family Honor. They don’t look anything alike (except the height), but both have this prim and proper, passive and puritanical, air about them that drives me crazy. They always speak softly and gently. They never burn dinner or forget to feed the dog. Their faces are never grubby; their hair always shines. They act like prudes (“no skinship for us, we be pure”), but then get hugged and kissed within an inch of their lives, by guys to die for. What is the world coming to, seriously?
But just when I think I’m going to pass out from
excessive envy yawning too much at Sa-ran’s scenes, what does she do? Come alive and show that she has some fire inside her, that’s what she does. In an Episode 5 scene that’s so riveting I can’t get enough of it (said scene also marking the point where I decided the drama was a keeper, even if I was far from being in love with it), she drives Da-mo almost to his knees.
(I think Im Soo-hyang has ways to go in her acting; her expressions thus far are fairly subdued and staying within safe confines. But she’s pleasant to watch and doesn’t irk, which is a relief. I would rather have a newbie underact than overact, frankly.)
Like the main romance in “said previous drama,” the one here will make you float out of your skin. I must hand it to Im Sung-han; she serves up these incredibly romantic relationships with plenty of sweet couple moments and out-of-the-blue touchy-feely scenes that will surely tussle for a place in the year’s best. Dreamy kisses (dream on, Da-mo!) and spine-tingling hugs like the one below, aided by a brainwave and a car’s compliant rear bonnet.
If my memory serves me correctly (and I’m just being bitter and crotchety here, ignore me), our dear writer is also fond of The Ugly Misunderstanding Which Leads to The Too-Long Separation. New Gisaeng Story being all of fifty episodes, there is space aplenty for a déjà vu plot twist to rival the one in “said previous drama” where many an episode was spent with our leads mooning and moping because they were blissfully together for a spell but then got torn asunder and looked destined to stay forever torn asunder. Am I looking forward to that possibility? Hmm, if I love watching flies bicker at length over which trashcan reeks more, maybe.
But for now Da-mo and Sa-ran are enjoying gazing deeply into each other’s eyes and stealing the occasional cuddle. And I, for one, am content because it isn’t often that the two leads in a kdrama fall in love with each other at first sight. Usually one rubs the other the wrong way for starters, like the girl vomiting on the guy in an airplane or threatening to eat him for dinner. (He could extricate himself if he proffered a cow, but that’s a story for another day.) Sometimes the guy thinks the girl is a guy and totally freaks out. Sometimes the guy loves with all his heart but all the girl sees is another guy with hair like a nest. Not so for Da-mo and Sa-ran, thankfully.
Thus, do I love our lead couple in New Gisaeng Story, their chemistry alternately staid, sweet, and sizzling? Surely the answer is yes, although kindly refrain from asking whom I love more, the guy or the girl. But go ahead and ask if I love the cameo by Shin Gu. If I tell you I grinned from ear to ear, does that answer your question?
Shin Gu plays a mysterious old man who lives on a mountain and descends to Seoul several times a decade. He is revered by the ladies at Buyonggak, the country’s only surviving gisaeng house. Possessing penetrating insight, he sees the establishment’s head chef and instantly surmises (without having known her previously) that she is “pierced by maternal longing.” He is right, of course, because she has a secret daughter who is daily the object of much tenderness from her grandparents, parents, and aunt and uncle. The chef watches the daughter from afar, her tears spilling over each time. Which is all very strange, because supposedly the girl’s aunt is her biological mother and everyone in the family knows it except the girl. This girl, Ra-ra, happens to be a good friend of Sa-ran; she also happens to have A Very Serious Crush on Da-mo.
“Sa-ran and Ra-ra got switched at birth,” I tell no one in particular, my face fairly glowing from my honed-from-watching-too-many-kdramas smarts. “Sa-ran is the daughter of Ra-ra’s aunt.”
Turns out I’m dead wrong. Which is a good thing because I actually like being outsmarted by a drama. Nothing more deflating than knowing what’s coming a mile away. Catch me off-guard, Show, and see my respect and admiration for you growing.
Because suddenly Ra-ra’s grandparents do not annoy me anymore with their childish behavior. Suddenly I’m no longer just invested in
Sung Hoon’s character the lead relationship in the drama, I now care about the older characters as well. I feel sorry for the lousy cards that life has dealt to some of them; I hope for missing family members to be speedily restored so that everyone sleeps well and stops waking up at two in the early morning, their faces awash with anxiety. I hope Da-mo and Sa-ran get hitched quickly (elope if you must, dear gorgeous pair), at least before the writer pulls a fast one on us and tosses Huge Obstacles That Can’t Be Surmounted in their path.
Sure, I still fast-forward many of the Buyonggak scenes involving the male employees. I still whine about the paucity of gisaeng scenes because isn’t this supposed to be a drama about gisaeng? Show us more of the beautiful ladies, please, and less of the men squabbling over who gets to accompany the Buyonggak director on her morning walks. And I’ll appreciate it very much, Show, if you will stop the abrupt cutting-away to unrelated and extremely unimportant scenes that last mere seconds; that makes it so difficult to fast-forward an episode. (Because one might accidentally miss certain key scenes of a certain key character.)
So you see, fourteen episodes down and I’m still divided about the drama. I do not know why it’s called New Gisaeng Story, for example. So far none of the young gisaeng at Buyonggak is an important role; we don’t even know their names. I’m guessing Sa-ran and maybe even Ra-ra (and the two girls who hang out with these two) could eventually become a gisaeng at Buyonggak.
But maybe I’ll be wrong again. Maybe the “new gisaeng story” won’t be any of the girls’ stories, it will be someone else. Someone who comes along, most unexpectedly, and becomes Buyonggak’s most prized gisaeng. Should it be the someone below, you’ll hear a scream so loud it’ll fell trees within a fifty-mile radius.